Category: History

By on July 27, 2014

This car at first may look to you a lot like any other 1930s coupe, but it was one of the most influential cars of the era, impacting both the way that cars were styled and promoted. You see, in addition to setting the pattern for the way that General Motors’ cars (and their competitors’ cars as well) looked in the immediate prewar period, the 1936 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe was GM’s first production car that was based on what we now call a concept car. Back then, though, they were more likely to call those concepts “show cars”, and not only was the Aerodynamic Coupe GM’s first production car derived from a show car, that show car was the giant automaker’s first attempt at creating a one-off vehicle just for promotional purposes. It also represented the solidification of Harley Earl and his styling team’s important role in General Motors’ hierarchy and not so incidentally it helped Cadillac replace Packard as America’s preeminent luxury automaker. Read More >

By on July 18, 2014

tootsietoy_display

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the term “collectible diecast” most often refers to detailed scale models of cars and trucks. After all, the industrial process of molding metal parts by forcing liquefied low-melting point metals into a die was known as “hydrostatic moulding” before Herbert H. Franklin reportedly coined the term “die casting”. Franklin, who started the first commercial die casting company in the world, was also the founder of the Franklin Automobile Company, the most successful American maker of cars with air-cooled engines. It was the money that Franklin made  in the metal die-casting industry that allowed him, in 1901, to engage engineer John Wilkinson, who was the technical genius behind the Franklin cars, which stayed in production into the 1930s. I’ve been working on a post about Wilkinson and the Franklin cars, but right now let’s look at a couple of other brands of cars that wouldn’t have existed were it not for Franklin’s success with die-casting. Those ‘car’ brands are TootsieToy and Matchbox. It was TootsieToy that likely first made die-cast model cars and it was Matchbox that took them from being mere toys to being accurate scale models. Read More >

By on July 12, 2014

In looking at Henry Ford’s forays into the airplane and aviation industries we’ve touched on the story of William Bushnell Stout. Stout was the man behind Ford’s successful endeavor into aviation with the Ford Trimotor. Car enthusiasts, though, might be more familiar with the small run of Stout Scarab automobiles, said to be the “first minivans”. Stout introduced a few other other automotive firsts like air suspension and the use of composite bodies. How much of an innovator Stout was, as opposed to someone who saw value in the ideas of others and brought them to fruition, is open to debate. He was certainly respected by the engineering community, serving as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers. It’s undeniable, though, that Stout saw the promise, later fulfilled, of commercial passenger aviation, and while many of the Scarabs’ more prominent features can be called dead-ends, quite a few of the things that Stout built into his cars are probably present on the car or truck you drive. Read More >

By on July 11, 2014

Shelby Charger

An old car is a feast for the senses. The gentle curve of a fender or the sharply drawn body line pleases the eye while the clatter of valves and the whine of spinning belts combine to make mechanical music. The exhaust gasses, which smell just a tad too rich, blend with the odors of old motor oil, decaying rubber and that musty smell that wafts from the car’s interior to fill your olfactory, while the mixture of gasoline, oil and grease that makes your hands feel so slippery even finds its way onto your tongue when you bring the fingertip you burned on a hot manifold to your mouth. You see it, hear it, smell it, feel it and can even taste it, all five senses touched by one malodorous, malevolent little mechanical beast. Yes friends, if you hadn’t guessed by now, my ’83 Shelby Charger is here at last. Read More >

By on July 10, 2014

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The autoblogosphere is abuzz with the topic of “rolling coal“, apparently the practice of some diesel pickup truck enthusiasts who fiddle with their fuel systems so as to produce voluminous clouds of dense black, sooty exhaust smoke. I have to admit that when I first saw the phrase “rolling coal” in a headline at Jalopnik I thought it had something to do coal gasification and running cars on wood gas or syngas. After finding out that rolling coal wasn’t what I thought it was, I did look into the history of powering motor vehicles on wood gas and ended up finding out about these rather odd looking cars and trucks known as gas bag vehicles. Frankly they’re more interesting to me than whether or not pickup truck driving bros are blowing smoke in the faces of Prius drivers. I believe that you’ll find these vehicles interesting as well. Read More >

By on July 8, 2014

Following the success of the Ford Trimotor, one of the first successful commercial passenger and cargo airplanes, which was introduced in 1925, Henry Ford got the aviation bug and decided to build what he called a “Model T of the air”, a small, affordable single seat airplane. He first proposed the idea to the men running his aircraft division, Trimotor designer William Bushnell Stout and William Benson Mayo but based on Henry’s design brief, neither experienced aeronautical man wanted anything to do with project. By then Henry Ford had bought out all of his investors and partners. All of Ford Motor Company stock was owned by Henry, Clara, and Edsel Ford, with Henry having the greatest share (49/3/48) so the firm was effectively Henry’s private feudal empire. Mr. Ford simply moved the project to a building in the Ford Laboratories complex. Read More >

By on July 3, 2014

Citroen Ami 6. Picture courtesy Citroen

I’ve been on the road for the last few weeks and one of the places I was able to visit was the Smithsonian Institution’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport located just outside of Washington DC. Unlike the National Air and Space Museum located on the national mall close to the capitol building, the Udvar-Hazy Center is an enormous facility and although I have visited other aircraft museums that have had larger collections on display, I think it is safe to say that the Smithsonian’s collection is second to none. The aircraft on display span the history of flight and include both military and civilian examples. More importantly, at least for the sake of this discussion, they come from every corner of the globe and as they sit there, lined up beside one another, it’s easy to compare the craftsmanship of one nation’s products against the next.

Read More >

By on July 3, 2014
1956 Packard Caribbean Convertible. Full gallery here.

1956 Packard Caribbean Convertible. Full gallery here.

Last week* was the 58th anniversary of the date that the last true Packard that was built in Detroit by the storied automaker. If you follow the conventional wisdom about Packard, one of the great American luxury car makers, two things are taken as truisms. One is that offering the so-called “junior” Packards in the 1930s, something like Buicks were to Cadillac and Mercurys were to Lincoln, what we might today call entry level luxury, fatally tainted the prestige of the brand, ultimately leading to its demise. The other is that Jim Nance, who ran Packard in its last years as an independent automaker, mismanaged the company into oblivion. Contrarian that yours truly is, I’m not sure either of those things are quite accurate. Read More >

By on June 29, 2014

One of the Best & Brightest recently asked me to write about the history of automotive safety equipment. Today’s consumers ask how many airbags a car offers as standard equipment but in the 1970s the idea had a difficult time getting accepted, by both automakers and consumers. Read More >

By on June 25, 2014

It’s summertime, when ice cream trucks ply the residential streets of America, playing the same silly songs over and over and over again, or ringing their bells. There was a time when the ringing bells of Good Humor trucks could be heard across America, but now their bells are heard and the trucks are seen primarily at car shows and in museums. A vintage piece of Americana from yesteryear.

The story of the Good Humor truck, interestingly enough, starts with another brand of frozen treat. Read More >

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