87 YEARS AGO
Louise Smith, pioneer woman race driver, is born on July 31, 1916, in Greenville, SC. She begins her 10-year career at age 30 when she is asked to compete in a local contest by race promoter Bill France, later founder of the National Assn. for Stock Car Auto Racing. Seeking an attraction to boost attendance at his Greenville-Pickens Speedway event, France recruits Smith after being told she has outrun every law enforcement officer in the area. Although it is the first race she has ever seen, much less competed in, she captures third place in a modified '39 Ford coupe. The only instruction given her is to “stop if I see a red flag,” she says later.
Since nobody explains the meaning of the checkered flag, she continues on the course after the other cars have finished until, finally, a red flag is waved and she returns to the pits. She goes on to compete in Modified, Sportsman and Grand National races, at tracks from New York to Alabama, through 1956, winning 38. One of her more memorable competitions takes place in 1947 when she drives to Daytona Beach, FL, to watch a race, but ends up competing in the event with her husband's new Ford coupe, which is demolished. During her career she competes against early NASCAR legends Buck Baker, Fonty Flock, Curtis Turner and Red Byron, the association's 1949 first-season champion.
After retiring in 1956, Smith rejoins the racing fraternity in the 1970s by sponsoring several aspiring drivers. In 1999 she is inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
48 YEARS AGO
At a July 14, 1955, press conference in the Kasino Hotel in Westfalia, Germany, Volkswagen AG takes the wraps off a sporty new coupe that will add luster to its dowdy lineup for some 20 years. Known internally as the Type 143, Wilhelm Karmann christens it Karmann-Ghia by combining the name of his firm, Karmann Coach Works, with that of creator Luigi Segre's Torino, Italy, design firm, Ghia.
Although the car's appealing design bears a strong resemblance to the much larger 1953 d'Elegance concept car penned by Chrysler Corp. designer Virgil Exner and built by Ghia, Segre claims the Karmann-Ghia's design was laid down in 1950 by Mario Boano, a fact contested by Exner. Nevertheless, a prototype of the car is shown to VW head Heinrich Nordhoff in late 1953 after an enthusiastic endorsement from Karmann, whose firm builds the VW Type 1 (Beetle) convertibles.
It takes another 20 months to engineer the car's complicated body (many small components have to be welded together, and the seams lead-filled by hand) for production on a widened VW platform.
Standard Type 1 mechanical components are used, including its 1.2L, 30-hp, 4-cyl. engine. Production begins in August 1955 and the car bows at the Frankfurt auto show in September. Described by one journalist as a “sheep in wolf's clothing,” the sporty coupe still pulls in 10,000 buyers in its first year.
A convertible is added in 1958, and by the time production is halted in 1974 some 260,000 coupes and 81,000 convertibles have been built. In an attempt to broaden the car's appeal, a slightly larger 2+2 coupe (known internally as the Grosser, or larger, Ghia) is launched in 1961, but its less-well proportioned styling lacks the charm of the regular model. Output of the “big” Ghia ends in 1969 after just 42,500 have been assembled.
OTHER DATES IN HISTORY
July 6, 1955 — The U.S. Federal Air Pollution Control Act takes effect, providing funds for states to research the effects of auto emissions on the atmosphere.
July 13, 1960 — Ernest R. Breech resigns as chairman of Ford Motor Co. and is replaced by Henry Ford II, who retains the presidency as well.
July 31, 1990 — Retiring General Motors Corp. Chairman Roger B. Smith is replaced by Robert C. Stempel, who later becomes the first chief executive since founder Billy Durant to be ousted by the company's outside directors.