- Trust and Power: Consumers, the Modern Corporation, and the Making of the United States Automobile Market
In this insightful and well-researched book, Sally H. Clarke examines how conflicts between automakers and consumers shaped the automobile market in the United States from its inception through the mid-1960s. Drawing on a range of specialties—including business history, the history of technology, and social, political, and legal history—Clarke pays particular attention to the tug of two conflicting desires on automakers. On one hand, [End Page 275] automakers tried to produce safe and reliable cars that would inspire consumers' trust and repeat business; on the other hand, those same automakers frequently felt the need to exercise raw power over consumers "to both impose costs on car buyers and shape their behavior" (p. 14). This tension, Clarke argues, played a pivotal role in the market's evolution, and it consequently shaped the basic structure of management in the auto industry while establishing the context for a range of government regulations and interventions.
The precarious balance between trust and power varied greatly as the auto market changed. In the industry's early years, from its inception through World War I, even the best automakers found it difficult to produce vehicles that were consistently safe and reliable. Automobiles broke with alarming frequency—and in ways that could seriously injure or even kill drivers—which made it nearly impossible for automakers to earn consumers' trust in a straightforward way. Early automotive culture partially offset this difficulty by celebrating motorists for their adventurousness, mechanical savvy, and steadiness in the face of danger, but Clarke also documents the strenuous efforts of firms to foist legal liability for breakdowns onto their franchised dealers and parts suppliers.
With the arrival of a mass market during the interwar years, new manufacturing technologies and improved engineering finally allowed automakers to produce much safer and more reliable vehicles, which was good news for corporations that depended on customer loyalty in a competitive market. Yet the tension between trust and power remained central during these years, albeit in changed form. In a series of skillful chapters, Clarke analyzes this tension as it pertained to managers' imperfect knowledge of consumer desires, automakers' attempts to balance safety concerns against reduced production costs and the introduction of innovative but poorly tested technologies, the advantages and drawbacks of the annual model change, and the jockeying for advantage among automakers, dealers, and consumers that characterized traded-in used cars. Seeking trust where they could earn it easily, exercising brute power when necessary, and responding to the state's increasing intervention on behalf of consumers, managers at GM pursued a strategy that was altogether more complex than it appears in Alfred Sloan's classic My Years with General Motors (1963).
The balance between trust and power shifted yet again, Clarke argues, as the market for automobiles matured after World War II. Automobile ownership skyrocketed in the postwar years, with the number of families owning at least one automobile rising from 54 percent in 1948 to 70 percent by 1965. Drawing on a study commissioned by the Federal Reserve Board, Clarke demonstrates that new federal credit policies—not just general postwar prosperity—set the stage for this boom, making it possible for increasing numbers of Americans to buy vehicles. In addition, Clarke argues that expanded consumer credit enabled automakers to maintain their [End Page 276] focus on building large, expensive cars for the wealthiest 25–30 percent of American families, leaving the remainder to purchase used cars. Because purchases depended on access to credit, few women, persons of color, or retirees were able to participate in the credit-financed boom in postwar automobile ownership.
Although Clarke's main arguments engage primarily with the historiographical concerns of business history, Trust and Power makes frequent and sometimes elegant use of the questions and techniques of historians of technology, and should be of interest to readers of Technology and Culture. Both perceptive and comprehensive, this book makes...