An Edsel For The 21st Century

An Edsel For The 21st Century

Age is a funny thing. As an example, several years ago I was visiting the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, California where they literally take you for a drive. One of the vehicles on display was an AMC Pacer, a car that had been dubbed the fishbowl when I was working in a used car lot garage back in the mid-1970s. In my mind’s eye that was just a couple of years ago.

So, it was a shock to see cars like a Pacer and Gremlin that I had worked on when they were almost new on display in a museum. Again, in my mind’s eye I was still 20 or 25 years of age but here was glaring evidence that I was of the I Like Ike button, tail fins on Cadillac and Edsel era, and that was a very long time ago.

An even more jarring brush with the passing of time occurred this past spring at the annual Route 66 Fun Run in western Arizona. There amongst the hundreds of vehicles on display, parked in a line of vehicles that included a battered 1929 Ford AA truck, a couple of 1960s Corvettes, a beautiful 1955 Mercury convertible and a pristine Plymouth Volare was a Saturn S1 coupe.

Now, since the trip to El Segundo, I have slowly been able to accept the fact that a Volare is now considered a classic vehicle. But a Saturn? To say the very least it was a bit disturbing to see this little coupe sporting historic vehicle plates.

A milestone on the path to adulthood is acceptance of the fact that taxes and death are an inevitable part of life. A milestone on the path to maturity, and learning to simply enjoy a simple life, is acceptance of the fact that times change.

Every aspect of Route 66 in 1930 was dramatically different from the Route 66 or 1950, or 1960. I am not quite as old as rope but daily it becomes more evident that I am mere months away from being viewed as a relic. In 1990, I cranked out my first professionaly written feature article on a battered 1948 Underwood typewriter with a “t” key that stuck at the most inopportune times. A majority of my research was accomplished with a typed letter, an envelope, a stamp, and a long wait, and visits to the library. A research trip that took me out on the road required a pocket full of change as the pay phone was my best friend.

Research for an upcoming presentation about the dark side of life in territorial Arizona during the closing years of the territorial era and infancy of statehood was the catalyst for these thoughts. As I was perusing newspaper archives in search of stories for the program, little details in articles led me to taking notes unrelated to the poject at hand. I have little doubt that that these notes will morph into other stories at some poinit in the future.

As an example, who was Jim Hendrickson? The sparse details in his obituary piqued the imagination.

How did a man born in 1845 adapt to the world of 1912? He was a Civil War veteran that had arrived in the Arizona territory in about 1869. He had been a teamster in the Mojave Desert, and survived two attacks by Native Americans that were battling what they saw as invaders. In one of those skirmishes Jim Hendrickson was wounded and left for dead.

Apparently he was a moderately succesful rancher, and itinerant prospector. He had once been married but his wife had died in childbirth. And when he died of bronchitis in Los Angeles, he was on a business trip. He was looking into securing an agency to sell shiny new Maxwell automobiles in Kingman.

Hendrickson had traveled across the continent on foot and by horseback. He had witnessed the transition from steamboats on the Colorado River, and arduous travels across the harsh deserts, to railroads and even automobiles. He had been a part of an unprecedented migration, and played a role in the transformation of a sparsely inhabited wilderness into a modern world of towns and cities with electric lights.

This photo of the first Packard dealership in Kingman is courtesy the Mohave Museum of History & Arts.

Thoughts of Mr. Hendrickson were the seeds that sprouted as an episode about the rise and fall of Saturn on Car Talk From The Main Street of America, a Jim Hinckley’s America podcast. Those thoughts were also an opportunity for me to consider the changes that I have witnessed, my ability to adapt, and to speculate on what the future might hold for a man born in the era of the Edsel.

Times change. Learn to adapt, develop a fascination for new technologies, make friends of all ages, enjoy lively conversation with people who have a different world view, and limit the amount of time you spend strolling down Memory Lane.


Visionary or Eccentric?

Visionary or Eccentric?

The line between visionary and eccentric is often one that overlaps. Among the many things that make the formative years of the American automobile industry fascinating are manifestations that blur that line.

On the visionary side of that line would be the optional swing away, electrically heated steering wheel available on the 1917 McFarlan. An example of the eccentric side would be the exceedingly odd eight-wheeled Octauto, or six-wheeled Sextoauto, devised by Milton O. Reeves.

Straddling the line would be the automobiles built by Benjamin Briscoe in Jackson, Michigan. The 1914 Briscoe models sported a single Cyclops headlight mounted dead center in the upper radiator shell and featured laminated papier-mâché body panels on wood framing “to ease with repair.” The 1916 models were sold with four cylinder engines and a promotion proclaiming, “Buy the Four. Use it a month. If then you decide you want the Eight, simply pay the difference and a small installation fee.”

Often, what appears as manifestations of eccentricity today was representative of innovative technology during the first decades of the industry.  Promoted as, “The Friction Drive Car” was the 1907 Lambert, a vehicle that capitalized on the patented developments of Byron Carter.

Carter’s Cartercar received rave reviews from the automotive press and was the vehicle heralded as the future with promotion billing that proclaimed, “The car of a thousand speeds!” The companies’ slogan was, “No Clutch to Slip, No Gears to Strip.” Lambert and Cartercar were not the only automobiles to utilize the intriguing system devised by Carter. Other manufacturers included Metz, Petrel, Simplicity, and Sears.

For a very brief moment in time, the friction drive system with its paper fiber transmission rims seemed to represent the future of automotive engineering. Exemplifying this would be the purchase of the Cartercar Company by William Durant, the founder of General Motors, in 1909.

Then there are those innovations that simply defy any semblance of reason, even in the context of the times when built. Case in point; the 1913 Duck, a four-passenger touring car with the drivers’ seat being in the rear of the car!

The speed of technological advancement during this period quickly relegated the visionary developments of one year into a manifestation of eccentric oddity the next. In 1911, compressed air starters were among some of the most innovative options available on luxury automobiles. The McFarlan of 1912 offered an in house designed and built unit as standard equipment. This system was operated by a four cylinder Kellogg pump and a pressurized canister that stored air at 200 pounds of pressure.

In 1912, Cadillac advertisement promoted the new models as, “The Car That Has No Crank.” By 1914, the electric starter introduced by Cadillac two years previously had rendered the automotive compressed air starter system an historical artifact.

Often the innovative features of an automobile became its claim to fame in advertisement and promotion. Here too, the transformation of a company’s image from innovative to quirky happened quickly.

The Premier of 1918 was “The Aluminum Six with Magnetic Gear Shift.” Two years later the company that had manufactured automobiles featuring overhead valves, sliding gear transmissions, and shaft drive in 1904, was in its death throes. The troublesome magnetic gearshift proved to be the companies undoing.

The hill climbing prowess of a Cartercar is put to the test.

On occasion, visionary and innovative thinking leapt ahead of the technological capabilities of the time. The first automotive recall in the United States, and the development of leaded gasoline, stemmed from of an engineering equivalent of getting the horse before the cart.

The air-cooled Chevrolet debacle of 1923 began with experimentation by Charles Kettering, the innovative genius behind the development of the electric starter that appeared on the 1912 Cadillac.  It culminated with a rush to production fueled by a power struggle for control of General Motors.

Perhaps the most intriguing technological innovations from the formative years of the industry are those that were literally decades ahead of practical feasibility. The Woods Dual Power of 1916 was a hybrid featuring many of the engineering principles found on the Prius.

The first automotive endeavors of Studebaker were an electric powered vehicle designed by Thomas Edison. The initial offering by Knox in 1902-featured finned cylinder jugs that facilitated air-cooling, which were uncannily similar to those that appeared on the Volkswagen Type 1.

To be a visionary or eccentric requires independent thinking. From that perspective, during the formative years of the American automobile industry independent thinking reigned supreme.