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Home > Wheels

Wheels
Author: Arthur Hailey

Henceforward, no wheeled vehicles whatsoever will be allowed within the precincts of the City, from sunrise until the hour before dusk ... Those which shall have entered during the night, and are still within the City at dawn, must halt and stand empty until the appointed hour ...

Senatus consulturn of Julius Caesar, 44 B.C.

It is absolutely impossible to sleep anywhere in the City. The perpetual traffic of wagons in the narrow winding streets ... is sufficient to wake the dead ...

The Satires of Juvenal, A.D. 117

All characters in this book are fictitious, and resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Chapter 1

The president of General Motors was in a foul humor. He had slept badly during the night because his electric blanket had worked only intermittently, causing him to awaken several times, feeling cold. Now, after padding around his home in pajamas and robe, he had tools spread on his half of the king-size bed where his wife still slept, and was taking the control mechanism apart. Almost at once he observed a badly joined connection, cause of the night's on-again off-again performance. Muttering sourly about poor quality control of blanket manufacturers, the GM president took the unit to his basement workshop to repair.

His wife, Coralie, stirred. In a few minutes more her alarm clock would sound and she would get up sleepily to make breakfast for them both.

Outside, in suburban Bloomfield Hills, a dozen miles north of Detroit, it was still dark.

The GM president - a spare, fast-moving, normally even-tempered man - had another cause for ill temper besides the electric blanket. It was Emerson Vale. A few minutes ago, through the radio turned on softly beside his bed, the GM chief had heard a news broadcast which included the hated, astringent, familiar voice of the auto industry's arch critic,

Yesterday, at a Washington press conference, Emerson Vale had blasted anew his favorite targets - General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. The press wire services, probably due to a lack of hard news from other sources, had obviously given Vale's attack the full treatment.

The big three of the auto industry, Emerson Vale charged, were guilty of "greed, criminal conspiracy, and self-serving abuse of public trust." The conspiracy was their continuing failure to develop alternatives to gasoline-powered automobiles - namely electric and steam vehicles - which, Vale asserted, "are available now."

The accusation was not new. However, Vale - a skilled hand at public relations and with the press - had injected enough recent material to make his statement newsworthy.

The president of the world's largest corporation, who had a Ph.D. in engineering, fixed the blanket control, in the same way that he enjoyed doing other jobs around the house when time permitted. Then he showered, shaved, dressed for the office, and joined Coralie at breakfast.

A copy of the Detroit Free Press was on the dining-room table. As he saw Emerson Vale's name and face prominently on the front page, he swept the newspaper angrily to the floor.

"Well," Coralie said. "I hope that made you feel better." She put a cholesterol-watcher's breakfast in front of him - the white of an egg on dry toast, with sliced tomatoes and cottage cheese, The GM president's wife always made breakfast herself and had it with him, no matter how early his departure. Seating herself opposite, she retrieved the Free Press and opened it.

Presently she announced, "Emerson Vale says if we have the technical competence to land men on the moon and Mars, the auto industry should be able to produce a totally safe, defect-free car that doesn't pollute its environment."

Her husband laid down his knife and fork. "Must you spoil my breakfast, little as it is?"

Coralie smiled. I had the impression something else had done that already." She continued, unperturbed, "Mr. Vale quotes the Bible about air pollution."

"For Christ's sake! Where does the Bible say anything about that?"

"Not Christ's sake, dear. It's in the Old Testament."

His curiosity aroused, be growled, "Go ahead, read it. You intended to, anyway."

"From Jeremiah," Coralie said, "And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination." She poured more coffee for them both. "I do think that rather clever of him."

"No one's ever suggested the bastard isn't clever."

Coralie went back to reading aloud. "The auto and oil industries, Vale said, have together delayed technical progress which could have led, long before now, to an effective electric or steam car. Their reasoning is simple. Such a car would nullify their enormous capital investment in the pollutant-spreading internal combustion engine."

She put the paper down. "Is any of that true?"

"Obviously Vale thinks it's all true."

"But you don't?"

"Naturally."

"None of it whatever?"

He said irritably, "There's sometimes a germ of truth in any outrageous statement. That's how people like Emerson Vale manage to sound plausible."

"Then you'll deny what he says?"

"Probably not."

"Why not?"

"Because if General Motors takes on Vale, we'll be accused of being a great monolith trampling down an individual. If we don't reply we'll be damned too, but at least that way we won't be misquoted."

"Shouldn't someone answer?"

"If some bright reporter gets to Henry Ford, he's apt to." The GM president smiled. "Except Henry will be damned forceful and the papers won't print all his language."

"If I had your job," Coralie said, "I think I'd say something. That is, if I really was convinced of being right."

"Thank you for your advice."

The GM president finished his breakfast, declining to rise any further to his wife's bait. But the exchange, along with the needling which Coralie seemed to feel was good for him occasionally, had helped get the bad temper out of his system.

Through the door to the kitchen the GM president could hear the day maid arriving, which meant that his car and chauffeur - which picked up the girl on their way - were now waiting outside. He got up from the table and kissed his wife goodbye.

A few minutes later, shortly after 6 A.M., his Cadillac Brougham swung onto Telegraph Road and headed for the Lodge Freeway and the midtown New Center area. It was a brisk October morning, with a hint of winter in a gusty northwest wind.

Detroit, Michigan - the Motor City, auto capital of the world - was coming awake.

***

Also in Bloomfield Hills, ten minutes from the GM president's house, as a Lincoln Continental glides, an executive vice-president of Ford was preparing to leave for Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He had already breakfasted, alone. A housekeeper had brought a tray to his desk in the softly lighted study where, since 5 A.M., he had been alternately reading memoranda (mostly on special blue stationery which Ford vice-presidents used in implementing policy) and dictating crisp instructions into a recording machine. He had scarcely looked up, either as the meal arrived, or while eating, as he accomplished in an hour what would have taken most other executives a day, or more.

The majority of decisions just made concerned new plant construction or expansion and involved expenditures of several billion dollars. One of the executive vice-president's responsibilities was to approve or veto projects, and allocate priorities. He had once been asked if such rulings, on the disposition of immense wealth, worried him. He replied, "No, because mentally I always knock off the last three figures. That way it's no more sweat than buying a house."

The pragmatic, quick response was typical of the man who had risen, rocket-like, from a lowly car salesman to be among the industry's dozen top decision makers. The same process, incidentally, had made him a multimillionaire, though some might ponder whether the penalties for success and wealth were out of reason for a human being to pay.

The executive vice-president worked twelve and sometimes fourteen hours a day, invariably at a frenetic pace, and as often as not his job claimed him seven days a week. Today, at a time when large segments of the population were still abed, he would be en route to New York in a company Jetstar, using the journey time for a marketing review with subordinates.

On landing, he would preside at a meeting on the same subject with Ford district managers. Immediately after, he would face a tough-talking session with twenty New Jersey dealers who had beefs about warranty and service problems. Later, in Manhattan, he would attend a bankers' convention luncheon and make a speech. Following the speech he would be quizzed by reporters at a freewheeling press conference.

By early afternoon the same company plane would wing him back to Detroit where he would be in his office for appointments and regular business until dinnertime.

At some point in the afternoon, while he continued to work, a barber would come in to cut his hair. Dinner - in the penthouse, one floor above the executive caterwauled include a critical discussion about new models with division managers.

Later still, he would stop in at the William R. Hamilton Funeral Chapel to pay respects to a company colleague who had dropped dead yesterday from a coronary occlusion brought on by overwork. (The Hamilton funeral firm was de rigueur for top echelon auto men who, rank conscious to the end, passed through, en route to exclusive Woodlawn Cemetery, sometimes known as "Executive Valhalla.")

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