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There is no general behind GM

Unlike Ford or Chrysler, founder William Durant chose a generic name for his automotive company, following advice from his lawyers.

Published June 15, 2012

Most car companies were started by men who created vehicles and then named them for themselves, such as Ford and Chrysler.

General Motors was founded in 1908 by businessman William Durant, who bought existing companies to run under the GM banner. The name was one of several he proposed, and was chosen because his lawyers argued against International Motor Company (they thought it “impractical”) and United Motors (already in use).

Durant began with Buick and Oldsmobile, and then added several auto and parts companies, not all of them successful. He tried to buy Ford as well, but the price was too high.

Unhappy with the way Durant was running the company, GM’s directors booted him out in 1910. He then joined forces with race driver Louis Chevrolet to create a new car, which he used to leverage his way back into GM in 1916.

Rest in style

General Motors of Canada founder Sam McLaughlin died on Jan. 6, 1972, four months after his 100th birthday. He is interred at Union Cemetery in Oshawa, in a granite mausoleum he commissioned in 1947 by architect Arthur Eadie.

Some of Eadie’s other designs included General Electric plants in Barrie, Oakville and Peterborough, the George H. Locke Public Library at Yonge and Lawrence in Toronto, and the McLaughlin Public Library in Oshawa. He also worked on Toronto’s Bank of Nova Scotia building at King and Bay.

Don’t help yourself

Self-serve gas stations are prohibited in New Jersey and Oregon, although that northwestern state will let you fill your own motorcycle tank, or pump your own diesel, since that fuel isn’t a “Class 1 flammable liquid” as defined by the law.

The rules against self-serve date back to 1949 for New Jersey, and 1951 for Oregon, ostensibly for safety reasons — the public couldn’t be trusted not to smoke or spill fuel while gassing up.

It’s believed the first self-serve station opened in Los Angeles in 1947. By 1950, about 200 of the 81,000 stations in the U.S. were pump-your-own, almost all of them in Southern California. Because the customer did the work, the gas was about 20 per cent cheaper than at a full-serve. Canada’s first self-serve station opened in Winnipeg in 1949.

Raise a pint to Peerless

Prior to World War II, buyers who wanted to step up from a Cadillac or Lincoln could go for one of the “3 Ps,” as they were known: Packard, Pierce-Arrow and Peerless.

Dating from 1900, Peerless was built in Cleveland by a company that originally made wringer washing machines and bicycles. By 1909, they were rated at 60 horsepower and cost $6,000. By comparison, a Cadillac made about 26 hp and cost $1,400.

The cars reached their styling peak by 1930, but the company couldn’t overcome the Depression, and the last production models were made in 1931.

Peerless then experimented with an all-aluminum, 16-cylinder prototype, which still exists, but its days as an automaker were over. With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the company became the Peerless Corporation, brewers of Carling Ale.

Two-wheeled inspiration

Honda’s roots trace back to 1946, when Soichiro Honda, the son of a bicycle shop owner, visited a friend and saw a small engine that had been used to power a radio during the war. He had the idea to use it on a bicycle.

The war had taken its toll on the country’s transportation system and bicycles had become the primary mode of transportation. There were some scooters and motorcycles available, and some companies were making motorized bicycles, but all were rare and expensive.

Honda modified the engine, used a hot water bottle for a fuel tank, and, after a rubber roller on the front wheel proved incapable of the job, added a belt to drive the rear wheel.

Honda bought as many of the army surplus engines as he could, all of which had to be modified before they could be used. Once those ran out, the company had to develop its own.

Its first original product, the Honda A-Type motorized bicycle, went on sale in November 1947. Car development began in 1958, with a minitruck and sports car going to market in 1963.

Balloons at the Brickyard

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway came about because of Carl Fisher, who sold bicycles before forming the auto-lighting company Prestolite.

He may have been the first person in Indianapolis to own a car, and his interest in racing, along with a new venture selling Stoddard-Dayton automobiles, had him bemoaning the fact that the U.S. didn’t have a major test track.

In 1908, his associate, Lem Trotter, located a 320-acre tract of land, for which Fisher paid $80,000.

The first race at the Speedway was on June 5, 1909, but it involved hot-air balloons. The inaugural Indy 500, held May 30, 1911, was won by Ray Harroun in a Marmon Wasp.

The brick surface that gave the track its Brickyard nickname had been laid in the fall of 1909 — it took 3.2 million bricks — replacing the original and dangerous macadam surface.

All but the start/finish line were covered with asphalt by 1961, but a complete resurfacing in 1976 was the first time the track had been entirely redone since 1909.

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