The Henry Ford mourns the loss of Bobby Unser, who passed away on May 2, 2021. He was a good friend to our organization and, of course, one of America’s most accomplished racing drivers.
Bobby Unser was born into automobile racing. His father and uncles grew up in the shadow of Pikes Peak and competed in the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb race. Bobby’s uncle, Louie, earned nine victories in the contest from 1934 to 1953. Bobby’s father, Jerry, finished third as his personal best, but his sons would go on to dominate at Pikes Peak—and Indianapolis.
Bobby Unser was just one year old when his parents, Jerry and Mary, relocated the family from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jerry opened a service station on Route 66—wisely locating it on the west side of town, so his station was the first one motorists saw after traveling across the New Mexico desert. Bobby and his brothers, Jerry Jr., Louis, and Al, grew up working in the station, living and breathing cars. Not surprisingly, they all caught the racing bug. Jerry Jr. and Louis each competed at Pikes Peak for the first time in 1955. Jerry Jr. won his class twice, in 1956 and 1957. He went on to compete in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, but died in a crash during qualifying for Indy the next year. Louis won his class at Pikes Peak in 1960 and 1961, but retired from competitive driving in 1964, when he developed multiple sclerosis. Al earned back-to-back Pikes Peak overall victories in 1964 and 1965. He made his Indy 500 debut in 1965 and went on to become only the second person to win the race four times, taking the checkered flag in 1970, 1971, 1978, and 1987.
Bobby Unser racing up Pikes Peak, 1960. / THF217906
Even in a family of racing legends, Bobby Unser stood out. Following service in the Air Force, he made his own debut at Pikes Peak in 1955. He earned the overall victory there the following year, kicking off an incredible run of nine overall wins in 13 years. Altogether, Bobby Unser claimed 10 overall victories and 13 class wins at Pikes Peak between 1956 and 1986. It’s no wonder they called him “King of the Mountain.”
Bobby followed his older brothers to Indianapolis in 1963. His first years at the Brickyard weren’t promising—crashes took him out early in the 1963 and 1964 races, and during qualifying in 1965—but he earned a top-ten finish in 1966. Two years later, Unser won his first victory at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Despite a challenge from Andy Granatelli’s turbine cars, and his own car getting stuck in high gear, Bobby finished nearly a lap ahead of second place finisher Dan Gurney.
Bobby Unser drinks the traditional bottle of milk following his first Indy 500 win, 1968. / THF140423
Unser and Gurney went from competitors to collaborators. Bobby joined Gurney’s All American Racers (AAR) as a driver and competed at Indy under the AAR banner through most of the 1970s. The capstone of their partnership came in 1975 when Unser once again became a reigning Indy 500 champion—or, more properly, a “raining” champion. Mother Nature put on the biggest show at the 1975 race. With 174 of the 200 laps down, the skies let loose with a torrential downpour. Visibility fell to nil, the track flooded, and cars spun left and right. Officials called the race early with Unser in the lead. The race may have been abbreviated, but it was enough to give Bobby his second win.
If Unser’s 1975 win was his most dramatic, then his third Indy 500 win, in 1981, was his most controversial. The final lap saw Bobby cross the finish line five seconds ahead of Mario Andretti. But Andretti and his teammates protested that Unser had passed cars illegally while under a caution flag earlier in the race. After a night of review and deliberation, race officials ruled in Andretti’s favor, penalizing Unser one position and giving Andretti the victory. Unser’s team appealed the ruling and, after months of further investigation, officials reinstated Bobby Unser’s win. The whole affair soured Unser’s love for racing, and he retired from IndyCar competition in 1983.
Bobby Unser in his sportscasting days, 1985. / THF222929
Thirteen wins at Pikes Peak, or three wins at the Indianapolis 500, would be enough to put any driver on a list of all-time greats, but Bobby Unser had more achievements still. He earned USAC national championships in 1968 and 1974, and an IROC championship in 1975. Following his retirement, Bobby worked in broadcasting, providing commentary on auto races for ABC, NBC and ESPN.
We share the grief of racing fans everywhere at the loss of a true giant. At the same time, we celebrate Bobby Unser’s many achievements on and off the track, and we feel honored to have a role in preserving a significant part of his legacy.
Hear Bobby Unser describe his career and accomplishments in his own words on our “Visionaries on Innovation” page here.
Explore the Bobby Unser Papers, in the Benson Ford Research Center, through the finding aid here, and browse digitized photographs and other artifacts from the collection here.
See highlights from The Henry Ford’s Bobby Unser Collection here.
This photograph was taken some time between 1905 and 1911. Why? The sign in the front window of the storefront adjacent to the Wright Cycle Shop shows an undertaker’s business run by L.G. Keller. City of Dayton business directories of this period show Mr. Keller in business at 1127 West Third Street during this span of time. Clearly shown is the C .Webbert Block sign on top of the building and the Wright Cycle sign as well. Bicycle production and sales had ceased by 1905, but until 1909, airplanes and airplane engines were being built and partially assembled here. / THF236870
In 1903, the building that houses the Wright Cycle Shop and the undertakers’ establishment of Fetters & Shank was collectively known as the C. Webbert Block. The building was moved to and restored in Greenfield Village in 1937. It’s a very faithful representation of the two-story, two-storefront building that stood at 1125-1127 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio, restored to appear as it did at the time of the Wright Brothers' first flight. There was one exception, though—the decoratively lettered sign that graced the top of the bracketed cornice spanning the front façade of the building was missing for over 100 years.
Charles Webbert, a relative by marriage to Charles Taylor, the Wright Brothers' mechanic, purchased the building in 1896. Mr. Webbert did an extensive addition to the front that created the double storefront we see in historic photographs. The Wright Brothers were his first tenants. Mr. Webbert was a plumbing supplier, a bicycle enthusiast, and, later, a great supporter of the brothers’ flying efforts. He was friends with Orville and Wilbur, and purchased and bartered both bicycles and bicycle repairs. Rent payments were dependent on what bicycle services were provided.
Between 1897 and 1916, the building saw a variety of uses by the Wright Brothers. Initially, the focus was on bicycles, including two lines of hand-built enameled finished bicycles, the Saint Clair and the Van Cleve. In the late 1890s, bicycles were a lucrative business and the proceeds from the Wrights' successful business became the funding source for everything that would eventually allow the Wright Brothers to fly.
Man Working at a Lathe in the Wright Cycle Shop, Dayton, Ohio, 1897 / THF236804
From 1899 until 1909, the building served as the brothers' first experimental laboratory and design studio, dedicated to creating that first flying machine. The first gliders, as well as the first Wright Flyer, were built in sections in the back machine shop, along with the gasoline engines that powered the first flight. For a time, the Wright Cycle Shop was one of the world’s first airplane factories. Following the sale of their first airplane to the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1908, Orville and Wilbur attracted the attention of New York investors and the Wright Company was formed in 1909. The airplane business quickly outgrew the space, and the assembly of airplanes consequently took place in a rented space in the Speedwell Motor Car Company while awaiting completion of a new factory building. The Wrights broke ground on this new facility on Home Road in Dayton in 1910.
After 1909, though manufacturing and final assembly moved elsewhere, the gasoline-powered engines continued to be machined and assembled in the Wright Cycle Shop. Both brothers also kept offices on the second floor, along with their company files and archives.
Following Wilbur’s death from typhoid fever in May of 1912, Orville took over as president of the company and ran the business alone. In 1915, he sold his interests and retired from the Wright Company. He continued to work on aviation design with his own firm but gave up the lease at the Cycle Shop in November of 1916, permanently moving to 15 North Broadway, a few blocks away.
Based on photographic evidence, the C. Webbert sign remained in place from 1897 until 1919, when significant structural changes took place. These included the addition of another bay and a third storefront, later to become 1123 West Third Street. Historic images show the building in its final iteration, as Henry Ford would have first seen it. By the time of the 1919 renovations, the building needed significant repairs, in part due to a huge flood that ravaged downtown Dayton and its neighborhoods in the spring of 1913. Water levels reached nearly to the second floor of the building. By this time, it’s very likely that the sign had deteriorated to the point where it was not practical to redesign it to fit with the new façade, and so it was likely removed.
This photograph of the vacant building taken in October of 1936 is part of a series taken after Henry Ford purchased the building from Charles Webber, in preparation for dismantling the building and shipping it to Dearborn, Michigan. Its reconstruction in Greenfield Village, without the C. Webbert sign, was completed in the Spring of 1938 with the dedication taking place on April 16, which would have been Wilbur Wright’s 71st birthday. / THF236872
Henry Ford purchased the building from Charles Webbert in 1936 with the understanding that it would be dismantled and moved to Dearborn, where it would be reconstructed in Greenfield Village. For reasons unknown, the sign was never added to the Wright Cycle Shop when it was restored in Greenfield Village in 1937. This is surprising, as it is such a significant architectural element. In 1991, another major restoration of the building took place in the Village, and again, the sign was not included in the project.
As they say, the third time’s the charm.
In 2018, research work began, focused on recreating the sign to more accurately represent the building’s appearance in 1903. In 2019, Mose Nowland, one of our talented conservation department volunteers, created detailed construction drawings based on high resolution scans of original photographs showing the sign still in place. Mose had only a few photographs, taken several years apart, to work with. True to form with his decades of experience, his finished drawings were works of art themselves, and brought to life the exquisite details included in what was the finial crest for the newly-designed façade of the building.
Mose Nowland poses with one of his detailed architectural drawings, which allowed the C. Webbert sign to come to life again after being missing for 100 years. / Photo by Jim Johnson
Using these wonderful drawings, combined with Mose’s sound advice and suggestions, Mike Zemney, one of our talented carpentry staff, began the construction of the sign. The sign was built in sections, with each decorative element individually hand-crafted, just as it would have been in 1897. Mike used a wide range of techniques and materials, with the ultimate goal of making the sign as weather-proof as possible, with a minimal amount of maintenance required. The sign is a combination of several kinds of water-resistant wood species, copper flashing, and cladding, all carefully sealed. The decorative elements are all three-dimensional, and the sign reaches nearly four feet high and over seven feet long, in perfect proportion to the height and width of the building.
Carpenter Mike Zemney with the nearly completed sign he built. In this photograph, the sign has been painted and dry fitted together, with final assembly, sealing, and final painting to take place once it was lifted up onto the building.
Using high-resolution versions of historic photographs, we carefully studied and analyzed these images to determine the color combination to use in painting the sign, along with the rest of the building. What appear to be different colors in some of the photos are actually shadows, as the photographs were taken a few years apart, at different times of the year, and at different times of the day. Based on our analysis, it appears that the building and the entire sign were monochromatic, painted all one color. This was not an uncommon practice for commercial and industrial buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The sign, therefore, was completely covered in many coats of a high-quality paint by Jeff Serwa, one of our dedicated painters.
There were great hopes of completing this project and having everything installed for the opening of Greenfield Village in April of 2020. As we all know, 2020 took a very different direction, and the actual installation of the sign was delayed.
However, I am very happy to announce that over 100 years later, the Wright Cycle Shop is now complete once again, proudly claiming its rightful place as part of the C. Webbert Block.
The sign is lifted onto the top of the building.
The sign is carefully installed and secured.
The C. Webbert Block sign atop Wright Cycle Shop in Greenfield Village.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to the staff and volunteers of The Henry Ford that made this project possible: Mose Nowland, Mary Fahey, Ben Kiehl, Dennis Morrison, Robert Smythe, Mike Zemney, and Jeff Serwa.
Bobby Unser Crossing the Finish Line, Winner of the 1956 Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb Race / THF140569
King of the Mountain
What does it take to “race to the clouds”? Power, handling, endurance—and a spirit to conquer the summits of nature. Hill climbs were one of the very earliest forms of automobile competition. They test a car’s power and handling capabilities, and the car-control skills, focus, and endurance of the driver.
Today, there are many local amateur hill climbs, but the most famous one is the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado, which has been running since 1916. Its tortuous 12.42-mile course has 156 turns and rises from an elevation of 9,390 feet at the start to 14,115 feet at the finish. For good reason, it’s known as the race to the clouds. Bobby Unser is probably the best-known racer to conquer Pikes Peak. He won the overall event a record ten times—in 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1968, and 1986—which earned him the title “King of the Mountain.”
1958 Moore/Unser Pikes Peak Hill Climb Car
1958 Moore/Unser Pikes Peak Hill Climb Racing Car. On Loan from Bobby and Lisa Unser. / THF91311
Bobby Unser won seven of his ten Pikes Peak overall victories in this car, including five straight (1959–63), along with 1966 and 1968. In this section of our new racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America, presented by General Motors, you can "meet" Unser while he tells you what it took to win all those Pikes Peak races. Learn how he continually improved the car, making it lighter by modifying the frame and suspension and switching to an aluminum radiator, transmission case, and fuel tank.
Detroit native Frederick Birkhill can recount numerous memories of his time at The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village as a child. He can remember riding his bike through the village, taking in all that its history and grounds offered. Truly enamored with Liberty Craftworks, he spent most of his time there, observing the artisans perfecting their crafts.
During one school field trip, his class observed employee Neils Carlson giving a glassblowing demonstration. From five feet away, the students watched Carlson pull and shape a hot, glowing blob into a graceful swan. This was the exact moment that Birkhill fell in love with glassmaking and knew he wanted to learn everything about it. After the demonstration, he bought one of the glass swans for his mother and studied it whenever he could.
Frederick as a child with a camera, circa 1959. / Photo by Dr. F. Ross Birkhill, courtesy Frederick Birkhill
Few people can pinpoint the place where they found their passion. Frederick Birkhill can. Anyone who comes to The Henry Ford can find something that excites them and sparks their future passions. That single experience in the Glass Shop stuck with Birkhill and led him on a path to a very successful career as an artist. Because of Neils Carlson, Birkhill's thirst for knowledge took off, leading him to study in England, elsewhere in Europe, and at what is now the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In the early years of his career, Birkhill was an employee of Greenfield Village and worked in the Tintype Studio. During his tenure, he was able to study and learn about glassblowing, stained glass, photography, daguerreotypes, and tintypes from various artisans around Liberty Craftworks and metro Detroit. At the time, The Henry Ford was one of the only places in the United States where one could learn about tintype photography and other specialized crafts. Birkhill created some of his first daguerreotype photos of scenes at The Henry Ford. One of those early daguerreotypes of Greenfield Village's Farris Windmill was later acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
"The Windmill at Greenfield Village, 1972,” daguerreotype created by Frederick Birkhill, in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History / Photo courtesy Frederick Birkhill
In addition to learning about different media during his time working in the village, Birkhill was able to use his skills and artistry to teach an array of subjects at The Henry Ford, including classes he developed on the history of glass and stained glass.
Birkhill also collaborated with David Grant Maul, another former employee. Birkhill acquired a special tool from Maul that allowed him to hold hot glass so he could effectively complete flame-worked glass objects. This tool was the catalyst for a successful career in flame-worked glass and furnace glass. Our Glass Shop includes a furnace that allowed Birkhill to learn both specialties.
Frederick Birkhill flameworking in his studio. / Photo by Henry Leutwyler, courtesy Frederick Birkhill
Now, after several decades as a glass artist, an artist's monograph, Glassworks: The Art of Frederick Birkhill, has been published by The Artist Book Foundation. An extensive colorplate section includes the lavish photography of Henry Leutwyler, showcasing Birkhill's work in complex detail as well as his artistic mastery of glass. A copy now resides in The Henry Ford's Benson Ford Research Center. We are honored to have Frederick and his wife, Jeannie, as friends of The Henry Ford.
A Taste of History in Greenfield Village offers our visitors seasonal, locally sourced and historically minded recipes. Over the past year, our chefs have been developing some new recipes, directly drawn from the recipes of George Washington Carver and the ingredients that he used. You can learn more about the inspiration behind the new options both in A Taste of History and in Plum Market Kitchen in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our blog post here, or try out some of the recipes for yourself—like this Tomato Chili Sauce.
There are many other sauces that Carver has recipes for in his published papers, but we chose the green Tomato Chili Sauce because it uniquely balances the sweet maple flavor of the Brined and Roasted Chicken (link below) with just enough spice to make it dance on your palette. You can make the sauce ahead of time and reheat when you are ready to eat.
Recipe: Tomato Chili Sauce
Makes 8 Portions
1 lb Fresh Green Tomatoes
3 oz Jalapeno Peppers
3 oz White Onion
1 oz Granulated Sugar
½ C Vinegar
1 Tbs Salt
¼ tsp Pepper
Peel tomatoes by placing in boiling water for 1 minute, shock by placing in ice water, and then peel skins.
Slice jalapenos in half lengthwise and remove seeds and piths. Reserve seeds for later.
Dice tomatoes, jalapenos, and onions and combine in small saucepan with all ingredients.
Bring to a simmer, allow to simmer for 1-2 hours, and then puree.
Adjust seasoning as necessary with salt, pepper, sugar, and jalapeno seeds. The spice level should be a medium, balanced heat.
A new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories has made its debut in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our What We Wore exhibit. With spring here and summer on the horizon, this time it’s a look at garments Americans wore as they delighted in the “sporting life” in their leisure time.
By the 20th century, recreational sports were an increasingly popular way to get exercise while having fun. Most Americans lived in cities rather than on farms—and lifestyles had become less physically active. Many people viewed sports as a necessity—an outlet from the pressures of modern life in an urban society.
The easy-to-ride safety bicycle turned cycling into a national obsession in the 1890s. At the peak in 1896, four million people cycled for exercise and pleasure. Most importantly, a bicycle meant the freedom to go where you pleased—around town or in the countryside.
Women found bicycling especially liberating—it offered far greater independence than they had previously experienced. Clothing for women became less restrictive while still offering modesty. Cycling apparel might include a tailored jacket, very wide trousers gathered above the ankles, stockings, and boots. Specially designed cycling suits with divided skirts also became popular.
Columbia Model 60 Women's Safety Bicycle, 1898. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. H. Benjamin Robison. / THF108117
This 1895 poster for bicycle road maps offered a pleasant route for cyclists north of New York City. / THF207603
Young men and women enjoy cycling and socializing in Waterville, Ohio about 1895. Gift of Thomas Russell. / THF201329
Baseball has long been a popular pastime—countless teams sprang up in communities all over America after the Civil War. During the early 20th century, as cities expanded, workplace teams also increased in popularity. Companies sponsored these teams to promote fitness and encourage “team spirit” among their employees. Company teams were also good “advertising.”
Harry B. Mosley of Detroit wore this uniform when he played for a team sponsored by the Lincoln Motor Company about 1920. Of course, uniforms weren’t essential—many players enjoyed the sport while dressed in their everyday clothing.
Baseball glove and bat, about 1920, used by Harry B. Mosley of Detroit, Michigan. / THF121995 and THF131216
The H.J. Heinz Company baseball team about 1907. Gift of H.J. Heinz Company. / THF292401
Residents of Inkster, Michigan, enjoy a game of baseball at a July 4th community celebration in 1940. Gift of Ford Motor Company. / THF147620
The game of golf boomed in the United States during the 1920s, flourishing on the outskirts of towns at hundreds of country clubs and public golf courses. By 1939, an estimated 8 million people—mostly the wealthy—played golf. It provided exercise—and for some, an opportunity to build professional or business networks.
When women golfed during the 1940s, they did not wear a specific kind of outfit. Often, women golfers would wear a skirt designed for active endeavors, paired with a blouse and pullover sweater. Catherine Roddis of Marshfield, Wisconsin, likely wore this sporty dress for golf, along with the stylish cape, donned once she had finished her game.
Dress and cape, 1940–1945, worn by Catherine Prindle Roddis, Marshfield, Wisconsin. Gift in Memory of Augusta Denton Roddis. /THF162615
Golf Clubs, about 1955. Gift of David & Barbara Shafer. / THF186328
Woman putts on a golf course near San Antonio, Texas, 1947. / THF621989
Clubhouse at the public Waukesha Golf Club on Moor Bath Links, Waukesha, Wisconsin, 1948–1956. Gift of Charles H. Brown and Patrick Pehoski. / THF622612
Swimming had become a popular sport by the 1920s—swimmers could be found at public beaches, public swimming pools, and resorts. In the 1950s, postwar economic prosperity brought even more opportunities for swimming. Americans could enjoy a dip in the growing number of pools found at public parks, motels, and in suburban backyards. Pool parties were popular—casual entertaining was in.
For men, cabana sets with matching swim trunks and sports shirts—for “pool, patio, or beach”—were stylish. The 1950s were a conservative era. The cover-up shirt maintained a modest appearance—while bright colors and patterns let men express their individuality.
Cabana set with short-sleeved shirt and swim trunks, 1955. Gift of American Textile History Museum. / THF186127
Advertisement for Catalina’s swimsuits—including cabana sets for men, 1955. / THF623631
In the years following World War II, the number of public and private swimming pools increased dramatically. Shown here in this June 1946 Life magazine advertisement, pool parties were popular. / THF622575
Swimming pool at Holiday Inn of Daytona Beach, Florida, 1961. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Moores. / THF104037
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
The Henry Ford’s 1951 Studebaker Champion, a cousin to Fozzie Bear’s 1951 Commander. / THF90649
Cars and movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, or cake and ice cream. It’s only natural. The two industries appeared almost simultaneously around the turn of the 20th century. Southern California became a major center of American automobile culture and, of course, the center of the U.S. film industry. Over time, certain movies even came to define certain marques. Aston Martin had Goldfinger, DeLorean had Back to the Future, and Studebaker had… The Muppet Movie.
For those who haven’t seen The Muppet Movie, which brought Jim Henson’s creations to the big screen, for the first time, in 1979, stop reading and go watch it right now. Seriously. I’ll wait.
But if a summary has to suffice, then I’ll tell you that The Muppet Movie is in the tradition of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movies, where a simple trip turns into a series of misadventures. But instead of Bing and Bob, you get Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. (Well, you get Bob too, but I digress.) The movie follows Kermit as he makes his way from the Florida swamps to the bright lights of Hollywood, chasing his dream to “make millions of people happy” in show business. Along the way he meets Fozzie, the Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and all the usual Muppet favorites.
Paul Williams, seen on a 1980 visit to The Henry Ford, co-wrote The Muppet Movie’s songs. He’d previously penned hits for Three Dog Night, the Carpenters, and Barbra Streisand. / THF128260
Kermit begins his journey on a bicycle, but, after meeting Fozzie Bear, the two continue the trip in Fozzie’s uncle’s 1951 Studebaker Commander. The Stude doesn’t make it all the way to Hollywood—they trade it in for a 1946 Ford station wagon partway through—but it features in two of the movie’s memorable musical numbers: “Movin’ Right Along” and “Can You Picture That?,” both co-written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.
The Muppet Movie is more than great songs and story. The film set new standards in puppetry by convincingly putting its characters into “real world” settings. Prior to Henson’s work, puppets were largely stationary figures, stuck behind props that hid puppeteers from view. Even early Muppet projects, notably The Muppet Show, suffered from this limitation. But in The Muppet Movie, Kermit rides a bicycle, Gonzo floats through the sky below a bunch of balloons, and Fozzie, of course, drives his Commander.
The Studebaker’s “bullet nose” served a practical purpose for the filmmakers. / THF90652
In a way, these elaborate special effects were responsible for the Studebaker appearing in the film. The 1951 Commander’s most distinctive feature is the chrome “bullet nose” between its headlights. The special-effects Commander used in The Muppet Movie had its bullet removed and replaced with a small video camera. The car’s trunk was fitted with a TV screen connected to the camera, a steering wheel, throttle and brake controls, and a seat. With these modifications, a small person was able to operate the car, hidden from view and able to see the road ahead via the camera. With Fozzie placed in the driver’s seat; his puppeteer, Frank Oz, hidden under the dashboard; and the car’s operator concealed in the trunk, it appeared as though the comic bear himself was driving the Studebaker in several scenes. The trick worked so well that, more than 40 years later in the age of computer-generated special effects, Fozzie’s driving is still remarkably convincing. The crew used a second, unmodified Commander for shots where driving effects weren’t needed.
Practical concerns weren’t the only reasons a Commander was used in the movie. In comments published in Turning Wheels, the newsletter of the Studebaker Drivers Club, The Muppet Movie screenwriter Jerry Juhl described the ’51 Commander as perhaps the “goofiest” looking car ever put into production. Goofiness, Juhl added, was a highly-respected quality in the Henson organization, so it seemed only fitting that Fozzie should drive that particular car.
Studebaker’s bullet nose was part of a long, productive relationship between the automaker and industrial designer Raymond Loewy. / THF144005
That bullet nose is a story unto itself. Credit for the feature goes to designer Bob Bourke, working for Studebaker contractor Raymond Loewy Associates at the time. As Bourke later recalled, Loewy told him to model the car’s appearance after an airplane. Bourke responded with the bullet, more properly described as a propeller or a spinner, since it’s a direct reference to that crucial aviation device. And a divisive device it was. People either loved the Studebaker bullet nose or they hated it (and so it goes today).
It’s worth noting that the feature wasn’t without precedent. Ford had used a similar device on its groundbreaking 1949 models. (In fact, Bob Bourke later said that he had contributed informally to the design of the 1949 Ford. You can read Bourke’s reminiscences here.) Studebaker used the bullet nose for just two model years, 1950 and 1951, but it remains one of the company’s most memorable designs.
Studebaker emphasized the aviation influence on the bullet nose design in this 1950 advertisement. / THF100021
The Henry Ford’s collections include a Maui Blue 1951 Studebaker Champion coupe. The lower-priced Champion featured a six-cylinder engine, while the Commander came with a standard V-8. Other than their different badges, the look of the two models is nearly identical. But if you’d like to see the actual car that Fozzie and Kermit used in The Muppet Movie, then head over to South Bend, Indiana. The effects car survives in the collections of (where else) the Studebaker National Museum. It still wears the psychedelic paint scheme applied by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in a clever plot device—faded with age, but unmistakable.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Working in his small home shop in the mid-1950s, Norman Swanson built a new style of lawn mower. He’d set out to tackle a personal problem, but his solution had universal appeal. The mowing system Swanson devised would revolutionize an industry.
Norman Swanson was born in central Wisconsin in 1919. A self-described tinkerer from an early age, Swanson cultivated his skills through a range of experiences as a young man—including enrolling in the Civilian Conservation Corps after high school, working at a machine shop, and serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—before landing a job producing motion picture film projectors for an Illinois-based production company in 1946. There, Swanson displayed his ability to not only visualize creative technological solutions, but implement them. Swanson developed a new timing device for film projectors that was so impressive, a mentor suggested he apply for his first patent.
Norman Swanson first patented technology he developed for film projectors after World War II. / Image from Google Patents
Swanson set up a small shop in his garage where he could work on overtime jobs for the production company. His operation included a lathe, milling machine, band saw, welder, and other equipment for building film projectors—and, it turned out, just about anything else Swanson could think up. So when he conceived an idea to improvethe irksome chore of mowing his property, Swanson was well-equipped to bring it to life.
Norman Swanson lived on five acres with an apple orchard of 21 trees, each surrounded by a little mound of earth. By combining components of several conventional mowers, Swanson had devised a makeshift machine that could cut a swath of about 6 feet—but it was no match for the undulating landscape, which was peppered not only with stationary tree trunks, but often also loose tree limbs. During one frustrating mow around 1956, Swanson said to himself, “This is crazy. I’m going to do something about it.” Inspired by a Montgomery & Ward mower with a single rotating blade, Swanson acquired and cut down three mower blades, arranged them, and attached the system to his walk-behind garden tractor to create his first prototype "multiple cutter power mower." He also designed a deflector above the blades to better pulverize the grass clippings. For the next iteration, Swanson mounted a multiple-cutter system beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor. He recalled being “so pleased with the results.” Three small blades required less horsepower than one big one, and he “could go right up to the trees and around. It was unbelievable.” Swanson applied for two patents on these lawn mowing innovations and received them in 1959.
Norman Swanson mounted his innovative multiple-cutter system to his walk-behind garden tractor (see image at very top of post) and then beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor to create his first prototype lawn mowers. /THF175803
Patent drawings illustrate Swanson’s multiple-cutter system (top) and deflector (bottom), which helped pulverize grass clippings. / Images from Google Patents
Swanson wasn’t the only one impressed with his new lawn mower design. A neighbor requested a multiple-cutter system for his own tractor and then introduced Swanson to a farm equipment manufacturer, Pennington Manufacturing, who supplied Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s Bradley line of lawn and garden equipment. Swanson contracted with Pennington, building a successful demonstration prototype for Sears and a second prototype that became the basis for the Bradley mower manufactured by Pennington and sold through Sears from 1958–1960. Unfortunately, a conflict over royalties ended Swanson’s arrangement with Pennington, and he settled without receiving full payment or credit for his patented designs—even though they remained central to mowers sold by Sears and other major manufacturers.
Norman Swanson built and demonstrated a prototype (top) for Sears executives, convincing them to use his design (bottom) for the company’s Bradley line of lawn mowers. / THF175758 and THF175760
Though somewhat dismayed, Swanson pressed on. He explored the possibility of producing a new riding mower, called the Wil-Mow, with a metal parts manufacturer in Michigan. Though the Wil-Mow never went into production, the partnership was not fruitless. Along the way, Swanson collaborated with a fellow lawn mower enthusiast to design and patent supports to secure a mower’s blades and keep them from damaging turf. The Wil-Mow prototype—manufactured in Michigan with a transmission built by Norman Swanson and his son, Curtis—included this patented feature.
Having weathered troubled partnerships for nearly a decade, Norman Swanson decided to try going into business for himself. He and his son built and sold 50 mowers under the Swanson name before ultimately deciding to step away from lawn mower manufacture.
Though the “Wil-Mow” (top) never went into production, and only fifty of Swanson’s mowers (bottom) were ever sold, these machines represent the lasting technological change Norman Swanson contributed to lawn mower manufacture. / THF175761 and THF175759
Curtis Swanson poses with one of his father’s prototype lawn mowers in November 2018. / Photo by Debra Reid.
Norman Swanson didn’t gain fame or fortune, but he understood the lasting importance of his contributions to lawn mower development. In an interview conducted by Debra Reid, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Agriculture & the Environment, in November 2018—less than a year before his 100th birthday—Swanson acknowledged that “the whole industry [was] operating” with the basic ideas he patented. Indeed, the technological improvements Norman Swanson developed remain standard on many lawn mowers sold today. The machines he built, now in the collections of The Henry Ford, continue to tell his story.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. This post was based on the research and writing of Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment.
Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Grosse Pointe, Michigan, native Armani Williams is at the start of a promising career in auto racing. He competes in multiple professional truck and car racing series, and is honing his skills with an eye toward joining NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series—one of NASCAR’s three national series and among the highest professional racing series in the United States. This is an impressive goal for any young driver, but especially so for Mr. Williams, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism generally is characterized by difficulty in focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously. “Focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously” is also a pretty fair description of what a competitive driver does behind the wheel, which makes Williams’s achievements all the more impressive.
Helmet worn by Armani Williams, Scorpion EXO. / THF186734
Like most racing drivers, Armani Williams developed his love for motorsport as a young boy. That passion was fostered by toy cars, televised NASCAR races, and a memorable trip to see NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010. Eager to get behind the wheel himself, Williams began racing go-karts at age eight. He then advanced to Bandolero racing, a type of motorsport in which young drivers pilot scaled-down versions of stock cars capable of speeds better than 70 miles per hour.
Williams made his competition debut in Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) Pro Series pickup truck races in 2016. He set ARCA records by becoming the highest-finishing African American driver in a series race, and by posting the best finish for an African American driver in the ARCA Truck Pro Series championship.
Racing suit worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186736
NASCAR invited Armani Williams to compete in its Drive for Diversity combined tryouts in 2016 and 2017. Established in 2004, the Drive for Diversity program is intended to create a more inclusive culture in NASCAR on the track, in the pits, and in the stands. The program provides training and support to people of color and women pursuing careers as drivers, crew members, sponsors, or team owners.
In 2017, Williams made his debut in the Pinty’s Series, NASCAR’s Canadian stock car racing series. To date, he has earned eighteen wins and two championships in the Pinty’s Series. In 2018, Williams joined the K&N Pro Series East. This American NASCAR series serves as an important development pipeline, building and supplying new talent headed toward NASCAR’s upper levels. Williams earned his first K&N Pro Series top-ten finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he finished ninth on September 22, 2018. Williams earned another top-ten finish—this time in ARCA’s Menards Series for stock cars—on August 9, 2020, at Michigan International Speedway, his “hometown” track. By competing in the Pinty’s and K&N Pro racing series, Armani Williams became the first driver in any NASCAR series with openly-diagnosed autism.
Race 4 Autism car driven by Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Throughout his growing career, Armani Williams has used his platform in racing to raise autism awareness. He established his Armani Williams Race 4 Autism Foundation in 2015. He also covered one of his race cars with a special Race 4 Autism paint scheme featuring the jigsaw puzzle motif that is widely used as a symbol for autism spectrum disorder.
Racing shoes worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186733
Mr. Williams recently donated pieces of his equipment to The Henry Ford. They include a helmet, a racing suit, and a pair of shoes used by him while racing in the ARCA Truck Pro Series. We are delighted to add these artifacts to the museum’s racing collections, and we look forward to incorporating some of them into our newest exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America Presented by General Motors. We also look forward to following Armani Williams’s competitive driving career. He’s already made history—and he’s just getting started.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Now that we are getting close to wrapping up our Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Museums for America grant to conserve, photograph, catalog, and rehouse artifacts from our collection, some of the staff who have worked on this grant would like to share interesting objects they’ve encountered over the course of the grant.
Marlene Gray, IMLS Project Conservator, has three objects she would like to share.
Dodge & Zuill Easy Model C Washing Machine, circa 1912 / THF186088
As the IMLS Project Conservator for the last year of the grant, clearing space for larger objects in storage was our main priority. However, there were chances to conserve some interesting objects, one of which was a copper electric washing machine from the early 20th century. The dazzling copper tub was a sight to behold while in the conservation lab. While cleaning it, I remember thinking how grateful I am that technology has come such a long way in making tasks simpler!
Next is this footwarmer from the mid-19th century:
This footwarmer was a cute object to conserve because of the decorative elements in the wood frame and pierced tin stove box. One of the wooden columns had separated from the rest of the object. The opportunity to completely reassemble the object and give it a thorough cleaning made it feel as though the little stove could still be heated for the approaching cold months.
The great thing about conservation is that you are always learning about history through ordinary objects. While the conservation treatment of this object involved relatively simple metal polishing and glass repair, learning about the inventor of the lubricator cup, Elijah McCoy, and his connection to Detroit was fascinating. I highly recommend exploring his story, like I did!
Next up are Susan Bartholomew and me, Laura Myles, Collections Specialists in the Registrars’ Office. We have worked closely cataloging and researching the objects that have been selected for the grant. It was hard to narrow down our favorite objects, or at least the ones we think are the most interesting, but here is a brief overview of some of the objects we enjoyed working with the most.
My name is Susan Bartholomew. I am a Collections Documentation Specialist and simply put, my role in this project was to update or revise catalog records for objects selected for the grant. This included identifying and applying accession numbers, which allow us to track an object both physically and digitally using our database, as well as conducting provenance research, and creating or modifying existing records in our database using cataloguing standards.
My personal highlights for this grant include the following.
Model of a Hook and Ladder Truck, circa 1900 / THF170406
This incredibly detailed handmade model of a turn-of-the-century fire truck is complete with removable ladders, firemen’s tools, and what are possibly the world’s tiniest leather fire buckets.
From the tiny to the huge, this is a shop sign in the form of a giant gold-painted tin teapot. It stands over three feet tall and four feet long from spout tip to handle. For more information about this unique giant teapot, check out this blog post Senior Conservator Louise Beck wrote about its surprising discovery.
A very early example of a type of telephone that had no batteries, this device operated on the same principle as two tin cans connected by a string, an idea that had been around for centuries. They were used in pairs and were connected over a short distance by a tightly stretched wire. With no dependence on electricity, they were advertised as being more reliable than battery-operated telephones. This unit was one of a pair used by the father of the donor to connect the flour mill he operated to the boats he used to ship his flour. One set would be at the mill and the other was placed on the wharf boat half a mile away.
And now, Laura Myles shares her favorites.
Like Susan, I have assisted with cataloging, but I also research objects more in depth to uncover missing dates and/or manufacturers, as well as approving records to go online into our Digital Collections. Working on the grant over the last three years has been a wonderful learning experience, as the objects are so varied you really have no idea what to expect.
Megalethoscope Slide, "St. Mark's Square," lit up / THF179346
Perhaps my most favorite object is the megalethoscope and its slides. One of the best parts of my job is rediscovering hidden treasures in the collection. While we knew this was something special by looking at it, it was not until we were working on the slides that we knew how truly special it was.
At first glance, it looks like the megalethoscope is a fancy magic lantern device—merely projecting the images on slides. The megalethoscope was designed by Charles Ponti while he was living in Venice, Italy circa 1862. Ponti photographed his travels through France, Switzerland, Italy, and Egypt, and it was these photographs that he turned into transparencies for his megalethoscope, costing five francs each at the time. These transparencies look like normal slides until they are inserted into the megalethoscope and manipulated to show night views painted onto the backs of the images but hidden by a dustcover. One of the 22 slides can be seen above. For even more information about the megalethoscope, here is a blog post written about its conservation and photography.
Another object that I enjoyed researching was this naval cannon. While we know this cannon was accessioned in 1929, we do not have information about who made it or where it was used. Based on its estimated manufacture date, circa 1780, and similar design to British artillery, I reached out to the Royal Armouries, which helped eliminate the possibility of it being British in origin. Unfortunately, we do not know its history, but at least we know it was very likely made in the United States to be used on a merchant marine vessel.
This sign advertising the O. H. Perry Inne is one of my favorites just for its connection to the War of 1812 and Oliver Hazard Perry. On the front of the sign is a portrait of Perry, there is an eagle with seventeen stars above (although there were eighteen states by 1813, further adding to the mystery), and the words “Lake Erie” below on the reverse. Perry was regarded as a hero after defeating a British squadron in Lake Erie, which led to Detroit being freed from British control. Unfortunately, this sign’s history has been lost to time, although there are similar signs that have come up for auction. It seems likely that some local establishment capitalized on Perry’s name, probably along Lake Erie. We can only imagine the building it adorned.
One of the more recent objects to make my short list, and Susan’s as well, is this turtle spittoon. We think it is one of the cutest objects to have come through the IMLS pipeline, especially since spittoons themselves are not the most elegant of objects. Apparently turtle designs for spittoons were quite popular in their time, as well as remaining popular among collectors. The one in our collection is functional: pressing the turtle’s head flips open the shell to reveal the bowl.
If you would like to know more about the cataloging process, you can read more about that here (and see a few more interesting objects we have worked on as a result of this and a previous IMLS grant), and if you would like to know more about the provenance research Susan refers to, check out Associate Registrar Aimee Burpee’s blog post.
This is but a small sampling of some of our favorite objects from this grant. Over the course of the grant so far, we've digitized nearly 3,000 objects, and cataloged and conserved over 4,300 total objects. Unfortunately, this means that we had to be a little bit picky in what we shared here, but hopefully you will discover more of the treasures from our Collections Storage Building yourself while searching our Digital Collections.
Marlene Gray is IMLS Project Conservator, Susan Bartholomew is Collections Documentation Specialist, and Laura Myles is Collections Specialist, all at The Henry Ford.