Thursday, January 26, 2012

It takes a woman ...

A cold hard rain pounded Mary Anderson (pictured, left) and a blustery gale whipped her skirt as she boarded a New York streetcar on a bitter, sleety day in November, 1903. She shook her overcoat and settled into her seat, but an icy breeze wrapped itself around her ankles. Mary looked to the front of the car and saw the shivering driver had his window open. In fact, he was looking out the window as he drove, since the pelting rain had completely obscured his windshield.

It only took Mary a couple of months to invent a contraption that consisted of a lever with a rubber blade, that could move across the windshield to clean it. And that was the forerunner of today’s windshield wiper.

But women weren’t just finding solutions to dirty windshields. In 1923, the U.S. Women’s Bureau Bulletin No. 28 listed 345 inventions by women – and half were related to automobiles. Another 25 related to traffic signals, turn indicators, a carburetor, clutch mechanism, electric engine starter and starting mechanism.

So how did the car industry develop a reputation for being male-dominated? In the early 1900s, women seemed to be all over it. In 1917, Charlotte Bridgwood refined the windshield wiper into an electrically driven system that used rollers instead of blades. This eventually evolved into the automatic windshield wipers that are standard equipment on cars all over the world.

Charlotte’s daughter, Florence Lawrence went on to become a film star and an auto enthusiast who once said, “A car to me is something that is almost human, something that responds to kindness, understanding and care, just as people do.”

Florence carried on her mother’s work, since the automobile could stand some improvements. She placed an arm on the rear fender which could be activated to ascend or descend by push-buttons located by the driver’s seat – so drivers could signal their intention to turn right or left. Florence also created a mechanism that indicated a full stop, activated by stepping on the footbrake.

As early as 1916, the Girl Scouts had an “automobiling badge” for which girls had to demonstrate driving skill, auto mechanics and first aid skills.

Have we been going backwards? Helene Rother was a French jewellery designer who fled the Nazis in 1942 and came to America. She was the first woman to work as an automotive designer, as a staff member of the interior styling team of General Motors in Detroit. In 1947, Helene opened her own design studio, specializing in design for automotive interiors.

So when were the terms “chick car” and “lady driver” coined, and how did they come by their derogatory meaning? Why are women deemed to be outsiders in the car world? Even Henry Ford – although he did not approve of married women working outside the home – considered his female employees on a par with their male counterparts, and made a point of paying them the same as men. How rare is that these days?

Sadly, these days, woman auto mechanics are still a novelty. And that would not be welcome knowledge to Wilma Russey, who in 1915, became the first woman to work as a taxi driver in New York – and was known to be an expert mechanic.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Let's play "Car Dealer"!

Cue music – theme from Jaws
Fade in to scene:

A large and airy car showroom. The floors and walls are blindingly white. Brightly coloured, shiny cars are scattered around like gleaming candy. Seth Rogen, complete with geeky spectacles, stumbles in and looks around him in wonder.

On the side, a shadow fills a doorway and Charlie Sheen steps into view. He is wearing a loud checkered suit and has slicked back hair.

Sheen (in a booming voice): Can I help you!

Rogen (timidly): I’d like to buy a car? I need something practical – my wife just told me she’s pregnant.

Sheen wraps his arm around Rogen’s shoulders.

Sheen: It’s your lucky day! Just got in a brand new Ferrari – you can drive it away for only $100,000!

Yes, we exaggerate, but this is the picture painted by many car consumers. Dealers are portrayed as “sharks”, who want to make a quick sale – and will do anything to sell a car. Car buyers say it’s like stepping into a boxing ring. But what do the car dealers have to say about it? After all, there are two sides to every story.

Cue music – theme from Psycho
Fade in to scene:

A small and tidy car showroom. The floors and walls are clean but could use a little paint.  Cars in all colours of the rainbow are neatly arranged by size and shape to make best use of the space.

At the front entrance, a shadow fills the doorway. John Malkovich strides in, looking at his watch.

Malkovich (impatiently): Hey! Anyone home? I’m looking for some service.

Ryan Reynolds runs in, wearing a shabby shirt and tie, and towelling off his hands.

Reynolds: Yes, sir. I was just cleaning up the garage. How can I help you?

Malkovich: I want a car. It has to be sexy and reliable. I have three kids and they all have to sit separately. Plus a dog and a mother-in-law. And it has to be good on gas with new tires and a set of snows. Oh, and I can only spend $1,500.

Far-fetched? Well, car consumers can be guilty of expecting the impossible – and they don’t do their homework. Before anyone sets foot in a dealership, they should do a reality check on their budget and research some viable options.

Really, there’s no need for the car buying process to be adversarial. Ontario (and other provinces) has a Motor Vehicle Dealer Acthat sets out the rules for car dealers. The Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC)  administers the Act and ensures compliance. Car buyers can find protection, assistance and information through resources like Car Help Canada as well as Consumer Reports, the Lemon-Aid books, and a host of weekly car sections in all of Canada’s major media.

And you might even be able to find a Ferrari for under $20,000 if you look around the internet. It’s the car consumer’s best friend. Both Sir Frances Bacon and the official Google blog say, “Knowledge is power.” Use it … wisely.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hitler's Jewish car connections

This adorable little Jewish girl unknowingly lent her moniker to a car prized by one of history’s most despicable despots – Adolf Hitler.

Yes, that little girl’s name was Mercedes, and her grandfather was ironically also named Adolf - Jellinek. However, grandfather Adolf/Aaron Jellinek was a highly respected Austrian rabbi and scholar. Mercedes’ father, Emil Jellinek, must have caused his father some grief in the early days – he dropped out of several schools, was a practical joker, and got booted from a railway job for wrangling train races at night.

All of which would make him a seemingly perfect candidate for the car industry. These days, Emil would likely be driving a Koenigsegg and dating Kim Kardashian. Back then, he became a diplomat and dallied in the insurance business and stock market, where he made a lot of money and picked up a penchant for fast cars. By then Emil had married and his darling Mercedes had been born. Since he was partying with the rich and famous, it was only natural for Emil to start selling cars to his wealthy bon vivants. Stationed in France, on the Riviera, the only stumbling block to Emil’s burgeoning car sales was the distaste his French clientele had for the Germanic name Daimler. And so he anointed the car with his beloved daughter’s name – and the rest is history.

One can’t help but wonder if Hitler would have saluted quite so proudly in his 770K Mercedes parade car if he knew the provenance of its name?

He might have felt as he did about the Jew behind the Volkswagen Beetle – a fellow by the name of Josef Ganz. In the 1920s and 1930s, Ganz was a respected engineer who worked for Mercedes and BMW, and schmoozed with the likes of Ferdinand Porsche and Hans Ledwinka, both of whom have been credited with inventing Hitler’s little “people’s car”. Ganz was the editor of a motoring magazine and wrote about the need for an affordable car which could be accessible to everyone. He even called it a “volkswagen”!

A few car companies took interest in Ganz’ ideas and designs and some prototypes were produced. In 1933, a company called Standard Fabrik produced and sold the Standard Superior Volkswagen, debuted at the 1933 Berlin auto show. And that’s where Adolf Hitler saw it. He was a fan of the car - but not of the Jewish Ganz. Once Hitler set the Gestapo on Ganz, it took only a year for poor Josef to flee the country in fear for his life. He spent the rest of his life fighting to get the record straight – it’s a fantastic story, documented in a book recently translated into English “The Thrilling Life of Josef Ganz”.

People’s car, indeed ...

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year's resolutions for the King 504 streetcar

While it was most thoughtful and kind of the TTC to provide free service on New Year’s Eve, within a few scant hours the Better Way was back to business – and riders were slapped with a ten cent fare hike. 
What’s the extra dime for? Apparently, just to maintain the status quo.  We interpret this as meaning some semblance of service. And so here are a few New Year’s resolutions for my good friend, the King 504 streetcar:

I will at least TRY to arrive on time.

I will not arrive in bunches of two or three or more, like a gang of chicks going to the can.

I will not short-turn at the last minute at Gerrard or York Street, especially in the freezing rain or sweltering heat.

I will not pull away from a panicky passenger who has just risked their life by sprinting across a busy intersection. No, I will wait for ALL my passengers to board before I shut my doors – just as many of them wait for moi.

I will avoid being on the road, yet curiously “Not In Service”. That’s just mean.

I will co-operate and play nice with apps such as Rocket Radar and TTC Navigator and not make them look like idiots.

When potential users get sick of waiting for me and decide to walk or take a cab, I will not finally glide by with a smirk on my headlights.

If riders are waiting for a delayed eastbound 504, the westbound 504 will not tease them by arriving just across the street … over and over and over again. And vice versa.

As difficult as it is to admit, I am NOT Harry Potter’s Knight Bus. Muggles can ride, and don’t need to wave a magic wand. Obstacles will not jump out of my way.

If I break any of these resolutions, I will remember that I can be replaced by a ridiculous gondola.