Saturday, July 31, 2010

P2O -- Porsches to Oxford, July 31, 2010

This 944 was parked near my car -- would you believe the owner bought this car for about 1k and put about 3k in it? You can't buy a used Chevy for that! Great job!
A most unusual color on this Porsche 968.
My favorite car of the event -- Kevin from Indianapolis with a blown 911 -- terrific custom body work as well.

Hi folks -- had a great morning in Oxford, Ohio at Porsches to Oxford. Supposedly 500 Porsches were there, and the rain held off. I had to leave at noon to get friend Cliff back to the Dayton area for a birthday party, but in the meantime had four wonderful hours looking at Porsches and talking to a number of super car people. I have attached a few photos -- my apologies to the folks I cannot properly identify in these photos.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reflections on the Ford Mercury

Hi folks,

I had an extended conversation with a reporter today about the Mercury brand, due to end this fall, and wanted to share some of my thoughts with you.

At first, I thought I might actually have little to say of substance, but after going through the topic, perhaps there is more than I initially considered.
Three Mercury products loom large in my life. The first is one of those iconic images of a car that burn into your memory early in one's life. It was my cousin Richard's 1954 maroon Mercury, first encountedered when I was about 8-10 years old, that stuck with me for a long time. In my own mind and at the time, I thought it was a very pretty car, particularly its taillights and dimensions. The next Mercury that became a part of my life was a 1974 Mercury Capri, certainly one of the worst if not the worst car that I have ever owned. I bought it new in the fall of 1973, my first new car. It had a 2800cc v-6 and a sunroof, but in the end became a source of major problems due to a clutch cable that kept on kinking on me and repeatedly was replaced. This car was never exactly right. Fianlly, my son-in-law Tony now has a 1967 Cougar that he is working on, and boy it needs plenty of work. I hope to help him get it right when I am in San Diego between January and May of 2011.

What were the great Mercury's from the past?

1) The 1940 Convertible -- an elegant upgrade over the Ford
2) The 1949, the first new post-war model and featured in Rebel without a Cause. Also the starting point of George Barris' best-known custom of the 1950s, after chopping and channeling.
3) The 1954 Sun Valley -- I thought about buying one 20 years ago, but probably my wife would have vetoed the deal.
4) 1957 Turnpike Cruiser -- loaded with gadgets
5) The 1967 Cougar, made famous by the publicity campaign "At the sign of the cat." The high point of the Mercury brand, without doubt.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Flocks, Curtis Turner, and an Attempt to Unionize Nascar, 1961

Ethyl Flock
Fonty Flock
Francis, Tim, and Fonty Kiss
Fonty Flock

Hi folks -- This is a great story! Plenty to still unravel here involving Curtis Turner as well. Not your typical authorized NASCAR History.

The Flocks: NASCAR's First Family, What a Bargain!

By Orlena Miller
July 25, 2002

The family tree of NASCAR and that of the Flock family are as entwined as the tangled kudzu that blankets the hills of the family's native Alabama. The Flocks are indisputably the "First Family" of NASCAR.
There were three Flocks in the top ten of the first Grand National Championship (now the Winston Cup) standings. Bob, Fonty and Tim finished third, fifth and eighth respectively. There is also, no other NASCAR family with three brothers in the Hall of Fame. On July 10, 1949 their sister, Ethel joined her brothers on the Daytona road/beach course, until this past June this was the only time in NASCAR history a brother and sister had competed in the same event. This Daytona race remains the only time four siblings have appeared in the same NASCAR sanctioned event.
There were nine children in the Flock family of Ft. Payne, Alabama. When Carl Lee Flock passed away, his youngest child Tim was only one year old. His widow, Maudie worked in a hosiery mill to support her family. To supplement their mother's meager income the older boys relocated to Atlanta to work in the family moonshine business. On the back roads between Atlanta and Dawsonville, GA the Flock brothers proved to have natural talent for building and driving vehicles that could outrun anything the police had on the road.
Bob Flock had a reputation in the hills and mountains of North Georgia. That ol' boy could drive the wheels off a car. The federal agents that chased him, often to no avail, grudgingly respected his driving skills. Once, the revenuers discovered Bob would be running a race in Atlanta, they waited for him at the track hoping to make a public arrest. As the race began Bob still had not appeared. When the field was set, a gate opened and Bob Flock drove onto the track to take the green flag. Shortly thereafter, dozens of police vehicles where also on the track, sirens screaming and lights flashing. They chased Flock for a lap or two, when he got the chance he drove through the fence, hit the street and was gone. The police followed the fugitive until he finally ran out of gas near downtown Atlanta.
Reminiscing years later, Bob said, "I would have won that race if the cops had stayed out of it."
Bob Flock retired from driving when he broke his back in an on track accident, but he remained involved with racing as a track owner and promoter in the Atlanta area. During his 36 race NASCAR career Bob had 4 wins, 11 top fives and 18 top tens.
As a kid Bob's younger brother, Fontello Flock delivered 'shine on his bicycle, when he was old enough he joined his brother in tearing through the mountains transporting white lightning and evading the law. Fonty began his stock car career prior to World War II. Like most racers of the day he eventually made his way to the Mecca of speed, Daytona Beach. He first raced on the beach course in July 1941, Fonty earned the pole position but during the race crashed and was seriously injured. Because of his injuries and the war Fonty did not race again until 1947.
It was Bob Flock that convinced car owner Ed Schenck to put Fonty in his car for the inaugural event at North Wilkesboro Speedway, May 5, 1947. He won the pole, his heat race and the 30-lap feature race. He went on to win seven of the forty-seven races he ran that season, at one point he and Bob were tied for the points lead. When Bob broke his back at Spartanburg in October Fonty finished the season driving his brother's car. He was crowned 1947 champion of the National Championship Stock Car Circuit. NCSCC was renamed NASCAR the following year. Fonty Flock is the only driver in the history of our sport to go to victory lane in his first series start. This racing Flock brother compiled 19 wins, 72 top fives and 83 top tens in 154 Grand National starts.
The Flocks were a family of daredevils. In addition to earning a living driving a taxi, patriarch Carl Lee was also a trick cyclist and tightrope walker. Tim once said of his father, "He had an incredible sense of balance. I think Bob, Fonty, and me got that from him, and I truly believe this helped to make us good racecar drivers."
The men of the Flock family did not hold exclusive rights to the title daredevil, however. Reo, one of the older girls was a wing-walker and a stunt parachutist with a barnstorming air show in the 1930's. The youngest daughter Ethel, named after the fuel her father used in his cab, was closer in age to her speed demon brothers. And she shared their passion for fast cars and competition. Truly a pioneer Ethel Flock raced in over one hundred modified events during an era when women weren't even allowed in the pits at many tracks.
To draw larger crowds to his Atlanta Speedway Bob Flock hired Ethel, Sara Christian and Mildred Williams to race at the new facility. Following her brothers south, Ethel Flock Mobley joined them "on the beach" at Daytona in July 1949. In a '49 Cadillac owned by her husband, she finished eleventh. She not only beat Bob and Fonty, but also Curtis Turner, Buck Baker and Herb Thomas. Not too shabby for a Georgia housewife. Tim Flock who finished second that day recalled the event, "She particularly loved racing with and beating her brothers". This was one of two NASCAR starts for Ethel, her combined winnings for both races was fifty dollars.
In a Georgia cow pasture at the tender age of ten, Tim Flock attended his first race. As he watched his brothers and the other "whiskey trippers" slinging dirt and banging fenders he knew he wanted to race too. Bob and Fonty tried to persuade their youngest brother to stay in school and out of racing, it was Ethel and her husband that encouraged and supported Tim's racing career.
Julius Timothy "Tim" Flock holds the highest winning percentage in NASCAR history, 21.2 percent. In 189 races Tim went to victory lane 40 times, that equates to one win for every 4.73 starts. These numbers alone would earn Tim Flock an indelible mark in the annals of NASCAR. But Tim Flock was so much more than a gifted driver, his personality and antics were as memorable as his skill behind the wheel. Flock's career spanned NASCAR's formative years. He took the green flag for the first time in a NASCAR event June 19, 1949. Tim competed in NASCAR for most of the next 13 years and won the Grand National Championship in 1952 and 1955.
Tim won the '52 championship in spectacular fashion. He only needed to start the race in order to clinch the title. But this was not Tim Flock's style. He would run this race like he ran all races, wide-open. On lap 164 of the 200-lapper Flock crashed, flipped and skidded down the frontstretch on the car's roof. Emerging unhurt the new champ declared, "I bet I'm the only driver who has won the championship on his head." The 1955 championship was won in a much less dramatic manner. Flock utterly dominated the season. In '55 he had 19 poles, 18 wins and led 40 percent of the laps run.
Unfortunately, although his career statistics are indeed impressive, Tim Flock will always be best known for his simian passenger, Jocko Flocko. A rhesus monkey that sported his own racing suit, Jocko rode with Tim in eight races. Once, while Flock was leading at Charlotte something frightened the poor monkey. The monkey went berserk and slipped his harness. The panicked animal grabbed Flock around the head and he was driving with one hand and trying to hold the monkey with the other. Relinquishing the lead Tim hit pit road and handed Jocko to a crewmember. Flock finished third that day and Jocko Flocko's racing career came to an abrupt end, Tim figured the incident cost him about $750.00. The little monkey wasn't first animal to give Tim Flock problems during a race. Once at Daytona he jumped out to an early lead, when he reached the beach portion of the course he drove into a flock of seagulls, scattering feathers, blood and gore. "There were so many feathers it looked like snow," Tim said.
Throughout Tim Flock's NASCAR career he was frequently at odds with "Big Bill" France.
In 1950 when Bruton Smith wanted Flock to run at his track outside Charlotte, Tim said he would race, if "Big Bill" agreed. But France was not in the habit of allowing his drivers to race at "outlaw" tracks. True to form, Bruton Smith made Tim an offer too rich to turn down. Miffed at Flock's rebellion, Bill France took away 837 driver points, which Flock forever maintained had cost him the championship. Recalling the incident Flock said somewhat bitterly, "They changed the rules whenever they wanted."
At Daytona in 1954 Tim finished first but was disqualified two days later because a soldered carburetor screw was found in the post race inspection. Disgusted, the youngest of the "Flying Flocks" bid farewell to NASCAR and returned to Atlanta. In February '55 friends convinced Flock go to the Daytona 500, he was happy not driving and was going as a spectator only. However, after getting a look at Carl Kiekhaefer's new Chrysler 300 Tim could not restrain himself and convinced the rookie car owner to let him drive the car. Tim Flock went on to win the Championship that season.
Another brush with Bill France ended Tim Flock's career in NASCAR. Flock supported Curtis Turner's 1961 attempt to organize the drivers. Like Turner, Tim believed a drivers' union would force Bill France to treat them more fairly. Not intimidated, France threatened to close his tracks if the drivers organized, facing unemployment the majority abandoned the scheme. With the notion of a union quashed France banned Curtis Turner and Tim Flock from NASCAR, for life. However, in 1965 hoping to boost waning interest in the sport France reinstated Flock and Turner. By this time, Tim was 40 years old and enjoyed working in public relations at Bruton Smith's Charlotte Motor Speedway, he declined France's offer to return to competition.
In 1998, shortly before his death Julius Timothy Flock was named one NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers. When Tim lost his battle with cancer at age 83 he knew his contribution to the sport he loved had been recognized and was appreciated.
Carl Lee and Maudie Flock's children, Ethel, Bob, Fonty and Tim with a combined total of 379 NASCAR starts finished in the top-ten 230 times. For their priceless contribution to our sport the Flock siblings' total winnings was less than $200,000. What a bargain!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Can Race Drivers Speak Up? Barney Oldfield and Fonty Flock. NASCAR, a Family-Owned Business Where Drivers have Little Real Say?

Barney Oldfield at the wheel of a Simplex, airplane in the background
Fonty Flock, one of NASCAR's early greats

Apparently race drivers have little say in the racing game -- rather it is the owners of the tracks and promoters that run the sport. And when they do speak up, they are quickly squelched. Take the historical examples of Barney Oldfield and Fonty Flock, criticizing safety in their day. This is from Speed Age, January, 1958, p.47:

"The name Barney Oldfield still strikes a responsive cord among race fans although the great showman has been among the deceased since 1947. the great blusterer, who never won an international event and only one national championship race, nevertheless was the toast of the automotive world because of his flair for publicity, natural color, and ability to spend money faster than he could earn it. When Barney's name no longer had box-office appeal and when headlines became scarcer and scarcer, the former bellhop turned to driving farm tractors, sitting on flag poles and other tricks aimed to keep the black ink flowing. The complete end came when he turned on the sport,issuing charges and counter -charges following a series of facing fatalities. His by-lined (but ghosted) newspaper series "widows in waiting" is credited with turning the Heast newspaper chain against the sport.
Now comes the greatest showman of the decade, Fonty Flock, in an almost duplicate performance. The handsome bon vivant of the stock car world was once the best driver in the business. his every act, spoken word and performance earned headlines and babies were christened with hsi catchy first name (Fontello). But Flock's last major win was in 1952, and headlines were getting scarce. With only 27 laps of the Southern 500 run, the one-time great spun his Pontiac in Darlington's dangerous Number Three turn and started a chain smash that hospitalized Flock and Paul Goldsmith and took the life of Bobby Myers.
Leaving the hospital the following day wit ha fractured left arm, Flock traveled a 100 miles and call ed a press conference. He blasted the officials at Darlington, called the sport nasty names and got headlines. The following day he did the same thing in another city. All charges were denied vehemently, then ignored when they entered the ridiculous stage. But the result was apparent. two politically powerful Southern newspapers editorialized for legislation to stop stock car racing. Interpretation: Flock was miffed when his last-minute bid for a $500 appearance deal was turned down. Ironically, each of his press conferences were held in cities along the route assigned to him in his new business -- selling stock! Even Barney at his best was never more timely."

Does Flock appear in NASCAR histories? Was he marginalized? Do drivers have much of a say in racing?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Racer's Requiem -- a 1958 poem dedicated to the late Bob Sweikert

This poem was published in Speed Age, may 1958, and written be Elinor Myerfield of San Francisco. It was dedicated to Bob Sweikert.

You're far from the oil and
engine's exhaust
Gone forever -- but yet, not lost.
For where cars compete and
speed is king,
Your soul is always on the wing.
Your heart still beats in
motor's throb
Within each driver--you're
there, Bob.
To guide their hands upon the
And strengthen nerves like
tempered steel.
You whisper caution in their ear
To keep them calm and free
from fear.
You wish them luck and softly
"Stay safe -- and win another
Now you sleep in a quiet place
While others continue with the race.
But our loving thoughts to every
Will bring your dauntless spirit

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Draft Syllabus for Fall, 2010 Senior Seminar, the Automobile and American Life

The Automobile and American Life
Class Meeting: Monday, 3:00-5:50 p.m.
HM 468

Instructor: Dr. John A. Heitmann
Office: HM 435
Telephone: x92803
Office Hours:
MWF 10-10:50 a.m., or by appointment

It has been said that the automobile is the perfect technological symbol of American culture, a tangible expression of our quest to level space, time and class, and a reflection of our restless mobility, social and otherwise. In this seminar we will explore together the place of the automobile in American life, and how it transformed business, life on the farm and in the city, the nature and organization of work, leisure time, and the arts. This is a most complex transition that we will study, as the automobile transformed everyday life and the environment in which we operate. It influenced the foods we eat; music we listen to; risks we take; places we visit; errands we run; emotions we feel; movies we watch; stress we endure; and, the air we breathe.

Required Texts:
John Heitmann, The Automobile and American Life (McFarland, 2009).
Cotton Seiler, Republic of Drivers (Chicago, 2008).
Kevin Borg, Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth Century America (Johns Hopkins, 2007).

Grades: Course work will consist of seminar lectures, discussions, presentations, films, and optional field trips to the Dayton Concurs and the Kil-Kare Drag Strip near Xenia. Grades will be based on class discussion and 2 three page book review point papers (30%), an assigned book class presentation (25%) and a research paper (45%).

In this class we will define the seminar as a shared learning experience in which one of its purposes is to create new knowledge. Therefore, the research paper is the most significant assignment of this course. It should critically explore an area of knowledge related to the automobile and American life, and ideally should be 15 pages double spaced in length, with footnotes and bibliography, and furthermore draw on minimally 15 sources, primary and secondary. I plan to meet with you individually and collectively during the semester to ensure that your topic has a proper focus and that sources are readily available for your project. A late paper will be penalized one-half letter grade per day.

Among the term paper topics are the following suggestions:

A Reassessment of the Life of Henry Ford II
Edsel Ford and Design during the 1930s
Fast Women -- Women Race Drivers (The Bugatti Queen, Denise McCluggage, and others)
American Board Tracks, 1911-1930
The Vanderbilt Cup, 1936-1937
Eight Tack Tape Players and the Automobile
Sex and the Automobile – either in terms of culture and design, or in terms of sex in cars
Women as Depicted in Automobile Advertising, 1920 - 1980 (you should narrow down the decades)
Seat Belts (or the Airbag, or Crumple Zones) and the Coming of Automobile Safety
Auto Racing Safety, post-WWII -- helmets, roll bars, fire suppression
Automobile Toys -- Ray Cox and the Thimble Drone Racers, etc.
Anti-Auto Literature in America, 1950-1980 (or 1970-2000)
Auto Theft, Organized Crime, and Theft Deterrents
The Automobile and the Environment: California Air Quality after WWII
Automation and the Post-WWII American Auto Industry
Automobile Journalists and Writers – Floyd Clymer
The Automobile and American Literature: fiction written since 1980
The Automobile and Film – Narrow down by decade or genre
Music about the Automobile or about Highways – again, narrow down by period
Drinking and Driving in the 20th Century
Car Jackings and Drive-by Shootings during the 1990s
The Big Three at War: WWII and the American Auto Industry
Industry Pioneers: Hiram Maxim, Alexander Winton, Ransom Olds, or perhaps others
Poetry and the Automobile, narrowed down by period
Buckminster Fuller and his Dymaxion Car; or, aerodynamics, streamlining and culture during the 1930s
The Automobile and Unionism -- Pattern Bargaining
Speed Traps during the 1920s
African-Americans and the Automobile -- use of newspaper databases
Ascot Raceway and the journalists who fought to close it during the 1930s
Hip-Hop and Cars – themes and artists
George Romney and American Motors

You will be required to submit point paper reviews on the books authored by Cotton Seiler and Kevin Borg. These are three page typed short essays that concisely summarize the key theme of each book and discuss how successful each writer was in conveying his or her point. These papers will serve as the starting point of in class discussions.

My book The Automobile and American Life is our key common reading in this class and the touchstone for our discussions. While you will not be tested on this reading, you will be responsible for reading this book and critically commenting on it in class.

Additionally, you must select from the syllabus a book that you will report on to the class at the scheduled time. All books listed are in the Roesch Library or in my possession ; you are to prepare a 20-30 minute presentation in which you discuss the author’s main theme(s), the subject topic of the book and its central narrative, and finally your own assessment of this book and how it enhanced(or stultified) your knowledge and interest in the history of the automobile in America.

Schedule of Assignments and Class Meetings

Week 1 — August 30
Introduction. What our cars tell us about ourselves. The automobile and its inherent contradictions. The automobile in art and as art.
Reading: Heitmann, Introduction.
Film: “Wild Wheels”

Week 2 -- Labor Day, No Class

Week 3 — September 13
Reading: Heitmann, Chapters 1.
Film: “Horatio’s Drive”
Report(s): Michael Berger, The Devil Wagon on God’s Country: The Automobile and Social Change in Rural America, 1893-1929 --; Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)--;

Week 4 — September 20
Henry Ford, Fordism, and the Model T.
Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 2
Films: Mack Sennet, “Gussle’s Day of Rest( 1915).”
“California Straight Ahead,” (1925); “The Crowd Roars” (1932); “Burn ‘Em Up Barnes’”(1934)
Music: Virginia Liston, Bertha Chippie Hill, Robert Johnson
Report(s): Reynold M. Wik, Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America (Ann Arbor, 1972);
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan, 2009).

Week 5 — September 27
The Rise of General Motors and Sloanism
Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 3.
Film: “Roger and Me”
Report(s): Sally H. Clarke, Trust and Power: Consumers, the Modern Corporation, and the Making of the United States Automobile Market (Cambridge, 2007)--; Stuart W. Leslie, Boss Kettering: Wizard of General Motors (Columbia, 1983)--;
Stephen Bayley, Harley Earl (New York, 1990)--.

Short Review of Auto Mechanics is due.

Week 6 — October 4
America on the Road: The Highway and the City;
Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 4
Film: “Taken for a Ride”
Reports: Jack Keroauc, On the Road; Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 (Johns Hopkins, 1997) – ; William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways (Boston, 1982);
Report(s): Ashleigh Brilliant, The Great Car Craze: How Southern California Collided with the Automobile in the 1920s (Santa Barbara, 1989) – .
Scott Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile (Berkeley, 1987) – .

Week 7 — October 11 Women Behind the Wheel; Religion, Sex, and the Automobile

Readings: Heitmann, Chapter 5
Reports: Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age(New Mexico, 1992) –; Elinor Nauen, Ladies Start your Engines: Women Writers and the Road (Boston, 1996).
Films: “Thelma and Louise;”

Week 8 — October 18
Library and Consultation Day – no class

Week 9 — October 25
The Interwar Years; The Great Depression
Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 6.
Reports: David Blanke, Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of America’s Car Culture, 1900-1940 (Kansas, 2007)--; Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT, 2008)--;

Week 10 — November 1 WWII and the Reconversion Economy

Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 7.
Report: David Gartman, Auto Opium (New York, 1994);
Film: “Tucker”
Term Paper Proposal Due; The Completion of a Working Bibliography of no less than 15 Sources, 5 of which are articles.

Week 11 — November 8
Chrome Dreams of the 1950s
Readings: Heitmann, Chapter 8

Report(s): John Keats, The Insolent Chariots (Philadelphia, 1958) – ; Katie Mills, The Road Story and the Rebel: Moving Through Film, Fiction, and Television (Carbondale, IL, 2006) – .
Film: “Rebel Without a Cause;” “Thunder Road.”
Music: Jackie Berenson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Chuck Berry.

Review of Cotton Seiler's Book is Due

Week 12 — November 15
Muscle Cars of the 1960s; Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys
Readings: Heitmann, Chapter 9
Music: Dead Man’s Curve — Jan and Dean; Little Duce Coupe — The Beach Boys; GTO – Ronny and the Daytonas;
Reports: David Lucsko, The Business of Speed : the Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915-1990 (Johns Hopkins, 2008)--; Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (New York, 1965) – Tom Lewis, Divided Highways (Viking, 1997) – ; Lee Iacocca, with William Novak, Iacocca: An Autobiography (Bantam, 1984) --;
Film: “Bullitt;” “American Graffiti”

Week 13 — November 22
Safety and the Environment;

Reports: Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed (New York, 1965); Emma Rothchild, Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age (New York, 1973) – ; Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back(Crown, 1997); Brock Yates, The Critical Path (Little, Brown, 1996);
Readings: Flink, pp. 295-345.
Film: “The Vanishing”

Term Paper Progress Reports — Entire Class

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

More Music While On the Road -- The Automobile Record Player

Developed by the Chrysler Corporation, used 16 2/3 records, 1956
Lawrence Welk and a 1956 DeSoto

A 1963 RCA Model

Hi folks -- there is a story here that should be told in print form rather than on the web. Another one of those things in our lives that mean so much to us for a time, only later to be discarded for something better. I wonder how many teenagers during the 1950s and early 1960s worried their parents to death until they went out and bought one of these contraptions!

A reminiscence by former colleague Ed Garten:

"When I was in college, however, one of the guys in the rooming house I lived in had a 1959 Edsel -- jet black -- beautiful (yet ugly) car. He had one of those rare to see little in-car record players under the dash. Most of them would only play 45 RPM records and only one at a time. His favorite 'date night' record was "Unchained Melody." He would play it over and over again in that Edsel."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A brief history of 8 track tapes and the automobile

Hi folks -- I never had an 8 track player -- maybe just too poor when they came out, or maybe not interested in tunes at the time, or maybe I went directly to the cassette, but in any case I certainly missed a major cultural event. Every once and a while you'll find 8 track tapes at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Below is some information on the 8 track and the critical role the auto industry had in this technologies acceptance by the consumer.

The Eight Track tape recording system was popular from 1965 to the late 1970s. While today it has become an example of technological obsolescence, it was a great commercial success for a time and paved the way for all sorts of innovations in portable listening. The eight track tape consisted of an endless loop of standard 1/4-inch magnetic tape, housed in a plastic cartridge. On the tape were eight parallel soundtracks, corresponding to four stereo programs. For many people old enough to have owned an eight track system, it is a technology associated with the automobile and in-car listening. Ironically, however, it was first developed not by the auto industry, but by a leading aircraft manufacturer: the Learjet Corporation.

After the introduction of magnetic tape recording in the post-WWII years, there had been some experimentation in tapes, but there had been no success whatever in getting satisfactory fidelity from tapes moving at a slow speed. For decent fidelity, no more than two programs could be placed, side by side, on the standard quarter-inch recording tape. Californian Earl Muntz (once known as “Mad man Muntz” the used car dealer), had, as early as 1962, developed a tape cartridge. This was an endless loop of tape encased in a plastic holder. Tape was fed from the inside of the spool, put the playing head, and then wound around the outside of the spool. This struck engineer-entrepreneur Bill Lear as a step in the right direction. What was needed now was engineering. The cartridge idea would have to be vastly improved and a completely reliable tape player, sturdy enough for the bounces and shocks it would get mounted in a car, would have to be developed.

Earl "Madman" Muntz was a former Kaiser-Frazer automobile dealer who had earned his nickname through his loud, flamboyant television commercials. His motto was "I buy 'em retail and sell 'em wholesale. It's more fun that way!" Already a national celebrity by the 1950s, he soon jumped from auto sales to electronics, opening a chain of television retail outlets. The sets he sold were manufactured by another of his other firm's, Muntz Television Inc., and they were based on a clever design that saved money on parts and assembly. The TV business had its ups and downs, and Muntz went from riches to rags when he landed in bankruptcy court in 1955,and then back to riches a few years later when the market turned around. When he discovered the Fidelipac in the early 1960s, he sold Muntz TV and threw in his lot with the endless loop, never to return to his television business (although in later years he re-entered the TV industry with a line of big screen TV sets).

Muntz had inexpensive Fidelipac players custom manufactured in Japan, and licensed the music of several record companies for duplication on carts. Even though the players were intended to be installed in cars, where "hi-fi" hardly mattered, Muntz sought to enhance the appeal of his product by adopting the stereo tape standards established by recorder manufacturers a few years earlier, and his players used the new, mass produced stereo tape heads being made for the home recorder industry. These heads put two stereo programs, a total of four recorded tracks, on a standard 1/4 inch tape.

Muntz players caught on quickly, starting an autosound fad in California which then began to spread east. By 1963 Muntz players were to be found stylishly adorning the underdash regions of Frank Sinatra's Riviera, Peter Lawford's Ghia, James Garner's Jaguar, Red Skelton's Rolls Royce, and Lawrence Welk's Dodge convertible, not to mention Barry Goldwater's ride (make not known). During 1964 and 1965 a number of major labels began issuing new releases and old favorites on 4-track, and the Fidelipac looked like it was going to be the next big thing in consumer audio. A number of home players even appeared.

Suddenly Bill Lear appeared on the scene, newly world famous for his spectacularly-successful Learjet business plane, and announced in 1965 that he had developed a cartridge with eight tracks that promised to lower the price of recorded tapes without any sacrifice in music quality. In 1963, he became a distributor for Muntz Electronics, mainly in order to install 4-track units aboard his Learjets. Dissatisfied with the Muntz technology, he contacted two of the leading suppliers of original equipment tape heads, the Nortronics Company and Michigan Magnetics. He specified a head with much thinner "pole-pieces" and a new spacing that would allow two tracks (or one stereo program) to be picked off a quarter-inch tape that held a total of 8-tracks. Although a departure from the Muntz player, the technology of the closely-stacked multitrack head was by the early 1960s well established in fields like data recording. Lear in 1963 developed a new version of the Fidelipac cartridge with somewhat fewer parts and an integral pressure roller. During 1964, Lear's aircraft company constructed 100 "Stereo-8" players for distribution to executives at the auto companies and RCA.

Both Lear and Motorola had come a long way since sharing the building with the Midwest Slipper Company at 847 Harrison Street, Chicago. Motorola assigned an engineer, Oscar Kusisto, to the project. Like Lear, Kusisto possessed a rare ability to see to the heart of the problem and then come up with a simple solution the first thing that Kusisto and Lear decided was that they would go with a continuous loop of quarter-inch tape. They reasoned that while the cassette tape had merits (it was smaller than a cartridge could be, simply because the tape in the cassette was 1/8 inch or half as wide) it also had disadvantages. The narrower tape wasn’t as sturdy as the wider tape, for one thing and there were other considerations.

The next thing Kususto decided was that Motorola would develop the playing mechanism, and that Lear Jet Stereo would develop an absolutely reliable cartridge, a more difficult job than it appears. The first design criterion they decided on was that the tape would have to have 8 channels of information, twice what the Muntz tape cartridge had. Only in this way could they get enough music in each cartridge to make the cartridge practical.

What Lear did to make the tape cartridge what it is today is something that only highly skilled engineers can really appreciate. It wasn’t simply a question of making a device that would reliably pull a continuous loop of tape at a constant speed. That was difficult enough in itself and got him involved in such things as lubricants for the tape which would make the tape just so slippery, and which would neither dry out, losing their slipperiness, or come off the tape and make things that shouldn’t be slippery – the traction wheel, for example – slippery. He also had to make a device that was inexpensiveto manufacture (so that it could compete with phonograph records, which are really nothing more than a couple of cents worth of plastic) and which could be manufactured in large quantiiites. This meant he had to design not only the cartridge itself, but the machines which would make the cartridges as well. Oscar Kusisto, while Lear was spending much time and vast amounts of money developing a reliable cartridge, was spending many engineering hours and vast amounts of Motorola’s money developing a reliable playing mechanism.

What he had to do was design a machine that (a) would turn itself on when a cartridge was inserted; (b) pull a continuous loop of tape at an absolutely precise 3.75 inches per second (otherwise the music would sound horrible); (c) detect from two thin strips on the tape (each 1/32 inch wide) information which could be amplified with fidelity almost as good as the phonograph provided; (d) shift from one set of 1/32 inch wide strips to three other sets (in turn) of strips and then back to the first set (thus providing eight channels, or four stereo programs). The machine that did that had to be rugged enough to be operated in a car, wholly immune to both mechanical vibration and to hums, buzzes, and whistles generated by other electrical equipment in the car.

Actually, because of wind and engine and other noises inside a car, the passenger can’t really hear sounds below, say, 100 or 150 Hertz, nor above about 7,000-8,00Hertz. Some 8-track cartridges and playing equipment, however, can reproduce sound from about 20 Hertz to 20,000 Hertz, which is to say both lower and higher than the human ear can detect.

By the fall of 1964, Kusisto and Lear had a new ally, RCA. RCA said that if Motorola marketed a decent 8-track tape player, RCA would make tapes available, using artists from RCA’s large stable. Then in October 1964, Lear and Kusisto went to Henry Ford II. They hoped that Ford would be impressed enough with this new gadget to order it placed in the normal production system. Both knew it took at least two years, and more often three, before a new item appeared on a new model car. It took that long to get anything new into the system. What they hoped Ford would do would order his production department to include the tape player in the 1968 Fords. Henry Ford II recognized a good thing when he saw it. And unlike his counterparts at other manufacturers, he didn’t have to bother making proposals to be put to a vote after committee deliberations.

“We’ll shoot for July 1965,” Ford said. “I want a tape player available as an option on all 1966 Ford passenger cars from the Lincoln down to the Mustang.” In 1966 8-track players were featured as an option on Ford models; 1967 Mopar and VW followed. During 1967 every record manufacturer in America went into the tape-making business.In 1972, 450,000 units were installed in cars at the factory, and 3 million units were installed by either dealers or people in the electronics equipment business.

The story of the 8-track ended rather suddenly, but not unexpectedly. The major record labels announced their decision to stop supporting the 8-track format between 1981 and 1983. However, some continued to issue top-10 pop albums for some time. Also, 8-tracks of most popular releases were available well into the 1980s via the mail order record clubs. Also, there were numerous small labels that supported the format for some years.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Fellowship of Speed -- a 1932 poem taken from the Indy 500 program of that year

"The Fellowship of Speed," by William Herschell
Taken from the Official Indy 500 Program, 1932

Though some may reckon Speedway's fame
Lies only in the flash and flame
Of roaring motors -- men with eyes
Fixed only on the golden prize;
Yet -- greater far -- the battle sends
Dawn strangers home as Speedway friends!

You're seated early -- so am I --
We watch the legions passing by;
The Pullmans from Detroit are in --
Gay treks from Baltimore begin!
Speed-clans from Yonder, Here and There
Meet multitudes from Everywhere!

I don't know you -- you don't know me--
Still, all day neighbors we must be;
We start to talking, then you say
Your home is far-off Rockaway
Queer what distance lies between--
I'm from Kentucky -- Bowling Green!

Two fellows back of us begin
Acknowledging which car will win;
My friend from Rockaway and I
Their super-judgment soon deny.
Then others argue -- pro and con--
Bombs flash the start! The race is on!

Hours wear along! The racing game
Grants no man right to chosen fame;
My favored driver had a dray --
An axle broke for Rockaway!
Our friendly crowd grows larger when
A pit-bound car gets off again!

Then- suddenly- we all forget
Our favored car, each vain regret;
A gray-haired woman shouts with joy:
"He's out in front! My baby boy!"
Say, Speedway friendships just begin
When Speedway crowds help Mother win!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pilgrims to Motor Mecca -- a poem about going to the Indy 500, 1934

Hi folks -- as you all know, I really am interested in car culture -- film music, literature, and poetry, and that includes material about auto racing. This poem was taken from a 1934 official program of the Indy 500 Race. This, and a poem that I read today from 1932, encapsulates an experience that still rings true today, as reflected in my recent trip to the Indy 500 and seating in grandstand "H."

"Pilgrims to Motor Mecca" by William Herschell

Pilgrims to Motor-Mecca!--
Yonder they come4;
Grandpa and Aunt Rebecca
Abner and Lum!
Grandma conveys The Baby,
Milk in her hands;
They'll find the nephews -- maybe--
Out with the bands!

Doggone! These Speedway Races
Sure tote a Thrill;
Gates, baskets, ushers, faces,
Rune through a mill!
Rush, scurry -- not a worry--
They know they'll find
Seat Stubs, in all their hurry,
Thought left behind!

Some come in family wagon,
Some on a bike;
You'll see a Premier draggin'
Right down the pike!
Some come in lordly fashion,
Cars up-to-date;
None hows a peevish passion--
Throngs jam the gate!

Airplanes above are humming,
Seeking to land;
Folks knew they'd be coming--
Give welcome hand!
Bands play and flags are flying,
Men in the pits
Test nerve for duties trying--
Cars get the "jits!"

Here's joy, Old Motor-Mecca
Turn on a glow;
Grandpa and Aunt Rebecca
Must see a show;
All through the winter lonely
They've ruled the place;
One bet their object only--
Who'd win the Race?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Poetry of Linda Pastan : "Cable Jumping" -- Analogies of Car Parts and Human Parts

Poet Linda Pastan

Analogies and imagery involving car parts and human parts have been drawn in art and music in the past, whether it be the words in Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” Mel Ramos’ canvas “Kar Kween,” or the “Dagmars” on early 1950s Cadillacs. Poet Linda Pastan spoke in terms of organs analogous to car parts, and connections no different than the flow of electricity under a hood. The end result of coming together or jump starting is the achievement of synchronicity, of reaching similar voltages.

When our cars touched,
When you lifted the hood of mine
To see the intimate workings underneath,
When we were bound together
By a pulse of pure energy,
When my car like the princess
In the tale woke with a start,
I thought why not ride the rest of the way together?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lynne Knight, Youthful Love, and a 1953 Buick

However, when we think of sex and automobiles, it is usually about youth. Lynne Knight fleshes out the reality of such a youthful experience in her “There, in My Grandfather’s Old Green Buick.” Knight tells us much about parking: surprisingly, perhaps, male rather than female restraint; distracting thoughts about somehow damaging the car; memories of Catholic religious instruction; exploration and self-control; and a new sense of a more mature self. Knight later stated that the poem “Pretty much encapsulates my sexual experiences as a teenager although it probably makes me sound a little more sexually aware than I actually was. There was a fierce desire, yes, but also lots of blind fumbling.”

He was touching me where no one

had touched me before, there,

in my grandfather’s old green Buick

that wouldn’t go in reverse,

so all the while I was worrying

how he’d get the car turned around

and headed back to his school,

there as we were under the dark pines

I worried he’d scrape the paint against the pines

and then he whispered We have to stop Do you know why

we have to stop and I nodded,

and we slipped past the pines with our headlights

still out and when we got there, I slid

behind the wheel and drove down the mountain

knowing something had happened I couldn’t reverse

anymore than I could the Buick, knowing I wanted it,

no matter what the nuns said, I wanted it, I could feel

my body wet and alive as if there had been a birth.

Knight recently recalled some of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the poem: When I wrote the poem, I had returned to poetry after a 20-year hiatus. . . . when I finally got back to where I could tell the truth about my life, I was able to write poetry again. I think of this poem as one of my breakthrough poems – it showed me I could take memory and make of it something new, something that would speak to others.”