Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Stealing Cars: Garages and Automobile Security

The Home and the American Garage
            Common sense might argue that early garages were built to prevent auto theft. In reality, they were primarily places for inventing, constructing, and rebuilding cars, and protecting them from the elements. Pioneer Brass-Era cars were notoriously loud, dirty, dangerous, and most significantly, very expensive. They required constant maintenance and needed to be housed in buildings that were large enough to hold parts and equipment. In addition, they were sufficiently distant from residences in case of an explosion or fire (the most frequent source of early auto insurance claims). These structures were converted carriage houses, barns, and sheds--outbuildings dedicated to transportation that were sometimes shared with horses and buggies.3 One famous early garage, sometimes described as the “first” garage, was Henry Ford’s workshop situated behind his duplex at 58 Bagley Avenue in Detroit where he made the 1896 Quadricycle. When the contraption was completed, it was too large to fit through the existing door, so Ford hammered and chiseled a way out, thereby creating what is arguably the “first” garage door.
            Cars started out as a novelty in the late1890s but had become a necessity by the 1920s and 1930s due to the growth of suburbs. Concurrently, interest grew in household garages to protect these sometimes temperamental but prized objects. “In 1913, Collier’s magazine warned that a car stored in an unheated space could end up with a frozen radiator, rattling doors, bowed fenders, a cracked frame, and flaking paint.”4 Needless to say, a heated garage was a luxury few could afford, but an enclosed space was not. By the 1920s, even though most people did not own a garage, it was a dream to which they aspired.5 President Herbert Hoover knew this when he promised “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” during his 1928 presidential campaign. The slogan struck a chord that resonated in the American psyche. Throughout the Great Depression, detached and attached garages began popping up across the country.
            For the most part, the focus during the 1930s was on whether to build an attached garage, a semi-attached garage, or detached garage with an emphasis on architectural integrity or convenience, but theft was rarely a consideration.6 In fact, though desirable, homebuyers did not always select a garage. From 1933 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered home plans in their catalog that gave people choices--they could build a garage, or a dining nook, or recreation room and the like, according to their preference. The company also offered freestanding garages and pergolas for sheltering cars that could be bought separately and built later.
            With garages came garage door opening systems for both convenience and later, security. The garage opening devices of the 1920s sometimes used a spring beneath the driveway that was activated when the driver entered, or a chain or rope next to the garage door that the driver pulled to open the door.7 However, the spring doors could injure a family member who happened to be in the garage, and both mechanisms failed to adequately secure the automobile.
            By the 1930s, companies began to consciously aim at preventing theft and did so through the use of photoelectric cells or radio signals. These ingenious early systems were still uncommon and forerunners to the widely-adopted methods of later years. According to one description:

a photo-electric cell installation . . . opens doors when [a] light beam . . . is broken. . . . [Alternatively, a] remote control on [a] standard in [the] drive[way] . . . operate[d] doors electronically when unlocked, by key, from car. Both from Stanley Works. There is also a radio type door operator, from Barber-Colman, which works by short wave from car when you pull knob on dash.8

            Remote control garage door openers of the 1930s generally consisted of a simple transmitter and receiver that controlled the mechanism. One type was developed in Spokane, Washington and used a receiver that responded only to a particular wavelength broadcasted by the spark coil on the car. Another system developed in Illinois used coded radio signals sent from an instrument board in the car to an antenna buried in the driveway, which started the electric motor that opened the garage doors. Although automobile thieves could potentially find the right radio wave to thwart the Spokane system, they were hard pressed to crack the Illinois designers’ radio code.9
            By the 1940s, consumers also turned to garage door opening schemes like that of the Chicago-based Era Meter Company’s “Drive-Rite-In.” It opened the garage door via a key-operated post at the end of the driveway.10 But for the most part, these and other devices were largely aimed at making it easier for the driver to enter the garage.11 Whether detached, semi-attached, or attached, garages often had separate entry doors with glass windows, making it very easy to break in.
            After World War II, attached garages became common features of the typical American suburban home.12 The 1960 US Census enumerated garages for the first time. With advances in technology, garage door openers were also becoming more sophisticated. The key system was abandoned for electronic garage door openers. These devices of the 1950s and 1960s used a simple code method that operated the garage door with a push of the remote’s button. However, the remote controls had a “shared frequency”--a garage door was opened by one of five codes--and that was problematic in its own right. With only five codes, a suburban driver could well have the same code as their neighbor. Thus, the goods inside of the post-war suburban garage and indeed even access to the home were easy prey for a criminal.
            By this time, garages were being used as transitional spaces that linked the indoors to the outside. They were refuges for playing music, working on hobbies, storing stuff, washing and drying, and puttering, and driveways were convenient playgrounds for shooting hoops and roller-skating.13 With few exceptions, no one in Middle America locked their garage; to the contrary, garage doors often stayed open day and night.
            However, with crime on the rise during the 1960s and 1970s, many Americans began locking their garages and companies that sold garage door openers began to devise more secure systems. By the 1980s, companies placed dual in-line (DIP) switches that sent between 256 and 4,096 codes from the remote control to the garage door opener. Criminals were still able to hack this system, however, by trying multiple codes on a regular transmitter or using code grabbers to attempt every possible combination in a short period of time. It was not until the late 1990s that garage door opening systems used “rolling codes” that changed with each opening of the door, making it almost impossible for thieves to reproduce the code.14

            With the progressive changes in garage door technology and loss of innocence associated with leaving the garage door open all night, the garage and its contents became relatively safe from theft. Automobile insurance underwriting recognized the effectiveness of the changes in stemming auto theft. Though the individual home and garage could provide significant protection against auto theft, for some this was not enough. For those who needed even more assurance, gated communities that were walled off from the rest of society offered even greater protection from crime, including auto theft, and their appeal has grown from the 1990s to the present.

Olympian Automobiles of the 1930s: Duesenberg, Auburn, Cord, Pierce Arrow, Cadillac, and others

This is Gary's 1930 Model J Duesenberg. It was the finest American luxury car money could buy.

Cord 810
Olympian Automobiles of the 1930s
            The Great Depression was replete with many ironies, none more obvious to those living at the time than the magnificent, extravagant automobiles that were being produced for a privileged few during a time of enormous dislocation. At the very top end of the American automobile market in terms of production numbers stood Packard, which outsold Cadillac. Other prestige cars included Cord, Duesenberg, Franklin, Lincoln, Marmon, and Pierce-Arrow. These marques reflected an Olympian Age in automobile history. The best of these makes included the Cadillac V-16, the Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrows, the Auburn boat tail speedster, the coffin-nose Cord, and perhaps the most publicized vehicle of that type and era, the Duesenberg SJ and SSJ.4 They were opulent, shiny, large, and stunningly beautiful. And they performed. Unlike today, where performance is measured in 0-60 acceleration times and top speed, cars like the Cadillac V-16 were judged by their ability to accelerate in high gear from 5 to 25 mph. It was performance criteria that weighed the most with luxury buyers, who were unconcerned with the V-16’s top end of 87 mph or its 9-10 mpg.5
            The Duesenberg Models J, SJ, and SSJ were the most glamorous cars that one could own during the early 1930s; the cheapest J sold for 20 times the price of the least expensive Ford Model A, with prices typically between $13,000 and $20,000 when custom bodywork was added to the powertrain and chassis. The phrases “he drives a Duesenberg” and “the world’s finest motorcar” said it all during the Great Depression. Duesenbergs were long, low, powerful, beautiful, and often open. One wonders what a displaced sharecropper thought when standing beside the road and seeing one of these cars passing by. It was the car that many Americans, no matter how down and out at the time, aspired to own. The Duesenberg was the ultimate idol in a culture that increasingly worshipped things, especially the automobile. Right or wrong, they were one important scene in the American dream of that era, much like a Lamborghini, Ferrari, or Bentley today.
            And appropriate to the American dream, the Duesenberg came out of Midwest farm soil. The Dusenberg brothers, Fred and August (Augie) were born in Lippe, Germany during the 1870s and grew up in Iowa. They first made a reputation in bicycle racing between 1897 and 1899, briefly made bicycles, and added a motor to one of them. They moved to Des Moines, where they founded the Iowa Automobile and Supply Company and modified cars for country fair races. Their success with a two-cylinder engine named the Marvel gained the attention of local attorney and financial backer Edward R. Mason. In 1904, the brothers then began making the Mason car, “The fastest and strongest two-cylinder car in America.” Later, the Maytag family purchased the company, moved it to Waterloo, Iowa, and changed the name of the car to Maytag-Mason. Regarded as poor businessmen but mechanical geniuses, Fred and Augie were gradually marginalized at Maytag-Mason. In 1913 they moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where they made small, high-speed engines, eventually producing marine engines for the Navy during WWI. In 1920, the operation moved to Indianapolis, where shortly thereafter, the first Dusenberg car, the Model A, was manufactured. In a 1922 ad, the Dusenbergs proclaimed that the Model A was “Built to outclass, outrun and outlast any car on the road.” The Dusenberg quickly developed a reputation for racing prowess. It was the only car ever to win the French Grand Prix, doing so in 1921, and it won the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925, and 1927.
            The Dusenberg models that followed were not only the reflection of Fred and Augie’s genius, but the result of a heated rivalry between the brothers and perhaps Americas’ the most talented automobile engineer ever, Harry Armenius Miller.6 Miller, one year younger than Fred Duesenberg, was also a product of the Midwest, in this case Wisconsin. Like the Duesenbergs, Miller would also prove to be a poor businessman who entered the automobile industry via the fabrication of racing bicycles. During the 1920s, Miller, based in Los Angeles, made major innovations in racing engine design, including the use of the supercharger and front wheel drive. Racing pushed both groups towards bankruptcy, but before the decade ended, Miller cars won four Indianapolis 500s and set a land speed record of 171 mph.
            In 1926 Errett Lobban Cord acquired Dusenberg, and plans were soon underway for what became the Model J, a car that was to be better than anything the Europeans could make. The Model J finally appeared in 1929, and its debut resulted in many superlatives. Above all, it was rolling sculpture. The J was nearly 20 feet long, with a prominent radiator and a sensuous rear. Its exterior hid what was the heart of this vehicle, a huge 7-liter double overhead cam straight 8, with four valves per cylinder and numerous aluminum components. The J was the car of the moneyed and mighty, and the ultimate status symbol. It has been claimed that the phrase “It’s a Duzy” was coined, a connotation that was a tribute to anything superb. Careful scholarship, however, suggests that the term, with a slightly different spelling, was in use prior to the Duesenberg’s appearance on the automotive scene.7 Whatever the issue about word, perceptions and desires related to the Duesenberg are far more important. Two of Hollywood’s greatest stars of the era, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, bought short wheelbase Duesenberg roadsters (SSJ’s) in 1935, and their photographs standing next to their cars belied the immense suffering of many Americans during those desperate times.
            The J was produced between 1929 and 1936, and it was complemented by the Model SJ, introduced in 1932, a supercharged version that contributed to the some 36 Dusenberg speed records, including the 24 hour world’s record run of 1935 in which a 400 horsepower car averaged 135.47 mph, with one lap timed at over 160 mph on a 10 mile oval at the Bonneville, Utah salt flats. Dusenbergs were a prime example of the technological sublime, and remain one of the most desirable of all collectible cars in America.8
            The Duesenberg was only one of Errett Lobban Cord’s ventures during the 1920s and 1930s.9 A one-time used car salesman, Cord rose meteorically during the early 1920s to become one of America’s leading business figures (he was twice on the cover of Time), and directed companies that manufactured in addition to the Duesenberg, the Auburn Boat-Tailed Speedster and the Cord 810 and 812.10 Despite Cord’s contributions to the introduction of some of the most innovative automobiles of the twentieth century, he cared and knew next to nothing about automotive engineering. Perhaps this is key to developing an understanding of why his influence was short-lived, but he did correctly perceive that style and innovation were most significant to car sales once the Model T had had its run. As a stock manipulator, he had little interest in his cars once they were introduced. Indeed, in his drive to release startling new designs so as to whip up consumer interest, insufficient time was spent in ensuing product quality. Consequently – and it should be no surprise – his automobile empire crumbled in 1937.
            While Cord’s business success increased Auburn sales during the 1920s, like many others of that day he wanted to put his name on something of value. He did so in 1929 with the introduction of the Cord L-29, America’s first front wheel drive car made in substantial numbers. In a brochure authored by Cord to entice customers, Cord wrote “The Cord car is a specialty car, different from others . . . Being the very latest automotive development however, it creates an entirely new place never before occupied by any other car.”11 The Cord L-29 drew on the innovative technology developed by Harry Miller and allowed the body of the car to be significantly lower than comparable models that employed rear-wheel drive. It was introduced in the summer of 1929, however, absolutely the wrong time for an unproven design to hit the marketplace given what would happen to the American economy later that year. Despite weak sales of the L-29 after 1930 and the fact that the Auburn Automobile Company never profited from the sales of this model (approximately 5,600 were manufactured between 1929 and 1932), Cord was undeterred in building an empire that included not only automobile manufacturing but also Lycoming engines, Century Air Lines, Century Pacific Airlines and Spencer Heater Company.
            In 1934 Cadillac and Pierce-Arrow introduced aerodynamic coupes, and in response, Cord charged a small group of underfunded designers to respond. What crystallized was the Cord 810 (a supercharged version would be later manufactured, the Cord 812). Compared to the common cars of the era, the Cord 810 had the appearance of a vehicle from Mars.12
            Designed by Gordon M. Buehrig, perhaps the most talented American automotive designer of the twentieth century, the “Coffin Nose” Cord 810 was a brute with personality.13 Among the innovations of the 810 were front wheel drive, the first practical independent front suspension, an “alligator” hood free of chrome trim, fingertip shift, concealed headlights, step down frame and body arrangement, v-shaped windshield, smooth, aerodynamic back, and pontoon fenders. The 810’s aircraft-like instrument panel was stunning, made even more attractive by its soft lighting. Buehrig had taken the many cutting-edge contemporary styling ideas and combined them in what can only be regarded as a remarkably beautiful car. Further, to develop this design, Buerhrig, working with Dale Cosper, designed and built clay modeling equipment at Auburn that was used for the first time in making a one-quarter scale model that was extremely accurate. It made the scale-up to working prototype possible in a shorter period. This table-top device would become the industry standard to at least to the 1950s.
            More than two thousand Cord 810s were made during the mid-1930s, and the car could perform. Its 175 horsepower engine would propel the 810 at more than 112 mph, a stock car record until 1954. It was described as “decidedly unconventional and “born and raised on a highway,” but by 1937 its production run ended with the closing of the doors at the Auburn Automobile Company. Years later Gordon Buehrig would reminisce and attempt to answer the question of why the Cord 810 ultimately failed. He claimed that it was such a radical design that more time was needed to develop and refine it before it was introduced to the market. However, E. L. Cord impatiently rushed the car into the market, displaying the car at the New York Auto Show only five months after the prototype was built. Just as people can fall in love with a car, so too can they fall out of love, especially when that car lets its owner down on the side of the road. As Buehrig recalled, the Cord’s steering shimmied, its front white walls were covered with grease (due to the improper application of grease to the universal joints), its engine overheated, the transmission would jump out of gear, and few mechanics were bold enough to work on the car. The Cord 810 was cutting-edge technology not taken to completion.14

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Great Depression and the American Automobile Industry: An Introduction

In late October 1929, the Prosperity Decade of the 1920s came to an abrupt end. Stock prices collapsed, banks failed, businesses closed their doors, unemployment lines grew, and some committed suicide. There have been many explanations of why the Great Depression took place, including analyses that point to excessive stock speculation, depressed agricultural prices, and adverse monetary policy. Certainly the automobile industry figured into this prominently event. James Flink, in his Automobile Age, squarely places the automobile at the heart of the reasons for the downturn. Flink writes, “mass motorization played a key role in creating the most important necessary conditions underlying the Depression. The steep decline in aggregate spending evident by the late 1920s then, can be shown to have resulted from the economic dislocations that were an essential ingredient of the automobile boom, and from the inevitable drying up of that boom.”1 Said another way, the industry had over-expanded, the market had become saturated, and, as it contracted, this leading sector pulled the economy downwards.
            The impact of the Depression on automobile production can be gleaned from Table 5, which shows General Motors annual production figures:
Table 5. General Motors Unit Sales By Divisions
Calendar Year
Source:  Alfred P. Sloan, My Years with General Motors (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Company, 1964), 446-7.
            Of more than 1,000 automobile manufacturers that had been active between 1900 and 1930, only 19 were in business in 1931, selling about 40 models of cars.2 At the bottom rung were the cheap cars – Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth – selling for about $600. One step up were makes that included Pontiac, Dodge, Oldsmobile, Essex, Willys, DeSoto and Graham. The middle market segment was led by Buick, followed by Chrysler, Nash, Studebaker, Hudson, Hupmobile, Oakland, Willys-Knight, and REO. Upper-middle-class vehicles, which were priced between $1,800 and $2,500, were sold in much smaller numbers. For example, it was estimated that La Salle would add only 6,400 new registrations in 1931. Other cars in this class included Marmon, Franklin, Cord and Peerless, with the Jordan and Kissel already in receivership. Finally, Packard led the sales of the very top-of-the-line marques, with Cadillac in second place, Lincoln in third and Stutz and Duesenberg minor players. By the end of the decade of the thirties, this list would be considerably pared down, as times were so hard that the replacement cycle of the 1920s was significantly extended. For many, their only option was a used car.
            In 1931, Boss Kettering thought that the Depression was due to “boredom.” In his opinion, not enough new products had entered the market. That insight was ironic, perhaps, given that Kettering was the chief of a large research laboratory that was a part one of the world’s most powerful firms, and that its task was to develop the “new new” thing. There may well be truth, however, to Kettering’s perceptions. According to James Flink, the drop in demand due to over-production and market saturation was bad enough, but during the 1930s the industry entered a phase of technological stagnation that led to few major changes in the product or how it was made. In sum, the technologically dynamic industry of the 1920s gave way to a conservative one with no real gains in productivity. Flink claimed that:
By the late 1920s no manufacturing innovation was in sight of comparable importance to the continuing strip mill for rolling sheet steel or the continuous process technique for manufacturing plate glass, much less anything that could have the impact on investment in new plant and equipment that the moving assembly line had a decade earlier . . . Increasingly into the 1930s new investment in the automobile and ancillary industries was stimulated more by the demands of planned obsolescence and the dictates of style than by the basic innovations in automotive and manufacturing technologies.3

            Flink’s argument centered on the premise that 1930s was a decade characterized by continual refinement of the automobile as a technological system rather than radical changes. One may challenge this assertion, however. In terms of engine design, for example, Henry Ford’s flathead V-8, introduced in 1932, certainly revolutionized automobile power plants of that era. And there were dramatic changes at the top of the product ladder. Yet, only in a few rare cases did these innovations trickle down to the cars of the common person, and their cheap Fords, Chevrolets and Plymouths.