Author: Bill Vlasic

Publisher: William Morrow (An Imprint of HarperCollins  – 394 pages

Book Review by:  Sonu Chandiram

Bill Vlasic is an award-winning reporter alright but what first struck me as I started to read this book is his ability to hold the reader’s attention. So, add narrative-writing skills to his reporting prowess. I wholeheartedly agree with USA Today’s description of his previous book Taken for a Ride as “a fascinating page-turning read.” In my opinion, that description applies to Once Upon a Car as well.

This book relates the historic true story of how two of America’s largest automakers – General Motors and Chrysler – nearly went out of business but were rescued with billions of dollars of taxpayer “bailout” money, and how the third largest U.S. car company Ford was saved from asking for a bailout with thoughtful and clever management by a newly-hired executive, Alan Mulally.

This engaging chronicle of events covers the period from 2005 to the recent past and it is rich in descriptions of the scenes, the people and their remarks in corporate offices, factory floors, labor union halls and places in Washington D.C., including the U.S. Capitol and the Oval Office in the White House.

It includes key decisions that helped the companies stay in business and saved millions of jobs. Among them were Rick Wagoner’s forced resignation as a condition for GM to get a large rescue package; the three firms’ unity and agreement of mutual financial support in dealing with the United Auto Workers, particularly on the burning issue of rising health care costs; GM’s plan in 2008 to merge with Ford to save itself; and Bill Ford’s humbling decision to relinquish his CEO position and hire Alan Mulally to take charge.

When writing a review, I look at the writer’s background and qualifications, as well as whether the sources of materials are primary or secondary. Bill Vlasic writes that much of the original material gathered for this book came from about a hundred interviews planned and conducted for that specific purpose. He also used material gathered in the course of his work as a reporter for The New York Times and the Detroit News; information from hearings, press conferences and speeches; and corporate and government records. Vlasic has been covering the automotive industry for 15 years.

We are not able to determine a structure for this book because it does not have a table  of contents. It is a pure narrative with no titles for its 32 chapters. Except for this drawback, this book is a well-written account of events and decisions  – by a well-qualified writer –  on one of the most significant stories in American business history: the near-collapse of the U.S. auto industry.

This is a story in progress. Since the 1970s, many foreign car makers, particularly from Europe, Japan and Korea have entered the US. Auto companies from China and India are expected to enter the U.S. auto market in the years ahead, and this added competition will certainly put financial pressures on U.S. automakers and members of labor unions, just as the ones preceding them did so. Let us watch what happens.