Friday, May 17, 2013

The 1949 Mercury Dash Gauge Set. Be like James Dean.

One of the all-time top custom cars from a builder's view-point is the 1949 to 1951 Mercury. In any top ten list of famous hot rod creations you'll find a representative, usually the Sam and George Barris collaboration on the Bob Hirohata -owned 51 Merc...

 There was also the cachet of coolness given to it by dint of a 49 being the ride of James Dean in "Rebel Without A Cause".

 And of course,  it was the club car of the Pharoahs in the classic "American Graffiti" film...

A 1950 version was even featured as the "badass" ride of Cobra, in the Sylvester Stallone flick of 1986.

Why was this such an influential car?
For one, this was a three-year only body style, with cosmetic variations. It was a radical shift from the 1948 model...

And it's smooth body lines made it a perfect canvas for different body trim and grilles.

Since it's introduction,  a popular choice for hot-rodders has been the one-year only 1949 Mercury dash gauges. 

They are easy to remove from a dead car, they are dependable (made by Stewart Warner) and they are clean and sharp-looking...

They have a beautiful silver swirl pattern to them, a heavy-chrome finish, and the only major update is upgrading from the original six-volt to twelve-volt flow. I see these in older customs, like this set-up in the Bob Longie of Hawaii 1932 Ford roadster, from 1953...

Here's the Tom Wilson 1928 Ford roadster pickup, with the set mounted and framed by some cool pinstriping, including one sketch of the "L'il Devil"...

You can still pick these up relatively cheap, and I say they're a great acquisition because they're simple, the silver color scheme is easy to plug into most painted dashes, and well, they're from the 49 Merc, still one of the coolest cars ever built!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby: How Baz Luhrman Ruined The Great Book's Car Metaphors

"When I was a boy, I dreamed that I always sat at the wheel of a magnificent Stutz, a Stutz as low as a snake and as red as an Indiana barn."
  -from The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald

1918 Stutz Bearcat

The significance of cars in the Fitzgerald oeuvre is rarely examined, yet they pervade his writings. Nearly every desired female is mentioned at the wheel of a car, with an evocative description that makes you wonder if it was the car or the girl the author was really lusting after. 
In the halcyon days of Fitzgerald's youth, the car was the wonder of the ages. Men were unyoked from animals, and  horsepower now represented flight, and speed, and a chariot to sweep up your new love with.
It was symbolic of both freedom and danger.

Cover Art, Motor Magazine, March 5th, 1914

And in The Great Gatsby, the theme continues, from the mention of Daisy's white roadster (white; purity, innocence) to Gatsby's gold Rolls Royce (gold is an obvious symbol, combined with the money-green colored interior) and Tom's simple "blue coupe". These are easy gimmes for a film director. Fitzgerald has lain out for the reader exactly what cars, with what colors, equated to what symbolism. The other female lead is even named Jordan Baker, for Pete's sake, her name an obvious combination of two of the most popular car brands of the time.

But Baz Luhrman knows better than the guy who wrote the story. And he spies with his little directorial eyes, cars that are flashier, newer, and "cooler" (to him, at least).

In the previous 1974 Gatsby film they tried, in this regard, to be true to the book. Redford drove a canary-color 1928 Rolls Royce Phaeton, a car with a build-provenance of a few years later, but still it's the right model. 

The blue coupe in the film is a coupe convertible, I believe, nice, but staid, with the "risky" choice of blue instead of the standard black giving off just the right amount of Brooks Brothers-inspired sheen.

Baz Luhrman is a director known for his cross-pollination of genres. He bounces Jay-Z and Jack White off the soundtrack of his 1920's movie, and integrates 2013 manners with the Jazz age. But in The Great Gatsby, the strains of the dominant art-deco stye of the time run visually throughout the film, and the costumes are stunning and period evocative. In a general sense, he respects the time-frame. He doesn't show Nick Carraway popping a Hot-Pockets into a microwave, or Gatsby swimming in clam-diggers. 
But he does take some of the most potent symbols of the book, the automobiles, and update them with cars from a different era and different body, simply because they are more awesome.

Gatsby roars by Tom's rented house in a canary-yellow car, but it's not an opulent Rolls Royce; it's a supercharged Duesenberg, an automobile not available in 1922 when the novel takes place, or 1925 when the book was published, but years later in 1929.

 And because Baz wanted Duesies, but couldn't afford them (they run in the millions) he had two replicars shipped from Chicago and re-painted. But he still left in the tacky interiors with the cheap 1980's gauges in the dashboard. When Tom looks at the gas gauge of Gatsby's car, we're "treated" to the sight of a $25, off-the-shelf aftermarket instrument. It's as if Daisy slips into her beaded flapper outfit, and then pulls on a pair of Sketchers sneakers. 

This is a real Duesenberg dashboard, with real Duesenberg instruments...

And here's one from the type of company that made the movie car...

Complete with Stereo Shack AM Radio tuner!

Beautiful and elegant, versus The Autozone down on the corner.

Mr. Luhrman plans on keeping one of the Duesenbergs from the film. Imagine that. 

And Tom rips around in a blue car, alright. A blue 1933 Auburn Speedster. 

Not the moneyed, stately 1922 coupe of the book, but a racing machine with the top down. It should have been a top-quality Packard, like this...

1921 -1922 Packard
Can you see what contrast that would have provided contextually, with Daisy being driven in the upper-class Packard, while Jay wheels around in his bright-yellow Rolls Royce convertible?
Sure, in this movie Gatsby has a bright-yellow convertible, but Tom has a 1933 Speedster (which he maddeningly refers to as a coupe throughout the film), so he has a roadster, too, and it's from even farther in the future!

Had the director went whole hog, and brought in iPhones and dashboard GPS screens, I could have understood. Not enjoyed, but understood. 

But by dropping in two (and more in the crowd scenes) future cars, Baz Luhrman made it very clear that the 1920's were cool. But not as cool as he would have made it. All it took was cherry-picking the sweet parts of other eras and shoehorning them in to this one. The seepage of attitude over substance is why Baz will always be a journeyman, because his personal taste overrides the truth of the story.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

1952 Monte Carlo Race Art, Redux: The Art Of Reynold Brown

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the cover art from the March, 1952 issue of Auto Speed & Sport. It portrayed a check-in from a mid-race moment, rendered against the evening-shadowed hills of the Monte Carlo race course. It's a beautifully-rendered piece, evoking the romance and excitement of mid-Century auto-racing.

Cover Art by Reynold Brown, Auto Speed & Sport Magazine, March, 1952

Imagine how happy I was, then,  to be contacted by the owner of the original artwork that was the basis for the cover. His name is Patrick Kelley, and he took the time to fill me in on some of the details of the picture's story.

He included a snapshot of the framed piece, and even though it's behind glass, the scope of the colors, and the spectrum of rich blues from top to bottom still read magnificently.

The artist was Reynold Brown, a prolific and in-demand artist of the 50's, not just for the occasional car or hunting magazine cover, but also for some of the most memorable movie posters of the era, like the stunning "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman"...

And the first movie I saw in 3-D, at a revival film festival, "The Creature From The Black Lagoon"

But for me, personally, his astounding ability to combine the active and the emotional was a huge plus for the car and pulp magazine cover industry. It really set the standard for others to strive for. Because of Patrick's heads-up, I discovered that another of Reynold's works was already on my blog, this one from the cover of Popular Science, March of 1948

Just that little detail of the dog leaping to safety sells it for me. "Man's Best Friend...Up To A Point." would have been a great alternate title for this painting.

Contrast this with the fine artist, Lester Fagans. Lester was a very good draftsman, whose attention to detail made him a popular choice for cruiseship and boat-maker advertising. He painstakingly choreographed and painted this cover for Popular Science, April 1946.

It's a neat cover, but because there is no humanity, there is no emotion. They might as well be toy cars in a diorama. Reynold would have stuck a hand through the car door window, at least.
Google Reynold Brown sometime, and you'll be amazed at the vast output of an artist whose name nowadays is greeted with a shrug. But show those same shoulder-shruggers some of his unforgettable creations, and you'll see a wonderful grin creep across their faces.

Again, thanks to Patrick for sharing part of his private collection, and thanks to Reynold Brown!

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Fastest Woman In The World Jumps Into The Fire: Part One, The Rise

A water pistol and a chloroform rag. Had it really come to this?

Look at her. Look at that face. Have you ever seen anyone happier, more at home anywhere, than Joan La Costa was behind the wheel of her Miller race car? She was a daring, young (only 21), divorcee (married at 18, divorced at 19 from fellow racer Walter "Waldo" Martins) speed queen "from France" (more on that later) with no equal. She drove fast, like the men, and wasn't afraid of death or disaster.

The French star was discovered and managed by the famous racing promotion duo of J. Alex Sloan (a slick Chicago-area promoter) and Sig Haugdahl, a tough-talking Norwegian racing star who together knew how to draw a crowd and get free newspaper space. 
Here's one of their many crowd-pleasing stunts of a man leaping from a flying plane into Sig's Miller Special...

A pilot for the Mabel Cody Flying Circus flew her plane above Sig Haugdahl, in his Miller 8 Special automobile, on Daytona Beach while Bugs McGowan transferred himself from the car to the plane.

Here was the perfect team to get Joan high-profile races and access to the best cars available. She began to race where the men did, with tremendous success.
Her trophies piled up, and so did her notoriety.

In 1926, Joan was proclaimed "the fastest woman in the world". She was given the use of the record breaking "Wisconsin Special", the speedster designed by Sig after the Tommy Milton car, and with which he had set the unofficial world speed record of 180-mph.

Sig Haugdahl in his "Wisconsin Special", setting the world speed record of 180-mph in 1922

 It was a monster of a car, with an 836 cubic-inch Wisconsin Special Airplane engine.
  She went through the flying mile at Daytona Beach at 145 miles-an-hour, and this wasn't the paved track; this was the washboard beach, on the sand, where the twin goals were "Go as fast as you can", and "Survive".

On April 14th, she nearly didn't make it to option number two. The speedster burst into fire and black smoke, and she jumped from the flames just in time...

According to one newspaper account, "While traveling 130 m.p.h. in attempt to hang up a feminine speedway mark, the gasoline line suddenly broke and the car, fanned by the terrific pace, became a flying comet. Nothing daunted, a few days later she secured another machine and shattered three world's records, traveling 138 miles an hour."

This was the same year that competing driver Louis Disbrow and a few other good ol' boys lodged a protest against Joan racing at the Atlanta Lakewood track. Joan pointed out that her 145-mph speed record was faster than almost all of the men drivers, and thanks to that and the support of several Women's Rights Associations in the area, she competed.

"If you can't lick 'em, try and beat their skirts off", seemed to be Louis's next tack. He raced against her twice that Summer on two different tracks.
He lost both times.

It was bang-up box-office. Their "rivalry" extended to Toronto, Canada, where they met in another "grudge match". Joan set a track record at that three lap event, turning in a time of one-minute, 38.6-seconds in a mile-and-a-half race for the win.

There was even an offer put on the table to have her race a masked driver (presumably, the mask would serve to spare the humiliation of the male driver if he lost).
She wanted to race at the legendary Hawthorne Race Track in Chicago. There were immediate protests filed against the inclusion of "the premiere French woman driver". 
It was great press, and the public lapped it up. She barnstormed in 1926 and 1927, appearing in State Fairs and local tracks throughout the US and Canada, breaking records everywhere she was booked.
She even made a joint appearance with the most famous athlete in the world, Babe Ruth...

1927 Iowa Davenport Democrat, August 19th edition
She was fearless, exotic, beautiful and famous. 
The fastest woman in the world.

 Then came Memphis.

The Fastest Woman In The World Jumps Into The Fire: Part Two, The Fall

 Then came Memphis.

What exactly happened in that 1928 race is hazy. It was a local circuit, and even their best tracks were extremely dangerous. This could have taken place on an ad hoc field in the middle of a County Fairground, or a blocked-off section of surface roads. In any case, there was an accident, a rough one. She was badly hurt.

 These are the cars she competed in; thin, designed to slice the air, but offering minimal protection for the unlucky. The Wisconsin Special, for example, was 15 feet long, yet only 20-inches wide. And that's her in the shot of a dirt track car, behind the wheel with no helmet, no fire suit, no harness, just the strength of her grip on a bucking and twisting steering wheel, holding on for dear life. All it takes is a slip, a loose bolt, a rough patch on the dirt straghtaway, and the force of 2,000 pounds of metal at 100 miles-an-hour will tear through the meat and sinew like a razor. 
Her career was over.

Memphis sent her 500 miles North,  wounded, unfit to drive,  with $1400 dollars of past race winnings in her purse. She told some folks that she was going to take flying lessons. One thing is certain, there was no one there for the young foreign divorcee, no one to help. She arrived in Chicago in the early Spring of 1929, and unable to work, she grew desperate as the first wafts of the Midwest Winter started to turn the leaves color. The chill of early Fall had begun to play upon her health, still fragile from an earlier bout of pneumonia.

She was 24, and her best days were already behind her. She had wandered the city for eight months, looking for help, a handout. Time and again she walked past the grand Chicago Beach Hotel, "The Finest Hotel on the Great Lakes", 

It was a luxurious, on-the-beach landmark, haunted by the rich and the super-rich. And there resided families, and couples, and wealthy women by themselves, their husbands heading Fortune 500 companies while the wives socialized on vacations with their friends.

Joan had to have felt some sort of entitlement. After all, hadn't she represented the fairer sex, carrying the banner further and faster than anyone before her? Couldn't she be compensated, somehow, until she found another way, in another city, to reclaim her fame?

What she did took guts, but not much brains. On October 6th, she burst into the room of Mrs. Rebecca Bobbe, and as she fumbled through a robbery attempt she was discovered in the act by the maid while Mrs' Bobbe resisted.
When she was corralled by the house dicks, she was reportedly armed with a fake pistol and a handkerchief soaked in chloroform.

 For the first three days, while she was locked up in a holding cell, she insisted that her name was "Josephine Rust". It was her husband who had planned the robbery she said, but he backed out because he didn't have the guts, and so she did it herself. A real tough moll, she was. 

But as the days passed, so did her resolve. She changed her story to a more sympathetic one, and decided to take her chances with a jury.

She was offered a pre-trial sentence of probation if she pleaded guilty; she was innocent, she said, she wouldn't take it.
"What was your rationale?", the Judge asked her.
Now the story was that she had gone to Mrs. Bobbe for "financial aid", she said.
And the toy pistol?
It was a cigarette holder, and the chloroform was for her only, bought earlier when she had contemplated killing herself.  She had been here, alone in the City of Big Shoulders, for eight months with only a few hundred dollars to her name, now spent, and she was starving, and broken in body and spirit; couldn't they see that? Why won't they help her?

In a surprise, her parents and sister arrived. 
From Memphis.  

Joan La Costa, the "premier French woman driver" was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W.M. Carver of Memphis, Tennessee. Her actual first name was Marion.

What could have persuaded her to leave a city where she had immediate and extended family and friends,  and light out for Chicago? Was it impossible for her to be "Mademoiselle Joan La Costa" in the Tennessee house of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Carver? She had recuperated, socked her cash and limped out of her hometown as soon as she was able. 
But now this, and she was stuck as Marion Carver again.
The story started to shift once more.

 After admitting to the police that, yes, her name was Marion Carver, nee Joan La Costa, she tearfully confessed what she now professed was "the truth".
"I have so many friends who knew me at that period that I cannot say anything about it," she said of her former glamorous life, "I wonder what they think of me now?"

Story number three soon tumbled from her lips...
She confessed that she had knocked at the door of the apartment of Mrs. Bobbe in the Chicago Beach Hotel on Thursday night, a cigarette case resembling an automatic in her hand.
"Don't scream, or make a noise and you will be safe," she told Mrs. Bobbe, who had opened the door while draped in $20,000 worth of jewelry.  
Instead of obeying, Rebecca Bobbe showed some guts herself, and fought back. Her cries brought forth her maid and other tenants.
Why had she done it, she was asked?

According to the newly penitent Miss La Costa, she had come to Chicago just a few days ago, with $1400 that she had marked for flying lessons. She promptly lost it all at the horse races.
Meeting an acquaintance by the name of Hyman Bobbe, she told him of her plight. He sympathized, and wished he could help, but didn't have the money like his brother Joseph did. 
Really? And how much money did his brother have? They were loaded, he said, and lived in the nicest Hotel in town at the Chicago Beach...

Her past fame from admirers, and also her distant relatives who would rally to her support garnered her the $2,000 dollar bail, and she retained the services of Attorney Michael Bellows to represent her. She attended the proceedings dressed in black.

  I look at her, again and again. She is dressed sharply, but not ostentatiously. She looks older than her age. The bright lights that blazed from her eyes in the earlier shots are gone, and now there is just sadness.

The hardest part for me, in looking at these pictures, is seeing that she is wearing different shoes in a couple of them, a different top, but the same skirt. Her one "nice skirt".

Judgement was rendered on October 25th. The verdict was easy, the acceptance wasn't. When the Honorable Judge Joseph David pronounced her guilty, Joan wailed uncontrollably, and collapsed into unconsciousness. 
This was the same woman who had leapt from an inferno a few years before, brushed away the soot, and then shortly thereafter had willingly climbed back in to another flimsy land rocket to test her mettle against the best. Now just the thought of being locked in a cage for years was enough to break this very brave woman.

The Judge, unmoved by the lamentations of Miss La Costa, sentenced her to 1-to-14 years in the Joliet State Prison, but because of her extenuating circumstances, she was going to be considered for parole instead. 
On November 9th, the sentence was finalized and reduced to a year under probation, and a grateful Joan said to the judge, "I'm going to be good. I'm going to take up aviation and hope to become a commercial pilot. I think it'll be better than auto racing and more thrilling." Just a few months before, Amelia Earhart had crossed the Atlantic by flight. Perhaps she could recast herself again, become another inspirational incarnation, this time as an aviatrix.

Three years later, it was reported that she'd married a meat seller named Joe. The records show that this man, Joseph Maurer, wedded a woman named "Marion Joan Martins" in October.

Had she finally surrendered her exotic French name when she surrendered her dreams? "Mlle. Joan La Costa" was the famous, exciting race car driver, "Josephine Rust" was the bad girl "armed" robber.

Marion married a meat salesman.
 Joan then slipped away from us, retreating to the anonymity of the pre-internet, avoiding the ever-lasting infamy that she most certainly would have been unable to escape today.

90 years later, I say we ought to remember Joan this way; sitting on her leather throne, braced by the sun in her face, her many dreams still in front of her. 

We should all be so happy.

Sources: Bismarck Tribune and Indiana Gazette, October 26th, 1929, Milwaukee Sentinal, October 7th, 1929, Plattsburgh Daily Press, and Reading Eagle Newspaper, October 26th, 1929, New York Times, November 9, 1929, Lancaster Daily Eagle, May 6, 1926, The Pittsburgh Press, February 24th, 1929, Niagara Falls NY Gazette, October 7th, 1929

Courtroom photos from Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.