Wall Smacker by Peter De Paolo

On January 21st, I attended the Indiana Racing Memorial Association’s Collectible Show and found Wall Smacker a book written by Peter De Paolo in 1935.

Pete De Paolo in his 1925 Duesenberg
Pete De Paolo in his 1925 Duesenberg

After perusing the many tables of racing collectibles, I picked De Paolo’s book to learn about auto racing in the early days. In this well-written book, De Paolo describes his life as a riding mechanic and as championship driver from 1920 to 1935.

His introduction started watching his Uncle Ralph De Palma’s racing exploits at the Brighton Beach Course in 1914, where he won all five of the program’s races. His uncle went on to win the 1915 Indianapolis 500 driving a Mercedes Benz. Shortly thereafter, his uncle convinced De Paolo to get some mechanical experience working on cars in New York City.

In the fall of 1919, his uncle hired him as a riding mechanic on a Ballot racer that they campaigned across the country in 1920. Of his first racing experience at the Beverly Hills, California, board speedway, De Paolo stated, “I’ll never forget the thrills that were packed into those opening laps of my first speed experience.” He shares a lot of details of his first experience at the Indianapolis 500 where they finished fifth. Later that summer, they raced Ballot racers in France and Italy.

After the spring 1922 Beverly Hills race, De Paolo parted working with his Uncle Ralph. De Paolo started his first race driving one of Louis Chevrolet’s Frontenacs. In his first Indianapolis 500 driving the Frontenac, at 255 miles he had a lap and a half lead before having to stop for fuel and tires. After returning to the race, while attempting to pass three Duesenbergs, he slid into the northeast infield and smacked the inside wall and damaged the transmission. As the relief driver for Joe Thomas’ Duesenberg, De Paolo finished in tenth place.

In 1924 at Indianapolis, De Paolo finished in sixth place driving a Duesenberg Special. He drove the rest of the season for Duesenberg. In spring 1925, De Paolo finished second at Culver City, California, and first at Fresno, California. De Paolo’s confidence was growing as they reached Indianapolis for the 500. He qualified in second place to start the race. By the 25th lap as he came down the home stretch, no other car was less than a mile behind him. On his 250-mile pit stop, he was relieved from his car for bleeding hands. When he took over again, his car was in fifth place and quickly moved up to second place. He soon drove the Duesenberg Special to first place. In winning the Thirteenth Annual Indianapolis Classic he set a record of 101.13 miles an hour average, which stood for seven years, and answered a question many times asked of him – “What was your greatest thrill?” His total winnings were approximately $40,000. Later that summer, he won at Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Laurel, Maryland.

He continued to win in 1926, at Fulford-By-the-Sea, near Miami, Florida, and finished fifth at Indianapolis. He finished third place in the national standings. He continued to race in 1927, winning again at Altoona, and finishing second at Salem, New Hampshire and won the AAA National Championship. He retired from racing in 1929. In 1935, he was the mentor for Kelly Petillo in winning the Indianapolis 500.

Pete De Paolo had a colorful career in auto racing. His book Wall Smacker does a great job telling his story. I invite you obtain a copy and enjoy the story.

You should attend the Indiana Racing Memorial Association’s Collectible Show in late January and the Indy Bench Racing Weekend in late March to find some racing collectibles.

Indiana’s place in automotive history

Indiana once vied for Michigan’s title as the automotive titan of the United States. It was at a time when the names of automobiles like Duesenberg, Stutz and Cord brought worldwide acclaim to the Hoosier state. Indiana’s contributions to automotive history have been numerous. Tilt steering, cruise control and hydraulic brakes are just three examples of the innovations created by Indiana automotive pioneers. Yet the innovators themselves have become nearly forgotten–overlooked as we take their inventions increasing for granted as part of the standard equipment on today’s models.

Indiana’s automotive innovation began with Elwood Haynes’ kitchen experiment on an internal combustion engine in the fall of 1893. Haynes’ research and development led to the demonstration of his “Pioneer” automobile along Pumpkivine Pike, outside Kokomo, on July 4, 1894. Haynes and two passengers traveled at a speed of seven miles an hour and drove about one and one-half miles further into the country. He then turned the auto around, and ran the four miles into town without making a single stop.

1894 Haynes Pioneer
Elwood Haynes in the 1894 Pioneer
Copyright Elwood Haynes Museum

“I remember as the “little machine” made its way along the streets we were met by a “bevy” of girls mounted on wheels.,” Haynes noted. “I shall never forget the expression on their faces as they wheeled aside, separating like a flock of swans and gazing wonder-eyed at the uncouth and utterly unexpected “little machine.”

In 1898 the Haynes-Apperson Company was incorporated and auto production was on its way in Indiana.

By the late 1800s Indiana’s plentiful supply of lumber had also lured several industries into its borders, including the makers of carriages and wagons. The automobile industry in the early 1900s was a natural offspring of carriage manufacturers, which could provide not just parts but the skilled labor as well. Five Indiana manufacturers entered commercial automobile production in the late 1890s.

1902 Studebaker Stanhope
1902 Studebaker Stanhope

By 1900, The Haynes-Apperson Automobile Company was one of the few firms in the country with annual production exceeding 100 units. In the 1900s, 74 different models were introduced by Indiana manufacturers. These models range from A to Z, with names like Auburn, Cole, InterState, Lambert, Marmon, Maxwell, National, Overland, Premier, Richmond, Studebaker, Waverly, and Zimmerman.

The growth spurt between 1910 and 1920 separated the nation’s auto makers into two groups–the “mass-produced auto giants” and the “craftsmen.” Most of Indiana’s auto makers chose to be “craftsmen” and purchased automotive parts and assembled them by hand. Thus, these companies were small, and many became known for producing high-class and high-priced cars. Nearly every one of the Indiana cars that became well-known were in this category, includ¬ing names like Duesenberg, Cord, Stutz and Cole, appealing to the upper end of the consumer market.

Twenty Grand Duesenberg
Twenty Grand Duesenberg

The teens saw the introduction of another 69 Indiana models. Included in this group are Elcar, Empire, Jack Rabbit, Lexington, McIntyre, McFarlan, Monroe, Parry, ReVere, and Stutz.

Until about 1920, there seemed to enough demand for both the “mass-produced” and “high-quality” cars. However, a series of eco¬nomic factors at this time helped contribute to the decline of Hoosier auto making. Price slashing and an expansion-crazed environment trapped Indiana manufacturers in a philosophical battle with the Michigan titans. Hoosiers were ill-prepared for this kind of competition, and most wanted to remain craftsmen choosing to concen¬trate on “higher priced” vehicles instead of diversifying. Plus, the economic recession in the early 1920s added more financial burdens on the population, which became increasingly interested in the “mass-produced auto.”

Michigan had the financial backers willing to commit financial resources to give the state’s auto manufacturing the boost it needed. The Hoosier financial community generally proved to be of little assistance to its own local automobile industry.

Indiana in the twenties saw this decline to 22 models introduced. Among these were Blackhawk, Cord, Duesenberg, Elgin, Erskine, H.C.S., Lafayette, and Roosevelt.

1963-Avanti-Front
1963 Avanti
Copyright © 1962 Studebaker Corporation

Studebaker was the lone Hoosier survivor of the depression, continuing production for another 30 years, ending in December 1963.

Commercial production of the automobile in America began a little over 120 years ago, and America’s lifestyle has never been the same. Indiana automakers have made many contributions to that history. So, the next time you drive your car, you might wonder where you’d be without Indiana’s continuing automotive innovation and contributions.

For more information on Indiana cars & companies, follow this link.

1925 Apperson Six Sports Sedan

Another of the lessor-known autos in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum Indiana Automobiles: Precision over Production exhibit is the 1925 Apperson Six Sports Sedan.

1925 Apperson Six Sports Sedan

The Apperson Brothers Automobile Company produced its first auto with a Sintz engine in 1902, building perhaps a dozen for the year. Early two-cylinder Appersons came in 1903 and four-cylinder engines followed in 1904. Production of six-cylinder engines were regularly produced in 1914. The Apperson V-8 engine came in 1916.

It is said that Elmer Apperson’s passion for speed and wide open spaces inspired the Jack Rabbit insignia first seen on their 1906 racers. The Apperson brothers Elmer and Edgar continued their interest in auto racing and their autos competed in a number to events including two Indianapolis 500 races.

Apperson Plant One was built on the site of the original Apperson Riverside Machine Works on Main Street in 1910. Plant Two was constructed in the 1700 block of North Washington Street. The corporate offices were across the street from this plant.

The company enjoyed its peak year of production in 1919, employing about 600 people and producing 3,000 units at the two plants. In the early 1920’s business began to decrease. Elmer Apperson died of a heart attack in 1920, thus weakening the Apperson brother’s strong partnership. The Apperson’s, like many others, were not competitive with the larger manufacturers. Production ceased in 1926, thus ending the saga of Haynes and Apperson’s.

The loveliest Apperson’s were the specials with long, lithe lines, bullet headlamps and oval radiators that were designed by their New York dealer C.T. Silver. Comedian Bob Hope’s first car was an Apperson.

The former homes of Elmer Apperson and Edgar Apperson still stand at 408 W. Mulberry and 518 W. Walnut, respectively.

Thanks to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum for showing this 1925 Apperson Six Sports Sedan. For more information on Indiana cars & companies, follow this link.

An Oasis Along Indiana’s Historic U.S. 40

After having lunch at the Oasis Diner in Plainfield, Indiana, on U.S. 40, I had a first-hand look at a detail that historians have long touted. People were shorter and thinner in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The fact became clear when I sat in one of the Oasis booths, which represent the look and feel of the 1950’s.

Plainfield Diner

The diner made its first appearance in 1954 when it was shipped by railway to its central Indiana home on the west side of town. It continued to operate there until 2008. The restaurant sat vacant for a few years. Then current owners Doug Huff and Don Sector got involved. After about three years of planning, the duo moved the diner to 405 W. Main Street. They renovated, kept the 1950’s vibe and created an inviting façade. Oasis reopened in 2015.
Today diners might find some of the seating a bit confining. For those seeking a roomy seat, chairs and tables in the back are accommodating. But be sure not to miss the opportunity to have a good-sized lunch or breakfast here. The retro look makes the experience worthwhile.
The Oasis is one of only five original diners on U.S., also known as the National Road, through Indiana. In fact, Indiana Landmarks had listed the diner as one of 10 most endangered Indiana Buildings in 2010.

Meals served here seem like the typical foods found at a grill—hamburgers, bacon and eggs, and more. Our meal consisted of a wedge salad, BLT and Reuben sandwich. All choices were amply provided. My desire for bacon and fresh vegetables was satisfied. The Reuben consumed by my dining partner was fine, although he had hoped for a little better.
Come for the food, and you’ll have a good-sized meal. But I think that the experience is the main attraction. Here you can have a taste of traveling in the 1950’s. Diners like the Oasis were once plentiful, particularly along the National Road.

Although the first diner was created in 1872, it wasn’t until after World War II in 1946 that they began to spread across the county. They were considered attractive small business opportunities. Many were prefabricated, similar to the Oasis. Often times the style was long and narrow and designed to allow road or rail transportation to the eatery’s location. A service counter spreads nearly across the length with stools for seating. Some, like the Oasis, have a row of booths against the front wall and at one end. The décor was selected to copy elements of rail dining cars. Plus, many diner owners chose to expand a little by adding space to the back of the original building.

By the 1970’s, however, franchise fast-food restaurants became the trend and overwhelmed the competition of diners.

Today, the sight of the railway-simulated diner is rare in Indiana. For those in central Indiana, however, a retro diner is easy to find at 405 West Main Street, on the historic U.S. 40 in Plainfield.

Indiana Automotive Innovations

Throughout the past, Indiana manufacturers have made major contributions to the automobile. For example, in 1902, the Marmon motorcar had an air-cooled overhead valve V-twin engine and a revolutionary lubrication system that used a drilled crankshaft to keep its engine bearings lubricated with oil-fed under pressure by a gear pump. This was the earliest automotive application of a system that has long since become universal to internal combustion piston engine design.

Would you believe tilt-steering was introduced in 1903by Haynes? The 1903 Haynes use of a tilting steering column allowed easy access for the driver and/or passenger upon entering of leaving the vehicle. This feature didn’t become popular on most production cars until about seventy years later.

1911 Marmon
1911 Marmon

In 1911 Haynes Automobile Company was the first to equip an open car with a top, a windshield, head lamps and a speedometer as standard equipment.

Studebaker introduced a deferred payment plan in 1916 with an initial 25 percent cash payment and 12 equal monthly payments. In less than ten years, 50 percent of all cars sold in America were bought on time.

In 1922, The Model A Duesenberg was the first U.S. production motorcar with hydraulic brakes, the first with an overhead camshaft, and the first U.S. straight eight engine. Ninety-two of these luxury cars were sold in 1922, a number that rose to 140 in 1923.

Stutz installed safety-glass windshields as standard equipment on its 1926 high-priced motorcar models.

The first motorcar with front-wheel drive, The Cord L-29, was introduced by E. L. Cord’s Auburn Automobile Company. Front-wheel drive didn’t become popular for another 50 years. Also in 1929 Marmon warranted a listing in the Guiness Book of Records for its factory-installed radio.

E. L. Cords 1937 Cord Beverley Sedan
E. L. Cords 1937 Cord Beverley Sedan

The Cord 810 introduced in 1936 was a sleek modern motorcar with advanced features that include disappearing headlights, rheostat-controlled instrument lights, variable speed windshield wipers, a steering column mounted electric gear pre-selection unit, and was the first automobile in this country to adopt full unit body construction.

Studebaker was the first American car to offer windshield washers in 1937.

Ralph Teetor, Perfect Circle Corporation president, invented cruise control debuting in 1958 on the Chrysler Imperial, New Yorker and Windsor models.

1964 Studebakers
1964 Studebakers

For the 1964 model year, its last in Indiana, Studebaker broke with the majors and became the first U.S. maker to offer seat belts as standard equipment.

That’s the story of Indiana automotive innovations. For more information on Indiana cars & companies, follow this link.