The new Tesla Cybertuck debuted to mixed reviews. It was but the latest manifestation of Elon Musk’s eccentric genius and vision. There is, however a question. Was this revolutionary truck a glimpse of the future or was it just plain crazy? Back in 1934 a vehicle that was just as futuristic at the time made its debut and the reviews were even less favorable. And it was also a manifestation of the future as seen through the eyes of a visionary, Walter P. Chrysler.
As with the Edsel, Chrysler launched an extensive promotional and marketing campaign before the public was even given a glimpse of the Airflow. As the new model was the first to be designed with engineering focused on aerodynamics, the company launched a publicity stunt in which they reversed the axles and steering gear of a conventional 1933 model. This allowed the car to be driven “backwards” throughout Detroit. The stunt captured the public’s attention and related advertising campaigns called attention to the fact that most cars were more streamlined in the rear than the front. Promotion also noted that soon Chrysler would introduce the car of the future.
A rare 1937 Chrysler Airflow on display at Dunton Motors Dream Machines in Kingman, Arizona.
The Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow was heavily influenced by the then popular streamlining and Art Deco movements that was influencing everything from hotel construction to radio design. With the exception of costly custom models and special orders from companies such as Duesenberg and Packard, and the Czechoslovakian built Tatra, there wasn’t a car on the road that compared with the Airflow. It was sleek and low, the grille presented a smooth, rounded waterfall look, and headlights were built into the fenders rather than in the conventional design of pods on stanchions or bar that crossed in front of the radiator. In the rear, Airflow models encased the rear wheels through the use of fender skirts adorned with sedate but noticeable chrome accents.
Instead of a the industry standard of a flat panel of glass windshield, on the Airflow two sheets of glass were used in a racked “vee.” All windows used something new, safety glass. And as with the Cybertruck, in a vehicle debut a professional baseball player pitched a ball into a side glass with dramatic results. While most companies were still using a metal attached to wood framing construction method, the Airflow was built entirely of steel which provided superb structural integrity. The car also possessed a better power to weight ratio of most production cars.
The rear wheel fender skirts enhanced the Airflow’s aerodynamic styling.
As with the Edsel, initial models introduced in January 1934 were plagued with numerous problems, many were resultant of the rush to production and others came about because of the significant manufacturing challenges required to produce such a futuristic car. These problems as well as the resultant bad press, and the unconventional styling kept customers away in droves. Only 6,212 units had been produced by May 1934.
Publicity stunts, expensive marketing campaigns, refinements, and positive reviews were of little avail. The Airflow sold poorly, and in 1937 the company discontinued the model. As an interesting historic footnote many attributes of the Airflow would be incorporated in other models and influence automotive design and engineering for decades to come.
Today the Airflow provides a glimpse of the future as seen from 1934. And for the savvy collector that wants a vintage car that can be driven as a modern car, the Airflow is the best of both worlds. Take a look at this video from an Airflow promotion, and see if you are not inspired to take one for a spin.
Organized in early 1927, the U.S. Highway 66 Association was similar in nature to many organizations and businesses established before the creation of the federal highway system to promote roads such as the Lincoln Highway and the National Old Trails Highway. The association had two primary goals; lobby to have U.S. 66 fully paved from Chicago to its western terminus at Seventh and Broadway in Los Angeles, California and the development of marketing initiatives to promote tourism on the highway. The organizations marketing endeavors were so successful, U.S. 66, iconic Route 66, is arguably the most famous highway in America even though it hasn’t officially existed for more than three decades.
A key component in the organizations success was the development of cooperative partnerships with businesses and communities. Many of the challenges faced by the Route 66 community today are the same as those addressed by that pioneering organization more than nine decades ago. So, isn’t it logical to assume that development of a community of partners would resolve issues that range from preservation to marketing, and ensure that the old highway remains vibrant into the centennial and beyond?
The National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma, a stop on our fall tour.
Jim Hinckley’s America is about, well, America. Still at the center of all that we do is Route 66, the Main Street of America. It was never my intent to replicate the original U.S. Highway 66 Association. However, I have volunteered my services to every reputable effort to create a modern incarnation of this entity. And I have developed a multifaceted promotional platform that promotes Route 66 as a destination, a distinct difference from early marketing designed to promote U.S. 66 as a preferred highway for those making a cross country jaunt.
Have no doubts. Today Route 66 is no mere highway. It is a destination. It is, to borrow an adage from author Michael Wallis, a linear community. The problem is that with the exception of passionate travelers affectionately referred to as roadies, few communities or businesses along the highway corridor see Route 66 as a destination.
And so I launched the development of community educational initiatives. Linked with this was creation of a marketing network designed to provide businesses, and communities, with an opportunity to magnify their promotional initiatives regardless of budget. One component was the crowdfunding initiative on the Patreon platform. If five hundred followers of the Jim Hinckley’s America travel programs each contributed as little as $1 or $5 per month, I could purchase needed equipment, keep necessary subscriptions updated, cover some travel expenses and dedicate time for the creation of programs such as the recent Adventurers Club in which I interviewed the president of Route 66 Association of New Mexicoand Texas Old Route 66 Association.
As the concept of creating a pooled resource cooperative evolved I began providing businesses with advertising opportunities for as little as $12.50 per week. With each and every step of development my focus has been on using Jim Hinckley’s America as a venue for the promotion of Route 66 as a destination. I am quite pleased by the comments received from advertising sponsors, major sponsors including the City of Cuba and Grand Canyon Caverns, and most importantly, travelers.
Promotional materials distributed along Route 66
Together, one partnership at a time, we can transform Route 66 into a linear community of partners. Together we can market and promote the most famous highway in America as a destination. So, with that said, can your community or business use a promotional boost?
Old Michigan Avenue near Grass Lake, Michigan. Photo copyright Jim Hinckley’s America
An argument could be made that U.S. 12 in southern Michigan, the former Chicago-Detroit Road and before that the Sauk Trail is the oldest road in America. There is evidence to indicate that its origins were a game trail, a path through the nearly impenetrable forest used by herds of bison. Then it served as a Native America trade route. That trail was used by early French and British explorers, and later American pioneers that came to crave homesteads from the wilderness. Father Gabriel Richard, the Michigan Territory’s first delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, began petitioning Congress to appropriate money for the construction of the Chicago-Detroit Road in 1825. In 1827 a military survey team traveled 263 miles as they designated the course for the new road, and construction crews followed. By 1833, at a cost of $87,000, the road was complete. As an historic footnote, shortly afterwards the road was often referenced as Michigan Avenue.
Remnants of this long and colorful history abound all along U.S. 12 and Michigan Avenue in southern Michigan. One example is Walker Tavern that began life as a large farmhouse in about 1832. As it was located at the junction of the Chicago-Detroit Road (U.S.12) and the Monroe Pike (M-50), Calvin Snell, the owner, began operating the facility as a tavern. In 1838 he leased the property to Sylvester and Lucy Walker, pioneers that had recently relocated from New York. In 1842 the Walker’s purchased the property, renamed it Walker Tavern, and managed it as an inn as well as tavern. It is purported that Daniel Webster and James Fenimore Cooper were guests. Today the tavern is the focal point of a state historic park.
An exhibit at the Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake, Michigan
I never tire of driving this old highway. Aside from the scenery, especially during the months of October when the shade dappled roadway is boarded by brilliant displays of fall color, I find the old towns and villages to be refreshing. As a bonus, even though my association with this historic road dates back more than a half century, I make new and fascinating discoveries on every trip. This year was no exception. A tangible link to the infancy of the American auto industry was found in Jonesville, a nearly forgotten railroad history was discovered at the Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake, and we met a craftsman with extraordinary talents was met at Circus Farm.
Before relocating to Jonesville and establishing a blacksmith shop in 1857, Jacob J Deal had apprenticed in New York. He had also worked with a partner on the construction of carriages, a skill set he put to use in his new home with the manufacture of lumber and heavy wagons. In 1865, Deal sold the blacksmith shop and established a company for the manufacture and repair of wagons, buggies, carriages, and on occasion, a sleigh. In 1887 the company produced 1,200 carts, 300 wagons and carriages and several hundred sleighs. By 1890 the company was prosperous enough to warrant construction of a modern, factory, a red brick building that still stands on West Street in Jonesville.
The Deal on display at the city offices in Jonesville, Michigan is one of only two cars known to exist.
The following year Jacob’s son, George joined the company and it was reorganized as J.J. Deal & Son. Shortly before 1900 experimentation began on a new product, an automobile, and a small number of motorized delivery trucks were manufactured in the years that followed. In 1908, automobile manufacturing became an integral part of the company and as with the wagons, the Deal quickly developed a reputation for being a quality product.
Automotive trade journals and related publications of the era gave the vehicles manufactured by the Deal Motor Vehicle Company favorable reviews. Still, as with many pioneering automobile manufacturing companies, the Deal automobile was a short lived affair. Production ceased in 1911, and wagon manufacturing was suspended in 1915, the year the company closed its doors.
From Barbie doll accessories to automobiles, the fascinating Deal factory in Jonesville, Michigan.
That isn’t the end of the story. In fact there are two more chapters, but these will have to be shared in next weeks post. At that time I will also introduce you to Ken Soderbeck, a man who restores fire trucks, trolleys, and the occasional vintage truck, and take you back to a time when an expansive network of electric interurban railways connected small towns like Jonesville with the main railroad line in Jackson.
Road conditions in the United States during the first decades of the 20th century were less than optimal for use by automobiles. As late as the summer of 1915, Edsel Ford noted in his travel journal that the drive from Williams to Kingman, Arizona, a distance of less than 150 miles required a long, hard drive. “Thursday July 15, Found Cadillac and Stutz crew at Harvey House Hotel at Williams waiting for us. All got supplies at garage. Talked to Ford Agent. Got going about eleven. Had lunch as Ash Forks. Bought some gas and oranges at Seligman. Arrived at Brunswick Hotel, Kingman at midnight. Very rough and dusty roads.”
As a result many automobile manufacturers touted the reliability and off road capabilities of their vehicles rather than promoting creature comforts. The Westcott was “The Car With A Longer Life.” The Allen was “The King of the Hill Climbers.” For the Jackson “No Hill To Steep, No Sand To Deep.”
I kicked off my career as a journalist and author with stories that chronicled the dawning of the American auto industry. In time I found opportunity to blend my passion for Route 66 and adventures on the back roads with the interest in automotive history. The result to date has been nineteen books on subjects as diverse as electrical system restoration on early 1950’s Chevy trucks and ghost towns of Route 66, and several hundred feature articles about equally obscure but interesting historic tidbits. Did you know that the inventor of cruise control was blind?
On display at Ye Ole Carriage Shop in Spring Arbor, Michigan is the oldest existent vehicle manufactured by the Jackson Automobile Company of Jackson, Michigan
There are two pet projects that have simmered on the back burner for many, many years. One is a guide to U.S. 6, an intriguing and fascinating highway with a long and colorful history. It is lined with a stunning array of attractions, historic sites, and scenic wonders. The second idea has been on the burner even longer, since at least 1975. This project centers on Jackson, Michigan, specifically its rich and diverse industrial heritage between 1885 and 1940, and the far reaching connections that contributed so much to the development of the American auto industry.
The recent trip to Jackson rekindled the idea. A number of doors opened, and the one that I thought held the most promise closed. I had hoped that the Hackett Auto Museum project would be the platform for the envisioned book. The blatantly unprofessional management that was manifest when I made my presentation at the former Hackett manufacturing facility dashed that hope. If I had any doubts about my decision to discontinue association, I have recently learned that the roof has yet to be repaired and that their website is down. Even more tragic is the fact that the poorly managed endeavor will result in the loss of this important historic structure.
The headquarters for the former Jackson Automobile Company
Jackson, as with many industrial towns in the Midwest, has lost many of its historic structures in recent years. Still, there are a surprising array of buildings associated with the city’s rich industrial heritage. One of the most outstanding has to be the headquarters and many of the factory buildings from the former Jackson Automobile Company, a manufacturer that operated from 1903 to 1923. There are also some serious collectors and historians that are preserving Jackson’s manufacturing history. One of these is Lloyd Ganton who has collected eighteen examples from the twenty-four manufacturers that were once hardhearted in Jackson. He also has expansive collection of other products manufactured in Jackson including Spartan radios, and a great deal of original documentation including sales catalogs.
His private museum in Spring Arbor, Michigan, Ye Ole Carriage Shop is a sight to behold. Added inspiration for dusting off the long dreamed of project, and moving it to the front of the line was the meeting of a most fascinating archivist. That however, is a story for another day. To get you as fired up as I am, let me leave you with this video tour from Ganton’s stunning museum.