Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Advertising Poster, "Lilith Fair," 1998 (Object ID: 2010.35.4).

If you've kept an eye on our Flex Gallery in Henry Ford Museum the past few weeks you've likely seen the "coming soon" signage for our latest exhibit, "Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power." In just a few days the exhibit, presented to us from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will open to the public and we couldn't be more excited. With a diverse collection of artists and genres, a visit to "Women Who Rock" will surely inspire you to flip through your collection of records, rummage through a stack of mixtapes or have your scrolling through your favorite playlists.

I asked Jeanine Head Miller, our curator of domestic life, to speak to two concert posters in our digital collections. Both created by concert poster artist Mark Arminski in the 1990s, the posters' artwork captures important moments in both popular culture and the musicians' lives.

Singer Sarah McLachlan was frustrated by conventional wisdom—concert promoters and radio stations had long refused to feature two female musicians in a row. McLachlan took action, organizing a concert tour and traveling music festival called Lilith Fair (poster picture above). Featuring only female artists and female-led bands--including well-known performers and emerging artists--the hugely successful Lilith Fair took place the summers of 1997 through 1999.

Patti Smith Poster

Advertising Poster, "The Ark Welcomes Patti Smith," April 4, 1995 (Object ID: 2010.35.3).

Patti Smith was one of the pioneers of hard-edged punk rock in the 1970s. In 1995, when she performed this concert, Smith was reentering the music scene after the unexpected death of her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. Patti Smith was on the cusp of artistic rebirth—fueled by her ability to reshape her music to speak to new generations.

Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford. Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power is at Henry Ford Museum May 17-August 17, 2014.

Riders began their journey on the Magic Skyway by passing through a glass tunnel around the outside of the Ford pavilion (lower left), affording a unique bird's-eye view of the fairground. (THF201987)

Some people called the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair the greatest fair ever, while others denounced it as a nostalgic look backward. Either way, no one could miss the mega-attractions that were staged by American corporations. Among these display “giants” was Ford Motor Company, who brought in Walt Disney to ensure that its corporate pavilion would be a blockbuster hit at the fair.

A Partnership is Formed

Ford and Disney both had their reasons for making a big splash at the New York World’s Fair.

Ford Motor Company executives wanted to tell their corporate story, showcase their products—including a special highlight on the new Ford Mustang—and provide a “unique and memorable entertainment adventure” that would outshine their competitors at the fair.

Walt Disney, by now internationally recognized for his success at Disneyland, was planning for the future. He looked to the fair as a place to try out new ideas and refine new technologies, obtain corporate funding to create new attractions, and test the receptiveness of East Coast audiences to his most recent dream—building a spacious new theme park in Florida. The Ford pavilion was one of four major attractions that Disney and his Imagineers at WED Enterprises would produce for the New York World’s Fair. (The other three attractions were Progressland for General Electric; Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln for the State of Illinois; and it’s a small world for Pepsi-Cola.)

Henry Ford II and Walt Disney in 1962 with Model of the Ford Pavilion for the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair

Using this detailed model, Walt Disney shows Ford Motor Company CEO and Chairman of the Board Henry Ford II some of the features that he and his Imagineers had dreamed up for the Ford pavilion. (THF114505)

Ford recognized that Disney represented not only “the greatest pool of creative talent available” but also had years of experience with crowd movement and control. Indeed, when Walt Disney brought in architect Welton Becket from Los Angeles to design the Ford pavilion, he directed Becket to provide space for two simultaneous shows, queuing areas, and product displays—allowing for a capacity of 4,000 guests per hour. Ford Motor Company executives were particularly interested in their pavilion taking on a rotunda form, in keeping with their previous structures at world’s fairs and to commemorate the loss of their beloved, recently-burned-down Ford Rotunda in Dearborn.

Brochure Promoting the Ford Pavilion at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, "Ride Walt Disney's Magic Skyway"

This page from a souvenir brochure shows the two distinct structures that made up the Ford pavilion: the so-called “Wonder Rotunda,” inspired by previous Ford world’s fair buildings, and the building that housed most of the Magic Skyway ride. (THF114832)

A Ride on the Magic Skyway

Disney Imagineers brought to the Ford pavilion all the experience they had gained in developing attractions at Disneyland.

As guests entered the Ford pavilion through the monumental Rotunda building, they encountered a series of colorful exhibits focusing on Ford’s history, global influence, and current products. The topics were Ford-related, but the treatment of virtually every element had the unique Disney touch. For example, the miniature villages of the International Gardens display were reminiscent of the miniscule settings at the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction in Disneyland. Great moments in Ford Motor Company history were represented by several humorous, Disney-designed dioramas as guests took moving “speed ramps” to the upper level for the Magic Skyway ride. Near the ride queue, a Disney-created “animated orchestra” was comprised of ingeniously rigged Ford automobile parts.

International Gardens Display at the Ford Pavilion, New York World's Fair, 1964-1965

Representing Ford Motor Company’s global reach, the Disney-designed International Gardens display featured miniature buildings, landscapes, and settings of 12 countries. (THF114465)

Auto Parts Harmonic Orchestra

The “Auto Parts Harmonic Orchestra”—comprised of Ford automobile parts—really played music! (THF115025)

The climax of the Ford pavilion was, of course, the Magic Skyway ride—billed as “an exciting ride in a Company-built convertible through a fantasy of the past and future in 12 minutes.” It is quite possible that the idea of using real cars for the ride was Ford Motor Company’s, inspired by the “Road of Tomorrow” feature at its 1939 New York World’s Fair pavilion. There, guests had ridden in current car models along a “highway of the future.” But, this time, the cars were fixed in place, attached to a track that moved them along at evenly spaced intervals. Perfecting this ride track technology was, in fact, a major goal for Disney and his Imagineers at the fair.

Convertibles were chosen for the ride because they were easy to climb into and out of and because they afforded the greatest visibility for the show. Through most of the planning process, the choice of convertibles had included examples from all the regular Ford and Lincoln-Mercury lines—Falcon, Ford, Comet, Mercury, Lincoln-Continental, and Thunderbird. But, with mere months to spare before the fair’s opening on April 22, Ford realized the marketing potential in adding several of its new Ford Mustangs to the ride track as well.

Once settled inside their cars, guests used the push buttons of their car’s radio to hear sounds, music, and—after a brief welcome from Henry Ford II—the narration for the show in a choice of four different languages.

The ride began with the cars slowly gliding along outside the Rotunda building through a transparent glass tunnel. This idea, conceived by legendary Disney Imagineer John Hench, both afforded riders a perfect view of the fairground from the upper level of the pavilion and allowed fairgoers to glimpse the new Ford models from below.

Loading Area for the Magic Skyway Ride at the Ford Pavilion, New York World's Fair, 1964-1965

Twin tracks can be seen here in the loading area of the Magic Skyway ride, where friendly attendants helped guests quickly and efficiently get into the next available convertible. Story has it that the Ford Mustang was so popular that guests would wait out their turn until a Mustang came along. (THF114475)

Entering the Transparent Tunnel of the Magic Skyway Ride, Ford Pavilion, New York World's Fair, 1964-1965

Guests enter the glass tunnel overlooking the fairgrounds in anticipation of their “Adventure through Time and Space.” (THF67946)

Back inside the pavilion, the cars picked up speed and the ride truly began. Rainbow-hued strobe lights flashed past while sound effects created the illusion that riders were hurtling through a “time tunnel,” racing across millions of years toward a far distant past.

Emerging from this time tunnel, guests found themselves in “a dim primeval place of strange sounds and sights.” Their cars moved past several gatherings of “prehistoric monsters”—some engaged in mortal combat, others combing the rugged and swampy terrain for food. But, within moments, climate and plant life shifted and Man made his appearance. Groups of cavemen could be seen discovering fire, painting on cave walls, fighting off vicious beasts, using stone as a tool, and—in a final vignette—using the wheel.

Primeval Earth Diorama on the Magic Skyway Ride, Ford Pavilion, 1964-1965 New York World's Fair

Riders on the Magic Skyway intently watch this primeval scene from the comfort of their Ford convertible. (THF114507)

For the scenes of the primeval past, Walt Disney had wanted to create an adventure “so realistic that guests will feel they have lived through a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience.” To accomplish this, Disney Imagineers “brought to life” both the prehistoric creatures and the cavemen with their newest storytelling technology, Audio-Animatronics®. They had introduced this technology only recently—at the Enchanted Tiki Room in Disneyland in 1963, and they had much they wanted to refine on its details here at the fair.

Guests left these scenes behind and entered a second time tunnel, speeding past flashing, spinning, and twirling wheels that symbolized the progress of thousands of years. After their journey through time and space on a “Highway in the Sky,” they were dropped off at “Space City”—a “spectacular, impressionistic city of tomorrow.” Guests disembarked here, as the voice of Walt Disney—speaking through the car radio—invited them to enter a world “where tomorrow is created today.”

Returning to the real world of corporate exhibits, guests encountered five “Adventures in Science” displays, which highlighted Ford’s and Philco’s (a Ford subsidiary at the time) current research in the fields of space, electronics, power sources, fuel, and new materials.

Taking moving “speed ramps” back down to the first level, guests were encouraged to explore on their own the many Ford products and presentations on display in the elegant Product Salon. A final Disney-produced exhibit—featuring moving scenes of city and countryside—provided the backdrop for a Ford “Product Parade”—an “endless stream” of current Ford-built cars, trucks, and tractors.

After the Fair

The Ford pavilion and its Magic Skyway ride were, as hoped, a huge hit with the public and an unqualified success for both Ford and Disney.

For Ford Motor Company, millions of people riding the Magic Skyway experienced a ride in a Ford car for the first time. In addition, Ford’s idea to introduce the Mustang at the fair was a stroke of marketing genius, as the Ford Mustang would go on to become one of the best-selling automobiles in American history.

Advertisement for the 1965 Ford Mustang, "Exciting New Car from Ford Motor Company"

With its sporty look, reasonable price, and endless number of options, the Mustang hit a sweet spot in the market—appealing to a wide range of buyers. Ford was able to boast that it was a “show stopper” at the New York World’s Fair in this August 14, 1964 Time magazine advertisement. (THF77007)

With four top-ten attractions at the New York World’s Fair, Walt Disney established an impressive record working with large corporations. His Imagineers achieved in record time what might have otherwise taken years to accomplish. Their experiments with ride track technology would be further refined at Disneyland to become the WEDway People Mover, while their refinements with Audio-Animatronics® would find their way into many new attractions. inally, Disney knew that his dream for a new theme park in Florida could proceed as planned. But for now he was happy to bring back all three non-Ford attractions from the New York World’s Fair back to Disneyland.

The Ford pavilion almost came back to Disneyland too. Walt Disney proposed to Ford Motor Company a re-envisioned attraction that would house a 1,000-seat theatre with a new, product-oriented stage show employing Audio-Animatronics® techniques, as well as a showroom for corporate products. The real cars of the Magic Skyway ride would be replaced by the new WEDway People Mover, circulating through the interior of the pavilion on its route around Tomorrowland. Ford Motor Company debated the pros and cons of Disney’s proposal but, in the end, declined his offer.

Ironically, only the dinosaurs of the Magic Skyway ride survived “extinction,” taking up residence in the Primeval World diorama along the Disneyland Railroad in July 1966.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

Did you really think we wouldn't pick May flowers?

Trade cards (also known as advertising cards) were produced in enormous numbers during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Following the Civil War, America was inundated with an unprecedented volume of advertising. Simultaneous with this was the prolific publication of newspapers and magazines. However, these publications offered limited advertising space for most businesses. Newspapers usually reserved space for only their local merchants and national magazines devoted only a few pages to advertising. A full-page advertisement was almost nonexistent in periodicals of the time and certainly almost no advertisement appeared in color.

Hence, the advertising void was answered by the poster and the trade card. The trade card became the format of choice for many different reasons. First, unlike posters, trade cards could be printed on both sides often giving greater detail of the product on the reverse. The trade card was relatively inexpensive to manufacture and distribute, and as lithographic technology improved during the 1870s and 1880s, beautiful full-color trade cards began to be produced by even the smaller companies, and subsequently collected by the eager public. (Lithography is the process of putting designs with a greasy material on stone, zinc, aluminum, or another substance and then producing a printed impression from there.) Trade cards were most commonly distributed through local retailers and wholesalers where they reached even the most remote towns. Oftentimes they were packaged with product, and companies began campaigns, much like the incentives common in today's cereal boxes, in which customers were urged to collect all the different designs in a series.

New postal regulations in late 1880s may be the single greatest cause for the end of the trade card. A reduced cost for mailings allowed for a number of new periodicals on the market, and the publishers began to add more pages to their magazines making room for more advertisements. The full-page advertisement began to appear, as well as heavily illustrated mail order catalogs such as Sears & Roebuck. Another competitor for the trade card was the post card which allowed companies direct communication to specific consumer markets. After the tremendous volume produced from the 1870s through the 1890s, the trade card had all but disappeared by the beginning of the twentieth century.

By Judith E. Endelman, former Curator of Special Collections at The Henry Ford.

The Henry Ford’s 1965 Mustang Serial #1 and 1962 Mustang I concept car were honored guests at a pair of simultaneous events honoring the pony car’s golden anniversary in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Las Vegas, Nevada. The four-day celebrations, hosted by the Mustang Club of America with close cooperation from Ford Motor Company, brought together cars, owners and fans from around the world to commemorate one of the most influential and enduring automobiles.

The Charlotte event, held at Charlotte Motor Speedway, opened in grand fashion on April 17. Fifty years to the day after Henry Ford II introduced the Mustang at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, current Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman Bill Ford unveiled the 50th Anniversary Edition 2015 Ford Mustang. Limited to 1,964 units, the 50th Anniversary car comes fully loaded but available in just two colors: Kona Blue and Wimbledon White – the latter something of a nod to Serial #1’s paint.

The 50th Anniversary Edition 2015 Ford Mustang. There’s a definite family resemblance to Serial #1.

Other distinguished guests in Charlotte included Ford Board Member Edsel Ford II, Ford Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields, the 1965 Mustang Design Chief Gale Halderman, and current Mustang Chief Engineer Dave Pericak. Retired Chicago-area school teacher Gail Wise enjoyed a unique fame at the event. On April 15, 1964, she purchased a Skylight Blue Mustang convertible – making her the first Mustang buyer in the United States. She still owns the car today, which also makes her the senior-most original owner. Gail and her convertible posed for countless photos with Mustang fans over the four-day party.

The Henry Ford’s Mustang Serial #1 (left) sat next to Gail Wise’s Skylight Blue convertible in Charlotte. The “Mustang Garage” display area included pony cars from every generation.

I had the privilege of joining Serial #1 in Charlotte. As I spoke with visitors, nearly every one of them was familiar with the car’s story. In fact, many had seen Serial #1 before, either at The Henry Ford or at a previous show. My favorite reaction was from members of the Montreal Mustang Club. Upon seeing Serial #1 with its Newfoundland license plates, they immediately shouted “Captain Tucker! Captain Tucker!” – referring to their fellow Canadian, the airline pilot who inadvertently purchased the car in April 1964.

The sister celebration at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was even more international in tone. While Ford has never directly sold the Mustang overseas (until the 2015 model, that is), this hasn’t stopped the car from winning fans abroad. Our Mustang I concept car brought smiles to the faces of Mustang club members from Sweden, France, Switzerland and Brazil, among other nations. Special guests in Las Vegas included Ford Sales Zone Manager Henry Ford III, Ford COO Mark Fields (yes, the busy Fields visited both celebrations), and former Ford Special Projects Assistant Hal Sperlich. Along with Ford Vice-President Lee Iacocca and Ford Product Manager Don Frey, Sperlich is one of the key people who brought the Mustang into being 50 years ago. He was given a hero’s welcome by the fans gathered in Nevada.

Members of the Mustang Club of Switzerland pose with our 1962 Mustang I concept car in Las Vegas.

Mustang owners and enthusiasts at both events enjoyed various activities. Souvenir stands sold Mustang merchandise of all descriptions. Vendors and swap meet participants sold parts for Mustangs from every vintage. Mustang historians gave presentations on the car’s debut and evolution. Owners with performance cars took laps around the tracks. And then there were the cars themselves – thousands of Mustangs filled and surrounded the venues in Charlotte and Las Vegas.

By the time each event wrapped up on April 20, new friendships were formed, the latest version of the pony car was revealed to the world, and a passion for the Mustang had been ignited in the young visitors who will take the car into its next generations. I’ll bet a few of them are already dreaming about 2064!

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

You may not realize it, but there are about 300 artifacts in the With Liberty & Justice for All exhibit in Henry Ford Museum, ranging in size from a George Washington inauguration button to the Rosa Parks bus. Over the past couple of years, we have been digitizing these artifacts, and we're very happy to announce that almost all of these artifacts are now available digitally, as well on physical display in the Museum. Two of the last stragglers to go online this week are a woman's suffrage poster and this Civil War bayonet. Explore our collections website to find more artifacts demonstrating the exhibit's themes of independence, freedom and union, votes for women, and the Civil Rights movement.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford.

One day in 1948—or maybe ’49—a beat-up Ford pulled up outside a workshop in Arcadia, California. John Wills, the boat builder who owned the workshop, was about to play host to a then largely unknown architect and designer—a visitor on a mission related to an industrial process that Wills had developed. This battered fiberglass chair shell, perched on a trash can, was made as a result of that day’s visit. It represents an early single step in a lengthy design and production process. The result was an enduringly popular landmark design, a chair design you’ve likely sat on, a chair mass-produced to the point of invisibility.

John Wills’ visitor was none other than Charles Eames. Eames was attempting to solve a design problem that had been absorbing him and his wife Ray for the better part of a decade: how to use modern, inexpensive materials to make furniture of extreme simplicity and affordability. Charles, his wife, and a number of close collaborators had become adept at molding plywood through work undertaken for the United States Navy in World War II. After the war their plywood experiments continued, leading to their work with the Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, Michigan, who began to market the Eameses’ designs.

The profitable industrial production of single-piece plywood chair shells proved to be impractical—but what about other materials? The pursuit of a solution to this basic design dilemma led Charles and Ray to investigate other materials such as stamped metal—which proved too heavy—and fiberglass-reinforced plastic. Which is where John Wills comes in: he had developed a fiberglass-plastic formula that could harden at room temperature, without the use of pressure. To the Eameses, manufacturability was a fundamental and necessary component of any good design. By reducing the production steps—not having to heat the shells to harden the material, not having to construct the chair’s shell out of multiple parts, and by adopting a process that reduced production failures—the design could be made more cheaply and profitably. Consequently the resulting design would offer, as Ray put it, “the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.”

Prototype chair by Charles Eames. (Object ID.95.167.1)
Charles Eames had brought Wills a craft paper mockup of the chair he wanted to prototype. Wills told him that the cost of the experimental finished shell would be $25 and that it would be ready in a week or so. Charles Eames returned to the workshop to find that Wills had in fact made two shells: each was examined and sat in, raised to a convenient sitting height by way of a makeshift base made from corrugated metal. Finally however, Eames could only afford to pay for one of the shells, leaving this example behind in Wills’ workshop where it remained, perched on a garbage can for almost fifty years.

The development and refinement of the design continued, first with Zenith Plastics of Gardena, California, and then at the Herman Miller Company. It went into production in 1950 and proved to be an instant success, spawning all manner of variants and a great many imitations. In the 1990s, environmental concerns led to the cessation of its production, pending the development of suitable recyclable plastics. In 2000, the chair, now made from a new polypropylene blend, was returned to the market by Herman Miller.

This battered-looking artifact was a very early step in this design and production story. And it is a reminder that messiness and tentative first steps are a part of every design process: the sleek Eames-designed plastic chairs that have found their way into homes, meeting rooms, cafes—indeed anywhere where affordable and durable seating is required—had to start somewhere.

Marc Greuther is Chief Curator at The Henry Ford.

The Henry Ford, like other older, long-established museums, can only display a very small percentage of its artifacts at any given time. The remainder is kept in storage for future generations. In recent years, The Henry Ford has begun to digitize its collections, and put them online. This effort has helped expand what we can say about what is on exhibit, and importantly, has made it so that people don’t have to wait decades to be able to find out about artifacts that are in storage.

Thanks to a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) “Museums for America” program, The Henry Ford has an opportunity to digitize over 1,000 artifacts that tell the story of changing communications technologies from the late 1800s to the late 1990s. The project is focused on communications collections that are stored in a large, tightly-packed warehouse on The Henry Ford campus. Many of these artifacts have been in this building for many decades, with limited cataloging. This project will inventory, catalog, preserve, re-house and digitize for online access these computers, radios, telephones and televisions, cameras, printing presses, teletype and telegraph machines and other artifacts, making them available to The Henry Ford staff and the public to a degree never before possible.

Our computer collections have been the focus of the early work. This work has reminded us of how rapidly technological change has occurred with computers. Check out the (not so mini) DEC PDP-11/20 Minicomputer, 1970 mini-computer.

The challenges presented by this densely-packed storage area has meant that the project staff has really needed to live up to our mission of innovation. Before any work can be done on the artifacts, decades of accumulated dust, dirt and mold needs to be removed. Collections Specialist (and in-house McGyver) Jake Hildebrandt fashioned a downdraft table, complete with HEPA and charcoal filter, out of a portable ventilator, steel shelves and leftover grid for overhead lights. A downdraft table quickly pulls away dust and dirt as the artifact is cleaned, making the cleaning process faster and more effective.

Conservation specialist Cayla Osgood utilizing the downdraft table.

We look forward to highlighting some of our exciting “re-discoveries” as we work on this project; collections digitization projects in museums around the world have led to new “re-discoveries.” We expect to add the tremendous collections of The Henry Ford to this ever-expanding resource of artifacts online.

Mary Fahey is Chief Conservator at The Henry Ford.

Spring means many things to many people: an end to cabin fever, swapping the snow blower for the lawn mower, or getting the car out of winter storage and ready for the summer cruising season. For car museum folks, though, spring means the annual conference of the National Association of Automobile Museums. This year’s meeting, hosted by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California, was particularly special. For the first time in many years, it was a joint conference with the World Forum for Motor Museums.

NAAM conferences traditionally provide three important opportunities. First, there is the chance to network with auto museum colleagues from around the country (or, this year, the globe). You find that many of us share the same joys – the thrill of sharing our collections with the public, the fun in working with incredible automobiles – and the same challenges, like the long-term preservation of complex machines, or writing informative but engaging label text with a limit of 60-odd words.

Second, and central to the NAAM conference, is the chance to hear presentations from curators, archivists, conservators and administrators from the car museum world. Standout sessions this year included a talk on the peculiarities of corporate car collections and museums; strategies for dealing with the media (this session included comments from Wendell Strode of the National Corvette Museum, who worked masterfully with the press during that museum’s recent sinkhole crisis); and ideas on incorporating “visible storage” into your museum’s plan, in which visitors are able to view cars “behind the scenes” as a part of special tours. I should note that Robert Coyle, our Conservation Specialist for Automobiles, Gary Martin, of Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, and I spoke together about our project to conserve the 1967 Le Mans-winning Ford Mark IV.

Finally, NAAM brings the chance for special tours of public and private collections near the host institution. This year’s itinerary did not disappoint. Attendees were treated to tours of the Mullin Automotive Museum, the Toyota USA Automobile Museum, the Nethercutt Collection, and the Pasadena-based Art Center College of Design. It should be no surprise that Southern California, nexus of American car culture, is home to so many incredible automobile and auto-related collections.

A familiar, three-eyed face. Tucker #40 at the Nethercutt Collection.

There is one additional NAAM highlight: the annual NAAMY awards! These prizes, given at each conference, honor the best in publications, exhibits, programs and events at nonprofit automotive museums. I’m pleased to report that our new book, Driving America: The Henry Ford Automotive Collection, took first place in our division for books and exhibit catalogs. Accolades are always special, but particularly so when they come from your colleagues in the field. With the 2014 meeting barely over, I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

Can a car built in a vegetable stand be a national treasure? It can if it is packed with ingenious engineering ideas, set a world speed record, and embodies important national characteristics.

The long, low, slim car called Goldenrod is all these things, and is a national treasure.

Goldenrod was built by a pair of California hot rodders, brothers Bill and Bob Summers. For years they participated in the annual Speed Weeks competition at Utah’s vast Bonneville Salt Flats, where they went as fast as 323 miles per hour in a car they built themselves. In 1963 they decided to go after the absolute land speed record of 394.196 mph, set by John Cobb in 1947. Cobb was one of a succession of wealthy Englishmen who had held the record over the years, driving well-financed cars powered by huge airplane engines.

Before Bob and Bill could get started, another Englishman, Donald Campbell, broke Cobb’s record with a speed of 403.10 mph. In 1964 and 1965 other American hot rodders used cars powered by jet aircraft engines to push the record to over 600 mph. But many people, like the Summers brothers, thought using jet engines wasn’t quite fair—they believed that real cars were driven by friction between tires and the ground. So no jet engines for Bob and Bill.

The Summers brothers believed that the key to a successful car was minimizing the resistance of air flowing over the moving car--and that the best way to do this was to make the car as small as possible. To put it simply: it is easier to punch a small hole through the air than a large hole. After testing models in a California Institute of Technology wind tunnel, they designed a car lower and narrower than any land speed record contender in history—48 inches wide, 42 inches high at the top of the tail fin, and only 28 inches high at the engine covers. Into this slim space they packed a quartet of 426 cubic inch Chrysler “hemi” V8 engines and the machinery necessary to power all four wheels. At the extreme rear sat the driver, Bob Summers. It was an amazing feat of engineering, and was so logical and successful that it set the paradigm for future Bonneville streamliner racers. Over 40 years later, long and slim is still the way these cars are built.

Financing Goldenrod was as big a challenge as actually building it. As land speed record cars go, Goldenrod was an economy car. Its $250,000 cost was well below the $3,000,000 Donald Campbell needed to build the car whose record Goldenrod broke. But $250,000 was far more than the Summers brothers had. So they beat the bushes searching for companies who would help pay the costs in exchange for having their corporate name on the car. The turning point came when George Hurst, maker of specialty gear shifting mechanisms and forged wheels, agreed to be a sponsor. Firestone Tire & Rubber then signed on to make the special low profile tires and wheels needed to fit inside the narrow envelope of the body. Chrysler Corporation agreed to loan the brothers four “hemi” engines, while Mobil Oil provided fuel and funding.

Construction on Goldenrod began in January 1965 in a shop that had once been a vegetable stand. By August the machine was done, and in September the brothers were at Bonneville working out the bugs that were inevitable in a car this innovative and complex. After two months of testing and modification all was ready. On November 12, Bob Summers blasted down the Bonneville salt with a run of 417 mph. International rules required two runs, in opposite directions, within one hour. After the car was thoroughly inspected, he set off on his return run with only five minutes to spare. His second run was good enough for a two-way average of 409.277 mph.

The brothers had their record. It would stand for over 25 years.

Racing In America

Last year I was invited to serve as a guest judge for the CASI Cup at the Detroit Autorama, the signature hot rod and custom car show that comes to Cobo Center every March. I’m happy to report that the Autorama team invited me back this year, but with a nice amendment – this time I got to give out an award created and sponsored by The Henry Ford.

The Henry Ford’s members and visitors know that our institution is dedicated to American innovation, a commitment reflected in our mission statement. Hot rods and custom cars were born of the time-honored American traits of ingenuity and individuality, and the Detroit Autorama showcases the finest examples of creatively modified automobiles. The Henry Ford’s Past Forward Award celebrates these traditions. Winning cars are those that best evoke the spirit of hot rodding and customization. These vehicles:

  • Combine traditional inspirations with modern innovations
  • Exhibit a highly skilled technique
  • Show a decided sense of whimsy
  • Capture the “anything goes” attitude behind the rodder’s and customizer’s craft

With these criteria to guide me, I hit the show floor in search of potential winners. To be sure, there was no shortage of candidates. The show seems to get bigger each year, and more than 1,000 exhibits filled Cobo Center for 2014. While pre-war Fords, post-war Mercurys and late 1950s Chevrolets were all present in big numbers, I was struck by the number of more recent cars. Fieros, Camaros and Mustangs from the 1980s all appeared. It seems that rodders from my generation are drawing on the cars from our youth for inspiration, just as the Boomers have done for years. While I haven’t seen a chopped Plymouth Horizon yet, it seems there’s hope.

After a few trips around the floor, I settled on three possibilities. With only one award to give, though, I let the crowd help me make my final choice. While every car had its admirers, there was a steady stream of people drawn to “Orange Crush,” a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle owned by Joseph Messina of Fair Haven, Michigan. The Chevy had presence – even beyond that electric orange paint. What really struck me in talking to Joe, though, was the pride he took in the small details. He boasted about the car’s stainless steel bolts, explaining that he spent 20 minutes grinding and polishing each one personally. The companion washers were all laser-cut to exacting specifications. It was the perfect blend of new technology and old fashioned craftsmanship that the Past Forward award is all about. Plus, I loved the double meaning in the name. Sure, the car’s color looked a lot like the soft drink, but it’s also clear that Joe had a deep “crush” on his car and was rightfully proud of his work. I hope he’s proud to be our 2014 Past Forward Award winner, too.

And so another great Autorama came to a close. It was a much-appreciated reminder that, despite all the bitter cold and snow this winter, it won’t be long before these cars come off of their mirrored platforms and start hitting the streets as cruising weather returns.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford