An argument could be made that the great American love affair with road trips began with the bicycle. During the 1890’s the country was consumed with bicycle mania and that included touring. In June 1899, Frank Burtt whose family had made a fortune with an iron foundry and the manufacture of furnaces set out with friends on a bicycling tour from Kalamazoo, Michigan through Ohio and to New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut. In the same year a bicycle club in Grand Rapids, Michigan organized a tour to St. Louis.
I use this decade when a Duryea Motor Wagon, the first production American automobile, was given top billing over the albino and dog boy at Barnum Bailey Circus and the Wright Brothers were manufacturing bicycles as the opening for an exciting and fun filled new presentation I have developed for 2020. It is a program about dramatic societal evolution, fads, corporate intrigue, swashbuckling entrepreneurs, fortunes made and fortunes lost, eccentrics and dreamers and some very colorful characters.
Even though I kicked it off in December 2019, one of the big projects for 2020 is the penning of an autobiography, a darkly comedic tale that is full of odd twists and turns. However, rather than go to print, as I am sure that there will be new chapters to write as 2020 gives way to 2021, and 2021 gives way to 2022, the decision was made to offer it in serial format. I have been providing serials as exclusive content to supporters of our crowdfunding initiative on the Patreon platformfor quite some time. Commencing in late 2018, the entire travel journal from Edsel Ford’s 1915 odyssey was printed in weekly chapters. The autobiography will run for most of 2020.
A presentation on the evolution of Route 66 that will be made in Needles, California
Speaking engagements and presentations are shaping up to be a big part of 2020 for Jim Hinckley’s America. To enhance the engagements I have been given permission to provide attendees with a Route 66 Mother Road Passport from Touch Media, developer of the Route 66 Navigation app, a $10 value. On the 13th of January, I will present a class on the rich cinematic history in Kingman, Arizona, and how that history can be used as a tourism development tool, at Mohave Community College. On the 15th, I speak about lost opportunities, the economics of tourism and how grassroots initiatives can harness tourism as a catalyst for historic business district revitalization. The event hosted by the Route 66 Yacht Club will be held at Calico’s restaurant in Kingman.
On the 7th of February, I take the show on the road with a presentation at the historic El Garces in Needles, California. At this event hosted by the Historic Museum of Needles, I will speak on the history of Route 66 in the southwest from Native American trade routes to Spanish conquistadors, camel caravans, the National Old Trails Road and even the Route 66 renaissance. In June its off to an engagement in Spokane. Meanwhile I am working on filling in the blank dates and developing a speaking tour.
The weekly Five Minutes With Jim audio podcast has been honed and market tested. Now it’s time for syndication and expanded distribution. I so enjoy telling people where to go and have been greatly encouraged by the response to the programs. Last week I shared some interesting tidbits from celebrity association with Kingman, Arizona, and this coming Sunday it’s a program dedicated to wonderful, magical Cuba, Missouri. And then, in response to requests received, I will dedicate a program to evaluating tour companies that specialize in Route 66.
The sun had yet to crest the Black Mountains of Arizona when we made the California border on the recent trip to Pasadena.
It is the dawning of a new year, and a new decade. The year 2019 is on the cusp of becoming history, and 2020 is shaping up to be a year filed with opportunity and possibility. I am quite confident that it will also be a year of shared adventures and road trip, all shared with friends.
Okay, I may be stretching a point here. It may be like making the argument that the wheel bearing is connected to the muffler. Still, technically, the origins of Chevrolet are as an import.
The story kicks off on Christmas day, 1873. The was the day that Louis Joseph Chevrolet was born in Switzerland. By 1900, Chevrolet, and his brothers Arthur and Gaston, had firmly established themselves as very talented mechanics in France. That was also the year that his employer, DeDion-Bouton, sent Louis to the United States to set up a sales and service branch for those automobiles in New York City. His brothers followed shortly afterwards. Five years later the brothers were working as mechanics and developmental engineers for Fiat Motor Company in New York.
It was in the employ of Fiat that Louis began his racing career. His performances and first place finishes in prestigious events such as the Vanderbilt Cup Race provided Fiat with a sales boost, and Chevrolet with national name recognition. In 1905 he bested the legendary Barney Oldfield three times. From 1906 to 1908, after Arthur and Gaston joined the race team, the Chevrolet family garnered international headlines for their racing prowess.
Thanks to the generosity of the Route 66 Cruizers, visitors from the Netherlands had an opportunity to experience a cruise on Route 66 in classic American cars.
Meanwhile, in 1907, the swashbuckling entrepreneur William C. Durant was building an automotive empire named General Motors on the foundation of Buick, a company he had recently acquired. Durant was a master of marketing. So recognizing the value of the Chevrolet name, he lured Arthur and Louis from Fiat to establish a factory race team to promote Buick. Buick sales soared and GM soared, in spite of the economic recession but storm clouds were forming on the horizon. Durant had over extended the company, first with the acquisition of automobile and parts manufacturers, and then in the acquisition of overvalued companies as he competed against Benjamin Briscoe who had used Maxwell-Briscoe as the foundation for the United States Motor Company, a GM type tiered manufacturer.
As a result the GM board of directors pushed Durant from the company. Durant, however, had friends in high places with deep pockets. He also had a reputation for making money and so he set out to establish an all new automobile manufacturing company. First he acquired the Little Motor Car Company and the Mason Motor Car Company. Next he dusted off an engine that Louis Chevrolet had designed in 1909 while employed with GM. Then he facilitated an arrangement with Chevrolet. Now he had a company, recognized name association, and a technologically advanced engine. He also had willing and eager investors. On November 3, 1911, Durant’s fledgling automotive enterprise was reorganized as the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.
From its inception Durant and Chevrolet were at odds about the direction of the company. Durant wanted to manufacture a low priced car to compete head to head with Ford, and to use the company as the means with which he would regain control of General Motors. Chevrolet wanted to build a more prestigious vehicle that was fast, a sports car in the luxury car price range. In 1914, Louis left the company but Durant remained in control of the enterprise as well as the Chevrolet name.
Durant used Chevrolet as a basis for a series of complicated corporate maneuverings and stock swaps to regain control of GM in 1918. Shortly afterwards Durant repeated previous failures, over leveraged the company and was forced form the company by the board of directors. Chevrolet remained as a GM division.
There are two more chapters of note in the early history of Chevrolet. After Durant was forced from GM in 1920, the board of directors set out to salvage the company. The first step was evaluation of company assets and recommendations for the trimming of dead wood. The Chevrolet division was added to the chopping block but at the eleventh hour Alfred Sloan Jr., executive vice president, intervened. Then in 1922, a radical new air cooled Chevrolet resulted in the first automotive recall. Once again the decision was made to cull Chevrolet from GM and once again Sloan intervened.
The rest, as the old adage says, is history. Chevrolet would continue as an important component in the success of GM. It would also evolve to become an American icon forever linked with apple pie, hot dogs and patriotism.
This old hotel in Cuba, Missouri is a tangible link to an era when the railroad, not Route 66, funneled travelers into town. Joe Sonderman collection
The old hotels are just one block off of Route 66 in Cuba, Missouri. Few travelers or enthusiasts give more than a passing glance to the forlorn looking old structures, and fewer still are aware of their rich history or their link to classic Hollywood. If Terry West has his way that will be changing soon and the old hotels will once again be meeting the needs of travelers with their transformation from blighted relics to shining gem.
The Hotel Cuba at 66 E. Main Street is a railroad hotel that was built in 1915. At that time the depot was located across the street. An addition and remodel occurred in 1926 and the property was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2014. It initially opened as the Palace Hotel. The designation of state highway 14 as US 66 in 1926 and ever increasing flow of traffic led to the properties remodel and upgrade. Surprisingly, even though the hotel was having to compete with more modern motels and auto courts such as the Wagon Wheel Motel, it continued to be a favored stop for travelers. As as the property began to fade and show its age it remained in operation as a hotel into the early 1970’s. Then it was converted into apartments. In late 2009 an apartment fire resulted in extensive smoke damage, condemnation and a question pertaining to the economic feasibility of renovating the property which gave rise to discussion about demolition.
The Southern Hotel is a railroad hotel of similar vintage. It has a Hollywood connection. In 1948 Bette Davis stopped at the restaurant in this hotel. The then 19-year old Wilbur Vaughn had attempted to take the Davis’s photo but was prevented from doing so by here traveling companion. So the enterprising young man simply waited outside the restaurant on that rainy evening, snapped a quick photo as she stepped out and managed to out run her companion by ducking behind a service station and then disappearing into the theater where he worked. That incident was immortalized in mural by Ray Harvey on the Cuba Free Press building.
Terry West at the old Hotel Cuba in Cuba, Missouri
In late 2011 Terry West acquired the Cuba Hotel, and shortly afterwards the Southern Hotel. He gave new life to the Cuba Hotel with an extensive remodel into modern apartments that focused on making this a “green” property. This included the use of solar panels on the roof. The Southern Hotel and restaurant is awaiting renovation. Terry, however, is a dreamer, a visionary with big plans for both properties.
As envisioned the upstairs of the Hotel Cuba will be used for modern apartments. The apartments downstairs will mimic the properties original purpose by providing Airbnb type overnight lodging for travelers. The Southern Hotel is in need of extensive repair and will most likely be phase two of the envisioned project. Plans call for retail space and an event venue for the hosting of events including live music performances. In discussing the future of these old hotels Terry said, “We aim to be a place people can stay, and enjoy all of the amenities, and create a unique experience of staying in a historic hotel, with top quality service.”
The historic Southern Hotel in Cuba, Missouri. Photo the Steve Rider collection
This would include a small cafe with quality farm to table meals, growing some of the food on the property, a farmers market and a health food store. The Southern Hotel would provide local artists and craftsman with a place to display and sell their work as well as offer workshops. The grounds fronting Route 66 would be used for festivals and events.
Completion of these projects would have a dramatic affect on tourism in Cuba. They would also enhance the Route 66 experience and give travelers another reason to see Cuba as a destination and not just a stop.
It is a big dream. But where would Route 66 be without dreams and dreamers? Without dreamers can Route 66 survive into the centennial and beyond.
Out to pasture along Route 66 in western Arizona is this rare Moreland truck. These trucks were built in Burbank, California.
There is a pantheon of automotive pioneers that obtained a dubious form of immortality as the reward for the transforming of obscure concepts and ideas into realities. As with Jello or Kleenex, it is as a brand name that they are remembered while their first names, as well as some of their most astounding accomplishments, are less than historical footnotes. As an example few who drive a Chevrolet give thought to Louis Chevrolet, the contributions that he made toward the development of General Motors, his racing prowess or his headline grabbing performance during the 1914 Desert Classic auto race. Likewise with people who drive a Ford never knowing that Henry Ford helped lay the foundation for Cadillac, that it was the Dodge brothers, Horace and John, who ensured his success, or that Henry pioneered the use of synthetic materials.
The infancy of the American auto industry is a tangled web of intrigue, tragedy, genius, corporate incest, smoky back room deals, and get rich quick schemes. It is also the story of innovation, vision, genius, and eccentricity. As a case in point consider David Buick, the man who gave the world the cast iron bathtub with white porcelain finish, and who, in conjunction with Walter Marr and Eugene Richard, engineered a revolutionary gasoline engine with a valve in head design for marine or farm application in their Jackson, Michigan workshop. This highly advanced engine would serve as the cornerstone for the establishment of the Buick Motor Company in 1903.
In turn, the acquisition of Buick Motor Company was to serve as the foundation for a vast automotive empire named General Motors established by William Crapo Durant. As Durant soared ever higher with each success, David Buick sank lower with each new endeavor and after an endless string of failed enterprises he ended his days as the information desk clerk at the Detroit School of Trades. It was almost as though when his ship came in he was patiently waiting at the train depot.
Eventually Durant would follow Buick on the road to ruin but not before transforming General Motors into an industrial giant, not before loosing control of the company and regaining it through the creation of a company named Chevrolet, or before challenging the dominance of Ford with a company named Durant. In February of 1936, Durant the last chapter of his astounding story was written when he declared personal bankruptcy and shortly afterwards ended his days as a partner in a bowling alley with lunchroom and grocery store.
Durant and Buick were not the only men to flirt with fame and fortune during the heady days when the American auto industry was a swiftly churning blend of gold rush and carnival. Nor were they the only pioneers to become forgotten immortals.
Swiss born Louis Joseph Chevrolet arrived in New York as an agent for the French automobile company, De Dion-Bouton. However, it was as a mechanic for Fiat, and as a driver for the racing team that included brothers Arthur and Gaston, that Louis Chevrolet developed a reputation that garnered international acclaim. It was this notoriety and household name recognition that led William Durant to retain Louis and Arthur for the factory sponsored Buick race team he was developing as a promotional venue. And after loosing control of General Motors for the first time, Durant again hired Louis but this time as an engineer to design an engine that would power a new automobile, one that would carry the Chevrolet name.
This too proved to be a short-lived endeavor, at least for Mr. Chevrolet. Durant had established the company with a focus on using it as as a vehicle for regaining control of General Motors. Louis left the company and his trademarked name in 1914, resumed his racing career, competed against Barney Oldfield in the Desert Classic race from Los Angeles to Phoenix, designed several race cars including the one his brother, Gaston, and drove to victory in the Indianapolis 500 in 1920.
Those who gained the hollow immortality of having their names transformed into a brand were the fortunate few. For men such as Henry Leland, the mists of time obscured their accomplishments and in time they were less than historic footnotes. Leland was a pioneer in precision engineering that had apprenticed under Samuel Colt, the legendary firearms maker, and launched his financial empire with the invention of an improved clipper designed for barbers. As the owner of a precision machine shop in Detroit at the dawn of the auto industry, one of his first automotive endeavors was the design of a new engine for Ransom Olds of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company.
However, before the Leland designed engine could be utilized in what was to be a new and improved Olds, a disastrous fire at the Olds factory made it financially impossible for the company to adopt it and as a result, the company continued production of the highly successful 1902 “curved dash” model. In retrospect, this was a fortuitous turn of events for the American auto industry as the directors of the Henry Ford Company that had hired Leland as a consulting engineer were in need of an engine.
The Henry Ford Company represented Henry’s second attempt at automobile manufacturing. However, as with the first endeavor, backers were seeing little return for their investment and as a result had retained Leland to evaluate the feasibility of pouring more money into the enterprise. Ford was a man possessed of an oversize ego and he was incensed by what he perceived as an affront. Henry Ford stormed from the company after demanding a cash settlement and that his name be removed from the company. Undaunted the directors reorganized the company under a name associated with Detroit’s founding, Le Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac, and utilized the engine designed by Leland.
J Walter Christie pioneered the use of front wheel drive in the development of his race cars. Who remembers Mr. Christie today.
Leland would shepherd Cadillac through its formative years, and assist during the transition after the company was acquired by William Durant for inclusion in his newly formed company, General Motors combine. In 1917, after another with William Durant, Leland and his son left General Motors and established a company to manufacture Liberty aircraft engines under government contract. As an historic side note Leland named this company for the first president for whom he had voted in 1864, Abraham Lincoln.
Production had barely commenced when the Armistice of WWI negated his government contract. Faced with mounting debts, seventy-four year old Leland swiftly transformed his factory, and reorganized the company, to produce automobiles. Attesting to Leland’s reputation for quality workmanship, attention to detail, and honesty is the fact that $6.5 million dollars of common stock in the new company was subscribed within three hours of it being placed on sale. As it turned out Leland’s association with the company was relatively short.
A four wheel drive Hamlin. When was the last time you saw one of these at a car show?
Obsession over mechanical perfection, dated styling, and post war material shortages hindered development as well as production. On February 4, 1922, the board of directors overrode Leland’s objections and placed the company in receivership. The company sold for $8 million dollars to Henry Ford who appointed his son, Edsel, as president of Lincoln Motor Company.
With the passing of time, Leland joined the pantheon of forgotten automotive pioneers. He was, however, in good company as this is the final resting place for many of the giants from the infancy of the American auto industry, men like Benjamin Briscoe, Childe Harold Wills, H.J. Hipple, and Howard E. Coffin to name but a few.
Memories are funny things. They add seasoning to life, and they can be made fresh and vibrant by a song, a smell, a touch, an empty old highway baking under a desert sky, or even an old truck. Such was the case with the drive home from Needles, California after a day spent with the Nissan Canada Route 66 Road Trip.
For the most part I was cruising on auto pilot with a head full of thoughts about the recent project developed for Nissan Canada, a speaking engagement in Needles scheduled for next February that I had arranged earlier that morning, and how a stunning sunrise had filled me with a longing to get home to my dearest friend. Traffic was light but I reigned in the hunger to make time and instead kept the speed in check. Then I saw it, a ’46 GMC out to pasture.
In an instant I was flooded with memories. As I pulled onto the shoulder of the highway there was a brief moment when the line between past and present seemed to blur. The battered old workhorse looked identical to the truck I owned when my dearest friend and I were courting. My ’46 GMC was the truck I drove on our first date. It was the truck that I drove back to the ranch after my last rodeo ride. Most every weekend, to see my dearest friend, I cruised into Kingman from Ash Fork on old Route 66 behind the wheel of that faithful old truck. For a time I was working on a project in the remote old town of Drake, Arizona and that GMC was the only vehicle that could negotiate the quagmire that was the Perksinville Road after a rain.
Once, after a winters storm, I about froze my backside off on a drive to Kingman as the truck didn’t have a heater. It was a challenge to keep the windshield clear of frost on the inside as well as the outside. I can still feel the warmth of the coffee cup in my hand and the taste of a hot bowl of chili at the Truxton Cafe as the chill was chased from my bones.
In all honesty the sunrise had most likely set me in a reflective mood. Finding that old truck kicked it into high gear. The drive home on old Route 66 through the Black Mountains and over Sitgreaves Pass kicked it into overdrive. I have shared a bit of these memories as well as some of the colorful history found along this highway on the Patreon based crowdfunding site where exclusive content is now being posted.
Suffice to say it was quite an emotional day. Mingled among the smile inducing thoughts were those that cast dark shadows. I can’t drive this old highway and not think of my pa as it was on this road that he taught me to ride a bike, to drive (behind the wheel of a ’53 Chevy pick up truck) and to drive heavy trucks (a WWII deuce and a half tanker truck). It was along this road that he taught me a bit of carpentry as we built a garage and house. And it was on this road that my dearest friend and I had some of our first double dates as we traveled to events in Oatman. It was on a drive to Needles with my dearest friend that the idea for Jim Hinckley’s America was birthed.