Arriving in Detroit a day earlier than usual for the annual auto show was a pleasant blessing in disguise.
Because for the first time in about 15 visits to the show, I was able to set aside a whole Sunday afternoon for a relaxed tour of the Henry Ford, one of the best car, aviation and industrial culture museums in the world.
The Henry Ford is an Autocar favourite and since I last visited a couple of years ago, the layout has been improved, more cars are on display and the aircraft section has been extended.
There are plenty of gems in the collection. The sole surviving Buckminster Fuller-designed Dymaxion house is a fabulous insight into US industrial optimism. The circular dwelling is made of aircraft-grade alloy and features fixed Perspex windows. Ventilation comes through movable panels in the wall. And why not? Designed to be factory built and assembled on site, sadly the Dymaxion’s promise was never fulfilled.
Of course cars are a major part of the museum and the centrepiece tracks the history of the US car industry from the 1880s to the first Japanese transplants. Something I’d missed previously was a section on a key patent battle that Ford won in the 1890s over his experimental quadricycle, after conveniently forgetting the correct date of the design.On such turning points are fortunes made. By 1903 Henry had his first car designs and by 1908 the Model T was in production.
Other unique exhibits are a selection of presidential cars, including the very Lincoln Continental that JFK was assassinated in and a later model Lincoln in which Ronald Reagan was wounded. Despite the horror of JFK’s demise in 1963, the same Lincoln continued in service as wheels for presidents Johnson and Nixon, albeit with extra security mods in 1964 and 1967.
Having written about the Bond DB5 — billed as the word’s most famous car — and auctioned last year, I now wonder if the much-filmed JFK Lincoln deserves that title?
I loved the 1951 Belly Tank Lakester, a 240mph record car built into a WW2 P38 Lightning drop tank, and next to it an early 1950s ‘rail’ dragster devoid of bodywork.
The list could go on, but two other fab exhibits have to be mentioned. Don’t laugh, the first is a light bulb manufacturing machine, which is fascinating because just 15 of these devices were capable of supplying world demand for light bulbs in the 1970s. Think about the magnitude of that industrial feat. Each machine could churn out 600 glass bulbs a minute.
Last but not least, everyone fascinated by machines has to see the gigantic Allegheny class steam loco, the largest-ever built. It hauled mile-long coal trains up the steep Allegheny mountains – hence its immense power and size. In WW2 they hauled troop trains. A key fact – a human stoker couldn’t shovel the black stuff into the furnace fast enough, so instead his job was to control a conveyor belt.