May 31st – June 6th | This Week In Automotive History

May 31st, 1929

The first Ford assembled under license in the USSR leaves the GAZ factory in 1932.

The Ford Motor Company signed a “Technical Assistance” contract to produce cars in the Soviet Union. Ford supplied many of the production parts for car manufacturers in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Soviet factories also used Ford plants as their construction models.

The agreement between Ford and the Soviet government also meant that Ford workers were sent to the Soviet Union to train the labour force in the use of its parts. Many laborers, including Walter Reuther, returned from the Soviet Union with a different view of the duties and privileges of the industrial laborer. Reuther, the UAW’s president for many years, claimed to have been galvanized by the spirit of the Soviet workforce. It was over a decade, however, before labor unions won major victories in the U.S.

Although the labor activists were for the most part not Communist, nor even Communist sympathizers, Ford officials nevertheless used this threat to keep them at bay for years. During McCarthyism, many of the labor officials who had been in the Soviet Union were cited as perpetrators of “un-American activities.”

June 1st, 1981

Bowling Green Assembly Plant

Production of Corvettes began at a new plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky and the facility has remained the exclusive home of the Corvette ever since. Known around the world as America’s sports car, the Corvette exemplifies the definition of innovation.

The Corvette is the world’s longest-running, continuously produced passenger car. When the first Corvette rolled off the line over 60 years ago, it was born an icon. GM has continued this reputation for the car with six decades of refinement and innovation, raising the bar for performance cars with each generation. The Corvette Stingray is no exception; man and machine work in harmony to bring to life the perfect balance of technology, design, and performance. Corvette didn’t always call Kentucky home, however. In 1953, the first 300 were built by hand in Flint, Michigan, just after General Motors unveiled the Corvette as a “dream car” in the Motorama show in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel.

The following year, production moved to St. Louis. In June of 1981, Corvette production transferred from St. Louis to Bowling Green, Kentucky. Previously a Chrysler air-conditioning unit factory, the building was completely renovated within 14 months into a modern automotive facility twice the size of the previous structure. At the conclusion of the 1996 production year, the entire plant was gutted to make way for a totally redesigned manufacturing facility for the fifth-generation Corvette. Production of the XLR began in June 2003 and ceased on April 30, 2009. The plant built the 1 millionth Corvette on July 2, 1992, and the 1.5 millionth on May 28, 2009. The 50th anniversary of the Corvette was celebrated in June 2003, marked with a special 50th anniversary Corvette package, and the 30th anniversary of Bowling Green Assembly was celebrated in June 2011.

June 2nd, 1954

Volvo P1900

The first Volvo sports car, the two-door, two-seater, open-top P1900, produced for export only, was unveiled with great fanfare at Torslanda Airport near Gothenburg, Sweden. Capable of 85 mph, the 3-gear, 4-cylinder, 1,414-cc car, fitted with twin SU carburetors, was a financial disaster – only 67 cars were ever sold

June 2nd, 1956

Junior Johnson

Future stockcar great Junior Johnson and his father were arrested for making moonshine whiskey. His father, a lifelong bootlegger, spent nearly twenty of his sixty-three years in prison, as their house was frequently raided by revenue agents. The Johnson family experienced the largest alcohol raid in United States history, seizing upwards of 400 gallons of moonshine from the house. Junior spent one year in prison in Ohio for having an illegal still, although he was never caught in his many years of transporting bootleg liquor at high speed. In 1955, Johnson began his career as a NASCAR driver.

In his first full season, he won five races and finished sixth in the 1955 NASCAR Grand National points standings. In 1958 he won six races. In 1959, he won five more NASCAR Grand National races (including a win from the pole position at the 1959 Hickory 250); by this time he was regarded as one of the best short-track racers in the sport. His first win at a “superspeedway” came at the Daytona 500 in 1960. Johnson and his crew chief Ray Fox were practicing for the race, trying to figure out how to increase their speed, which was 22 miles per hour (35 km/h) slower than the top cars in the race. During a test run, a faster car passed Johnson. He noticed that when he moved behind the faster car his own speed increased due to the faster car’s slipstream. Johnson was then able to stay close behind the faster car until the final lap of the test run when he used the “slipstream” effect to slingshot past the other car. By using this technique Johnson went on to win the 1960 Daytona 500, despite the fact that his car was slower than others in the field.

Johnson’s technique was quickly adopted by other drivers, and his practice of “drafting” has become a common tactic in NASCAR races. In 1963 he had a two-lap lead in the World 600 at Charlotte before a spectator threw a bottle onto the track and caused Junior to crash; he suffered only minor injuries. He retired in 1966. In his career, he claimed 50 victories as a driver, and 11 of these wins were at major speedway races. He retired as the winningest driver never to have a championship. Johnson was a master of dirt track racing. “The two best drivers I’ve ever competed against on dirt are Junior Johnson and Dick Hutcherson,” said two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he became a NASCAR racing team owner; he sponsored such NASCAR champions as Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip. He now produces a line of fried pork skins and country ham. He is credited as the first to use the drafting technique in stock car racing. He is nicknamed “The Last American Hero” and his autobiography is of the same name. In May 2007, Johnson teamed with Piedmont Distillers of Madison, North Carolina, to introduce the company’s second moonshine product, called “Midnight Moon Moonshine”.

June 3rd, 1921

Mack bulldog

Mack adopted the Bulldog as the symbol for Mack trucks.

June 4th, 1896

Henry Ford and his Quadricycle

Henry Ford drove his first vehicle, the Quadricycle, from the workshop behind his home at 58 Bagley Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. Despite lacking a body, the vehicle was so wide that it required Ford to enlarge his shop’s door with an ax just to get it out of the shop and onto the road. The Quadricycle was basically a light metal frame fitted with four bicycle wheels and powered by a 2-cylinder, 4-horsepower ethanol engine. With his assistant John Bishop bicycling ahead to alert passing carriages and pedestrians, Ford drove the 500-lb vehicle down Detroit’s Grand River Avenue, circling around three major thoroughfares. It had two driving speeds, no reverse, no brakes, rudimentary steering ability, and a doorbell button as a horn. It reached about 20 mph. Ford sold the Quadricycle for $200 and built a couple more copies before founding Ford Motor Co. in 1903.

June 5th, 1951

T-top on a 1977 Dodge Charger

Gordon M. Buehrig was issued a US patent for his “vehicle top with removable panels”. The T-top (UK: T-bar) automobile roof has a removable panel on each side of a rigid bar running from the center of one structural bar between pillars to the center of the next structural bar. The panels of a traditional T-top are usually made of auto-grade safety glass. It was first used in a 1948 prototype by The American Sportscar Company or “Tasco.” The 1968 Chevrolet Corvette coupe was the first U.S.-built production automobile to feature a T-top roof. This increased the popularity of the coupe, such that it outsold the convertible and later led to the discontinuation of the Corvette convertible after 1975 until it was revived in 1986.

Post-C3 models were built with a Targa top instead of a T-top. Buehrig was a member of America’s first generation of automobile stylists. As a boy, he had always dreamed of designing cars, so at the age of 17, he took a summer job with the Yellow Cab Company in Chicago in order to be around the greatest variety of cars possible. He held the job until the company discovered he was under-aged. Before he left Chicago, Buehrig called Clarence Wexelburg, designer for the custom body-building C.P. Kimball Company, and asked him how he should go about becoming a car designer. Wexelburg directed him to take classes in drafting, wood and metal shop, and art.

Buehrig pursued all three at Bradley Polytechnic before leaving for Detroit in search of an apprenticeship, which he found at Packard. His inexperience limited him to unexciting work as a body panel designer; but it was at Packard that he made valuable connections in the design industry and where he first discovered Le Corbusier’s book, Toward a New Architecture, a text that would influence Buehrig’s own aesthetic sense for the rest of his life. In 1928, Buehrig was the fourth man hired by Harley Earl for General Motors (GM) new Art and Colour Section, the first GM department dedicated solely to design concerns. Buehrig stayed there just long enough to share Earl’s frustration with the Fisher Body Department’s execution of the art department’s designs. Of the 1929 Buick, dubbed the “pregnant Buick,” Buehrig objected, “Harley Earl’s original design was a masterpiece, but Art and Color were new and he couldn’t swing a lot of weight.” Leaving GM’s fledgling art department may have been a mistake for Buehrig, as Earl would rapidly establish the department into the industry’s first design dynasty. But just as likely, Buehrig’s inventiveness would have been harnessed by Earl, and while Buehrig would have become rich, he might never have achieved the boldness of his later designs. Buehrig, just 24, left GM to become chief body designer at Stutz before moving on to the even more prestigious role of chief designer at Duesenberg.

At the age of 25, he began designing America’s most high-profile car bodies. His crowning achievement came in 1936 with the Cord 810. Heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s designs, the 810 had disappearing headlights, a hidden gas cap, and Venetian blind louvers that accentuated the car’s lean, “coffin-nosed” hood. It was an affordable future car. In 1951, the Museum of Modern Art picked the Cord 810 as one of eight automobiles selected worldwide to be exhibited as pieces of art. Curator Arthur Drexel wrote Buehrig that in the museum’s view, the 810 was “the outstanding American contribution to automobile design.” Buehrig quietly changed the way cars look today. Ironically, his former employer Harley Earl would follow Buehrig’s work closely, often incorporating his innovations into GM’s designs. It was Buehrig who first erased the running board from the American car… and Earl who first got the credit.

June 6th, 1933

First drive-in theater Camden NJ 1933

Richard Hollingshead opened the first drive-in movie theatre in Camden, New Jersey. Hollingshead was the sales manager for Whiz Auto Products in Camden when he came up with the idea for the drive-in. He acted on the notion that few Americans at that time would give up the pleasure of going to the movies, had they the chance. In 1933, though, movie going wasn’t a family event, as few couples felt comfortable bringing their kids to the theatre. Going to the movies involved getting dressed up, finding a babysitter, and driving down to a crowded Main Street to look for parking. Hollingshead believed that the drive-in would solve these problems: moviegoers didn’t have to park their cars or dress up, and the kids could join their parents. Hollingshead began to experiment in his driveway at home. He mounted a 1928 Kodak film projector on the hood of his car and projected onto a screen he’d nailed to two trees in his backyard. He placed a radio behind the screen for sound. He even ran tests in simulated rainy conditions by running his sprinkler on his car while watching films. He also planned the cars’ spacing by using his friends’ cars to simulate a crowded theatre. By using risers, he found he could afford all cars a view. He went to the patent office on August 6, 1932, and on May 16 he received exclusive rights for his idea with U.S. patent #1,909,537. A Delaware court later overturned the patent in 1950, but not before the inventor got his due. Hollingshead spent $30,000 on his first drive-in on Crescent Boulevard in Camden. The admission price was 25¢ per car and 25¢ per person, with no car paying more than $1.00.

This week in Automotive History is produced by Branding Roar