Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hot Cars in the Coldest Month

     The Sun-Times has been producing an occasional magazine to enhance our Sunday paper. In December, they asked me to write about manufacturing in Illinois, and today's edition includes an attractive publication about Chicago and cars, to mark the start of the Chicago Auto Show.
     I was happy to write this piece about 126 years of automobiles being shown off in Chicago, and another about our love for cars, which I'll post here Tuesday. But if you can, try to pick up Sunday's physical paper, because the special section has a lot more than just me in it: Richard Roeper on the Tucker Torpedo which, betcha didn't know, was manufactured in Chicago during its brief, memorable existence, as well as issue editor Ryan Smith on auto racing, driverless cars, local car collections, tons of photographs, and much more.

     In a jab at the “White City,” the faux Roman splendor of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition that disgusted modernists at Adler & Sullivan, the architects painted their Transportation Building orange, with a yellow arched entrance dubbed "The Golden Door."
     Through that door were 17 acres of 19th century America in motion: huge locomotives and street cars, handcars and sail cars, wagons and harnesses. Studebaker of Chicago showed off their latest buggies. Models of ocean steamers and famous bridges were on display, as well as historic modes of transportation from sleighs to sedan chairs.  

     And tucked in a corner, almost entirely ignored, a delicate Daimler quadricycle: the first four-wheeled, gasoline-powered automobile on public display in the United States. Along with it, a second car, an electric.
     The opening note in a century-and-a-quarter symphony that would, in the 20th century become as distinctly Chicago as deep dish pizza, the Blues or skyscrapers: the Chicago Auto Show.
     A constantly-changing car circus that almost defies description, a burst of summery sparkle and hot horsepower in the middle of dreary, frozen winter, the Chicago Auto Show draws millions downtown to ogle thousands of cars — from economy boxes like the first 2-cylinder Honda to a Packard with a V-16 engine. From steam-driven cars to a concept car to be powered by an nuclear reactor.

     Nor have cars been the only draw. Into the mix, a dizzying cast of leggy models, athletes, movie stars, TV actors and race car drivers. Knute Rockne and Ronald Reagan and Oprah. Revolving turntables, flashing lights, blaring music, surging crowds, and the occasional out-of-left-field non-automotive technological development, like television, which RCA Victor showed off at the 1939 show.
     Chicago's "First Annual National Automobile Exhibit" was held March 23-30 in 1901 at the Coliseum, a former Civil War prison at Michigan Avenue and 15th Street. Tickets were 50 cents. The cars on display were primitive; none had a steering wheel. They were steered with a tiller; steering wheels wouldn't become popular for a few more years. Many were electric, or steam-powered. A wooden, 1/10 mile track ringed the exhibition hall. Visitors taken for a spin were usually riding in a car for the first time, though the track was really intended to show potential dealers that the vehicles actually worked.
     By the second show, the track was gone, a victim of the show's success; an increasing numbers of vehicles meant there wasn't room for it.

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