July 30, 2003: Take a Spin in My Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen?

Volkswagen Beetle number 21,529,464 rolled off the production line at the VW plant in Puebla, Mexico, on this day in 2003. It was the last of the Beetles, a car that had been built since World War II. kdf-wagenIt was baby blue and destined for a museum near Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, where its oldest ancestors were made.

This was the classic VW Beetle, the real one, not the redesigned retro Beetle that Volkswagen started producing in 1998. It was first visualized back in the 1930s by Austrian automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche). Adolf Hitler wanted a small, affordable passenger car to satisfy German transportation needs, something smaller than a Panzer and more family-friendly. Porsche’s auto fit the bill and was introduced in 1939 as the Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen (or “Strength-Through-Joy” car), not a moniker that would send anyone other than Nazis running to their nearest automobile dealer.  A much-needed name change would later make it the “people’s car” or Volkswagen.

The Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen was quickly given the nickname “Beetle” for its funny round shape and because — well, would you call it the “Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen?”  The Wolfsburg factory churned out vehicles until production was halted by Allied bombing in 1944.

Production was resumed after the war, and the Beetle was distributed throughout the world during the following years. After a slow start in the United States, the Beetle became the top import by 1960 as the result of a clever advertising campaign. In 1969, a Beetle named Herbie starred in a hit movie The Love Bug and a couple of sequels.

Hard times hit in 1977, however, as the Beetle was banned in America for failing to meet safety and emission standards. Sales throughout the world declined and, by the late 1980s, the classic Beetle was sold only in Mexico. The Beetle was doomed even in Mexico, thanks to increased competition from other compact cars and burros. And in 2003 it was adios.


I hope life isn’t a big joke, because I don’t get it. ~ Jack Handey

January 10, 2008: Tata, Toodle-oo and Nano Nano

The cheapest car of the 21st century (so far) was trotted out on January 10, 2008, by its manufacturers, Tata Motors of India. The Nano, as it’s tata_nano_na-known, was a four-door metal bubble about ten feet long with a price tag of $2,500. Its makers called it the People’s Car, a vehicle for families who previously hadn’t been able to afford a car (yes, Volkswagen has been there, done that).

The basic model cost even less —  a mere $2,000, but came without a radio, air conditioning, airbags, steering, or windows (make that power steering or windows).

The Nano was made primarily of recycled computer printers. It had a 32-horsepower, rear-mounted engine, and could reach speeds of 65 miles per hour and 18 copies per minute. It had just one windshield wiper.

Tata received more than 203,000 pre-orders for the Nano, but because Tata was only able to produce an initial 100,000 Nanos, the cars’ lucky first owners were chosen by lottery. The Nano was initially sold only in India, although Tata said it eventually intended to spread it throughout the world.

Lest you think Tata Motors is a questionable business concern, it is part of one of India’s largest and oldest business conglomerates. And Tata, in addition to those Nano Nanos, manufactures Jaguars and Land Rovers.



November 14, 2006: Wings on a Pig

When the first Pig Stand opened, it was a restaurant like no other that had gone before. The year was 1921, the onset of the Roaring Twenties. Americans were in love with their pigstandautomobiles. More than eight million Fords and Oldsmobiles and Pierce Arrows roamed newly created highways.

Located on a Texas highway between Dallas and Fort Worth, the Pig Stand catered to those automobile folks – the first drive-in restaurant in the United States The restaurant’s owner, Dallas entrepreneur Jessie Kirby, reckoned that all those drivers would flock to a roadside barbecue where they could drive up, fill their faces with good Texas vittles, and drive off, without ever stepping out of their automobile. “People with cars are so lazy,” said Kirby, “they don’t want to get out of them.”

Kirby was a showman who knew how to attract customers. The Pig Stand had a red-tiled pagoda-like roof set on a rectangular building framed of wood and covered in stucco. As a customer was pulling in, teenage boys in spiffy white shirts and black bow ties would dash over to the car, hop onto the running board, and take an order – before the driver even came to a stop. For this derring-do, the servers were given the nickname carhops. Food historians credit the Pig Stand with the introduction of deep-fried onion rings, chicken-fried steak sandwiches, Texas Toast and high cholesterol.

The Pig Stand was a big hit with hungry drivers, and it soon became a chain, through one of the first franchising arrangements in restaurant history. Pig Stands popped up everywhere. By 1934, there were more than 130 of them in nine states, sporting the slogan “America’s Motor Lunch.” And dinner – Pig Stands boasted that more than 5,000 people enjoyed pig sandwich dinners every evening in Dallas alone. Pig Stand drive-ins soon replaced male carhops with attractive young women on roller skates, but maintained the formula that had got them this far: good-looking young carhops, tasty food, and speedy service – all in the comfort of your automobile.

Wartime gasoline and food rationing took its toll on the Pig Stand chain. And then came McDonald’s.  And Burger King.  And Wendy’s. By the end of the 1950s, all of the franchises outside of Texas had closed. And by 2005, only six remained in the state. Then on November 14, 2006, state officials closed the last two Pig Stands restaurants for unpaid sales taxes. And an icon oinked off into the Texas sunset.

In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style. ~Sydney Smith

October 1, 1908: Pass Me? Not a Chance

Automobiles had been around for decades as we entered the 20th century but they were scarce and rather pricy. That was about to change. On October 1, 1908, a new sort of vehicle hit the streets. Known variously as the Tin Lizzie, Leaping Lena or the Flivver, the Ford Model T was the people’s car, affordable because of Henry Ford’s model-trevolutionary assembly line production. Automobile travel was for everyone.

The Model T’s 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine delivered a top speed of about 45 miles per hour. It got from 13 to 21 miles per gallon of gasoline and weighed 1,200 pounds.

Would-be drivers gobbled them up at $850 apiece. (The price actually went down over they years, selling for as little as $260, thanks to savings from production innovations that were passed on to the consumer.) Within days, some 15,000 orders had been placed. By 1918 half of all the cars on America’s roads were nearly identical Model T’s. With over 16 million sold during it’s production years from 1908 to 1927, the Model T still ranks in the top ten of automobile sales.

Therein lies the problem for some critics who maintain that the availability of the Model T ushered in a world littered by automobiles with every American convinced that driving an automobile is a God-given right regardless of pollution, ever-widening swaths of asphalt, road rage, and other attendant ills.

Inspirational Quote for !0/1/16


November 9, 1962: While Henry Ford Fiddled

It was one of the top tourist attractions in the Unites States, just behind, Niagara Falls, the Smokey Mountains, the Smithsonian, and the Lincoln Memorial, but fordahead of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building. Every year during the 40s and 50s, millions of Americans would hop into their automobiles and make for this midwestern mecca, celebrating, what else, the American automobile.

The Ford Rotunda was originally built for the 1934 Century of Progress exposition in Chicago, back at the dawn of an era when there would soon be a gas station on every corner. The Rotunda itself had no corners, being round. It was 130 feet high and designed to look like a stack of gears surrounding a large courtyard. When the fair ended, Ford had the building disassembled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan.

The Rotunda was bigger and better after being reassembled at its new permanent location. Ten stories high, it looked like a stack of four stacked gears decreasing in size to the top. Inside the Rotunda were murals showing the River Rouge assembly line. On the grounds of the Rotunda, 19 reproductions depicted what Ford called the Roads of the World: the Appian Way, the Grand Truck Road, the Oregon Trail and Detroit’s Woodward Avenue where visitors would be driven in the latest Ford vehicles. In 1952, an 18,000-pound dome was added over the courtyard, the first real-world application of inventor R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome.

Ford used the building to showcase its line of automobiles including the introduction of new models. The Continental was unveiled here and so was the Edsel.

Beginning in 1953, the Rotunda featured an elaborate Christmas show featuring a gigantic tree, Santa’s workshop and a life-size nativity that the National Council of Churches called the “largest and finest” in the country. Each year’s installation had a different theme such as the 1958 display boasting a 15,000-piece hand-carved miniature circus.

The 1962 show was scheduled to be a woodland tableau featuring 2,500 dolls. On November 9, while workmen were preparing the Rotunda for that display, someone was careless with fire on the building’s tar roof (where’s Smokey when you need him?).  Just after lunch,  employees spotted flames on the ceiling of the main floor. Within minutes, the octagonal top of the building resembled a huge chimney, with smoke and fumes pouring out. Workers evacuated, and the building burned to the ground in less than an hour as would-be visitors watched in horror from a cafeteria across the street.

September 29, 1913: Does the Name Rudolf Ring a Bell?

diesel-carIn early October of 1913, a Belgian sailor spotted a corpse, quite a bit worse for wear, floating in the North Sea. He and his mates fished a wallet and a pill case from the body but did not take it aboard. The personal effects were identified as belonging to Rudolf Diesel, who, as every schoolboy knows (quick, find me a schoolboy), invented the “compression ignition engine,” a miraculous device that would run efficiently on any fuel from fuel oil to vegetable oil to watered-down MaiTais, an engine that would come to bear his name — the Rudolf.  More importantly, Rudolf Diesel entered the realm of “unsolved mysteries.”

On September 29, Diesel had boarded the ship Dresden in Antwerp, Belgium, headed for London. After dinner, he retired to his cabin for the night with instructions for a 6:15 a.m. wake-up call.

In the morning, his cabin was found empty, locked from the inside. His nightshirt was carefully laid out but his bed had not been slept in. Naturally, authorities assumed Diesel’s death to be an open-and-shut case of suicide. He’d left behind a package containing 200,000 German marks for his wife along with a statement that the family was otherwise bankrupt.

Yeah, but . . .

Witnesses suggest that Diesel had been upbeat about the possibility that his invention would become more widespread.; he had booked this trip to lay the groundwork for a new Diesel engine factory. Was it an accident? The sea was calm. Diesel was sober. Murder?

Now our theorists come bounding out of the woodwork with any number of possibilities. Pesky Germans — His planned meeting was with the British Navy, to whom he was trying to sell his engines for use in submarines, and World War I was just around the corner. Two German intelligence officers were aboard the Dresden. Other conspiracy theorists suggest killers hired by Gene-Autry CBSthe petroleum industry, an industry that saw Diesel’s work as a threat to their future profits.

Competitors or enemies of the British crown, or maybe aliens — take your pick.

Arguably the greatest singing cowboy of all time, Gene Autry was born on September 29, 1907, in Tioga, Texas. He started out as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy” on a Tulsa radio program and made his first recording in 1929.

At a time when you couldn’t throw a spur without hitting a singing cowboy, Autry was one of the few who had actually seen a horse. But it was in the movies that he made his real mark. After his first film, In Old Santa Fe, he went on to warble and yodel and chase bad guys in a hundred motion pictures. Along the way he had such hit records as “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” “Back in the Saddle Again,”and that huge holiday hit about the reindeer who invented a compression ignition engine and saved Christmas.

September 4, 1957: That’s E as in Edsel

edsel-citation-05It was dubbed “E-Day” by the Ford Motor Company and the air was heavy with hype – the first new automobile brand introduced by Detroit’s Big Three since the 1930s. For months, the company had been running ads that simply pictured the car’s hood ornament and the line “The Edsel Is Coming.” (Alfred Hitchcock was more successful a few years later with “The Birds Is Coming.”) Everything about the car was hush-hush. Dealers who showed even a tailfin to the curious public would lose their franchise (which turned out to be not such a calamity).

E-Day was a gluttony of hoopla, promotions and prizes. And it did lure would-be shoppers to the Edsel showrooms. And when they got there, they found a car that was certainly different, but not pleasantly so. “A Pontiac pushing a toilet seat,” said one reporter. “An Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.”

And those were just the problems with appearance. The transmission was a confusing push-button affair on the steering wheel. The rear turn-signal lights were shaped to point in the opposite direction from which the car was turning. And if you pushed the Edsel speed up to 50 mph or so, that famous hood ornament was likely to fly off and crash into the windshield. It guzzled gas. It was an over-sized, over-designed camel just when cautious consumers were looking for a horse.

And perhaps after all that hype, any car would have failed. And fail the Edsel did, spectacularly. In its first year, Edsel sold just 64,000 cars and lost $250 million (about $2.5 billion in today’s dollars). After the 1960 model year, the Edsel division folded for good. And Ford President Robert (Strange) McNamara went to run the Department of Defense.

September 4, 1886: That’s G . . .

The legendary Apache, Geronimo or the One Who Yawns, made a pretty big nuisance of himself throughout much of the late 19th century. Finally on September 4, 1886, Geronimo surrendered to government authorities, bringing to a conclusion the Indian Wars of the Southwest.

In his retirement, he remained a prisoner of war, but became something of a celebrity as well, appearing at fairs and carnivals, selling souvenirs from his extensive collection of settler scalps and autographed photos of his warrior days. He took a ride on a Ferris wheel at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and hobnobbed with President Theodore Roosevelt during his 1905 inaugural parade. He would most likely have joined the 2016 Republican nomination battle had he not died in 1909.

September 3, 1900: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

buzzParade-goers lined the streets of Flint, Michigan, on the first Labor Day of the new century to witness the debut of a new automobile, the first ever made in that city. It was not created by General Motors as practically every car to follow was. This car was designed and built by Charles Wisner, a county judge by day and an automotive visionary by weekends.

Wisner’s Buzz-Wagon, as his unusual vehicle was lovingly called, was the first of three he designed and built. None ever went into mass production. That was left for the Chevrolets and Buicks that would arrive later. The Chevrolets and Buicks would offer a smoother ride with a lot less noise, and in an unusual departure from the Buzz-Wagon, they would have brakes. The Buzz-Wagon, it seemed, required a sturdy immovable object such as a lamppost or a large building for it to bump into in order to stop.

Fortunately at the Flint Labor Day parade, the immovable object was unnecessary. Much to the amusement of several thousand spectators, the Buzz-Wagon stalled and had to be pushed out of the parade.


September 3, 1632

The Elizabethan era was a time of fertile travel, abounding in discoveries that required very little exaggeration to carry them into the realm of the marvelous. And, unlike today, folks would clamor to see anything that was strange, fantastic, beyond belief. This taste for the wonderful was catered to by adventurers returning from voyages with tales of bizarre creatures, monsters even.

Sure, many of the “monsters” would not seem at all unusual today – a shark or an octopus in the possession of a fast-talking charlatan could easily separate country folk from their money. In fact sea-monkinland people who had never experienced the sea were thought capable of believing just about anything.

Narrations by sixteenth century authors each attempted to outdo each other describing the oddities taken from the sea. One account from September 3, 1632, described a creature that, although a fish, bore a striking resemblance to a bishop. And there were drawings to prove its existence. The author pointed out that this was meant to assure us that bishops were not confined to land alone, but that the sea also has the advantage of their blessed presence. This particular sea-bishop was taken before the king and after a conversation expressed his wish to be returned to his own element. The king so ordered and the sea-bishop was cast back into the sea.

No sooner had the creature disappeared than another author in the best tradition of oneupsmanship (and perhaps a bow to evolution) showed us that any sea that possessed a sea-bishop must certainly have a sea-monk!