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Gift ideas -- choicest new books for the holidays; Automobiles in their heyday; American Cars, by Leon Mandel Stewart. New York: Tabori & Chang. 448 pp. $48.50.

''American Cars,'' follows the development of the automobile manufacturing craft in this country, from 1901 with the Olds Curved Dash, on through to the present day.

Mandel has divided his book into eight sections, each dealing with a different era. Hedoes a sterling job at giving the reader a feel for the way in which the living conditions and the technology of the period influenced the styling and performance of its cars. Included are large color photos of the many cars discussed. Readers who are interested in the history of automotive design as well as those who simply want to know what it was like to sit at the wheel of a Duesenberg will enjoy this book.

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