May 17th – 23rd | This Week In Automotive History


May 17th, 1994

Al Unser Sr

Al Unser Sr. announced his retirement from auto racing, ending one of the greatest Indy Car careers of all time. Winning the 1987 race, Al became only the second man to win the Indy 500 four times when he won the race after starting in the 20th position. The next year he broke Ralph DePalma’s seemingly unbreakable record for most laps led at the 500. Al’s 1970 season was one of the greatest ever, as he won 10 races on ovals, road courses, and dirt tracks to capture the national championship. He won back-to-back Indy 500s in 1970 and 1971, and in 1978 he became the first driver to win the “Triple Crown” of Indy racing by placing first in the Pocono 500 and the California 500, as well as at Indy. In 1985, Al won his third and last national championship by edging his son, Al Unser Jr., by one point in the last race of the season. The win also made him the oldest Indy Car champion ever at age 46.


May 18th, 1915

Cannonball Baker sits behind the wheel of his Stutz Bearcat while on a record breaking transcontinental trip from San Diego to New York in 1915.

Cannon Ball Baker, driving a Stutz Bearcat, arrived in New York City 11 days, 7 hours, and 15 minutes after leaving San Diego, California, breaking all existing cross-country records. The following year he drove a Cadillac 8 roadster from Los Angeles to Times Square in 7 days, 11 hours, and 52 minutes while accompanied by an Indianapolis newspaper reporter. In 1924 he made his first midwinter transcontinental run in a stock Gardner sedan at a time of 4 days, 14 hours, and 15 minutes. He was so impressed by the car, that he purchased one thereafter. In 1926 he drove a loaded two-ton truck from New York to San Francisco in a record five days, seventeen hours, and thirty minutes, and in 1928, he beat the 20th Century Limited train from New York to Chicago. Also in 1928, he competed in the Mount Washington Hillclimb Auto Race, and set a record time of 14:49.6 seconds, driving a Franklin. His best-remembered drive was a 1933 New York City to Los Angeles trek in a Graham-Paige model 57 Blue Streak 8, setting a 53.5-hour record that stood for nearly 40 years. This drive inspired the later Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, better known as the “Cannonball Run”, which itself inspired at least five movies and a television series. In 1941, he drove a new Crosley Covered Wagon across the nation in a troublefree 6,517-mile (10,488 km) run to prove the economy and reliability characteristics of Crosley automobiles. Other record and near-record transcontinental trips were made in Model T Fords, Chrysler Imperials, Marmons, Falcon-Knights and Columbia Tigers, among others.


May 19th, 1787

An artistic reconstruction of Oruktor Amphibolos

The Maryland House of Delegates (US) issued a patent to Oliver Evans for his high-pressure steam engine. He continued to work on this for the next several years, envisioning both a stationary engine for industrial purposes and an engine for land and water transport. In 1801 he built in Philadelphia a stationary engine that turned a rotary crusher to produce pulverized limestone for agricultural purposes. The engine that became associated with his name was an original adaptation of the existing steam engine; Evans placed both the cylinder and the crankshaft at the same end of the beam instead of at opposite ends, as had been done previously. This greatly reduced the weight of the beam. An ingenious linkage, which became world-famous as the Evans straight-line linkage, made the new arrangement feasible. He saw at once the potential of such an engine for road transportation but was unable to persuade the authorities to permit its use on the Pennsylvania Turnpike—not unnaturally since it might well have frightened the horses, which at that time provided the main form of transport. Within a few years, he had engines doing several other kinds of work, including sowing grain, driving sawmills and boring machines, and powering a dredge to clear the Philadelphia water frontage. Completed by June 1805, his new type of steam-engine scow called the Orukter Amphibolos, or Amphibious Digger, was 30 feet (9 m) long by 12 feet (3.7 m) wide. In its machinery, it embodied the chain-of-buckets principle of his automatic flour mill. Equipped with wheels, it ran on land as well as on water, making it the first powered road vehicle to operate in the United States.


May 19th, 1903

Jackson driving the Vermont on the 1903 cross-country drive

While in San Francisco’s University Club as a guest, Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson agreed to a $50 wager to prove that a four-wheeled machine could be driven across the country. He accepted even though he did not own a car, had practically no experience driving, and had no maps to follow. Jackson and his wife planned to return to their Burlington, Vermont, home in a few days, and both had been taking automobile driving lessons while in San Francisco. She returned home by train, allowing him to take his adventure by automobile. Having no mechanical experience, Jackson convinced a young mechanic and chauffeur, Sewall K. Crocker, to serve as his travel companion, mechanic, and backup driver. Crocker suggested that Jackson buy a Winton car. He bought a slightly used, two-cylinder,[2] 20 hp Winton, which he named the Vermont, after his home state, bade his wife goodbye, and left San Francisco on May 23, carrying coats, rubber protective suits, sleeping bags, blankets, canteens, a water bag, an ax, a shovel, a telescope, tools, spare parts, a block and tackle, cans for extra gasoline and oil, a Kodak camera, a rifle, a shotgun, and pistols. Heeding the failed attempt by automobile pioneer Alexander Winton (founder of the Winton Motor Carriage Company, which manufactured Jackson’s car) to cross the deserts of Nevada and Utah, Jackson decided to take a more northerly route. A route through the Sacramento Valley and along the Oregon Trail also allowed them to avoid the higher passes in the Rocky Mountains.The car was transported by ferry from San Francisco to Oakland and points eastward. But only 15 miles (24 km) into the journey, the car blew a tire. Jackson and Crocker replaced it with the only spare they had, in fact, the only right-sized spare tire they could find in all of San Francisco. The second night of their journey, they replaced the side lanterns, having discovered on the first night that they were too dim, with a large spotlight mounted on the front of the Vermont.They stopped early in Sacramento to accomplish this. The duo was assisted in Sacramento by bicyclists who offered them road maps. Jackson was unable to buy a new tire, but purchased some used inner tubes. Going northwards out of Sacramento, the noise of the car covered the fact that the duo’s cooking gear was falling off. They were also given a 108-mile (174 km) misdirection by a woman so that she could send them to the spot where her family could see an automobile.The rough trek towards Oregon required them to haul the car across deep streams with the block and tackle. Somewhere along this route, Jackson lost a pair of his glasses. Stuff continued to be lost, including another pair of Jackson’s glasses. They were also forced to pay a $4 toll by a land-owner in order to cross his property on a “bad, rocky, mountain road” as Jackson described it. When their tires blew out they were required to wind rope around the wheels. Jackson did manage to find a telegraph office and wired back to San Francisco for replacement tires to be transported to them along the journey. Reaching Alturas, California, Jackson, and Crocker stopped to wait for the tires. They offered locals rides in the car in exchange for a “wild west show”. When the tires failed to materialize, however, they continued on after a three-day wait. On June 6, the car broke down, and they had to be towed to a nearby ranch by a cowboy on horseback. Crocker made repairs, but a fuel leak caused them to lose all of their available gasoline, and Jackson rented a bicycle for Crocker to travel 25 miles (40 km) to Burns, Oregon, for fuel. After suffering a flat tire on the bicycle, he returned with 4 US gallons (15 l) of fuel (which Jackson complained cost him “nearly twenty dollars”), and they returned to Burns to fill up.On June 9, outside of Vale, Oregon, the Vermont ran out of oil. Jackson walked back to the last town to get oil, only to discover eventually that they had been stopped only a short distance outside of Vale. The next day they arrived in Ontario, Oregon, where supplies waited for them. Bud. Somewhere near Caldwell, Idaho, Jackson, and Crocker obtained a dog, a Pit Bull named Bud. As it turns out, Jackson had wanted a dog companion since Sacramento. Newspapers at the time gave a variety of stories of how Bud was acquired, including that he was stolen; in a letter to his wife, Nelson said a man sold him the dog for $15. It turned out that the dusty alkali flats the travelers encountered would bother Bud’s eyes so much (the Vermont had neither a roof nor windshield) that Jackson eventually fitted him with a pair of goggles. At one point, Bud drank bad water and became ill, but survived. At this point, the trio became celebrities. The press came out at every stop to take their picture and conduct interviews. At Mountain Home, Idaho, citizens warned them that the Oregon Trail was not good further east, so Jackson and Crocker veered off their original course along the southern edge of the Sawtooth Mountains. At Hailey, Idaho, Crocker wired the Winton Company for more parts. On June 16, somewhere in Idaho, Jackson’s coat, containing most of the travelers’ money, fell off and was not found. At their next stop, Jackson had to wire his wife to send them money to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Between June 20 and 21, all three of them got lost in Wyoming and went without food for 36 hours before finding a sheepherder who gave them a meal of roast lamb and boiled corn. Before reaching Cheyenne, however, the car’s wheel bearings gave out, and Crocker had to talk a farmer into letting them have the wheel bearings of his mowing machine. The travelers eventually reached Omaha, Nebraska, on July 12. From there on, they were able to use a few paved roads, and their trip was much easier. The only mishap happened just east of Buffalo, New York, when the Vermont ran into a hidden obstacle in the road, and Jackson, Croker, and Bud were thrown from the car. They arrived in New York City on July 26, 1903, 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes after commencing their journey in San Francisco, in the first automobile to successfully transit the North American continent. Their trip expended over 800 US gallons (3,000 l) of gasoline. After leaving New York City Jackson joined his wife and drove home to Vermont. About 15 miles (24 km) from home his car once again broke down. His two brothers, each driving his own automobile, came to help him get going again. Shortly after returning to the road, both of the brothers’ vehicles broke down, and Jackson towed them both home with the Vermont. Upon reaching the threshold of Jackson’s garage, the Vermont’s drive chain snapped. It was one of the few original parts never replaced during the entire journey.


May 19th, 1991

Willy T Ribbs

Willy T. Ribbs became the first African-American driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Ribbs, a Californian, objects to the obstacles placed in front of African-American racers: “Here we are, moving into a new millennium, and auto racing still looks like 1939 baseball.” Ribbs’s achievement at Indy is especially remarkable, as the cost of running at Indy normally deters racers who don’t have powerful corporate sponsors. While stock-car racing is more accessible financially, the sport hasn’t fared any better in attracting African-American participants. NASCAR officials, however, don’t feel the lack of African-American racers is a reflection of racism within the sport. Longtime President Bill France explained his case: “America is what America is today. Anybody can be anything, regardless of your race or your national origin. You can’t cast a wand and make everything happen that somebody wants to happen.” In the 50 plus years of NASCAR history, only Wendell Scott ever won a race. One explanation for the dearth of African-American racers is that car racing is a hereditary sport. Most racers come from racing families. By that criterion, however, the Scott family could have continued racing. Wendell Scott, using secondhand equipment, set the sport on fire 25 years ago with his fearless attitude and abundant talent. “Had the sport offered more help to the Scotts, others would have been inspired by us in another generation,” said Wendell Scott Jr. “They nipped us in the bud.” An example: In 1963, Scott won a race in Jacksonville, and the race officials, fearing a reaction from the crowd, presented the trophy to another driver. They gave Scott the trophy after the crowd had left. Ribbs also believes that corporations are reluctant to offer sponsorship to African-American drivers because they don’t believe these racers will be financially beneficial to their brands. Even the NASCAR team owned by former NFL running back Joe Washington and former NBA legend Julius Erving cannot guarantee an African-American driver behind the wheel of its car. Washington and Erving started the first wholly minority-owned team since Scott and his sons left the competition over 25 years ago. Kathy Thompson, a representative for the team, explained their predicament: “To get into a Winston Cup car is dangerous. I wouldn’t want to race against Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon without experience. That’s suicide. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience, somebody getting out there who wasn’t ready.” The fact remains that large African-American communities exist in the regions where NASCAR’s fan base is strongest. It wouldn’t take much for NASCAR to foster a more openly encouraging attitude toward minorities in racing–and who knows, maybe the sport will be rewarded with a great champion. Baseball came a long way after 1939.


May 19th, 2007

Smart “ForTwo” micro-car

Los Angeles, California, was the first stop on a cross-country roadshow launched by Smart USA to promote the attractions of its “ForTwo” micro-car, which was scheduled for release in the United States in 2008. In the early 1990s, Nicholas Hayek of Swatch, the company famous for its wide range of colorful and trendy plastic watches, went to German automaker Mercedes-Benz with his idea for an “ultra-urban” car. The result of their joint venture was the diminutive Smart (an acronym for Swatch Mercedes ART) ForTwo, which debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1997 and went on sale in nine European countries over the next year. Measuring just over eight feet from bumper to bumper, the original ForTwo was marketed as a safe, fuel-efficient car that could be maneuvered easily through narrow, crowded city streets. Despite its popularity among urban Europeans, Smart posted significant losses, and Swatch soon pulled out of the joint venture.


May 21st, 1901

Connecticut became the first US state to pass a law regulating motor vehicles, limiting their speed to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads. Speed limits had been set earlier in the United States for non-motorized vehicles: In 1652, the colony of New Amsterdam (now New York) issued a decree stating that “[N]o wagons, carts or sleighs shall be run, rode or driven at a gallop” at the risk of incurring a fine starting at about $150 in today’s currency. In 1899, the New York City cab driver Jacob German was arrested for driving his electric taxi at 12 mph. The path to Connecticut’s 1901 speed limit legislation began when Representative Robert Woodruff submitted a bill to the State General Assembly proposing a motor-vehicles speed limit of 8 mph within city limits and 12 mph outside. The law passed in May 1901 specified higher speed limits but required drivers to slow down upon approaching or passing horse-drawn vehicles, and come to a complete stop if necessary to avoid scaring the animals. On the heels of this landmark legislation, New York City introduced the world’s first comprehensive traffic code in 1903. The adoption of speed regulations and other traffic codes was a slow and uneven process across the nation, however. As late as 1930, a dozen states had no speed limit, while 28 states did not even require a driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle. Rising fuel prices contributed to the lowering of speed limits in several states in the early 1970s, and in January 1974 President Richard Nixon signed a national speed limit of 55 mph into law. These measures led to a welcome reduction in the nation’s traffic fatality rate, which dropped from 4.28 per million miles of travel in 1972 to 3.33 in 1974 and a low of 2.73 in 1983. Concerns about fuel availability and cost later subsided, and in 1987 Congress allowed states to increase speed limits on rural interstates to 65 mph. The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 repealed the maximum speed limit. This returned control of setting speed limits to the states, many of which soon raised the limits to 70 mph and higher on a portion of their roads, including rural and urban interstates and limited access roads.


May 22nd, 1950

The Nash-Kelvinator Corporation registered the ‘Rambler’ and ‘Statesman’ names as trademarks. The Statesman was the 1950 version of the economy Nash 600, while the Rambler name, used by its ancestral company 1900-1913, was reintroduced for the firm’s new compact car.


May 23rd, 1934

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow posing in front of a 1932 Ford V-8 automobile.

Clyde Champion Barrow and Bonnie Parker were shot to death by Texas and Louisiana state police officers as they attempted to escape apprehension in a stolen 1934 Ford V-8 near Bienville Parish, Louisiana. Bonnie and Clyde met in Texas in 1930 while the 19-year-old Bonnie was working in a bar. At the time, Bonnie was married to an imprisoned murderer. Soon after the two met, Clyde was arrested for burglary and sent to prison. Bonnie smuggled a pistol into the prison, and Clyde broke out. Over the course of their crime spree together, Bonnie and Clyde were believed to have committed 13 murders and several robberies and burglaries. For over two years, the couple evaded local police officers in rural counties of Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Not until the FBI, then called the Bureau of Investigation, became involved in the case did law-enforcement officials gain ground on Bonnie and Clyde. The Bureau of Investigation, curiously enough, could only investigate the two on the grounds of the National Motor Vehicle Act, which stipulated that federal agents had jurisdiction to pursue suspects accused of interstate transportation of a stolen automobile. Investigators initially traced a stolen vehicle to the house of Clyde Barrow’s aunt. As officers stepped up the pressure to catch Bonnie and Clyde, the well-armed couple went about adding to their own firepower. They were joined by Clyde’s brother, Buck Barrow, along with his wife. Later they were joined by escaped murderer Raymond Hamilton. In the spring of 1934, following tireless investigations, federal agents traced the gang to a remote county in Southwest Louisiana. A certain Methvin family was said to have been aiding and abetting the Bonnie-and-Clyde gang for over a year. It was learned that Bonnie and Clyde, along with some of the Methvins, had staged a party at Black Lake, Louisiana, on the night of May 21. Two days later, just before dawn, a posse of police officers from Texas and Louisiana, including Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, laid an ambush for Bonnie and Clyde along the highway near Sailes, Louisiana. In the early morning, Bonnie and Clyde appeared in their automobile. The officers reported that the couple attempted to flee, but more likely, owing to the fact that Bonnie and Clyde had killed five policemen, the posse opened fire without warning. For two minutes, deputies showered the car with bullets. Both Bonnie and Clyde were killed in the barrage. Their bullet-riddled 1934 Ford later became a valuable collectible. Bonnie and Clyde gained a place in popular mythology as dustbowl Robin Hoods. The 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty as Clyde and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, portrayed a charming and irreverent pair who took their game too far. Examination of the couple’s past, as well as an examination of their victims, shows that Bonnie and Clyde were more likely carefree killers. Their popularity owed to the mistrust of the authorities of the Dustbowl during the Depression era, and to the couple’s uncanny ability to elude the police for over two years.


This week in Automotive History is produced by Branding Roar