Posted by: Jerry Garrett | March 22, 2019

The Car Radio Turns 90, Thanks To A Picnic

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The “Motorola” Model 5T71, the first car radio

The idea for the car radio was born 90 years ago, by some accounts. The story of how that came about, and what the idea set in motion, is a fascinating one.

It would be a few years before the idea became feasible, but today of course the car radio is as ubiquitous as the automobile itself.

Commercial radio broadcasting began in the 1920s, and the whole industry was still in its infancy when William Lear (more on him later) and Elmer Wavering wondered if they could adapt a home radio to use in an automobile.

According to a story that Lear was fond of telling, the two young men were on a picnic with their lady friends, on a promontory overlooking the Mississippi River in Quincy, Illinois, one evening in 1929. One of the women said she wished they could listen to music, as they watched the sun set.

That started the whole idea. Both men had tinkered with radios, and had enough background in the basics that they thought it was possible. (Other inventors have claimed to develop the same notion a bit earlier or around the same time, but all automotive radios trace their genealogy from this ancestor.)

But there were issues: Besides having to downsize the whole radio apparatus, which was quite large in those early days of the technology, the men had to solve problems of durability – bouncing around in cars with primitive suspensions on early roads. And then were was static. This was an issue for all radios, and a number of companies began offering solutions to static in home-based radios. But a car presented a unique set of issues with interference from its electrical equipment, such as the generator, the spark plugs, and its ignition.

Lear and Wavering eventually presented their idea to Paul Galvin, who operated a small company in Chicago that specialized in making “battery eliminators” which converted home radios to run on household current; all radios up until about 1927 ran on separate, bulky storage batteries. Galvin was eager to expand into a new product category, and so he offered the men space in his factory to tinker with their radio.

They got a prototype up and running in a Studebaker, and decided to approach a banker for a loan, to go into business mass-producing car radio kits. To show how versatile the application could be for any car, the men installed a demonstration model in the banker’s Packard. But disaster happened: The system malfunctioned and set the car on fire. Needless to say, they didn’t get the loan.

Galvin refused to give up, however. He drove the Studebaker from Chicago to a radio convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. When he arrived, he found he couldn’t afford to rent a booth at the show, so he ended up parking the car on the street outside the convention center, and blasting the radio to passersby. He managed to get enough people interested to start taking orders.

Galvin decided to call the radio “the Motorola“, a mash-up of the Victrola brand name and other popular radios of the time. The first model was designated the 5T71, for whatever reason.

The biggest problem for the young business was the cost of the unit: $110, uninstalled. That was a lot of money back then, during the depths of the Depression, when a new car cost $650 or so. Plus, it took two men several days to install the contraption and all its necessary parts, pieces and wires. The radio even needed its own source of power (i.e., a separate battery) in those early days. And it wasn’t exactly pretty, once installed.

It’s a miracle the company survived.

But the idea of putting a radio in a car was too popular to fail, it seems. Galvin said he lost money the first couple of years, until he perfected the system enough to get Ford Motor Company to begin offering them as options on its 1933 models. (Chrysler actually offered radios as options on a few 1932 models; General Motors wouldn’t join the radio craze until 1934.) Galvin got another big break – and a leg up on aggressive new rivals like Philco – when B.F. Goodrich agreed to begin selling simplified Motorola kits and installing them in existing vehicles, in their tire stores, for $55.

By 1934, a factory-installed radio could be had in a new car for $39.95 (an antenna cost extra!)

Motorola would go on to develop the first push-button radio in 1936; the company soon became an idea factory for innovations such as police cruiser radios, walkie-talkies, early home televisions and myriad other electronic marvels. Later, they even developed communications equipment for the first moon landing, pagers and early mobile phones. (Galvin’s company finally converted over to the Motorola name in 1947.)

And what happened to those enterprising young men, who originally turned the idea into reality? Wavering stayed on as an engineer with Galvin and Motorola. He was instrumental in developing the automotive alternator, which eliminated the generator; the alternator facilitated a whole new, more robust electronic architecture for the automobile, including such power-hogging amenities as air conditioning, power windows, power seats, and – yes – even better radios and stereo systems.

Lear leveraged his one-third ownership interest in the radio venture to strike out on his own as an inventor. In his lifetime, he would be issued more than 150 patents. He came up with tape players (remember four-track and eight-track?), helped develop radio direction finders for airplanes, played a key role in the development of aviation auto-pilot systems. And of course, his most famous invention: The Lear Jet, the world’s first mass-produced and (somewhat) affordable business jet.

Kind of makes you wonder how differently history might have been written without that sunset picnic?

Jerry Garrett

March 22, 2019






Posted by: Jerry Garrett | March 16, 2019

Bugatti Doesn’t Need You, Or Your Measly Millions


“La Voiture Noire” Photos by Jerry Garrett

GENEVA, Switzerland

The showstopper of the 2019 version of the Geneva International Motor Show was “La Voiture Noire,” a one-of-a-kind offering from Bugatti that was sold for $19 million – before the show even opened. It was reputed to be the highest price ever paid for a new car.

And the new owner had never even seen the car. Only a sketch.

The car itself is two to two-and-a-half years away from being built, revealed its designer, Achim Anscheidt, Bugatti’s styling chief. By our calculation, it would be a 2022 model.

“It is one of one,” said Stephan Winkelmann, the luxury carmaker’s chief executive. “There will never be another. I am pleased to tell you that it has sold for 16.7 million euro.”


Stephan Winkelmann introduces La Voiture Noire

Was that price obscenely high?

Perhaps so, if one thinks of it as a car, concedes Anscheidt, “but perhaps not, if one considers it as a work of art: Something you might see, in some years, in a gallery, or collection, or at a major concours d’elegance such as Pebble Beach.”

Anschiedt’s point is well taken. “There has never been a one-of-a-kind Bugatti. Ettore Bugatti himself couldn’t do it. Not even his son Jean could manage it. What is the value of such a thing?” he asked. “Is it truly like fine art, or sculpture?”

Anscheidt certainly considers it so.

Certainly other collectible, less exclusive Bugattis from the brand’s storied 110-year past have sold for more; for a time, a Bugatti Royale, one of a handful ever made, held the record for a price paid at auction. And particular types of vintage Ferrari sports cars have sold more than twice as much. But “La Voiture Noire” represented a record for a new car, Winkelmann said.

The details of the sale were not announced, but some sort of auction among the brand’s faithful was a good bet.

“We are lucky to have loyal owners,” Anscheidt said. “We have an ownership group of about 380 people who buy everything we make.”

What sort of a person owns a Bugatti? They are classified as “ultra high net worth individuals” (UHNWI).  They are some rarefied fraction of “the 1%.” They each own an average of 42 cars, a company spokesman said.

Bugatti does virtually no advertising. It has only a handful of dealerships – and those mostly exist, to the extent they do, to conduct the occasional service the cars might need. (An oil change can run as much as $25,000.) A performance footnote: At top speed, a Bugatti will run out of gas in less than seven minutes.

As a form of transportation, a Bugatti is not meant to make sense.

So, Bugatti does not need you, prospective car buyers. Each $3 million-plus Chiron, the only model Bugatti has in production, is spoken for as soon a new one rolls out of the factory. (The Chiron, successor to the iconic Veyron, is reportedly the first Bugatti model to turn a profit for the company.)

Occasionally, Bugatti will commission a special vehicle, or series of vehicles, just to create a bit of additional interest in the marque. The Divo, a run of 40 special Chiron derivatives announced a few months ago, the company announced here, is also sold out – despite an asking price twice that of the Chiron: nearly $6 million.


La Voiture Noire, rear view

Anscheidt said Bugatti’s creme de la creme, La Voiture Noire, was meant to aspire to even greater flights of fancy: To capture the spirit of the marque’s famous designer, Jean Bugatti, and his personal, jet-black Type 57C Atlantic Coupe. Legend has it that after Bugatti was killed in a 1939 testing accident, his Atlantic – one of four built – disappeared in 1940 while being transported by rail to Bordeaux to spare it from the advance of the Nazis.

La Voiture Noire has a similar roofline to what is known of that rather mysterious Atlantic, including a dorsal fin running down the center of the car from nose to tail, the horse collar grille, and the signature swoop of the passenger compartment’s side windows.

“It evokes the past, but it is not retro,” Anschiedt noted. “As my former professor from the Art Center College of Design said, ‘There is nowhere to go with retro.’ So, yes, I can go where I want with design, to the past for inspiration if I wish. But in the end, I must also look forward; I must coordinate with the engineers, to achieve what is technically possible.”

For instance, because the Divo is meant to have a lower profile than the Chiron, to facilitate tighter handling for race track use, there was a slight compromise in the Divo’s top speed. Both cars are capable of 230-236 m.p.h., the company said.

The top speed of La Voiture Noire has not been calculated yet, Anscheidt noted. But something near 250 m.p.h. (400 kilometers per hour) is desired. To achieve that last burst of speed between 380 and 400 k.p.h. is where the black magic is needed, he added.

“Everything on the car must be perfection,” he said.


Is this a 400 k.p.h. car?

La Voiture Noire’s design is “something that’s been in the bottom of my desk drawer for 10 years,” he said. It had to be reworked countless times to become something that was also aerodynamically and technically feasible, for a car that will have such unprecedented specifications. The engineers must also work their considerable magic for function, as well as form, to realize the car’s intended top speed.

From a technical standpoint, Anscheidt’s design is said to be powered by a 16-cylinder engine similar to the 16-cylinder, 1,500-horsepower monster in the current Chiron.

The vehicle shown, of course, here is powered by nothing, since it’s merely a mock-up of what the finished La Voiture Noire is expected to look like. There is no interior, no mechanical internals.

“What was shown here was put together in 16 weeks,” Anschiedt said. “I don’t even know if I would call it a concept, at this point.” He said the owner was given the option of making changes in the design, should any have been requested.

“He requested only one thing,” Anscheidt said. “He wanted six tailpipes. Do you know how many tailpipes the Atlantic had? No? It had five.”

So “La Voiture Noire”, as seen here, is but a “representation” of what the car ultimately will be. The actual car remains something of a mirage, much as Jean Bugatti’s storied creation. The company currently has no plans to display the finished model.

“Take a good look at what you see here; I doubt if it will be seen again,” Anscheidt said. He expects the finished version of “La Voiture Noire” to largely disappear – into the owner’s private collection, which is said to be “vast”. “Perhaps his son will drive it someday. Perhaps one day you will see it on the lawn at Pebble Beach.”

Jerry Garrett

March 16, 2019


Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 29, 2019

ROMA: What’s That Massive Car?

Early in the 2018 movie Roma, there’s a scene where the family’s father tries to wedge a huge sedan into a garage space made for a Volkswagen Beetle.

What’s that car?

Though it’s a bit dark, and the movie’s in black and white, it appears to be a 1970 Ford Galaxie 500.

There’s not much worth remembering about the 1970 Galaxie, except that it was part of the top-range line of full-size Fords. The Galaxie nameplate was introduced in 1958, and it lingered on until the 1974 model year.

The car was a performance dog, at least by today’s standards: Rear-wheel driver, three-speed automatic transmission, with a base 240-cubic-inch engine that produced just 150 horsepower (about what a Toyota Corolla’s output is today).

Despite being marketed as a high-performance model, it’s zero to 60 m.p.h. acceleration was a woeful 13.1 seconds. It’s top speed? Don’t let the 120 m.p.h. speedometer fool you: It’s couldn’t even top out at 100.

Its 3,717-pound curb weight didn’t help.

A sedan with a few popular options could be purchased for around $3,000 in the U.S. No idea what it might have cost in pesos, as the movie is set in Mexico City. But it would have been a rare ride indeed in that city in 1970.

This Detroit dinosaur was an apt metaphor, especially in retrospect, for the father’s impracticality and extravagance.

Without knowing much more than the first few minutes of the movie conveyed about the car, it already seemed like a car you could love to hate. It was enough of a first impression for the audience in the theater I saw in it to applaud when the dad ran it over some dog shit.

Jerry Garrett

January 29, 2019

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 22, 2019

The Rise And Fall Of The Detroit Auto Show


An auto show is supposed to be all about glitz and glamor. (Jerry Garrett Photo)

Back in 1982, someone gave me tickets to my first Detroit Auto Show. It was right across the street from where I worked. I decided it wasn’t worth it.

A colleague later confirmed it wasn’t worth walking across the snowy, unplowed street for. Back then, it was mostly a dealer show, trying to interest locals in buying a car. In recent years, I don’t know what you would call it.

Although there has been a Detroit auto show since 1899, in some form or fashion, the Detroit show re-branded itself in 1989 as the high-falutin’ sounding “North American International Auto Show”.

In so doing, the organizers (again, local dealers) tried to fashion it into an international confab, meant to equal the likes of the posh Paris Motor Show (the world’s oldest). Civic boosters demanded the Detroit show be held in the dead of winter (it had originally been held in the fall, when new American cars were traditionally introduced), in an effort to fill downtown hotel rooms that would otherwise be empty.

The “Big Three” Detroit automakers tried their best to pump the show up with glamorous concept cars, fanciful design studies, and their shiniest new cars. They showcased them in lavish displays – some of which, like Ford’s legendary “Bridge to Tomorrow” in 1999 – cost tens of millions of dollars to construct.

For a time, it seemed to be working. The auto industry was humming along. Local politicians, like eccentric mayors Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick (now jailed), promised to revitalize Detroit’s notoriously moribund downtown, and improvements were promised for the shabby Cobo Center where the show was held.

The weather was a constant enemy. In 1999, a notorious blizzard shut down the city for several days. One group of Australians claimed they were stranded in Las Vegas the whole time – which they decided would be a much more favorable host city for the show.

A well-established show in Los Angeles, which had its date more or less appropriated by Detroit, refused to die; it proved popular for Japanese manufacturers who were based there (and often made to feel unwelcome in Detroit).

Suggestions – much less criticisms – offered to the Detroit organizers received chilly receptions; I was hassled over credentials for twenty years, after I dared to pen a critique.

It was very clubby. “They had, generally, an ‘our-shit-don’t-stink’ attitude,” a well-known auto industry analyst once told me. “After awhile I, and some of my colleagues in the financial world, decided we didn’t need that.” Attendees often complained of being ripped off for hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and cab rides. Stories circulated of outrageous fees to set up display booths (like $100 per chair to place them for a press conference).

I am aware of an instance where a Mitsubishi executive, trying to lobby for a coveted main floor display location, was told by an organizer the request might receive more favor if he were to be awarded a Mitsubishi dealership (he didn’t get it, but I wished he had; he would have deserved what was coming).

The promised improvements to the Cobo Center never really materialized. Plumbing broke, backed up and overflowed with some regularity. The heating system was hit-and-miss. The electrical system was a nightmare; the place actually caught on fire during one show. It was dirty, dingy and unsafe (a serious, dangerous and largely unaddressed problem for the entire downtown area; many attendees complained of being robbed). Display items disappeared; I have heard stories of cars vanishing. This year, a water main break caused brown water to flow out of taps; a “boil water” directive included all the downtown hotels as well as the Cobo complex.

Manufacturers have threatened to pull out, if changes weren’t forthcoming. They weren’t; and many manufacturers have made good on threats to leave.

The show’s fortunes really sagged with those of the Detroit auto industry; in 2007-2008 when General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all flirted with bankruptcy, the show barely survived. It’s been a tough road to try and bring the show back from that low ebb.

The final straw may have come with the 2019 edition, which just closed. Public attendance was still fairly strong, but there was little to see; more major manufacturers than ever stayed away. The vaunted press previews, which in the show’s heydays ran several days, were over in little more than a morning.

In desperation, organizers announced a shift to June for the 2020 edition, to showcase the city’s more salubrious summer weather. But it may be too little, too late.

The calendar is now quite full. Los Angeles show was successfully located to a well-received period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Two trade shows in Las Vegas, the Specialty Equipment Market Association’s week-long gathering after Halloween, and the Consumer Electronics Show just after New Year’s, have garnered burgeoning interest from the auto industry.

And frankly, auto shows worldwide are in decline, as manufacturers question the wisdom of trying to compete for interest and floor space with dozens of competitors in the same cavernous convention centers. Why not hold your own special event, at a glitzy venue, and showcase your product to an exclusive audience?

Meanwhile, what is the audience for the Detroit Three anymore? GM and Ford seem to be cutting back on operations in the Midwest, and just over the border in Canada. The hurt feelings of once-loyal customers and employees can’t be minimized.

And does the new, projected June date for the 2020 “North American International Auto Show” really coincide with any established cycle for new products?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing was called off. Who would really care if it was? But the Detroit show’s tenaciousness has surprised me before; I didn’t think it would last much beyond that 1982 show I skipped.

Jerry Garrett

January 22, 2019




Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 12, 2019

TEN GREATEST Western Movie Horses: Part 2 Topper, Silver & More

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Wonder Horses, like Tony, sometimes shared top billing with their stars (Old Lobby Card)

(TEN GREATEST Western Movie Horses – Continued from Part 1)

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William Boyd on Topper


Hopalong Cassidy was an itinerant cowboy hero, originally created for dime novels in 1904, who grew into an enduring draw in western movies and early television programs. Hoppy, who originally got his nickname from having a wooden leg, was portrayed on screen from 1935 to 1954 by the venerable William Boyd. Through nearly all of it – more than 140 films and TV shows – he was accompanied by his trusty mount, Topper.

Boyd acquired Topper, a two-year-old white stallion, in 1937. He was originally a stunt double for another horse named King Nappy. When that horse was injured, Topper moved into a leading role. He got his name from Boyd’s wife Grace, whose favorite book series was “Topper”.

Topper was renowned for his gentle demeanor, willingness to follow commands, and to patiently put up with fans petting him, stroking his mane and even pulling his tail.

Boyd’s fortunes faded through the 1940s, but in 1949 when television was just entering American homes, he gambled everything, offering the fledgling NBC network the rights to show Hopalong Cassidy episodes. It paid off, as NBC gave him a weekly slot as to produce the pioneering western series. Early episodes got such high ratings, NBC couldn’t wait for new episodes to be filmed; so they started editing down the 1930s feature films to TV lengths.

The handsome white Topper and the black-clad Hoppy made an iconic pair. So iconic, in fact, they were the first western stars immortalized on school lunch boxes (of which millions were sold). At one time in the mid 1950s, more than 100 companies were making Hoppy and Topper merchandise.

But by 1954, the phenomenon had begun to wear off; Topper and Hoppy (and Boyd) retired. Topper died in 1961 and is buried in a pet cemetery in Calabasas, California, near the areas where most of their films were made.

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Clayton Moore on White Cloud


“Hi-yo Silver! Away!”

Who can forget those thrilling words of yesteryear, belted out by the Lone Ranger, at the start of nearly episode of the long-running serial. But who remembers the actual horse?

In a 1938 episode of the original Lone Ranger radio serial, Silver was formally introduced; the Lone Ranger had saved him from an enraged buffalo, and thus earned undying loyalty and companionship. But Silver had been a fixture of the earliest episodes, which began airing on a Detroit radio station in 1933. Their popularity was such that they were in demand for public appearances; a white horse, named “Hero”, was rented for his mount (Another white horse, Silver’s Pride, also made public appearances as “Silver”.); his trainer was the masked ranger.

But, was there a real “Silver”? It’s complicated.

In 15 Lone Ranger movie serials produced by Republic, 1938-40, a ranger on a white horse was featured; in fact, Episode 1 was entitled “Heigh-Yo Silver”, and the horse is given top billing, along with Chief Thunder-Cloud (Tonto); the actor who played the “man of mystery”, the Lone Ranger himself, is not credited – and not revealed until Episode 15. The horse in that serial was actually a white stallion named Silver Chief, which was also ridden by Thomas Mitchell’s character in Gone With The Wind. (Another well-known movie horse, Silver King, is sometimes – erroneously I believe – given credit for the role.)

But Clayton Moore, the actor most associated with the Lone Ranger role, chose a different horse when he revived the dormant franchise in 1949.

Moore selected a gentle 12-year-old stallion originally named White Cloud from the Hooker Ranch in California’s San Fernando Valley. Moore liked that the horse was a commanding 17+ hands high. He became known as Silver #1 and appeared in all but the third season of the show’s seven-season, 221-episode run, when Moore was replaced. Moore’s replacement, John Hart, didn’t (or wasn’t allowed to) ride Silver; so the horse also got a replacement, in the form of Hi-Yo Silver, his former stunt double. This horse became known as Silver #2, a temperamental stallion who had to share screen time when Moore returned in 1953 along with Silver #1.

Silver #1 is the horse most often depicted as rearing up on his hind legs, with Moore aboard, in publicity materials. Silver #1 was retired due to old age in 1956, died in 1959, and is buried in North Hollywood; Silver #2 also retired to quiet ranch life after that, and died in 1974. Actor Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto, once said neither Silver was not particularly fast afoot; his trusty mount, Scout, could easily out-gallop them both.

In retrospect, “Silver” might not be as worthy a choice here as many other “movie” horses, because a) “Silver” was actually a whole host of horses, and b) the entire collection of them didn’t appear in that many feature films. But it’s tough to top Silver in name recognition.

(Footnote: One of Silver’s stunt doubles, Traveler, became the famous mascot of the University of Southern California’s football team.)

screen shot 2019-01-12 at 10.57.45 amSTARDUST

My vote for the most beautiful horse in the movies goes to Stardust, the gorgeous dark palomino ridden by Randolph Scott in at least a dozen (by my count) of his western films, 1948-1960. (Pretty sure Alan Ladd also rode this horse in “The Iron Mistress” in 1952.)

The horse’s distinctive mane almost covered its neck; its golden tail touched the ground. It had a broad white face and four white stockings.

In Comanche Station (1960), Scott rode a final time on Stardust (a young Hal Needham was Scott’s riding stunt double) in what was supposed to be Scott’s last film, which completed his series of “Ranown” westerns with director Budd Boetticher. (He came out of retirement in 1962 to make Ride The High Country, but used a dark buckskin.)

A lot of people apparently agree about Stardust, because there are dozens of video tributes on YouTube, featuring this horse. But the sad thing is there seems to be very little information available about this horse, where it came from, where it ended up after Scott retired. Almost zip. (Gene Barry rode a horse named “Stardust” for most of the 108 episodes of the Bat Masterson TV series, 1958-61, but old clips show a bay with white-stockinged rear legs.)

Scott confirmed in interviews that Stardust was his favorite horse. He apparently did not own the horse, but it was made available for him to ride in almost all of his many cowboy movies, particularly those made in the Alabama Hills area near Lone Pine, California.

Any additional information on Stardust that readers might provide would be most welcome.

screen shot 2019-01-12 at 12.22.22 pmPIE

Pie, a beautiful and fractious little chestnut gelding, was Jimmy Stewart‘s favorite mount, starring with him in 18 or more movies, starting with Winchester ’73 in 1950.

Before that, Audie Murphy and Glenn Ford had tried, largely unsuccessfully, to ride Pie. “He was a maverick,” Stewart said in a 1972 interview. “He hurt a lot of other people who tried to ride him.” The horse crashed into a tree with Ford aboard and nearly caused him serious injuries.

“The horse was amazing to me; I rode him for 22 years,” Stewart noted. “I got to know him like a friend.”

Stewart added that he could give the horse complex verbal directions, that the horse could understand and execute on the set. “I actually believed he understood about making pictures,” he continued. “I ran at a full gallop, straight towards the camera, pulled him up and then did a lot of dialogue, and he stood absolutely still.. He never moved. He knew when the camera would start rolling, and when they did the slates; his ears would come up.”

In one scene for The Far Country (1954), the horse needed to amble along – riderless – down a dark side street, make a right turn down main street, and walk slowly out of the shot, while a small bell jingled on his saddle. The director asked if Pie could do it, and Stewart said, “I’ll talk to him.”

“Pie did it in one take,” he remembered proudly. “The director couldn’t believe it.”

Stewart said he offered many times to buy the horse, but it was owned by “a little girl named Stevie Myers, who is the daughter of an old wrangler for Tom Mix and W.S. Hart. When he retired, he gave this horse to her.” Pie retired in 1968 after appearing with Stewart in Bandolero.

When Pie died in 1970, Stewart arranged for him to be buried on his ranch.

(Footnote: “The Pie” in National Velvet (1948) was another horse, named King Charles, a descendant of War Admiral and Seabiscuit.)

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John Wayne, riding Dollor, into movie history


Surprisingly little is known about the many horses John Wayne rode during his nearly 50 years of making over 250 cowboy movies. There is even speculation the Duke didn’t care all that much for horses. But he did have a couple of favorites: Steel, at the height of his career, 1948-54, and Dollor at the end of it.

Wayne rode Dollor (sic) in both of his, arguably, most memorable scenes on horseback, the fateful shootout in True Grit (1969) and the fence jumping scene at the end of the movie.

Dollor was owned by Dick Webb Movie Productions, but the Duke got to like the big sorrel gelding so much that he negotiated exclusive movie rights for him. They appeared together in True Grit, Chisum (1970), Big Jake (1971), The Cowboys (1972), The Train Robbers (1973), Rooster Cogburn (1975) and The Shootist (1976). “Ol’ Dollor” was even mentioned by name a couple of times in that script.

After the actor’s death in 1979, his beloved horse was sold to a couple in Dallas, who claimed they used to play John Wayne movies for him, because the Duke’s voice calmed him. Dollor died in 1995, and was reportedly stuffed like Trigger.

I prefer to remember both of them like this:

Sadly, I can’t think of another memorable western movie horse that’s come along in the past 50 years. Cowboy movies are rarely made anymore, as the fabled American West fades further and further into history.

Wonder horses of the silver screen really are relics of a bygone era.

Jerry Garrett

January 12, 2019

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If you watch enough old cowboy and western movies, you might find yourself asking, “Haven’t I seen that horse somewhere before?”

Your eyes are not deceiving you. A few notable horses became bona fide movie stars, with fan clubs, merchandise lines, and long, illustrious careers.

Providing horses for the entertainment industry was a big business, back in the day; hundreds of horses might be needed for a single film, and there were often dozens of cowboy movies made a year – not to mention scores more when television came along later.

Film buffs have counted as many as 50 stars who identified with specific horses, and with whom they appeared in multiple films. A few owned their horses; most others worked with a specific stable, trainer or ranch to have ongoing access to their favorite mounts.

I’d say 99 percent of the horses used would be almost impossible to pick out, one from another, as most were relatively indistinguishable bays. But here are the standouts:

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 4.32.29 pmTRIGGER

There is little argument that Trigger was the greatest movie horse of all time, even if the 81 films and 101 television shows that the palomino stallion appeared in were not the greatest.

Trigger achieved the zenith of his fame as Roy Rogers‘ faithful mount, from 1943 when Rogers bought him to 1965 when the horse finally died. Trigger was already nine years old when Rogers entered the picture; he had been born on the Fourth of July in 1934, in San Diego on a ranch partially owned by Bing Crosby. He was originally named Golden Cloud, and it was Rogers who renamed him – reputedly because of his quickness, in both body and mind.

His movie debut came in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, when he was ridden by Maid Marian, played by Olivia de Havilland. Old movie posters occasionally billed Trigger as the “world’s fastest horse”, which wasn’t true, but there was no doubt Trigger was the smartest; he could perform more than 150 tricks, walk only on his back legs for long distances, sit in a chair, crawl into a regular bed and cover himself with a blanket, and even “sign” his name with an X. Most notably, Rogers claimed Trigger was potty-trained.

Although there was a well-known horse Rogers owned named Trigger Jr., Trigger was never bred.

Even after his death, Trigger lived on in popular culture; Rogers had him stuffed and preserved in his museum. And the Denver pro Football team used Trigger’s likeness for the bucking Bronco statue at its stadium. Trigger’s hoof prints, as well as Rogers’ hand and boot prints, are preserved in cement in front of old Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 3.52.50 pmBUTTERMILK

Less well known, but in perhaps more movies was the distinctive buckskin quarter horse known as Buttermilk, the preferred ride of Dale Evans, Roy Rogers’ third wife and longtime on-screen sweetheart.

Buttermilk, born as Taffy in 1941 in Wyoming, was abused as a young colt, developed a surly disposition as a result, and was consigned to a slaughterhouse – from which he was barely rescued. Another little known fact about Buttermilk was that he was faster out of the gate than Trigger, which put the lie to the “world’s fastest horse” moniker; in fact, Rogers became annoyed that Buttermilk caused so many re-takes because Trigger was slower to respond.

Ms. Evans, ironically, chose Buttermilk to ride because she felt he had a gentler demeanor than a horse originally designated for her to ride.

Buttermilk, who died in 1972 was, like Trigger stuffed and preserved at the Roy Rogers Museum in Apple Valley, California. (The museum has closed; it was moved to Branson, Missouri for a time before closing again; a collector who plans to open another museum in Apple Valley now owns them.)

Anybody out there have a Roy Rogers/Dale Evans lunch box, featuring Trigger and Buttermilk? I know I did. (Wish I still did, mom!)

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 5.44.49 pmTONY

Before there was Trigger, there was Tony. Or, more popularly, Tony the Wonder Horse.

Tony, a big bay with a white blaze face, was the constant on-screen companion of the original King of the Cowboys, Tom Mix. They appeared in 34 films together, from 1922 to 1932. In three of those films, Tony got his name in the title. He was listed as a co-star. And when Mix was asked to leave his hand and boot prints in the cement out front of Grauman’s, he took Tony along to leave his hoof prints. Mix even rode Tony at Wyatt Earp‘s funeral in 1929 in Los Angeles.

Like Trigger, who came along a decade later, Tony was known for his intelligence: he could un-tie Mix’s hands, open gates, and even follow complex voice commands and hand signals. But he was also known for his bravery. Mix jumped him over the highest fences, rode him through fiery buildings, urged him to leap between two cliffs, and chased down moving trains.

Although Tony was retired in 1932, at age 22, after suffering an injury during filming, his career continued in new directions with public appearances, marketing exhibitions (he had his own souvenir lines), the circus, and even rodeo events. He out-lived Mix, who died in a 1940 car crash, by two years – to the day.

screen shot 2019-01-11 at 11.42.48 amCHAMPION

Gene Autry, the “Singing Cowboy”, would not be out-done by another singing cowboy like Roy Rogers. So it’s probably not too surprising that Autry had his own talented horse – or more correctly a line of horses – named Champion. There were three “official” Champions, four specialized Champions, and an untold number of stand-ins, stunt doubles and personal appearance Champions.

The original Champion was born as Lindy, a big sorrel with a blaze face, three white “stocking” legs and distinctive blond mane and tail, in 1927 in California. Autry acquired the horse from Tom Mix in 1934 for work on The Phantom Empire western series that helped burnish his fame as a singing cowboy.

Champion had been trained for rodeo work and western shows, but adapted well to movies. He was a star in his own right, spawning a comic book series of his own, advertising and endorsements. But while Autry was away flying cargo planes in World War II, Champion died (about age 17). So when Autry returned and wanted to revive his western movie career, he debuted another sorrel, a bit lighter called Champion Jr., the “Wonder Horse of the West”. There was also Little Champ, Television Champion, and Touring Champion, who joined Autry for cement prints at Grauman’s. The last Champion to appear on screen with Autry – Champion Three – reportedly died in 1990 at his Melody Ranch near Newhall, California.

The collection of Champions were said to have been capable of the greatest array of tricks of any movie horse (or horses) in history – including dancing the Charleston, jitterbug and the hula. Lindy Champion was the first horse to fly cross-country; Touring Champion even took high tea at the Savoy Hotel in London.

screen shot 2019-01-11 at 1.23.30 pmFRITZ

William S. Hart, a native New Yorker and Shakespearean-trained actor, was one of the fledgling movie industry’s first stars. When he began his film career in 1914, the cowboys that he preferred to play were not nostalgic characters from a distant past, but contemporary characters in a Wild West still alive. He was friends with western legends Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, a devotee of authentic western dress, and he rode a quintessential Indian-style brown-and-white pinto pony, named Fritz.

Fritz, born in 1907 at movie producer Thomas Ince’s ranch in southern California, was the silver screen’s first true equine star. Though he could be spirited and surly, Fritz starred with Hart in 74 films, 1914-1924, when Hart’s brand of dark, brooding tales of a now-fading West began to fall out of favor.

Hart once claimed he and the horse were so close, he was sure Fritz had actually spoken to him. Together, performing perilous stunts like trying to escape from a whirlpool, they nearly died – on an off screen. Hart said Fritz could “do anything and everything asked of him.” Hart, who never used a stunt double and was often hurt more than his mount, once rode Fritz some 100 feet across a fallen log above a canyon. Another time he coaxed him out of a dark, water-filled cave. He even jumped Fritz off a precipitous cliff – a stunt that earned him a summons from censors, who were sure the horse had been killed in the scene.

Hart retired the horse after 1924, because he said his “friend” was too valuable to do any more risky movie work. Fritz lived out the rest of his life peacefully with his beloved pals (who sometimes appeared on screen with him) – Lizabeth, a large pack mule, and  a bucking mare called Cactus Kate – at Hart’s ranch in Newhall, where he died in 1938.

Next – Part 2 of the TEN GREATEST Western Movie Horses

Jerry Garrett

January 11, 2019




Posted by: Jerry Garrett | December 30, 2018

SCHITT’S CREEK: What’s That Car?

Two faded icons: Johnny Rose and his luxo-barge (Schitt’s Creek PR Photo)


The Rose family, the protagonists on the hilarious Schitt’s Creek television series, entered their latest season with a distinctive new car. Well, it’s not new, it’s actually 40 years old.

What is it?

It’s a 1979 Lincoln Continental Town Car. (Although in the Season 5 script, a ’78 is mentioned; both are nearly identical.)

It’s a worthy choice. And like a lot of what goes on in the series, full of symbolism and deeper meaning. It’s also littered with “Easter Eggs” – as the automotive press likes to call them – little surprises meant to delight.

Take, for instance, the official-looking license plate. It reads along the top margin: “Township of Elmdale” – the fictional Schitt’s Creek’s upscale and equally imaginary neighbor. The bottom line says, “Pine Beetle Capital”. If you know anything at all about forest management, the pine, or bark, beetle is the scourge of the backwoods – devouring millions of square miles of choice timber.

But I digress (as usual).

What are the cues that give away the Rose’s coveted luxo-barge?

Mostly notably, I’d say, is the distinctive, faux Rolls-Royce waterfall grille, the peek-a-boo headlights, dog dish-style hubcaps, and rococo vinyl Landau-style half-roof (with “opera window”). All those features appeared on different models, different years and even different makes of cars, but all of them together? Only the 1979 Continental Town Car.

Speaking of mash-ups, that 1979 model was also the last year of the “Continental Town Car” nameplate combo platter. The Continental and Town Car went their separate ways into the annals of automotive history after that.

That year, 1979, also marked the end of the true land yacht; the Continental Town Car, at 233 inches in length, was the last big American car ever produced. Everyone else, including arch-rival Cadillac, had already downsized. Lincoln would follow suit, starting with the stubbier – by 14 inches – 1980 models. (The 1974-75 Cadillac Fleetwood 75, at 252 inches, is reputedly the longest American production car ever.)

From a performance standpoint, the ’79 Continental Town Car almost ranks as tragic. Despite a 400-cubic-inch V8 engine, it only produced 159 horsepower (about what a Toyota four-cylinder can pump out today). And it got barely 13 miles per gallon (highway) fuel economy. That probably had something to do with its morbidly obese 4,649-pound curb weight. One wonders how the impoverished Rose family can afford to keep putting premium gas in it.

Amenities were classic for the day: Rich leather or plush velour seating (the Rose family model sports the tuck-and-roll fabric option), AM and FM radio with a state-of-the-art 8-track tape player, vinyl grab handles and other touch points, at least five ashtrays, an equal number of whitewall tires, and much, much more. (Loaded “Williamsburg” special editions offered full vinyl roofs, and two-tone paint; rare “Collector’s Series” models also were available with primitive anti-lock brakes, moonroofs and CB radios.)

Other Lincoln models that year offered fancy trim lines inspired by famous, albeit now largely forgotten designers of the day – Bill Blass, Cartier, Givenchy, even Emilio Pucci (a personal favorite) – but sadly those touches were not available on the Continental Town Car (even though today’s casual observer might be hard-pressed to spot the differences).

According to the NADA guide, the original sticker price was something north of $12,000 (add 50 percent for the special editions mentioned above) – which seems like a real car-load of character for the money, by today’s standards.

How much is one worth today? Good question. It’s certainly possible to find beater-caliber examples for $4,000 or even less. A concours-quality Williamsburg or Collector’s Series model might even command something near $20,000. But the average ’79 Continental Town Car is worth, today, about what it was 40 years ago when it was new, in terms of dollars. But, the rub is, $12,000 then is worth about $41,500 in today’s dollars.

So, like the Rose family, in Schitt’s Creek, 1979 Lincoln Continental Town Cars still cut a rakish, classic profile, but they are probably best remembered as just another example of faded American icons.

Jerry Garrett

December 30, 2018

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 19, 2018

Joey Logano Wins a Thriller, Earns 2018’s NASCAR Championship

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Joey Logano (22) passes Martin Truex Jr. (78). (NASCAR)

(Note: A shorter, edited version of this story appeared in the November 18, 2018 print and online editions of The New York Times – Jerry Garrett)


Joey Logano passed archrival Martin Truex Jr. with 12 laps to go for the lead, and then held on to win the 267-lap season finale and the drivers championship of the NASCAR Monster Energy series Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Logano, at 28, is one of the top series’ youngest champions, besides having already raced in it for a decade. The Connecticut native was racing against Truex, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick – all former champions – for his first title.

Logano, who had suffered a disappointing loss in the 2016 showdown, said that setback prepared him for this year’s clincher.

“I’ve worked my whole life to get here,” said Logano, who drove a Ford for the Roger Penske team. “I knew my car was good on short runs, and that last 20 laps under green was just how I wanted the race to play out.”

The four championship finalists battled each other the whole race, at the front of the field, in a classic battle. It appeared Busch, who had gambled on fuel and tires, might have an advantage at the end. But on a restart, after a caution period with 20 laps to go – caused when Logano’s teammate Keselowski ran into Daniel Suarez* – Busch was not able to hold off Logano and Truex. He faded to fourth, behind Harvick.

“We were just slow that last 16 laps. I got the lead, but I couldn’t hold them off,” Busch said. “My car had no speed. It just wouldn’t go. It was nearly undriveable the whole race.”

The race had a sense of déjà vu about it, as the four drivers still eligible for the Championship 4 were almost the same as the lineup a year ago.

Busch, Truex and Harvick were back for another year as finalists; Logano replaced his teammate Brad Keselowski from the 2017 lineup.

Asked if this quartet was the best group of qualifiers ever, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who retired this season, replied, “Ever? Hmmm. I would say these are the best four guys here today, to be battling it out for the championship.”

Despite the old Nascar adage that “you need friends out on the race track” to help you do well, this quartet continues to excel, year after year, even though they are among the prickliest competitors in the sport.

After a last-lap clash with Logano at Martinsville last month that cost him a victory, Truex promised, “I know he won’t win the championship.” Truex wouldn’t specify how he “knew” that about Logano’s chances. “”I won’t just wreck a guy,” Truex said, “Unless it’s the 22.” The pair touched fenders and smoked tires several times during the race, as they raced side by side, but without dire consequences.

Logano has had previous contretemps with drivers like Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, who have intentionally wrecked him.

Logano said he expected an even higher level of intensity for the final. “It doesn’t matter how you are,” he said. “You find another gear here. A higher gear.”

Busch was candid about his feelings toward certain drivers in the series. “Sometime you just don’t like a guy,” he said simply.

Earnhardt, who often crossed paths with Busch often during his career, observed, “Kyle drives hard, and he doesn’t care who gets in the way.”

Busch and Harvick have also been in dust-ups on and off the race track with other drivers, most notably Logano’s teammate Keselowski.

Harvick’s team owner Tony Stewart, a notoriously pugnacious driver before retiring last year, said, “Kevin’s the guy who, if there’s five seconds to go, is the guy who you want to get the ball to. You want it in his hands. He’s what I call a plug-and-play type of guy. Plug him into whatever kind of high-pressure role and he knows what to do.”

Despite leading the early stages, Harvick said his car didn’t perform well enough when he needed it most, at the end. “We didn’t really have the speed we needed, the whole weekend,” he added.

Busch and Harvick had each won a season-leading eight out of the 36 races on the campaign, to help them get into the Homestead finale. Truex, the 2017 champion, qualified with four victories and a big cache of points. Logano peaked with key victories in the nine playoff-bracket races preceding the final event.

The battle among the car manufacturers was another case of déjà vu: The second year in a row that Toyota, with Truex and Busch, and Ford, with Logano and Harvick, squared off for bragging rights. And for a second straight year, Chevrolet, which actually fields the most total entries, was shut out.

“That’s disappointing,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s motorsports director. But, he noted, Chevrolet introduced a new car, the Camaro, to the series, and the teams struggled as they tried to sort out the car. The results improved as the season went on, and fan favorite Chase Elliott won three of the last 15 races; he wasn’t eliminated from the Championship 4 until the penultimate race.

Harvick barely made the field, after his car was ruled illegal, three races from the season’s end. His crew chief Rodney Childers was suspended for the remainder of the season, and the team was docked a critical number of points, and an automatic berth in the final. So Harvick had to race his way back in, in the remaining races.

The season finale also marked several milestones. Truex’s team went out of business, with the drop of the checkered flag, having lost its major sponsor. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson finished without a victory for the first time in 16 seasons; and his crew chief Chad Knaus during that run left for another team.

The finale was conducted under perfect weather conditions at the 1.517-mile oval, southwest of Miami. Nascar announced a sell-out crowd for more than 46,000 was on hand.

*Another crash by Suarez late in the 2017 finale enabled Truex to win the title.

Jerry Garrett

November 18, 2018




Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 13, 2018

Camp Fire Hero, Allyn Pierce: The Rest Of The Story

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Allyn Pierce, from Instagram

PARADISE, California

Allyn Pierce, a nurse at the hospital here, ended up on the front page of The New York Times today for his heroism in helping patients survive the horrific Camp Fire that destroyed most of this town – including the hospital.

Pierce was trapped in his Toyota Tundra truck, along with hundreds of others in vehicles trying to evacuate the town, as fire engulfed the city.

Pierce said the flames became so intense, and the heat inside his truck so increasingly hot, that he thought he might not survive. “I was like, ‘I think I’m done’,” he told The Times. He added, “I just kept thinking, ‘I’m going to die in melting plastic.'” He even recorded a farewell message to his wife. Vehicles around him were bursting into flame.

But when a bulldozer knocked a burning vehicle out of the way, and cleared a path for him to escape, did Pierce something unexpected: He turned his truck around and headed back to the hospital, Adventist Health Feather River, where he thought he might be needed. Turns out he was, and he and fellow caregivers began helping injured patients, some of whom he recognized as his neighbors. When the hospital caught fire, Pierce and the others moved the patients to the hospital’s helipad, and continued treatment there until more help arrived.

Okay, that much was reported in The Times. What happened next wasn’t initially reported.

Turns out, while Pierce was helping others, his own house went up in flames. He lost everything. Even his trusty Toyota was pretty well singed.

Just went things looked the bleakest for Pierce, he got a note on his Instragram account, where he had posted a photo of his blackened truck, from someone at Toyota’s corporate headquarters in Plano, Texas, saying, “We are going to get you a new truck.”

He thought it might a prankster, but it wasn’t.

“We thought it was the least we could do for him,” said Scott Vazin, a Toyota executive that I talked with at an event today in Carmel Valley, California (where the smoke from the Camp Fire shrouded the community, even though Paradise was over 100 miles away). “The poor guy lost everything, while he was helping others. What a hero.”

Jerry Garrett

November 13, 2018


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Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition)


On July 26, 1959, a worker at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, was trying to remove nuclear fuel rods from a reactor in a secretive rocket research testing facility, when one of the volatile rods broke off. The broken rod dropped back into the reactor, starting a potentially deadly “China Syndrome” type accident. The blunder was compounded by other workers who, in their bumbling efforts to stop the runaway reaction, broke off another rod that also fell to the bottom of the reactor.

Crews barely managed to get the reactor shut down before an explosion occurred; a chain reaction that would have followed such an explosion likely would have detonated nine other reactors also operating at the clandestine site. The nuclear holocaust that would have resulted likely would have wiped out much of the greater Los Angeles area. As it was, an undisclosed – and unmeasured – amount of radiation leaked out and drifted back toward Los Angeles and many suburbs in between. It was, some claim, America’s worst nuclear disaster.

Although utter catastrophe was narrowly averted, the crisis wasn’t over, because the poorly trained workers struggled with how to close down the reactor site – and close it off. Their errors might be considered comedic, if they didn’t have such tragic consequences.

In the nearly 60 years since, the various owners of the still-secretive site – Atomics International, Rocketdyne, Boeing and others (including agencies of the state and federal governments) – have been flummoxed about what to do with it. And they haven’t been very forthcoming about what their solutions might entail. This much is known: The reactors were shut down (at least three others also experienced malfunctions) and the damaged fuel rods “temporarily” stored there; but the dangerous materials, still after six decades, haven’t gone anywhere, because the United States has no permanent place to store nuclear waste. So the site remains toxic, volatile, and a source of illness, danger and death (mostly from strange cancers) to the residents downwind.

In September 2005, an “event” at the Santa Susana facility was blamed for triggering the devastating Topanga Fire, which charred nearly 25,000 acres nearby, caused 31 injuries and cost tens of millions of dollars to extinguish. On November 8, 2018, the horrific Woolsey Fire also started on the grounds of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, fire officials confirmed in vague terms; to date, it has burned an area more than four times as large as the 2005 Topanga blaze. Hundreds of multimillion-dollar homes, including those of many celebrities, were incinerated. Some blame Southern California Edison, which reported a “disturbance” at its SSFL-area substation near the time the blaze was first reported; but what caused the substation to be “disturbed”? Hard to tell.

Even though the Woolsey fire consumed many acres of contaminated soil, brush and structures at the site, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control said it “believed” the noxious smoke from the fire contained no toxic or radioactive materials. It was a claim many found hard to believe.

“This is an agency that has repeatedly lied to us, minimized risk from the Santa Susana Field Lab and broken every promise ever made regarding the clean up,” community activist Melissa Bumstead wrote Nov. 11 in a article. “Why would we trust them when the lab is on fire – especially now that we know the fire actually began at Santa Susana?”

“The fire started near the same location, which is only about 1,000 yards from the site of the 1959 partial nuclear meltdown,” said Bradley Allen, a scientist, activist and former resident of the area, in a tweet Nov. 12. He added, “Decades of nuclear & rocket engine testing activity, including nuclear reactor accidents & other toxic spills & releases, have resulted in widespread contamination throughout SSFL’s 2,850 acre facility.”

The Physicians for Social Responsibility group also issued a statement that “strongly caution[s] anyone who [is] in or near areas impacted the #WoolseyFire to wear a mask or to stay away until smoke clears. The potential #health impacts are severe” despite statements by the DTSC and other government agencies minimizing any danger.

But why is there an experimental nuclear testing facility so close to Los Angeles, in the first place, and how was it that it came to be located there?

The lab was built in the mid-1940s, to study nuclear weaponry, test chemicals and their interaction, and to develop powerful rocket engines such as the Navaho and Delta II. The federal Atomic Energy Commission and the private company, Atomics International, chose the location because then it seemed a safe distance from Los Angeles. And, on the western fringes, of the then-sparsely populated San Fernando Valley. The AEC and AI knew the work could be dangerous. They just didn’t know how dangerous. And since the research was experimental, workers didn’t know exactly what they were getting themselves into.

Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation, was merged into Rocketdyne in the mid-1950s (Boeing acquired Rocketdyne when it bought Rockwell International in 1996. Nine years later, United Technologies bought the Rocketdyne unit, but Boeing retained the contaminated SSFL site.)

The fateful 1959 accident actually began two weeks before the near-meltdown. An out-of-control nuclear reaction led to a Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) being shutdown. Workers couldn’t understand what happened, so they started it back up again. It ran until the radiation monitors pegged the meters on July 26.

Workers quickly realized the reactor had “run away” from them, and radioactive gases were vented into the atmosphere. That heightened the sense of panic, as the workers realized most of their families lived downwind in the San Fernando Valley.

Weeks after that, the workers thought the glowing-hot accident site had cooled enough to reach the fuel rods. But first they had to clean up the immediate contamination. No safety protocols existed then, so they began to scrub everything down with water and sponges. Mops didn’t hold up well, so the crews ultimately switched to using feminine napkins (Kotex), according to a report that came to light years later.

The workers had no protective clothing – just coveralls and cotton caps that read, “Your Safety is Our Business — Atomics International.” Fully enclosed radiation suits with face masks are used by nuclear workers today; each are single-use suits to disposed of after one use.

AI had prepared an unclassified report for the AEC in 1961 entitled “SRE Fuel Element Damage”, but little was known publicly about what had happened at the SSFL until a 1979 Los Angeles Times report that an AEC-sponsored analysis determined there had been numerous indications of malfunctions at the SRE. The report was critical that the operators continued to run the reactor after the initial run-away.

That’s about the time the 1979 accident and radiation release at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant heightened public interest in such dangers.

But the most significant discovery of information occurred some time after that when UCLA film students stumbled upon a classified report with important additional details.

A flurry of public outrage helped to finally get nuclear work at the SSFL shut down, but not until 1989. A 2006 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, determined that up to 30 percent of the reactor’s radio-iodine and cesium could have vaporized during the accident.

Despite those details coming to light, progress toward a cleanup was glacial.

Urban sprawl exacerbated the problem; the San Fernando Valley’s population grew rapidly. What primarily had been walnut orchards and sprawling ranches surround Santa Susana became suburban housing developments filled with families.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eventually entered the picture, to help facilitate what shaped up as one of America’s most problematic cleanup projects. The site’s operators weren’t very transparent; an EPA inspection found three of the five buildings they were supposed to study had been recently torn down – including the SRE – and some of the debris from those buildings had been taken to regular municipal trash dumps. Radioactive metals went to a recycler who unwittingly melted them down, and re-purposed and sold them as new metal products!

Subsequent studies found workers involved in the original accident – all dead now – had died from lung cancer, cancers of the lymph and blood systems, and other rare cancers. Despite an alleged lack of cooperation from current owner Boeing, a further study on downwind cancer rates was published in 2006. It concluded the 1959 radiation release – hundreds of times the amount of radiation released at TMI – had caused an estimated 300-1,800 cancer deaths.

That led to a pledge by the EPA, DTSC and others to clean up the site by 2017. But it never happened (check out the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition website for lots of historic photos). The site remained toxic, radioactive and volatile – and apparently ripe for another event like the mysterious ones that are blamed for triggering the 2005 Topanga and 2018 Woolsey fires.

Jerry Garrett

November 12, 2018



Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 5, 2018

How Audi Made Me A Dieselgate Dupe

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Auto writers love contests.

A trophy is nice, but we don’t even need prizes. It’s just the competition. We love to beat the other guy. It’s kind of a car thing. Bragging rights.

That’s why it was so appealing to receive an invitation a few years back from Audi, to come to the Washington, D.C., area to test-drive a fleet of new Audi A6 and A7 sedans, powered by turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel engines. The pitch was to see if we could beat the EPA estimated fuel economy numbers of 25 city, 38 highway.

Well, of course, we could. We know how the EPA system works, and how to game it. (We weren’t the only ones, as it turned out!)

We were up for the challenge.

Audi encouraged my fellow competitors – a few dozen auto writers from around North America – to use social media during the program to boast about our accomplishments in real time. Audi even supplied mid-course updates, as to who was leading the miles-per-gallon economy challenge. Tweet, post pictures and videos, give Facebook updates. The more you were on social media, the better Audi liked it. In fact, Audi supplied a special hashtag for us to use, and they even re-tweeted or otherwise re-broadcast the most noteworthy blurbs on a corporate account with widespread distribution.

Just think of the glory that awaited the auto writer who was leading the MPG challenge with 52 mpg (which, for awhile, I was). Tweeted out to the world!


But there was a problem: We didn’t know we were being used by Audi. We were being duped.

It’s fairly easy to dupe auto writers. Most of us aren’t really very technical, when it comes right down to it. We all like the glitz, the glamor, the prestige of driving around fancy, fast, and obscenely expensive new cars. All too often, we are blinded by the bling factor, I must admit.

There are volumes to be written about how an auto writer failed to notice an automaker had switched out a car’s regular tires for trick racing tires, to game race track results. Or how another manufacturer removed the spare tire, the jack, extra insulation and so forth to make the car lighter – and therefore more fuel-efficient – during a mileage test run. I personally recall one manufacturer who supplied a new hybrid-electric sedan in flaming red paint, to make sure it photographed more appealingly; the catch was that car was never offered in red.

But what Audi was doing in this instance was something of a cake-taker.

The cars being used all were equipped with devices to allowed them to cheat on emissions requirements. So the A6s could go farther, faster and seem capable of engineering feats that they were, in fact, not capable of. I guess Audi wanted to disingenuously suggest, via gullible auto writers, that their diesels should have scored even higher on an EPA test they were already thumbing their noses at.

Of course we didn’t know all that then. And in fairness to the auto writers involved: what Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche (and even others) were later to be found guilty of was one of the most devious swindles in automotive history; now we know it as “Dieselgate”.

Screen Shot 2018-10-05 at 12.49.09 PMFor years, Volkswagen Group (and its affiliated marques besides VW) had been introducing new diesel cars that were supposedly capable of incredibly good mileage – touting the company’s “excellence in engineering” and apparently unshakeable belief in the viability of diesels; “lesser” manufacturers professed to be incapable of obtaining such stellar results. Shame on them!

Here, I must credit my Times editor Norman Mayersohn for always remaining skeptical about these diesel claims; “There is no way they can achieve those mileage numbers and still pass the EPA testing regimen,” he contended over and over again. The only way it could have been possible, he added, was if the cars were equipped with an annoying and noisome urea-injection system to deep-clean the emissions system – which they weren’t. Eventually, of course, Volkswagen was found out; eventually Audi’s leadership role in the whole scheme came out as well. Fines were issued, executives were fired, some were jailed, and the cheating vehicles were pulled from sale.

But there was no skepticism on our Audi romp through the northern Virginia countryside. We were blissfully gifting Audi innumerable zillions of dollars in free advertising – the cars were even emblazoned with garish “clean diesel” advertising slogans – blessed with the imprimatur of dozens of supposed industry experts. And participating in the names of their unwitting publications.

Screen Shot 2018-10-05 at 12.53.52 PMIt was very cunning of Audi, whose slogan was, incredibly, “Truth In Engineering”. And very calculated. And I’m embarrassed now, looking back on it, that I was such a gullible accomplice – to the degree I was.

Thank God I didn’t tweet. I did not attend as a representative of any publication. And, most importantly, I didn’t write anything about it. I came, I saw, I shrugged my shoulders. Something didn’t seem right about the whole exercise – although I adored driving the car – but I couldn’t figure out exactly what bothered me.

Now I know: Audi made me an accomplice in Dieselgate.

A Dieselgate Dupe.

Jerry Garrett

October 5, 2018





Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 26, 2018

45 Years At The Indianapolis 500


Those thrilling days of yesteryear at Indy


The first Indianapolis 500 that I ever personally attended was the 1973 running of it – the infamous “Fire and Rain” race that took three days to complete. I was covering the race for The Associated Press and was stationed near the pit exit where Salt Walther crashed in flames. I walked quickly away from that blaze, and was narrowly by missed the fire truck going the wrong way up pit road that ran over and killed a guy. Later, I stationed myself at the entrance to the pits, where Swede Savage had one of the worst crashes in speedway history. He died weeks later in the hospital. Another driver, Art Pollard, had been killed in practice; I had flown over that one in my one-and-only ride in the Goodyear blimp.

After that, I wondered if my first 500 would be my last. Yes, it had lived up to its name as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but what a bloody spectacle it was.

But I did go back; it’s been 45 years now, and this year – the 102nd running of the event – I’m reporting it again for The New York Times.

In some ways, the race has changed surprisingly little since 1973. The cars all have their engines mounted at the rear, gumball tires and aerodynamic wings. In the 45 years prior to my arrival, the cars had evolved from the most primitive, earliest forms of automotive transport – with skinny tall tires, enormous engines in front, and cockpits where the drivers sat upright. For a few years, drivers had been accompanied by riding mechanics.

In the early days here, the drivers sometimes raced in street clothes, brogans and cloth or leather helmets. Many didn’t even wear gloves. In this era, of course, racing drivers are kitted up like spacemen in fireproof suits, and strapped in place (laying on their backs inside coffin-like cockpits) with multi-point harnesses.

In days of yore, as they say, drivers eschewed wearing seat belts at all, believing – erroneously – that it was better to be thrown clear of a wreck.

Driver protection has now evolved beyond once-unimaginable, unachievable levels. Not only are the cars now designed to handle impacts without inflicting injuries, so are the walls – the so-called impact-tolerant SAFER barriers – they plow into. Fatalities are rare.

The 1973 race resulted in many of the most significant improvements in crash safety in the history of auto racing: breakaway fuel fittings and puncture-proof fuel cells (drivers had actually sat between unprotected tanks holding up to 80 gallons of fuel), and energy-absorbing or crushable structures. So, that 1973 race probably ranks as a turning point.

Up until 1973, about 40 percent of Indy car drivers could be expected to be killed at some point in their careers. Perhaps 70 percent or more suffered crippling injuries – particularly burns. One of the sport’s longest-tenured drivers, A.J. Foyt, had his career threatened multiple times with burns, internal injuries and a broken bones; even after 40 years behind the wheel, he refused to retire despite shattered legs that were barely saved from amputation.

For a time in the 1990s, foot and leg injuries threatened to sideline an entire generation of Indy car drivers. But that vulnerability prompted another round of safety innovations that ultimately all but eliminated that danger.

The biggest change that I have seen in 45 years at Indy is among the drivers. Of course, all the drivers of that era have long since retired, although Mario Andretti still gives hair-raising rides to folks in an Indy car two-seater.

Andretti was in his heyday back in the 1970s – winning the 500 a second time (and then losing it in a court battle with Bobby Unser), winning a Formula 1 World Championship and capturing multiple checkered flags. But as Andretti’s time has come and long gone, so has the career of his son Michael, now a successful team owner. Now a third generation of the Andretti family is racing, with Marco, well into his career. Maybe one day a fourth generation will come along.

Now that will make you feel old!

Jerry Garrett

May 26, 2018

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