Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tom McCahill - Voice of M.I.

When I was a boy, my father looked forward every month to receiving his new copy of Mechanix Illustrated (MI). One of his favorite parts of the magazines were the articles written by Tom McCahill, aka “Uncle Tom.” When my father died, I inherited all of his old issues, dating back to the 1940s. And, I decided to do a little checking on Uncle Tom and see what he was all about. Here’s what I found. The following is primarily edited copy from Wikipedia.

Thomas Jay McCahill III (1907-1975) was an automotive journalist, born the grandson of a wealthy attorney in Larchmont, New York. McCahill graduated from Yale University with a degree in fine arts. He is credited with, amongst other things, the creation of the "0 to 60" acceleration measurement now universally accepted in automotive testing.
He became a salesman for Marmon and in the mid-1930s operated dealerships in Manhattan and Palm Springs, featuring Rolls Royce, Jaguar and other high-line luxury cars. The depression and his father's alcoholism wiped out his family's fortune.

Journalist and Automobile Critic

After graduating from Yale, McCahill managed and later owned Murray's Garage in New York City. During the war he wrote articles on a variety of subjects for magazines such as Popular Science, Reader's Digest and Mechanix Illustrated Magazine ("M.I."). Hitting on the idea that an auto-starved post-wartime public might be interested in articles on new cars, he sold the concept to M.I. in February 1946, first reporting on his own 1946 Ford. His opinions were fearless and this endeared him to some in the automotive world but created enemies too. Ever the sportsman- at six foot two and 250 pounds- he once fought off goons hired by (as is was believed at the time) General Motors. It is alleged that he sent two to hospital and the third running.

McCahill was a personal friend of Walter P. Chrysler and appreciated the handling and performance characteristics of Chrysler Corporation cars in the late 1950s and 1960s, which included many advanced engineering features such as front torsion-bar suspensions (combined with rear multi-leaf springs) for flatter cornering, powerful V8 engine options across the board and positive-shifting three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmissions. In a 1959 road test of the Plymouth Sport Fury (which he referred to as the "Sports Fury"), he claimed that the torsion bar suspensions were the finest in America. Few European sedans, said McCahill, could match the handling performance of the Plymouth.

On many of his earlier road tests, his wife Cynthia would accompany him as his photographer and almost always his black Labrador Retriever, "Boji." His later assistant was a professional driver and photographer Jim McMicheal, who was photographed sitting - or lying - in the trunk of every make tested and was known as "the trunk tester."

McCahill frequently used extreme metaphors and similes in his prose. For example, in M.I. he described the AC Cobra as "hairier than a Borneo gorilla in a raccoon suit". (McCahill was apparently unconcerned about the fact that there aren't any gorillas in Borneo). He proclaimed the ride of a 1957 Pontiac to be as "smooth as a prom queen's thighs".


McCahill reported in detail on every car imported to the U.S. during the early 1950s, all the while ridiculing the U.S. automakers for their excesses, including soft suspensions ("Jello suspensions" as he referred to them) and poor handling qualities. An example is provided by one of the first road tests of the 1958 Edsel in the September 1957 issue of M.I.: McCahill criticized the standard suspension as being too "horsey-back" and strongly recommended that Edsel buyers "pony up" a few extra bucks for the optional, heavy-duty (i.e. export) suspension package, which included heavier springs and shocks. He went so far as to tell his readers that "I wouldn't own one except with the export kit; without stiffer suspension, a car with so much performance (his test car had the 345-horsepower, 410 cubic-inch V8) could prove similar to opening a Christmas basket full of King Cobras in a small room with the lights out".

McCahill was in favour of lifting the Automobile Manufacturer's Association ban on factory backed stock car racing that was agreed upon by GM, Ford and Chrysler in June 1957 - however manufacturers continued under-the-table efforts to provide performance parts and engines to racing teams or performance-car enthusiasts. McCahill chose to live in Florida as its climate permitted owning such cars as his Jaguar sedan, as corrosion problems inherent with this type of car would have been compounded by the Eastern climate.

On The Chevrolet Corvair

McCahill conducted and reported on the first road test of the Corvair in 1959. In the presence of Zora Arkus-Duntov, chief Engineer of the Corvair project, McCahill ran the car at speed on the G.M. testing grounds. McCahill reported that he was pleased with the handling characteristics and that the Corvair handled better than the 1959 Porsche. This flies in the face of later findings by Ralph Nader.

Favorite vehicles

In the 600 road tests he performed and reported on, his favorite cars were the 1953 Bentley Continental and the 1957-62 Chrysler Imperial, each model year of which he owned as his personal vehicles.

In 1950 he purchased a new Ford and proceeded to acquire the assistance of Andy Granatelli in "hopping it up" by switching to high-performance heads and manifolding. He then tested the car extensively and noticed a 90 mile an hour cruising speed. The car became known as the "M.I. Ford" as it was frequently featured in the Magazine.

The wise and considerate McCahill de-tuned the car before selling it with 32.000 miles. The fear of mechanical failure at speed concerned McCahill with the safety of any future owner. He purchased a new 1952 Cadillac Series 62 sedan which he eventually raced in NASCAR speed week events. He also purchased new and reported on the '54 Jeep CJ3A, stating that while his Lincoln was the finest road car available at the time, in the end, the Jeep was the best idea that mankind had ever made. He claimed it would outrun a contemporary M.G.

Sounding Off

In a 1958 M.I. article McCahill accused the U.S. Auto Industry of causing the recession and poor auto sales of 1958 by standardizing styling and eliminating factory- or factory-sanctioned racing. He focused on AMC's George Romney, who claimed that the Rambler handled better than U.S. full-size makes. McCahill performed tests to prove him wrong.

He was at odds with Walter Reuther of the U.A.W. over the issue of poor quality in U.S. cars and the fact that European imports - at the time SAAB and Volvo in particular - were of high quality, outstanding performers and no more costly than a good used car for those who could not afford a new domestic car. McCahill railed against unfair trade with Canada and Europe. He demanded that the U.S. stop accepting imports and, in lieu of war reparations, force England, Canada and France (where one could purchase an English or German car, but no U.S. makes) to accept the forced sale of hundreds of thousands of used U.S. cars, a plan which he claimed would increase the sale of new vehicles by more than six million annually over the following five years, thus significantly accelerating the U.S. economy.

McCahill had become Mechanics Illustrated public face, and the industry quickly realized that his review could make or break a product instantly. When he tested the 1948 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 powered by a flat-head eight-cylinder engine of prewar design, he claimed that depressing the accelerator was like "Stepping on a wet sponge". General Motors was incensed over his review of the '48 Olds and scores of angry letters from the corporation, as well as from Olds dealers and owners, came into to MI's 'office demanding his firing.

However, it was widely known that McCahill's report motivated GM into development of Oldsmobile's new overhead-valve, high-compression "Rocket V8" engine, which made its début the following year in the 1949 "98." The format of the engine was filtered down to the smaller and lighter body/chassis used for Oldsmobile's lowest-price "76" series (powered by six-cylinder engines) and to create the Olds "Rocket 88." The Rocket V8 performed even better than in the bigger and heavier 98, thereby creating a whole new image for Olds and set the stage for similar designed V8 engines throughout Detroit over the next few years.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Hula Hoop Craze

It was a fad of the 50s. And most Baby Boomers remember them well. In fact, most of us had one, or more. I remember well the evening my family went out to buy three of them. One each for my two sisters. And one for me.

Being younger than I was, neither of my sisters was very in tune with what was cool. And they were perfectly happy to settle for a big, fat, hot pink, or electric blue plastic version. Since I was so much cooler than they were, I wasn’t going to settle for a run-of-the-mill pastic one. I had my sights set higher — stainless steel, and only about a half inch in diameter. Thin and sleek.

Of course, I didn’t take into account how un-cool I was going to look swinging my bony hips around to try to keep the thing going. But my mind was made up. And my parents must have driven to at least a dozen stores before we found one. And I was happy at last. Spoiled, but happy.

We didn't think to ask, and we weren't really concerned with where the things came from. But now that we're older, we want to know. The whole hula hoop craze actually began way back in 1957. And it didn’t actually start in this country.

It started in Australia, where Coles department store sold hoops made of bamboo. Unfortunately, the demand outpaced their supplier’s ability to keep up with the orders.

Enter Alex Tolmer, the founder of Toltoys. His company began manufacturing them from plastic, and sold 400,000 of them in 1957. They were marketed in the U.S. in 1958 by Melin and Knerr of Wham-O. They sold 100 million of them that summer. But by October of that year, the craze suddenly died. (I wonder who made the stainless steel beauty I owned.)

After the fad ran its course, another one began. Wham-O hit the jackpot again when they introduced America to the Frisbee. But that’s another story for another time.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tom and Jerry

Nope. We're not talking about the stars of Hanna Barbera from the 60s. Although that's going on my list as the topic for a future post.

This is a different pair. They are an American singer-songwriter duo consisting of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. They formed the group Tom & Jerry in 1957, and had their first taste of success with the minor hit "Hey, Schoolgirl". As Simon & Garfunkel, the duo rose to fame in 1965, backed by the hit single "The Sounds of Silence". Their music was featured in the landmark film The Graduate, propelling them further into the public consciousness.

They are well known for their close vocal harmonies and sometimes unstable relationship. Their last album, Bridge over Troubled Water, was delayed several times due to artistic disagreements. They were among the most popular recording artists of the 1960s; among their biggest hits, in addition to "The Sounds of Silence", were "I Am a Rock", "Homeward Bound", "A Hazy Shade of Winter", "Mrs. Robinson", "Bridge over Troubled Water", "The Boxer", "Cecilia", and "Scarborough Fair/Canticle". They have received several Grammys and are inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (2007). They have reunited on several occasions since their 1970 breakup, most famously for 1981's The Concert in Central Park, which attracted about 500,000 people.

Take a moment and listen to their first hit. It's on the right sidebar. Just click on it and step back in time a few years. It sounds nothing like their final signature sound.

Thanks to Wikipedia for providing the bulk of the information above. And a big thank you to my sister in Peabody, Kansas, for the phone call that started the whole thing. If you'd like to read more CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why did they call it PEZ?

It's nowhere near Christmas, but I just remembered something. Every year at Christmas, my sisters and I usually received a PEZ dispenser with several of those cute little rectangular packages containing the PEZ pellets.

Maybe you received them, too. Or maybe you're planning on getting one for your children or grandchildren this year for Christmas. They make a pretty cool stocking stuffer. But have you ever wondered how they came up with that name?

As a kid you probably thought it was just called PEZ because that’s what it looked like and that's what it was. That’s what I thought, too. But now that we’ve gotten older we're beginning to wonder about things like that. At least I am.

So here’s everything I know about PEZ, so far.

The word "PEZ" is derived from the German word for peppermint — phefferminz. If you take the first, middle, and last letters of PheffErminZ, you get PEZ. And that’s where it came from, thanks to an Austrian candy maker named Edward Haas III. Originally the new peppermint candy was supposed to be an adult breath mint to be sold as an alternative for smoking. In 1947, Haas Food Manufacturing Corporation of Vienna began selling the brick-shaped candies in pocket tins. And in 1948, they came out with the dispenser that we all recognize now to be a regular PEZ dispenser.

In 1952, Ed brought his business to America. After some extensive research he decided to place heads on the dispensers and market them to children. That same year the first fruit flavored Pez was introduced along with the first Pez dispensers with character heads on them. The first flavors of Pez included cherry, lemon, orange and strawberry, and it’s believed that our friend Popeye was the first character to find his head on the top of a PEZ dispenser.

Several Disney characters were also among the first to appear. The top selling dispensers of all time are Mickey Mouse, Santa, and Dino the Dinosaur, from the Flintstones.

Many people collect the dispensers today because of the variety and rarity. But some of them are much more expensive than they were new. For example, a Locking Cap, Box Trademark Regular sold on eBay in March 2002 for $6,575. (What?)

I have had experience with PEZ, as I’m sure most of you have. Okay, not recently, although writing this is making me want to rush over to WalMart and buy me one of those dispensers. But was it just me, or did anyone else have difficulty getting that little stack of bricks into the dispenser without spilling them? It just reminds me of Ralphie Parker trying to pour those BBs into his Official Red Ryder 200-shot carbine action range model air rifle (With a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.) (They go everywhere, his dad told him.)

So, if you’re looking for something to collect, this might be your thing.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Sea Monkey Craze

Does this ad look familiar? Many ads similar to this one appeared in the comic books back in the fifites? Well, I certainly remember it. In fact, I actually ordered a package of them. And, like many other American kids of that era, I was sorely disappointed when I discovered that they didn't look anything like monkeys.

Sea Monkeys were first marketed in 1957 by Harold von Braunhut as Instant Life, though Braunhut changed the name to "Sea-Monkeys" on May 10, 1962. The name "Sea-Monkeys" was chosen because of their playful behaviour. Braunhut is also the inventor of X-Ray glasses.

For many years, they were known for their exaggerated advertisements and packaging, which featured smiling anthropomorphic creatures who bore little resemblance to their true appearance. Underneath these pictures, which appeared on large numbers in comic books during the 1970s, was a disclaimer that stated, "Caricatures shown not intended to depict Artemia." The present disclaimer on the package states, "Illustration is fanciful, does not depict Artemia nyos."

Sea Monkeys were bred for their larger size and longer lifespan, making them more suitable as pets than the original breed of brine shrimp. The U.S. Patent 3,673,986 granted in 1972 describes this as "hatching brine shrimp or similar crustaceans in tap water to give the appearance of instantaneous hatching."

Other companies have distributed pets/toys along the Sea-Monkey model, including one by Wham-O, and "The Swarm", a product from Dr. Jordan's Formulae. In the late 1970s to early 1980s, sachets of "Sea Monsters" were sold in 25-cent gumball machines at A&P supermarkets. When added to water, the packet's contents provided the eggs, salt and nutrients to hatch the brine shrimp.

More recently, an Australian company, Little Aussie Products, has marketed "Itsy Bitsy Sea Dragons", with a different brine shrimp species.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Before American Idol

The television program that would eventually become The Original Amateur Hour, and would spawn such modern programs as Star Search and American Idol, actually began in 1934 as a radio show called Major Bowes' Amateur Hour.

Bowes's field assistant was Ted Mack, who scouted and auditioned talent for the program. After Bowes left the show in 1945 (and died the following year) Mack brought the show back in 1948 on ABC radio, where it ran until 1952.

The television debut came on January 18, 1948 on the DuMont Television Network with Mack as the host.
The format was almost always the same. At the beginning of the show, the talent's order of appearance was determined by spinning a wheel. As the wheel spun, the words "Round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows" were always intoned.

Various acts, sometimes singers or other musicians, quite often vaudeville fare such as jugglers, tap dancers, baton twirlers, and the like, would perform, with the audience being asked to vote for their favorites by postcard or telephone. The winners were invited to appear on the next week's show. Three-time winners were eligible for the annual championship, with the grand-prize winner receiving a $2000 scholarship.

Some contestants became minor celebrities at the time, but few ever became really big show-business stars. The two greatest successes of the show's television era were Gladys Knight, then only a child, and Pat Boone, singing sweet ballads or occasional "covers" of songs which had been written and recorded by black artists which were then largely unknown to the show's predominantly white audience.

In fact, Boone's appearances on the show probably caused the closest thing that it ever had to a scandal. After he had appeared, and won, for several weeks, it was revealed that he had appeared on the popular CBS Television show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, meaning that he was technically not an "amateur" singer. He was removed from the program, but by then his fame was assured. Other future celebrities discovered on the show include Ann-Margret (in 1958) and Irene Cara (in 1967).

The greatest fame attained by anyone appearing on the show was that achieved by Frank Sinatra, who appeared on the show during its radio days with "The Hoboken Four". As the years went by, the audience for this program aged as well; the best proof of this was that the CBS Sunday -afternoon version of the 1960s was invariably sponsored by Geritol and other patent medicines.
Here's some more info about Geritol you might find interesting.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Quiz Show Scandal...

Perhaps no other figure involved in the TV quiz shows of the 50s had a more meteoric rise and fall than Charles Van Doren, a Columbia English professor who became a celebrated winner on "Twenty-One."

Only 30 years old when he first appeared on the program, Van Doren came from a family of intellectual achievers. Charles’ father was the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mark Van Doren. His mother, Dorothy Van Doren, was a novelist and writer.

As a professor of English at Columbia University, Van Doren earned an annual salary of $4,400. A friend, who had appeared on "Tic Tac Dough," told him of the money to be made from quiz shows. Van Doren applied. At that time, producers for the quiz show "Twenty-One" were looking for ways to bolster faltering ratings. In Van Doren, a charming and very presentable academic with name recognition, producers saw the kind of attractive winner who could popularize the show.

Producers scripted the program so that Van Doren and Stempel would have a string of ties to build the drama for Van Doren’s eventual victory. The clean-cut Van Doren, playing his part to perfection, became the new champion of "Twenty-One."

Ratings for the show began to rise. In mid-January of 1957, Van Doren went on a streak that earned him $90,000. He crossed the $100,000 mark by outscoring a former college president, Edgar Cummings. Van Doren, fed with answers and coached on how to act during the show, appeared to television audiences to know about topics as diverse as George Washington and Broadway musicals.

By the evening of February 11, Van Doren had amassed a staggering $138,000. The second challenger that evening was Vivienne Nearing, a lawyer, whose husband Victor had lost to Van Doren in January. Nearing and Van Doren tied that evening and two more times, but in their fourth contest, Nearing beat Van Doren.

Although his reign on national television had ended, Van Doren was still a sought-after television commodity. In April of 1957, the quiz show celebrity signed a $150,000 three-year contract with NBC, which committed him to appearances as a guest on Steve Allen’s show, a guest host on the "Today Show," and a panelist on NBC radio’s "Conversations."

When the quiz show scandals broke, Van Doren repeatedly asserted his innocence, repeating the lie to his lawyer, the district attorney, and even to the grand jury. Van Doren told the press: "It’s silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows."

Van Doren went so far as to offer to appear in front of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, which was investigating the quiz-show scandal, to assert his innocence. Calling his bluff, the committee subpoenaed him.

Van Doren finally confessed. "I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception," Van Doren told the committee on November 2, 1959. "I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them." Van Doren asserted that producer Albert Freedman had persuaded him to participate in the deception by saying that quiz shows were entertainment and that fixing was a common practice. However, the argument that apparently convinced a reluctant Van Doren to play along was that his success would bring prestige to the pursuit of knowledge. Van Doren said he told himself he had been promoting "the intellectual life" to young watchers everywhere. In the press conference that followed his testimony, Van Doren reported that he had been "living in dread for almost three years."

I Scream! You Scream!

On those warm summer nights, the sound of that clanging bell told every member of Kiddom that the ice cream man was in the neighborhood. And how lucky we were if our parents gave us a bit of change so we could get ourselves a treat from the Good Humor Man.

Although the Good Humor Man was a fixture in America for many decades, it all started long before most of us were around. Harry Burt, a Youngstown, Ohio candy maker, invented Good Humor ice cream in 1920 and was granted a patent in 1923. By then, he had outfitted twelve street vending trucks in Youngstown with rudimentary freezers and bells. By 1925, his son, Harry Burt Jr. (1900 – 1972) opened a franchise in Miami, Florida.

The company was tremendously successful because it provided customers with an inexpensive diversion during the Depression. Jobs were scarce and Good Humor found all the employees it could use, despite an 80-hour work week and paramilitary discipline. While drivers were only paid commissions, it was not unusual for driver to clear the then princely sum of over $100 per week.

The company was also successful in attracting favorable publicity by parking trucks outside of motion picture studios. Over the years, Good Humor appeared in over 200 movies. In 1950, Jack Carson starred in the feature motion picture, “The Good Humor Man.”

The company's history includes many stories such a Good Humor man rushing a baby to a hospital for treatment or breaking up a counterfeit money operation in Long Island, New York. In 1929, the Chicago mob demanded protection money and destroyed part of the company's fleet. The resulting publicity helped put Good Humor on the map in the Windy City.

A “Good Humor” is a chocolate coated vanilla ice cream bar on a stick. Other “Good Humors” include chocolate coated chocolate (a.k.a. chocolate malt) and strawberry, plus bars coated in toasted almond, coconut, chocolate cake, strawberry shortcake and chocolate éclair. Weekly specials came in a wide assortment of flavors including a red, white and blue Good Humor for the 4th of July.

In 1965, the company introduced “Super Humors”, initially Chocolate Chip Candy and Chocolate Fudge Cake with a candy center. The next year, all Good Humors became larger “Super Humors” to justify a price increase.

I'm Lovin' It!

You can do one of two things right now. Either hop in your car and drive to McDonald’s, or hop in the Wayback Machine with me and Max and head back to 1954. How often do you get an offer like that? I’m guessing you’re choosing the latter. So hang on. Here we go.

We’ve arrived in southern California to find a salesman named Ray Kroc selling a machine called the Multimixer. Its primary benefit is that it’s capable of creating five milkshakes at the same time. At the same time Ray is selling these machines, brothers Dick and Maurice McDonald have successfully franchised eight McDonald restaurant locations in the southern California area. Their primary benefit is their Speedee method of providing mass produced hamburgers for 15 cents a pop. And that’s half the price customers are paying at the diners in these days. In addition, they offer French fries, Coca-Cola, coffee and milkshakes.

So we find the brothers working away at one of their eight franchise locations, and in walks Ray Kroc. Ray is immediately intrigued with this fast food process and asks the brothers if he can franchise the operation outside southern California. Ray is a good salesman and the brothers agree to his proposition. Before long Ray is opening his first restaurant in a Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. If we fast-forward a bit to 1958, the company is selling its 100 millionth burger.

Although the Automat in New York and White Castle preceded them, it was the streamlined production method developed by the McDonald brothers that set them on a course for greatness. Their Speedee Service System was influenced by the production line innovations of Henry Ford.

Since the menu items were limited, it allowed for pre-production of the products and offered almost immediate service to the customer. Since there were no traditional seating arrangements, consumers could walk right up to the service window, place their order, and enjoy a hamburger, fries and a Coke in a short time.

Ray didn’t purchase the entire McDonald’s operation outright in 1961. He was the architect behind making it a nationwide, and currently global, chain. And Ray wasn’t beneath the menial work required to ensure cleanliness in the restaurants. He frequently sprayed out the garbage cans with a hose and scraped gum up off the parking lot area at his own Des Plaines location.

In addition, Kroc also made it very easy for customers to view the food preparation by removing any walls between the cooks and the counter where patrons placed their orders.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I must be having a sugar craving. My mind is suddenly back in the fifties again with the thought of Nik-L-Nips. Remember those?
I didn't remember that was the name of them until I did a little research. I just called them "those wax coke bottles with the juice inside." I know you remember them.

I loved them, but I always thought there was way too much wax and not nearly enough juice. Even so, you could still gnaw on the wax for a little while and get a tad more of that sweet nectar. At least for a few minutes. Then you would get a sore jaw and a headache.

Another item we all recall, despite our failing memories, is the Popcicle. How could you ever forget those? It was the main name brand, but there were lots of imitators. And similar products still exist today. You can get them (along with everything else you need) at Walmart. I used to love to suck the juice out of those things until there was only a faint tint of color left behind. Why? I don't know. Because I could, I guess.
But my favorite in this arena had to be the Dreamcicle. It was orange on the outside with a velvet-smooth vanilla ice cream center. Yum! I wonder if those are still around.

And I've already mentioned the Valomilk in a previous post. If you want to read it, just click the Valomilk Link. There was nothing quite like them. If you click on that Valomilk link, and read the comments, you'll notice that Russ Sifers himself (the fourth-generation owner of the company) actually left one. How cool is that?

Remember the Slo-Poke? That was a favorite at the Saturday Matinee when we were watching War of the Worlds or The Day the Earth Stood Still. They seemed to last a long time. Fortunately most kids in the fifties didn't have crowns on their teeth. A Slo-Poke is a quick crown-remover.

There were many other sugar delights during those years. And we loved them any time we could get lucky enough to get one. If you remember some of the other favorites, add a comment and remind me.