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Automotive Geekfest

Bob MerliswriterAndy Pottsillustrator

Confession: I've been a card-carrying member of the Society of Automotive Historians for quite a while. OK, I never really carried a card, per se, but I have been known on occasion to wear the SAH lapel pin, a discreet little bauble depicting the Cugnot steam carriage of 1769, a.k.a. the first self-propelled vehicle. The bimonthly SAH Journal is always a good read. A recent issue, for instance, included a survey piece about the reverse-raked Z-shaped roofline, a design fillip shared by behemoth late-1950s Lincolns, '60s "Breezeway" Mercurys, the Citroen Ami, and (English) Ford Anglias. This kind of stuff is solid gold for a true car geek with an ecumenical bent.

Although my old-car interests are wide-ranging, it's true that I am a card-carrying (yes, I do actually carry a card, and what of it?) member of the Studebaker Drivers Club. Thus, when I read the schedule for the SAH's Ninth Biennial Automotive History Conference and saw that there would be a talk titled "Champion of the Lark: Harold Churchill and the Presidency of Studebaker-Packard Corporation," it was a eureka! moment for me. Obviously, I would be heading to the very swanky Sheraton Suites hotel, next to the Philadelphia International Airport, to attend my first-ever SAH conference.

Unlike Comic-Con, that better-known geek convention, the SAH conference doesn't mandate the wearing of costumes, which is just as well because what could the SAHers have worn? Lee Iacocca masks? John Z. De Lorean mutton chops? Dieter Zetsche mustaches? No, this conference is not where car obsessives play dress up. Rather, it's where enlightenment is sought and offered. It's a chance for serious discourse on topics that are meaningful to a self-selected group that is, perhaps, somewhat removed even from ordinary "car guys."

The conference theme had been announced as "A World of Cars: Manufacturers, Drivers, and the Impact of Globalization," and this attracted scholars from the U.K., Germany, South Africa, Spain, and even faraway Canada. No fewer than eighteen lectures were offered, covering a wide variety of compelling (to us) topics, including, "The Chrysler Minivan in Global Perspective" and "Stealing Cars: Some International Aspects of Auto Theft, the United States and Mexico, 1919-2011." During the former, we learned that Chrysler's minivan is sold in eighty overseas markets, where most are equipped with diesel engines even though you can't buy a diesel here. (Left unanswered was whether they have soccer moms in countries where even adults play soccer and call it football.) In the latter, we were informed, "A great place to steal a car is an airport parking lot." Cue the roar of an Airbus A330 landing a few hundred yards away.

Insights and factoids comingled in an atmosphere of almost giddy nerditude. Edwin Benson's talk, "Creating an American Icon: Theodore F. MacManus, James R. Adams, and the Coming of Cadillac 1909-1956," pulled back the curtain on the origins of General Motors' marketing posture for its line topper. The idea that (m)adman MacManus advanced in his book The Sword-Arm of Business was encapsulated thusly: "Advertising has put something into the Cadillac that was not built in the factory. I do not know what it is, but I know that it is there, and it has made this the most uniquely valuable motor car property in the world." No Cadillac ad was more famous than MacManus's groundbreaking "The Penalty of Leadership" in 1915. While it ran only once, in the Saturday Evening Post, it was as radical in its day as the Doyle, Dane, Bernbach Volkswagen ads ("Lemon," "Think Small") were in theirs. With no visual representation of the product or description of its features or -- heaven forbid -- price, it was just a logo and a headline followed by 415 words. The lead: In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work.

The crypto-Shakespearian subtext ("Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown") was MacManus selling rich folks on themselves and their specialness and associating that with the Cadillac brand. The renown of this ad was so long-lasting that, in 1967, scrolls of the text were sent to Cadillac owners, a mere fifty-two years after the original ad ran. One found its way to a certain E. Presley of Memphis, who had it framed and displayed in his home office.

The highlight for this reporter was, of course, a talk by Bob Ebert, SAH secretary and professor emeritus of economics at Baldwin-Wallace College, about Studebaker-Packard under the leadership of Harold Churchill. Churchill was a former engineer who ran the show in South Bend from 1956, after the merger with Packard, until 1961, when he was replaced by Sherwood Egbert, "the father of the Avanti." While the Lark, developed under Churchill's aegis, wasn't as sexy as the Avanti, it was actually profitable, a rare phenomenon at Studebaker in those dark days. Ebert noted that tooling for the Lark amounted to a major face-lift for the old (full-size) Studebaker body shell. Lop off a bit here, a bit there, and, voila, you have a compact car ready to go head-to-head with George Romney's much-vaunted AMC Rambler.

There was also a bit of foreign intrigue at Studebaker-Packard in those days with its ill-fated distribution of Mercedes-Benz cars in North America. Studebaker explored importing the tiny Goggomobil, the most un-Mercedes of all German cars, but walked away after executives attempted to drive two of them from the docks in New York to South Bend and experienced multiple breakdowns en route.

I later spent some quality time with Ebert, who revealed that, as a kid of fourteen, he fell completely in love with the postmerger Studebaker-built Packards that purists derisively call Packardbakers. He convinced his parents to drive from their home near Cleveland to South Bend, where they were given a factory tour. It goes without saying (but we will just the same) that he owns a Packardbaker, a '58, but he never calls it that.

"I'm interested in what cars tell about the people who made them, the people who bought and drove them, and the people who collect them," says SAH president Douglas Leighton. He teaches history at Huron University College in London, Ontario, including a course called The Automobile and Modern Culture. Leighton, who is also an ordained Anglican priest, has a unique fleet. His daily driver is a diesel Volkswagen Jetta wagon. He's got a 1985 Mercedes 500SEC coupe filling the European grand touring luxury slot. A low-mileage 1989 Lincoln Town Car Signature Series is Prof. Leighton's response to the need for a people mover -- he's driven it fully loaded with family to Florida and back. And then there's the 1950 Austin Sheerline that he once owned. Never heard of it? It's a big, stately sedan, often mistaken for a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley, having the same very formal profile and flowing fenders as those more august marques. The Sheerline certainly is a vehicle befitting the president of, arguably, the only group of enthusiasts who might be able to tell you that its successor was the Vanden Plas Princess. You didn't know that? Now you do.