Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Harvard Square in the snow

Here's a short video I made of Harvard Square during the recent snow storm ...

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Detroit is collapsing, come and see

I am left speechless by the destruction in Detroit. Gawking over it is sometimes called "ruin porn" but I only call it frightening.

Driving around the city, it is everywhere: streets with nothing but abandoned homes, small corner stores empty, large apartment buildings fenced off, downtown office towers with no one inside, whole factories crushing down on themselves.

Here are photographs of what I've seen ...

... This street has no humans on it, just houses waiting to fall down to the ground or go up in smoke ...

... This ten-story office building stands completely empty ...

... Hulking factories produce nothing but debris ...

... Massive apartment buildings endure winter windowless, tenantless ...

... Small corner stores have nothing to sell ...

... And bizarrely, my favorite, a hotel in the moonlight.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ford Piquette Plant: Henry Ford sat here

Henry Ford sat in this rocking chair and revolutionized the world.

He was a man with no education to speak of, but he had a genius for machines and each day he would place himself in his rocker that he left in the corner of his "experimental room" in his Piquette Avenue plant in Detroit and think up improvements for his cars which he would then sketch out on a chalk board for his draughtsmen to draw up the following day.

Ford Piquette Plant

Here's one such improvement, the very first internal combustion engine for the Ford Model T, the engine of the car that literally changed the world.

The first(!) internal combustion engine every made for the Model T

His workers at Piquette would get a delivery of car parts each morning, and in their work bay, they would hand-build each automobile. Parts that didn't fit were hammered or hewn into shape at the side bench until they did fit. There was no complaining to Mr. Ford about the parts you received. You either made them work, or you were fired.
The worker's bay with his work bench underneath the window

At Piquette, Ford was able to produce a car every 12 hours, and his workers were producing over 100 cars a day, unheard of numbers in 1908.  It wasn't until three years later that the assembly line came into being at the new Highland Park plant, the first real behemoth of the industrial age.

Here are some of the gems Mr. Ford and his men produced ...

Here is an early snow mobile, used to deliver mail on the East Coast

This is Model T #220 out of 15 million produced

Another view of this special machine

The Piquette Avenue plant was saved from the wrecking ball fifteen years ago and now operates as a museum focused on the early Ford Motor Company and the world-changing Model T. It is a five star must see for car enthusiasts or anyone interested in the industrial history of America. It's a remarkable place and a beautiful building.

Monday, January 18, 2016

How I celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday

I stood in the biting wind with exposed hands. I had been taking photos of the outside of the building, but I wanted to go inside. As I walked toward the steps, I thought of a simple wisdom I must have learned from my mother. When you're outside, she would say, and you want to go inside, ring the doorbell. That is, after all, what a doorbell is for. So I stepped forward and bent my finger at the first joint. My fingertips were too cold at this point and too numb to serve any real purpose. I pushed firmly on the round steel button. It gave way and I could hear an electronic buzz on the other side of the door.

I wanted someone to be in the church. I wanted to go inside.

It occurred to me that I probably looked like many homeless people in Detroit that day, looking for some shelter from the subzero cold. A church is always a likely sanctuary, and I was hoping that churches were opening their doors to the poor people who have no other hope for warmth. But today, my reasons for wanting to enter were different. I was trying to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. by going to see Reinhold Niebuhr.

There was a deafening silence. I rang again.

The sign out front said Mayflower Missionary Baptist, but in an earlier lifetime this had been Bethel Evangelical Church, and the cornerstone said 1921, which meant that Reinhold Niebuhr indeed had preached here, indeed had pastored here.

Niebuhr is a hero to many, a man of conscience and of mind who spoke painfully clearly on the issues of his day and his country and his faith. Barack Obama has cited Niebuhr and none other than King himself in his Letter from Birmingham Jail cites him too. He is what I would call a quiet American, one who shaped our conscience without overwhelming us with his power or status.

Niebuhr wrote Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, a lovely reflection of his time in this church tending to his Detroit flock. It's a paperback book I stole from my father's bookshelf many years ago. The book was my way of proving to myself I was smart, but he himself probably bought it in the late 1950s because the woman he was to marry was the roommate of Niebuhr's daughter. Fifty-five years later, there I stood freezing on a desolate Detroit street, my hands so cold they started to feel warm, hoping to get inside Niebuhr's church. On Martin Luther King's birthday.

No one came to the door. I walked back to the car, the wind pushing so hard against my body in temperatures around zero that I worried for a moment I wouldn't make it back at all. I passed a handsome twenty story apartment building built around the time this was a prospering community only minutes from downtown. That also would have been around the time the church was built, but like so much else in this city, the tall elegant structure had long since been abandoned and now every window is gone.

I made it. The car was warmth. I drove on. Two streets away, I passed a CVS and thought that I should stop and get a few things. I was looking for parking when I noticed people milling in front a building. It was the Motown Museum!

The building with Hitsville U.S.A. across its front is so modest compared to what it produced. The Motown sound! I went in and took the tour. I mean, how could you not?

I was one of three whites in a group of 25 people. We saw a short video about the place and the music it made. About Berry Gordy and his savvy. About the black middle class that he came from, and the tremendous resourcefulness he showed in 1959. As I sat in the back of the theater, I thought that in a small way, today too was a reflection of King's dream. A shared history and a shared music and a shared culture. The actor Alec Baldwin once said to Billy Joel that music is the soundtrack to your life. As I sat there listening to this music I have heard and loved my whole life, and whose impact has followed me all my days, I realized that this was a soundtrack in my life.  Everything from that ode to joy "Dancing in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas to the pointedly political "War" by Edwin Starr.

The tour ends in the very modest studio where it all began: The Temptations, The Four Tops, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder.

I thought of other places I've seen in this country, the Stax Museum in Memphis, and the Lorraine Motel and Ebenezer Baptist Church, and I thought, this was the middle class who made creatively do with the resources they had, and when the 1960s came along, they became what they always had been, soldiers in their struggle for freedom.

Toyota, outside the box

I don't think of Toyota as being a challenging car maker.

They are a good car maker. They are an innovative car maker. But I don't think of them as a challenging one. In part, their recipe for success comes from pushing out ground-breaking technology packaged in a conventional wrapping - changing the world one bland sedan at a time.

But some of their "cars" in Detroit are making me rethink that. Here's what I'm talking about -- some examples from this week's North American International Auto Show ... Toyota ... outside the box ...





Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Ford GTs, bookending a half a century

In 1967, Americans Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt drove this Ford GT 40 Mk IV to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, marking the first and only time an All American outfit - drivers, chassis, tires - has ever won that race.

1967 Ford GT40 Mk IV

Gurney and Foyt led almost the entire time and beat out two Ferrari teams in their 330/P4s, leaving Americans feeling pretty good about Ford racing.

It turns out, 1967 was the second of four consecutive victories for Ford, a streak that started the year earlier, the year of my birth. It would be another 50 years before they returned to the French 24 hour race with another GT car. But finally they have, and here it is ...

2016 Ford GT

It's a beauty and I, who have made that same journey of decades, have come to Detroit to the Auto Show to see it.

It is only a V6, which is tiny by today's standards, but Ford is betting that the truer equation is power-to-weight wins out over just pure power, and so they're willing to sacrifice a little urge to gain (or should I say lose) on weight.

Both of these gems are on display at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and I had the chance to see them both last night as I walked around the COBO Center.

Look forward to more reports from the show over the next couple of days. There is lots here to see!

Friday, January 15, 2016

The top 3 cars from the 2016 New England International Auto Show

If you're planning on heading down to the Boston Convention Center this weekend to see the New England International Auto Show, you should know what makes my Top 3 list from the show, and some of my honorable mentions. So here you go ...

Coming in at Number 3 on the list is the Ford Fiesta ST. Its compact body, comfortable seating and its manual stick, along with the tremendous reviews it has received by drivers, make it the third best in show, and a car I definitely want to drive. The Fiesta and the much anticipated Focus RS are part of a small but impressive display by the Ford Motor Company.

The Ford Fiesta ST, looking good in black

The Number 2 spot is a tie between the Mercedes AMG GTS and the Porsche Cayman GT4. The AMG gets there because of its beautifully proportioned lines and sensuous curves that make it both classic and altogether modern at the same time. If the car is more challenging to drive than it is to look at, so be it. It's worth looking at. 
Mercedes AMG GTS

Classic lines, stunning proportions

The Porsche Cayman GT4 shares the Number 2 spot because it's yet another marvel of Porsche engineering. The affordable road and track car offers ample power, epic grip, and exceptional drivability. It is a total event and will go down as one of the great automobiles of this part of the 21st century.

Porsche does it again, the GT4

But if the Americans were able to grab third, and the Germans were able to double up on second place, well, first place belongs to the people who created beauty and thrill and excitement and passion all in one. That can only be from one country … Italy.

Yes, the Italians have delivered the Alfa Romeo Giulia, a four-door sedan that is as bad-ass beautiful as all the hype suggests.  A piece of sculpture that nevertheless has a mean design growl to it, the Giulia reeks of speed and racing car ethos while still harboring family sedan harmonics.  It’s a gem to sit in. Firm and supportive seats tell you immediately that this car is built for pace, and the lovely balanced driving position says that the 500 plus horsepower can be put down with ease. The gear lever in the central console is almost a quaint throwback, but its solid, mechanical chunky feel exudes confidence about the car's construction and drive train.  To highlight the beauty of the Giulia, it sat paired with another new Alfa beauty, the 4C Spider and they both screamed, there is something special about the Italians!

Giulia, a thing of beauty ...

... all the way ...

... through

And a companion 4C!

Honorable Mentions ...
A Top 3 list wouldn't make any sense without some Honorable Mentions, and here they are ...

Love them Fiat 500s

  • Fiat 500 and Abarth, short little cars that just say “fun” all over them.
  • Chevy Camaro, a sharp, angular look filled with aggressive assertiveness.
The new Camaro, looking good in blue
  • Mazda 3 and the Mazda Miata, both of which say quality and sport at the same time.
  • Chevy Volt, which will go a long way to redefining the automobile for the American consumer, even thought the car still suffers from a too-tiny cabin, and the Chevy Corvette, which is showing a new way forward in American performance at affordable prices.
The Volt ...

... and the 'Vette, both looking good.

  • The British, who continue to produce incredibly sensuous cars, even though they don't keep pace with the technology. Aston Martins just look lovely.
Aston Vantage. Can anyone say sexy?

  • Ford Motor Company, for continuing to produce quality cars that are well designed, well engineered and well built.
  • Toyota, for continuing to push the boundaries of technology and efficiency while still maintaining excellence in their build, especially their new fuel cell car, the Mirai.
  • Nissan. They aren't an exciting car company. Just a good one.

Good looking and bad-assed 370Z

The mighty GTR 
The Green Leaf

And here are some places I wouldn't even bother to visit ...
  • Jeep. It just seems pointless.
  • Mini. They aren’t bad cars, but why waste your time?
  • Hyundai. Just as Alfa Romeo is able to wow the crowd with only two models, Hyundai shows what the opposite strategy looks like — nothing impressive, and lots of it.
  • Volkswagen. Their empty showroom stand said it all ... Lie about your emissions performance, and the Americans will not like you. 
Hey VW, nobody visiting your stand? Wonder why not?