The Peterson Museum was featuring a display on “micro cars” this month. I wound my way into the heart of Los Angeles from Pasadena. The museum doesn’t open until 10:00 in the morning so I wasn’t trying to get down there during rush hour. Traffic wasn’t too bad and the ride was not that long. Of course, the first time you go anywhere that you have never been before it always seems longer to get there than it really takes.
I arrived just a few minutes after it opened and found a parking spot in the garage. That was easy as there was hardly anyone there that early in the morning. Walking to the entrance they have three or four cars in the parking garage itself, roped off, but sitting there in all their glory with a placard full of printed information to read. Art Airfons’ “Green Monster” was there so I had to take a photo of that. Art picked up an engine from a B-58 “Hustler” strategic bomber for about $5000 in 1963. It would produce 15,000 pounds of thrust, but he needed to rebuild it. After fixing it up he built a test platform in his back yard. It worked, but rattled everyone’s windows for a mile around and the exhaust incinerated his chicken coup.
Later Art received sponsorship from Firestone tires and set the land speed record three times. The last speed it achieved was 576.553 miles per hour.
There was the “microcar” exhibit, one on convertibles, another on Ferraris, one of cars with ties to movies and movie stars, and finally another on alternative powered cars.
These exhibits covered two floors of the museum so I wandered around the first floor first. When I got to a section that showed the gasoline pumps over time I was struck by the way these devices evolved. One characteristic appears to be that there is not a dramatic change and design elements that at an earlier stage had a practical reason for existing are retained in later designs as kind of a visual security blanket for users. As you look at this photo notice how long the gasoline dispensers remain tall structure when they could be quite low to the ground and function just fine. Instead it took a long time and several iterations to get that to happen. If you look at the design changes of a lot of our products you often see that same persistence in a design element that is retained even though its purpose is not longer relevant. I assume that is because it makes it easier for us as consumers to assimilate the changes. I have also seen examples of design changes that are visually too radical to be adopted successfully, even though the concept is practically flawless. If you wait long enough that design change does come back to be accepted, but only after it has gone through an evolution that makes its appearance successful.
Later on I came to the section on alternative power. There was a modern version of a steam powered car from 1974 called the Dutcher out of San Diego, CA.
There was a design for a nuclear powered car designed by Studebaker-Packard in 1957. I remember those days when the technology that had been introduced to the world as a frightening weapon was being touted as a new way to power things and even dig new canals quickly. After the military built nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers there was a nuclear powered ocean liner on the drawing boards. It was thought that we could build a nuclear powered bomber or at least a nuclear powered rocket. The reality was that that form of energy production was limited in its scale and could be very dangerous. Who would want to clean up after a car accident with a nuclear powered vehicle?
One of the cars that was featured was the Honda 600. It came out in 1971 and tore up the autocross circuits. It was like a modernized version of the Mini Cooper, at the time, and had tiny ten inch wheels. It had a four speed manual transmission, bucket seats, rack and pinion steering and was a little rocket that got 40 miles per gallon.
Here is a display of a typical custom rod shop in the fifties. One thing to notice is the electric drill on the front fender. Believe it or not this was a very big deal. Prior to WWII an electric drill was never available for home use. It was just after that when electric motors became small enough to make it a practical home tool. And the largest size drill bit was only ¼ of an inch. Soon to follow were electric sanders and eventually air compressors for home or small shop use.
I’ll add a few photos of other cars that I think are representative of this museum. Let me know who can identify them all.
Tomorrow I head for Reno, NV. It will be a long drive and I will have some big mountains to cross. This is as far west as I will be going so I will be working my way back toward the eastern time zone.