Friday, March 30, 2012

Cali Hot Rods

            There couldn’t be an exhibit about cars in the USA without there being a tribute of some kind to hot rods, those chopped and re-worked bundles of mechanical marvel that youngsters all across the country began making from old used cars throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Even today there is a huge market for custom vehicles.
            On display is a street rod made by John Athan of Culver City, CA back in 1939. While they don’t specify which ‘30s Ford was used, the plaque does point out that he powered it with a Mercury V8 flathead motor. Also according to the exhibit, this is the car Elvis Presley drove in the 1957 movie Loving You.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Need for Affordable Cars

            By the mid to late 1920s, Chrysler saw the need for a more affordable line of automobiles within their stable. Enter, in 1928, the Plymouth. Sold as something of an “entry level” vehicle with a price point below their other brands (Chrysler, DeSoto, and Dodge), the Plymouth became one of the brightest selling cars during the great depression. The 1939 coupe, like the one pictured, was such a success that Plymouth sold over 400,000 of them. Its convertible sister was perhaps the first mass produced drop top in the USA.
            What made the car popular, beyond just the price, was the fact that it was a sturdy ride on a shorter frame with Chrysler’s version of a flathead six giving it plenty of get up and go. There was plenty of room for two and their luggage and so the car became popular with the traveling salesman of the day. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Get Your Kicks

            Get your kicks on Route 66. As part of the overall exhibit, there is a section where a fitting tribute is paid to this iconic motor route that carried so many people west across the country. Running from Chicago to Los Angeles and then on the ocean in Santa Monica, Route 66 became the road many people took when migrating, especially those escaping from the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
            To help present this migration, the folks at the Smithsonian chose to show off a 1929 Oakland sedan. Oakland Motor Car Company started in 1907 in Pontiac, MI but after two years the company was bought by General Motors. Their plan was to slot the Oakland in between the lower priced Chevrolet and the more expensive Oldsmobile and Buicks offerings. For a while it worked but eventually the Pontiac line moved in to take over this price point and the Oakland was totally absorbed as part of that brand.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Driving Cross Country

            The first of our Smithsonian exhibits tells of how physician and businessman H. Nelson Jackson and his mechanic, Sewell J. Crocker became the first to drive across country in 1903.
            Centered on a Ford Model T is an exhibit that discusses Henry Ford’s successful development of mass production. While literally hundreds of people were making cars at the time, Ford, using the newly perfected assembly line system, became the master of this form of manufacturing.
            Produced between 1908 and 1927, the Model T was America’s first affordable motor car. While luxury manufacturers were building machines for the well off, Ford’s Model T became the car of the masses, with a production run of over 15 million.
            Not the quickest or most powerful car in the world, the Model T had a 177 cubic inch inline four cylinder engine that produced all of 20 horse power. But, believe it or not, during the production run it was possible to get Holly carb.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Smithsonian

            Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex. Nestled along the National Mall amid the monuments and landmarks of Washington, DC, the various buildings of the Smithsonian allow visitors the chance to explore any number of interests. While my favorite museum along there is the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum is the one that most interests this blog.
            A wing within that museum is dedicated to America’s various means of transportation entitled “America on the Move.” Part of that is, obviously, dedicated to automobiles. While this isn’t a gallery of amazing and beautiful collector gems, the exhibits are informative in how they go about advancing America’s use of the automobile.
            Personally, I found it quite interesting as to the vehicles they chose to put on display, how they chose to display them, and the story each imparted. In some cases I was delighted with the exhibit, others disappointed but each was fun in its own way.
            Understand, if you are going looking for great cars on display in a museum setting, this isn’t the place to be. If that’s your interest, I found a very thorough list of car museums on Hub Cap CafĂ©’s site (
            If you are interested in a history lesson, over the next few blogs, I’ll be posting pictures and descriptions from some of the automotive exhibits from the American History Museum.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Tiger Roars

            What happens when an American sports car designer gets his hands on a British touring car? A tiger with muscle.
            The Sunbeam Alpine was first marketed in 1959 as a proper road car. A sporty two seater with a four cylinder engine that could top out at 99 miles per hour, the car did surprisingly well at road rallies. Throughout the sixties the car’s engine grew and with it came more speed.
            But while the Mark IV and Mark V versions of the Alpine sported more power it still wasn’t enough for Ian Garrard, the west coast sales manager for Sunbeam parent Rootes Group. Garrard was use to the growing power of American muscle cars and felt that a version of the Alpine could compete favorably.
            In order to get that muscle he turned to iconic sports car legend Carrol Shelby whose team, managing on a shoestring budget, provided a prototype of a new, improved car based on the Alpine frame but with and guts of a Ford V 8 small block engine. In fact, it was a 260 cubic inch, 164 horse power Ford Windsor that fit perfectly inside the Alpine’s frame rails.
            Excitedly Garrard shipped the prototype off to England to be evaluated by the powers that be who quickly decided that this was exactly what they needed to compete in the U.S. market.
            The Sunbeam Tiger began rolling off the lines in 1964 and did a brisk business. Through one update which stepped up to a 289 cubic inch 200 horse power engine, over 7000 Tigers were built. Production ended in 1967 when Chrysler purchased the Rootes Group and determined that they couldn’t possibly sell a car with a Ford power plant. Unfortunately for the Tiger, neither the Chrysler small block V 8 nor its big block version would fit inside the allotted space and so the car was pulled from any future plans.
In the short time the Tiger did roar it made quite a name for itself both on the track (though never as successful as Shelby’s more famous AC Cobra) as well as showing up as the car driven by television’s Maxwell Smart in the series Get Smart.
What was left was a short run of a commercially successful sports car that, if you are lucky enough to see one at a show, is worth checking out. It is a unique blend of British sports car design and feel with American muscle power. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Those Were the Days

            Anyone who saw the old sit com All in the Family remembers the opening credits with Archie and Edith sitting at the piano singing about how they could use a man like Herbert Hoover again. They also remember the line, “Gee our old LaSalle ran great.”
            Those old LaSalles did run great. As something of a companion to the Cadillac under the General Motors badge from 1927 until 1940, the LaSalle was originally designed to fill in the lower end of the luxury market that had been abandoned by the soaring sticker prices of those Cadillacs.
            The coming of the LaSalle in 1927 marked the beginning of the career of the legendary Harley Earl. Prior to the LaSalle new styles were basically a result of engineering need and function. The LaSalle, with Earl’s influence, marked the beginning of modern American automotive design.
            Built by Cadillac to its exacting standards, the LaSalle soon found itself a very popular car. It did so well that Earl was promoted to oversee the design and styling of every GM car. Since the LaSalle used Cadillac’s V 8 engine it had plenty of power. Add to that the fact that it was lighter than its sister line giving it a more sports car feel and the car was fast. In 1927 a LaSalle was driven over 950 miles which achieving an average of 95 miles per hour, only about two miles per hour less than the winner at the Indy 500 that year.
            As the Great Depression came, the LaSalle began to have more in common with the Oldsmobile than with the Cadillac, slipping in between the price points of these two brands. So while it was at the lower end of the luxury range, it was fitting in a place where it should have helped keep that end of the GM line in profits. And it probably would if it hadn’t been for a little competition from Ford’s Lincoln-Zephyr and an independent luxury firm called Packard.
            Despite upgrades and more alignment with Cadillac, the LaSalle, while still doing well, was basically being swallowed by the competition, particularly the Packard. Despite being chosen twice to be the pace car at the Indy 500, in both 1934 and 1937, the LaSalle could not keep up with the rising popularity of the Packard. By the end of the decade the handwriting was on the wall and Cadillac decided to do away with its “companion” marque. After the 1940 models, the LaSalle ceased production. The car pictured in this blog is a 1940 model, looking much like a Cadillac of the time.
            There is left only one question to answer about the LaSalle. Since 1933 the LaSalle had been outselling its Cadillac counterparts. So why did GM make the decision to drop the LaSalle brand and not that of the Cadillac? Was it because Cadillac was the longer standing name that was considered more of a true luxury car? Most likely. The Packard One-Twenty had been going head to head with LaSalle (not Cadillac) and beating it soundly for several years.
            The powers to be at GM decided to hold onto the luxury marque of Cadillac and bury the high mid to low luxury LaSalle, leaving its quality and reliability as a mere memory. “Gee our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Better Is Not Always Best

            Through the Great Depression and World War II, even as the economy suffered and the bulk of Americans were struggling to make ends meet, the luxury car manufacturer Packard was seeing strong sales and even growth.
            As an independent company, Packard had some glowing disadvantages to some of its competition of the time. Cadillac had the rest of GM behind it to prop it up and absorb any potential losses. The same held true with Lincoln with Ford. But where Packard didn’t have a huge company to hide behind, they were also more streamlined and able to adapt and use a single line with interchangeable parts to maintain quality and keep overhead costs down. Packard was also able to adapt rapidly and did so during the Depression, keeping up the high end cars but also introducing some quality cars geared toward the dwindling middle class.
            Like most American manufacturing, Packard turned their assembly lines toward the war effort during the 1940s, making engines for the famous P51 Mustang fighter as well as powerful V 12s for P.T. boats.

            After the war Packard was in good financial shape. But that was to change. While many of the smaller independent companies saw the writing on the wall and started merging to solidify manufacturing and marketing strategies (see AMC and Kaiser-Willys), Packard continued to battle the Big Three from Detroit on their own. Though Packard had been courted by AMC to join up with them then did little more than supply engines and transmissions to them.
            It wasn’t until the early 1950s when they saw the real handwriting on the wall and purchased another noble, reliable manufacturer, Studebaker. Though Packard was a smaller company than Studebaker, they were on more sound financial footing. What Packard didn’t realize at the time was just how bad Studebaker’s position really was.
            The cost of absorbing and propping up Studebaker, a line more geared toward the masses, put a dent in Packard’s armor and caused them to lose footing in the luxury market. By 1959 the Packard name was all but abolished. Studebaker itself didn’t make it more than halfway through the 1960s and as it closed, so closed an important chapter in American automotive history.
            For regular readers of this blog you will realize that I’ve covered numerous Packards. A beautiful 1946 Super Custom Clipper Henney was featured here Also, I’ve written about my friend Dale Schultz and his 1949 Super Eight here
            Here are some more Packard pictures (yes, some of Dale’s beauty) to remind you of the magnificence of this once iconic luxury brand.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Classic Luxury On a Dare

            At one point in time it was considered one of the most exclusive brands in the United States. A person seen driving one had an immediate appearance of success, a high class air that rolled along on 20 inch wheels. This luxury brand actually came about only on a dare.
            Just before the turn of the 20th century, a young engineer was somewhat displeased with the new automobile he had recently purchased. He decided to write a letter to the manufacturer and politely explain his ideas for improving the car. A bit put off by the suggestions of a youngster, the manufacture not only didn’t take any of the ideas into consideration but dared the young man to build a better car.
            It was with this that James Packard, along with his brother and their partner George Weiss set out to do just that. Setting up shop they went to work building what they considered to be a much better car. By 1899 they rolled the first Packard automobile out of their Warren, OH shop.
            The car was an immediate success, sited as being one of the most reliable and well-built machines on the road at the time. The Packard introduced many innovations that today we take as second nature. For example, they developed the modern steering wheel and, along with it, steering mechanism. Over the years many other innovations came, including the first production 12 cylinder engine and the first passenger cars with air conditioning.
            With high quality cars and an endearing reputation among the high end automobile market, Packard pushed through the early years of the 20th century in a very strong financial situation.
            The Packard pictured here is a 1930 409 Convertible Coupe. It was powered by a 320 cubic inch flathead straight eight engine and rolled complete with rumble seat.
            With the next post I’ll take up the Packard story, bringing it out of WW II and detailing what happened to this once highly popular and excellent car line.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Last From the Chariots of the Past

          I hope you have enjoyed these great cars. It was a wonderful show.