Page 10 of Wheels


There was one shortcoming. To anyone with specialized knowledge, many of Emerson Vale's arguments were as porous as a leaky boat.


While attacking a highly technical industry, Vale betrayed his own lack of technical know-how and was frequently in error in describing mechanical functions. His engineering pronouncements were capable of several interpretations; Vale gave one, which suited his own viewpoint. At other moments he dealt in generalities. Even though trained in law, Emerson Vale ignored elementary rules of evidence. He offered assertion, hearsay, unsupported evidence as fact; occasionally the young auto critic - it seemed to Adam - distorted facts deliberately. He resurrected the past, listing faults in cars which manufacturers had long since admitted and rectified. He presented charges based on no more than his own mail from disgruntled car users. While excoriating the auto industry for bad design, poor workmanship, and lack of safety features, Vale acknowledged none of the industry's problems nor recent genuine attempts to improve its ways. He failed to see anything good in auto manufacturers and their people, only indifference, neglect, and villainy.

Emerson Vale had published a book, its title: The American Car: Unsure in Any Need. The book was skillfully written, with the attention-commanding quality which the author himself possessed, and it proved a bestseller which kept Vale in the spotlight of public attention for many months.

But subsequently, because there seemed little more for him to say, Emerson Vale began dropping out of sight. His name appeared in newspapers less frequently, then, for a while, not at all. This lack of attention goaded Vale to new activity. Craving publicity like a drug, he seemed willing to make any statement on any subject, in return for keeping his name before the public. Describing himself as "a consumers' spokesman," he launched a fresh series of attacks on the auto industry, alleging design defects in specific cars, which the press reported, though some were later proved untrue. He coaxed a U.S. senator into quoting pilfered information on auto company costs which soon after was shown to be absurdly incomplete. The senator looked foolish. A habit of Vale's was to telephone reporters on big city dailies collect, and sometimes in the night - with suggestions for news stories which just incidentally would include Emerson Vale's name, but which failed to stand up when checked out. As a result, the press, which had relied on Vale for colorful copy, became more wary and eventually some reporters ceased trusting him at all.

Even when proved wrong, Emerson Vale like his predecessor in the auto critic field, Ralph Nader - was never known to admit an error or to apologize, as General Motors had once apologized to Nader after the corporation's unwarranted intrusion into Nader's private life. Instead, Vale persisted with accusations and charges against all automobile manufacturers and, at times, could still draw nationwide attention, as he had succeeded in doing yesterday in Washington.

***

Adam folded the newspapers. A glance outside showed him that the freeway traffic had increased to Volume Six.

A moment later the intercom buzzed. "The fourth estate just got here," the Product Development vice-president said. "You want to make a fifth?"

On his way upstairs, Adam reminded himself that he must telephone his wife sometime today. He knew that Erica had been unhappy lately, at moments more difficult to live with than during the first year or two of their marriage which began so promisingly. Adam sensed that part of the trouble was his own tiredness at the end of each day, which took its toll physically of them both. But he wished Erica would get out more and learn to be enterprising on her own. He had tried to encourage her in that, just as he had made sure she had all the money she needed. Fortunately there were no money problems for either of them, thanks to his own steady series of promotions, and there was a good chance of even bigger things to come, which any wife ought to be pleased about.

Adam was aware that Erica still resented the amount of time and energy which his job demanded, but she had been an automotive wife for five years now, and ought to have come to terms with that, just as other wives learned to.

Occasionally, he wondered if it had been a mistake to marry someone so much younger than himself, though intellectually they had never had the slightest problem. Erica had brains and intelligence far beyond her years, and - as Adam had seen - was seldom en rapport with younger men.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized they would have to find some resolution to their problems soon.

But at the fifteenth floor, as he entered high command territory, Adam thrust personal thoughts away.

***

In the office suite of the Product Development vice-president, Jake Earlham, Vice-President Public Relations, was performing introductions.

Earlham, bald and stubby, had been a newspaperman many years ago and now looked like a donnish Mr. Pickwick. He was always either smoking a pipe or gesturing with it. He waved the pipe now to acknowledge Adam Trenton's entry.

"I believe you know Monica from Newsweek." "We've met." Adam acknowledged a petite brunette, already seated on a sofa. With shapely ankles crossed, smoke rising lazily from a cigarette, she smiled back coolly, making it plain that a representative of New York would not be taken in by Detroit charm, no matter how artfully applied.

Beside Newsweek, on the sofa, was The Wall Street Journal, a florid, middle-aged reporter named Harris. Adam shook his hand, then that of AP, a taut young man with a sheaf of copy paper, who acknowledged Adam curtly, plainly wanting the session to get on. Bob Irvin, bald and easygoing, of the Detroit News, was last.

"Hi, Bob," Adam said. Irvin, whom Adam knew best, wrote a daily column about automotive affairs. He was well-informed and respected in the industry, though no sycophant, being quick to jab a needle when he felt occasion warranted. In the past, Irvin had given a good deal of sympathetic coverage to both Ralph Nader and Emerson Vale.

Elroy Braithwaite, the Product Development vice-president, dropped into a vacant armchair in the comfortable lounge area where they had assembled. He asked amiably, "Who'll begin?"

Braithwaite, known among intimates as "The Silver Fox" because of his mane of meticulously groomed gray hair, wore a tightly cut Edwardian mode suit and sported another personal trademark - enormous cuff links.

He exuded a style matching his surroundings. Like all offices for vice-presidents and above, this one had been exclusively designed and furnished; it had African avodire wood paneling, brocaded drapes, and deep broadloom underfoot. Any man who attained this eminence in an auto company worked long and fiercely to get here. But once arrived, the working conditions held pleasant perquisites including an office like this, with adjoining dressing room and sleeping quarters, plus-on the floor above - a personal dining room, as well as a steam bath and masseur, available at any time.

"Perhaps the lady should lead off." It was Jake Earlham, perched on a window seat behind them.

"All right," the Newsweek brunette said. "What's the latest weak alibi for not launching a meaningful program to develop a nonpollutant steam engine for cars?"

"We're fresh out of alibis," the Silver Fox said. Braithwaite's expression had not changed; only his voice was a shade sharper.

"Besides, the job's already been done - by a guy named George Stephenson - and we don't think there's been a lot of significant progress since."

The AP man had put on thin-rimmed glasses; he looked through them impatiently. "Okay, so we've got the comedy over. Can we have some some straight questions and answers now?"

"I think we should," Jake Earlham said. The PR-head added apologetically, "I should have remembered. The wire services have an early deadline for the East Coast afternoon papers."

"Thank you," AP said. He addressed Elroy Braithwaite. "Mr. Vale made a statement last night that the auto companies are guilty of conspiracy and some other things because they haven't made serious efforts to develop an alternative to the internal combustion engine. He also says that steam and electric engines are available now. Would you care to comment on that?"

The Silver Fox nodded. "What Mr. Vale said about the engines being available now is true. There are! various kinds; most of them work, and we have several ourselves in our test center. What Vale didn't say - either because it would spoil his argument or he doesn't know - is that there still isn't a hope in hell of making a steam or electric engine for cars, at low cost, low weight, and good convenience, in the foreseeable future."

"How long's that?"

"Through the 1970s. By the 1980s there'll be other new developments, though the internal combustion engine - an almost totally nonpolluting one - still may dominate."

The Wall Street Journal interjected, "But there've been a lot of news stories about all kinds of engines here and now . . ."

"You're damn right," Elroy Braithwaite said, "and most of 'em should be in the comics section. If you'll excuse my saying so, newspaper writers are about the most gullible people afloat. Maybe they want to be; I guess, that way, the stories they write are more interesting. But let some inventor - never mind if he's a genius or a kookcome up with a one-only job, and turn the press loose on him. What happens? Next day all the news stories say this 'may' be the big breakthrough, this 'may' be the way the future's going. Repeat that a few times so the public reads it often, and everybody thinks it must be true, just the way newspaper people, I suppose, believe their own copy if they write enough of it. It's that kind of hoopla that's made a good many in this country convinced they'll have a steam or electric car, or maybe a hybrid, soon in their own garages."

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