28 March – 3 April: Motoring Milestones

28 March – 3 April

120 years ago this week, Armand Peugeot set up his own company, Société Anonyme des Automobiles Peugeot (2 April 1896). He built a factory at Audincourt, dedicated to the manufacture of cars with an internal combustion engine…..90 years ago this week, Aymo Maggi driving a Bugatti T35 won the Rome Royal Grand Prix at Valle Giulia (28 March 1926)…..75 years ago this week, Construction of Ford’s Willow Run Plant began (28 March 1941). Due both to his admiration of the German people and his philosophical alignment as a pacifist, Henry Ford was reluctant to convert all of his production facilities to war manufacturing. But with the U.S. declaration of war in 1941, Ford had no choice but to participate. By the end of 1942, Willow Run had only produced 56 B-24 bombers, and the plant had been saddled with the nickname “Willit Run?” The government considered taking over the operations at Willow Run. Just when it seemed that Sorensen’s project would fail, Willow Run began rolling out B-24’s at a remarkable rate. The plant produced 190 bombers in June of 1943, 365 in December. By the middle of 1944, Willow Run churned out a plane every 63 minutes. “Willow Run looked like a city with a roof on it,” remembered Esther Earthlene, one of the many women who worked there during the war. Willow Run was the largest factory of its day. Its workers built planes around the clock, rotating three eight-hour shifts. They were provided with housing and entertainment. Willow Run had a 24-hour movie theater. By the end of the war, Willow Run had produced more than 8,500 bombers, and had become a symbol of the American economy’s successful response to war…..60 years ago this week, Ralph DePalma (72) died in South Pasadena (31 March 1956). One of the premier racers of the century’s second decade and winner of the 1915 Indy 500, is most famous for his rivalry with fellow racing legend Barney Oldfield. During World War I, car racing on a grand scale was not allowed because of the war effort. However, match races pitting two rivals against each other were deemed appropriate as they provided maximum entertainment with a relatively minimal allocation of resources. Race promoters naturally realized the appeal of starting DePalma and Oldfield on the same line with the same end in mind. Beyond their ordinary competitive relationship, Oldfield and DePalma embodied two contrasting archetypes of the champion. Brash and crude, Oldfield talked as much as he raced, cheated as much as he played fair. He ran his car with an unlit cigar clamped in the back of his teeth. DePalma, on the other hand, was a true gentleman, gracious both in victory and defeat, but no less competitive than his abrasive rival. The match race was originally set for June 23, 1917, but heavy rains postponed the event by a day. This gave the race promoters an extra day to magnify the publicity accompanying the personal rivalry between DePalma and Oldfield that had flared up after DePalma won an appeal for calcium chloride to be laid on the track to keep the dust down. An outraged Oldfield claimed dust was “part and parcel of dirt-track

racing.” Later he said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to get DePalma on a dirt track. I’ll show him what racing is all about.” Not to be outdone, DePalma in his characteristic style explained, “Modesty is a word Greek to Oldfield and he’s probably been telling everybody how he is going to make me eat his dust.” Following the heavy rains on the 23rd, the racetrack was pronounced to be in excellent condition. An estimated 15,000 fans turned out to watch the two men race. Unfortunately, the race didn’t live up to its hype. Oldfield won all three heats. His car, the Golden Submarine, was so much lighter than DePalma’s Packard that its speed through the turns more than made up for DePalma’s bigger engine. Perhaps a credit to Oldfield’s unconventional quest for victory, he had chosen to drive a car designed by Harry Miller. Miller’s aluminum car had been mocked in the public, but he and Oldfield got the last laugh at the match races. Miller would go on to revolutionize race-car design, as his cars dominated the Indy 500 for over a decade. Alfred P. Sloan stepped down after 19 years as chairman of General Motors (GM), with Albert Bradley elected as his successor (2 April 1956). Sloan is recognized as the creator of the GM Corporation as it exists today. Brought on by William Durant by way of the purchase of the Hyatt Roller Bearing Corporation, Sloan worked his way into the

position of vice president of GM. At that time, the company was a poorly planned and loosely configured extension of William Durant’s vision. Sloan, with Durant’s approval if not his undivided attention, set about centralising GM. His first major step was to build a new corporate headquarters on the outskirts of Detroit. Methodical and calculating, Sloan was the model for the late twentieth century corporate leader in that he did not allow his ego, or his genius, to interfere with his shareholders’ interests. When Durant was bought out of GM in 1920 by the DuPont family, Pierre DuPont, at the urging of Sloan, took his place as the company’s head. The recession of the early 20s had damaged GM stock, and Sloan believed that DuPont’s name at the head of the company would help to restore its investors’ confidence. DuPont was not interested in running the company, and so the Sloan Era of General Motors began. Alfred Sloan reorganized the company and trimmed its financial sails, and before long GM was making headway. Gone were the days of Durant’s mercurial and reckless expansionist policies. Sloan focused on consolidation and profit margin. He would effectively rule GM with an invisible hand for over three decades…..50 years ago this week, Battista “Pinin” Farina (72), founder of the Pininfarina coachbuilding company, and synonymous with some of the best-known classic Italian sports cars, died (3 April 1966)…..40 years ago this week, The United States Grand Prix West held in Long Beach, California, the third round of the 1976 Formula One season and the first new race to be added to the calendar since the Brazilian and Swedish Grand Prix were added in 1973 (28 March 1976). The race held over 80 laps of the 3.251-kilometre street circuit for a total race distance of 260 kilometres was won by Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni in a Ferrari 312T. Team mate and championship points leader, Austrian driver Niki Lauda finished second. French driver Patrick Depailler finished third driving a Tyrrell 007…..30 years ago this week, The state-owned car company BL plc formerly British Leyland, said that it was pursuing two offers for its Land Rover division after negotiations with the General Motors Corporation collapsed (31 March 1986). Range Rover of North America, Inc. soon established its headquarters in Lanham, Maryland with Charles R. Hughes as President and CEO. Just before Christmas 1985 Range Rover of North America (later changed to Land Rover North America), was established to pave the way for a US launch in 1987…..20 years ago this week, Italian Dante Giacosa (91), one of the greatest light car designers of all time died (31 March 1996). His work covered a large range from minicars to sports cars (eg Fiat Topolino, Fiat 508C, Fiat 128, Autobianchi Primula). Three days later the Museum of Modern Art in New York City placed a Jaguar E-Type in its permanent exhibit. Just the third car to be honoured by the curators, the E-Type is the epitome of Jaguar’s exquisite feel for body design (3 April 1996)…..10 years ago this week, A businessman from County Tyrone paid £80,000 for the car number plate, “BIG I” (29 March 2006).

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