Friday, May 29, 2009

Tales From The Atomic Highway

When did the automobile of the future cease to exist? It is now the 21st century and promises of ultramodern marvels have failed to materialize. Instead we have been fed a steady diet of Asian drudgery by companies with an interpretation of design that would be better suited to churning out generic kitchen appliances. As a child my imagination was fuelled by images of vehicles hovering above futuristic cities, yet all we ended up with was drab people movers and featureless sedans.

Luckily Detroit's designers had different ideas. In 1958 the Ford Motor Company cooked up a concept which was so modern it would still turn heads today. Ford thought the world might be ready for a nuclear powered car and aptly named it the Nucleon. They were wrong. Most Americans could barely maintain a gasoline guzzling behemouth let alone one powered by a nuclear reactor. Add to that the dangers of radiation poisoning, nuclear waste and a small meltdown and it's easy to see why the idea didn't take off. It's a shame really because I would love to park one in my driveway.

Oh well, back to the drawing board.

Season Award 1952

This wonderful belt buckle is a trophy awarded by the Throttlers Hot Rod Club in 1952 to their top points scorer - Jack McAfee. The Throttlers, based in North Hollywood, were one of the earliest hot rod clubs and it was their clubhouse where the Southern California Timing Association was formed. The buckle is a sensational reminder that not all awards need to take the typically accepted form of a chrome plated plastic cup. It is also infinitely more individual than todays predictable kustom kulture fare of a flamed and pinstriped bowling pin.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Near Enough Is Good Enough

With the Wintersun Festival just around the corner I thought it an ideal opportunity to examine the participants of this impending disaster.

For many, myself included, attending a modern hot rod show is akin to entering a carnival of motorised derangement. The original intent of hot rodders was to modify their vehicles to improve performance and appearance. Sadly this fundamental philosophy has vanished from the garages that dot Australia's suburban wastelands. Style and design are not concepts which rest easily with the modern Australian hot rodder.

Shows are littered with row upon row of automotive attrocities. Most are deplorable attempts to replicate an automotive legacy about which the owners have neither an understanding nor affinity. The old Australian adage of "near enough is good enough" rings true at every one of these circuses.

The vehicles, generally of depression era and pre war design, are modified using a haphazard selection of elements. Velour seating of indeterminate Japanese origin and wheels better suited to a Korean family saloon are assembled into a confused package that would leave the original designers reeling in horror.

The modern hot rod enthusiast imagines him or herself to be a rebellious fringe dweller and many believe the addition of various skulls, crosses and pinstriping adds to their delusional outlaw image. Groups of ridiculously attired adults, many approaching senility, infest these gatherings with their misguided preconceptions as to the origins of the culture that inspires their ludicrous attention seeking behaviour. Add to this, agonizing displays of geriatric dancing, dreadful cover bands, musically illiterate DJ's and you have an event that embraces the entire spectrum of mediocrity.

Legions of nondescript suburbanites, anxious to escape their mundane existence, happily don the gaudy costumery of the dance clubs. Finally they are afforded an opportunity to parade themselves, like cheap sideshow attractions, to an appreciative audience of likeminded simpletons. Many of these unfortunates suffer from a form of pyromania which manifests itself in a compulsion to dress in a full ensemble of flamed garments, giving the appearance of a dancing bonfire. Some even find it necessary to dress their young children and grandchildren in matching schmaltz.

The dance clubs are determined to eliminate any spontinaety or originality whatsoever with their regimented routines and mechanical gyrations. That, coupled with their tedious gesturing and ridiculous outfits is enough to make me contemplate mass homicide.

The following is an excerpt from the Happy Days website. It should give a clear indication of the general mental instability of the participants.

" The workshop is intended for intermediate to advanced Rockabilly dancers (a minimum of one year of experience, preferably two years). Participants should be familiar with the requirements of the style, including, but not limited to, the Man’s movement anti-clockwise around the lady, the ladies hip lift and full rotation, all basic leads and blocks; movement and positioning into leads and blocks, Spins vs. Turns – Who, When, How and Push Pulls – Entry and Exits.......

According to how well dancers progress through the content, the instructors will teach up to four figures during the workshop These will include the “wave” (Single / double / back and forth), the “tray”, the “tunnel” (incorporating “Rocks”) and the “Head Chopper”. It is not expected that all figures taught will be retained by participants following the workshop."

What the hell is the "Head Chopper" ? No wonder they wont be able to remember anything if they've been practicing the "Head Chopper". Who came up with this ridiculous terminology for a musical form that barely lasted two years. I can't imagine that teenagers in the southern states of the USA, where this music was invented, could even be bothered coming up with pathetic terms for crap dance moves. For me this really sums up the stupidity of the entire festival.

The question that sticks in my mind is how did this horde of plebeians appropriate the trappings of an underground subculture and dilute it into the homogenous shambles it has now become ?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

South Of The Border

To any reasonable person the unpredictable roads of 1950's Mexico may not seem to be the ideal arena to stage a long distance motor race. However this is exactly what happened when it was announced that on the 5th of May 1950 the first Carrera Panamericana Mexico would take place. The event was a collaboration between the Associacion Mexicana Automovilistica, the Associacion Nacional Automovilistica, the American Automobile Association and the Mexican Government.

Lasting for just five years from 1950 - 1954 the Carrera was a torturous 2,178 mile test of endurance widely held by contemporaries to be the most dangerous race of any type in the world. In its short lifetime 26 people were killed, 9 in 1953 alone, giving it the dubious distinction of having the highest mortality rate per race in the history of motor sport. Not surprisingly the Mexican Government did not view this wholesale automotive devastation as a particularly positive representation of Mexico to the rest of the world and cancelled the race for 1955.

Contestants were attracted from virtually every form of motor sport and pitted drivers from Formula One, the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR against private citizens from both the U.S and Mexico including some local taxi drivers!! Manufacturers from both America and Europe vied for honours with brands such as Oldsmobile, Mercury, Lincoln, Hudson and Cadillac well represented. The Europeans countered with entries from some of their finest. Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia, Mercedes Benz and Porsche all fielded entries in the hope of an outright victory. Porsche even named their Carrera models in honour of their race wins.

However it was Californian hot rodder Ak Miller who captured the hearts and imagination of America with his homebuilt Model T Ford Special named "Caballo de Hierro" - the Horse Of Iron. A homebrewed concoction combining the body from a Model T Ford , a 1950 Ford chassis and an Oldsmobile motor, it gave Miller an outright 5th place in the 1954 event. The Mexicans jokingly dubbed the car "enselada" because they saw it as a salad of parts.

Changes in conditions along the race route were as dramatic as they were diverse. Sections climbed up 10,000 feet of fogbound mountain passes, through remote tropical jungle and back down to sea level where the fastest cars could reach 180 mph along the arrow straight roads.

The Carrera has left us with some wonderful images which juxtapoz the ancient customs of rural Mexico against the relentless technological advances of the post war western world. It is unlikely that we will again witness an event as unorthodox and exciting as that orchestrated by the Mexicans, south of the border.

Adios Amigos.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Crazy Boy

At the beginning of the 20th century the notion that man might construct a machine capable of surpassing the speed of sound was so remote that the term "sound barrier" was coined. It would not be until 1947 that the sound barrier would be broken. However during the 1930's aircraft were rapidly approaching this milestone. The Italians were at the cutting edge of aeronautics during this period and were determined to wrest back the outright speed record for seaplanes from the English who had held the record for several years.

Mario Castoldi was the designer reponsible for the beautiful Macchi MC 72. He was by all accounts the most unlikely of aeronautical engineers. "Misogynous, good wine loving, he had the hobby of rice growing. His huge and heavy complexion was the most improbable for a man devoted to the quest for speed. We believe he only flew once." His design incorporated twin Fiat AS6 V12 engines which were linked together one behind the other. These engines produced around 2850 hp which the Italians believed would be more than enough to reclaim the record.

The pilot entrusted with the task of flying such a machine was Warrant Officer Francesco Agello. Agello had been given the name of "Crazy Boy" by his peers and was more than capable of extracting the best from the Macchi. He was a graduate of the Scuola di Alta Velocita. This was a high speed training school set up to maximise Italy's prescence in international air racing. The fact that he was also a test pilot for Macchi didn't detract from their chances either.

At 2.50pm on the 23rd of October 1934 Agello climbs into the cockpit of the red Macchi. The sky is heavily clouded and a slight wind ripples the surface of Lake Garda. At 2.56pm he takes off. Visibility is far from perfect and he decides upon the dome of Montichiari Church as his orientation point. Agello makes four passes of the lake at an unbelievable speed of 709 km/h and becomes the fastest propeller driven seaplane ever. To this day Crazy Boy's record has not been broken.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Fastest In The Fatherland

" It is still dark when I arrive, a sliver of moon hangs over the little fir copse by the starting area. Hoar frost covers everything and the road is quite white. The firs are twinkling in the moonlight."
So begins Rudolf Caracciola's description of the morning of January 27th, 1938 and his attempt to break the world speed record held by arch rivals Auto Union. Caracciola driving his Mercedes W125 Rekordwagen was to break the record held by Bernd Rosemeyer and his Auto Union V16 Type C Stromlinienwagen. These cars were the pride of Nazi Germany. Displaying technological superiority and brutal horsepower they were virtually unbeatable in international competition up until the outbreak of World War 2.

Caracciola went first with his attempt on the Reichs-Autobahn A5 between the cities of Frankfurt and Darmstadt. " Again the road shrinks to a narrow band, bridges and tunnels appear like dark gorges. At this speed one must aim accurately to get through. But even before the brain has registered the whole proceedings, the car has thundered through. I cannot get it into my mind that my brain should be slower than the speed of my car. Always there is the strange impression of having to aim to get through. " At the end of his final run Caracciola had set a new world record of 432 km/h [268 mph] still the fastest ever officially timed speed on a public road.

Caracciola's rival Rosemeyer was up next in his Auto Union, however by the time of his attempt the wind had intensified. On his 3rd and final attempt the car veered off the Autobahn throwing Rosemeyer out at high speed, killing him instantly. Bernd Rosemeyer's coffin was carried by SS troopers at his funeral. Even in death The Third Reich spared no opportunity for naked propaganda. An untimely end for Rosemeyer and his quest to be
Fastest In The Fatherland.

The Devil's Sled

Perhaps the deadliest aircraft ever built, as far as the pilot was concerned, was the Messerschmitt ME 163 Komet. Projekt X or the "Devil's Sled " as it has become known, was the world's first rocket powered production aircraft. Fuel consisted of two extremely volatile propellants named c-stoff & t-stoff which when mixed together became highly explosive. It was so dangerous that during refuelling the tankers carrying the fuels were not able to come within 500 metres of each other !! Add to the equation the fact that it possessed no landing gear & you can begin to imagine why it was one of the most deadly aircraft to fly. EVER.

On October 2nd 1941 Luftwaffe test pilot Heini Dittmar became possibly the first human to approach the speed of sound. He recorded Mach 0.84, a speed of 1000.4 km/h before he experienced problems with compressibility. This was 250 km/h above the official world speed record. A ride in the Devil's Sled was surely a flight into the unknown, perhaps with no return.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Groove Juice

This shot of Jack McVea & his band has to be one of my all time favourite musical images . Jack founded one of the earliest R & B combos and played with a who's who of musicians including T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris, Gatemouth Brown, Lionel Hampton, Slim Gaillard, Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie to name a few. Both rhythm & blues and jazz musicians were well known for some pretty outrageous stage attire at times. Tiny Grimes & his Rocking Highlanders sporting matching kilts & tam o shanters springs to mind. However there is just something a little more surreal about this photo. Gotta love sombreros & bowler hats in the same band.

Origin Of The Species

What better way to kick off this blog than with an explanation of the name. I present to you the Magnetic Brain by Volsted Gridban. There could be no occupation other than 1950s science fiction writer with such a name.

Here are a few more titles from the vault. Stay tuned for further additions.