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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

November 07, 1997

Most of the automotive museums we visit are developed by enthusiasts to be viewed by other enthusiasts. The cars and trucks in these galleries are restored to pristine condition and are historical in their own right. The displays are meccas for those of us who appreciate the sensuous lines of a contemporary Ferrari or the prestigious dignity of a vintage Rolls-Royce.

But the Smithsonian Institution has its own idea of what an auto museum should be. In its National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. it has assembled a group of self-propelled road vehicles that spans more than a century and ranges from a ponderous steam-powered road tractor that carried 12 passengers at little more than a fast walk, to a 33-foot-long American dragster that can rocket from a dead stop to 300 MPH in a quarter of a mile. The purpose of the display is to trace the history of American road transportation from its humble, yet practical beginnings, to its ability to provide entertainment for spectators.

I recently spent the better part of a day in what could be called "America's Parking Garage" and have assembled thumbnail descriptions of the individual machines that are on display at the Smithsonian. I've started with the newest and worked my way back in time:

'91 CHEVROLET CORVETTE ZR-1 ENDURANCE RACER - The newest car in the Smithsonian display is the Tommy Morrison endurance racer from Albany NY. It's built from a Chevy Corvette ZR-1 and is billed as an International Motor Sports Association competitor but as far as I can tell, its career is undistinguished. After coming home, I researched it and couldn't find it in the record books. I suspect its main claim to fame is that Morrison found a way to write off an old and relatively unsuccessful race car.

'87 GENERAL MOTORS SUNRAYCER SOLAR-POWERED CAR - A decade ago, alternative sources of automotive power were headline stuff and none captured the imagination more that the prospect of driving autos powered by sunlight. The GM Sunraycer was a prime example and crossed Australia in 1988 using only the energy of the sun captured in photoelectric cells to keep its 67 batteries charged. It averaged a bit over 40 MPH during the race and later at the GM testing grounds in Mesa, Arizona, the Sunraycer hit over 75 MPH to establish a record. The enthusiasm for solar-power on the road waned as Americans got over the shock of the various oil problems and went back to facing the music at the gas pump.

'86 GARLITS/MALONE FUEL DRAGSTER - In the fast-moving world of drag racing, the Swamp Rat XXX is ancient history. Its inclusion in the Smithsonian is to demonstrating the variety of materials that were used (there were 41) and they ranged from "A" (aluminum) to "Z" (zinc) in between are such unlikely combinations as gold and Kelvar. Its 33-foot length takes up lots of floor space, but the dated video that goes with it is fun to watch.

'69 FORD LTD COUPE LOW-RIDER - This archetypal Hispanic low-rider was started in '78 by a youthful Dave Jaramillo, who dreamed of making it a prize-winner. He was killed in a road accident in another car that same year but it was finished in '79 by his widow and members of his family. Noteworthy quote of Dave Jaramillo was that "... a low-rider isn't just a car - it's a ride!" The car has won lots of awards and is on loan to the transportation display from the New Mexico "American Encounters" display in another section of museum.

'55 FORD COUNTRY SQUIRE FOUR-DOOR STATION WAGON - With fake wood sides and seating for nine, this ubiquitous and versatile V8-powered hauler exemplifies the move of the American family from the city to the suburbs. It's still shod with wide white-sidewall tires and looks like it's ready for the lady of the house to carry the then-typical neighborhood Little League team to practice during those pre-soccer years.

'50 FREIGHTLINER FIFTH-WHEEL TRACTOR - The interior of the museum is huge, but parking a full-sized fifth-wheel highway tractor must have been a chore nonetheless. Even in 1950, these long-line haulers were big and this one is equipped with the "sleeper" compartment that's so common today. The theme of this display is to point out that after World War II, the United States lost its dependency on the railroads and that thereafter manufactured goods were, for the most part, delivered to their destinations over the highways by diesel-powered tractor/trailer rigs. The bright yellow Freightliner clocked over four million miles delivering Hyster lift equipment from company plants in Oregon and Illinois before it was retired.

The end of World War II was a turning point in the history of American road transportation. Next we'll examine the rolling stock the Smithsonian considers significant from that point in time back to the first self-propelled vehicles that rolled without tracks.