High and Mighty: SUVs-the World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Wayby Keith Bradsher
SUVs have taken over America's roads. Ad campaigns promote them as safer and "greener" than ordinary cars and easy to handle in bad weather. But very little about the SUV's image is accurate. They/i>
The longtime Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times lays bare the dangers posed by the most popular type of American family car: the sport utility vehicle.
SUVs have taken over America's roads. Ad campaigns promote them as safer and "greener" than ordinary cars and easy to handle in bad weather. But very little about the SUV's image is accurate. They poorly protect occupants and inflict horrific damage in crashes, they guzzle gasoline, and they are hard to control.
Keith Bradsher has been at the forefront in reporting the calamitous safety and environmental record of SUVs, including the notorious Ford-Firestone rollover controversy. In High and Mighty, he traces the checkered history of SUVs, showing how they came to be classified not as passenger cars but as light trucks, which are subject to less strict regulations on safety, gas mileage, and air pollution. He makes a powerful case that these vehicles are even worse than we suspectfor their occupants, for other motorists, for pedestrians and for the planet itself. In the tradition of Unsafe at Any Speed and Fast Food Nation, Bradsher's book is a damning exposé of an industry that puts us all at risk, whether we recognize it or not.
Author Biography: Keith Bradsher was the Detroit bureau chief of The New York Times from 1996 to 2001. He won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A Times reporter since 1989, he is currently the paper's Hong Kong bureau chief.
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.44(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.50(d)
Read an Excerpt
HIGH AND MIGHTYSUVs - THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS VEHICLES AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY
By KEITH BRADSHER
PublicAffairsCopyright © 2002 Keith Bradsher
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEARLY RUMBLINGS
At Henry Ford's mansion outside Detroit, the carved wood busts supporting the ceiling in the ballroom show the inventor of the Model T and three close friends, all famous: Harvey Firestone, founder of the tire company that bears his name; Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb and phonograph; and John Burroughs, the naturalist. The four men loved to go on camping trips in the 1920s, accompanied by cooks and other servants in Ford's employ. Driving automobiles specially made in Ford factories, they would spend weeks at a time traversing the American West; they called themselves the Vagabonds.
The mansion, Fairlane, is now a museum, preserved much as it was in Henry Ford's day, and its large octagonal garage is what you might expect of an auto baron-or perhaps a railroad magnate, since the garage looks a little like an old railway roundhouse for steam engines. There are huge windows around the circumference, so that Henry Ford's automobiles can be admired in natural lighting. There is a turntable in the middle, to make it easier to put each car into its space against the walls.
Next to the door is a 1922 Lincoln camper that was custom made for the Vagabonds' trips. The FordMotor Company put this vehicle on display at the Detroit auto show in 1997 when it unveiled the Lincoln Navigator full-sized SUV, contending that Henry Ford had created the first sport utility vehicle. But the camper looks nothing like any SUV today. There are no seats behind the front row, just a long, enclosed cargo area in the back for carrying camping gear. It is basically a pickup truck with a covered bed.
What is an SUV? There is no official definition-most government regulations simply have categories for "off-highway vehicles," which in turn are lumped in with pickup trucks and minivans as "light trucks." The auto industry has not settled on a definition either. My definition has five parts. An SUV is a vehicle that (1) has four-wheel drive available as either standard or optional equipment; (2) has an enclosed rear cargo area like a minivan; (3) has high ground clearance for off-road travel; (4) uses a pickup-truck underbody; (5) is designed primarily for urban consumers and marketed primarily to them, with a cushy suspension and other features that may even compromise some of its appeal to serious off-road drivers. In the last few years, automakers have begun taking car designs and making them considerably taller and adding four-wheel drive, so as to market the result as an SUV. These vehicles, like the Toyota Highlander, which is derived from the Camry sedan, are often described within the auto industry as crossover utility vehicles, not SUVs, because they are not based on truck underbodies. I follow this convention in this book.
General Motors contends that the Chevrolet Suburban, which was introduced in 1935, is the world's oldest sport utility in mass production. The Suburban also happens to be the oldest nameplate of any car, minivan, SUV or pickup truck in continuous production in the United States.
The early Suburban was a handsome vehicle, a big powerful automobile of the sort that Al Capone might have been proud to drive. It had a long hood with a tall grille on the front, and then a long, elegant passenger compartment with three windows on each side and two more in the back door.
To make the Suburban, Chevrolet engineers simply used the hood, engine, fenders and underbody of a pickup truck and fashioned an attractive passenger compartment to replace the pickup truck cab and bed. No one at GM can identify the father of the Suburban. Chevrolet officials say that the first Suburban was probably a minor project, viewed as a variation of an existing pickup truck design, and so its development did not merit any mention in the files that survive from that era. The name "Suburban" was not original either-another GM division, Cadillac, had sold an expensively upholstered, seven-passenger Suburban sedan from 1918 to 1927.
A 1936 Chevrolet truck catalog touted a "Carryall Suburban" available as either a passenger vehicle or as a light delivery truck, with side windows filled in behind the front row of seats. A photo of the passenger version showed a fashionably dressed woman stepping out of a Suburban while a liveried chauffeur holds the door. "Its utility is proved by its wide demand by private estates, country clubs, hotels, bus and transfer companies, airports, as well as operators who use it for business and pleasure," the catalog said.
But until the 1960s, Chevrolet only sold the Suburban with one door on each side, a design that reflected the pickup truck model on which it was based. That made it hard to climb into the rear seats, and limited the demand for it as a family vehicle. What kept the Suburban in production for so many years was the delivery truck version, which was especially popular in one specialized market: funeral homes.
Undertakers discovered that with all but the front seats removed, the back of a Suburban was precisely the right length and height for carrying the dead, either in bags or in coffins. Suburbans were used as "first-call" vehicles to pick up the dearly departed at homes and hospitals and bring them back for burial preparations, while converted limousines were preferred as hearses for funeral processions. Suburbans were also popular for carrying flower arrangements and chairs, for bringing back coffins from coffin builders and for picking up human remains at airports, because the sturdy metal boxes that the airlines use for shipping corpses are actually bigger and heavier than many caskets.
Funeral home demand for Suburbans has been dwindling since the mid-1980s as Suburbans have became chic and the price has soared. But to this day, the height of the Suburban's rear cargo floor partly reflects an early effort by GM engineers to find a comfortable height for the loading and unloading of the dead, says James Hall, a longtime GM engineer who is now at AutoPacific, a big consulting firm.
It was not until 1967 that Chevrolet finally got around to offering a four-door Suburban. By then the Suburban had become a fairly bare-bones workhorse for cost-conscious funeral homes and other businesses rather than a station wagon for families. So early Suburbans were not really the first sport utility vehicles, as the term is understood today. That honor must go instead to a Jeep.
The American military began experimenting after World War I with lightweight vehicles that could replace its mules and reconnaissance motorcycles. The Army wanted a lightweight vehicle with four-wheel drive that could carry men and a heavy machine gun. In 1940, three weeks after Hitler defeated the French and the British had to evacuate Dunkirk, the Army got serious and put out a request for corporate bids to build huge numbers of such a vehicle. A nearly bankrupt company named American Bantam came up with the design that came closest to meeting the Army's specifications. But the Army had little faith in American Bantam's manufacturing ability and gave large contracts for a Bantam-like design to Ford and Willys-Overland as well. Willys-Overland improved the design with a better engine and ended up producing the bulk of the Jeeps made for World War II.
Nobody knows for sure where the term "Jeep" came from. Some historians say it honored a character of that name in E. C. Segar's Popeye comic strip in the 1930s. Other experts suggest that it was derived from G.P., or general purpose vehicle. Other small military vehicles were briefly known as Jeeps at the beginning of World War II. But the Willys model quickly became the only true Jeep. The cartoonist Bill Mauldin sketched what may be the most famous single drawing of a vehicle, an old soldier from the horse-drawn era ending the suffering of his broken-axle Jeep by shooting it in the hood.
Willys registered the Jeep name as a Willys trademark, making sure that the company would own the brand for the civilian market after World War II. But Willys ran into a problem as the war ended. With government backing, it had been buying the exterior sheet metal for its Jeeps from other companies. But with the end of the war, there was a severe shortage of factories that could stamp out big pieces of steel for automobile bodies, and GM, Ford, Chrysler and their affiliated suppliers controlled most of the available factories.
Willys's response to this conundrum has haunted the SUV market ever since. Charlie Sorenson, who had become the president of Willys late in the war, found a former metal-stamping factory for the washing-machine industry that could stamp out the needed hoods, fenders, roofs, doors and so forth. The factory's shortcoming was that it could only stamp out fairly flat pieces of metal, of the sort that might be used to make the sides of washing-machines. So while Willys had made fairly attractive, curvaceous cars in the prewar years, all it could make after World War II were very boxy, straight-sided Jeeps with parts stamped at the former washing-machine factory.
The rest of the auto industry moved into the postwar years with an emphasis on rounded, even sensuous shapes that were meant to evoke the curves of women's bodies. The most famous examples are the chrome, conelike ends of the bumpers of Cadillacs from 1946 to 1959, which resembled women's breasts. But Jeeps would keep their very boxy look from their washing-machine factory roots for decades as successive owners invested little in the brand, until boxiness become one of the defining traits of sport utility vehicles.
Willys moved quickly into family vehicles after the war. It introduced the Jeep Station Wagon in 1946, and began offering it with four-wheel drive in 1949. But while the Jeep Station Wagon looked like a station wagon in that it had two rows of seats and a large storage area in the back, it still had only one door on each side, making access to the back seat difficult. Sales of the utilitarian, no-frills vehicle were slow at a time when Americans wanted elegance after the deprivations of World War II. Willys struggled.
Henry J. Kaiser, an industrialist who made his fortune building dams in the 1930s and ships during World War II, bought Willys-Overland in 1953 and renamed it Willys Motors. But he invested fairly little money in new factory equipment or new designs. Better roads, including the start of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, reduced the need for four-wheel drive. Most people did not see the need for a Jeep Station Wagon that looked too much like a modified pickup truck from the Depression.
Two utilitarian alternatives to the Jeep came on the market in Europe and East Asia in the years following World War II. Land Rover began making four-wheel-drive vehicles for the landed gentry to tour their muddy fields in Britain. In Japan, Toyota began building Jeeps under contract for the United States Army during the Korean War. When the contract expired, Toyota turned this expertise to the production of the very similar Land Cruiser, which was sold to police and forestry agencies operating in remote areas with few paved roads. Toyota shipped a single Land Cruiser to the United States in 1957, sold it easily, and began shipping Land Cruisers regularly in 1958 (over the course of many model changes, the Land Cruiser has become enormous and no longer looks much like a Jeep at all). But Toyota and Land Rover remained bit players in the American market for utility vehicles until the 1990s.
Jeeps started to face serious competition in 1961, when International Harvester introduced a small, four-wheel-drive vehicle known as the Scout, with an open bed like a pickup truck and a canvas top that was notorious for leaks. It had a single bench seat in the front and a windshield that could be folded down if it became too spattered with mud to be cleaned. International Harvester never had much success with the Scout and finally abandoned production of it in 1980 to focus on its core business, the production of commercial trucks and farm equipment.
Willys Motors was renamed Kaiser Jeep in 1962, the same year it overhauled the Jeep Station Wagon and renamed it the Jeep Wagoneer. The Wagoneer's passenger compartment was designed to some extent for family buyers and the vehicle had four-wheel drive. Unlike the Jeep Station Wagon, it was available with four doors as well as two. Magazine ads highlighted not just the military history of Jeeps but the availability of pink and white upholstery. Yet the Wagoneer was a bulky, uncomfortable vehicle, and no amount of colorful upholstery could disguise that it was quite different from the station wagons on sale in the early 1960s. It was not well suited to the needs of family buyers and drew few of them.
Kaiser Jeep was only able to sell a few thousand Wagoneers a year-no more than a full-sized assembly plant of GM, Ford or Chrysler could make in a week. Stephen A. Girard, the president of the company from 1954 to 1969, says that the magazine advertisements notwithstanding, he had believed the vehicle would appeal to a limited number of families who really needed four-wheel drive for activities like hunting and fishing, and the company marketed the vehicle primarily to these customers. Moreover, Kaiser Jeep had factories or distributors in more than two dozen countries-the Brazilian and Argentine markets were the biggest-so it had to design rugged models that would be used for heavy-duty off-road driving every day in those countries. Even with the Wagoneer, Girard says, "We were providing four-wheel drive to people who needed it."
The Wagoneer nonetheless helped inspire competitors. Ford started selling fairly large, two-door Broncos in 1965. Chevrolet added a third door to the Suburban in 1967, a rear door on the curb side that allowed better access to the back seat. In 1969, Chevrolet started selling the very large, two-door Chevy Blazer, which was based on a full size pickup-truck underbody. But the Chevy and Ford offerings were even more trucklike than the Wagoneer. Nobody yet had the imagination to sell big four-wheel-drive vehicles as substitutes for cars.
At Kaiser Jeep, the practical approach reflected the extent to which engineers dominated the company while marketers took a back seat. Henry Kaiser had accumulated a global empire of industrial commodities firms before buying Willys-Overland in 1953. He had helped to organize the consortiums of construction companies that built the Hoover, Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams in the 1930s and early 1940s. During World War II, he owned seven shipyards on the West Coast that mastered the task of building freighters in as little as four and a half days. After the war, he expanded rapidly in steel and aluminum, selling to the colossi of Detroit. His only big failure before Kaiser Jeep was his attempt to sell an aluminum car, the Henry J, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
What all of Henry Kaiser's successful projects had in common, unlike the Henry J and then the Jeeps, was that they involved selling to only a few buyers. Kaiser and his top aides knew how to woo state and federal officials who wanted to build dams. They knew how to talk the purchasing agents of shipping lines and automakers into buying freighters and steel. They knew a lot less about how to promote consumer products to 200 million Americans. Girard, himself an expert in building hydroelectric dams, recounted years later that he and his top aides at Kaiser Jeep had simply not understood the importance of salesmanship. "I had been there since Coulee, and none of us had any experience in marketing to the whole country," Girard said. The SUV boom would have to wait until someone came along who could do that.
* * *
As Kaiser Jeep struggled into the 1960s, a very different dispute was going on among a handful of trade negotiators and farm lobbyists in Washington, a disagreement that would later have an enormous effect on the development of the SUV market. Because of the dispute, foreign automakers were essentially shut out of the American market for pickup trucks until the late 1990s, ensuring that pickups and their descendants, SUVs, would be the virtually exclusive fief of Detroit automakers for more than a quarter of a century. In turn, this gave Washington a powerful incentive to go easy on SUV regulations even when it got tough on car regulations, as a way to mollify Detroit automakers and the powerful United Automobile Workers (UAW) union.
Excerpted from HIGH AND MIGHTY by KEITH BRADSHER Copyright © 2002 by Keith Bradsher
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews