Then & Now | 1942 White M2 Half Track

(1942 White M2 Half Track. Crawford Auto-Aviation Collection.)
Since 1867, volunteers have contributed to the operations of the Western Reserve Historical Society. By sharing their stories, knowledge and skills, WRHS can continue to fulfill its mission of inspiring people to discover the American experience by exploring the tangible history of Northeast Ohio.
The CAAM volunteers have undertaken the extensive restoration and refurbishment of a White Half Track, an American armored personnel carrier widely used by the Allies during World War II and in the Cold War. The M2 Half Track and its variants were produced by many manufacturers including Cleveland’s very own White Motor Company.
The organization has had the vehicle in its collection since 1999. Upon inspection it was noticed that the vehicle had a magnitude of issues including engine, driveline and incorrect body parts. What started out as a minor rebuild increased in scope as more incorrect parts and damaged driveline items were discovered.
WRHS, along with the help of volunteers, has completely rebuilt the entire rear track assembly and brakes on the vehicle. The front floor and all the front sheet metal was removed due to corrosion and improperly fabricated components from its past life. WRHS will continue to fabricate, rebuild, restore or purchase what is necessary to return it to fully functioning status. The process is a tedious one as not many parts are available almost 75 years after production. There is a dedicated team of approximately 6 volunteers who work solely on this project bringing it back to its former glory.

Then & Now | Ruth Franklin Sommerlad

(Photograph of Ruth Franklin Sommerlad and Frederick C. Crawford.)
Ruth Franklin Sommerlad (1912-2003), known professionally as Ruth Franklin, was one of the first female curators of an auto-aviation museum. She was born in Byesville, Ohio in 1912, and graduated from Heidelberg College with a Master of Arts degree in 1932. In 1942, she joined the personnel department of Cleveland’s Thompson Products Company. Three years later, she became the Curator of the Thompson Products Auto Album. Ruth Franklin would assist Thompson Products president Fred Crawford in expanding and defining the collection through its transition to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1963 and was named director of the Frederick C. Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum when it opened in 1965.
Ruth Franklin was renowned through America because of her antique car expertise. She participated in nation-wide Glidden Tours of antique cars since 1946, and was the first woman on the board of trustees of the National Antique Automobile Club of America. She was also a member of the Women’s Advertising Club of Cleveland, and the American Association of Museums. By the time Ruth retired from WRHS in 1971 she had seen the collection grow to over 100 automobiles, a number of aircraft, and a variety of other vehicles and artifacts.

Then & Now | Buying a Car

 

What better way to usher in the coming year than with the purchase of a brand new car? Hypothetically, let’s say you are shopping for a new Ford for example. Now, to have some fun, let’s say you were shopping for a new Ford exactly 100 years ago. What would be on offer, and what would the experience for today’s consumer be like? Let’s listen in on the conversation… ‘C’= Customer, and ‘D’=Dealer.

‘D’: ‘Good morning little lady, what can we do for you?’

‘C’: (With a slight frown), ‘I’m interested in buying a new car, and I see you’ve got plenty on hand.’

‘D’: ‘Sure do Miss, fresh off the assembly line in Detroit. We’ve got whatever you need; a Sedan, a Coupe, a Roadster Pickup, a Runabout, and a top-of-the-line Touring, all courtesy of Mr. Henry Ford.’

While other auto makers wanted to design luxury cars, Henry Ford designed a car that anyone could afford. Here he is standing by that very car. From the collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company.

‘C’: ‘Are these the famous Model T’s I’ve heard so much about?’

‘D’: ‘Sure are Miss; reliable as the sunrise, comfortable and affordable too! Why, just since 1908, we’ve sold five million of ‘em. All those customers can’t be wrong!’

‘C’: ‘That little convertible looks very nice over there.’

‘D’: ‘Yep, that’d be the Runabout, a two-seater that has plenty of pep, and even has electric headlights! I hope you’re a pretty good driver, as this little beauty can hit 45 miles per hour, and keep at it all day long!’

‘C’: ‘I think I can manage. The black paint is certainly very shiny, but does it come in any other colors?’

‘D’: ‘Nope!’

‘C’: ‘How about the other models in the line-up?’

‘D’: ‘Nope! Word is that Mr. Ford got a good deal on a volume purchase of black paint!’

At this point in history, most car buyers appreciated value and affordability, regardless of available body colors. In 1921, nearly 57% of the automobiles sold worldwide were Ford Model T’s! Ford was a genius at integrated assembly as well. Outside parts suppliers were required to use a certain type of wood for the part’s shipping crates. The wood was recycled into building the wooden framework for the car’s bodies, and the leftovers were turned into charcoal briquettes, marketed under the trade name ‘Kingsford’.

‘C’: ‘The interior looks pretty Spartan. I don’t see any air conditioning’.

‘D’: (Blank look)

‘C’: Well, does it have a heater at least?’

‘D’: ‘Nope’.

‘C’: ‘What do you do in the winter time?’

‘D’: ‘Dress for the weather!’

To reduce overall price, the Model T was pared down to the bare essentials. The options and equipment we consider standard today were just a pipe dream back then. Climate control, heated, cooled, and massaging seats, GPS navigation, radio/stereo, turn signals, electric windshield wipers, tire pressure sensors, remote locking and starting, automatic transmission, leather upholstery; all were unavailable.

‘C’: ‘Well, I guess I’m still interested in the Runabout. What sort of money are we talking about?’

‘D’: ‘Including the electric starter option, which I highly recommend for a young lady like yourself, we are looking at right around $400.00 out the door. Since West Virginia is still the only state in the union with sales tax, you won’t have to worry about that.’

‘C’: ‘$400.00 a month seems pretty pricy for that bare bones car’.

‘D’: ‘A month?! Lady, that’s the price for the whole car! I hope you can pay in cash, as we don’t finance here.’

Henry Ford was dead set against buying a car on credit, which he referred to as ‘morally reprehensible’. Instead, Ford dealers could act almost like a savings bank, accepting regular deposits from customers until they could pay for the vehicle entirely. General Motors, forming their own financial branch for consumer loans, began to chip away at Ford’s near-monopoly of the car market, until Ford was forced to follow suit.

‘D’: ‘Well Miss, it’s been a pleasure! I think you’ll really enjoy your new Ford, and look pretty snazzy behind the wheel! Remember, she’ll run on gasoline, kerosene, or methanol, so you’ll never get stuck on empty!’

The Model T was one of the first true ‘Flex Fuel’ vehicles in America, a real advantage since many were put to use in rural environments, where gas stations were few and far between.

Let’s return to our own time, back to the spacious, modern Ford dealership, where our purchase is being concluded.

‘D’: ‘Thank you and congratulations Ms. Smith for the purchase of your new Ford SUV. I’m sure you’ll love it!’

‘C’: ‘Of course. By the way, I’m interested in one of those factory roof racks. How much extra would that be?’

‘D’: ‘Right around $400.00, plus tax.’

 

Today, we are living in something of a new ‘Golden Age’ of automobile production, from 300 mph hyper-cars to a mind-boggling array of sport utility vehicles, available to consumers across the financial spectrum. In the early 1920’s, Cleveland’s car buyers were also afforded a wealth of choices from domestic and foreign automakers. Around fifty American automobile companies (down from 253 in 1908) provided everything from utility to pure luxury vehicles. Detroit had surpassed Cleveland as the epicenter of automobile manufacturing, but names like Jordan, Cleveland, Peerless, Chandler, and Winton kept the flame alive in the Western Reserve.


*Ford dealership photos courtesy of Ford Model A Club of America
*Henry Ford and Model T photo courtesy of Myautoworld.com

Then & Now | Alonzo Wright Moves from Mundane to Millionaire

(Photograph of Alonzo Wright’s first SOHIO station, 1935.)

Born in Fayetteville, Tennessee, Alonzo Wright (30 Apr. 1898-17 Aug. 1976) began his career as a shoe shiner and messenger. From those humble beginnings he went on to become Cleveland’s first African American millionaire. He moved to Cleveland in the 1910s with a reported six cents in his pocket. Alonzo went to night school to earn his high school diploma while also holding down various jobs as a teamster, foundry hand, mail truck driver, and most notably, a garage attendant at the Auditorium Hotel. He met SOHIO executive, Wallace T. Holliday during his eight years working as an attendant. Holliday offered Wright a desk job at Standard Oil, but Wright requested to operate a service station instead. With Holliday’s help, Wright became the first African American to lease a SOHIO station.

Wright’s first station was located at E. 93rd and Cedar in a predominantly African American Cleveland neighborhood. He improved his business by offering extra services, such as windshield cleanings and tire and radiator checks. By 1937 he operated six SOHIO stations. By the time he ceased operations in the early 1940s, he ran 11 gas stations.

 From Service Station to Serving His Community

Wright was very passionate about using his success to help the African American community. He created opportunities and hired more black youths by 1940 than any other business man in America. He was also an essential founder of the Cleveland Development Fund which endeavored to eliminate African American slums.

Unfortunately, Wright was met with racial adversity despite of his business success and standing. When he moved into an all-white section of Cleveland Heights in the 1930s, his home was bombed. He later moved to a 200-acre farm in Chesterland, Ohio in 1947.

Wright left the service station business as gas rationing for World War II slowed sales. He turned to the real estate market instead, opening his own real estate investment firm, Wright’s Enterprises, in 1943. Among his most impressive purchases were Carnegie Hotel and the Ritzwood Hotel. He also established Dunbar Nursing Home. By the 1960s his focus was mainly centered on industrial and residential construction. Wright passed away at his home in Bratenahl at the age of 78 and was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.

The legacy of John D. Rockefeller’s first endeavor into oil refining (1862) as the Rockefeller & Andrews Oil Company in 1862 progressed to Standard Oil in 1870, Standard Oil of Ohio in 1890 and to SOHIO in 1911. Alonzo Wright was able to prosper as a young SOHIO entrepreneur in the 1930s into the 1940s. Later in 1978, SOHIO would merge into British Petroleum., and became known as BP in 1991. Today, the Standard Oil legacy lives on in the familiar green BP sunburst logo and slogan: Beyond Petroleum (2001).

Then & Now | Macedonia Preservation Facility

By John C. Lutsch, CAAM Program & Marketing Manager

 

Macedonia. The name conjures images of the ancient birthplace of Alexander the Great, or perhaps of the recently formed breakaway republic of the former Yugoslavia. But there is a Macedonia of local repute as well, not ancient, but loaded with significance.

In 1999, the Western Reserve Historical Society purchased a nearly 60,000 square foot warehouse in the southeast Cleveland suburb of Macedonia, Ohio. Its purpose was to house museum artifacts, documents, and perhaps most importantly, classic automobiles and aircrafts in the Crawford Auto-Aviation Collection. Additionally, space was allocated for the maintenance, preservation, and restoration of those vehicles.

Today, the facility’s three-tiered storage racks hold around fifty-plus cars, trucks, motorcycles and aircraft, all awaiting attention, or an opportunity to be displayed in the Crawford. Although the building is unmarked (and rather unremarkable), the activities within are crucial to the operation of the Crawford, and the care of its world-class collection. .

The Crawford’s mission statement establishes the need, first and foremost, to preserve the vehicles for posterity and to avoid a complete restoration whenever possible. The Crawford team has to rely on extensive automotive backgrounds to determine whether a car can be conserved in its present condition, or if it requires a total rebuild to be presentable. It is a delicate balance of judgment, as well as the availability of adequate funding. Many of the automobiles in the collection are nearing the century mark in age, and parts are no longer available. Fabricating them from scratch is both difficult and expensive.

Larry Davis, Crawford Collection Manager, brings a wide skill set to Macedonia, as his machining and construction background can keep the fabrication of parts in-house, reducing costs and margins for error. His is no position for a mere mechanic. Welding, brazing, fiberglass work, sheet metal fabrication, and machine tool work are all daily requirements at The Preservation Facility, as well as guiding the volunteer force as they apply the aforementioned techniques. Engine rebuilding, frame restoration, and safety system upgrades are on tap as well.

Occasionally, the doors of the Preservation Facility are opened to the public, and crowds of over three hundred guests have jumped at the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of activities there. Having a large parking lot allows crowds of enthusiasts to bring their favorite rides to the open days as well.

Although the Preservation Facility usually keeps a low profile, it’s highly skilled team of Davis and his volunteers (many of whom are former engineers and craftsmen) continue to ensure that the Crawford’s vehicles are afforded the best of care, protecting and preserving them for future generations to enjoy.

Open house days at Macedonia have been curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but as state and national restrictions ease, keep an eye out for your opportunity to visit this remarkable facility, right in our back yard! Meanwhile, one can enjoy the results of this work with a visit to the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum at the Cleveland History Center.

 

 

Then & Now | Garford Manufacturing Company

In 1902, Studebaker entered the automobile business by adding a line of electric cars to their wagon production. Just one year later the Studebaker-Garford was the combined effort of the Studebaker Corporation of South Bend, Indiana and the Garford Manufacturing Company of Elyria, Ohio.  Between 1906 and 1913, Studebaker acted only as the selling agent for cars made to their order and produced by other manufacturers.  The Garford Manufacturing Company of Elyria, Ohio, made the more expensive models that were sold as Studebaker-Garfords.  These models were favored by ladies and were intended for town use, shopping, visiting, and so forth.

This luxurious Model H landaulet (an automobile with a half-folding rear roof) was custom-made for Mrs. Bertha Palmer of Chicago, the widow of Potter Palmer, owner of the Palmer House Hotel. Their house was called “Palmer Castle,” and Mrs. Palmer was the grand dame of Chicago society.  The car’s exterior is in her favorite shades of purple, Heliotrope (lighter) and Amaranth (darker) with red striping.  The mauve velvet interior is accented with tapestry trim, beveled glass, and rich cherry wood.

 

Dan-Dee Potato Chip Company White Motors Truck

In the year 2000, the Crawford Museum was contacted by the Signature Models firm to make toy scale models of some of the collection’s most popular cars. One of those chosen was the 1920 White truck.  (WRHS accession 2003.23.4).

Cleveland-based, White Motors got its start thanks to sewing machines. Thomas White, founder of the White Sewing Machine Company, relocated to Cleveland to be closer to the Midwest markets.  His sons, Walter, Windsor, and Rollin became fascinated by innovations with the automobile instead.  Rollin White, educated and trained as an engineer, designed an early steam-powered automobile, and the White brothers were able to convince their father to build it.  Its success spurred Thomas to allow the brothers to take over a corner of the White factory, and begin production.  White cars were known for their quality engineering and became the most popular steam-powered vehicles in America.  The White brothers also introduced a line of trucks, at first steam-powered and later gasoline-powered.  By 1915, the automobile department at the White Sewing Machine Company was spun off into its own company, the White Motor Company.

White trucks soon gained a reputation for toughness and durability, and very quickly White trucks were adopted by the U.S. Army, as well as a variety of commercial businesses.  During WWI, the White 2-ton truck was selected as the standard Class A truck of the U.S. Army, and Whites saw extensive service in Europe. White trucks were doing so well that by 1918, White Motor dropped all automobile production and shifted solely to truck production, which continued until 1980.

Among the commercial users of White trucks was the Dan-Dee Potato Chip Company, which began in 1913, and moved to Cleveland in 1915.  Starting with horse-drawn wagons, the company soon moved to gasoline-powered vehicles.  This 1920 White 3/4-ton panel truck was acquired in 1952, when Dan-Dee employee Truman J. Fisher conceived of the idea of acquiring and restoring an early White to honor Dan-Dee’s founders, Charles V. Pike and Harry Orr.  Fisher supervised the restoration and realized his dream in 1953. The truck displays the 1928 Dan Dee logo and blends images of the company’s products from the late teens to the 1930s.

In addition to promoting the Dan Dee brand for forty years, the truck served the community appearing in countless parades and visiting schools, nursing homes, and hospitals, usually driven by Charles P. Pike, son of the company founder.  The truck was donated to the Crawford by Charles P. Pike in 1994.

Another Building Full of Old Cars and Airplanes… So?

Remember the last scene from ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”; a vast warehouse jammed with sealed wooden crates stretching as far as the eye can see? When you think of the term ‘museum’, is this the image that pops up first?

Sadly, for some folks today, the ‘dusty warehouse’ label applies to many cultural institutions, especially if they’ve never taken the opportunity to visit. Perhaps their preconceived notions hearken back to a time over a century ago, where museums were repositories for items of great historical or cultural significance, populated by wooly-headed scholars, researchers, and well-to-do connoisseurs. They were largely a province of society’s elite.

With the passage of time, wise administrators understood that museums could be a wonderful resource for the surrounding community, not only serving to educate and entertain, but becoming a point of civic pride as well. The collective doors were thrown open, with the public invited to participate in educational programs, lectures, tours, and special exhibitions. The ‘dust’ began to fall away.

By the time Fred Crawford began to amass a serious collection of antique automobiles around the mid-1940’s, the notion of creating a museum for the enjoyment of the public was well established. Since Mr. Crawford was the president of Thompson Products, the resources of the huge corporation were brought to bear on creating one of the first automobile museums in the United States, repurposing a former Cadillac dealership in downtown Cleveland. Twenty years later, with the dealership lease expiring, plans were put in motion to transfer the growing collection to a purpose-built facility within the grounds of the Western Reserve Historical Society. The Frederick C. Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum opened in September of 1965, and has been in continuous operation since then.

The museum houses a world-class collection of around one hundred and seventy automobiles, aircraft, and motorcycles, as well as a plethora of related support materials. Visitors can examine in detail cars that were produced at the dawn of powered personal transportation, through the Classic or Golden Age of automobile design, right up to the present with autonomously piloted vehicles.

A pressing issue for nearly all museums today is how to address the visitor’s question of ‘I’ve seen it once, why go back?’ (A valid yet troubling inquiry). Museums can no longer function as remote, elevated, or exclusive bastions of preservation of the past. They must remain current, engaging their visitors with ever-changing exhibits, programs and offerings to keep the experience fresh.

The Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum has taken this mission to heart, and is continually striving to elevate the quality of time the visitor spends. One might ask about the relevance of a gallery filled with antique cars; they were built so long ago that there is no current point of connection to them. Perhaps, but as exemplified by the Crawford’s latest exhibition, ‘Electric, Steam, or Gasoline’, visitors became aware of Cleveland’s significant past contributions to alternative power, anticipating innovations by manufacturers like Tesla by over a century. People were literally shocked by a late 1930’s Citroen that was powered by coal; something few even knew existed, and were wowed by the all-electric, ultra high-tech Chrysler Portal prototype which points the way to our future modes of transportation. Several of the alt-fuel vehicles were sourced from the Crawford’s permanent collection, and provided the viewer with insight as to how innovative thinkers decades ago influenced current design directions.

The Crawford experience can be very akin to listening to a delightful musical composition. If it resonates, one is prompted to go back to it over and over. So it is with a great museum; with each visit, something new and interesting can be gleaned, and our present is given definition and meaning by our past. The museum’s objects are touchstones to what has preceded us. Leave the dusty crates to the movies, and embrace the living and constantly evolving entity that is the Crawford. It will be time well spent!

Convertibles | Know When to Fold

As the weather warms, even a ‘bread, milk, eggs’ trip can become an adventure, if you’re driving…a convertible!

At the dawn of the automobile, virtually all were open vehicles, but it wasn’t until 1927 that the formal definition of a ‘convertible’ was generally agreed upon in the United States; that of a car with a permanently affixed folding top and roll-up windows.

It seems as though the idea of producing a ‘fun’ open-topped car occurred to several domestic manufacturers simultaneously. Buick, Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln all introduced models in 1927 that fit the definition perfectly.

During the ‘Golden Age’ of American motoring, from the late 1920’s through the following decade, automotive styling reached its zenith, with a mind-boggling array of color choices, power plants, and custom bodies available to the well-heeled customer. Add a canvas drop-top to the equation, and the results could be pure poetry. Have you ever attended a car show where a 1930’s Duesenberg convertible rolled in? The crowd response can become almost reverential.

Despite their attention-grabbing good looks and general popularity, the volume of convertibles has always been a mere fraction of total automobile production for a given year. When first introduced, the figure was around one tenth of one percent. During the seminal cultural changes of the 1960’s, that figure reached a high of 6.4 percent; still small by any measure.

The conundrum facing the potential convertible customer was one of enthusiasm and style versus practicality. Growing families required roomy interiors, protection from the elements, and an affordable product. Convertibles usually came at premium prices, had dodgy weather seals, couldn’t be used for hauling much, and a second ‘fun’ car was usually outside most folks limited budgets.

Possibly the most radical example of the sacrifice of practicality in a convertible was the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, a two-door retractable hardtop convertible that used an astonishingly complex system of seven electric motors, four lift jacks, four locking mechanisms, and ten limit switches to lower the top into the trunk. The top was so large that it required the front third to be hinged to fold for storage. They are a crowd pleaser at current shows, but their production lasted only three years.

From a boom in popularity in the 1960’s, domestic convertibles began a slide that concluded in the mid 1970’s, occupying merely one percent of total sales. Pending (although never enacted) government safety regulations regarding rollover protection influenced the Big Three automakers to stop convertible production altogether. Of course, European and Asian manufacturers knew an opportunity when they saw one, and offered a variety of convertibles to desperate enthusiasts. Sales were strong enough to influence the Americans to resume production six years later in 1982, and the drop-tops have been rolling off the assembly lines ever since.

Most current automakers have some sort of open car in their yearly lineup, particularly in the exotic luxury or hyper car sector. Usually, a new model is debuted as a hardtop with a convertible version following on at a later date, exemplified by the new Corvette C8.

Convertibles are not for everyone, but if you’ve ever driven one on a summer evening, moon ascending over the horizon, newly mown hay on the wind, and temperatures changing with every hill and valley, the experience is unforgettable and visceral. Pure automotive joy.

Evolution of the Family Car

The first ‘family car’ was invented rather by accident in 1888, when Bertha Benz, the intelligent and adventurous wife of automobile inventor Carl Benz decided on a whim to leave with her husband’s latest prototype vehicle and visit family in the neighboring town of Pforzheim, Germany, some 66 miles away. She bundled her two adolescent sons into the car, which lacked even rudimentary protection from the elements, and ventured off. Keep in mind that her spontaneous jaunt occurred in an era when there were no fuel stations, no service facilities, and limited communication other than telegraphy. After a day-long journey, packed with numerous improvisations to keep the car running, Bertha and her brood arrived safely. Upon returning home several days later, the unapologetic Bertha suggested various design improvements to her husband’s automobile, which he dutifully adopted!

Although designs progressed rapidly over the next two decades, it wasn’t until around 1926 that the automobile became a ‘family-friendly’ vehicle with the introduction of hot-air heaters in the Ford Model A. Of course, earlier cars could easily transport several people, but the adoption of glassed-in passenger compartments and heaters provided year-round comfort and protection, perfect for routine errands or a weekend cruise in the country.

In 1926, the Jordan Motor Car Company of Cleveland contracted with the Wiedman Body Company of upstate New York to adapt their “Sport Model” camper body to the Jordan frame. Jordan marketed the hybrid as the “House Car”, and it became one of the earliest examples of what is now known as a “family camper”. This rare time capsule vehicle is currently on display at the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum.

Concurrently, the expansion of the nation’s road infrastructure allowed easier access to distant locales, spurring development of roadside hotels, or ‘motels’ along several interstate highways. The ‘family vacation’ no longer depended upon rail or marine transportation, and savvy automakers took note of the growing popularity of automobile travel.

The term ‘family car’ has become synonymous with the development of the station wagon, first marketed by Ford in 1929. Early versions were mostly used as utility vehicles, but at the end of World War II, given the average American’s growing wealth, abundance of babies, and migration to the suburbs, station wagons became the transport of choice for growing families.

Domestic automakers provided a bewildering variety of station wagons from the 1950’s through the ‘70’s, many of which could carry ten passengers plus baggage. How many of us recall riding in the rear-facing ‘jumpseat’ of a wagon, waving or making faces at the following cars. Perhaps the most exotic of the wagons was the Chevrolet two door Nomad of the mid-Fifties, a favorite of custom and hot rod builders today. Who can forget the ‘Wagon Queen Family Truckster’ from the 1983 film ‘Vacation’, or the revered ‘Vista Cruiser’ from ‘That 70’s Show’?

Station wagons have faded into obscurity in favor of today’s SUV’s and pickup trucks, but how many lasting memories will be created in these vehicles? Was it really freedom to crawl around a car without seatbelts, wind in one’s hair, or just youthful naivete?

Luxury Air Travel

By John Lutsch

Barely twenty five years after the Wright brothers first flew, travelers were able to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air in the enormous rigid airship Graf Zeppelin, which first entered service in 1928. She was impressive to behold, measuring 776 feet long; the size of a contemporary ocean liner! Luxuriously appointed, she provided comfort in the form of Art Deco-inspired wood paneling, upholstered seating, dining and sitting rooms, and ten passenger cabins. She could cross from Germany to America in approximately 112 hours, at a cruising speed of 73 mph. Providing lift for the giant craft required nearly four million cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen, and although precautions were taken, hydrogen proved the undoing of airship travel with the Hindenburg disaster of 1937.

Although Charles Lindberg’s epic nonstop transatlantic solo flight in 1927 paved the way for future travel, aircraft engines were prone to failure, and passenger capacity was extremely limited. Also, there was the very real possibility of an aircraft having to make an emergency water landing, thereby eliminating land-based planes.

Slowly, seaplane and flying boat designs improved, from manufacturers Sikorsky, Martin, and others, along with the reliability of the engines that powered them. By the end of the 1930’s, the Boeing 314 ‘Clipper’ embodied the pinnacle of exclusive, luxurious air travel, providing accommodations for 77 trans-oceanic passengers. Seats could be converted to sleeping bunks, and meals were provided on linen-covered tables, prepared by four-star hotel chefs. The white-coated stewards served six-course meals with accompanying tableware of solid silver. At a cruising speed of 188 mph., the big Boeing could transport passengers between San Francisco and Honolulu in 19 hours, for a one-way fee of $675.00 (in 2019 dollars, $12,000.00) This was first-class ticketing only, reserved for the very well to do.

Today, the common assumption is that even though international air travel has become ubiquitous, it is a rather ‘cattle car’ affair. Emirates Air, based in Dubai, has turned that notion on its head with its First Class suites. The accommodations are magnificent, utilizing the Boeing 777 Dreamliner as a foundation. Six suites span the cross-section of the fuselage in two groups, and the middle suites have ‘virtual’ windows that project a live image of the environment surrounding the aircraft in flight. Hydrating skin care products are provided, as well as leather Bulgari amenity kits, Hennessy spirits, and Dom Perignon champagne. Over 4000 channels of entertainment are available, and aircraft-wide WiFi is provided. The seating is premium leather, which folds into a NASA-designed zero-gravity bed; hydrating pajamas are included. The suite is equipped with a wardrobe where clothing can be stored, and the lighting and temperature are passenger-controlled. A multi-page menu offers freshly prepared gourmet meals at any time, served of course, on white linen. Entertainment is supplied via a 32 inch flat screen television, and the lucky passenger enjoys complete privacy with floor to ceiling walls.  Prices begin at around $10,000.00 one way. For the long-haul traveler, there is nothing better in the sky!

Happenings at the Crawford Auto-Aviation Preservation Center

As an organization we are very lucky to have an extensive workshop to take care of our ever-increasing fine collection of transportation artifacts. We not only take care of the daily needs of the static items on display, but we also currently maintain a significant group of vehicles that run, drive and head out into the public at various events, car shows and public engagements. This is no easy task for a non-profit and we rely heavily on the help of many skilled volunteers and their experience to do the ‘heavy lifting’ at the center. The volunteers bring a skill set that is as broad as it is deep. We have multiple engineers from all fields, skilled trades of all types, architects, dentists, machinists, machinery builders, painters, etc.  These fine people are the engine that continues to drive the machine at the center and enable us to continue to push forward with new and exciting additions to our collection. With a collection surpassing 175 transportation items in addition to the aircraft and motorcycles this is no easy task as far as upkeep and repair.

One of our items that needed major restoration and preservation work was our White Motors M2 Half Track from WWII. White Motors from Cleveland, Ohio started as a sewing machine company and eventually spread into an automotive company with their introduction of a steam powered automobile and heavy trucks for industry. As all major manufactures during this time period, war time production took precedence and White Motors built vehicles for the war effort churning out thousands of vehicles including various versions of half-tracks. The first thing we needed to do was asses the situation and formulate a plan to tackle the repairs. The situation was dire in some respects as we are always battling time and the availability of parts. The longer an item goes before having work performed, the harder, longer and more costly it is to locate the requisite parts.  With this piece of history approaching its 80th birthday, time was not on our side. 

Our inspection of the vehicle indicated quite a few areas that needed addressed initially. We had no operational power brakes and the unit had been bypassed for some reason in the past. All the grease fittings, bearings, spindles and rotating assemblies had grease that had hardened to the consistency of a solid resin. The drivetrain including the engine, transmission / transfer case and radiator was leaking profusely and required immediate attention. None of the gauges worked, the wiring was a disaster and was completely frayed, corroded or even nonexistent.  To add to those problems, various incorrect modifications were done to the armor and frame of the vehicle making it miss the mark of being a true example of a White manufactured war time M2 track. This vehicle was going to need some help, but luckily, we are equipped with an extensively equipped facility and an extremely enthusiastic crew. 

From Colonel to Keepsake

Nearly a century ago, a young man flew repeatedly across the length and breadth of North America with a lion cub in his cockpit for company. Largely a character of his own creation, ‘Colonel’ Roscoe Turner became a household name during a period when aviation was evolving as a viable method of international transportation, and the dashing pilots of the day became instant public heroes.

Unlike today, where celebrities are ‘famous for being famous’, the luminaries of the 1920’s and ‘30s actually were required to achieve something specific, especially the pilots, by extraordinary accomplishments and feats of daring. Altitude records, speed records, distance records, trans-oceanic flights; all were qualifiers for aviators willing to risk it all for a moment in the sun.

For World War I veteran Turner, his love of flying held the promise not only of notoriety, but a viable means of survival in an economically uncertain world. A master of self-promotion, Turner understood that an instantly recognizable persona was required to capture and hold the public’s attention, and he used his military-inspired uniform, diamond-studded pilot’s wings, waxed moustache, and lion mascot to great effect.

One of the West Coast’s largest oil refiners, the Gilmore Oil Company, became one of Roscoe’s early sponsors, and the aircraft he flew (and eventually raced) sported the company’s cream, red, and gold livery, while the brave little lion cub, who had his own custom parachute, was christened ‘Gilmore’.

A rapid way to achieve fame (and some fortune), was in the arena of air racing, with participation in popular events such as the Bendix Cup, Thompson Trophy, Schneider Cup, MacRobertson Trophy, and the Pulitzer Trophy. In North America, arguably the most prestigious venue was the National Air Races, held at the Cleveland Airport from 1929 onwards. During the week-long activities, hundreds of thousands of spectators from around the nation would gather to watch their heroes, like Roscoe Turner, defy death hurling their powerful racing planes around a ten mile course with fifty foot high pylons marking the turns. Some of the pilots did indeed perish pursuing victory, reminding all who participated that the stakes were incredibly high.

Turner, always striving for a competitive edge, struck a deal with Jimmy Weddell, a Louisiana racing plane manufacturer for one of his Weddell-Williams Model 44’s, a low-wing monoplane design powered by a Pratt and Whitney Hornet radial engine. The Model 44 was a proven design, having achieved a second place finish in the Thompson Trophy in 1931. Registered as NR61Y, Turner’s Model 44 appeared in Gilmore Oil colors for the 1932 Thompson, and eventually placed third, behind two other Model 44’s. 1933 saw Turner claim the top spot in the cross-country Bendix race, a first place in the Shell Oil Speed Dash, and a disappointing sixth in the Thompson after winning, then being disqualified. 1934 brought ultimate victory for NR61Y and Turner with an outright win in the Thompson Trophy, the climax of three years of hard work and innovation. The plane was repainted in the all-gold color scheme it wears today. The following year, Turner and the Model 44 took second in the Bendix Trophy, and by 1937 the aircraft was handed over to pilot Joe Mackey, as Turner was developing a new racer. NR61Y would continue to soldier on into 1939 where it continued to compete respectably in the Thompson.

Fast forward eighty years, when in 2019, the Hallmark Company produced a Christmas Ornament-sized replica of Turner’s Model 44, now registered as NX61Y, as it appeared in the late ‘30s. The miniature plane is part of the ‘Sky’s the Limit’ series of ornaments, and does a creditable job of depicting even the tiniest details of the original. It is fascinating that an aircraft that thrilled crowds so long ago remains in the public consciousness. The real Weddell-Williams Model 44, number NX61Y, is displayed prominently in the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, hanging from the ceiling in the attitude of banking around a racing pylon. She remains the only original Model 44 in existence, representing a page from the ‘Golden Age’ of air racing we’ll never see again.