July 25, 1945
Kaiser-Frazer is born
Henry Kaiser and Joseph Frazer announced plans to form a corporation to manufacture automobiles on this day in 1945. The two men formed an unlikely pair. Kaiser, raised in modest circumstances, was a true American self-made man. By 1945, he sat atop an empire of shipbuilding, cement, steel, and other basic building businesses, and had amassed a considerable fortune. His company’s shipbuilding feats had made him a media favorite during World War II, with reporters labeling him “the Miracle Man.” By contrast, Frazer was a direct descendant of Martha Washington, and he’d attended Hotchkiss and Yale. Frazer never finished his studies at Yale, opting to take a manual labor job at Packard. At Packard he rose steadily through the management structure, becoming by the mid-1940s a solid, respectable executive. The two men first encountered one another when in 1942 Kaiser urged car companies to plan ahead for postwar production; Frazer answered on behalf of Packard, labeling the suggestion “half-baked” and “stupid.” The men met again in 1945 in San Francisco, and two weeks later Kaiser-Frazer was born. With Frazer’s contacts in the auto industry, and Kaiser’s capital and experience with huge government contracts, the two men were optimistic about their chances. In addition, labor groups were encouraging competition to the Big Three and had announced a willingness to cooperate with any new entries into Detroit. Kaiser and Frazer had to generate enough capital to acquire and build full production facilities. They had to find reliable sources for raw materials and negotiate labor contracts, and they had to do it all before the Big Three could convert back from wartime production if they were to have a chance at surviving. Amazingly, they pulled it off, leasing the Ford Willow Run Plant and producing 11,000 cars in 1946. Unfortunately, their financiers gave them trouble: while losses were anticipated during their first year, the two men didn’t expect to be punished so severely by squeamish investors. The company lost $19 million, and their stock plummeted. A year later, however, Willow Run produced 100,000 cars and Kaiser-Frazer recorded $19 million in profit. Success was within their grasp, and the next year they made $10 million–but the downturn in profits and the impending release of Big Three postwar models caused the company’s stock to slip. Without money Kaiser-Frazer couldn’t afford to come up with new models, and consumers turned away from them. In 1949, the company lost $30 million and was poised to endure the fate of so many other independents after the war. The differences between the two partners manifested themselves during the bad times, and management failed to respond positively to the difficulties. Frazer left the business, and Kaiser presided until 1953 when he sold out to Willys-Overland. Ironically, in Kaiser’s last year the company turned out a few remarkable cars including, arguably, America’s first compact car.
June 17, 1923
Enzo Ferrari wins first race
On this day, Enzo Ferrari, who would go on to an historic career as a driver for Alpha Romeo before being put in charge of their racing division, won his first race, a 166-mile event at the Circuito del Savio in Ravenna, Italy. After the Ravenna race, Ferrari met for the first time the Count Enrico Baracca and his wife, the Countess Paolina, who would later suggest to Ferrari that he use the prancing horse emblem of their son. “Ferrari,” remarked the Countess, “why don’t you put my son’s prancing horse on your cars; it will bring you luck.” The Countess’s son, Francesco, had been Italy’s premier flying ace in World War I before he was shot down and killed at Mount Montello. On his plane he carried a white shield bearing a prancing black stallion. Ferrari would adopt the emblem, changing the field of the shield to canary yellow in honor of his hometown of Modena.
May 31, 1904
“Friction-drive” is introduced
Byron J. Carter received a U.S. patent for his “friction-drive” mechanism. The friction-drive replaced the conventional transmission to provide more precise control of a car’s speed. A newspaper at the time of the device’s release explained that the friction-drive mechanism “used friction discs, instead of gears, so arranged as to be instantly changed to any desired speed. The discs also change to forward or backward movement, and can be used as a brake to stop the machine by reversing the lever.” Carter’s friction drive never really caught on, however. Conventional transmissions served their purpose adequately, and the friction discs proved to be susceptible to poor road conditions. Carter’s ingenious design did, however, attract the attention of William Durant, General Motor’s megalomaniac expansionist leader. He bought the Carter-car design thinking it might turn into something big; it never did. The technology involved in the friction-drive is, however, related to today’s disc brakes.
May 18, 1958
Lotus makes Formula One debut
The Lotus made its Formula One debut at the Monaco Grand Prix with Cliff Allison finishing in fifth place. The Lotus Engineering Company was founded by Colin Chapman in 1952 as a result of Chapman’s great success in building and racing trial cars. Located in Norfolk, England, Lotus has become over the last few decades one of racing’s most dominant teams. Currently limited to Formula One competition, Lotus was initially a diverse racing team. Lotus dominated Le Mans in the ’50s. The mid-1960s saw the Golden Age of Lotus racing as its British drivers Jim Clark and Graham Hill enjoyed great success. Jim Clark won the first World Driver’s Championship for Lotus in 1963. Lotus has in recent years been represented by such virtuoso drivers as Emmerson Fittipaldi and Alessandro Zanardi.
April 22, 1970
First Earth Day is celebrated
The first Earth Day was held in communities all across the country. Earth Day was the creation of Senator Gaylord Nelson. As he describes it, a number of senators were concerned about the state of the country’s environment in the early 1960s. In a move intended to bring national visibility to the issue of environmental deterioration, the Senators persuaded President Kennedy to take on a nationwide conservation tour, “spelling out in dramatic language the serious and deteriorating condition of our environment.” The tour was a failure. Senators Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, Joe Clark, and Nelson himself accompanied Kennedy on the first leg of his trip to Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Though the tour failed to rouse interest of any significant level in the environment as a political issue, Nelson credits the mission with being the seed from which Earth Day would eventually flower. The idea for a grassroots effort gestated in Nelson’s head until July of 1969, when, according to Nelson, the anti-war teach-ins of the Vietnam era inspired him to conceive of a nationwide environmental “teach-in.” Nelson returned to Washington and began to raise funds for the event. In addition, he and his staff sent letters to 50 governors, and to the mayors of all major cities requesting them to make Earth Day proclamations. In a speech in Seattle in September of 1969, Nelson formally announced that a nationwide environmental teach-in would take place in the spring of the coming year. All of the major wire services ran the story, and the response was dramatic. From that point on, says Nelson, Earth Day was the product of the populace. By December, the response of inquiries had so overwhelmed Nelson’s Senate office that an Earth Day Clearing House was set up in Washington to plan for the event. In the end, an estimated 20 million people participated in Earth Day events of some kind. Ten thousand grade schools and high schools, 2,000 thousand colleges, and 1,000 thousand communities across the country held official events. Earth Day is responsible for establishing the efficacy of grassroots environmental advocacy. A by-product of Earth Day that directly effected the automobile industry was the public’s heightened awareness of the environmental dangers of gasoline exhaust emissions.
April 18, 1882
Daimler and Maybach reach agreement
Gottlieb Daimler and his protege Wilhelm Maybach reached an agreement to work towards the creation of a high-speed internal combustion engine for the purpose of propelling vehicles. Working in Daimler’s greenhouse, the two men finished their first gas-powered engine in 1883. Four years later the two men achieved a major breakthrough when they constructed the first water-cooled, gas-powered internal combustion engine