In the late 1980s, Chrysler transformed its Town & Country, and most other station wagons it produced, by reimagining them into its first-generation minivans, built on the front-wheel-drive S platform and sharing powertrain with Lee Iacocca’s ubiquitous K-cars. That’s notable because for most of the time leading up to then, the Town & Country was a massive, luxury-packed conventional station wagon with a longitudinal layout and an overall length that stretched right out of sight. The Chrysler minivans rocked the automotive world as few new cars before them had done, defining a new way to carry people and their possessions.
The redefinition of the wagon erased some of the attributes that made Americans love big station wagons in the first place: Gobs of big-block power, enough to ferry a full family across the continent with their belongings in back and whatever was left over in a trailer bobbing along behind. It’s a portrait in time that defines the postwar American dream as thoroughly as a tract house in a newly plowed suburb. A big station wagon is an iconic automobile. Given the way most of them were used hard by their owners and the owners’ hordes of kids, finding a survivor today is a definite occasion.
The exact mileage of this enormous 1973 Chrysler Town & Country nine-passenger station wagon (which means a rear-facing third seat) is unclear, though the owner thinks it’s on the light side of 100,000. Its condition is both original and phenomenal: Virtually everything, right down to the 3M woodgrain on the sides, is just as it was when the monstrous wagon rolled out of the Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit in September 1972. All the owner says he’s had to do is gently touch up a little bit of woodgrain and one rock-chipped body piece, and then figure out its complex climate control’s vagaries.
According to widely accepted records, Chrysler built 14,687 copies of the nine-passenger Town & Country wagons for 1973, the highest total for fuselage-body wagons in that premium model range. Look inside, and you’ll find an unusual non-patterned cloth interior in prime condition, and a cargo area that’s devoid of scuffs and gouges from skidding objects and careless feet. It’s fully loaded with options, lacking only power windows, surprising for a car that was sold new in Arizona.
Again, fewer than 15,000 were built. Where are you going to find a survivor with this level of originality, options, and non-abused quality? In your dreams. Or, if you’re particularly fortunate, in the car corral at the AACA Eastern Fall Meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Hank Hallowell, who lives in Hershey and owns this nearly perfect Chrysler, bought it there just minutes after also buying a late “Letter Car” from Chrysler at the same sale.
“It’s my favorite Town & Country, to be truthful,” Hank explains. “I prefer the front end of the 1973; it’s the only year without the chrome loop front bumper, and it has the Chrysler New Yorker front end because the industry was heading toward a more formal, classic look. The New Yorker front looks majestic on the Town and Country. Plus, ’72 and ’73 were the only years for the fuselage-body wagon with fender skirts, which enhance the lines of the car dramatically.”
The history of the car business is replete with tales of achievers who clawed their way up from nearly nothing, penniless, to transform themselves through sheer willpower into human dynamos, industrial titans, architects of wealth and (literally) the stuff of dime novels. Imagine, however, undertaking that variety of personal transformation when you not only had to scramble over the everyday obstacles of poverty and ignorance, but on top of everything else, you couldn’t even speak the language.
Such was the challenge faced by the man who became officially known as William S. Knudsen, or more colloquially, whether affectionately or not, as simply Big Bill. At his core, he was no different from the millions of immigrants who flooded into the United States, grasping at a little bit of its dream and promise, as the 19th century melted into the 20th. Knudsen, however, had a more expansive vision. He became a giant in the industry, to excavate a much-used phrase, by serving as the ayatollah of mass production at both General Motors and at the Ford Motor Company. He would also wear stars on his shoulders as a leader of the United States’ armed forces, presiding over his industry’s hugely critical contribution to defeating totalitarianism during World War II. How many other halting steps down a gangplank have ended with so much accomplishment?
Like so many newcomers to this country, Knudsen adopted a name other than the one his parents had originally given him. He was born in Denmark in early 1879 and baptized as Signius Wilhelm Poul Knudsen. He emigrated in 1900, at age 21, from his native Copenhagen and landed like untold millions of others at Ellis Island. When he reached the U.S. mainland, Knudsen managed to find employment at a New Jersey shipyard. When that job ended, Knudsen–who had paid pennies to neighborhood youngsters in New Jersey to give him some instruction in rudimentary English–found work with the great Erie Railroad, repairing steam boilers at its locomotive shops in Salamanca, in southwestern New York. By then, Knudsen’s younger brother was also stateside, and had whittled out a sideline of importing Copenhagen-made bicycles for his own employer, John R. Keim Mills of Buffalo, New York. It wasn’t very far from Salamanca, so Knudsen decided to visit. When he did, Keim offered him a job, too.
A big part of the reason why was that Keim made steam engines, and Knudsen’s experience with the Erie made him an attractive prospect. The firm was one of hundreds across the American industrial belt that were also turning into subcontractors for the young auto industry. Just as one example, Keim hammered out one order of brake drums for the Olds Motor Works. That soon led to an order from Henry Ford for sheetmetal subassemblies such as fenders and fuel tanks.
Clearly, Ford liked the product, because he one day showed up and bought the entire Keim operation outright. By this time, the Model T was in production, and Ford moved rapidly to erect a regional assembly plant in Buffalo. Knudsen, who had exhibited clear and proven capabilities in production planning, was tapped by Ford himself to set up the Buffalo plant and get it into the business of turning out new cars. It was 1911, and Knudsen was only in his 30s, but he immediately proved to Ford that he could rapidly make sense of what even then were highly complicated issues of production and time management. To this day, Knudsen is believed to be the first person to propose spray-painting cars to save both money and time, as well as to ensure consistent quality.
Ford responded to his prodigious ability by bringing Knudsen west to his Dearborn stronghold in 1913. The Model T had already exploded in popularity like nothing else in the history of the still-young American auto industry, and Ford tasked Knudsen with ensuring that demand could be sated by setting up 27 regional assembly plants, something that had been beyond conception in the business up until that juncture. Part of that assignment included building 112 Eagle boats for the Navy in 1917, during World War I. Washington would remember Knudsen’s efficiency at getting it done.
The Ford Motor Company’s transformation under fire
The two titans hated each other.
It wasn’t a matter of upbringing or pedigree, either, because at first, Henry Ford had actually admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considering his sonorous reassurances to be good for a country mired in self-doubt over the fallout from a decade of reckless extravagance. What he proposed, however, government intervention in the economy and the social contract on an unprecedented scale, turned Ford into a fountainhead of venom for Roosevelt and his policies. The New Deal, in the form of its public works projects and business regulation, infuriated the Michigan farm boy turned mogul. At the same time, Ford’s intransigence and detestation of organized labor would rankle the New York patrician who occupied the White House.
The forces that whipsawed at the two American giants would eventually form the history of the Ford Motor Company in the early and middle 1940s, as it groaned to align itself with the massive World War II production torrent, and with its own future. Those years were a three-act play that would mold Ford into vibrancy, reversing its long skid toward oblivion and forging the business that would outlive its founder.
In 1938, Henry Ford turned 75, and he had accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, bestowed on the orders of Adolf Hitler himself. Perhaps he was the only person to express surprise at the uproar that followed, particularly given his own status as a former pacifist dating back to his ill-starred Peace Ship foray that failed to prevent or halt the First World War. Ford the elder had already given his public blessing to the “America First” movement founded by another American icon who would accept a bauble from the Third Reich, Charles A. Lindbergh. Meanwhile, Germany was “annexing” territory across Europe, and would invade Poland outright in late 1939. Ford and Lindbergh then openly opposed U.S. aid to either Britain or France, both of which were clearly in Germany’s sights.
Nevertheless, Ford declared in 1940, when the Reich had goose-stepped through France and Benelux, and its bombs were shattering residential blocks in Britain, that his workers were prepared to “swing into production of a thousand airplanes of standard design a day,” as Robert Lacey recounted in Ford: The Men and the Machine. Lacey believed that Ford became miffed at his onetime executive William S. “Big Bill” Knudsen, who had departed for the presidency of General Motors and was now commissioned as an Army general, in charge of Washington’s war-production effort, whom he apparently believed had steered an unfair percentage of governmental booty toward GM. For the record, Ford would ultimately rank third in wartime production, behind GM and Curtiss-Wright, the aircraft giant. Following Ford’s boast, Knudsen sent a relatively simple pursuit plane for Dearborn to evaluate, and the old man agreed to send his only son, Edsel, the company’s president, increasingly sickened by the intrigues of Ford’s tough guy, Harry Bennett, to meet with Knudsen and discuss a possible production plan.
At that point, Winston Churchill had approached Roosevelt with an urgent request for 6,000 license-built Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, which he believed could tip the Battle of Britain irrevocably against Germany. Knudsen agreed, and believed Ford, the birthplace of the modern American industrial-production miracle, was right for the job. Edsel Ford and the old man’s production maven, Charles E. Sorensen, were eager to jump on the Merlin job. Then Lord Beaverbrook, Knudsen’s British counterpart, publicly proclaimed that Ford’s help would be invaluable to the United Kingdom’s war effort. That was all Ford needed to hear. He undercut his son by refusing to allow the Merlin engines to be built, enraging Knudsen over rejection of his goodwill gesture toward Ford and holding Edsel up to public humiliation. Within three years, Edsel would be dead and Sorensen out the door, nudged not too gently by Bennett.
Pearl Harbor, however, galvanized Ford as a defense contractor. The company’s everlasting fame would manifest itself in the form of the Willow Run plant, a production leviathan that, when opened in early 1942, dwarfed even Ford’s fabled River Rouge works. It was, by far, the world’s biggest industrial building under one roof, sprawling across some 2.5 million square feet, its frontal face 3,200 feet across. The legendary industrial architect Albert Kahn, father of the Rouge and Highland Park, had outdone himself with an edifice for the ages (after the war, Kaiser-Frazer would begin automobile production at Willow Run). Its signature product would be one of the war’s most famous bombers, the four-engine B-24 Liberator, which was designed by Consolidated Aircraft Corp. in San Diego, but built by Ford, since the Liberator’s creators could never hope to build it in the numbers that Washington demanded. The Liberator would eventually be mentioned just after the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress; its fame would be forged during lethal operations such as the massed bombing raids on the Nazi oil fields at Ploesti, Romania.
Willow Run managed to get into full production well past 1942, after overcoming some daunting logistical barriers, not the least of which was that the bulk of its workforce lived in Detroit–a good hour away. The plant was actually located in Washtenaw County, Michigan, then a collection of farming communities with no local workforce of their own. Edsel Ford and Sorenson were still at their posts, however defanged their roles may have been, and Henry Ford suffered a major, debilitating stroke in 1941. At the time Willow Run was moving toward reality, with the Liberator force hanging in the balance, the person with the most power at the Ford Motor Company was arguably the conspiratorial Harry Bennett.
No less a Ford sycophant than Lindbergh would memorably call Willow Run “a sort of Grand Canyon of a mechanized world.” Henry Ford had loudly proclaimed that Willow Run would turn bins of parts into a flying aircraft at the rate of one an hour, though by late 1942 had built a total of 56 Liberators, less than half Consolidated’s production of 169 the previous year. Editorial writers, however, blazed with praise for Ford’s plant. It didn’t help that a War Department spokesman fed unrealistic expectations by declaring in May 1942 that Willow Run had begun full bomber production when, in fact, the opposite was true. Neither did Sorenson’s subsequent claim that Willow Run constituted an open invitation for Hitler to commit suicide. Once news of Willow Run’s slower-than-bragged-about startup broke in earnest, most of the blame was shifted to Edsel Ford, who was by then dying of complications from ulcers. While Edsel went on to create a reliable Willow Run P.R. apparatus, the damage was done, and he died in May 1943 at age 49, by which time Sorensen was being actively hounded out of Dearborn. Thus ended Act One.
Not many history books put it this way, but the history of the 20th century in the United States is writ most boldly when its advances in technology are tallied. Chronologically, the first to come along was the widespread availability of low-cost steel with high tensile strength. As the century progressed, you could add rural electrification, pharmaceuticals, plastics, jet power, television and the Internet. Every one of those advances fundamentally changed the way people conducted their daily activities. Obviously, so, too, did the rise of the automobile and the industry that produced it.
By that measure of technological advance as history, Charlie Sorensen was one of the century’s most pivotal individuals. A great early acolyte of Henry Ford, Sorensen was as much a hands-on architect of the company’s rise to global proportions as old man Henry was the face behind its products. He perfected Ford’s ability to build increasingly complicated cars cheaply and in tremendous quantities. Those production techniques were successfully adapted to military materiel during World War II, and later co-opted by Japan. The significance of what Sorensen achieved as Ford’s production boss outlived him, and will probably outlive all of us, too.
Charles Emil Sorensen was Denmark’s other major contribution to the early U.S. auto industry– the better-known Danish export was William K. “Big Bill” Knudsen, who also had a memorable run at Ford. Sorensen was born in 1881, and arrived in the United States with his family four years later. He was apprenticed as a foundry worker at the Jewett Stove Works in Buffalo before the family moved on to Detroit. Once there, Sorensen found a job with Ford as a patternmaker, by all indications hired by Henry Ford himself. That was in 1904. Within three years, he was chief of patternmaking for Ford, as the company readied the Model T for its production launch.
It’s a misconception that Sorensen headed Ford’s production from the start, although he was unquestionably the most influential production manager in the company’s existence. As the Model T rolled out in 1908, Sorensen was actually second-in-command to Ford’s then-production chief, Edward Martin. Possessed of a temper that could be reasonably compared to a nuclear warhead, Sorensen transfixed the workforce. That appealed to Henry Ford.
While the exact roles played in that era’s history are not completely transparent, it’s clear that Sorensen was among the first Ford managers to demonstrate a straight, moving assembly line at the Piquette Avenue assembly plant. The subsequent Highland Park plant was designed by noted architect Albert Kahn around those principles. In his memoirs, Sorensen said that he also worked up figures demonstrating that the Model T could be built so quickly and cheaply that Ford would outgrow Highland Park within a few years, and make a fortune even while paying Ford’s stunning five-dollar daily wage. Old man Ford liked that, too. Better still, Sorensen’s projections were accurate.
Joe Merola of Braddock, PA entered the Tucker in the 1951 Memorial Day race
One of the things you learn very quickly here is that there’s never any telling what the Hemmings Nation can uncover, especially on this blog. In that spirit, we present this photo, furnished by Ron Pollock of Niles, Ohio. If the name’s familiar, that’s because we recently posted a photo from Ron’s sold-out 50-year history of Sharon Speedway in northeastern Ohio, which depicted a 1961 Chevrolet bubbletop turned into an uncommonly good-looking pavement Late Model.
Ron checked in again this week. The photo above depicts what may be the only Tucker Torpedo ever used in a racing event. He used the image in another book he authored, a history of Canfield Speedway,Â a half-mile dirt track that operated between 1946 and 1973 at the Mahoning County Fairgrounds, outside Youngstown. Ron was trying to respond to an earlier question on the Hemmings blog about whether a Tucker had ever been raced in NASCAR. The date on the photo suggests it ran at Canfield over Memorial Day in 1951.
Not a new article from the excellent Jim Donnelly over at Hemmings, but very interesting nonetheless.
These heads are unusual in as much as the manufacturer, (E&S), are not widely known, plus the heads appear to offer extra cooling capacity to combat overheating which is often the bane of the Ford flathead V8.
Read the article and the mystery being solved by Hemmings readers here
To find out more, including how to control cookies, see here: