Books on Transportation; The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry, by Brock Yates. New York: Empire Books. Distributed by Harper & Row. $13.95.
Pointing to its decline as the ''world's automaker,'' Detroit slid from producing nearly 80 percent of the entire world's automobiles in 1950 to less than 30 percent in 1981.
Why? the author asks. His reply: Foreign-built automobiles are generally better than those built in the United States in terms of performance on the road and quality control. Yates blames the marketing and accounting people who, he asserts, have long dominated the industry, not the designers and engineers.
The longtime automotive journalist begins his sad tale with the launching two years ago of the subcompact J-car by General Motors, still the world's biggest vehiclemaker.
''By the first of June (1981),'' he writes, ''it was clear that the J-car was a flop of enormous proportions . . . . The essential problem lay with the product itself. In this sense the J-car was symbolic of the problems endemic to the entire American automobile industry.'' Hammering his point, he subtitles the first chapter '' 'J' Is Not for Japanese: The $5 Billion Blunder.''
To save the J-car from oblivion, GM quickly cut back on the car's high-priced options and jacked up engine performance, two of the chief criticisms for slow sales at the start.
In fairness to Detroit, the US auto industry was under intense pressure over a long time to meet an aggressive import thrust for a slice of the US market. Instead of a slice, it took huge gulps. Too, the Detroit industry had to maneuver a mighty turnaround, shifting from its historic big-car mentality to that of small cars, a situation many long-term executives are far from comfortable with.
Then, with the federal government breathing down its stack with ever-stiffer safety and emissions requirements for cars, the American auto industry was clearly overwhelmed.
Yates attacks what he describes as ''the Detroit mind.'' Bloomfield Hills, a tidy enclave of automotive top dogs near Detroit, ''is richer than Palm Springs, Palm Beach, La Jolla, Scarsdale, Greenwich, Carmel, or any Houston or Dallas suburb,'' he writes.
''Life in Bloomfield Hills is a group activity, played out in lush cultural isolation from the nonautomotive society. 'They live together, they work together, . . . they think together,' remarks a local observer. 'They simply have no concept of the real world.' ''
Yet, rather than berate the GM leadership for incompetence, etc., he traces its roots to small-town America, where, he writes, ''the premium (was) placed on the work ethic rather than the creative ethicm.''
In total, the book seems perhaps a bit too harsh on an industry that was compelled to do a complete turnaround in a surprisingly short time. Mix in an Arab oil embargo, a couple of recessions, and a fickle public that was enamored with ''things foreign,'' and the US auto industry is left gasping and wondering what happened.
Too, its documentation seems a bit too repetitive, although the statistics, polls, and quotations all help to back up the thesis. It's a running story that has drama and excitement - and Brock Yates wraps it all up in a nice package.
Is the US auto industry doomed? we asked the author. ''If Ford and Chrysler can continue their forward movement, and if General Motors can get past what seems to be a malaise in its product and recalls, then the American auto industry should get back on the track,'' he replied.
The problem is, he adds, GM never expected hard times and never took the time to decide how to confront the issue.
One chapter, entitled ''The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent,'' lists the 10 best and 10 worst sedans in the world. You may or may not agree with the choices.
In fact, there is nothing revolutionary in the book. It tells it ''like it is.'' It doesn't indict in the sense of saying that but for this individual or that person, things would be a whole lot different.
The book is low key - and maybe after all that Detroit has been through, that's the way it should be.