Friday, July 31, 2009

July 31, 2009 Kettering Cruise -In

It was another beautiful night at the Kettering Cruise-In, located off of I-675 Exit 10 in the K-Mart parking lot. And it was a very busy night, so much so that it was extremely difficult to find a parking spot just to walk through the various rows of cars on display. A coupe of cars stood out during my casual walk tonight. First, if you look at the previous blog entry on the 1948 Chevrolet that I first have memories of, you can imagine my surprise to see this evening a black 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline on display. It was about as good as it can get, even equipped with a swamp cooler, perhaps not the most effective way to cool down in a humid climate like that of southwest Ohio. But great for the desert! This terrific car is owned by Ken Koontz of Beavercreek, Ohio.
Getting a bit ahead of myself related to my auto-biography, Bob Bilbo had on display a 1962 Chevrolet Nova 300, again like one that my father owned when I was in junior high school, although this one was painted black, while my family's car was a light sand brown. This is a very original car -- Bob is quite a car guy if one listens to his own list of cars once owned, and cars that got away, now worth far more than a person could imagine 30 years ago when cash was short and more immediate needs had to be met.

Next entry: at the cruise-in, Kirby's 1965 427 Cobra.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Auto-Biography 3 -- 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air

Hi folks -- when discussing my family's auto history, I have to bring in our 1954 two-tone Chevrolet Belair. As depicted in the photograph and other illustrations, it was blue and white, and perhaps was the best car we ever owned. Down the street, my aunt Rose owned a similar 1953 Green and white two-tone, but it was a 210 and not the Belair. These were rugged and dependable vehicles, reflective of the best that America could make. In fact, one story about the car that I remember centers on my disconnecting ignition switch wires under the dash so I would not have to go to Sunday School. I still dislike what they call "Life Groups" instead of Sunday School to this day, but now at least I don't have to sabotage a car to keep away from Church.

Sadly, our family's love affair with Chevys ended after my father bought a 1979 Malibu with a THM-200 transmission. That unsavory episode resulted in my current attitude of never even considering a GM product.

Auto-Biography -- 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster

Hi folks -- I need to backtrack a bit concerning my auto-biography (and I hope you are working on yours!). Before I owned cars, I experienced them largely through my family's vehicles. The first car I remember is a 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster, a black two door. It is funny how our mind goes back to memories from long ago, and how those events shape what we do today, including our decisions about cars in the present. And those memories I have of that '48 Chevy are as clear to me now as what I remember of breakfast this morning.
Because my family was so wrapped up in WWII and its consequences, we didn't not have a car when I was born. Indeed, my father rode a bicycle to work from Tonawanda to Niagara Falls, New York for several years, and then after having a worn-out car or two that simply was not very good, he bought a used 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster. It was a car that served us well, and with one exception, my father bought Chevrolets for the rest of his life. I remember so well the interior of that car, which was actually a top-of-the-line model for that year. 1948 was the last year of a body style that actually went back to 1942. 1949 marked the first true post-war Chevrolet. The '48 Chevy that I remember had la plush interior, with cloth that felt like velvet. It was big and comfortable, and more than once on a summer day I took a nap in the front seat when my parents were shopping with my legs hanging out the window. I had regrets , however, that our car did not have a radio, or turn signals, and wanted them so badly for whatever reasons, probably because my friend's family cars had these features. This car was as reliable as it could be. But another thing I remember was the early mornings on the coldest of winter days in North Tonawanda when my father actually had pulled the spark plugs and had heated the electrodes on the kitchen stove, I guess to get the car started! Perhaps it worked, but I have never heard of that practice since I witnessed it as a child.
It was a plain,black car, but it put the Heitmann family on the road once and for all, and for that I am grateful.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Send Me your Auto-Biography! What Cars Have Been Important in Your Life, and Why?

Hi Folks -- in my history of the American automobile classes I usually start out by asking students to write me an "Auto-Biography." Put simply, that is an essay on the cars that have been the most memorable in your life, and precisely why they are so significant as you look back in time. So I am going to start with my own Auto-Biography, at least the first installment. You can get a sense of what I am thinking here by reading the "Epilogue" in my book, The Automobile and American Life, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. If you send me your Auto-Biography at I will publish it on this blog.

My first car, purchased for $625 in 1966 while a senior in high school, was a 1959 MGA roadster. It was a car that was restored by a couple, the man doing the engine and body work, the woman the interior, and it was black with a red interior. It looked great, and ran fairly well, but it did burn some oil, especially noticeable on start up and after the car 's engine got hot, indicating bearing wear. But there was nothing like driving it with the top down on warm summer nights that first summer after high school graduation. It established me once and for all as a top down guy. It certainly needed more maintenance than I was capable of at the time, and the side curtains needed replacing after a few months, but it was a car that never let me down, except once, and only after I had tried to change the points and neglected to put back every little washer that was supposed to be in the distributor. it was then that my father had to tow the shiny MGA with his 1962 brown Chevy Nova.
I had some good times with driving around with girls, but remained a rather shy and reserved young man, more comfortable with books than with girls. It certainly did not transform me in terms of being a social animal, but it did set a course that took me to the writing of my auto history book. Every time I see an MGA I think back to that summer of 1966, before I encountered the trials and tribulations of life. My trials were in terms of still living at home, getting enough money for gas, getting to work on my summer job in Niagara Falls, and overcoming a lack of confidence when around those of the opposite sex.
When I went to Davidson College I sold that MGA to a former high school friend, and the last I saw of it was on a village road with what looked like a broken rear spring. Undoubtedly it rusted to pieces, but perhaps some of those pieces are keeping another MG running today.

The MGA was in production between 1955 and 1962, replacing the traditionally designed MG-T cars, the most famous of which was the MG-TC. It was introduced at the at the 1955 Frankfurt Auto Show, and by the time production ended in July 1962 some 101,081 units were assembled. Most MGAs were exported, with only 5869 cars sold in Great Britain. It was thus a great success for BMC, and for a national economy still reeling after World War II.

In 1952 when MG designer Syd Enever created a streamlined body for George Philips' MG TD, slated to run at Lemans. Initially the design featured a high driver seating because of the use of the TD chassis. Consequently, a new chassis was designed with the side members further apart and the floor attached to the bottom rather than the top of the frame sections. The prototype based on this design was shown to the BMC chairman Leonard Lord, who initially rejected the new car, since he had just signed a deal to produce the Austin Healy. Falling sales of the MG-TD and the MG-TF 1500 models, however, caused Lord to change his mind about the radically redesigned sports car, and indeed the MGA was initially advertised as the "first of a new line." With its BMC B engine, a lower hood line was now possible. Featuring independent suspension, and rack and pinion steering, the MGA, came with either wire or steel wheels. In a 1955 road test the MGA had a top speed of 97.8 mph (157.4 km/h) and could accelerate from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 16.0 seconds.

MGA and Car Culture:

  • “Blue Hawaii” (1961, Elvis Presley & Angela Lansbury) Elvis sings from his open red 1960 MGA 1600 Mk I roadster. The car made numerous appearances in the first half of the picture, often with camera work that seemed suspiciously marketing-like, panning back to the car or putting the car under complimentary soundstage lighting. Elvis so liked the car he bought it for himself, and after changing hands once or twice, he re-acquired the vehicle, which is now at Graceland.

  • Music Video – “Right Now” (2009). A black MGA appears alongside Akon in his video for the hip hop hit single "Right Now."

  • Music Video – “Radar” (2009). A MGA appears in the opening sequence for the Britany Spears music video entitled " Radar.

There were more than Hot Rods at the Cruise -In!

Hi folks -- one thing about the local cruise-in is that there is an incredible diversity of cars that are parked in the parking lot at the K-Mart across from the Greene in Kettering, Ohio. For example, there was a 1950s R-R Silver Cloud, several Ferraris, at least two Porsches (including my own!), a few VWs, including a 1950s or early 1960s Combi, an entire row of Studebakers, old pickup trucks, post-war Fords from the 1940s and 1950s, Cobras, real and replicas, an Excaliber. There were cars for sale, and cars just purchased. That was the case of Scott Sloan's 1966 Karmann Ghia convertible that he bought at a gas station in Beavercreek, Ohio a week ago for $2500. It was fairly original, with an undetermined amount of Bondo, and in need of a new top and a paint job. Karmann Ghias were first introduced to the public in 1956, and a production run to at least 1974. In my opinion they were great, fun cars, especially the convertibles like Scott's. They were elegantly designed, nicely proportioned, tastefully appointed, and as reliable as a VW Bettle. In Germany they are now very hot collectibles. And here in the U.S. they are appreciating steadily. Congratulations, Scott, on a great purchase!

A Bit of History

The Karmann Ghia debuted at the October 1953 Paris Auto Show as a styling concept car. In the early 1950s, Volkswagen was producing small, fuel efficient, reliable automobiles. By the mid-1950s consumers in Europe began to demand more stylish vehicles. Executives at Volkswagen decided to produce an "image" car for post-war buyers. The Karmann-Ghia, VW's venture into the sports car market, was created in 1956. While it had limited power for a sports car, its stylish looks and reasonable price made sales strong.

Volkswagen contracted with German coachbuilder Karmann to build this car. In turn, VW contracted the Italian firm Ghia for a sports car design. Ghia took an existing, but unused, design and modified it to fit a slightly modified Beetle floorpan.

The body and nose of the car were handcrafted and significantly more expensive to produce than the assembly line-produced Beetle, which was reflected in the Type 14's higher price. Instead of fenders bolted and pre-welded together, as with the Beetle, body panels were hand-shaped and smoothed in a time-consuming and expensive process. At the time it was built, only the manufacturers of the finest cars took similar care.

The design and prototype were well received by Volkswagen executives, and in August 1955 the first Karmann Ghia, also known as the Type 14, was manufactured . Public reaction was excellent, and over 10,000 were sold in the first year, exceeding Volkswagen's expectations.

Since all Karmann Ghias used the same engine as the Beetle, the car was not suitable as a true sports car, but the car's styling and "Beetle reliable" parts compensated for this shortfall. It also shared engine development with the Beetle as the Type 1 engine grew larger over time, finally arriving at an engine displacement of 1584 cc which produced about 60 horsepower.

In August 1957, a cabriolet version was introduced. As with other automobiles, multiple changes were made. Notable exterior changes in 1961 included the car's new wider, finned front grilles, raised headlight relocation, and rear taillight lenses which became taller and more rounded. Cars made from 1955 to 1959 are referred to as "lowlights," due to the lower placement of the headlights. In 1970 larger tail lights integrated the reverse lights and larger wrap-around turn signals in contrast to the earlier "bullet" style lights. VW models of this era have earned the slang nickname fat chicks. Larger and wider tailights in 1972 increased side visibility. 1973 modifications included larger energy-absorbing bumpers and the provision of a package shelf in lieu of the modest rear seat.

The big enemy today when buying a Karmann Ghia today is rust. Rust around the front headlights and nose, and rust around the rocker panels can be costly to fix. In a later post, I'll tell you about my rusty 1969 Karmann Ghia, and its ultimate fate.

Hot Rods at the Friday Night Cruise-In, Kettering, Ohio!

A perfect Friday night for a cruise-in! Only one problem -- to get there in time to get a good place in the parking lot you have to be there by 4:30 p.m.! I brought my Porsche 911, but by the time I got there -- around 5:45 p.m., I was relegated off on the periphery far away from the action and the main stream of visitors. Of course the asses that save spots by placing lawn chairs in spots didn't help matters ( these folks tend to be more than a bit cliquish), but still one has to wonder concerning some of these folks. It seems to me that while there are plenty of younger followers, most of the people who are showing cars are older gray hairs -- that is if they are lucky and have hair at all, like myself. It is the older guys who have the time and the money to sink thousands into a hot rod, or just buy one already done, whether it be a real one or a fiberglass replica. Hot rodding started out after WWII as a poor-man's hobby, but it has become a pastime for the folks who either ahve money or spend a larger than they probably should portion of their budget on chrome and fancy accessories. Only a percentage of these cars are really well designed and road wrothy. They will beat you up on a long trip, and actually often more comical than elegant. Why spend all this money -- to attract girls? I doubt it for these geezers.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hot Rods and Culture

Hi folks -- tonight I'll be going again to the local Cruise -In and photograph some local hot rods. Seen often as curiosities by those outside the car hobby, hot rods have had a powerful influence on modern culture, particularly during the Golden Age of the automobile during the 1950s. What follows is an analysis of hot rods, their history and culture, taken from my book, The Automobile and American Life:

Hot Rod

The car hobby grew to be quite complex by the mid-1950s, and it involved both engine and body modifications along with creative painting techniques. Pre-WWII antecedents included the organization of dry lakes racing at Muroc, California in 1931 under the leadership of speed equipment manufacturer George Riley and sponsorship of the Gilmore Oil Company.[1] Racing at the lakes continued to 1941. Hot rodding took off after WWII, however, and it is clear from reading early issues of Hot Rod Magazine that the phenomenon, while focused in Southern California and dry lakes racing, was really nationwide in scope. By 1948 numerous dirt track activities in the Midwest featured designs similar to Southern California cars at venues at Columbus, Indiana and Dayton, Ohio.

One example of the diffusion of hot rod culture from west to east involved the Granatelli brothers of Chicago. During the late 1940s, Joe Granatelli, who had constructed a hot rod in Chicago, drove it to the West Coast, where he picked up parts to stock the family speed shop Grancor.[2] The rise of this post-war phenomenon on a national scale led to the remarkable success of publisher Robert Petersen. Hot Rod Magazine was first published in January 1948 and distributed at the Los Angeles National Guard Armory Automobile Equipment Display and Hot Rod Exposition. After an initial experiment with the inclusion of fiction in the first issue, readership demands focused the periodical on two major topics: technology and pretty girls. In fact, the remaining eleven issues of Hot Rod Magazine in 1948 featured the photo of a very pretty Hollywood model holding a car part! Pretty girls attract young men, and at its core hot rodding was all about autonomous technology; young people tinkering on limited budgets and working in their garages. These hot rodders and custom car builders, using rule-of-thumb methods, made significant improvements in engine horsepower and chassis design. It was all about going fast and looking good, first on the streets and the lakes and then later more on drag strips and custom car shows.[3]

The tensions of this era relating to rodding were encapsulated in Henry Gregor Felsen’s Hot Rod, a novel directed to early 1950s youth but that became so popular that it remained in print to the mid-1960s. The central figure of the story is Bud Crayne, with an accompanying cast of half a dozen high school students from the small town of Avondale. As mentioned above, Bud is a car builder and street racer, and while a social outsider, also has as his girlfriend the pretty but mercurial cheerleader LaVerne. Overconfident of his driving skills and easily manipulated by his girlfriend and rivals, Bud sets a record driving from his town to another. In the process, he leads the police on an exciting chase. Bud escapes the consequences of his actions, however, as he strikes a bargain with the local police and a school teacher, agreeing to participate in a test in driving skills, a so-called roadeo. The concern of authorities is street racing and “teenacide,” and their hope is to use Bud to convince others that driver’s education is of value. Since he did not take lessons, however, and despite his prowess behind the wheel, Bud does not place first in this event. Nevertheless, due to a tragic accident in which half the teens in his town, including estranged girl friend LaVerne, are killed while imitating Bud’s driving, Bud gets to the state competition. The carnage aside, the story has a happy ending, as Americans of the 1950s would like, for Bud, now much wiser, goes to engineering school to improve the modern motor car. His past somehow now forgotten and forgiven, he nonetheless left a wreckage not only of cars, but of lives. The assumption – which was that of educational leaders of that day – was that education can cure teenage driving impulses, and that properly directed, rodding can be a healthy way to let off steam. However, the author does acknowledge toward the end of this book that risky behavior was “a question of glands.”[4]

Felsen’s writing about hot rodders and the police took a very different turn four years later in his Cup of Fury. In this story, the reader is introduced to a young hot rod enthusiast, Link Aller, not terribly different in character than Bud Crayne. Unlike the understanding policeman in Hot Rod, however, in Cup of Fury there is a new sheriff in town, and he taught young Link a brutal lesson in obedience and respect at their first meeting. After Link was caught spinning tires in the school parking lot, policeman Kern, introduced himself this way:

The cop didn’t say anything. There was a click and before Link could set himself, the door of the police car was hurled open, and smashed against him. It seemed to hit him all at once, from his head to his knees. He was stunned where it hit against the side of his face, and bruised where it hit his chest and legs . . . Holding his light inches away from Link’s eyes, Kern used his wrist to push Link’s chin up, and his head back. Link’s eyes were glassy. Except for the hold Kern had on him, he would have fallen. His mouth was open and he was fighting for breath. Kern pressed against him, choking him a little. Link’s left eye was beginning to swell and change color. Kern maintained his pressure as Link sucked air into his throat in long, noisy, tortured gasps. His eyes cleared and his limp body became rigid. He stared into the light that was being directed into his eyes, trying to remember what had happened.[5]

Most likely, the police of the 1950s in reality treated young men more like Link Aller than Bud Crayne. It was an era before such issues as police brutality and human rights were public concerns.

In addition to Felsen’s fiction, the hot rod was also the subject of songs – actually many of them by the early 1950s. The seminal lyrics of many versions that followed was that written by George Wilson and performed by Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys in 1950. “Hot Rod Race” proved to be the precursor of many future songs, including “Hot Rod Lincoln,” the best-known version of which was performed by Johnny Bond in 1960 and Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen in 1972. Initially, the song told the story of a family trip from San Pedro in a Ford that turned into a race with a Mercury. Surprisingly, at the end both the Ford and the Mercury are blown off the road by “a kid, in a hopped up Model A.” Later, the Ford and Mercury were replaced by a Cadillac and a Lincoln, but the continuity in common among the long chain of version is obvious.[6]

As one might expect, numerous B-grade films featured teens and hot rods during the 1950s – Hot Rod (1950), Hot Rod Rumble (1957), Drag Strip Girl (1957), Hot Rod Gang (1958), The Ghost of Drag Strip Hollow (1959), and finally, perhaps the best known of the group, Hot Rod Girl (1956). Following Felsen’s story line, Hot Rod Girl was about an attempt on the part of authorities to co-opt teen hot rodders by getting them off the street and onto the drag strip. Its actors and actresses are teens who look more like they are in their mid-to-late 20s and early 30s. Starring Lori Nelson as the “hot rod girl,” the budget for the film was so tight that Nelson drove her own 1955 Thunderbird to save money. With Chuck Conners playing the role of a sympathetic policeman and Frank Gorshin as the character “flat-top,” the highly unlikely and often silly plot involves a confrontation of “chicken,” several fatal accidents, and a happy ending. The message of the film seemed clear: in the war between good and evil that takes place in the minds and lives of teens, understanding elders know best and incorrigible rebels meet with an untimely demise.[7]

Shifting from cultural manifestations to the technology that made the hot rod possible, perhaps the best example of this tinkering that led to cutting-edge technologies was the efforts in Southern California of Stuart Hilborn, who worked as a chemist in a paint laboratory during the day and raced in his spare time. Using scientific logic on one hand, and primitive machine tooling methods on the other, Hilborn moved from using an arrangement of Stromberg carburetors injecting fuel into each cylinder to true mechanical fuel injection. Hilborn’s system was relatively simple, so much so that the shade-tree rodder could employ a state-of-the-art technological system that rivaled that of Mercedes Benz 300 SLs. He was a true pioneer in developing a technology that is now universally used as a fuel delivery system in automobiles, although this technology now employs computer controls and a vast number of sensors.[8]

The hobby demanded not only new technology and expertise, but also equipment suppliers, and Hilborn marketed his fuel injection apparatus by the 1950s. Other prominent equipment manufacturers included Vic Edelbrock, Ed Iskenderian, and Phil Weiand, who ported, polished and in other ways modified Ford flathead V-8s in Los Angeles area speed shops. Body shop men like George Barris and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth chopped and channeled old 1932 Model B and 1928 to 1931 Model A and 1908 to 1927 Model T bodies and began lowering and cleaning up the chrome from late ‘30s and early ‘40s convertibles. Trial and error methods were even extended to the formulation of car paints, as colors like candy color red came out of southern California body shops during the late 1950s. Using these new paint formulations, Von Dutch (Kenneth Howard) earned a reputation for the finest in pinstriping and flames.[9]

[1] “Hot Rod History,” Hot Rod Magazine 1 (March 1948): 7. In Hot Rod Magazine: The First Twelve Issues (Osceola, WI: MBI, 1998). Especially important on this topic and more is Robert C. Post, High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2001). For a British sociologist’s history of the hot rod, see H. F. Moorehouse, Driving Ambitions: An Analysis of the American Hot Rod Enthusiasm (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991). See also Dean Batchelor, Dry Lakes and Drag Strips: The American Hot Rod (St. Paul, MN: MBI, 2002); Tom Medley, Tex Smith’s Hot Rod History (Osceloa, WI: Motorbooks International, 1990).

[2] Anthony (Andy) Granatelli, They Call Me Mister 500 (Chicago: Henry Regency, 1969), 46-63.

[3] The definitive work on the history of drag racing and its technologies is Robert C. Post, High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing, 1950-1990 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994). See also Stephan Wilkinson, “Tanks, Hot Rods, and Salt,” Air & Space Smithsonian 12 (1997): 60-63.

[4] Felsen, Hot Rod, 183.

[5] Henry Gregor Felsen, “First Skirmish,” in Evan Jones, ed., High Gear (NewYork, Bantam, 1963), 10-11.

[6] Joe Wajgel, “A Short History & Evolution of ‘Hot Rod Lincoln,’” RodLncln.html (February 26, 2004).

[7] Hot Rod Girl, Alpha Video (1956), 203.

[8] For an interesting interview with Hilborn that discusses the various steps that led to his development of fuel injection, see (July 2, 2007).

[9] See ad for Ditzler custom colors for custom cars, Hot Rod Magazine 1 (October 1948): 28. See Andy Southard, Jr. and Tony Thacker, Custom Cars of the 1950s, (Osceola, WI: MBI, 1993); Nora Donnelly, ed., Customized: Art Inspired by Hot Rods, Low Riders and American Car Culture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000).

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One Turning Point in GM's Recent History

Hi folks -- One area that I am focusing my current studies on closely examines the period between the middle 1960s and the early 1970s. For some time now I have intuitively sensed from my reading that it was then that some major changes took place within the auto industry that sowed seeds for the present-day crisis. And I think a key player in this episode is GM executive Frederic Donner, who began to shift finance experts into the area of operations. In fairness to Donner, however, GM, and the other manufacturers of automobiles during the 1960s, began to experience the instability brought on by inflation, environmental concerns (especially air quality), consumerism, and safety. In response to these pressures, GM's upper level management shifted away from the decentralization derived from Sloanism to what was terms "Coordinated Control." Excerpts from a 1970 article in Business Week describes this new management system:

Donner explained that “Centralization means you are bringing into one level the operating decisions of the company. Coordinated control means that where policies have to be determined…you would have coordination” among operating units.

The most visible and dramatic illustrations of change are an emphasis on using many common parts in all the car lines and the direction financial analysis is evolving. Until the 1960s, finance and operations executives were separated, with little cross-over.

Thomas A. Murphy, who was treasurer when in the spring of 1969 he was placed in charge of the car and truck group. His job was to do a financial analysis of the operating side, and to get maximum commonality of parts among the car divisions.

As Ed Cole stated, a nail’s a nail.”

Under a program initiated in 1964, but given high priority in 1966, each division is given long-range design responsibility for an area of a car. Buick is responsible for brakes, Cadillac for parts that affect the driver’s vision, Pontiac for carburetion, and all suspensions for 1971 in 1971 models will be designed by Chevrolet.


Mighty GM Faces its Critics,” Business Week, July 11, 1970, 72-73.

In sum, the distinction among the GM brands became blurred, and Brand value was ultimately diminished. Alfred P. Sloan's marketing strategy of a"car for every purse and purpose" was modified to meet modern complexities, but in the process its elegant simplicity, and that inherent power, was significantly diminished.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

American Historical Association Session on New Directions in The History of the Automobile in America

Hi folks -- what follows is the proof page of a session that will be held in San Diego at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting on January, 9, 2010. All of the presenters have written books that are at the very cutting edge of automotive history, and I heartily recommend that you get copies of their books for late summer reading.

185. New Directions in the History of the Automobile in America

Co-Sponsor(s): Society of Automotive Historians

Chair: John A. Heitmann, University of Dayton

"The Other Shop Floor: Automobile Maintenance and New Perspectives on Twentieth-Century American History," Kevin L. Borg, James Madison University.

"Americans and Automobiles: Still an Open Road,"Tom M. McCarthy, U.S. Naval Academy.

"I Could Not Travel Both: Automotive Risk, Safety Reform, and the American Love Affair," David P. Blanke, Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.

Comment: Rebecca Morales, San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Night Cruise-In from Kettering, Ohio

Hi folks -- I can't think of anything more American than the summer cruise-in. Held in many communities -- in commercial and church parking lots and public parks -- these events are as much a social gathering as they are a showcase for one's special automobile. And the crowd at the local cruise-in in Kettering cuts across racial and class lines. you can talk to the pompous ass who owns a 1970 Lotus Europa, or the humble old man who restored a 1953 Ford pickup powered by the last year of the flathead V-8. The cars range from old to new, from GM 50s and 60s to European makes that include BMW, Jaguar, and Porsche. Most the the people who attend are just good, down to earth Americans from all walks of life, who share one thing in common -- a love for the car, restored, original, a rust bucket or even rat rod.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Former Student and Long-Time Ford Employee Comments on How to Turn the Auto Industry Around in the U.S.

Hi folks, I recently received a well thought out comment from a former student of mine who has worked for Ford Motor Company for quite some time. What follows is his email:

Hello Profesor Heitmann. I'm a UD alumni who took your excellent History of Science class back in 1988, and wanted to comment on your recent comments/insights on the automotive industry.

For most of my career I've worked at Ford Motor Company as a purchasing manager for various electronic systems and advanced vehicle technologies. I agree with many of your comments re: industry leadership, vision, management changes needed etc. However, as you know, Japanese/Korean/German OEM's are heavily subsidized by their governments -- both indirectly through universal health care to workers and directly in advanced battery research, hybrid technologies, etc. (e.g. Japanese MITI is extremely active in funding Toyota directly.) We cannot make apples-to-apples comparisons between Toyota and GM/Ford without at least considering the overall context, culture and philosophies governing each OEM's business strategy and constraints.

The solutions must include strong government/industry partnership and vision like we have for the defense industry. Would anyone disagree the U.S. leads the world in defense systems? Why do we lead here? ..because we decided to and mobilized government, industry and academia on common goals, projects, and investments. Other nations are beating us in automotive by applying our own integrated and holistic approach to defense industry planning. Laissez faire capitalism and CEO changes alone are not the answer. Other nations are integrating the best of all philosophies - lest I say some degree of socialism - to optimize the welfare of their automotive industries.

John Coyne
BEE, 1988

I responded to John by stating that my seven weeks in Germany convinced me that government involvement in the industry is not a bad thing, if the culture is such that the organizational linkages function efficiently and that creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit is fostered. In Germany for example, the head of the Cluster for East Germany automobile manufacturing spoke to us while we were at BMW, and it was clear that the various companies with manufacturing facilities in the former GDR were working together on issues of suppliers and labor. But German mentalities are quite different from those in the U.S., and thus I am concerned about how the government involves itself in the operations of the Detroit Three. I still believe that it is wrong to look to government for answers to major problems, and indeed it can often function as an institution to create and perpetuate problems rather than solve them. And the folks who are engaged in the defense industry, by all accounts, tend to be quite different than the rest of government in terms of social philosophy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chinese Farmers and the Global Automotive Industry

My thanks to Ed Garten for forwarding me this news on Geely's interest in acquiring Volvo from Ford -- taken from today's Wall Street Journal:

Today's Wall Street Journal has a front page story regarding the rapid rise of China's Geely Holding automobile company and its bid to, within a few years, become a major world automotive player. Geely has been trying to buy Volvo away from Ford now for about three years -- mainly they want the safety technology and engineering expertise plus it seems that Chinese people not only want Buicks, but they want Volvos.
Geely Chairman Li Shufu has thus far refused to discuss his plans for Volvo publicly, but in recent interviews he has been "coy" about his interest in the Swedish auto maker by saying:
"Volvo is like a mysterious, beautiful Swedish woman. We just look at her from far away, amazed. We don't dare get close to her. We are just
a bunch of farm boys."

And I thought Southerners were the masters of understatement! Recently, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest consumers of automobiles. The Chinese are no longer content to play second fiddle to the Americans, Europeans, Japanese, or Koreans. And why should they? BYD had a most impressive display at this year's Detroit Auto Show, with their plug-in hybrid. And Brilliant showed up with a BMW clone that is a testimony to the Chinese taking what they want from the Germans and then saying goodbye. Farmers can be very shrewd people! History is replete with examples of how the underdeveloped outsider emerged as an industrial leader due to cheap labor, good business practices, and ample resources. The Chinese may write the next several chapters in automobile history, if Detroit and others are not careful. Remember, we laughed when they started supplying McDonalds with the Happy Meal Toys!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Ford Mustang: Ride on, Sally, Ride on!

The GTO remains even today synonymous with American muscle, even if it is Australian by birth, as evidenced by the enormous interest and following over the 2003 – 2006 remakes. The Mustang, however, is purely American, and its long run as the iconic sporty, sometimes muscle car continues to this day, despite the inevitable ups and downs since the fall of 1964. It is truly an egalitarian, classless vehicle, as well, appropriate to the American scene, meaning that both a corporation CEO and a blue collar stiff can drive a Mustang GT, and respect each other for doing so. There is no snob appeal among Mustang owners, at least not GT and performance grade (read Shelby) followers. Its most iconic model is the 1965 with a 289 cubic inch V-8. With each and every year to 1973 the Mustang became heavier and fatter-looking, although big block engines compensated for the weight, culminating with the 429 Cobra Jet. In 1974, in response to the first energy crisis, the Mustang II was introduced, a wrong turn in terms of quality and performance. Some of the early 1980s Mustangs were simply horrible cars, but the 1989-1993 design marked a clear resurgence that continues today with the eager anticipation over the release of the 2010 version.

Lee Iacocca is often given credit for the marketing insights that led to the Ford Mustang, yet, as Iacocca recounts in his autobiography, the Mustang story was far more complex than simply tracing it to the genius of one executive. The idea behind the car was conceived by Gene Bordinat, Ford’s Vice President of design, and Don DeLaRossa Ford’s chief of advanced design. Yet, Iaccocca will always be known as the father of the Mustang.

On April 13, 1964, the Mustang was born, unveiled by Lee Iacocca to the international press at the New York World’s Fair. It was an event described by one journalist as “the most sensational introduction of modern times.” Car and Driver proclaimed that the Mustang was “the best thing to come out of Dearborn since the 1932 V-8 Model B Roadster.” Named after the P-51 fighter, and not the wild horse, it became an instant success with an American public increasingly obsessed with things associated with youth. Within two weeks of its debut 22,000 units were sold, and by 1966 sales totaled over 1 million.

One key to the Mustang’s popularity was the possibility to reflect an owner’s personality by accessorization. The culmination of the strategies first formulated by Ford’s Lewis Crusoe in the 1950s, accessorization enabled Lee Iacocca and Ford marketing to take a car that was based on the stogy Ford Falcon and dress it up in an unprecedented way. A customer could purchase on of seven 1965 Mustang models, including a coupe, convertible, fastback and GT-350 fastback. The first three came with either an inline 6 or a V-8 engine. The Mustang’s price range started at $2,368 for a “sweet six cylinder,” and peaked at $4,547 for the GT-350. Iacocca “took a basic car and added bells and whistles … quick and easy options that not only added to the car’s appeal but put profit in both the dealer’s and the manufacturer’s pockets.”

The success of the Mustang was the result of more than just a product that was precisely what consumers wanted. It was advertised heavily after launch, as it was featured in over 2600 newspapers and 24 magazines, as well as the chief sponsor of three television shows. Before long, every American household was aware of the new car. And by Christmas of 1964 the Mustang was a popular toy. One popular toy was the Mustang Pedal Car, made by American Machine and Foundry (AMF). AMF paid for “full paged ads in at least a half a dozen major magazines…also enticing mom and dad to put themselves behind the wheel of a somewhat larger, fossil-fuel-fired ponycar convertible.” There were also metal and plastic models, some battery-powered with working headlights, taillights and instrument panels.

Since 1965 the Mustang has been in over 200 spy, action and comedy films. Its’ first film debut was less than six months after its public unveiling, as it appeared in the James Bond film Goldfinger. While James, played by Sean Connery, is driving his DB-5, he playfully obstructs a white Mustang convertible, driven by an extremely attractive young woman. Yet the Mustang’s appearance is brief, as its tire is shredded by a DB-5 countermeasure. In Thunderball, a 1966 Mustang was used, and in similar fashion, the 1971 thriller Diamonds are Forever featured a fastback Mach I. Other films that featured Mustangs include Bullitt, Gone in Sixty Seconds (both the 1974 and1998 versions), The Thomas Crown Affair, The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Charlie’s Angels, Cape Fear, Bull Durham, Hollywood Homicide, and Death Match.

Mustangs had influence on music as well as film. And the most popular of all Mustang songs was Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally.” Produced by Jerry Wexler, Pickett recorded the song at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1966. It became an instant classic, rising to 23 on the Billboard Pop Chart. The song was about Sally, who only wanted to drive her 1965 Mustang all around town, which was bought for her by the singer. As the chorus reminded the listener,, “all she wants to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, Ride.” Originally composed by Mack Rice with the title “Mustang Momma,” it was changed to Mustang Sally on the suggestion of Aretha Franklin. Interestingly, the chorus came from a children’s song chorus “rise, Sally rise,” that Rice enjoyed as a child while growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

What is so important about the Mustang, however, was that despite its phenomenal initial sales, Ford’s overall market share remained nearly the same. Thus, what the Mustang did was take buyers away from other Ford product lines, rather than from GM, Chrysler, or the imports.