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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,
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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

Black car with long hood and whitewall tires

THF90723

In an era of extreme automotive styling, the Mark II was elegantly understated. Its advertising slogan, “the excitement of being conservative,” confirmed that Mark II’s appeal depended not on chrome, but rather on flawless quality control, extensive road testing, shocks that adjusted to speed, and power steering, brakes, windows, and seats. Not understated was the $10,000 price. Owned by VIPs like Frank Sinatra and Nelson Rockefeller, it was the most expensive American car you could--or couldn’t--buy.

Three men standing around clay model of car on table
William Clay Ford (left) reviews a clay model of the Mark II in 1953. He inherited a passion for styling from his father, Edsel Ford, and directed the Mark II’s design and development. / THF112905

Car dashboard with large steering wheel
The dashboard--luxurious in 1956--featured an instrument panel inspired by airplanes, with a pushbutton radio, watch-dial gauges, and throttle-style climate control levers. / THF113250

Two-page spread with a photo of a long blue car with a woman leaning on the hood and a concrete balustrade behind; contains text and smaller car detail images at bottom
Like the car, advertising was understated. This Vogue magazine ad links the car with classic design in architecture and fashion. / THF83341


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

Henry Ford Museum, Driving America, luxury cars, cars

Long white car with scrolling style lines and green fabric top
THF90825

Longer than a Duesenberg. Twice the horsepower of a Rolls-Royce. More costly than both put together. The Bugatti Royale was the ultimate automobile, making its owners feel like kings. It is recognized as the epitome of style and elegance in automotive design. Not only did it do everything on a grander scale than the world’s other great luxury cars, it was also rare. Bugatti built only six Royales, whereas there were 481 Model J Duesenbergs and 1,767 Phantom II Rolls-Royces.


Ettore Bugatti formed Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S. in 1909. His cars were renowned for their exquisite design and exceptional performance—especially in motor racing. According to lore, Bugatti was at a dinner party when a woman compared his cars unfavorably with those of Rolls-Royce. In response, he designed the incomparable Royale.

Silver hood ornament of elephant standing on his back legs on car hood; black grille and headlight visible
The Royale's elephant mascot was based on a sculpture by Rembrandt Bugatti, Ettore Bugatti's brother, who died in 1916. / THF90827

Because Bugatti Royales are so rare, each has a known history. This is the third Royale ever produced. Built in France and purchased by a German physician, it traveled more than halfway around the world to get to The Henry Ford. Here is our Bugatti’s story.

Black-and-white photo of a long car with swooping style lines; two people and two dogs sitting outside car
Joseph Fuchs took this 1932 photograph of his new Bugatti, painted its original black with yellow trim. His daughter, Lola, and his mechanic, Horst Latke, sit on the running board. /THF136899

1931: German Physician Joseph Fuchs orders a custom Royale. Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S. builds the chassis in France. Its body is crafted by Ludwig Weinberger in Munich, Germany.

1933: Fuchs leaves Germany for China after Hitler becomes chancellor, taking his prized car with him.

1937: Japan invades China. Fuchs leaves for Canada—again, with his car. Having evaded the furies of World War II, Fuchs and his Bugatti cross Canada and find a home in New York City.

1938: A cold winter cracks the car’s engine block. It sits, unable to move under its own power, for several years.

1943: Charles Chayne, chief engineer of Buick, buys the Bugatti. He has it restored, changing the paint scheme from black and yellow to white and green.

1958: Now a General Motors vice-president, Chayne donates the Bugatti to Henry Ford Museum.

1985: For the first time, all six Bugatti Royales are gathered together in Pebble Beach, California.

Six long cars on a green lawn in front of a body of water
The first-ever gathering of all six Bugatti Royales thrilled the crowds at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1985. They are the ultimate automotive expression of style and luxury. / THF84547


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

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

Long, tall boxy maroon automobile
THF90991

Early car buyers knew what motor vehicles should look like--carriages, of course! But automobiles needed things carriages didn’t: radiators, windshields, controls, horns, and hoods. Early automakers developed simple solutions. Brass, often used for carriage trim, was adopted for radiators, levers, and horns. Windshields were glass plates in wood frames. Rectangular sheet metal covers hid engines. The result? A surprisingly attractive mix of materials, colors, and shapes.

Page with text and two illustrations of cars
Although the Stevens-Duryea Company claimed its cars had stylish design, most early automakers worried more about how the car worked than how it looked. / THF84913

Page with text and two images of cars, one head-on view and one from the side
To build a car body, early automakers had to shape sheet metal over a wooden form. Cars made that way, like this 1907 Locomobile, often looked boxy. / Detail, THF84914

Image of car and text
Some early automobiles looked good. But even the attractive ones looked like an assembly of parts, like the Studebaker shown in this 1907 ad. / THF84915


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

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