Books: Internal Combustion

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THE BETSY by Harold Robbins. 502 pages. Trident Press. $7.95.

Yes, junk fans, it's a mano a mano for novelists who are all thumbs. Two of the greatest schlockmeisters in the history of solid waste have just published novels about the auto industry. Arthur Hailey's Wheels appeared at the beginning of the fall season (TIME, Oct. 11). Now comes Harold Robbins to gun down Hailey with—The Carburetors! No, with The Betsy.

It is called that because a 91-year-old automotive pioneer named Loren Hardeman sees his great-granddaughter Betsy swimming naked one day, and this makes him think about cars, and he decides to come out of retirement, wrench control of his company from his stodgy grandson Loren 111, and build a splendid new automobile to be called the Betsy. Cynics may mutter at this point that Robbins is the only North American still extant who confuses girls with sedans. But no! Hailey's novel also jubilates over the introduction of a new auto. It may explain something to point out that Hailey lives in the Bahamas,Robbins spends half of his time in Cannes, and neither man drives to work.

Anyway, old Hardeman hires a burnt-out race-car driver named Angelo Pe-rino to get the Betsy into production. It does not seem more than usually absurd that in due course Loren III becomes furious and hires crooks to sabotage his own firm. There is a lot of sex, much of it involving a lady test driver who combusts spontaneously whenever she hears the roar of an engine.

Despite the literary failings of Hailey's and Robbins' competing car novels, the awards committee will announce its selections:

Worst title: basically a standoff with a slight edge for Robbins.

Number of pages: Robbins, 502 to Hailey's 374.

Most sensitive writing: Robbins' "giant shaft of white-hot steel" and "searing sheet of flame" far outclass Hailey's modest "her heart beat faster."

Most obsequious cuddling up to the auto industry: Hailey, who in a chapter about an auto exec's messy marriage, libel-proofs himself with a list of Detroit's "lasting love stories which had weathered well," and then adds, "There had been many outstanding second marriages, too—the Henry Fords, Ed Coles, Roy Chapins . . ."

Neatest reach for historical verisimilitude: Robbins, who in a flashback has Hardeman telephone Walter Reuther in 1937 to warn him that the Battle of the Overpass (in which auto company goons beat up unsuspecting union organizers) is about to occur. · John Skow