How Fifteen Cars Can Tell the Tale of the American Dream

“An innovative car (the Prius), its insufferable drivers (the pious), and the advent of a new era” proclaims chapter 13 in the book, Engines of Change.  Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Paul Ingrassia, has a HUGE stash of knowledge about Detroit’s ups and downs, Japan’s ups and downs, and the automobile’s upa and downs.  Engines of Change comprehensively covers fifteen cars.  It starts at the revolutionizing Ford Model T, and works its way up to the Toyota Prius.

The front cover pretty much says it all.  “A narrative like no other:  a cultural history that explores how cars have both propelled and reflected the American Experience-from the Model T to the Prius.”

“From the assembly lines of Henry Ford to the open roads of Route 66, from the lore of Jack Kerouac to the sex appeal of the Hot Rod, America’s history is a vehicular history-an idea brought brilliantly to life in this major work by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Ingrassia.  Ingrassia offers a wondrous epic in fifteen automobiles, including the Corvette, the Beetle, and the Chevy Corvair, as well as the personalities and tales behind them:  Robert McNamara’s unlikely role in Lee Iacocca’s Mustang, John Z. DeLorian’s Pontiac GTO, Henry Ford’s Model T, as well as Honda’s Accord, the BMW 3 Series, and the Jeep, among others.  Through these cars and these characters, Ingrassia shows how the car has expressed the particularly American tension between the lure of freedom and the obligations of utility.  He also takes us through the rise of American manufaturing, the suburbanization of the country, the birth of the hippie and the yuppie, the emancipation of women, and many more fateful episodes and eras, including the car’s unintended consequences:  trial lawyers, energy crises, and urban sprawl.  Narrative history of the highest caliber, Engines of Change is an entirely edifying new way to look at the American story.”

I recommend reading it.  It may be a bit expensive ($30.00), but it’s money very well spent.  Once you’ve read the first chapter, you’ll be hooked in to the book.  You probably won’t stop until you’ve finished the book.  Paul Ingrassia has a sense of humor, just itching for you to start laughing aloud about various people’s (and cars) mistakes.

I would like to thank my faithful reader, Uncle Howie for giving me the book.  Thanks, Uncle Howie!  It’s an awesome book!

Do You Ever Get Tired of the Car You Drive?

I don’t know if I’ll get tired of the car that I’ll be driving, but chances are extremely likely that I will.  Of course, the thrill of driving a new car, or a newly acquired used car will wear off over time.  Even if you drove a Porsche 911 every day, you’d eventually pine for something newer and more different to drive.  Do you have dreams of the isolation of a Cadillac Deville?  Do you wish for a big boy’s car like a Chevy Camaro ZL1?  Or, are you okay with what you drive?  It IS okay to drive whatever you drive, but have dreams of driving a Pagani Huayra through Argentina?  Tell me what your dream car is!

Guess what my dream car is.  It’s been featured on my blog.

What To Do When You’re Stuck in Traffic

Answer: Listen to a good book on tape. 

Have you ever been in the car going somewhere, and stuck in a traffic jam?  I’m sure you have.  I have.  Los Angeles, CA is one of the most congested cities in the U.S., along with New York City and Washington DC. 

The book, “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do” explores, in-depth, the psychology of traffic.  It discusses why we drive the way we do, and all about traffic patterns.  It is available all over the place (Amazon, Barnes & Noble…).  It’s written by Tom Vanderbilt, an editor for The Economist.  It’s an extremely fascinating book that I highly recommend.

A Good Book

Dogs, racing and cars!  What’s not to like?  Woof and Zoomvroom!  The Art of Racing in The Rain by Garth Stein, is an exciting, fast-paced novel meant for both young adults and adults.  There are a lot of cuss words, and a scene between one of the main characters and a much younger woman.   

On the night of his death, Enzo, a dog, recalls his entire life from puppy-hood up.  He remembers meeting his owner, Denny, Denny’s meeting his wife, Eve, and the unexpected loss of Eve, and the hard times following it.  He also remembers Denny’s daughter, Zoe, and the lawsuits following Zoe’s custody battle.  He has fond memories of the weekend rides in Denny’s BMW, and the race-cars that Denny drove.  Enzo frequently hung out in the pits or bleachers at the track.  Enzo has always wanted to be a race-car driver, so he could race against Denny.  But, being a dog, he couldn’t.  Enzo has always felt that he was almost human, and had an obsession with opposable thumbs and knows that when he is reincarnated, he will be a human. 

Enzo said “when somebody is in pain, only their pet can understand how much it hurts along with them.”  There is a lot of pathos (arousing passion and sadness) in the story.  When Denny is arrested because of criminal charges, he is bailed out and helped by friends.  Enzo said “Always remember that your friends will be there to help you.”  Enzo and Denny were inseparable and stayed with each other through thick and thin. 

I really enjoyed reading The Art of Racing in The Rain.  The book describes how to drive a fast car in the rain, and constantly mentions many exotic cars.  I like the story because it has themes on friendships and cars.

Making dreams come true. This is not a marketing exercise for Disney!

What if you could start a business that includes all of your interests, and then later in life, start a museum?  Could you imagine starting a museum that has many of the things that interest you in it?

If you could do that, then you would be Robert Petersen.  Robert E. Petersen was quiet, but very determined and also extremely successful.  A happy, creative and insightful man, he started the Petersen Publishing Company and the amazing Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. 

Robert Einar Petersen was a native of Southern California who was born in 1927.  His mother died when he was 10, leaving his Danish father to take care of him.  His father was a mechanic and often took Robert to work with him.  At age 12, Robert knew how to weld and fix an engine- any engine at that.  After graduating from Barstow high-school in the early 1940’s he went to work in the Hollywood movie studios as a messenger boy.  After a brief Army Air Corps stint of just one year, he started a publishing company. 

In 1948, he started Hot Rod Magazine, which was all about the growing hot rod culture.  He sold copies of Hot Rod at local speedways, such as Riverside International, for 25 cents apiece.  It was a way for him, and the others that worked alongside him, to give helpful advice to teens and have fun.  He was instrumental in creating the first hot rod show.

In 1949, he created Motor Trend, a magazine that was focused towards the production car enthusiasts.  Production cars are cars that come off a production line and are not custom built.  In addition to Motor Trend and Hot Rod, he created about six more magazines, such as Teen and CARtoons.

He is firmly remembered in the business world as a success story.  He was actively into sport shooting, and was the Commissioner for sport shooting in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  He had to construct a sport shooting range on the site of an old dairy farm within a month. 

In 1994, one of his lifelong passions came true; he and his wife Margie Petersen created the Petersen Automotive Museum as an educational museum.  Most of the cars inside the 300,000 square foot area are from his own collection. 

He was the president of the Los Angeles Boys & Girls club for many years and was on the national board for the boys and girls clubs throughout the U.S.  He also supported many charities for children until his death. 

The Directors of the Petersen Automotive Museum said “What made him so special was that he gave every ounce of his energy and abilities to his dreams.  He was a quiet man who truly became an American icon.”  The Directors also said “He made his living doing things he loved and he found success at every turn.  The way he lived his life, always looking for ways to give back in return for the success he enjoyed, made you proud to count him as a friend.  The museum is now his legacy.” 

He died on Friday, March 23rd, 2007 after a short but valiant battle with cancer at age 80.  His wife Margie survived him.

Overall, Robert E. Petersen was a man of few words, but loved to pursue whatever he wanted to with a passion.  He was also very much into hunting and having a good time.  Robert E. Petersen gave back as much as he got out of life.  What a lucky man!

If you would like to read more from the Petersen Museum website, then I hope you will enjoy the link.

The Great Race

In 1908, someone came up with an idea that countries leading in the automobile industry could participate in a global car race.

The Great Automobile Race was conceived as an endurance race that would go from New York City, USA to Paris, France.  The board chose to have two French entries (plus one unofficial entry), one American entry, two Italian entries and one German entry.  The six official companies that competed were: Thomas, Protos, De Dion, Zust, Sizaire-Naudin, and Moto-Bloc.  The unofficial company was Werner (as in the stove company).  The New York Times said “It will be the personal pluck and ingenuity of the driver that will bring victory to a car rather than the equipment…. It is the man and not the machine that will win the New York to Paris race.”

The cars and the people

The French teams.

The Sizaire-Naudin: Auguste Pons who was the captain and the second oldest of the French, he was 32 years old.  His teammates were Maurice Beth, 24 and Lucien Deschamps, also 24. 

The Moto-Bloc:  Another crew was for the Moto-Bloc. They had Charles Godard as its captain.  He was 31.  He had teammates, Arthur Hue and R. Maurice Livier.  Hue was 26, Livier was the youngest of all the competitors, and he was 19.  Godard raced in a Peking to Paris race on a motorcycle, that ran out of gas in the middle of the Gobi Desert!

The De Dion: The De Dion had two Frenchmen as drivers, and a Norwegian navigator.  The De Dion’s captain was the Commissioner General of the race, G. Bourcier St. Chaffray.  St. Chaffray was 36.  His two teammates were Autran (Autran declined to give his first name to the board) and Hans Hendrik Hansen. Autran was 25, Hansen was 43.  Hansen was an explorer and a wild man: he had mined in the Alaskan Gold Rush and supposedly sailed a Viking ship by himself to the North Pole.  Nobody really believed the latter claim. 

The German team.

The Protos: The Germans were Lieut. Hans Koeppen, 31 and Ernest Maas, 33 and Hans Knape, 29.  Koeppen was the captain of the German car: the tank-like Protos.  Knape liked to flirt with women, so he barely got to go into a town to flirt.  They would keep him out of a town so he would keep his mind on the race.    

The Italian team.

The Zust: The Italian’s captain was Antonio Scarfoglio, 21.  Scarfoglio’s teammates were Emilio Sitori, 26.  The one non-Italian was Henri Haaga, was German and 22.  Haaga was referred to as the “big, blonde baby”.  Scarfoglio was very poetic and loved to write and recite poems. 

The American team.

The Thomas Flyer:  The two original American teammates were Montague Roberts, who was the captain and 25.  His teammate was George Schuster, 35.  Later, George Miller and George Macadam joined.  Monty Roberts left the team in Seattle.  Schuster took over as driver for almost the rest of the race, switching with Macadam.  Macadam was a reporter for the New York Times.

The Race 

The race was scheduled to start on February 12, at 11:00 AM.  The starting point was Times Square, New York City.  The competitors could not get off to a fast start, as the crowds of fans and well-wishers crowded the square and tried to steal parts and gear as souvenirs. 

The race route was supposed to go through New York City to Utica, New York, then to Buffalo, New York and down to Columbus, Ohio.  It would then go to Chicago, Illinois.  The next stop would be Omaha, Nebraska.  They would then pass through Ogden, Utah.  They would then go to San Francisco, California.  Then next stop would be Seattle, Washington.  They would go up to Valdez, Alaska.  They would then catch a steamer to Yokohama, Japan, where they would go to Kobe, Japan.  The next stop would be Vladivostok, Russia.  They would go through Manchuria, a Russian controlled province of China.  Then, up to Harbin, Manchuria, then Chita, Irkutsk, then to Tomsk, then Omsk.  Then to Ekatinburg, then to Moscow.  They would go to St. Petersburg and then all the way down to Berlin, Germany and then as fast as they could to Paris, France.  This all seemed possible, but the Midwest part of the U.S. had the worst blizzard in over 50 years!

The Midwest was terrible: ten foot high snowdrifts and chest high mud that the cars had to slog through.  Lieut. Koeppen was personally given a six-month leave by the Kaiser of Germany (who was a car fanatic who bought cars with his own money) so he could compete.  The Germans made it in 182 days, just five short of six months.  The Americans made it in 183 days. 

The hardships they endured were unbelievable.  Car parts were hard to come by, and they used whatever parts they could find or wait weeks for parts.  The Italians Zust broke 10 gear teeth off the reverse gear and had to file nails down to put them on, as the Zust could not go backwards.  The nails that they got came off the canvas top of the Zust!  The Zust broke down so many times that they sold the car in Salt Lake City.  They bought a less used Zust from a resident for $500.  That was a lot of money back then, but cheap for a Zust. 

The Germans and Americans traveled on the railroad tracks for most of the U.S. When they came to Omaha, it was considered cheating, and all cars had to travel under their own power.  The Germans broke their suspension numerous times.

When the competitors came to Russia, they traveled on the “Great Russian Post Road” for about 250 miles.  Again, the Thomas team and the Protos team went on the railroads- this time on the Trans-Siberian railroad.  Most of the time spent traveling through Manchuria and Russia, the Italian’s went on the Post Road.  The Post Road is a road that was built to get supplies to the railroad.  In the 1960’s, it became a Russian highway and was repaved.  Now it is called the Road of Bones because it is so bumpy.

At one point, the Americans were going along on the railroad tracks when they saw a flagman running towards them telling them to get off the tracks or get killed.  They pushed the Flyer off the tracks- not a moment too soon, the St. Petersburg express came rushing past.  Another time, about 100 miles further down the line, the Flyer’s driving gear snapped and they pushed it off the tracks.  Schuster went to Moscow to get parts.  He was gone for two weeks.  Macadam and Miller made themselves comfortable waiting for Schuster to return, by sleeping under the car.  Luckily, it didn’t snow! 

When they were traveling through America, the contestants often had to tow each other out of the mud or snow.  When the Germans broke down outside of a small city in the Rocky Mountains, Koeppen had to hike 50 miles (that is about as far from my house to San Francisco) before he could get a team of horses to pull them out of a sandpit.  The Italians nearly had worse luck, a couple of hoboes were walking by and Haaga offered them $2 apiece if they would help pull the Zust out of some mud.  The hoboes were very interested in the spare rear axle.  Scarfoglio pulled his pistol out and made them give the axle back and pull the Zust out with Sitori and Haaga. 

When all the contestants were in Japan, it was slow going.  At one point the Protos was going along on a narrow bridge when suddenly Maas floored the gas pedal, not a moment too soon.  The bamboo bridge snapped under 4750 pounds of car.  Hansen quit the French crew because of personality clashes with St. Chaffray.  He joined the Americans in Yokohama.  The Flyer had worse problems as it tipped the scales at a hefty 5700 pounds.  That is almost 3 tons!

The food that the contestants had in the U.S. was typically pasta, as there were many Italian immigrants.  In Manchuria and parts of Russia, the food was tea, bread, eggs.  Scarfoglio said “every day it tea, bread, eggs.  Eggs, tea, bread…”  As you can see, the contestants hated tea, bread and eggs by the time they got to Paris. 

The lodging they stayed in was mostly their cars in the Western part of the U.S.  In Manchuria and most of Russia, they slept in their cars because of the fear of bandits.  One time in Japan, the Germans fell asleep in the Protos, only to wake up in the morning and find out they were less than half a mile away from a sizeable town!  They could have slept in a real bed!

The way they got parts for their cars was fairly difficult: in the U.S. and Europe, it was easy because of the railroads and they were close to their companies.  The Germans, in Russia, had to wait a week before they could get a new transmission.  When two of the Georges (Macadam and Miller) were waiting for Schuster to come back with a new driving gear, they dubbed their campsite “Camp Hard Luck” because at night the trains would keep them up and the howling of the wolves and the fear of bandits kept them up most of the night. 


Who won? Well, the Germans arrived in Paris first, but Koeppen’s father didn’t tell the committee about them finishing until the Americans had been in town for two days.  That was not a very smart move!  There has been a great debate of who finished first.

The placement officially.

  1. Americans
  2. Germans
  3. Zust
  4. Moto-Bloc
  5. De Dion

     6. Sizare-Naudin

What happened to the cars and the people? 

Koeppen got promoted to captain and got to fight in WWI and survived.  In the beginning of WWII, he was a general for Adolf Hitler.  He pled sick leave as he needed a break.  It was granted and he fled the country and joined the Resistance.  When the Resistance found out he was German, they held him prisoner until he was able to convince them into letting him fight with them.  Nobody knows what happened to the Protos.  Hansen went on to open a law office in St. Petersburg. 

Schuster went on to open a private mechanics shop in Virginia.  The Thomas company went bankrupt and sold the car to Monty Roberts, who sold it to somebody in Dawson City, Alaska.  It was bought in 2000 by a gambling tycoon, who invited Roberts to come and see if it was the original Flyer.  It was.  Nobody really knows what happened to the French teams.  The Flyer ended up in the Harrah Museum in Reno, Nevada. 

I think that they endured a lot of hardships, but they had the adventure of a lifetime.  There were some fights between some of the contestants, but they all figured it out.  They all had an exciting experience going around the world.

If you would like to learn more than I have told you, then you can visit these websites.