No trip to Detroit is complete without enjoying the local sports teams, the unique comfort food, and touring an auto plant or museum; I managed to squeeze two of the three into my three-day visit.
During my travels, I drove by the still-new homes of the Lions (Ford Field) and Tigers (Comerica Park); by Michigan and Trumbull, the site where Tiger Stadium once stood; and by Joe Louis Arena, home to the Red Wings. Although the Wings were in town, our schedule was too full to catch a game.
There are many foods that I associate with Detroit including Coney Island hot dogs, Vernor’s ginger ale, Buddy’s pizza, Kowalski kielbasa, Faygo pop, Better Made potato chips, Germack’s pistachios, Sanders hot fudge sundae, HoneyBaked Ham (now available nationwide), and a corned beef sandwich from Lou’s. Time was too short to enjoy all, but I was able to enjoy several.
For the uninitiated, a Coney Island hot dog is a natural casing hot dog in a bun smothered in a bean-free (this is NOT health food) chili and topped with mustard and raw onions. I have had chili dogs in many parts of the U.S., but they just aren’t the same. While these regional delicacies can be found throughout the metro area, the original purveyor is American Coney Island that opened in 1917. In 1924, Lafayette Coney Island opened next door to American and they have been competing ever since. Both restaurants are open 24/7/365, so there is never a bad time to head over there. As good planning would have it, they are also located two short blocks from the Book Cadillac hotel where we stayed. Within an hour of landing at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport, I was on a stool enjoying “two on one”, i.e., two loaded Coneys on one plate, with a Vernor’s.
Vernor’s is a ginger ale but not one of those wimpy ginger ales like Schwepp’s or Canada Dry. Vernor’s is a ginger ale with an ATTITUDE. As I recall the old advertisements, the claim was that it was aged in oak barrels (like a fine Chardonnay, I guess.) In any event, Vernor’s has a decidedly golden hue to it and a robust, in-your-face flavor.
Theresa arrived at dinner time on Friday, and once we retrieved her luggage, we were on our way to Buddy’s. Buddy’s is a local chain with nine restaurants that has been serving fabulous deep dish pizza since 1946. We had to wait about 40 minutes for a table, but the pizza was well worth this minor inconvenience.
On Saturday, I was able to check Lou’s off my list on my way out to the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills. Lou’s has also been around for as long as I can recall, and I went to the original on McNichols Road across from Marygrove College. The corned beef is stacked high on rye bread and I think it holds its own against any NY deli.
While the quintessential automotive museum visit is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, I chose to make the trek out to Auburn Hills to the Walter P. Chrysler Museum. This museum opened in late 1999 and it displays about 75-100 vehicles that date back to a 1902 Rambler Runabout.
The museum has the oldest vehicles on the first floor, newer ones on the second, and a variety of trucks, muscle cars, and other assorted vehicles in Boss Chrysler’s Garage in the basement. In addition to Chrysler and Dodge vehicles, there were vehicles from the now-deceased brands of Willys-Knight, Nash, Hudson, DeSoto, Rambler, Austin, Plymouth, and American Motors. I looked high and low, however, but I could not find a single Benz, so I guess that sorry chapter of Chrysler’s history has been excised from the corporate memory.
Walter Chrysler was a master mechanic on the railroads when he was hired at the age of 36 to become the general manager at Buick’s Flint Michigan plant in 1911. When Will Durant was able to regain control of GM in 1916, he persuaded Chrysler to remain as president of Buick. Chrysler stayed with Durant for three years but left over a disagreement about the future direction of the company.
In 1919, Chrysler was hired at a salary of $1 million per year to turnaround Willys-Overland. After two years, he left Willys and bought a controlling interest in Maxwell-Chalmers. In 1925 at the age of 50, he organized Chrysler Corporation and absorbed Maxwell. In 1928, Chrysler launched the Plymouth and DeSoto brands to go after the low-priced (Plymouth) and medium-priced (DeSoto) segments of the market. He also bought the Dodge Brothers Company from the investment bankers that had purchased the company from the widows of Horace and John Dodge. The purchase of Dodge gave Chrysler a modern plant, a foundry, and a dealer network and this allowed Chrysler to compete with Ford and GM. Walter Chrysler was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1929, and in 1930, the Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York was completed.
Chrysler built its reputation on exceptional engineering. Chrysler first met engineers Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton, and Carl Breer — The Three Musketeers — when he was at Willys. They joined him at Chrysler and they were responsible for engineering from the company’s inception through the late 1940s and the resumption of car production after WWII. Chrysler was the first company to use a wind tunnel to design and develop vehicles with reduced drag, and the aerodynamic Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows were introduced in 1934. This vehicle also moved the rear seat from over the axle to between the axles to provide a smoother ride for back seat passengers. It was also the first car in which the body was bolted directly to the frame, the precursor to today’s common unibody construction. There are two Chrysler Airflows, a sedan and a coupe, among the pictures below.
Chrysler, like most other manufacturers, had engineers design car bodies with a focus on cost and functionality. Chrysler’s design fell behind GM and Ford in the 1940s, but it took a major leap forward with the hiring of Vergil Exner in 1949. Exner began his career at GM where he worked for the legendary Harley Earl, and by age 30 Exner was in charge of design for Pontiac. After stints with Loewy and Associates, America’s premier industrial design firm, and with Studebaker, he came to Chrysler. You can see the impact that Exner had on Chrysler products by comparing the vehicles from the 1940s and early 1950s with those from the mid-1950s.
Enjoy these pictures of some of Detroit’s finest.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.