17-23 May: Motoring Milestones

Discover the most momentous motoring events that took place this week in history ……

120 years ago this week, the Overman Wheel Company of Chicopee Fall, Massachusetts, US registered the name ‘Victor’ as a trademark for its steam cars [18 May 1901]. Early Victor Steam Cars were equipped with two cylinder vertical engine of 4 horsepower enclosed in an aluminium box. A seamless steel water tube boiler with 425 steel tube flutes produced a working steam pressure of 150 PSI from a cold start. A copper water tank held 15 gallons and five gallons of gasoline. Up to 60 miles could be covered without refill. An interesting feature was a dual purpose air pressure pump which not only supplied fuel to the burner at 150 PSI but could also be used to inflate the tires. Prices range from $1,200.00 to $1,400.00. They continued to be made up to 1904 when Overman merged with Locomobile……. Connecticut became the first US state to pass a law regulating motor vehicles, limiting their speed to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads [21 May 1901]. Speed limits had been set earlier in the United States for non-motorized vehicles: In 1652, the colony of New Amsterdam (now New York) issued a decree stating that “[N]o wagons, carts or sleighs shall be run, rode or driven at a gallop” at the risk of incurring a fine starting at “two pounds Flemish,” or about $150 in today’s currency. In 1899, the New York City cabdriver Jacob German was arrested for driving his electric taxi at 12 mph. The path to Connecticut’s 1901 speed limit legislation began when Representative Robert Woodruff submitted a bill to the State General Assembly proposing a motor-vehicles speed limit of 8 mph within city limits and 12 mph outside. The law passed in May 1901 specified higher speed limits but required drivers to slow down upon approaching or passing horse-drawn vehicles, and come to a complete stop if necessary to avoid scaring the animals. On the heels of this landmark legislation, New York City introduced the world’s first comprehensive traffic code in 1903. Adoption of speed regulations and other traffic codes was a slow and uneven process across the nation, however. As late as 1930, a dozen states had no speed limit, while 28 states did not even require a driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle. Rising fuel prices contributed to the lowering of speed limits in several states in the early 1970s, and in January 1974 President Richard Nixon signed a national speed limit of 55 mph into law. These measures led to a welcome reduction in the nation’s traffic fatality rate, which dropped from 4.28 per million miles of travel in 1972 to 3.33 in 1974 and a low of 2.73 in 1983.Concerns about fuel availability and cost later subsided, and in 1987 Congress allowed states to increase speed limits on rural interstates to 65 mph. The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 repealed the maximum speed limit. This returned control of setting speed limits to the states, many of which soon raised the limits to 70 mph and higher on a portion of their roads, including rural and urban interstates and limited access roads……100 years ago this week, the Earl of Shrewsbury, the financial backer of Clement-Talbot, Ltd., London manufacturers of the Talbot, died at the age of 60 [17 May 1921]……90 years ago this week, the Casablanca Grand Prix was held over fifty five laps of a four-mile circuit through the streets of Casablanca formed this event, which in the previous year had been run over a single circuit of 450 miles covering the south of Morocco [17 May 1931]. With the Sultan as spectator, the cars were off at 2:30 p.m. on May 17. Count Czaikowski prooved victorious on a Bugatti, his average speed being 85.6 m.p.h. Etancelin was second and de Maleplane was third, both driving Bugatti cars. The winner made a record lap of 2 mins. 50 secs……80 years ago this week, the English car designer and builder who founded the Austin Motor Company, Herbert Austin KBE (74), died after a heart attack [23 May 1931].

In 1893 he become General Manager of the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Company, where he indulged his interest in the design of a horseless motor vehicle and in 1896 exhibited an experimental motor vehicle at Crystal Palace, while his third car design won a silver medal in the 1000 miles trial in 1900. By 1905, he left Wolseley to found the Austin Motor Company at Longbridge, Birmingham. The Austin Motor Company’s most successful product was the Austin Seven, introduced in 1922. He was knighted in 1914 and was Conservative MP for Kings Norton, Birmingham from 1918 to 1924……..60 years ago this week, the Ford Motor Company completed a highly modified stretch Lincoln Continental convertible saloon for the US Secret Service to use as a presidential limousine [20 May 1961]. Later known as the SS-100-X, the limousine carried President John F. Kennedy down Elm Street in Dallas, Texas, when he was assassinated in 1963……. The Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort was won by Wolfgang von Trips in a Ferrari 156 [22 May 1961]. It was the first World Championship Grand Prix in which no driver retired and none made pit stops. Fifteen cars started and fifteen cars finished, eight on the same lap as the winner…….50 years ago this week, German Georg von Opel, in his own Opel GT, established an electric car standing-start kilometre world record of 31.07 seconds [18 May 1971]. The car was powered by two Bosch electric motors, fed by special Varta battery packs consisting of 280 cells, giving a supply voltage of 360 and a power output of 88 kW……After taking pole by more than a second, Jackie Stewart produced a dominant display to win his second Monaco Grand Prix [23 May 1971]. Ronnie Peterson put on a show as he wrestled his March from sixth on the grid to second for his first F1 podium, with Jacky Ickx in third…… on the same day [23 May 1971],Maserati went into liquidation……40 years ago this week, the Belgian Grand Prix, won by Carlos Reutemann in a Williams-Cosworth FW07C, was marred by two serious incidents involving mechanics, one fatal [17 May 1981]. In Friday practice a mechanic from the Osella team, Giovanni Amadeo, stumbled off the pit wall into the path of the Williams of Carlos Reutemann. Reutemann was unable to avoid the mechanic, who suffered a fractured skull. He died from his injuries on the Monday after the race. Before the start of the race the mechanics of all the teams staged a protest over the safety measures protecting them, which was soon joined by several drivers who left their cars. As the cars began to overheat from the delayed start, several drivers turned off their engines, among them Arrows driver Riccardo Patrese, expecting another formation lap due to Piquet’s error. However, the organisers began the start sequence as usual once Piquet had regained his position. Patrese was unable to restart his car and waved his arms to signal that he could not take the start. His mechanic, Dave Luckett, instantly came onto the track to restart the car from behind. But after he got onto the track, the lighting sequence to start the race had already begun, and the start went ahead despite the presence of Luckett and Patrese’s gesticulations. In the confusion and likely unable to see Patrese’s stalled car, the other Arrows driver, Siegfried Stohr, ploughed into the back of his team-mate’s car, hitting Luckett. Luckett suffered a broken leg and lacerations but survived the incident. As a result of these events, a new rule was introduced forbidding mechanics from being on the grid within fifteen seconds of the formation lap, and the race starter would use greater caution…….The ‘Cimarron by Cadillac’ was introduced [21 May 1981]. The front-engine, front-wheel drive four door compact sedan was manufactured and marketed by Cadillac for model years 1982-1988 — over a single generation. As a rebadged variant of General Motors’ J-cars, the Cimarron was manufactured alongside the Chevrolet Cavalier, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza, and Pontiac J2000/2000/Sunbird at GM’s South Gate Assembly and Janesville Assembly plants. The Cimarron is routinely cited as the nadir of GM’s product planning — for its low sales, poor performance and ill-conceived badge engineering…….30 years ago this week, Hiro Matsushita became the first Japanese driver to qualify for the Indy 500 when he qualified 24th [18 May 1991]……. Willy T. Ribbs became the first African-American driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 [19 May 1991] Ribbs, a Californian, objects to the obstacles placed in front of African-American racers: “Here we are, moving into a new millennium, and auto racing still looks like 1939 baseball.” Ribbs’s achievement at Indy is especially remarkable, as the cost of running at Indy normally deters racers who don’t have powerful corporate sponsors.

While stock-car racing is more accessible financially, the sport hasn’t fared any better in attracting African-American participants. NASCAR officials, however, don’t feel the lack of African-American racers is a reflection of racism within the sport. Longtime President Bill France explained his case: “America is what America is today. Anybody can be anything, regardless of your race or your national origin. You can’t cast a wand and make everything happen that somebody wants to happen.” In the 50 plus years of NASCAR history, only Wendell Scott ever won a race. One explanation for the dearth of African-American racers is that car racing is a hereditary sport. Most racers come from racing families. By that criterion, however, the Scott family could have continued racing. Wendell Scott, using secondhand equipment, set the sport on fire 25 years ago with his fearless attitude and abundant talent. “Had the sport offered more help to the Scotts, others would have been inspired by us in another generation,” said Wendell Scott Jr. “They nipped us in the bud.” An example: In 1963, Scott won a race in Jacksonville, and the race officials, fearing a reaction from the crowd, presented the trophy to another driver. They gave Scott the trophy after the crowd had left. Ribbs also believes that corporations are reluctant to offer sponsorship to African-American drivers, because they don’t believe these racers will be financially beneficial to their brands. Even the NASCAR team owned by former NFL running-back Joe Washington and former NBA legend Julius Erving cannot guarantee an African-American driver behind the wheel of its car. Washington and Erving started the first wholly minority-owned team since Scott and his sons left competition over 25 years ago. Kathy Thompson, a representative for the team, explained their predicament: “To get into a Winston Cup car is dangerous. I wouldn’t want to race against Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon without experience. That’s suicide. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience, somebody getting out there who wasn’t ready.” The fact remains that large African-American communities exist in the regions where NASCAR’s fan base is strongest. It wouldn’t take much for NASCAR to foster a more openly encouraging attitude toward minorities in racing–and who knows, maybe the sport will be rewarded with a great champion. Baseball came a long way after 1939…..Nearly six months after the breakthrough in the Channel Tunnel service tunnel, the breakthrough in the North rail tunnel was achieved [22 May 1991]. On the same day, road links to the British terminal were improved when the final section of the M20 motorway was opened between Maidstone and Ashford, meaning that the Chunnel’s unbroken motorway link with London was completed an estimated three years before the first trains move between Britain and France…….20 years ago this week, Ford Motor and Bridgestone/Firestone announced the termination of their century old business relationship [21 May 2001]…..10 years ago this week, Saudi authorities re-arrested activist Manal al-Sherif for defying a ban on female drivers [22 May 2011]. She had been detained for several hours the previous day by the country’s religious police and released after signing a pledge agreeing not to drive….. on the same day [22 May 2011], despite making an epic start to go from fourth to first by Turn 1 at the Spanish Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari lacked pace and he slipped to fifth by the end, a lap behind race-winner Sebastian Vettel. Lewis Hamilton finished a close second with Jenson Button third, while pole-sitter Mark Webber finished a distant fourth.

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