Lifting Some Hoods

HAVE YOU DRIVEN A FORD TAURUS lately? If so, you probably don't remember where the side mirror was located. Ford designers agonized over that decision. Engineers spent $500,000 testing alternatives in wind tunnels. Stylists debated with the climate -control team, who disagreed with the electronics experts. After months of dissension, the team reached an agreement: attaching the mirrors below the side windows would give the car a quieter ride and better gas mileage. They had a deal. Then Ford CEO Al ex Trotman stepped in to overrule them, ordering the mirror moved back to its traditional spot at the front of the window. So much for all that happy talk of empowerment and consensus. Team Taurus wandered back to its basement cubicles, devastated by the decision.

Imperialist tales like this one rarely make it out of the Big Three's design studios. A strange publishing trend is changing that. In the last year a new genre has boomed - call it the Birth of a Car book - that's creating a traffic jam on business bookshelves. The books' modus operandi is identical: with the companies' permission, journalists go inside the top-secret meetings, styling reviews and test drives where engineers piece together their make-or-break models, and then write a book about it . Since last August, three of these tomes have hit the shelves; next month brings the latest, which chronicles the work of the Taurus team. But there are already signs the genre has hit a brick wall. Author Mary Walton's forthcoming portrait of Ford isn' t flattering, and many industry officials now say letting writers in was a bad idea. (The Japanese carmakers laugh at the very idea of it.) Journalists are already worrying about the aftershocks. ""It's going to make it tougher for me to do my job,'' say s Road & Track writer Ken Zino: ""The companies are going to pull up the drawbridge.''

At first the Big Three had nothing to worry about. Brock Yates's book on Chrysler was complimentary, its tone fueled by the fact that Chrysler's minivan team created a prize-winning vehicle. The next tale, Michael Shnayerson's look at GM's electric -vehicle program, portrayed the company as progressive and environmentally friendly. The plot thickened slightly when Jim Schefter's ""All Corvettes Are Red'' came out. Schefter loved the car, but describes how inept managers drove GM to near bankruptcy in 1992. Says Schefter: ""GM's top-level people aren't too happy about it.''

Now comes Walton's book, ""Car,'' which is causing a stir in Detroit a month before it hits bookstores. During its editing a Ford staffer spent seven hours lobbying Walton to soften it. Though Walton agreed to a few small fixes, the story still isn 't pretty. In her tale Ford's engineering staff squabbles endlessly with the finance guys. Underlings hate their bosses. Execs wander around waiting for the next meeting to start. There's even nastier stuff: a sexual-harassment case and Ford's browbeatin g of suppliers. Granted, much of this stuff goes on in most corporations, but rarely do the offending companies welcome a writer in to publicize it. Walton says she set out to tell a juicy story and didn't intend to make Ford look bad. In a statement For d says it's ""disappointed that the book focuses disproportionately on the conflicts rather than the collaboration among the Taurus team.''

It's small consolation to Ford that books about the Big Three rarely hit the best-seller list. Even though the redesigned Taurus has been criticized - and probably will lose its crown as the best-selling car in America this year - Ford will still s ell three times as many Tauruses as all four of these books combined. ""They don't have a ready audience,'' says Doubleday Currency editor Harriet Rubin. ""There isn't perceived to be any sex appeal right now to the car business.'' With four similar tale s on the market, says author Schefter, ""I don't think there's another car book to be done.'' Around Detroit, you can bet executives are nodding in agreement.

Car: A drama of the American Workplace,

by Mary Walton (W.W. Norton. $26.95) Author's quote: "I'm surprised at how wounded Ford is, that it runs so deep...If the car had been a winner, Ford wouldn't be so sensative about the book."

All Corvettes are red,

by James Schefter (Simon & Shuster. $28) Author's quote: "I raked GM's top managers over the coals...The book isn't so much about the Corvette as it is about saving the car as the company was lurching out of control- and I was able to sit there and watch it happen."

The Critical Path: Inventing an Automobile and Reinventing a Corporation,

by Brock Yates Little, Brown and Co. $24.95) Author's quote: "I didn't go in there to write a press release. The car was successful, so they had nothing to scream about. But if it had taken a giant dump, I would have reported it."

The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM's revolutionary Electric Vehicle,

by Michael Shnayerson (Random House. $25) Authors's quote: "It just happened to be a story that turned out the way General Motors would have liked, the story of GM as a gutsy, maverick company."