Unsafe in any County: The 1953 Buick Roadmaster

This is the first of a four part series on vehicle safety, inspired by articles found in digitized historical newspapers from across Huron County. Many of these newspapers can now be accessed by visiting our website. The story of vehicle safety is protracted and involves many actors. In this series on the history of vehicle safety, Special Project Coordinator Jeremy Dechert will shed light on particular vehicles and vehicle components which were discovered to be dangerous through either design flaws or negligence.

 
According to the above advertisement for the 1953 Buick Roadmaster, “all this flash-fast getaway, this new quiet, this stepped-up efficiency, this more spirited performance, can be judged only for the driver’s seat.” I disagree; this car can also be judged by those who have never driven one. On January 18, 1954, Leon Friend drove his 1953 Buick Roadmaster to the Lawless Buick Company in Ferndale Michigan for service. The previous day he had experienced a total loss of braking power. Clifford Wentworth, the assistant service manager, was pulling Mr. Friend’s car into the garage when the brakes failed yet again. Unable to stop, Mr. Wentworth crushed the leg of mechanic Robert Comstock between the Buick and another vehicle he was working on. Comstock lost his leg as a result of his injury.

The negligence of General Motors in dealing with the ‘53 Roadmaster’s known braking issue was highlighted during the course of the lawsuit brought by Comstock and his workmen’s compensation carrier against General Motors and Clifford Wentworth, the assistant service manager. The Roadmaster’s hydraulic breaking system had faulty ‘o’ rings. The ‘o’ rings acted as a seal between the master cylinder and vacuum cylinder of the power braking system. Because they created a poor seal, brake fluid would be sucked out of the braking system and up into the engine where it was burned off. With the brake fluid depleted, when the brakes were engaged the amount of pressure required to stop the vehicle could not build up in the brake lines.

Wentworth testified that General Motors was aware of the braking issue problem with the Roadmaster by November of 1953. Garages were told to fix the problem when vehicles came in for service. However, Buick’s Service Department advised garage operators not to preventatively warn known Roadmaster owners of the danger they faced. Only if an owner brought their vehicle in for service were garage mechanics were to fix the issue. Further, if a Roadmaster owner did bring their vehicle in for service but the garage did not have the parts to fix the braking issue, the garage owner was pressured by General Motors not to inform the vehicle owner of the issue. Comstock lost the case in circuit court but upon appeal to the Supreme Court of Michigan, he was granted a new trial. However, before the re-trial began, GM settled the case out of court to the tune of $75 000. This example of negligence was featured in Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, an explosive exposé on safety standards in the automobile industry. This work changed the nature of vehicle safety in North America.

*Details for this story were taken from Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, 1965.

Old News is Good News: All About ‘Project Silas’

What discoveries await you in Huron’s newly digitized historical newspapers? Special Project Coordinator Jeremy Dechert introduces Project Silas! Stay tuned for more updates, search tips and highlights.

From The Brussels Post, Nov. 18, 1898.

The Huron County Library, in partnership with the Huron County Museum, has been digitizing, OCRing (optical character recognition technology which reads and transcribes images) and publishing historical newspapers from communities across Huron County. Codenamed Project Silas, this initiative is aimed at assisting both academic and casual researchers in their quest for knowledge of Huron County’s past. Local newspapers are robust sources of historical information due to their consistent and specific reporting on particular persons, events, and places. Digitizing newspapers which were previously on microfilm and allowing them to be text searchable further democratizes public information and saves researchers countless hours of work and frustration by making multiple papers available from the comfort of your own home.

Cultural Services staff at the County of Huron have worked diligently to both build the project structure and process and post newspapers from the towns and villages of Blyth, Exeter, Goderich, and Wingham so far. I took over the project at the beginning of this month, and have recently added papers from Brussels to the website. Papers from Clinton and Seaforth are soon to follow. By the end of 2017 we hope to have additional papers from Zurich, Gorrie, Wroxeter, and Goderich on the website as well.

 

Stay up-to-date on the progress of Project Silas by…

Visit our website: http://www.huroncountymuseum.ca/digitized-newspapers/

Liking our Facebook page Huron County Museum

Following us on Twitter @hcmuseum

Sixteen Trillion Pixels

By Emily Beliveau, Digital Projects Assistant

16,274,377,342,285.

Sixteen trillion, two hundred seventy-four billion, three hundred seventy-seven million,
three hundred forty-two thousand, two hundred eighty-five.

50px x 15px at 1600%, detail from image no. A992.0003.545

50px x 15px at 1600%, detail from image no. A992.0003.545

That is the number of pixels that make up the full-sized cropped versions of the digital images we created for the Henderson Digitization Project. The number gets even bigger when you include the pixels that make up the border around the original and a ruler for scale that we included in our master copies. Why we made different kinds of copies while we were scanning is the subject of a future post. For now, what do all those pixels represent in physical space?

The majority of the 867 digital images we created were produced from film negatives. We only scanned print photographs in the few cases where there wasn’t a corresponding negative. In addition, we scanned about two dozen pieces of correspondence related to the images, mostly containing details about photo orders back and forth between photographer J. Gordon Henderson and his clients.

All together, we scanned 22.7 square metres or 35,235 square inches of archival material. Compared to some of the huge digitization projects taking place these days, ours is a modest effort, but it is an important effort nonetheless. Launching our first public digitization project and getting these images online marks the beginning of a new era of digital participation for the Huron County Museum & Historic Gaol.