by Jim Benjaminson. Copyrighted by the Plymouth Bulletin. Reprinted by permission.
The depth of the Depression had been reached in 1932, but a good percentage of the population was out of work and
farms were blowing away in the hot dry winds.
It was a strange time to think about “the extravaganza to end all extravaganzas,” the Chicago
The first plans had been made in 1926, and Chicago was given permission to go ahead on October 29, 1929 - exactly one day before the Wall Street Crash. The fair had been planned to run from June to November 1933; because only 22 million visitors had arrived, they continued the Fair into 1934. It was a wise move; they not only repaid all their debts, but had money left over which was donated to the city of Chicago.
It was to be an exposition of “Science, Industry and Art.” For the car lover, the Fair was the place to be. Each of the Big Three were represented with its own pavilion, with support from Nash, Cord, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, and others, including several original inventors displaying their “dream cars.”
Packard showed off the Golden Packard (its appointments were trimmed in real gold), as well as James Ward Packard’s first 1899 automobile. Duesenberg showed the Twenty Grand - and that’s what it sold for! That would buy you forty new Plymouth business coupes, with change to spare.
There were special sixteen cylinder Cadillacs, the sleek Pierce Silver Arrow, Buckminter Fuller’s three-wheeled rear-engined Dymaxion, and the prototype Lincoln Zephyr. The “Wings Of A Century” production had relics of all sorts of methods of transportation, including Conestoga wagons, the 1829 Tom Thumb, canal boats, clipper ships, and the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk. The car collection ranged from around 1896 to 1907, but newer cars such as the Chrysler Airflow were included. The production cast included 200 actors and 100 horses.
Chevrolet set up a complete assembly line and built new Chevrolets before the eyes of the fairgoers; you could place an order at your hometown dealer, travel to the Fair, watch your new car being built, and drive it home.
The largest exhibitor was the Chrysler Corporation, with over seven acres of land including their main building, sunken gardens, the Cyclorama, display areas, and a race track. The building, one of the great showpieces of the Fair, was white with suggestions of yellow and lavender pylons, illuminated at night with floodlights at more than one million candlepower. It was called the “World’s Largest Showcase.”
In the building were scores of exhibits ranging from the scientific to the spectacular, including a huge drop forge where workmen made parts for new cars. There was a steel furnace, a frozen battery show, the making of Duplate safety glass, an automatic loom, a “Belgian Roll” road testing device, and an operating wind tunnel.
Outside was a quarter mile track, 18 feet wide at its narrowest point, with banked turns
for fast driving. The west straightaway had a 100-foot long ramp with a
25% grade, while the east straightaway had a 45° incline. Six times
daily, Barney Oldfield and his crew of “Hell Drivers” performed; between shows, the fairgoer could take a demonstration ride
around the track in a car of his choosing with one of the Hell Drivers
at the wheel.
There was the sand pit in the center of the track where, at the end
of each show, a driver would deliberately roll
a new car to show the strength of the all-steel body built by Chrysler.
It was quite a show.
Promoters took to coming up with new events to
keep the crowds coming through the gates. On Friday, July 13, 1934, they had a “Jinx Day Auto Derby,” racing the antique cars from “Wings Of A Century” — 13 cars in a 13-lap race around the
Chrysler track. It was officially sanctioned by the American Automobile
Association (Sanction #0013). As in all such events, a protest of the winning
car would be allowed. A letter of protest, accompanied by a check in the
amount of $13, would have to be signed by 13 drivers and 13 mechanics before
it would be considered! For some unexplained reason, there were 18 - not
13 - track officials.
Starting positions for the flying start would be chosen by drawing numbers from a hat. Passing would be allowed
only on the right, and not at all on the curves. A car could be disqualified
for various reasons, such as taking more than four people to push it off
the track! It was to be quite a spectacle, broadcast coast-to-coast live
from the fairgrounds by both NBC Blue Network and the CBS systems.
The drivers chosen for the Derby included Barney Oldfield, perhaps the
best known of all the drivers, along with four Indy drivers and other big names of the day.
The cars were:
Finding out who won took years. I had been granted the rare priviledge of going through the Chrysler photo archives (at that time a small room with a huge window to the east, which allowed the sunlight to pour into the non-air-conditioned room). There were row upon row of file cabinets, each filled with photo negatives — usually 8x10 negatives, many of which I recognized as they had been used in publicity photos, magazine stories, sales brochures and manuals.
If Chrysler had a filing method, it was lost on me. Each negative was in a brown envelope, marked on the outside with the negative file number, the date taken and the photographer’s name. One photo may have been of a certain year Plymouth, the next of a Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, truck, engine, piston, assembly line or whatever. Suddenly, in one file drawer, came photos of the Chrysler Pavilion at the Chicago Worlds Fair....some showed it under construction, some at its completion, still others with people milling throughout the complex. Dignitaries and celebrities. Then three very interesting negatives popped up:
For those who were present then, it was a spectacle that will not be soon forgotten.
Lindy Willis wrote that, while Chrysler did not show an entire assembly line, they did show how components were made, with a drop forge (with huge hammers and workmen manipulating red-hot steel ingots to make steering knuckles and connecting rods). Barney Oldfield’s show highlighted the safety and stamina of Chrysler Corporation cars, with the drivers putting “ordinary” cars like the PC through their paces - demonstrating the fast, precise stops of hydraulic brakes, still unique to Chrysler among the Big Three. Pitcher Carl Hubbel through a fastball at a Plymouth windshield, with Barney Oldfield sitting at the wheel; the safety glass, still a wondrous invention, always protected the stunt driver.
See the 1934 Plymouths.
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