America's Autocrats : HIGHWAYS TO HEAVEN: The Auto Biography of America By Christopher Finch (HarperCollins: $25; 416 pp.)

Dietz, who wrote an auto column for California Magazine, is finishing a book about the Chandler family and the development of Los Angeles, to be published by Times Books

Urban critic Jane Jacobs wrote some 30 years ago that "If we fail to stop the erosion of cities by automobiles," Americans will "hardly need to ponder a mystery that has troubled men for millennia: What is the purpose of life? For us the answer will be--the purpose of life is to produce and consume automobiles."

You do not have to be a resident of Los Angeles, the most auto-dependent and until recently auto-celebratory of urban cultures, to understand the contemporary accuracy of what Jacobs only meant as a bleak warning. Sales of new cars are charted in the media as assiduously as is the fever of an ailing monarch. Or consider the President of the United States, reduced to car salesman, dragging Detroit auto execs, men who have made a practice of producing cars that fewer and fewer Americans want to buy, to Japan, where they do build cars we like, to browbeat or cajole the Japanese into buying those very Detroit-made cars Americans don't care for.

How did we get from there, from the beginning of the American love affair with the automobile to when we worry if enough people are buying them, and then worry just as much about the traffic jams that result when they do, as well as their effect on the environment and the depletion of natural resources their use entails? Some of the answers are in "Highways to Heaven," Christopher Finch's well-intentioned but only intermittently satisfying work.

Let's start with "Highway's" single greatest asset: It is the only book I can remember reading that does not buy into one of the favorite conspiracy theories about L.A.; you know, the one about the consortium made up of General Motors, tire companies and oil companies, which set up a corporation to offer to take over the (light-rail) rapid-transit systems of scores of American cities in the midwest and west, most principally L.A. The company converted the trolley lines to bus routes, ripped up (or merely allowed the city to pave over) the tracks, and then jettisoned the properties, leaving municipalities to take over the operation of what were now bus lines.

All true and, on the face of it, a story worthy of screenwriter Robert Towne (who is rumored to have planned this chapter in L.A.'s transit history as the third part of his "Chinatown" trilogy, only to have "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" beat him to the punch). Except, as Finch points out, L.A.'s disenchantment with light rail started in the 1920s, coinciding with an explosion in both population and new-car sales in Southern California. Finch argues that the auto/tire/oil conspirators (convicted in federal court of anti-trust violations for the scheme in 1949) merely applied the coup de grace to a dying system.

One of the difficulties Finch faces is that he is trying to treat a remarkably complicated hundred-year sweep of social and business history in fewer than 400 pages--he writes about everything from auto styling to sales to the kinds of businesses which grew up either to service the automobile or as result of the mobility autos afford us. In a book like this, the problem lies in creating a thesis, and in selecting which details to include and which to leave out.

Regarding the former, Finch advances the notion that the American car is loaded down with sexual symbolism, both in its ownership and design. Although it's not a particularly new proposition, Finch spends a great deal of space on it, reaching an apotheosis (or is it nadir?) with: "The (1956 Lincoln) Continental Mark II had that elegant little swelling at the rear end to accommodate the spare wheel. Both Doris Day and the Mark II were at their sexiest with their rumps to the camera."

On a more important note, Finch blithely writes of the creation of the Los Angeles freeway system after 1953: "(T)here was relatively little protest. The prices paid for properties were considered fair on the whole, and Angelenos showed a willingness to move that was very different (from) the mood in long-established New York neighborhoods threatened by expressways."

Finch would do well to sit in a park in South Pasadena, a town still fighting to thwart the completion of the 710 freeway through its center; drag out the state's 1950s master plan for L.A. (roughly a grid, with north-south and east-west freeways every five miles), and look at what wasn't built: among others, the La Cienega Blvd.-Laurel Canyon route; the extension of Route 2 along Melrose Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard (known as the Beverly Hills Freeway), and an expansion of Pacific Coast Highway to freeway standards.

In each case, a storm of well-organized protests from wealthy and middle-class Anglos stopped the freeway builders from bulldozing their neighborhoods. One could argue that they were following the example of San Franciscans, who managed to stop the elevated Embarcadero Freeway (now demolished) in mid-construction. Simultaneously, the emergence of cadres of lawyers practicing in low-income areas did the same for poorer residents in the path of the long-delayed Century Freeway.

In the matter of detail, I'd argue that it was unnecessary to natter on about changing tastes in popular music (in a section about car radios), though I understand either the writer's or editor's impulse to place any given fact in its appropriate sociological context.

Better to have expanded the material about motels in the section on the kinds of franchise establishments that were created to serve the automotive traveler. Finch mentions the founding of Holiday Inns, but neglects to place them in the context of the standards of motel cleanliness which obtained in the 1950s. He ignores the fact that Best Western hotels and Quality Inns originated not as motels but as rating services in the early '50s, assuring travelers the listed independent establishments met standards of hygiene and room convenience not always found in roadside motels of the period.

It is, of course, romantic to assume that every local roadside eatery back then was of the quality of L.A.'s Original Pantry, and every motel a smaller and perhaps more humble version of Santa Monica's stylish Shangri-La. But it is also inaccurate.

Finch lists some 16 country-western songs (like "Big Rig Rollin' Man") that have to do with truck drivers as a way of characterizing the long-haul life. If you're looking for the same easy way of describing too many pages of this book, alas, you'd best try the Jackson Browne song, "Running on Empty."

* BOOKMARK: For an excerpt from "Highways to Heaven," see the Opinion section, Page 6.

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