I’m not a car person. I drive a 2002 Honda Civic that I won’t replace when it either dies or fails inspection. I do, however, spend more than a fair amount of time on Bring a Trailer, a fascinating blog that aggregates cool cars for sale, and provides commentary on why they’re cool.

Jason Fagone says he’s the same thing. “I’m not a car person,” he writes in the introduction to Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America. You can argue that Ingenious is about cars, and it is, but what makes this book accessible to everyone is that it’s more about the people trying to reach a crazy dream. They just happen to be dreaming about cars.

In 2007, the X Prize Foundation said it would give $10 million to someone who could create a safe car, mass produceable car that was more efficient than what’s on the road now. The terms and the rules of the competition changed, but the key point was that cars needed to travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.

The idea was that money would spur anyone with a good idea and sweat equity to create a better car than anything that the entrenched big car makers would actually produce, and make car production more like it was before the big three dominated the market. “But the U.S. auto market was awesomely chaotic once: a weird and colorful splay of small-time tinkerers, strivers, blacksmiths, bakers, bicycle-makers, tricycle-makers, thieves and playboys,” he writes.

And that’s what happened. Fagone follows a handful of groups who submit cars to the X Prize, from the well funded companies to a high school in West Philadelphia (whose kids had already beaten MIT in similar competitions) to a guy who built a car by hand in a shop in a corn field.

That car is featured in the Ingenious book trailer

It’s a wonderful, fascinating read, with the plot tension of a thriller when the cars get to the actual testing grounds (WHO IS GOING TO MAKE IT? WHO IS GOING TO WIN?). I thought about the book as I drove my Civic today, especially when I was stuck behind a monstrosity of a car called a Sequoia. Why anyone would want to drive a car associated with a giant tree is beyond me. I’m still pissed that the new Civic looks like a tank compared to my 12-year old ride. The dreamers in Ingenious feel the same way, and the book is about them trying to do something about it.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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