Friday, November 25, 2016

Thoughts on Doing Recent Automotive History

A large percentage of what might be called “buff” automotive history focuses on one particular model or brand. This work goes into extreme detail and satisfies hobby car owners who relish pointing out subtle features and alterations. However, examining an automobile’s history without placing it in a critical historical human context is fraught with distortion.  Such an isolated study can become nothing more than an exercise of limited explanatory power and less than satisfying to a broader audience. How do older enthusiasts interest a younger generation who might follow them into the car collecting hobby? Not by writing pedantic books and articles on carburetors and spark plugs.
Integrative forays can prove as wide-angle windows into the human and societal past. For example, probing into how car culture reflects, anticipates, or follows the political, social, and economic environment can lead to powerful explanations about everyday life.  Bringing a large number of varied sources to a story adds dimensionally to any history.  Chronology, location, and deep knowledge about a broadly construed topic matters. It is one thing to write scissors and paste history, yet another just to repackage what others have written without batting a critical eye.

The dynamic structure of the automobile industry, its geographical locus of activities, management-union relationships, assembly line processes, government oversight, market dynamics, consumer preferences, and the products themselves have all changed dramatically during the past thirty-five years. Car culture(s) remains of general interest; but profound generational, regional, social, and economic differences related to the so-called “love affair” with the automobile exist. For example, in the Dayton, Ohio, area where I live, on any summer Friday night gray-haired men and a few of their wives gather around hot rods and cars from the 1950s and 1960s at a defunct car dealership lot.  The next morning a very different group – mostly young people with their wives and girl friends and middle-aged upper middle-class enthusiasts -- meet for cars and coffee at an upscale suburban shopping village to look at tuners, newer sports cars, and a few odds and ends. Further, a large number of urban millenials avoid cars or at least love of the car, altogether.  Having moved back to the heart of Dayton, they find entertainment in the historical Oregon District or downtown, and status in the cell phones they own. Every region and community has its own sui generis car culture, lived out quite distinctively.

Oil Shock Shockwaves: A Brief History of Chrysler and American Motors Corporation during the Late 1970s and Early 1980s

Oil Shock Shockwaves:  Chrysler and American Motors Corporation

1977 Volare

The complex economic consequences from Oil Shocks I and II  hit the Chrysler Corporation and American Motors Corporation particularly hard.[1] Under accountants Lynn Townshend and John Ricardo, Chrysler was at best characterized by uninspired leadership until November of 1978 when Lee Iacocca, recently fired at Ford, came on board. In 1975 Chrysler shut down a number of plants in the U.S., and its European operations, small but not insignificant, were in shambles. Needing to move a massive inventory, Chrysler was the first car company to offer rebates in a commercial aired during the 1975 Super Bowl. Yet at the time Chrysler’s story was not totally bleak: its 1976 Plymouth Volare was awarded Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. It sold well, but later became the most recalled vehicle of its era. And no wonder, since the Volare’s defects included models without a necessary muffler heat shield; failed seat belt retractors; corroded brake lines, and upper control arms separating from the sub-frame assembly.  But what the Volare was most known for, and what brought Chrysler to near bankruptcy, was its non-galvanized front fenders, which quickly rusted away. It was a visual testimony to Chrysler Corporation’s lack of quality products.  And the from also sold the wrong products, as Iacocca later confessed: “The classic mistake was to build all our production on speculation, carry those tremendous inventories and let them get old on us. We weren’t meeting the market – we always had the wrong stuff built.”[2] By 1978 Chrysler was giving away its foreign subsidiaries – British Roots was sold for $1 to Peugeot, and Spanish Barrieros truck operations went to Renault. 
It remained for Lee Iacocca to step in and save Chrysler with government assistance.[3] Preaching equality of sacrifice and accountability, Iacocca asked for concessions from the UAW. On the corporate side, Iaccoca fired 51 of 52 Chrysler vice-presidents, thus eliminating a host of corporate fiefdoms. With a leadership team he brought from Ford that included Hal Sperlich, Iacocca gradually pulled the firm out of its death spiral with popular 1980s products that included the K-Car and the minivan. Iacocca sold these vehicles personally in television ads, and what could have been an economic disaster was at least averted until a second major American manufacturing decline after 2007. In part, Iacocca blamed Detroit’s problems in the early 1980s on Japanese imports and preferential tariffs in Japan, and to that criticism the Japanese cleverly responded by erecting transplants in the U.S.

a dorky K-Car

American Motors Corporation was hardly any better off than Chrysler by the mid-1970s.  In 1975, AMC followed up on its relatively successful Gremlin with the fishbowl looking Pacer, a car that was slow, heavy, and got poor gas mileage. Its Jeep brand kept the company going, but AMC’s Kenosha plant was old and outdated. In 1978, 1976 AMC cars were the subjects of a massive pollution control recall that was costly and further tarnished the brand.
A large percentage of AMC was sold to Renault in 1982 (22.5%) and 1983 (49%).  American consumers were now offered the AMC Alliance, a reworked Renault 9. Stories of the Alliances’ poor quality abound, as tears were shed then and laughter now. The end came in 1987, with Jeep being sold to Chrysler; the last AMC Eagle left the Kenosha plant that same year. What remained was the Detroit Big Three, and it was not so big given the onslaught of Japanese and German brands. While European markets were largely inaccessible to the Japanese, American politicians, including President Jimmy Carter, had looked the other way to the Japanese and their unfair trade practices. The French had not been so kind to the Japanese, who moved quickly to exploit American markets. In the end it was the French who picked up some of the pieces of the American industry after the economic storm of the 1970s and early 1980s had done its damage.

[1] Steven Parissien, The Life of the Automobile (New York: St. Martins, 2013), pp. 285-7; Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press,  2010), pp. 254 ff..
[2] “Why Bail Chrysler,” U.S. News & World Report, 87 (December 17, 1979), 64.

[3] Lee A. Iacocca, with William Novak, Iacocca, an Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984).

History of the New Model Year and Model Change

This article is from the Chicago Tribune and appeared in this morning's Dayton Daily News. I do not know either of the historians quoted but found the article fascinating and factual.

Automakers use the model year to distinguish new vehicles that feature the latest updates in technology, styling, creature comforts and options.
But why are new models born in the future, with model year 2018 vehicles introduced in 2016, for example?
Finding the answer is like finding Waldo.
There are a variety of theories on who or what initiated the model year. While Henry Ford helped create the auto industry in the early 1900s, a tip of the hat goes to the nation’s farmers for playing a role.
“The automotive model year started back in the teens. Farmers would harvest their crops and sell them every fall, and that’s when they had enough cash in their pockets to go out and buy a car. And that’s how the model year started, and eventually that’s how the fall introduction of new cars started,” said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst and historian in Boston.
Also contributing was weather.
“In the early days, assembly plants in Northern states had trouble with lighting and heating in the winter months,” says Bob Kreipke, Ford Motor Co. historian, “so they mostly produced in the summer months and then put the cars out for sale in the fall.”
Following World War II, the industry settled on Oct. 1 as the start of the model year, Wolkonowicz said, and it was subsequently recognized as the time new cars and new features arrived annually.
“The new model year in the ’50s and ’60s was designed to bring excitement in cars. Cars were shipped to dealers covered in canvas tarps, and dealer showroom windows were painted over to hide the cars until preview night. Dealers had parties in their stores on the night the new cars were shown for the first time,” Wolkonowicz said.
Thus the end of the year felt like a new year for cars.
Another factor that influenced the annual model change was federal safety, emission and fuel economy mandates in the 1960s and 1970s that forced automakers to not only focus on new technology and innovation, but on the timetables set to meet them. As government regulations increased, development costs skyrocketed.
“The cost of regulations is one reason the model cycle (from introduction to a replacement version) moved from what had been three years to what has become five to six years. And it’s why there aren’t as many new cars introduced each model year today as there had been in the past,” said Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends, a research and consulting firm.
The three-year model cycle meant modest changes and upgrades in each of three consecutive years before the vehicle was replaced with a totally redesigned next generation successor that prompted consumers to buy again. Critics called it “planned obsolescence” motivated by the desire to make lots of money.
“The industry needed time to develop the items to meet the regulations, because it takes more time to install a rearview camera than it does to simply add a tail fin,” said Kreipke, in defense of the longer model cycle. “The industry also needed longer time to make money on the vehicles after adding costly government-mandated systems. With a three-year cycle you wouldn’t reach break-even on the cost of regulations in three years. There’s a saying in the industry that the first vehicle off the line costs $20 million, and it takes at least three years to get that down to $20,000 so you can make some money.”
Since photos of new model year vehicles appear in magazines and newspapers, as well as being seen in person at auto shows months beforegoingonsale,thenewmodel year has lost some thunder but still attracts a special breed of buyers.
“There are buyers who purchase a new car at the start of the model year to be first with the newest before anyone else — like their neighbors,” said Phillippi. “This is why cars in showrooms at the start of the model run are loaded with all the options, because the industry knows the newest buyers are the type who will step up to pay to get the car first.”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Cadillacs and Cats: Happy Thanksgiving

Best wishes to all for the best Thanksgiving ever!


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Trabi Limo in Berlin

Another photo from Ed's recent trip to Europe.  No real Trabi  from the factory ever had alloy wheels.  And  the paint job is just too good! Well you have to cater to the tourists. I wonder if it had a Trabant engine?

"Old Car" Taxi in Prague

Ed Garten just got back from Europe and sent me these kit car taxi photos taken while he was in Prague. Anything for  buck!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A New Book: "Mercedes-Benz SL – Six Decades of Fascination"

"Mercedes-Benz SL – Six Decades of Fascination" is the title of a new book on the iconic model series of the Stuttgart-based brand. The book is published by Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart. Running to 528 pages, it provides in-depth information on every SL from 1952 through to the current 2017 model year. With over 800 photos (some previously unpublished), comprehensive tables and complete descriptions of all SL special models, it is a sumptuous textbook and reference work. An online link also gives access to promotional films and brochures. The book is now available at a price of 69 euros.
Stuttgart. "On 6 February 1954, Mercedes-Benz caused a worldwide sensation with the unveiling of the 300 SL," writes Ola Källenius, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, in the foreword. "Developed from the 1952 racing car of the same name, the 300 SL was in its day the world's fastest standard-production vehicle and was to become the ultimate dream sports car. Its distinctive gull-wing doors, a direct consequence of the innovative space frame, caused just as much of a stir as the car's breathtaking performance."
This was the starting signal for a success story that has endured to this day. The Mercedes-Benz SL is synonymous with the successful fusion of sportiness, comfort, safety and styling. Produced with extensive support from Daimler AG and its archives, the new book from Motorbuch Verlag tells the complete story of the SL from 1952 through to the present day. The work in no way seeks to act as a substitute for existing monographs on the individual SL model series. Its great strength lies in the unity with which it for the first time presents all nine previous model series in one comprehensive book with fascinating photos and detailed information from the company's archives.
Added to this are numerous details on each model series in a form previously unpublished. For example, a glimpse into the design studios of the mid-1960s, when thought was already being given to the successor to the "Pagoda" SL and to a mid-engined configuration as an addition to the SL model range. The chapter on the 107 model series is supplemented by authentic colour photos of motor sport activities with the SLC coupés in the late 1970s. Also with a comprehensive description of all special models and unique specimens of the 129, 230 and 231 model series, the book delivers valuable facets of the SL story in both word and picture.
Authenticity, precision and aesthetics are conveyed by the "tender drawings" prepared by the Mercedes-Benz design department, with a total of over 30 variants documenting the W 194 to R 129 model series.
An additional online link via a QR code or a web link affords access to original brochures on all SL model series as well as to unique film material. The 1952 racing season with Mercedes-Benz's double victory in the famous 3rd Carrera Panamericana? Available as a film, as well as, for example, a glimpse into the production of the 300 SL in Sindelfingen or promotional films on more recent SL model series.
Mercedes-Benz SL – Six Decades of Fascination
Published by: Daimler AG
Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart
528 pages
Large format, 23.5 x 31.2 centimetres
ISBN 978-3-613-03908-7
69 euros
The new standard reference work on the SL is available at bookshops and in the Mercedes-Benz Museum shop as well as online through Motorbuch Verlag ( and the Mercedes-Benz Classic Store (

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Why I Think the Right First Name is Carl Rather Than Karl Benz

Funny how minuscule controversies go on and on, including those amongst automotive historians.  Several years ago I was in Mannheim, Germany and saw this memorial. I imagine if the first name was Carl in piece of stone located in the place near where Benz did his work, it had to be right.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Racing a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL in the U.S. during the 1950s

Open for victories: In 1957, Paul O’Shea driving the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS won the US Sports Car Championship for the third time

In 1956, Paul O’Shea won the US Sports Car Championship for the second time in a row driving the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL touring sports car. The photo was taken in the 1955 season, in which he competed already driving the W 198.

Racing driver Paul O'Shea won his second title as US sports car champion in the 1956 season driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL "Gullwing". When the season ended on 28 December 1956, he was champion in the category "D Production“ and had scored the most points in the National Sports Car Championship of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). He went on to defend his title again the following year, this time driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS, the racing version of the 300 SL Roadster.
Stuttgart. On 23 January 1957, the New York Times reported that Paul O’Shea was awarded the title of "National Sports Car Champion" for the second year running. This was at the same time a triumph for Mercedes-Benz, because since 1955 the racing driver born in 1928 had been competing with works support in the 300 SL production sports car (W 198). The championship title was informally awarded by the news media. The SCCA only honoured the champions in the individual categories. In 1956, O’Shea won the racing class D of the production vehicles ("D Production").
To crown the winner among the champions of the racing classes, the newspapers and magazines counted the highest number of total points achieved by a driver in a season. In 1955, O’Shea became the first winner of the title awarded in this way as part of a PR campaign with 11,750 points, and played a role in making this the most successful season in motor racing for Mercedes-Benz ever. One year later, he scored 10,500 points by season's end. The SCCA confirmed this during the official announcement of the results of the season on 28 December 1956 – it was crucial for being publicly crowned US sports car champion in January 1957. However, German trade publication "auto motor und sport“ already reported after the season's last race in the issue of 24 November 1956 that the "American sports car champion of the year 1955, Paul O’Shea, driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, [...] successfully defended his title again this year".
After publication of the SCCA results, Mercedes-Benz racing manager Alfred Neubauer immediately wrote to O’Shea: "Work on the new USA championship pin for you is already under way“. In addition to other encounters, both knew each other from a visit of O’Shea to Stuttgart: The racing driver visited Mercedes-Benz as a guest from 8 October to 1 December 1956. During this time, he was presented with the championship pin for 1955 from the hands of Professor Fritz Nallinger, the technical director of then Daimler-Benz AG.
During his visit, O’Shea also got to know the Mercedes-Benz Museum as well as the various plants of then Daimler-Benz AG, and travelled to the racetrack in Monza. In addition, at the Solitude track, the US sports car champion presented the new Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster, which was launched in 1957.
Mercedes-Benz backed O’Shea in the US sports car races to promote the sales of the company's sports cars in the important export market. This reflected the maxim that a brand instantly benefits from racing victories by selling production cars ("win on Sunday – sell on Monday“). Accordingly, the representatives of the company closely monitored in what cars the race spectators arrived: At the Cumberland National Sports Car Race on 20 May 1956, Customer Service Inspector Victor R. Gross counted around 100 Mercedes-Benz passenger cars in the parking lot: "They were mostly sports cars.“ Even more impressive was the result of the parking lot analysis of the 12 Hours of Sebring Race on 24 March 1956: "Among the approximately 15,000 cars of the spectators were an estimated 300 or so vehicles of our 300 SL model, plus many hundreds of vehicles of the 190 SL model.“
The correlation between involvement in motorsport and vehicle sales also was a topic in a board meeting of Daimler-Benz on 28 November 1956: "Under the favourable influence of the races“, so the minutes, "sales of our 190 SL model increased from 824 in 1955 to 1691 in 1956.“ This represents a doubling in sales in one year.
The champion second year
Paul O’Shea had a great start to his second season as a driver backed by Mercedes-Benz: On 21 January 1956, the Sports Car Club of America announced last season's winners of the racing classes in the SCCA National Sports Car Championship. O’Shea had won the "D Production" racing class, and just a few weeks later he was informally named US sports car champion by the American motorsport specialist media due to having scored the highest number of points. At almost the same time, racing manager Alfred Neubauer was arranging the vehicles for the current season in Stuttgart: "Due to the good results of our 300 SL sports cars in the races organised by the American SCCA, the Board of Management has decided to sell the two vehicles stationed in America and to send two new 300 SL vehicles to the USA for further use by our central office“, Neubauer wrote on 27 January 1956.
The choice fell on a 300 SL with ivory paintwork and red leather, and a second 300 SL painted silver grey with blue leather. Mercedes-Benz decided against vehicles with aluminium bodywork: The company wanted the works racing cars to remain on a technical par with the American customer-sport vehicles. The two 300 SLs were ready right on time for the important "National Races" on the racing calendar of the SCCA.
The season comes to life in the reports to the parent company in Stuttgart filed by Victor R. Gross. About the Cumberland National Sports Car Race on 20 May 1956, which ended in a one-two-three class victory for the 300 SLs led by Paul O'Shea, he wrote: "O’Shea was particularly praised by many other drivers for his excellent driving technique.“ O'Shea took the lead in last quarter of the 45-minute airport race, followed by his team-mate R.C. "Dick“ Dungan, and Charles Wallace. "As a result, the entire race – especially the first 40 minutes – was led by three Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs, ahead of a Corvette“, Gross reported. It was the first victory of the season for O’Shea.
At the Texan National Championship Sports Car Races in Fort Worth on 3 June, O'Shea scored double points: He secured the overall and the class victory in the third and the fifth race (The Lion’s Club Feature Race) ahead of Charles Wallace. As Gross recorded, the logistics for this competition were amazing by European standards: "Our vehicle was transferred from New York to Fort Worth by land together with our station wagon loaded with spare parts, a distance of about 2760 kilometres. [...] As transpired later at the award ceremony, the two 300 SLs competing in the race travelled the longest way by land.“
At the Beverly National Sports Car Race on 7 July 1956, O’Shea finished second in the overall standings, the 300 SLs again scored a one-two-three class victory in the D Production class. In his report, the Mercedes-Benz representative touched upon the meticulous preparations, among other things: For example, prior to the race, extensive trials were conducted with the 300 SL on a racetrack rented specifically for the purpose of "testing [the] modified air vent with O'Shea, running both clockwise as well as counter-clockwise“.
That such an effort pays off was apparent in the Giant’s Despair Hill Climb in Laurel Run, Pennsylvania, on 19 and 20 July 1956, which O’Shea finished with the class victory: "We were able to set the best time here in the D Production racing class, and were even three seconds faster than the next higher class, in which the Corvette with Dr Thompson held the lead“, Gross wrote.
The Chevrolet sports car developed into a formidable opponent for the 300 SLs that season. This was also demonstrated in the Breakneck Hill Climb National Race on 4 and 5 August 1956: "During the practice day, the times of our Mercedes 300 SL and the Corvette were clearly quite close. There is no need for me to say anything more about all the other vehicles, because they were pretty far behind our recorded times“, the summary reads. The race ended with a one-two-three class victory of the 300 SLs with O’Shea in the lead: "With the victory, O’Shea scored 1000 points [...]. He received prizes for the fastest sports car time and the best-in-class time.“ O'Shea also led the one-two-three class victory of the 300 SLs in the six-hour race at the National Championship Road America Endurance Races in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, on 9 September 1956 (with Phil Hill). And in the International Sports Car Grand Prix of Watkins Glen on 15 September, he again won the D Production racing class.
In all, O’Shea competed in 14 races in 1956. In October, the racing driver clearly led the standings for the informal title of "National Sports Car Champion“ with 10,500 points. Despite winning the last race of the season in Palm Springs, California, on 4 November, Carroll Shelby was unable to wrestle this position away from him.
With that, Paul O’Shea confirmed the high regard Mercedes-Benz had for him for the second year running. An internal report dated 24 July 1956 stated: "Paul O’Shea is fully on our side and has complete control of his vehicle. Also very important is the fact that he uses his head when he drives and observes all signals we give him during the race. It must also be said that he pushes our 300 SL to the utter limit if needed.“
Roll-out of the 300 SLS
Paul O’Shea was supposed to win American sports car races for Mercedes-Benz again in the 1957 season. In this context, Mercedes-Benz also held out the prospect to O’Shea of being hired as a consulting engineer by the US subsidiary of the corporate group. However, the Stuttgart-based company wanted to use the new 300 SL Roadster for the 1957 season, and not the "Gullwing" Coupé. The new car, as Alfred Neubauer reported on 27 November 1956, would no longer start in the D Production class, but rather in the unlimited D Modified class. The reason for this on one hand was that Mercedes-Benz was consequently able to compete in races even before 150 vehicles of this model had been built. On the other, the displacement limits had changed, so that the 300 SL would have had to start in 1957 in the C Production class for vehicles with a displacement between 2700 and 3500 cubic centimetres, whereas in the D Modified category, the displacement continued to be limited to between 2000 and 3000 cubic centimetres.
This gave rise to the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS, a 300 SL Roadster (W 198 II) "specially prepared with a high output and low weight“ (Nallinger). The special versions, of which two were built, weighed just 970 kilograms (production version: 1330 kilograms) and had an engine output of  173 kW/235 hp (production version:  158 kW/215 hp). From the outside, the 300 SLS was identified by the lack of bumpers, a specially shaped cockpit canopy with air intake slot, a slim racing windscreen and a roll bar behind the driver's seat. The plan of the Stuttgart strategists worked like a charm: Paul O'Shea won the title of US Sports Car Champion for the third consecutive time in 1957.