Leaving Detroit

Posted Friday, Feb. 28, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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In the nine months from the summer of 1890 to the spring of 1891, the families of both the Police Commissioner and Police Court Judge of Saginaw, Mich., welcomed new baby boys. One would grow up to become the famous cowboy movie star, Tim McCoy; and the other would become my grandfather. Apparently, neither boy wanted to stay in Saginaw, much less Michigan. But I find it interesting to follow, in my grandparents’ travels, the rise and fall of Michigan and Detroit.

When Tim and Harold came of age around 1910, that census marked the first time in U.S. history that Detroit’s population made it one America’s 10 largest cities — knocking Cincinnati off the list — while the 1906 Great San Francisco Fire removed that city from the Top Ten permanently. McCoy took off to become a real cowboy in Wyoming, then a movie star, but my grandfather and his younger brother, Gordon, saw Detroit’s massive growth in automobile manufacturing as their best chance at success.

As I’ve mentioned before, the 1920 census showed the brothers living in a single room in a boarding house near the Dodge Main factory, where both were employed. Harold’s job was listed as “plant supervisor” and Gordon’s “tool and die maker.” Yet things had clearly begun to change in the Motor City, doubling its population between the 1910 Census and that of 1920. A mass migration toward the expanding auto industry had swollen Detroit’s citizenry to 993,078 people.

Much of that growth came from non-English-speaking immigrants, lured by the promised high wages in the then grueling production of cars. Which is how my grandparents met; Elsa, born in Wisconsin, had never spoken a word of English until, at 18, she’d run away from home and put herself through a two-year teachers’ college in Chicago. Now she was teaching Ford’s immigrant workforce our official language.

But the Great War inflicted casualties far beyond the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East. The Spanish Influenza, carried by our troops worldwide, claimed two major victims in Detroit: Horace and John Dodge. And with their passing, Dodge Main was shuttered.

Detroit in the Rearview Mirror

Harold’s credentials — having worked for the Dodge Brothers and been promoted to plant supervisor in less than a decade — should have made it easy for him to transfer to any of the other car companies, still growing as the Roaring 20s kicked off. But my grandparents looked around them and decided they wanted no part of what Detroit had become, or where it was headed.

I regret that as a boy I never talked to my grandparents about why they left Michigan, and frankly never even knew they were involved in the automobile industry until a few decades ago. But I know that, with Elsa’s family in nearby Reedsburg, Wis., and Harold’s widowed mother Sarah still living in the family home on Williamson Road in Saginaw, leaving could not have been an easy decision to make. Yet they left the area, and they never looked back.

True, Detroit would continue to grow for another three decades before its decline started in the early 1950s; but they didn’t care. Living in a Northern industrialized city, no matter how many opportunities it held for employment and advancement, held no charm for my family. That would mean my relatives were among the first to see what that city really was, and to get as far away from it as possible.

So they moved west and settled in a town of almost 2,000 people, whose main street, Olive Avenue, was still a dirt road. It was Burbank, Calif., in the mid-20s, but Detroit wasn’t done messing with my grandparents just yet.

Change Left Over!

Allan and Malcolm Lougheed were child prodigies at mechanical engineering. In 1903, the 17-year-old Malcolm sketched out his first design for a mechanical brake for a motorized vehicle. He submitted his design for a U.S. patent, which was granted a few years later. From there he joined a San Francisco car dealership, where he was responsible for testing new cars before they were delivered to customers. Brother Allan joined him there as a mechanic.

In 1917 the brothers decided to move into aircraft design and production; they quickly came up with their Model G, but failed to make any money. Allan quickly went back to working on automobiles, while Malcolm found work as the aircraft advisor to General Venustiano Carraza in Mexico. When Malcolm didn’t get paid for his work on Carraza’s one-plane air force, he stole the General’s old Paige automobile and fled back to California.

On that car, Malcolm invented the modern hydraulic brake system, which he showed off to the media in 1919 by driving that Paige automobile into a garage at 30 miles an hour, slamming on the brakes and stopping safely. Malcolm Lougheed’s quote that day remains with us: “My brakes stop on a dime, with change left over.” Duesenberg quickly put Lougheed brakes on its vehicles, and in 1924 Walter Chrysler added them to his entire vehicle line-up.

Lougheed, now Anglicized to Lockheed, became one of America’s most famous corporate names — but for Malcolm’s outstanding brakes, not the new aircraft company brother Allan had founded.

The GM of Aircraft Companies

Enter the Detroit Aircraft Company, founded in part by automotive moguls with the intention of creating the General Motors of the aircraft industry. On the board of directors were Edsel Ford, Ransom Olds, Henry Leland, Roy Chapin and Charles Kettering.

The company was owned numerous aircraft companies, including Ryan, which had built Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis; and in 1929 the Detroit Aircraft Company acquired Lockheed from Allan. Most believe the Detroit Aircraft Company purchased it not because of Allan’s outstanding first airplanes but because, thanks to his brother’s hydraulic brakes, the Lockheed name was already well known and respected nationwide.

And there’s my grandfather, Harold, having escaped Detroit to move to Burbank and working for, you guessed it, Lockheed Aircraft, now part of the Detroit Aircraft Company. Shortly thereafter came the stock market crash, the bankruptcy of Detroit Aircraft and the one-week demise of Lockheed, which a group of investors purchased out of bankruptcy for a mere $40,000. Fed up, my grandfather would later start his own manufacturing business, building furniture.

No Regrets

Malcolm Lockheed was fed up, too. Disgusted at how brother Allan had been treated by Detroit, he sold his brake manufacturing company to Bendix in 1932 for a mere $1 million. Although at the depth of the Great Depression, he could have retired for life on that much money, he didn’t. Instead he became a gold prospector in Northern California’s Calaveras County. There he would spend his entire fortune and the next three decades, looking for gold that had played out a half century earlier. When Malcolm Lockheed died on August 13, 1958, it was discovered that he had been living on welfare. In that same year, some 73 million vehicles driving the roads of America were stopping safely with his hydraulic brake system, but America barely noticed his passing.

Allan Lockheed would remain an aviation industry consultant while dealing in Southern California real estate. Late in life he was asked what he did during the earliest days of aviation. He replied, “I survived.”

My grandparents did better than Malcolm, never rich, never busted and never living on welfare. Their home in Burbank became their base to explore America and Mexico in their automobiles; they preferred to play the part of motorized Americans than to remain minor cogs in the machinery that built those cars.

For the record, Harold’s childhood friend Tim McCoy had a much more interesting life story. But I do know my grandparents never for a minute regretted leaving Detroit — long before it became fashionable.

© Ed Wallace 2014

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net; read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com

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