In the early 1930s, tensions were running high between two competing news sources: newspaper publishers were feeling the strength of their monopoly slipping away as the public’s appreciation for radio news broadcasts grew. This time of conflict in communications history is known as “The Press-Radio War.”
Publishers felt especially threatened by the nimbleness of radio networks. Broadcasters could share breaking news immediately over the airwaves, rather than having to wait for the next day’s run of newspapers to be printed and distributed. At first, newspaper companies tried to boycott radio’s ability to grow into something more than just an entertainment medium by asking wire services to block the flow of newsworthy information to radio stations. But eventually, the two media formats settled into a truce by the late 1930s, partly owing to the demand for reliable information-sharing as the threat of World War II grew.
The Detroit News “autogiro” aircraft flies over the WWJ transmitter towers on the roof of the Detroit News building. The autogiro used a swiveling camera to take aerial photos of newsworthy events and quickly transported reporters to the sites of developing stories. /THF238502
Some newspapers saw the financial benefit in blending formats and went so far as to cut out the competition by starting their own radio news stations. The Detroit News was one of the first newspapers in the United States to incorporate a commercial radio station into its operations. In August 1920, WWJ (then owned by the Detroit News) launched its program of nightly broadcasts under the call sign 8MK. As of 2020, WWJ has been on-air for 100 years!
In this image, the Detroit News autogiro flies over downtown Detroit. The Penobscot Building—site for the News’s experimental W8XWJ station—appears in the foreground. The original vertical “whip” antenna is just visible on the ball that tops the metal tower. /THF239963
In 1936, the Detroit News launched experimental audio broadcasting station W8XWJ from the 47th floor of the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. W8XWJ was formed under the FCC’s ultra-high short-wave “Apex” station program, an experiment designed to provide listeners with higher quality AM signals. The station’s original 100-watt AM vertical “whip” antenna was attached to the beacon sphere that tops the metal tower perched on the roof of the Penobscot Building. The height of the Penobscot—the tallest skyscraper in the city at that point—helped to disperse the radio waves over the entire city. Many people are familiar with the glowing red beacon at the top of the Penobscot, but its connection to the growth of radio in the city is not as well known.
From 1938-1940, W8XWJ ran a fascinating but ultimately short-lived experiment with an emerging technology called “radio facsimile.” Customers would hook a special “radio printer” up to their own radio, which would print the news overnight while they slept. In the morning, the news would be ready to enjoy with morning coffee – no need to deliver a physical newspaper!
One of the original Finch Facsimile Transmitters from W8XWJ, complete with original station badge visible and a sample of a radio fax. /THF160295
At W8XWJ, a Finch Facsimile Transmitter was used to convert images and text into audio tones. These signals would arrive in customer’s home via radio waves, where their “radio printer” would translate the tones into human language. Everything would print out onto continuous rolls of thermal paper.
This is a Crosley Reado Radio Printer – the type of device that people would connect to their home radio and would receive their faxed newspapers on. When The Henry Ford conserved this artifact through an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant, our conservators were excited to find an example of a facsimile still on the drum inside the machine. In this image, you can see an original radio facsimile portrait of Boris Karloff, who was famous for his 1931 portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster.
The Henry Ford’s collections also include the original transmitter and amplifier that powered the W8XWJ station.
W8XWJ’s Western Electric 500 Watt Ultra Shortwave Transmitter and Amplifier. These two devices are visible in their original installation here. /THF173159, THF173165
The idea behind W8XWJ’s radio facsimile experiment was revolutionary, but the process was slow and fussy. It could take over 20 minutes to print a single page of news, and signal reception became unreliable beyond a mile or two away from the transmitter. In 1940, W8XWJ ended its radio facsimile project.
While the original “whip” antenna for W8XWJ was replaced by a FM antenna in the early 1940s, if you look toward the top of the Penobscot building today, there is a tangle of communication equipment visible from street level. And in the interesting way that the new and the old can merge and converge within the histories of technology, some of this contemporary equipment fulfills radio facsimile’s promise to provide easily accessible information—the top of the Penobscot now serves as an important hub for Detroit’s wireless Internet network.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
While working for Ford Motor Company, Thompson conceived of an idea for an all-terrain vehicle that would do for Third World countries what the Model T did for America. This post highlights Thompson’s life and career as the first African-American automobile designer and sheds light on his little-known project for a vehicle ahead of its time, dubbed the Warrior.
Finding His Passion On an October afternoon in 1934, 12-year-old McKinley Thompson, Jr., was stopped in his tracks while walking home from school. The reason? He had spotted a brand-new silver DeSoto Airflow, the first silver-colored and streamlined vehicle he had ever seen. In an interview from 2001, Thompson recalled that “the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through… It lit that car up like a searchlight.” Awestruck by the unique design of the car, it was right then and there that Thompson knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: an automobile designer.
McKinley Thompson, Jr., undated (Photograph Courtesy of McKinley Thompson, Jr.)
In his youth, Thompson showed promise in drawing and was particularly interested in futuristic themes. He participated in commercial art courses throughout high school and, upon graduation in 1940, completed drafting courses where he learned to plan projects and present his ideas through drawings and concept illustrations. With these skills, Thompson acquired his first job as a draftsman with the National Youth Administration. He then worked as an engineering design layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps until he was drafted to serve in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Following the war, he continued working for the Signal Corps until 1953, when he found an opportunity to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an automobile designer.
Seizing the Opportunity
“Do you want to be an Automotive Designer” contest article from Motor Trend magazine, March 1953 THF299257
In March of 1953, Motor Trend magazine sponsored an Automotive and Industrial Design contest with the goal of discovering talented young adults. The prize? One of five, four-year tuition-free scholarships to the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles – one of the most respected schools for industrial design. Contest entry required several drawings and sketches, photographs, or models of cars and other products, along with an essay responding to the prompt, “What I think the trend in automotive design will be in the next ten years.” For McKinley Thompson, this was the chance of a lifetime – and he won.
McKinley Thompson’s winning entry in the article, “From Dream to Drawing Board to…?” in Motor Trend magazine, September 1953. In his essay, Thompson wrote that cars of the future would sacrifice aerodynamics to accommodate “more functional roominess and reduced size.” THF299268
Thompson’s gas turbine car, which incorporated reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him the top prize. Thompson became the first African American to attend the Art Center, where he excelled throughout his course of study. After graduation, Thompson was offered a job with Ford Motor Company in the Advanced Styling Studio, finally realizing his childhood dream and breaking a barrier by becoming the first African-American automobile designer.
In the Advanced Styling Studio, designers were given a great deal of creative freedom. This suited Thompson’s interest in futuristic themes, allowing him to contribute sketches for fantastical ideas, such as a flying car and a nuclear-powered multi-trailered truck. He also worked on the Allegro and Gyron concept cars and collaborated on design ideas for the production Mustang and Bronco.
The Warrior While Thompson’s career at Ford gave him the opportunity to work on a variety of vehicles and concepts that could change the automotive industry, his most innovative idea had the potential to change the world. Thompson envisioned an all-terrain vehicle for Third World countries that would be easy to build and maintain, with low production costs. But his vision extended beyond the vehicle, which he dubbed the Warrior. He anticipated auto plants – located in the developing nations that would use the car – bringing jobs, better roads, and eventual economic independence to the host countries. Much like how the Model T brought America into the modern age and stimulated the economy through accessible and affordable mobility, Thompson believed the Warrior could do the same for Third World nations.
His program was called “Project Vanguard.” The plan was to use Uniroyal plastic components – known as Royalex – because they were lightweight, durable, and relatively cost-efficient. The first phase of the plan involved building a facility where Royalex could be fabricated for use on the Warrior and other assets. The second phase would involve the building of the vehicle division (to encompass the Warrior and other future vehicles), followed by a marine division for constructing boats, and a container division where “habitat modules” would be fabricated for housing. Though Ford Motor Company was supportive when Thompson first brought his idea to the company in 1965, Ford ultimately passed on the project in 1967, believing that the vehicle would not sell in large enough quantities to warrant the investment.
Despite this setback, Thompson still believed that his vehicle could succeed. He thought that if he produced a prototype car and could demonstrate the possibilities of this unique application of Royalex, he could garner interest for investment in the program. He gathered several friends to help in financing the Warrior prototype, including Wally Triplett – the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions). By day, McKinley Thompson drafted concept drawings for Ford, but by night he worked tirelessly to bring his Warrior to life in a rented garage on Detroit’s west side.
Once his prototype was complete, Thompson and his partners attempted to market it to other investors and groups. They reached out to the Small Business Administration, which turned them down because the endeavor would take place outside the United States. They tried to gain assistance from the Agency for International Development but received little interest. A group of people at Chrysler, who assisted small businesses in getting started, suggested to Thompson that he first establish a market for Royalex in the United States. Plastic-bodied vehicles were still an unusual concept, and American automakers at the time were only experimenting with the idea on a limited scale. Thompson realized he was caught in a classic catch-22: He needed a Royalex facility to establish a market for plastic-bodied vehicles, but he couldn’t get the facility built without an existing market for plastic-bodied vehicles.
Instability on the African continent derailed opportunities to conduct business with the nations themselves. Thompson even tried to secure a bank loan to build Warrior cars in Detroit, but he was ultimately denied in this attempt as well. (Triplett later recounted that he felt that race played a role.) While every potential investor he approached told him it was a good idea, Thompson simply was unable to secure the funding needed to pursue his idea, eventually causing him to shut down the project in 1979.
Image from a 1965 Royalex sales brochure, showing the possibilities of an amphibious vehicle using Royalex materials. Interestingly, the Warrior was designed to be an all-terrain vehicle – including use for crossing rivers and small inland lakes! Click here to check out the rest of this brochure in which Uniroyal has suggested other uses for Royalex. THF290896
An Inspiring Career Around the same time that the doors were closing on the Warrior, Thompson developed another way to influence and change people’s lives. He coordinated a traveling exhibit, featuring the work of other African-American automobile designers, to motivate and encourage young people toward careers in design. Thompson traveled across the country, staging his exhibit in schools and shopping centers.
Photograph from the Ford Motor Company publication, “Rouge News,” March 19, 1962 THF299429
McKinley Thompson had an impressive 28-year career with Ford. In 1962 he was awarded Ford’s highest honor for community service, the Citizen of the Year Award. He contributed to a variety of projects (including experimental concept cars), worked in the Thunderbird and Falcon design studios, and eventually oversaw 50 craftspeople and modelers before retiring in 1984.
Despite his career success, Thompson continued to regret that his Warrior vehicle and overall program never materialized – though he was proud of his accomplishment in building the Warrior and proving it’s basic feasibility. The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The extensive use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when Ewert Smith’s URI, an all-terrain vehicle designed for African topography, was manufactured in the small town of Witvlei, Namibia. The URI plant became Witvlei’s largest employer, providing economic stability to the area.
Even though the Warrior never made it to market, Thompson kept the car as a leisure vehicle, taking it on family vacations and occasionally using it to run errands – usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Thompson donated his prototype to The Henry Ford in 2001.
McKinley Thompson, Jr., passed away at the age of 83, after battling Parkinson’s disease, in 2006.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. This post expands upon Bart Bealmear’s “The Warrior,” blog post from February 2014. Special thanks to Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation, for his help in reviewing the content.
With the North American International Auto Show now moved to June, we’ve had an unusually long dry spell in the Motor City when it comes to automotive exhibitions. The drought was finally broken by the annual Detroit Autorama, held February 28-March 1. Always a major show, this year’s edition was no exception with more than 800 hot rods and custom cars spread over two levels of the TCF Center.
Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s “Outlaw,” honored as one of the 20th Century’s most significant hot rods.
The most memorable display this year was immodestly (but quite accurately) labeled “The Most Significant Hot Rods of the 20th Century.” It was a veritable who’s who of iconic iron featuring tributes to Bob McGee’s ’32 Ford, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s “Outlaw” and “Beatnik Bandit,” Tommy Ivo’s ’25 T-Bucket, and Norm Grabowski’s ’22 T-Bucket – the last immortalized as Kookie Kookson’s ginchy ride in the TV show 77 Sunset Strip.
“Impressive” indeed. The 1963 Chevy wagon that won this year’s Ridler Award. (The chrome on those wheels practically glows!)
The biggest excitement always surrounds the Ridler Award, named for Autorama’s first promoter, Don Ridler. It’s the event’s top prize, and only cars that have never been shown publicly before are eligible. Judges select their “Great 8” – the eight finalists – on Friday and, for the rest of the weekend, excitement builds until the winner is revealed at the Sunday afternoon awards ceremony. The winner receives $10,000 and the distinction of having her or his name engraved forever on the trophy. It’s among the highest honors in the hot rod and custom car hobby. This year’s prize went to “Impressive,” a 1963 Chevrolet two-door station wagon built by a father-son-grandson team from Minnesota. With a Ridler now to its credit, no one can question the car’s name again.
Replica race cars – a Ford GT40 and a Ferrari 330 P3 used in the 2019 film Ford v Ferrari.
There’s always a little Hollywood magic on the show floor somewhere, and this year it came from a pair of replica cars used in two big racing scenes in the hit 2019 movie Ford v Ferrari. From the 1966 Daytona 24-Hour was the #95 Ford GT40 Mk. II driven by Walt Hansgen and Mark Donohue. From the 1966 Le Mans 24-Hour was the #20 Ferrari 330 P3 driven by Ludovico Scarfiotti and Mike Parkes. How accurate were the copy cars? Judge for yourself by looking here and here.
The Michigan Midget Racing Association introduces kids to the excitement of auto racing.
Those who are worried about younger generations not being interested in cars could take comfort from the Michigan Midget Racing Association. The organization’s Autorama display featured a half dozen cars that kids could (and did) climb into for photos. Quarter Midget cars are sized for kids anywhere from 5 to 16 years old. And while they look cute, these race cars aren’t toys. Their single-cylinder engines move the cars along at speeds up to 45 miles per hour. M.M.R.A.’s oval track in Clarkston is surfaced with asphalt and approximately 1/20 of a mile long.
Our 2020 Past Forward Award winner – a 1964 Pontiac GTO that matured with its owner.
Each year, The Henry Ford proudly presents its own trophy at Autorama. Our Past Forward Award honors a vehicle that combines inspirations of the past with innovative technologies of the present. It exhibits the highest craftsmanship and has a great story behind it. This year’s winner put a novel spin on the “Past Forward” concept. It’s a 1964 Pontiac GTO owned by Fred Moler of Sterling Heights, Michigan. Fred bought the car while he was in college and, appropriately for someone at that young age, drove it hard and fast. When adult responsibilities came along, he tucked the Goat away in a barn. Some 40 years later, Moler pulled the car out of the barn for restoration. He wanted to relive his college days but knew that neither he nor the GTO were the same as they were decades ago. Moler kept the trademark 389 V-8 but replaced the drivetrain with a more sedate unit. He added air conditioning, improved the sound system, and ever so slightly tinted the glass. In his own words, Moler enhanced the car to make it comfortable for his “more mature” self. He brought a piece of his own past forward to suit his present-day wants and needs. Like I said, a great story.
Autorama’s oldest entry – an 1894 horse-drawn road grader.
Autorama veterans know that the grittiest cars are found on TCF Center’s lower level – the infamous domain known as Autorama Extreme. Here you’ll find the Rat Rods that take pride in their raw, unabashedly unattractive appearance. By all means, take the escalator downstairs. There are always gems among the rats. This year I was thrilled to find an 1894 horse-drawn road grader manufactured by the F.C. Austin Company of Chicago. Utilitarian vehicles like this are rare survivors from our pre-automobile age. Autorama Extreme is a great place to tap your feet as well. Live music fills the lower level throughout the weekend – lots of 1950s rockabilly, of course, but plenty of blues and soul too.
Don’t miss Toy-a-Rama with its assortment of vintage car books and brochures.
Each year, I make a point of visiting Toy-a-Rama at the back of TCF Center. Vendors sell hundreds of plastic model kits, diecast models, memorabilia, and toys. But it’s the great selection of auto-related books, magazines, and vintage sales literature that always reels me in – and leaves my wallet a little lighter on the way out.
A beautiful 1:1 scale model of “Uncertain-T” – some assembly required.
And speaking of model kits, maybe the coolest thing I saw all weekend was down in Autorama Extreme. It was a beautifully crafted, partially-assembled model of Steve Scott’s “Uncertain-T” just like Monogram used to make – but this one was life-sized. Really, the giant sprue was terrific enough, but the giant hobby knife and glue tube took the whole thing to the next level. (Skill Level 2, as the box might’ve said.)
All in all, another great year celebrating the wildest, weirdest, and winningest custom cars and hot rods around. If you’ve never been, make sure you don’t miss Autorama in 2021.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford acquired the Vegetable Building from Detroit's Central Farmers Market in 2003, saving it from demolition. Like the farmers markets of today, the Detroit Central Farmers Market was a gathering place – a commercial center, a hub of entrepreneurship and a community space where family, friends, and neighbors congregated and socialized.
This farmers market can become a destination again, a resource for exploring America's agricultural past, present, and future. We need your help to make this happen. #PledgeYourPassion by making a gift this Giving Tuesday.
Learn more about the remarkable history of this important structure.
The City of Detroit invested in a new permanent market building - this expansive vegetable hall - in 1860. Located at the east end of Michigan Avenue, just east of Woodward at Campus Martius, it was roughly four blocks square, extending from Woodward to Randolph. The major building in the market was the expansive vegetable building. Market gardeners, florists, orchardists, and nurserymen sold their produce from rented stalls between 1861 and 1893.
The growth of Central Market reflects Detroit’s growth as a city. Much of Detroit’s early history revolved around its importance as a port and strategic location in the Great Lakes. During the 19th century, Detroit’s manufacturing base and its population grew rapidly, more than doubling every 10 years from just 2,222 people in 1830 to 45,619 in 1860. The Central Market was the first Detroit market not located by the docks, reflecting the city’s transition from a port town to a city. Farmers were now coming to Detroit to sell to city residents, rather than to ship produce to eastern cities.
This certified 1884 Sanborn insurance map shows the Central Market area, including the Vegetable Building and other shops.
The Central Farmers Market began in 1843 as a simple shed built off the rear of the old City Hall building. Problems with traffic congestion caused by the market, along with the desire to make the prominent square more presentable, led newly elected Mayor Christian H. Buhl to pledge to build a new covered market building. The city hired local architect John Schaffer to develop plans. Schaffer’s design called for a “structure to be comprised of forty-eight iron columns supporting a wooden roof, [measuring] 70 by 242 feet from outside to outside.” The construction contract was awarded in June to Joel Gray at a cost of $5,312. In late September of 1860, the Detroit Free Press wrote:
“The new market building in the rear of the City Hall is nearly competed and promises to be a fine structure. It covers the whole of the space occupied as a vegetable market, and consists of an open shed, the roof of which is supported on iron columns and a well-finished framework. The roof is of slate and cost about $1,500. It is designed in time to make a tile floor and erect fountains. The building will accommodate all the business of the market and will constitute an ornament as well as a great convenience to that important branch of city commerce.”
In its first year, the market earned the city $1,127 in rent, covering 20% of the construction costs in one year. The building thrived as the vegetable market through the 1880s. The emergence of the Eastern Market, and the continuing desire to open the street to traffic, led the Common Council to decide to close the Central Market in 1892. In 1893 the Parks and Boulevards Commission, which operated Belle Isle, received approval to move the building to Belle Isle for use as a horse and vehicle shelter. The building was re-erected on Belle Isle in 1894.
In later years it was converted to a riding stable – the sides were bricked in, the roof was altered to add clerestory windows to let in light, and an office and wash area was constructed in the south end. After the riding stable closed in 1963, the building was used to keep the horses of the Detroit Mounted Police, and then later used for storage. It was considered for demolition since the early 1970s. Over the summer of 2003, the building was dismantled and the parts from the original market building were preserved for re-erection in Greenfield Village.
The Detroit Central Farmers Market vegetable building is a rare and important building. Because of fires and development pressures, wooden commercial buildings, particularly timber-framed buildings, rarely survive to the present in urban settings. This may be the only 19th century timber-frame market building surviving in the United States. Its move to Belle Isle saved it from demolition.
The building is architecturally significant. It is an excellent expression of prevailing architectural tastes, as demonstrated by the Free Press review. It captures the rapidly changing world of building construction of the mid-19th century. The building represents the pinnacle of the timber framer’s craft; it is elegantly shaped and ornamented in a way that makes the frame itself the visual keystone of the design. It was built shortly before timber frame construction was eclipsed by the new balloon frame construction, which used dimensional lumber and nailed joints. The cast iron columns that support the timber-framed roof represent the newest in manufactured construction materials. Cast iron was the favorite material of the modern builder in the mid-19th century. It was easy to form into a variety of shapes, and ideal for adding ornamentation to buildings at a moderate cost. The columns in the market building have been formed to represent two different materials – the lower section resembles an elaborately carved stone column, while the upper section looks like the timber frame structure that it supports.
The building captures the exuberance and optimism of the city of Detroit as it grew in its first wave from a frontier fort and outpost, to an important city. A “useful and beautiful” market building in the city’s central square was important to this image of this growing city – as evidenced by the fact that it took only nine months from Mayor Buhl’s inaugural address of January 11, 1860 promising a new market building, to its substantial completion. Few buildings survive from this first era of growth in the city of Detroit.
For 30 years customers engaged with vendors at the Vegetable Building in Detroit's Central Market. For 110 years the building served the public in a variety of ways on Belle Isle. Your donation will help The Henry Ford rebuild this structure in the heart of Greenfield Village. There it will inspire future generations to learn about their food sources. Make history and #PledgeYourPassion this Giving Tuesday.
Jim McCabe is Collections Manager at The Henry Ford.
Today, The Henry Ford mourns the passing of Damon J. Keith, a civil rights icon and courageous champion for social justice. Judge Keith was the driving force in high impact cases which shaped our local community, our country and our collective national conscience. He was a leader, scholar, beloved mentor and dear friend of many, including The Henry Ford. During his visits to our campus, he took particular delight that among the automotive, aviation, power generation and agricultural exhibits presented on the floor of the museum, a visitor could also experience our “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibition which presents the story of America’s historical and ongoing struggle to live up to the ideal articulated in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.
We were also honored to host Judge Keith as our honored guest in 2011 when The Henry Ford had the rare privilege of putting the original Emancipation Proclamation on public display. We wanted to preserve some of the special moments and memories the event generated in over 21,000 visitors who viewed the document during its 36-hour public presentation via a limited printing, non-commercial commemorative keepsake book, and we were honored to include Judge Keith’s reflections on the document’s significance as the book’s close.
Judge Keith’s passing is a true loss for Detroit, Michigan and our nation, but his inspirational and unwavering commitment to justice and civil rights will be his living legacy.
Cobo Center brimmed with more than 800 custom cars and hot rods at the 2019 Detroit Autorama.
Winter was a little late arriving here in southeast Michigan, and it doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. But the colder-than-average temperatures made it all the more satisfying to check out the hot cars at the 67th Annual Detroit Autorama.
A superb blend of old and new – a 2018 Dodge Charger Hellcat with the face and Coke bottle doors of its timeless 1969 predecessor.
Anyone in the hobby knows that Detroit’s Autorama is among the most prestigious hot rod and custom car shows in the world. More than 800 cars from throughout the United States and Canada come together at Cobo Center to be judged on their craftsmanship and creativity. The best entrants join Autorama’s “Great 8.” And from these eight finalists, judges choose the winner of the best-in-show Ridler Award. Only cars that have never been shown before are eligible to win, so it’s a special honor indeed. In addition to the bragging rights, the Ridler winner receives $10,000 and enshrinement in the online Winner Archive. This year’s Ridler Award went to “Cadmad,” a wild 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham station wagon owned by Steve Barton of Las Vegas, Nevada. Mr. Barton passed away before the car was completed, giving added poignancy to this year’s prize.
Wes Adkins’s 1956 Ford Victoria took home The Henry Ford’s “Past Forward” award.
For the sixth year The Henry Ford presented its “Past Forward” award at the Detroit Autorama. Our prize goes to a car that 1.) Blends custom and hot rod traditions with modern innovation, 2.) Exhibits a high level of craftsmanship, 3.) Captures the “anything goes” spirit of the hobby, and 4.) Is just plain fun. Our winner this year was a 1956 Ford Victoria owned by Wes Adkins of Dover, Ohio. The Victoria features a 301-cubic inch Y-Block V-8 with twin superchargers; hand-crafted rocker panels, floors, and inner fenders; vintage Thunderbird door handles; and a 3D-printed hood ornament – at 60 percent the size of the original for a lower-profile look. Everything was beautifully executed – particularly the paintwork, done by the owner himself.
“The True Vine” – a 1977 Buick LeSabre at Autorama’s Low Rider Invitational.
This year brought a special milestone as the Detroit Autorama hosted its first-ever Low Rider Invitational. Some 14 cars from Michigan and Ohio were featured in a special display. In the past, lowriders at Autorama tended to be scattered around the floor wherever space permitted. Exhibiting them together recognized the fact that lowriders represent a distinct – and thriving – subculture in the broader custom car hobby. Equally important was the fact that the lowrider display was curated by veteran gearhead Debbie Sanchez. Car shows – all kinds of car shows – have been dominated by men for too long. It’s refreshing to see women participating in greater numbers each year.
With their rambunctious reputation, John and Horace Dodge might have gotten a kick out of this rodded-up 1915 Dodge Brothers.
With so many cars on view, there’s something for everyone in Cobo Center. For race fans, there were slingshot dragsters and funny cars. For kids, there were go-karts and quarter midgets. For movie fans, there was a screen-used Batmobile from 1992’s Batman Returns, as well as a tribute to the late Burt Reynolds, who brought new car fans into the hobby with movies like Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, and The Cannonball Run. And live music throughout the weekend ran the gamut from ’50s rock and roll to hard-driving R&B.
Minibikes lined up at Autorama Extreme.
For all of the great cars on the main floor, Autorama veterans know that the wildest rides are found down below – at Autorama Extreme on Cobo Center’s lower level. There you’d find the rat rods, the bobber bikes, and the way-out customs that are more riddle than Ridler. There’s even an on-site chop shop where you can watch skilled fabricators at work.
Toy-a-Rama featured vintage toys, diecast models, racing memorabilia, and automotive sales literature.
If your budget (or your garage) won’t permit you to collect full-size cars, then you could check out the Toy-a-Rama show at the back of Cobo Center. Vendors offered hundreds of diecast cars and plastic model kits, from Hot Wheels on up to beautifully-detailed 1:18 scale pieces. Other sellers offered transportation-related books and magazines, and an incredible collection of vintage automotive sales brochures and advertisements.
There’s no other show quite like it, which explains why the Detroit Autorama continues to be known among builders and fans alike as “America’s Greatest Hot Rod Show.”
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Dodge Demon 1.0: “Insidious,” one of 800 hot rods and custom cars on view at the 2018 Detroit Autorama.
There’s still snow on the ground in the Motor City, but car show season is officially underway after the 66th annual Detroit Autorama, held March 2-4. Some of the wildest, weirdest and/or most beautiful customs and hot rods filled Cobo Center in a celebration of chrome and creativity. For those who’ve never been, Autorama is a feast for the eyes (and, at closing time when many of the entrants drive off under their own power, the ears). Some 800 cars, built by the most talented rodders and customizers in the country, are brought together under a single roof to be admired, coveted and judged.
Wit is as much a part of the customizer’s toolbox as wrenches and rachets. Check out this 1955 Chevy “Bad Humor” ice cream truck, surrounded by used popsicle sticks.
The most prestigious prize at Autorama is the Ridler Award, named in honor of show promoter Don Ridler. Only cars that have never been shown before are eligible. On Autorama’s opening day, the judges select their “Great 8” – the finalists for the Ridler. Anticipation builds throughout the weekend until the winner is announced at the end of the Sunday afternoon awards presentation. In addition to considerable bragging rights, the Ridler Award winner receives $10,000 and enshrinement in the online Winner Archive. This year’s Ridler went to “Imagine,” a silver 1957 Chevrolet 150 owned by Greg and Judy Hrehovcsik and Johnny Martin of Alamosa, Colorado.
Our 2018 Past Forward winner, a 1956 Continental Mark II with a fifth-generation Chevy Camaro powertrain under the body.
Each year The Henry Ford gives out its own prize to a deserving Autorama participant. Our Past Forward award recognizes a car that 1.) Blends custom and hot rod traditions with modern innovation, 2.) Exhibits a high level of craftsmanship, 3.) Captures the “anything goes” spirit of the hobby, and 4.) Is just plain fun. Our 2018 winner, a 1956 Continental Mark II owned by Doug Knorr of Traverse City, Michigan, and built by Classic Car Garage of Greenville, Michigan, had all these qualities in the right combination. Everything about the car said “Continental,” only more so – from the oversized turbine wheels to the elegant Continental star on the valve covers. And if the 400-horsepower LS3 Camaro V-8 under the hood doesn’t say “anything goes,” then I don’t know what does.
The 1976 Dodge Monaco – notably a model made after catalytic converters, so it won’t run good on regular gas.
If chrome-plated undercarriages aren’t your thing, then Autorama Extreme was there for you again this year on Cobo’s lower level. Shammy cloths and car polish are decidedly out of place among the Rat Rods down below. In addition to show cars, vendors and the ever-popular Gene Winfield pop-up chop shop, Autorama Extreme features a concert stage with ongoing musical entertainment. There’s always a healthy dose of 1950s rockabilly on the schedule, but this year’s lineup also included a Blues Brothers tribute act – complete with a 1976 Dodge Monaco gussied up (or down, I suppose) into a fairly convincing copy of the Bluesmobile.
Unpolished and proud of it. A 1930 Ford Model A with the Rat Rods in Autorama Extreme.
Not everything at Autorama is textbook classic. Here’s a 1980 AMC Spirit patriotically living up to its name with lots of red, white and blue.
“Lethal T,” for those who’ve always dreamed of putting a 427 Cammer in a Model T.
If you haven’t been to Detroit Autorama, then make a point of being there in 2019. You won’t find anything quite like it anywhere else in the world.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Motown Record Album, “The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks, June 23, 1963.” THF31935
Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, held on June 23, 1963, helped move the southern Civil Rights struggle to a new focus on the urban North. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. later called this march “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America.”
Organized by the Detroit Council on Human Rights, this was the largest Civil Rights demonstration to date. Its main purpose was to speak out against Southern segregation and the brutality that faced Civil Rights activists there. It was also meant to raise consciousness about the unique concerns of African Americans in the urban North, which included discriminatory hiring practices, wages, education, and housing. The date was chosen to correlate with both the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit race riots that had left 34 people (mostly African American) dead. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who agreed to lead the march, had by this time become committed to uniting both North and South through his grand vision of achieving racial justice by using non-violent protest.
On the day of the march, about 125,000 people filed down Woodward Avenue, singing freedom songs and carrying signs demanding racial equality. Some 15,000 spectators watched them pass by a 21-block area before turning west down Jefferson Avenue to Cobo Hall. Cobo was filled to capacity to hear the speeches of the march’s leaders while thousands more listened to them on loudspeakers outside. Of the speeches given that day, Dr. King’s was the most memorable. People were riveted while he expressed his vision for the future, sharing a dream that foreshadowed the “I Have a Dream” speech that he would give a few months later at the March on Washington.
Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown Record Corporation, considered Detroit’s Walk to Freedom to be such a historic event that he offered the resources of his Hitsville studio to produce a record album documenting Dr. King’s impassioned words. Gordy heightened the drama of the event by titling the album, “The Great March to Freedom: Reverend Martin Luther King Speaks.” He believed that this record belonged in every home, that it should be required listening for “every child, white or black.” No one realized at the time, including Gordy, that the August March on Washington would become the more remembered event.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams of social justice, voiced at Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, would prove elusive. Despite the fact that Detroit had gained a national reputation for being a “model city” of race relations at the time, in reality the city’s African-American population faced unemployment, housing discrimination, de facto segregation in public schools, and police brutality. Ultimately this disconnect between perception and reality would lead to the violence and civil unrest of July 1967.
For more on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held on August 28, 1963, take a look at this post.
Donna R. Braden is the Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Ring received by Charlie Sanders when he was enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. THF165545
The Henry Ford has in its collection this commemorative bust and ring that had once been owned and cherished by Charlie Sanders, Detroit Lions tight end. He had received these items when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 4, 2007, along with five other players.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame was created in Canton, Ohio, in 1963, to commemorate the game and players of professional football. As of 2017, 310 players are enshrined here, elected by a 46-person committee that is mostly made up of members of the media. An Enshrinement Ceremony is held annually in August. Thousands attend this ceremony and millions more watch and listen as the nationally televised event unfolds.
Sanders is one of 19 Lions enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Seven of the 19 are African American, including Lem Barney, Barry Sanders, and Dick “Night Train” Lane.
Charlie Alvin Sanders (1946-2015) was born in rural Richlands, North Carolina, where his aunt raised him after the death of his mother when he was only two years old. At age 8, after his father got out of the military, the family moved to Greensboro—a hotbed of racial tension, most famously the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.
He graduated from James B. Dudley High School (Greensboro’s first all-black public school, established in 1929). There he starred in football, baseball, and basketball. His dislike of Southern racial attitudes discouraged him from attending North Carolina’s Wake Forest University; he decided instead to play football at the University of Minnesota.
The Detroit Lions chose him in the third round of the 1968 NFL Draft. Initially, he wasn’t sure about playing for Detroit after witnessing the civil unrest in that city in 1967, reminding him of the racial tensions in the South when he was growing up. He almost went to Toronto to play hockey, but the Lions offered him a contract he decided to accept.
Sanders has been considered the finest tight end in Detroit Lions history. He played for the Lions from 1968 to 1977, totaling 336 career receptions (a Lions record that would hold for 20 seasons) for 4,817 yards and 31 touchdowns. He was also known as a superior blocker.
The tight end was a unique offensive position that, depending upon the coach’s strategy, can assist with blocking for the running back or quarterback as well as receive passes. Greater use of the tight end as a receiver started in the 1960s. Sanders proved to be the Lions’ “secret weapon” in the passing game during a period when the right end was primarily a blocker. He was one of the first tight ends who brought experience in both college football and basketball, and he had great leaping ability, big hands, strength, speed and elusiveness—traits not common for tight ends of his era. Hall of Fame Cornerback Lem Barney claimed, “He made some acrobatic catches. I’m telling you, one-legged, one arm in the air, floating through the air almost like a Superman. If you threw it to him he was going to find a way to catch it.”
Sanders grew up in an era that marked the transition between legally upheld segregation in the South and increasingly prominent roles of African Americans in all aspects of sports—on the playing field, in media, and as decision-makers in coaching and management. He came of age at a time when the black athlete in Detroit aspired to a more activist role in social and business matters. He spent much time in the company of Lions teammates Lem Barney and Mel Farr and Pistons star Dave Bing. Referring to themselves as “The Boardroom,” they frequently conducted meetings in which they discussed the importance of black athletes being defined by more than simply their on-field exploits.
Sanders’ look defined African American players of the 1970s. As writer Drew Sharp remarked, “He wore the huge Afro. His helmet couldn’t cover it all. It looked cool. It looked defiant. And, quite frankly, it was the only motive for any kids in my northwest Detroit neighborhood to buy a Lions helmet at that time because they wanted their Afros sticking out from the back.” He also sported a heavy Fu Manchu mustache at the time.
Bust received by Charlie Sanders when he was enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. THF165545
During his 10 years playing for the Lions, he was chosen seven times for the Pro Bowl (NFL’s All-Star game) from 1968 to 1971 and 1974 to 1976—more than any other Hall of Fame Tight End. He was also chosen for NFL’s All-Pro team in 1970 and 1971 (made up of players voted the best in their position during those two years) and for the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team. In 2008, he was chosen as a member of the Lions’ 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
During an exhibition game in 1976, Sanders injured his right knee, ending his career. After retirement, Sanders served as a color analyst for Lions radio broadcasts (1983-1988), worked with the team as an assistant coach in charge of wide receivers (1989-1996 – mentoring players who would themselves go on to earn a place in the Lions’ record book), returned to radio broadcasting in 1997, then joined the Lions’ front office as a scout. He became the team’s assistant director of pro personnel in 2000, holding that role until his death on July 2, 2015.
Sanders had also worked in the team’s community relations department and did much charitable work, serving as a spokesman for the United Way and The March of Dimes. He created The Charlie Sanders Foundation in 2007, providing scholarships for high school students in Michigan and North Carolina, and began the “Have a Heart Save a Life” program within the foundation.
Sanders spent 43 years with the Detroit Lions over parts of five decades, the longest tenure of anyone outside the Ford family. Sports blogger “Big Al” Beaton wrote about him, “…as a kid growing up in the 70’s, my favorite Lion was Charlie Sanders….We all wanted to emulate Charlie Sanders. In my mind Sanders was the best tight end I’ve ever seen play.”
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Hot Hatch Heaven! Hyundai’s 275-horsepower Veloster N, one of several new models unveiled at this year’s North American International Auto Show.
Detroit is the capital of the global automotive industry once more as the 2018 North American International Auto Show arrives at Cobo Center. Carmakers from around the world have come to share peeks at their 2019 model lines, and hint at new technologies that may be coming in the years ahead. As usual, the exhibits range from exciting, to informative to downright unreal.
This is exactly what it looks like: a 1979 Mercedes-Benz G-Class frozen in amber.
Mercedes-Benz takes the cake for most unusual display. The German automaker unveiled a new version of its venerable G-Class SUV, in continuous production since 1979. To emphasize its endurance, Mercedes encased a vintage G-Class in a giant block of amber. (Think dino-DNA mosquitoes in Jurassic Park.) The block is located outside, along Washington Boulevard, rather than in the Mercedes-Benz booth. But don’t miss that either – you can see a 2019 G-Class splattered with faux mud, and the G-Class driven to victory by Jacky Ickx and Claude Brasseur in the 1983 Paris-Dakar Rally.
The Chevrolet Silverado – now lighter thanks to a blend of steel and aluminum body panels.
With gas prices down and the economy up, Americans have reignited their romance with pickup trucks. Chevrolet and Dodge both revealed new full-sized models, while Ford trumpeted the return of its mid-size Ranger. The 2019 Chevy Silverado rolled out under the headline “mixed materials.” In response to the Ford F-150’s aluminum bed (premiered at 2014’s NAIAS) and fuel efficiency targets, the bowtie brand is now building Silverado bodies with a mix of steel and aluminum components, shedding some 450 pounds from the truck’s overall weight. Chevy, celebrating a century in the truck business this year, is quick to point out that Silverado’s bed remains an all-steel affair. (Silverado TV commercials have been cutting on the F-150’s aluminum bed for some time now.)
Eyeing the American market, China’s GAC Motor makes a splash with its Enverge concept car.
China is a bigger factor in the American auto industry each year. Buick’s Envision crossover is already made in China, and Ford will shift production of its compact Focus there next year. It’s only a matter of time before a Chinese automaker starts marketing cars in the United States. GAC Motor hopes to be the first, announcing plans to sell vehicles stateside in 2019. (Yes, Chinese-owned Volvo is already selling cars here, but it first came to the U.S. in 1955 in its original Swedish guise.) It could be a tough sell – U.S. automakers and politicians aren’t too pleased with the steep tariffs imposed on American cars sent to China. In the meantime, GAC tempts NAIAS visitors with its Enverge concept SUV. The all-electric Enverge is said to have a range of 370 miles on a single charge – and can be recharged for a range of 240 miles in a mere 10 minutes.
Detective Frank Bullitt’s 1968 Ford Mustang, among Hollywood’s most iconic cars.
Ironically, one of the most talked-about cars at NAIAS is 50 years old. Ford Motor Company tracked down one of two Highland Green Mustangs driven by Steve McQueen in the 1968 thriller Bullitt. As any gearhead knows, the movie’s epic 11-minute chase scene, in which McQueen and his Mustang go toe-to-toe with a couple of baddies in a black 1968 Dodge Charger, is considered one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest car chases – even half a century later. Its lasting appeal is a credit to McQueen’s skill (both as an actor and a driver – he did some of the chase driving himself), the “you are there” feel of the in-car camerawork, and – obviously – the total absence of CGI. Those are real cars trading real paint.
The current owner’s parents bought the Mustang through a 1974 classified ad in Road & Track magazine. For years they used one of pop culture’s most important automobiles as their daily driver! With the movie’s 50th anniversary this year, the owner decided it was time to bring the car back into the spotlight. Ford agreed and, in addition to the movie car, its booth also features the limited edition 2019 Bullitt Mustang, a tribute car that hits dealer lots this summer.
Digital license plates may one day eliminate sticker tabs – or be remotely updated to alert police of a stolen vehicle.
The youngest, hungriest companies at NAIAS are on Cobo Center’s lower level. More than 50 start-ups, along with colleges and government agencies, are in Detroit for the second annual AutoMobili-D, the showcase for fresh ideas and innovative technologies. Reviver Auto hopes to revolutionize an accessory that hasn’t changed in more than a century: the license plate. The California company proposes swapping the tried and true stamped metal plate for a digital screen. The new device is more visible in low light and poor weather, and resistant to the corrosion that plagues metal plates. In lieu of adhesive registration tabs, your digital plate could be renewed remotely each year by the DMV. Plates could also broadcast Amber Alerts to other drivers, or be updated by authorities if you report your car as stolen. Some will argue that current license plates are fine – as functional and intuitive as need be. But based on the number of randomly-placed renewal tabs I see out there, I’m not so sure there isn’t room for improvement.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.