Frankie Ford Finds the FUTURE or Ypsi/Ford vs. Oakland/GM

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2012,
Winter 2012
Original Images:




Author: Tom Dodd

Historical fiction based on actual mid-century events

Frankie hurried home from school on Friday to get the lawn mowed as quickly as possible. Dad said this would be a “boys’ night out,” an excursion unlike anything they had ever done before. Big Frankie worked at the Ypsi Ford plant and Little Frankie, 12, could count on one hand the men-only excursions they had shared: pheasant hunting, a Tiger baseball game, and a trip to the Auto Show at Detroit’s Convention Hall. Other family events had four Fords in attendance: Frankie, Dad, Mom and little sister Ellie.

Frankie was Franklin Roosevelt Ford and that was probably the least of his problems. He may have been “Little Frankie,” but was not “Junior.” Francis Robert Ford was called Frank or Big Frankie. Frankie and Eleanor were named for the White House occupants and, although no one in the Ford family was related to the famous Henry, it was a good name to drop when you “worked to Ford’s.” Some said that Henry Ford was not compatible with Franklin Roosevelt, but Frankie did not understand what that was all about.

The Frank Ford family often referred to their “Ford Family of Fine Cars.” Frank had been driving his 1937 Ford Tudor since before the war and was sure that, when he turned it in on a new one at war’s end, he would recoup his original seven hundred dollar investment.

A continual family rift was over the fact that Ypsi was a “Ford Town” and all Big Frankie’s siblings worked for General Motors. The contrast always gave his Oakland County brothers something to argue about.

Now, Frankie’s dad had announced he was taking his son up to Pontiac to see the famed “GM Parade of Progress.” Perhaps this enthusiastic public relations promotion of General Motors’ might help to ameliorate future family squabbles. “The Future” was certainly the theme for the day.

The passing parade:
Frankie carefully guided the lawnmower while ruminating on facts he had gleaned from newspaper stories and, in particular, a well-worn copy of Popular Mechanics magazine. GM’s “Parade” had started long before Frankie’s birth. By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, more than 12 million people had seen it. The “Parade” was warehoused during the war and was now rehabilitated and on the road again. Company loyalties and family rivalry notwithstanding, Frankie’s Dad was eager to see the “Parade” for the first time since rumors hinted it might not continue much longer.

The traveling exhibition of technology was the brainchild of Charles F. Kettering. “Boss Ket” pulled in famed auto designer Harley Earl to add visual hyperbole to his inventions of the commercial electric self-starter, Ethyl gasoline, the diesel-electrical locomotive, and more auto exotica. “You’ve got to be modernistic” seemed to be the theme of his techno-Chautauqua-on-wheels as it snaked its way across the country for nearly twenty years and both Frank Fords were eager to get on board.

Now in its third exhibition format, the 1936 “Parade” had included nine GMC and Chevrolet tractor-trailers hauling gear, tents, power generators, lamps, booths, and additional exhibits. The caravan used a stretched, air-conditioned 1936 Chevy “command car” serving as a mobile office and general field headquarters. All six GM lines––Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, LaSalle, and Cadillac––had models in the display and were traded in every 2000 miles at local dealerships along the way.

Although Big Frankie would never admit it, GM’s big PR project greatly overshadowed and drew more fans than the annual Christmas exhibit at the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn.

Post-war cars identified:
Finished with his mowing, Frankie listened for Big Frankie’s arrival from the factory on Ford Lake. He could hear the old Ford coming from a block away and knew dad would be on edge about the evening’s plans. They were going to Oakland County to stand in the heart of “enemy territory.” Frankie knew this would be difficult for dad, and wondered if there might be other motivations at foot. “You know your dad will want to talk about how the new Fords are better than what’s made up in Pontiac,” Mom said. “Try not to get them going on that.” Most of Little Frankie’s uncles started out working in Pontiac’s Oakland Auto plant right out of––or in place of––high school, and they knew that Big Frankie was a “Ford Guy” from Ypsi.

“Big Frankie works to Ford’s,” they would say in their charming never-been-much-for-school regional accents. Still, they shared one bit of automobile culture as a family trait; they loved to sit on the front porch and watch the new cars drive by. Every car had it’s own distinct styling and personality. “Desoto!” uncle Russell would shout. “Frazer!, ah, maybe a Kaiser,” pondered uncle Charlie. “Hudson and Packard!” uncle Allan hollered, as he spotted two big sedans humming down Prospect Street together. “Here comes the new Pontiac! Ain’t she a beauty?” someone would proffer, and there was great agreement among those in attendance that this GM sedan was the most gorgeous thing on four wheels. “I don’t know what they’re thinking in the front office,” someone would suggest. “Why would anyone ever want to trade in a car like that? It’s perfect just the way it is. You’d want to keep it forever.”

“I wonder who’s the genius that decided to paint that big zig-zag on the side of the Olds Ninety-Eight?” he would rant. “It looks like it’s going backwards! Don’t those college boys know anything about streamlining?

No one, of course, liked the radical design of the recent Studebakers. “You can’t tell if they’re coming or going,” they said. And the whole family would shake their heads and scowl at this non-GM creation.

Big Frankie would stifle himself on this special day just to keep peace in the family. Uncle Charlie had sent two tickets to the GM “Parade of Progress” to be displayed in the employee parking lot of the Pontiac Motor factory. Little Frankie knew the family get-together was far less important to him than seeing “Futurama,” but he would try hard to fake familial enthusiasm once they got to Uncle Charlie’s.

Getting gassed up along the old Indian trail:
Big Frankie pulled into the gravel driveway and started issuing orders: “You put Mom’s big lunch box in the back seat while I wash up and change my clothes. We’re going up Pontiac Trail and I just hope we have enough gas for the trip.” As Frankie packed, he realized he wouldn’t be sitting in back with little Ellie this time. There would not be any admonishment to “sit back in your seat or I’ll give you a swat!” For this trip, Frankie got to sit in Mom’s seat next to the driver. There would be no charges of “He’s sitting on my side” or “He’s crossing the line in the middle of the seat” on this trip. Frankie only wondered if he would be called upon to light Dad’s cigarettes for him en route.

“Now, don’t you be makin’ a lot of side trips or unscheduled stops,” Mom warned Big Frankie as he squeezed himself into the driver’s seat. “I want you boys back home and in bed at a decent hour,” she warned. “No, Mother,” he said, with an exasperated look. Frank was thinking of having to stop for repairs along the way. They might need a new fan belt, but Frank was sure they had enough gas for the trip. “We should be back well before bedtime.”

The two Franks opened all the car windows and the hood-mounted vent for more fresh air on this late-summer’s drive. Dad even put out his cigarette so they could angle the front vent windows and have the wind blow in their faces. This had to be even better than riding in a convertible, they concluded.

The Ford family knew the filling stations along this route too well. Dad avoided the one in downtown South Lyon that had too many tractors parked around the pumps, so Wixom’s Pure station was their next chance where they could get a bottle of Nesbitt’s Orange pop to share.

The next possible stop was Harvey Segnitz’s Nondenominational Gas Company in downtown Walled Lake. Harvey had his own gas hauler, making him a true independent operator. Sure, sometimes Harvey didn’t have ANY gas, but the price seemed to make it worth t stopped there since they prohibited his smoking at the gas pumps. The dirt in front of Rae’s had absorbed so much gas and oil over the years that it was an incendiary bomb just waiting to be ignited. Frank said he didn’t need to be treated like a child; he had been lighting up since he was twelve and he knew how to do it right. Frank was a self-made man, having learned to smoke all by himself.

Their last possible stop was just after Keego Harbor at the edge of the industrial metropolis. Cities Service had opened an ultra-modern all-service filling station on what was formerly the parking lot next to the Elks’ Temple, the site of the former Elk’s Carnival where most local teens saw their first almost-naked lady in the notorious burlesque tent. In an effort toward mondernization, the sawdust and weeds were replaced by four rows of electric gas pumps, covered with a single roof of fluorescent lights illuminating the entire space as bright as mid-day. This modern gas was more expensive and Big Frankie stopped here only if his gauge was touching “empty.”

Big Frankie breezed past them all and turned left at Saginaw Street to head north on the Dixie Highway. “If we went the other way,” Big Frankie said, “we could go all the way to Florida. Boy, what would your mom think of that, huh?” But we would have to find new filling stations, Frankie thought.

Chief Pontiac’s territory:
The next turn was onto Baldwin and, after just a few blocks, Little Frankie could see the smokestacks of the Pontiac plant. There it was: GM’s “Parade of Progress,” just like he had seen on the cover of Popular Mechanics.

Frankie’s dad drove right past the main entry, sticking his arm out the window to signal a right turn onto Uncle Charlie’s Ascot street. “We’ll have to park at Charlie’s house,” Big Frankie warned. “Otherwise we might get ‘keyed’.” Little Frankie knew the tradition. The talk in Ypsi was, if you didn’t drive the kind of car you were helping to build, your ‘foreign’ model could get scratched by car keys the full length of the sheet metal from front to back.

Uncle Charlie, Aunt Roxie, and Cousin Jimmy were waiting on their front porch. Uncle Charlie got the tickets because he worked at Pontiac Motor and that was particularly puzzling to Little Frankie, since he always seemed so unhappy in his work. Big Frankie’s older brother had been a tool and die maker for more than twenty years and he constantly complained about the company’s management. If he wasn’t happy about a shift change, he was mad about the changeover schedule. And, if employee policy wasn’t the focus of his rage against the company, he was always ready to criticize the designers who decided which way to divide the two-tone paint jobs that year.

Little Frankie declined to respond to the usual “you’re getting as tall as your daddy––they won’t be calling you ‘Little Frankie’ much longer.” The only thing Little Frankie wanted to see was the “Futurliners” that were parked in the big lot at the end of the street.

At long last, the family moved to the sidewalk and started toward the plant. Little Frankie and Cousin Jimmy were at the front of the parade and the first to see the GM exhibit.

Monster trucks congregate:
From outside the exhibition grounds, the noble “Futurliners” resembled a herd of mechanical bison grazing on asphalt. Frankie was in love!

Long red, white, and silver banners waved from tall poles installed along the chain link fence guiding a steadily moving crowd toward the entrance. Even at that distance, Frankie could see that GM’s college boys had not parked the “Futurliners” side-by-side as seen in previews but had formed a large semi-circle of ten of the big trucks opening to the front of the assembly plant. The self-contained exhibits opened toward the factory and the telescoping tent truck was lost somewhere inside the Aer-O-Dome tent it had morphed into. Frankie wondered about the twelfth “Futurliner” described in press releases but figured it was either off on an errand or he might have counted wrong.

The “Futurliners” did not disappoint. The white-graveled grounds were spotlessly clean, and the afternoon sun was casting a golden glow on the big silver “GM” plaques. This was a magical day even if your name was “Ford.” New exhibits in this third iteration of the GM “Parade” included jet propulsion, the atmosphere, the atom, stereophonic sound, and metal-powder forming, along with rehabilitated exhibits from previous years. There were many aluminum, chrome, and glass mechanical presentations to be seen.

With all the attention given to the exhibits folding out of the futuristic haulers, Frankie found his attention drawn mostly to the haulers themselves. For one thing, they were bigger and brighter than he had expected from the magazine photos.

GM Truck and Fisher Coach and Body had built twelve of these models in 1940, then overhauled them in 1953. They stood 11 feet, 7 inches high and were 8 feet wide. From his seat in the top, the driver must have blinked more than once when approaching an overpass. Each unit weighed 30,000 pounds and carried 90 gallons of gasoline, with a top speed of 40 miles per hour. No mention was made of gas mileage.

But Frankie didn’t care for any of those statistics. It was the exterior design that fascinated him. “Why, you could live in that thing,” he would later tell his buddies back in Ypsi. “Just cut a few portholes into the side and you’d have the coolest wheels around. And the driver’s seat is way up on top, right in the middle. There are two passenger seats behind it.” All the questions he harbored from the magazine story were now answered by his in-person examination.

The entry doors were hidden in the front corners next to the headlights, he discovered. And there were four wheels in front and four in back - all with the biggest white-wall tires he had ever seen. Frankie paced-off the length of one of the “liners” and figured he had gotten his money’s worth out of those free tickets to the future.

The Big Talk:
On the way home, Frankie was beginning to nod off to sleep when he felt the Ford pull over to the side of the road near New Hudson. Frankie wondered if this might be the car-trouble they had worried about. Big Frankie turned to his sleepy son with a serious expression and said, “Frankie, I just want take this time for us to have a little conversation between father and son.”

Oh, oh, thought Frankie. This must be The Big Talk he had heard about from his buddies in the neighborhood. “Son,” Big Frankie said, “I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately, and I just want you to know what I think is best for your future...” Little Frankie stared through the windshield withe risk of running dry.

At the end of Pontiac Trail at Orchard Lake Road was George Rea’s Standard Service, but Big Frankie had not a look of equally serious consternation. “Sure, Dad? What is it?” “Frankie,” Dad said, “I want you to consider going into ENGINEERING.”

Where are they now?
Sixty years later, Frankie saw a forlorn “Futurliner” #10 rusting away behind the Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Since then, it has been sold and moved back to Michigan. The restoration took place in Zeeland, Michigan over six years and thousands of working-hours. Wyrick Co., along with Montana Paints, matched the original colors and provided the paint and supplies to get the vehicle back into its finest orignal form. Today, “Futurliner” #10 can be seen traveling to car shows all around the country.

When GM shut down their “Parade” in 1956, two “Futurliners” went to the Michigan State Police to be [continued overleaf] called “Safetyliners.” One was purchased by Oral Roberts for his evangelical crusades and is now suspected to be in Central or South America.

According to auto historians, nine “Futurliners” have been found and documented with history. Of the 12, one was wrecked (considered totaled) during the 1956 parade year and was not replaced. “Futurliner” #11 sold for a record US $4 million (plus premium) in January 2006 at a Barrett-Jackson auction in Arizona. Too large to ship, it was driven to its new home in Chandler.

“Futurliner” #10 is believed to be the most accurately restored of all of the originals.

In the summer of 2008, “Futurliner” #8 was delivered to its new home in Sweden where the new owner plans to restore it over a 10-year period. It’s the first and only “Futurliner” in Europe.

Of the other six known surviving “Futurliners,” one is used as a motor home and another in advertising. Two “liners” are in process of restoration in Maine and California. Another in California is for sale in original condition. Two are diagnosed as beyond restoration and in storage. There are still two “Futurliners” unaccounted for.

Big Frankie is gone now but, if he could see his son’s drawings of the “Futurliners,” he’d probably be quite proud of his son, the cartoonist. Little Frankie never became an engineer.

[Tom Dodd is a frequent contributor to the GLEANINGS. He grew up in Oakland County, but now lives in Ypsilanti and drives Fords. All the aunts and uncles in the story are real; most of the “Frankies” were Oakland County cousins and some of them became engineers.]

SIDEBAR:

GM 1953 press release
(To be read in the stentorian tones
of radio announcer Lowell Thomas)

General Motors’ Parade of Progress is on the road again dramatizing the vital role of science in American life ... “presenting,” as Harlow H. Curtice, president of General Motors put it, “a picture of America on the move toward better lives for all of us.”

The new and exciting 1953 version of the Parade is an ultra-modern presentation, high-lighting the enormous progress the country has made in recent years. Visitors, for example, will hear the scratchy reception of the radio of 1925 as compared to modern high-fidelity microwave transmission - will watch a tiny jet plane swoosh across the stage and take a fanciful flight into outer space.

Most of the Parade’s exhibits are contained in the 12 “Futurliners.” These special, 33-foot long, streamlined coaches have 16-foot side panels that open to form stages and exhibit areas. The Futurliners contain some two dozen major exhibits. They range from a demonstration that covers refrigeration and insulation, to “Power for the Air Age,” the jet engine story.

The Parade’s stage show is presented in the aluminum and canvas Aerodome. Here is presented a show of achievements in such fields as electronics, aviation and chemistry. And it’s all free - no admission charge.

A crew of about 60 men, mostly young college graduates, operates the Parade. The men not only are lecturers and showmen; they also drive the vehicles, put up the tents and do the other necessary jobs.

The history of the Parade goes back to 1936. Sparked by GM’s famed scientist, Charles F. Kettering, the Parade took to the road in Miami, FL, and from then until Pearl Harbor in 1941, it played before more than 12-1/2 million people in 251 cities. It is planned to keep the new Parade rolling across the U.S. almost continuously all year long.


Photo Captions:

1. Local lore has it that the Ford family rented this house on Ford Boulevard to be near the Ford factory

2. 1937 Ford Tudor

3. 1953 Parade of Progress rolls past GM’s world headquarters in Detroit

4. ‘50s Studebaker Champion’s rear windsheld. The car’s front design was more “rocket-like”

5. 1937 Ford Tudor interior amenities
1. open vent window
2. windshield wiper
3. optional clock & radio
4. gear shift
5. compartment for gloves
6. window crank
7. door handle
8. door lock

6. Harvey Segnitz’s Nondenominational Filling Station in Walled Lake

7. From the family album, 1920 - when we were still Mennonites
Left to right: Grandpa Ford, Uncle Russell, Uncle Clare, Grandma Yoder Ford, Aunt Roxie, Aunt Vera, Francis (Big Frankie), Uncle Freddie, Uncle Alan, Great-Aunt Mary Yoder who was never married or anything

8. Aer-O-Dome tent show with “Futurliners” rampant

9. A thoroughly modern 1953 GM “Futurliner”

10. MSP’s “Safetyliners”

11. Oral Roberts’ “Cathedraliner”

12. #10 before resto in Ft. Wayne, IN museum lot

13. #10 restored and wide open