Saturday, May 30, 2009

GM; The General Falls

General Motors GM Janesville WI Assembly Plant copyright Jeffery Blackwell

As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I was born and raised in the orbit of Detroit, from a Ford family. (Not THE Ford family, but from A Ford family.)

My loyalty to the company that my Dad worked for 50 years is part of my identity, and hence my antipathy for General Motors and all of its various brands. The superiority of Ford designs and products was obvious to me, and the current situation GM finds itself in seemed inevitable, yet it is still quite unreal.

Since its inception, GM tried to define the market, wasting billions of dollars trying to convince people that a Cadillac (truck!) was better than a Buick was better than a Pontiac was better than a Chevrolet. If they had only spent the money developing better technology and cleaner, lighter cars.

Like the collapse of the Soviet Union. You knew for decades it was being driven off a cliff, but couldn't believe that no one had the guts or the strength to turn the wheel even a few degrees.

General Motors GM Janesville WI Assembly Plant 02 copyright Jeffery Blackwell

On my way home from Sterling, IL yesterday, I was driving past the Janesville exit, and was drawn down the ramp. The Janesville Assembly Plant was one of GM’s oldest (opened in 1923) and cranked out monstrous Chevrolet Suburbans until the end. At one time, 7,000 people punched the clock here, earning UAW wages and paying mortgages, sending their kids to college in Madison and Whitewater, buying cabins up north, fishing boats with Evinrude motors, and Harley Davidsons. “Miller time” ads were targeted straight at the Janesville GM employees.

General Motors GM Janesville WI Assembly Plant 04

General Motors GM Janesville WI Assembly Plant 05 copyright Jeffery Blackwell

The plant now sits silent and still in the bright sunlight, surrounded by acres of bare parking lots where signs still direct those driving vehicles with “foreign nameplates” to park over near the railroad tracks or risk possible disciplinary action. Guess that showed 'em.

General Motors GM Janesville WI Assembly Plant 03 copyright Jeffery Blackwell

The security service dutifully checked my ID when I pulled past the empty guard shack and started making these photos. My wandering into restricted areas was apparently the most interesting thing to happen to them on that particular day.

General Motors GM Janesville WI Assembly Plant 06 copyright Jeffery Blackwell

To add to the surreal scene, the U.S. Navy's famous Blue Angels were practicing in the area, and would occasionally sweep by at low altitude leaving what seemed like a deeper silence in their wake.

General Motors GM Janesville WI Assembly Plant 07 - Blue Angels U.S. Navy - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

All words and images copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

AMC Marlin: Big Fish

1965 American Motors Corporation AMC Marlin rear window - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Just outside of Janesville, WI, I came across this black-on-silver 1965 Marlin shining under a liquid blue sky, and offered for sale in the middle of these recently planted corn fields.

The Marlin was produced by American Motors Corporation in Kenosha, WI from 1965 to 1967, and is most recognized for its extreme “fastback” rear glass treatment and its unusual two-tone paint schemes.

In 1965 American Motor’s Rambler brand was firmly established as sensible, economical and – old.

The Marlin represents a valiant (or desperate) attempt by AMC to go head-to-head with “The Big Three” in the higher-margin luxury and “sporty” car market segments. The original concept for the Marlin – the Tarpon - was designed on a smaller chassis and was meant to steal market share from Ford’s phenomenally successful Mustang and Plymouth’s Barracuda fastbacks. These cars had uncovered a whole new market segment – the small “sporty” car. Previously, small cars (like Ramblers) had been perceived as entry-level; cheap, underpowered and boring.

1965 American Motors Corporation AMC Marlin badge - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Due to corporate politics (see George Romney and Lee Iacocca) and a poor marketing decision that Marlin should be positioned to bridge the sporty-luxury gap, the production Marlin ended up being built on the larger Rambler Classic chassis. So the Marlin was doomed by the conflicting priorities of those two market segments. (Sporty equals small and light, luxury equals size and mass.)

Consequently, the poor Marlin was born neither fish nor fowl.

Its larger size presented a muddied image to the market, resulting in poor sales and the short three-year run. By comparison, Ford’s Mustang brand has been in continuous production since the launch in 1964.

The Marlin is a unique, if flawed, design which proved unable to change people’s perception of American Motors. If you have ever seen pictures of a Black Marlin, this car really does resemble the great fish.

The Marlin’s branding was obviously intended to be evocative of the coastal lifestyle. You can practically hear the Beach Boys flowing out of its surfboard-shaped side glass.

The car-buying public found it too much of a stretch to believe that surfer-cool could come from the shores of Lake Michigan, I guess.

1965 American Motors Corporation AMC Marlin - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

1965 American Motors Corporation AMC Marlin - front wheel - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

1965 American Motors Corporation AMC Marlin - hood - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

1965 American Motors Corporation AMC Marlin - side view - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

>1965 American Motors Corporation AMC Marlin - rear view - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

All words and images copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Camper Couple

1976 Chevrolet pickup camper retired couple

I made this photograph a long time ago – must have been around 1976, judging from the truck.

The image strikes me as being very symbolic, and that’s why I have kept it in my portfolio.

I imagine this couple had worked hard for many, many years and are already well into retirement – as it was known back in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The mortgage is paid up and the kids long grown and gone.

They have encountered this display and are contemplating what would happen if they should take a chunk of their savings and buy this camper with the hearts on the side. How would it feel to just take off – the two of them – across the country with no particular destination at all. Maybe drive through the Badlands and the mountains and stop by the kids’ place in Los Angeles and then circle back to the dessert where it’s always warm and dry.

Somehow their clothing and their pose say to me that they will not step any closer to this machine that represents all the possibilities of a different course for their life together. They have worked too hard and are too sensible to be running around in this camper like a couple of hippies.

Maybe ten years ago.

All words and images copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Lesney #75 1963 Chevrolet die-cast model

OK, before you HotWheels geeks jump on me, I know this is a Lesney, not a HotWheels, but I wanted to provide my less obsessed readers with a clue what I’m talking about.

I have always been fascinated by scale models. I really can’t say what’s so appealing about holding in the palm of your hand a miniature replica of something – an animal, a human figure or – especially for me – a car. Obviously, most kids like to play with objects that represent larger ones, but some of us never grow out of it.

There’s something about spreading your hand over the roof and grasping a car on either side of its body and just lifting it up that is just weirdly satisfying to some people.

The market for “die-cast” (which means that the body of the model is poured from metal) is huge. Billions of dollars are spent on model cars which are not intended to be toys for children. Some larger models have hundreds of individual parts and cost hundreds of dollars.

HotWheels, on the other hand, are toys. For a buck, you can own virtually any kind of car you can imagine. And I can’t resist them. Mind you, I don’t buy just any HotWheels. To separate me from my dollar, the model has to meet this criteria; It has to be a “straight” scale model of a car I really like – with no garish decal treatments. It has to look like the real car. If it’s a model of a real race car – I’m sold. (NASCAR excepted.)

This model of a 1959 Chevy is 1/64th scale, so it is the size of a HotWheels, but it was made in England by Lesney, who eventually went broke during the recession in the early 1980’s and was bought by Matchbox. In 1996, the line ended up being bought by Mattel, maker of the famous HotWheels.

I did a little research on this particular model, which was issued by Lesney in 1961. If it was in excellent condition and I had the box it came in, some guy in England would pay as much as £80 for it.

This particular toy has seen some serious wear and was stepped on pretty hard. But I still love it.

For reference, the little rocket-like doodads on the front fenders of the model represent this real piece I photographed a while ago.

1963 Chevrolet Biscayne fender trim - copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

If you are interested, Frank's Matchbox Lesney page is an excellent resource.

All words and images copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

"Just Your Basic Hot Rod"

hot rod front suspension - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

That’s what Dennis calls his stripped-down, hopped-up, hand-made automobile.

I had seen Dennis coming towards me on the highway, and had to get through a traffic light before I could pull the U-turn. Then I caught the red, and counted the seconds after Chris had disappeared around the bend. At 30 seconds, I figured I’d lost him. But when I finally got round the bend I could still see him - at least a mile away. It’s amazing how easy it is to track the silhouette of an open-wheel car with no roof and no windshield to speak of.

Dennis was scrupulously obeying the speed limits (I wonder why), and I caught up with him at the Kwik Trip, where he had removed the passenger seat cushion(!) and was filling the tank.

hot rod front suspension detail - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Dennis told me he and a couple of his buddies had taken three years (he couldn’t estimate the hours) to put this car together, and as you can see, it is very tidy. One of the things that I like about Chris’s car is the well-worn red leather seats, with everything else on the car being either gloss black or chrome.

hot rod seats and windscreen - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Originally, they had used a steel Ford model T body shell, but then replaced it with fiberglass because it was lighter. You can see from my photos that this car is about as minimal as it can get, which is part of the traditional hot rod philosophy. If you don’t need it, take it off. That includes such niceties as fenders, roofs, and sometimes doors.

Which is why you see Dennis climbing over the body into the driver’s seat.

hot rod driver climing into driver's seat - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

All images and words copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Out to Pasture

1950 Chevrolet in pasture - two cars - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Maybe I have lived in Wisconsin too long, but when I saw these two old Chevys lying on their haunches in the freshly mowed grass, I thought immediately of a couple of big old cows, their legs folded beneath them and their heads erect, staring straight ahead.

After knocking on the door of the house and getting no answer, I wandered out to the pasture and made these photos. Both cars appear to be 1950 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe 4 Doors, a workhorse of the Chevy line, touted for its reliability and value, virtues a farmer or factory worker would appreciate.

The soft luster of their paint and the spray of grass around their mouth-like grills certainly reinforced the Chevys’ bovine appearance, and they seemed to be very content to be resting here in the lush spring grass of Wisconsin.

1950 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe 4 Doors -  rear view blue - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

1950 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe 4 Doors -  front quarter view - blue - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

1950 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe 4 Door - both cars - front - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

1950 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe 4 Door - hood detail - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

1950 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe 4 Door - front fender detail - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

1950 Chevrolet advertisment

All images and words (except the Chevrolet ad) copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sandy's smart

Sandy's smart car - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Well, he is.

I took a booth near the window, so I could watch for my friend Sandy. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years.

As I sat sipping my iced tea and watching the traffic go by, I naturally began to wonder what Sandy is driving these days. A couple of Hondas and a Ford Fusion turned into the lot, and I had to wait for a view of the driver to be sure they were not my friend. I would have bet that Sandy would be driving a car (as opposed to what most people are driving) and that it would be efficient and well-designed, probably with a flash of style.

I knew this because I know Sandy. When the rally red smart cabriolet appeared, I didn’t have to see the driver to know that was Sandy.

Of course, after we had caught up with family and work, the conversation turned to Sandy's smart. He is something of an evangelist for the tiny, Mercedes-designed cars which have proven extremely popular in Europe, and are still a surprising, but no longer a shocking sight on American roads.

Sandy's smart car - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Facts you might not know about smart cars:
  • They are available for purchase at most smart dealers. For quite a while, there was a backlog of orders, but now you can get one off the lot.
  • smart cars are relatively safe. I say relatively because no one cheats the laws of physics. The design is basically an ultra-stiff cube that you ride inside of and that thing can take a blow that you might not believe. Look at this video. The problem is that because the cell doesn’t crush, and the smart has almost no "crumple zones", the rapid deceleration can be fatal if you are going fast enough. (You can die from internal injuries.) But, the smart meets or exceeds all federal government crash test standards. Tip: Avoid ramming immovable objects at high rates of speed.
  • Gas mileage from the three cylinder engine, according Sandy’s real world experience, is in the low-to-mid-40 MPG. The European diesel versions get much more, but the U.S. version sacrifices some efficiency for better performance. This is certainly very good, but some ultra-efficient cars which are larger can match these numbers. (Sandy's other car is a Prius. He claims to have nothing against his local gas station owners.)
  • smart cars have plenty of room for two people and are very comfortable and well-appointed. Driving one is a kick.
  • The name - smart - is not capitalized. (Those marketing guys.)
  • This is my favorite. The body panels on the smart can be changed in about two hours. In fact, legally, Sandy’s car is black because the black panel covering the rear roll hoop is the only body panel on the car that is permanent. Technically, the cars only come in black and silver, the colors of the “tridion safety cell”.
When Sandy bought his smart it was white, which Sandy thought was a bit boring. The dealer told him to go have lunch and when he came back it would be rally red. Sandy asked them to leave the white panel on the rear hatch so that his car would be Sandy’s smart.

Sandy's smart car - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

All images and words copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Enchanted Cottage

Red Ford F150 pickup truck - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Although a self-acknowledged gear head, for me it's not all about the machines. What really fascinates me is the people who own them, and who use them. Sometimes the vehicle is just an element that adds more information about those people.

The photographer's eye was caught by the harmonious, rusty reds in this cottage and it's Ford F150, trying to generate some warmth on a cool blue day, but not quite getting to "cheery".

What I see in this tableau tells me that this is the home of a person who may live humbly - and knows how to put in a water heater - but who also seems to have a sensibility that might be overlooked at a glance.

There is attention to detail, yes, in the red-and white-painted woodwork under the eves, the wavy-edge siding and the unusual A-frame gable over the front door. This taste for subtly eccentric decoration is also seen in the white stripes and elaborate wheel covers on the otherwise pedestrian Ford pickup truck.

And if you look closely there are signs that a spiritual person lives within this little house. Not the common yard symbols of Christianity, there is no saint or Virgin Mary among the row of small sculptures in the front bed. There are, however; a basket of artificial flowers, a horse's head (like off a carousel) a bust of a woman who appears to be the St. Pauli Girl or possibly the mate of the bust of the man in the three-cornered hat, what I make out to be either a football player or a spaceman in a helmet, a gnome-like figure with huge head of curly orange hair, what I believe is a mouse eating a piece of cheese, and three struggling potted plants, apparently recently liberated from a long winter spent indoors.

What the connections are between these various items and icons is certainly not obvious to me, but there are two signs that are very clear in their meaning: the horse shoe hanging above the garage door, and the "Welcome" sign right by the front door.

Herein lives an optimist.

All words and images copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Red Truck

Red Chevy Pickup Truck in Farm Field - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

I made this photo about a year ago just outside of Tampico, IL. It's become something of a trademark for me, because it depicts two of my favorite subjects - vehicles and farm landscapes.

A downpour had just passed the spot - you can see it receding in the background - and the field was literally flowing with water. The sun had come out behind me, and was shining full force on the scene, bouncing some beautifully saturated color my way. (Holy RGB!)

I am fascinated with the horizon in farming areas. Each farm has a unique signature rising up from the otherwise unbroken line where the fields meet the sky.

All images and words copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Monday, May 11, 2009

My New Illustration: "Hot Rod GMC"

"hot rod"; GMC; "GMC truck"

In addition to my photography, I also do illustration. I just finished drawing this from a photo I published here a few posts back.

I have to say, I think it's pretty cool ;-) (It's a pretty cool truck!) Let me know if you are interested in buying a print of this, or of any of my photos.

I am accepting commissions if you have a photograph that would like me to make into Illustrator art. Once drawn, these images can be enlarged practically without limit, and applied to various items such as t-shirts, mugs, etc.

Sorry for the commercial plug, but I have to make money, too.

Drop me an email at

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Midway Drive-in

Midway Drive-in Sign - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

One gray morning, early in the spring, I was out shooting landscapes near my father-in-law's place in Sterling, Illinois, and I came across the Midway Drive-in. I'm guessing the Midway is about midway between Sterling and Dixon, known for magenta petunias lining the city streets and the "boyhood home" of Ronald Reagan, or "Dutch" as they like to call him.

The Midway, I learned, was built in the seminal year of 1950, and claims to be the oldest "standing" drive-in in the state.

The Midway owner's marketing strategy is to capitalize on nostalgia for the era, playing period rock n' roll music before the first show (unfortunately for the photographer, the speaker-poles have been replaced with AM-FM radio broadcasts). There's always a double feature at the Midway, and at intermission they show the "classic animated “Dancing Hot Dog” short" and other vintage concession ads.

What appealed to me about the Midway is the exposed architecture of the structures. I love the 3-D construction of the letters on the sign. Not vacuum-formed plastic, but sheets of metal cut and bent into shape, each letter riveted together by hand.

Of course, the roof of the box office is great. Although the Midway folks call it "spaceship" styling, it's shaped like an artist's palette and is tipped at an alarming angle. Notice the struts that hold it up are of completely different designs, side to side. The exterior walls are all faced with half-sawn logs or fenceposts, giving its asymmetrical shape a log-cabin kind of feel.

Seeing the place in the soft morning light when it was empty and silent was an oddly emotional experience, like I had missed the party and didn't even know about it.

Midway Drive-in - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Midway Drive-in Box Office Ticket Booth - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Midway Drive-in Box Office Ticket Booth - Side View - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Midway Drive-in Kiddie Playground and Screen - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Monday, May 4, 2009

For Sale

Ford 150 4x4 for sale - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Buying and selling vehicles is an American tradition highly fraught with emotion.

To many, buying a car is one of the most stressful decisions of their life. The fears of purchasing generally run; paying too much, signing for a mechanically damaged vehicle, and the possibility that after the buzz of taking possession wears off, you may be sitting in a vehicle that is not even suited to your needs.

Most people seek refuge at a brand-name dealer, or at least a professional dealer, assuming that to some extent their worst fears are mitigated. But no one really trusts the dealer(!)

For me, the trama is selling a vehicle. I always regret it. Even when my car is hauled away on the hook (which is the rule), I always hate watching a long-time traveling companion hit the road without me.

If I had a barn, I would currently be in possession of every car I have ever owned.

But there's a lot of wheeling dealing happening on the side of the road every day, all over America.

2005 Mercedes SLK 350 - for sale - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell


All words and Images copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell