Monday, December 20th, 2010
The Smithsonian has a large collection of historical transportation, but most of the 73 vehicles have never been on display. The America on the Move exhibit at the National Museum of American History only showcases 14 of them. The rest live under tarps in a storage warehouse miles away from the National Mall.
Now for the first time the Smithsonian is opening the warehouse to let the public vote for two of its cars to roar out of the darkness into the Mall light. Over the past week, Roger White, Associate Curator in the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History and the man who hunted high and low to acquire famous 80s crash test dummies Vince and Larry for the museum, has been blogging about eight gems from the history of transportation.
Read all the Race to the Museum entries and pick your favorite. Voting opens tomorrow, December 21. The two vote leaders will go on display at the museum from January 22 to February 21.
The problem is trying to narrow down the awesome to just one favorite. I tend to be partial to the earliest pieces just because they look so damn cool. The Long steam tricycle (ca. 1880) is the oldest of the eight and the unique creation of a Massachusetts carpenter.
What’s made of bicycle parts, weighs 350 pounds, and is self-propelled? Not your typical 1880s vehicle. Before George Long, a carpenter in Northfield, Massachusetts, built this one-of-a-kind experiment, he and other inventors built heavy, steam-powered wagons. So why switch to thin, spidery body materials? Long borrowed technologies developed for the high-wheel bicycle craze, which was just taking off. Bicycles were lightweight; for Long’s three-wheel wonder, a tubular steel frame and spoke wheels meant a better power-to-weight ratio and easier travel on rough dirt roads. Adult-size tricycles were safer, more comfortable, and easier to mount than high-wheel bicycles, so Long’s vehicle pointed the way toward practical, powered road transportation.
Long dismantled it when his horse-riding neighbors complained (boo! hiss!) and even though he patented the design, the Long steam tricycle was never produced again. Steam vehicle collector John Bacon reassembled the original and gave it to the Smithsonian.
I’m also crazy about the Tucker sedan (1948), made famous by the movie in which Jeff Bridges played Preston Tucker, brilliant engineer, automotive innovator and tragically awful entrepreneur.
“The First Completely New Car in Fifty Years”—that’s how Preston Tucker billed his audacious assault on Detroit in the late 1940s. He promised that his car would be fresh, advanced, and different, from its futuristic styling to its rear engine and rubber suspension. Tucker laid plans on a massive scale, hiring a design team and an executive staff, obtaining a huge assembly plant, and building a dealer network. For all of Tucker’s brashness and avant-garde outlook, his most important innovation was his obsession with safety. He insisted on a padded dashboard, obstacle-free zone for the front passenger, pop-out windshield, and turning center headlight. But he stopped short of installing seat belts, thinking that they would hurt sales.
Production of tomorrow’s car was cut short by a federal investigation of Tucker’s business practices.
There are only 46 Tucker sedans left in the world; the one in the Smithsonian collection is number 39 of 51 made. A product of a drug forfeiture, the Tucker was given to the museum by the U.S. Marshals Service in 1993.
The GM Sunraycer solar car from 1987 is also highly awesome. If the older ones weren’t so dreamy, I would be sorely tempted to vote for it. I might have to vote early and often to spread around the love.
Click here to cast your vote.