Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged driving america

Woman with short hair wearing a jacket with a stylized vine pattern poses in front of a car
Mimi Vandermolen, 1992–93, in front of the Ford Probe. / THF626259


Today, we take things like ergonomic seats and user-friendly dashboard dials in American automobiles for granted. But back in the mid-1980s, these were radical innovations. Much of the credit for bringing these game-changing elements to an American automobile goes to a creative and determined female lead designer named Mimi Vandermolen, who headed up the 1986 Ford Taurus interior design team.

Image taken from driver's seat of car steering wheel and instrument panel
Interior of 1986 Ford Taurus LX Sedan in The Henry Ford’s collection. / THF90338

In the late 1970s, Ford Motor Company had no room for mistakes. The 1978 oil embargo by OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) had resulted in a customer rush to buy economical, fuel-efficient cars made by non-American automobile companies, like Japanese-made Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics. The surge in import sales might have been bad enough. But Ford, unfortunately, had no new models in the works to respond to the rapidly changing market.

Page with text and photo of small red/brown car parked in front of a wooden building with people and a carriage nearby
Sales brochure for 1977 Honda Civic. / THF202071

However, a new group of leaders at Ford, more familiar with the foreign market, began to implement changes. They envisioned a brand-new “world-class” car—a car that followed and improved upon world-wide trends in engineering and design, that could be sold in any country, and that was second to none in quality (referred to as “best in class”). To accomplish these objectives for what would eventually become the Taurus, Ford executives realized that two things had to change radically: the customer would have to come first, and product integrity could never be compromised.

The design and manufacturing process also had to change. Those who planned, designed, engineered, built, and sold this new car would work as a team. The team concept in developing the Taurus meant that those who styled the interior would work concurrently and in concert with those who developed the car’s exterior. Moreover, the team approach would not be top-down. The input of planners, engineers, designers, promoters, and dealers would be both welcomed and actively invited.

Page with text and a three-dimensional pie chart labeled "Team Taurus"
Diagram showing the unique (at the time) integration of departments charged collectively with meeting the new car’s objectives, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625465

Mimi J. Vandermolen was born in the Netherlands and raised in Toronto, and she grew up liking art and drawing. She found her calling when she visited the product design studio at the Ontario College of Art. One of the first female students to attend school there, she graduated in 1969. Disappointingly, she found very few design jobs open to women, as women’s work at the time was primarily narrowed to teaching, nursing, and secretarial jobs. But in 1970, she was hired to work in Ford’s Philco Division, where she designed home appliances like snowblowers and TVs—rather than automobiles.

Still, she was the first female designer in the Ford Design Studio at a time when women were rarely hired by American automotive design studios. Soon enough, her talents were recognized, and after six months she was transferred to car design—working as a trainee on the Mustang II, Cougar, and Granada. All the while, she felt that her ideas were ignored or dismissed, considered too radical or out-of-the-box for a staid American automobile company.

Black-and-white photo of car in front of building with concrete plaza and grass berm; one person is behind wheel and another in suit walks toward car
Publicity photo for the 1974 Mustang II. Note the reference to “simulated walnut accents” (rather than real wood), a decorative touch that designers detested and were delighted to see eliminated in the Ford Taurus interior. / THF113139

In 1979, Vandermolen was promoted to Design Specialist at Ford and, in 1980, she was invited to join Team Taurus as the lead designer of the interior. She considered the team approach a “breath of fresh air,” but realized that designers were not used to articulating or defending their ideas. Her design team was going to have to become a lot better at justifying design ideas to have any of them approved and implemented.

She recognized from the start that the key to the potential success of the Taurus was to create an interior that mirrored the style and theme of its exterior body. Each component of the interior—switches, doors, lights, controls, seats—would be designed to meet two key objectives. First, were they “friendly” enough—that is, were they easy to find and use, day or night? And second, did they blend in aesthetically with the car’s exterior and the rest of its interior?

The dashboard (known in the industry as the Instrument Panel, or IP) was traditionally designed to suit the needs of engineers and manufacturers rather than those who actually drove the cars. It tended to be straight and flat, and the driver had to lean forward to reach it—a design already being abandoned in European cars.

Page with text and two black-and-white photos: top showing a rounded station wagon parked by a pond with two people nearby, and the bottom showing the front seats and front dash of a car from above
The lower image, from the 1986 Ford Taurus press kit, illustrates how the instrumentation and controls were designed to “an exceptional level of passenger comfort.” / THF105522

Vandermolen asked her team to address how a driver could both have easy access to the IP and still ride in a car that was spacious and inviting. In the final design, the Taurus IP was angled in such a way that the instrument and control system would indeed come within quick and easy reach of the driver.

Page with text and three color images of dials and gauges (some digital) in a car dash (?)
Taurus instrument panel dials, both standard and digital, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625475

Vandermolen encouraged her team to consider how individual controls could be designed to be both manageable and safe. Each component was considered on a case-by-case basis. The speedometer, for example, was redesigned with a large needle to show incremental change in speed. Push-pull switches, like those for the heater, were replaced with rotary knobs, which were easier to operate. Switches had bumps added to the ends, so drivers could locate them easily without taking their eyes off the road. The controls and instruments were in clear view and easy to reach, so with a minimum of effort, one could drive a few times, then operate them by touch without looking away from the road. The IP also came with an optional digital panel, futuristic- and video-game-looking at the time, but foreshadowing future designs.

Page with text and two images, one of inside of open car door and one showing an overhead car light
Driver’s interior front door panel, with integrated features, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625482

The overall interior was designed to mirror the sculpted look of the body, with no straight or sharply angled panels. For example, after sixteen design iterations, the final design of the interior door panel was smoothly sculpted with integrated power controls, curb light, reflector, and map pocket. The interior also exuded a level of quality unlike previous mid-size family cars on the market. Fake woodgrain did not appear anywhere in the interior, to the delight of designers who had long abhorred this cheap substitute for real wood that had become the norm on American cars.

With the Taurus, the design of the seats started from scratch. This was, in fact, the most difficult part of the car to get right. The process took 2½ years—Ford’s most extensive seat evaluation program ever. It involved deconstructing and studying best-in-class car seats on the market (the GM Opel Senator was a front-runner), then simulating and recreating these. The newly designed seats for the Taurus were submitted to many miles of consumer test driving and weeks of test-dummy trials for seat and fabric durability.

Ergonomics—the science of relationships between humans and machines—played a crucial role in seat design. Traditional seats—flat, sofa-like slabs of upholstery or unsupportive bucket seats—had often led drivers to purchase after-market cushions and devices to provide back and leg support. Seats had to support a variety of sizes, shapes, and weights—sometimes for hours at a time. Fabric had to withstand extremes of temperature. The interior foam, providing the cushion, had to be resilient.

Page with text and two images of front car seats
Ergonomic seats with armrests, optional power adjustments, and cloth or optional leather upholstery, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625477

Final car seat options offered three configurations, fitting a wide range of physical types, and included lower-back support, heavy-density foam, and headrests for the front seats. In addition, ergonomic tests found that window switches and door handles were traditionally placed too far forward to comfortably use. They were, accordingly, moved and/or adjusted for easy reach. Finally, the rear seats were raised slightly for backseat passengers to be able to see over the front seats, while new storage compartments were tested and added.

Much of Vandermolen’s work on the Taurus, and on later projects, was driven by her passion about the needs of female drivers. “If I can solve all the problems inherent in operating a vehicle for a woman,” she maintained, “that’ll make it that much easier for a man to use.” For this, she solicited opinions from a wide range of female consumers, market testing some features over and over until she, her team, and—most importantly—the female customer were all satisfied.

In the end, the interior of the Taurus was a dramatic departure from the usual American car design. Controls were logical, switches made sense, seats were sturdy and comfortable. Moreover, Team Taurus felt that the team concept had worked. Team members debated, discussed, and listened to each other, working together to solve problems. Designers learned to present their vision and argue for it. Vandermolen instilled confidence in her team by telling them, “Don’t be scared. We’re on the right track. We’re meeting our objectives.”

Page with text "TAURUS 1986" and images of sedan car and rounded station wagon
1986 Taurus LX sedan and station wagon, from a sales brochure cover for the 1986 Taurus. / THF208075

The new Taurus was launched on December 26, 1985, leading to what became known as the American auto industry’s “Rounded Edge Revolution.” Some people ridiculed the 1986 Taurus, likening it to a jellybean or a potato. But it won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year Award, with the compliment, “If we were to describe the Taurus’s design in a word, the word would be ‘thoughtful.’” Car and Driver called it “one of history’s most radical new cars,” praising Vandermolen’s efforts as “a bold attempt to reorder the priorities of American-made family sedans.”

Customers responded in kind. The Taurus soon accounted for 25 percent of Ford’s North American sales. In 1987, Taurus became the number-one selling car in the United States.

Red and silver car
1986 Ford Taurus LX Sedan in The Henry Ford’s collection. / THF90332

Ford’s gamble to steer the company from a serious downturn with a “world-class” car paid off. Ergonomics, aerodynamics, sculpted interiors, angled IPs, comfortable and supportive seats, market research with targeted customers, and team-oriented planning—all of these would become standard elements of future American automobile design and manufacturing.

In 1987, Vandermolen was promoted to the position of Design Executive for small cars at Ford Motor Company, overseeing interior and exterior design developments in North America—a first for a woman in the automotive industry. That year, Fortune Magazine named her one of its “People to Watch.” She headed the development of the 1993 Ford Probe from start to finish. Her focus on women consumers remained a particular point of pride throughout her career.

Today. Mimi Vandermolen’s legacy lives on. In February 2021, the Classic Cars.com Journal called her one of “11 women who changed automotive history and the way we drive.”

For more on Vandermolen and her contributions to the 1986 Ford Taurus, see the book Taurus: The Making of the Car That Saved Ford by Eric Taub (1991).


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She learned of Mimi Vandermolen’s story in the 1990s and is pleased to finally write about it so others can appreciate it as well.

immigrants, women's history, Henry Ford Museum, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, Driving America, design, cars, by Donna R. Braden

Our new limited-engagement exhibit, Collecting Mobility: New Objects, New Stories, opening to the public October 23, 2021, takes you behind the scenes at The Henry Ford to show you how we continue to grow our vast collection of more than 26 million artifacts. One key question the exhibit asks is why we collect the items we collect. To get more insight on the artifacts on exhibit and future trends that may impact our collecting, we reached out to several of our partners. In this post from that series, our friends at General Motors (GM), donors of the General Motors first-generation self-driving test vehicle in the exhibit and contributors to our Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibit, tackle questions about autonomous vehicles (AVs), electric vehicles (EVs), and racing.

Our latest permanent exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America, is presented by General Motors. How has GM’s racing program evolved over time? 

GM’s Chevrolet and Cadillac brands have both had long, storied histories in motorsports. Racing is a fundamental part of what we do—from transferring technology learned on the track to help us build better vehicles to connecting with consumers through something they love.

Man with broom mustache in jacket and soft racing helmet, with goggles pushed up on forehead
Racing driver Louis Chevrolet co-founded GM’s Chevrolet brand with William C. Durant in 1911. / THF277330

Chevrolet has been successful in professional motorsports in the United States and around the globe, capturing many manufacturer, driver, and team championships in NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, and the NHRA. From stock cars to advanced prototypes, Cadillac Racing has a rich history—more than half a century—of racing around the world and around the clock on some of the world’s notably challenging circuits.

Off the track, our racing programs have evolved with the help of our GM facilities. In 2016, General Motors opened the doors to the all-new GM Powertrain Performance and Racing Center—a state-of-the-art facility designed to enhance the development processes for the company’s diverse racing engine programs.

In 2021, General Motors broke ground on the new Charlotte Technical Center, a 130,000-square-foot facility that will expand GM’s performance and racing capabilities. The facility is a $45 million investment for GM and it will be a strong hub for the racing and production engineering teams to collaborate, share resources, and learn together, delivering better results more quickly, both on the racetrack and in our production vehicles.

Two open-top race cars on a road or track with wooded hills in the background
The Chevrolet Corvette has a long, proud history in professional and amateur sports car racing. This pair of Corvettes is seen at a Sports Car Club of America race in Maryland in 1959. / THF135778

Engineering has become incredibly advanced over time, and leveraging tools between racing and production has become extremely important. We use tools like computational fluid dynamic models, which uses applied mathematics, physics, and computational software to visualize how a gas or liquid flows. These CFD models help us predict things like powertrain performance and aerodynamics.

Also, our Driver-in-the-Loop simulator allows us to test vehicles on courses virtually. It is the combination of two technologies: a real-time computer (with vehicle hardware) and a driving simulator. The driving simulator allows our development engineers to drive and test the real-time computer simulation and added hardware system on a virtual track, just like they would a physical prototype. The simulator was used extensively during the development of the mid-engine Corvette C8.R race car.

The 2001 C5-R Corvette is currently on loan from General Motors and can be seen by guests inside Driven to Win: Racing in America. Why was this vehicle selected to go on display inside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation? 

The Corvette C5-R made its debut in 1999 at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and was a fixture of global GT racing for the next five years. From 1999–2004, Corvette Racing and the C5-R set the standard for racing success with 31 victories in the American Le Mans Series, along with an overall victory at the Rolex 24 in 2001.

During six years of competition, Corvette Racing—the first factory-backed Corvette team in the car’s history—led the C5.R to an overall victory at the Daytona 24-hour race and three 1-2 finishes in the GTS class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. During the 2004 season, Corvette Racing won every race the team entered and captured every pole position in the American Le Mans Series.

Low yellow race car with text and logos
2001 C5-R Corvette, on loan from General Motors Heritage Center and currently on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF185966

This specific car raced 17 times from August 2000 through June 2002 with 10 wins. It brought home the first win for the factory Corvette Racing program—Texas 2000 in the ALMS’ GTS class. Then it went on to become 2001 overall winner at Rolex 24, which was quite an accomplishment for a GT car. The car went on to win its class at Le Mans 24 in both 2001 and 2002. The modern era of Corvette’s factory racing program continues today, after over 20 years and 4 generations (C5/C6/C7/C8).

The success of this C5-R essentially started it all and we are proud to have it on display.

General Motors' donation of the 2016 GM First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle was our first self-driving car acquisition. Why was it important to have this car join more than 300 others—including GM landmarks like the 1927 LaSalle and the 1997 EV1 Electric—in the collections of The Henry Ford? 

This vehicle represents a huge step forward on the journey to fully autonomous driving. With Cruise, our majority-owned subsidiary, we’re determined to commercialize safe, autonomous, and electric vehicles on our way to a driverless future—one with zero crashes.

Side view of compact white car with equipment on top and wires dangling down side
General Motors tested a series of autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, California, and Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2016. These cars used a combination of cameras, radar and lidar sensors, cellular and GPS antennas, and powerful computers to drive themselves on public streets in both cities. GM donated this one, now on exhibit in Driving America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, to The Henry Ford in 2018. / THF173551

Cruise was the first AV company permitted to give rides to the public in its current driverless vehicles in the San Francisco area. Expansion of our real-world test fleet will help ensure that our self-driving vehicles meet the same strict standards for safety and quality that we build into all of our vehicles.

GM became the first company to assemble self-driving test vehicles in a mass-production facility when its next generation of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EV test vehicles began rolling off of the line at Orion Township, Michigan, in January 2017.

The self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs feature an array of equipment, including LIDAR, cameras, sensors, and other hardware designed to accelerate development of a safe and reliable fully autonomous vehicle.

Reshaping cities and the lives of those who live in them has tremendous societal implications. Since we believe that all AVs will be EVs, these efforts will clearly advance our vision of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion, and help us build a more sustainable and accessible world.

This vehicle was really the first of its kind and its display is a sneak peek at the future of autonomy.

By 2025, General Motors plans to offer more than 30 electric vehicles globally. What does an all-electric future look like for Generation E? 

For electric vehicles to make an impact, we need consumers to embrace them in mass numbers. So earlier this year, General Motors introduced the world to EVerybody In.

This is our brand commitment toward advancing a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion. EVerybody In is more than a brand campaign, it's a global call to action for everybody to join us on the road to an all-electric future.

Front view of compact red car
GM introduced the EV1 in 1997. It was among the most sophisticated electric cars built during the 20th century. / THF91060

GM wants to put everyone in an EV. Thanks to Ultium, our EV architecture, GM is able to reimagine the vehicles it produces today as electric vehicles with equivalent power, excellent range, and a manufacturing cost different that is expected to diminish as EV production increases.

Not only will our EVs be fun to drive and cost less to own, they will also provide an outstanding customer experience. This is how we will encourage and inspire mass consumer adoption of EVs. GM has the technology, talent, scale, and manufacturing expertise to do it.

The all-electric future we are creating goes beyond our vehicles, it is inspiring us to do even more to help mitigate the effects of climate change. We plan to source 100 percent renewable energy to power our U.S. sites by 2025, and to become carbon neutral in our global vehicles and operations by 2040.

General Motors wants to impact society in a positive way and these are some of the steps we are taking to make it happen.

General Motors is committed to electrification—what types of current EV projects from the company might we expect to see in the museums of tomorrow?

With more than 30 EVs being introduced by 2025, we have a lot of exciting vehicles coming. From sedans, to trucks, to full-size SUVs, we will have a wide range of offerings in terms of size and design.

We are entering an inflection point in the transportation industry, a transformation the industry has not seen in decades—the mass adoption of electric vehicles. The first of any of these entries will be a sight to see in the museums of tomorrow for generations to come.


Lish Dorset is Marketing Manager, Non-Admission Products, at The Henry Ford. Todd Christensen is Strategy and Operations Manager, Chevrolet Motorsports Marketing & Activation, and Gina Peera is Corporate Strategy and Executive Communications at General Motors. General Motors is a global automotive manufacturer, driving the world forward with the goal to deliver world-class customer experiences at every touchpoint and doing so on a foundation of trust and transparency. See Collecting Mobility for yourself in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from October 23, 2021, through January 2, 2022.

engineering, manufacturing, Henry Ford Museum, Driving America, Chevrolet, alternative fuel vehicles, technology, autonomous technology, Driven to Win, race cars, racing, cars, by Gina Peera, by Todd Christensen, by Lish Dorset

Long white convertible with fins

THF90001

In the prosperous 1950s, many people bought luxury cars like this vast Cadillac, and many more wished they could. The car did more than fulfill needs—it sparked desires. But even at the height of uninhibited automotive design, some people questioned the logic of such vehicles. This car mirrors American attitudes of an era when gas was cheap, times were good, and the future seemed unlimited.

The 1958 book shown below peeked under the chrome and found some grime. The price and operating costs of American cars were soaring along with their size—while quality and fuel economy were declining.

Pink and white book cover with text and image of part of car bumper
"The Insolent Chariots," 1958. / THF108045

George Romney, president of American Motors, said famously in 1955, “Cars 19 feet long, weighing two tons, are used to run a 118-pound housewife three blocks to the drugstore for a two-ounce package of bobby pins and lipstick.” Even America’s inexpensive cars grew bigger. Plymouth, Ford, and Chevrolet all offered flashy entry-level vehicles. By 1960, highways, driveways, and parking lots were full of fins.

Low red-and-white striped diner with large sign and cars parked out front
Postcard, Hart's U.S. 30 Diner, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, circa 1960. / THF297320

Bright comic book cover with text and image of two teens looking at back end of red car with fins
Archie finds the girl of his dreams in July 1959. / THF100874


This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Henry Ford Museum, Driving America, convertibles, cars

Long baby blue and white convertible car with whitewall tires

THF90538

Drop the top and cruise like a movie star! It sounds like fun. But movie stars live in sunny California— most of us don’t. Convertibles may draw people into showrooms, but sedans take them home. In 1956, only about 2.6% of Chevy customers drove home in ragtops. Despite that fact, the carefree appeal of 1950s convertibles has made them a symbol of that era. Let the wind blow through your hair!

Many entry-level brands—such as Chevrolet—made sleek, powerful convertibles to boost their image. It didn’t matter that convertibles weren’t big sellers.

Advertisement with text and image of green and white convertible car with people in and around it while a salt flats car race (?) is watched by a crowd in the background
1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Advertisement, "Man, that Chevy's Really Got It!" / THF100023

After enclosed cars became inexpensive enough for everyone to buy in the 1920s, open cars gained an aura of luxury and adventure. Ads associated the ’56 Chevy with youth, appealing not only to the young but also to those wanting to appear young.

Two-page spread with text and image of movie production filming a couple embracing in a green and white convertible car
1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Advertisement, "Youth, Beauty, Chevrolet, Action!" / THF100024

Black-and-white photo of a group of young adults in a convertible in front of a restaurant; a female carhop holds a tray by the car
Convertibles became show-off cars, perfect for cruising around town, impressing dates, and hanging out. In 1949, these teenagers posed at a drive-in with their Ford convertible. / THF101124


This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

popular culture, Chevrolet, Henry Ford Museum, Driving America, convertibles, cars

Drab-green military jeep

THF90487

The 1943 Willys-Overland Jeep above, currently on exhibit in Driving America in Henry Ford Museum, represents the millions of vehicles, aircraft, and military items produced by American automakers during World War II. With many men fighting overseas, women joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Ford’s Willow Run plant, which produced B-24 bomber airplanes, showed just how important these women were to America’s war effort.

Red, white, and blue line illustration of woman riveting airplane parts; also contains text
The character “Rosie the Riveter” is celebrated in this sheet music from 1942. / THF290068

More than 42,000 people worked at Willow Run. Approximately one-third were women. Riveting was an essential craft there—each B-24 had more than 300,000 rivets. The skilled women who accomplished this work at Willow Run and elsewhere inspired the symbolic character “Rosie the Riveter.” Women also served in clerical and support staff positions at the plant. Women and men earned the same pay for the same work.

Three women work inside large, oval metal shapes
Real-life Rosies rivet B-24 tail cones at Ford’s Willow Run Bomber Plant, June 1944 / THF272701

Willow Run produced 8,685 B-24 bombers. The plant captured the public’s imagination, with Rosie the Riveter appearing on government-sponsored posters and magazine ads, encouraging more women to join the war production effort. Rosies built plenty of Jeeps, too. Willys-Overland manufactured 380,000 of them, and women and men at Ford built another 279,000 Jeeps, identical to the Willys models, at six plants across the country.

Page with text and images of engines and military vehicles
Ford Motor Company humble-bragged about its wartime production, including Jeeps, tanks, B-24 bombers, and more, in this 1943 ad. / THF93700

Altogether, the women and men who worked in American automotive plants during World War II built 4 million engines, 2.8 million tanks and trucks, and 27,000 aircraft—fully one-fifth of the country’s military materials. Many women came to enjoy the independence and economic freedom provided by their jobs. But, when men returned at war’s end, the same government that called women to the factories now encouraged them to go back to working in the home, so men could reclaim factory jobs.

The women who labored in wartime factories were essential to America’s Arsenal of Democracy. They made Rosie the Riveter into an enduring feminist icon—and a powerful symbol of women’s contributions to the American economy.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

Michigan, airplanes, Driving America, THF Connect app, by Matt Anderson, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, women's history, World War II, Henry Ford Museum

The Henry Ford has two tollbooths—both from New England, but from different eras and circumstances. The Rocks Village toll house was built in the early 19th century, when horse-drawn carriages and wagons filled America’s roads. The Merritt Parkway tollbooth dates from the mid-20th century, when Americans traveled these roads in automobile, often for recreation.

Why are these buildings, both made to collect a toll for the use of a road or bridge, so completely different in their appearance and history? Their stories tell us much about our changing attitudes toward roads and road construction, and of our expanding expectations of governmental responsibility for transportation networks.

Small white wooden building with several windows
Rocks Village Toll House, 1828, near the Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village. / THF2033

The Rocks Village Toll House


Today, the Rocks Village toll house sits adjacent to the Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village. The simple, functional building formerly served a much larger covered bridge and drawbridge that spanned the Merrimack River, connecting the towns of Haverhill and West Newbury, Massachusetts. The bridge and toll house were built in 1828 to replace an earlier bridge that had been destroyed by a flood. Their construction was not the responsibility of the towns where they were located, nor the state or federal government, but of the Proprietors of the Merrimack Bridge, a group of Haverhill and West Newbury investors who had built the first Merrimack Bridge in 1795. The building housed a toll keeper, who was responsible for collecting the tolls and for opening the drawbridge when necessary. In his considerable spare time, the toll keeper also worked as a cobbler, making shoes. Tolls were collected until 1868, and the toll house remained in use for the drawbridge until 1912.

Body of water with buildings on either side and a bridge across
This worn image of the Merrimack Bridge from about 1910 shows the Rocks Village toll house (marked #2) along the approach to the right of the covered bridge. / THF125139

When the first Merrimack Bridge was built at Rocks Village in 1795, there was a need for good routes from the farmlands of northern Massachusetts and New Hampshire to the growing urban markets of Boston. Neither the new federal or state governments had the resources to build and maintain many roads. As a result, privately-owned turnpike and bridge companies, like the Proprietors of the Merrimack Bridge, were encouraged to fill that need with toll roads and bridges, which proliferated around the new nation.

The era of turnpikes and toll bridges was beginning to draw to a close when the second Merrimack Bridge was built in 1828. By mid-century, canals and then railroads had replaced roads as the primary means of traveling across distances, so roads and bridges were generally used more for local travel. This change can be seen in the decline in weekly receipts at the Rocks Village toll house, from a high of $58.00 in 1857, to $29.00 in 1868, when the Merrimack Bridge became a free bridge. At that time, Essex County assumed authority over the bridge, and the towns it served—Haverhill, West Newbury, and Amesbury—shared the costs of its upkeep. With only local support, upkeep was sporadic at best, and by 1912, most of the bridge had to be replaced.

The Rocks Village toll house had witnessed the decline of the American road during the mid-19th century. It would not be until the advent of the bicycle in the late 19th century, followed by the automobile in the early 20th century, that this decline would be reversed.

The Merritt Parkway Tollbooth

 

Very narrow brown and green wooden building with stoplight and "STOP TOLL 20 CENTS" sign
Merritt Parkway Tollbooth, circa 1950, in the Driving America exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF79064

The rustic design of the Merritt Parkway tollbooth celebrated the pleasures of driving to experience the outdoors, part of a larger effort to promote tourism in Connecticut. It was built in Greenwich around 1950 as an expansion to the existing toll plaza. The Merritt Parkway runs 37 ½ miles from the New York state line at Greenwich to Milford, Connecticut. It was built in 1938 by the State of Connecticut to relieve the congestion on US 1 (the Boston Post Road), the main route from New York to Boston. Tolls were collected on the Merritt Parkway until 1988.

Black-and-white photo of tollbooths with cars stopped at them on wide roadway
The Henry Ford’s Merritt Parkway tollbooth is one of the two at the outer edges of the original rustic toll plaza, built in 1940. / THF126470

The Merritt Parkway is, in many ways, a celebration of the revival of the American road. And, as a state response to local problems, it reflects the change in the responsibility for roads from the local to the regional and state levels. Heavy New York-to-Boston through-traffic, in addition to commuter traffic in and out of New York City, had turned US 1 into a permanent traffic jam. This created tremendous problems for the local communities along that route. However, the citizens of those communities were not inclined to bear the financial burden of road improvement, especially since would mostly serve people from out-of-state. The debate about how to solve this problem lasted from the early 1920s into the 1930s.

The eventual solution, the Merritt Parkway, contained the main elements of the modern highway. First, it bypassed population centers, pulling traffic away from busy downtown areas. Second, since it passed through the rapidly gentrifying farm- and woodlands of southwest Connecticut, the design of the parkway—the graceful layout of the road itself through rolling hills, as well as the bridges, service buildings, and tollbooths—emphasized the rustic beauty of the region. The beautiful design helped to promote Connecticut as a tourist destination for out-of-state visitors. Third, it was built during the economic depression of the 1930s, so its construction was touted as a job-creating project. Finally, its construction and maintenance were funded by the state and paid for out of the general treasury. Added after a couple of years, the tollbooths raised money for an extension of the highway to Hartford, Connecticut—the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

With the Merritt Parkway and similar roads, good public roads had returned and—for better or worse—had come to be viewed as an entitlement, subsidized through the public treasury rather than private investment.


Jim McCabe is former curator and collections manager at The Henry Ford. This article was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from the July 2007 entry in our previous “Pic of the Month” online series.

roads and road trips, cars, by Jim McCabe, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Driving America, Henry Ford Museum

Yellow taxi with signage on top and sides of car and black-and-white checked strip along full side of car

THF90395

A familiar vehicle few Americans use.

Most Americans rarely take taxis—perhaps only when going to an airport or visiting a city with unfamiliar transit systems. But taxis are a viable alternative to owning a car in cities where traffic is dense, and parking is inconvenient and expensive. They provide point-to-point transportation, alone or in combination with subways, elevated trains, and buses—and in increasing competition with Internet-based ridesharing services.

The term “cab” predates the automobile. It comes from “cabriolet,” a type of carriage used for paid fares.

Image of horse and carriage, driver sitting in carriage, on a rainy street
"Omnibuses & Cabs, Their Origin & History," 1902 / THF105848

“Taxi” comes from taximètre, a French word for a meter that measures distance and calculates a fare. By 1900, meters were widely used in Europe and came to the U.S. in 1907.

Two black-and-white images of a meter, one with "VACANT" flag raised and the other with it lowered; also contains text
The Automobile Magazine for March 19, 1908 / THF105850

In 1961, Checker had been creating purpose-built cabs for 39 years.

Page with text and yellow-and-black checkered pattern with images of cars in each square
"Use the Only Real Taxicab, Checker," 1961 / THF105852

Checker cabs were spacious and easy to get into and out of, with big trunks for lots of luggage.

People under an elevated overpass or roadway entering yellow taxicab
"Checker, The Only Real Taxicab!," 1967 / THF105854


This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Henry Ford Museum, Driving America, cars

Light blue car with distinctively pointed headlights and center front grille
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.

Man leans over miniature pool table in front of a wall filled with posters
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.

Close-up of car grille with pointed areas at either end housing headlights and in the middle
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.

Man with mustache wearing suit and striped tie leans on a surface holding a small car model
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.

Advertisement with picture of yellow car at airport next to airplane; also contains smaller pictures and text
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.

Muppets, popular culture, music, movies, Jim Henson, Henry Ford Museum, Driving America, design, cars, by Matt Anderson

Small square buggy with four large wooden wheels and cushioned seat covered with a canopy
THF90435

Factory-built buggies made the pleasures of carriage ownership affordable for a new group of people. Whether in town or on the farm, people loved these inexpensive, lightweight vehicles. The piano box buggy—named for its resemblance to 19th-century square pianos—was the most popular of all. Buggy owners quickly became accustomed to the freedom and control offered by personal vehicles.

Print of large multi-building factory with smoke coming from many smokestacks; also contains text
Buggies in many styles poured out of factories by the thousands during the late 1800s. / THF124829

Page with illustrations of and text about buggies and other products
People could even buy buggies from mail-order catalogs. / THF119797

Man and infant in buggy hitched to horse
Farmers especially enjoyed owning buggies—designed to carry people—rather than having to go everywhere in a farm wagon made to haul goods. This typical buggy at a Michigan farm in 1894 is occupied by Milton Bryant and his sister Clara’s son, Edsel Ford. / THF204970

Page with images and text
Owning a buggy meant feeding, watering, and cleaning up after a horse. These ongoing costs made early automobiles seem less expensive by comparison. / THF212464 (detail)


This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

horse drawn transport, Henry Ford Museum, Driving America

Long beige car with swooping fenders and color-matching tires

THF90796

Fred Duesenberg set out to build an automotive masterpiece. Its superlative engineering included a 265-horsepower engine that could push the car to a 116-mph top speed. Duesenberg built only 481 Model Js between 1928 and 1935. No two are identical because independent coachbuilders crafted each body to the buyer’s specifications. Is it the world’s finest? One thing is certain--the Model J will always be in the running.

Etching of man sitting by a fireplace in luxurious vaulted room with text "He drives a Duesenberg"
Woman in horseriding ensemble among dogs, with text reading "She drives a Duesenberg"
Duesenberg ads associated the car with wealth and privilege. / THF101796,
THF83515

Drawing of long car with swooping fenders along with text and inset image of car interior
Long black car with long fenders; also contains text and inset image of car interior
Long, boxy car; also contains text and inset image of car interior
These are a few of the many body styles offered in a 1930 catalog. But that was just a starting point--each car was customized to the owner’s taste. / THF83517, THF83518,
THF83519

Rounded car trunk, opened to show luggage fitted snugly into two compartments
The Henry Ford’s Duesenberg has luggage designed to fit the trunk precisely. / THF90800


This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

convertibles, luxury cars, Henry Ford Museum, Driving America, cars