Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bumper to Bumper and Side by Side

Back when I was just startin’ out, I was runnin’ a nice ’54 Ford two-door. She was a good looking sedan. I’d painted her kinda black and hand made some flames on the front.

She shipped new out of Dearborn with a 239 Y-Block, Ford’s first production overhead valve engine. A good little V8, but I’d updated her with a bigger-brother outta Mercury that had rolled down the side of the mountain leavin’ little but the engine of any value.

It was a 312 cu in V8 breathing through a four-barrel carburetor. She had 9.0:1 compression, and was mated to an automatic transmission, but I’d paired her with my manual tranny with three-speed plus overdrive. A Hurst shifter put that on the floor, and I had the overdrive switch wired to a toggle on my dash rather than under the accelerator pedal like old man Ford had intended. Gave me more control.

That engine sure looked purty with her gold-painted blocks and heads. Those long skirts were where the “Y” in the name came from, and produced around 235 horsepower stock through her four-barrel carb.

I added the "M 260" engine kit composed of a hotter camshaft, revised cylinder heads, and an intake manifold mounting two four-barrel carburetors. The kit was advertised as boosting the Mercury 312 V8 to 260 horsepower. Plus I’d done a little tuning and other things to get her just right. I worked at this gas station pumpin’ gas, but we was closed at night and my boss let me tinker around with my Ford after hours. I had a garage full of tools and hydraulic lift.

I modified the exhaust, running twin Lake Pipes. That’s a type of after market performance exhaust. The exhaust is routed from the exhaust manifold along the bottom of the car body beneath the doors. They were chrome plated. They offered a performance boost as they had less back pressure. Combined with my modified valves and heads, they really roared when I had it floored.

And my ride could breathe, sporting good performance heads due to their large valves and their unique stacked intake runner design, which flows very well. My ported and polished ECZ-G castings have flowed up to 235 cfm on the upper port. (I told you I had fiddled a bit with the engine innards! “Ported” means I’d ground out the intake ports to get maximum airflow and “polished” means that metal shined like chrome so there was no turbulence in the fuel flow for maximum “go.”)

The only problem I hadn’t worked out yet was the cooling. My original ’54 Ford radiator wasn’t really up to the task when the nights got hot and the roads ran fast. I wished I could have salvaged the Mercury radiator, but she was busted clean in two in the roll over, and I couldn’t afford to spring for a new one. So I just made due. A couple of SW gauges mounted under the dash helped we keep an eye on both the temperature and the oil pressure, and sometimes she’d start to get hot when I had her to the floor. I’d have to roll off on the gas in that case and let her cool down.

So that was what I was ridin’ out east of town toward a big hill we called the “divide.” It was a warm evening and I was keepin’ her under 80 when up ahead I spotted one of them big old Cad-e-lacs. It was a big one. A series 62 Coupe de Ville. She musta been doin’ 95. I sped up a bit to get a closer look. Soon we were bumper to bumper and side by side as I pulled into the passin' lane. When I rolled by I looked inside and — damn if I didn’t spot my girl friend, Mary Lou.

Now she wasn’t much of a girl friend. Had an eye for the other fellas, ‘specially if they had a hot car. And that Caddie was hot. But nothin’ can outrun my V8 Ford.

Sure the Cadillac has a 365 cu. in. V8, ‘bout the biggest GM made at the time. And that was hooked through a 4-speed Hydra-Matic, and she could move on down the road. But that big hog weighed 5100 pounds with all her chrome, and my little two-door tipped the scales at a bit over 3,000 pounds, so the Caddy would need the extra horses, especially as we climbed up that long hill.

I pressed the pedal to the metal and pulled out in front of that big Cadillac. As I pulled back over to the right, I looked in my rear view mirror. The Caddy musta stepped on it too, ‘cause the first thing I saw that Cadillac grille doin' a hundred and ten gallopin' over that hill. We made the top and rounded an offhill curve headin’ into a downhill stretch. It was me and that Cadillac neck and neck.

I knew Mary Lou was urgin’ her boyfriend of the moment on, and he was gonna try to pass me. He started to pull up even with my Ford. Just about then I glanced down at my temperature gauge and realized the Ford was hot and wouldn't do no more.

This wasn’t doin’ my motor no good. So I rolled back on the accelerator and let him go by. Just then it got cloudy and it started to rain. The rain water was blowin’ up under my hood and cooling off those Mercury horses. So I stepped back on the gas and tooted my horn for the passin’ lane. I rolled past that Cadillac doin’ around one twenty-five. I passed him at the bottom of the hill and it looked just like he was standin’ still.

I knew next time I saw Mary Lou, I’d just look the other way. I realized now my true companion was that Detroit iron, and I didn’t need no fickle gal anyways. I knew Mary Lou just couldn’t be true. She'd hang with me for a while, but then start back doin' the things she used to do.

After my little race I was about half way to Billings, so I just kept goin’. Stopped at a small bar in Roundup that had this band on stage. The band was called "Johnnie Johnson Trio." When they took a break, I invited the singer for a cold one, and we got to talkin’. The guys name was Charles. He turned out to be quite a car guy.

I was tellin’ him about my car and pretty soon I was describin’ all about me racin’ that Cadillac in my V8 Ford. He said he was gonna make a song out of it. I didn’t want people to know my part. Maybe some copper would hear and try to give me a ticket … if he could catch me. Or my mom might hear and get upset. So, just in case, I told him not to use Mary Lou’s name. He said he’d call her Ida-Mae. I was OK with that.

A year or so later I heard the song on the radio. He’d become a big star. I met up with him one more time in Chicago and he told me the rest of the story. He said that he performed the song around St. Louis with his group. Then he got his big break.

He had never recorded, but when he went to Chicago to see Muddy Waters perform, he stayed in town to pitch himself to Leonard Chess of Chess Records, who asked him to come back the next week with some original songs. Berry returned with his bandmates Johnnie Johnson (piano) and Eddie Hardy (drums), and a demo reel with four songs, including "Ida Mae." That's the one Leonard Chess liked best, but he asked Berry to change so there wouldn't be any confusion with "Ida Red" (a country tune popular at the time) and to fend off any copyright claims.

Berry changed the title. It was the first song the band recorded, and it proved a challenge: they recorded 36 takes.

There are a few different stories floating around about how the song got its name. Berry has said that Maybellene was the name of a cow in child's nursery rhyme, but Johnnie Johnson recalled that there was a box of Maybellene mascara in the office, which gave Leonard Chess the idea for the title.

Chess Records gave the disc jockey Alan Freed a co-writing credit on this song (and also some cash) in exchange for playing it on the radio. Deals like this led to the Payola scandals, which led to rules prohibiting record companies from paying DJs to play their songs.

But all that’s about the music biz, and I’m just interested in cars. My buddy Chuck went on to become a big music star, and he even showed up in that movie about the Delorean car with the flux capacitor. I liked that car.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Road to Perdition

This is the story of a young man. Raised up in the central hills of Pennsylvania, he volunteered to serve his country in the USN. He was promoted to Electrician’s Mate Third Class and reported to the USS Vulcan where he was assigned to the Calibration Lab. His name was Tom G. and he was a roommate of mine.

He was a very friendly guy and everyone liked him. Little did anyone realize he was on the path to perdition. It started out simply enough. A small Yamaha motorbike. A simple two-stroke ride. What evil could come from that?

But then he fell in with a tougher crowd. They had grease under their fingernails and some of them didn’t shave regularly. They wore T-shirts and denim pants with boots and some were said to use swear words and even smoke cigarettes.

He began to associate with this crowd of bikers riding choppers and sportsters and bikes from the British Isles. His speech soon included terms like “overhead valves” and “pushrods,” and he began to speak strange incantations such as “74 cubic incher” or “Knucklehead.”

Soon he’d traded in his little rice burner for a Harley-Davidson. A Panhead. In those days we called them dressers.

His die was cast. His fate was sealed. His future was predetermined. As John Steinbeck so brilliantly noted, “A plan once made and visualized becomes a reality along with other realities — never to be destroyed but easily to be attacked.” (I don’t know if that applies to my story, but quoting famous authors makes one seem educated, so I threw that in.)

Soon he was partaking of strong drink and listening to rock and roll music. One night at a bar called "Brads" that featured such music and slightly clad women, he had a couple of brews and went outside to start his big Harley. It was leaning on the reliable kick stand.

But rather than approach it from the right as was the prescribed method, he straddled the bike, retracting the safety gear, and — placing his right foot upon the starter pedal — he gave a mighty jump and came down on the pedal with all the force his 140 pound body could deliver.

Unfortunately, he lost his balance and soon found himself flat on the ground with the Harley laying at his feet, reclining on its right side.

His friends, who should have offered encouragement and assistance, just laughed. Soon Fred was laughing too. It could have been the beer, or the warm Virginia night, or just the simple humor in the event. No meanness was intended. It was just funny.

Back then we were not taught how to lift a large motorcycle. So he got on the right side, grabbed any handy lever on the bike, and with a loud exclamation and much exertion, he rotated the cycle up in a graceful arc. Sadly the motion didn’t stop when the HD was upright, but continued on until the bike now reclined on its left side. (Next time check the kick stand before lifting.)

More laughter. Soon everyone was on the ground rolling around with tears in their eyes from much cachinnation and mirth … even Fred.

I won’t say how many times our young hero flipped the bike from side to side. The details are lost in the haze of memory. But it is a warning to all who ride to take caution, especially when a few malt beverages have dulled the senses and reduced your coordination.

Watch out and perhaps you can avoid this fate that befell Fred. As Roy H. Williams so aptly stated, "A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes that mistake again. But a wise man finds a smart man and learns from him how to avoid the mistake altogether." Consider me that smart man. After all, I can quote famous people.

And with that final bookish quote, ends this tale. Beware you readers. Don't approach your bike with perturbation. Keep a clear head. Keep that motorcycle up on two wheels. The kickstand can be your friend. (But beware of driving off with it down!)

And don’t partake of strong drink. Otherwise you may meet the devil some night behind some watering hole. And there will be no one there to help. Only to laugh. Lord save you!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Where Have They Gone?

Society and enterprises have changed a lot since I was a young lad. It seems to be a strange dichotomy between reduced choices and increased variety. When I was a kid, the local vegetable section in the stores just had regular choices such as lettuce, tomatoes, apples, oranges, and onions. Now there are exotic fruits and vegetables from all corners of the globe.

Yet, also, when I was a boy, there were a dozen grocery stores to choose from in our little town. Three super markets, several large stores, and many small corner markets including one across from the swimming pool and one next to the Jr. High.

Now they’ve all merged, consolidated, nationalized, and “mom and pop” are gone. I remember when you went to the service station and the attendant not only pumped your gas, but he (wasn’t usually a she) would check your oil, wash your windshield, and pump up your tires. They could give you a lube or repair a flat, and most other mechanical work could be done right there.

Now you don’t even go inside to pay when you pump your own gas. And inside … now we know where the corner grocery store went. Restaurants are now fast food or big chains, although local restaurants seem to thrive too. We do eat out a lot more as a nation.

Technology is full of merging and combinations. In the early days of motorcycles and cars there were many, many choices. Now it has narrowed down significantly. There may be more models and options for the family sedan, but from a lot fewer companies, although there is a big increase in foreign models.

And that’s what I want to talk about. What happened to all those models and brands I grew up with in the 50s and 60s? Where did they all go? Even with the influx of non-American-made cars, it seems there are fewer dealerships than there once were.

The Fifties

The 1950s were pivotal for the American automobile industry. The post-World War II era brought a wide range of new technologies to the automobile consumer, and a host of problems for the independent automobile manufacturers. The industry was maturing in an era of rapid technological change; mass production and the benefits from economies of scale led to innovative designs and greater profits, but stiff competition between the automakers. By the end of the decade, the industry had reshaped itself into the Big Three and AMC, and the age of small independent automakers was over, as most of them either consolidated or went out of business.

The Big Three: the three largest auto makers. Just like today, they were/are General Motors and the Ford and Chrysler companies.

Even among the Big Three there has been reductions. Many marquis available in the fifties and sixties have been phased out, and I don’t just mean the Edsel. Going back to the beginning, at least 100 automobile companies had begun operations in Detroit by the first decade of the 20th century, but by the 1920s, the decade that gave rise to the Big Three, Ford was the largest.

In the 20's, together, the Big Three accounted for 70 percent of American auto sales. Their combined market share grew over the following decades, declining only slightly after World War II, but the Big Three soon came to dominate the industry, claiming 94 percent of all automobile sales for the US in 1955, 1956 and 1959. The industry grew at a pace never before seen, and the broader industry soon employed one-sixth of the entire American workforce. Detroit was on top.

Smaller Companies

In 1954, the smaller American Motors Corporation (AMC) was formed when Hudson merged with Nash-Kelvinator Corporation in a deal worth almost $200 million, the largest corporate merger in U.S. history at that time. Other mergers with smaller independent manufacturers followed. Although AMC was moderately successful it was never sufficiently large to challenge any of the Big Three, and was eventually bought by Chrysler in 1987.

Studebaker had enjoyed earlier success and was the first independent automaker to produce a V8 engine. The company's peak year was 1950. Studebaker struggled during the first half of the decade. The cars had styling ahead of their time but were overpriced when compared to the offerings of the Big Three. Low sales and financial difficulties led to a merger with Packard in 1954, itself in financial trouble. The new company, Studebaker-Packard Corporation, retired the Packard name in July 1958, but continued marketing automobiles under the Studebaker name until 1966.

Other American brands sold in the fifties, but no longer in existence through merger or outright collapse include: Kaiser (’50–’55), Henry J (’51–’54), Willys (’52–’55), and Frazer (’50–’51). AMC included the brands Nash, Rambler, and Hudson and added the foreign Renault brand later. They also sold cars under the AMC logo including the Eagle, Gremlin, Spirit, Javelin, etc.

Willys was a brand name used by Willys-Overland Motors, best known for its design and production of military Jeeps. In 1953, Kaiser Motors purchased Willys-Overland and changed the company's name to Willys Motor Company. The company changed its name in 1963 to Kaiser-Jeep Corporation; the Willys name disappeared thereafter.

Kaiser-Jeep was sold to American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1970 when Kaiser Industries decided to leave the automobile business. After the sale, AMC used engines it had developed for its other cars in Jeep models to improve performance and standardize production and servicing.

Renault purchased a major stake in AMC in 1979 and took over operation of the company, producing the CJ series Jeep until 1986. Chrysler purchased AMC in 1987.

While these were familiar brands of cars to me growing up, I’m more focused on the number of marquis at the Big Three. All of these corporations have moved to increase business efficiency, and that has led to many brands closing down.

Of course the other great story of American automobile business is globalization and imports and exports. Starting mainly with the Volkswagen “bug,” foreign imports started appearing in quantity in the US in the last half of the last century. In addition, American manufacturers expanded overseas with exports and mergers. This will also play a part in the paring down of American car brands.

Chrysler

We will start with Chrysler, and focus on the US brands that were offered in the 50s. These include Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, DeSoto, and Imperial. These are the five models I associate with Chrysler corporaton. Of the Big Three, this is the longest and most tortuous story to tell.

Chrysler and Dodge are still alive and reasonably well, but DeSoto died off in the 60s. The DeSoto (sometimes De Soto) manufactured and marketed from 1928 to the 1961 model year. The DeSoto marque was officially dropped November 30, 1960, with over two million vehicles built since 1928. Who can forget the theme song from the Groucho Marx show, You Bet Your Life: “It’s delightful, it’s delovely, it’s DeSoto"?

Despite being a successful mid-priced line for Chrysler for most of its life, DeSoto's failure was due to a combination of corporate mistakes and external factors beyond Chrysler's control. The Chrysler brand was essentially moved from a luxury automobile producer to a mid-priced automaker when Chrysler itself launched the separate Imperial brand in 1954 for the 1955 model year. And the mid-priced market segment was already filled with brands of the other Big-Three rivals: Ford, and GM, plus Chrysler's own model, the Newport.

Most DeSoto models were merged into the new Chrysler Newport in 1961. It met its doom because it was eaten alive at both ends by Dodge — positioned below it in price — and Chrysler, positioned above it as yet another mid-priced offering.

Then there’s Plymouth. After Dodge met with such success with new models in the 60s and 70s such as the Dodge Van and the Mini-Van, Plymouth dealers lobbied to add those designs to their product set. But it wasn’t enough.

Most Plymouth models, especially those offered from the 1970s onward, such as the Valiant, Volaré, Acclaim, Laser, Neon, and Breeze, were badge-engineered versions of Dodge or Mitsubishi models. By the 1990s, Plymouth had lost much of its identity, as its models continued to overlap in features and prices with Dodges and Eagles (Jeep).

In an attempt to fix this, Chrysler tried repositioning Plymouth to its traditional spot as the automaker's entry-level brand. Part of this marketing strategy included giving Plymouth its own new sailboat logo and advertisements that focused solely on value. However, this only further narrowed Plymouth's product offerings and buyer appeal, and sales continued to fall.

After discontinuing the Eagle brand in 1998, Chrysler was planning to expand the Plymouth line with a number of unique models before the corporation's merger with Daimler-Benz AG. The first model was the Plymouth Prowler, a hot rod styled sports car. The PT Cruiser was to have been the second. Both models had similar front-end styling, suggesting Chrysler intended a retro styling theme for the Plymouth brand. At the time of Daimler's takeover of Chrysler, Plymouth had no models besides the Prowler not also offered in similar version by Dodge. This so-called "badge engineering" was common among all the Big Three. Producing versions of a particular car under various brands. The only change was the badge or company logo.

In Canada, the Plymouth name was defunct at the end of the 1999 model year. Consequently, DaimlerChrysler decided to drop the make after a limited run of 2001 models. This was announced on November 3, 1999. The last new model sold under the Plymouth marque was the second-generation Neon for 2000. The Plymouth, first introduced in 1928 as Chrysler Corporation's first entry in the low-priced field, failed to make it into the 21st century.

The Chrysler Imperial, introduced in 1926, was Chrysler's top of the line vehicle for much of its history. Models were produced with the Chrysler name until 1954, and again from 1990 to 1993. The company positioned the cars as a prestige marque to rival Cadillac, Lincoln, and Packard.

The Chrysler Imperial was discontinued after the 1993 model year along with the similar New Yorkers. They were replaced by the new LH platform sedans. While the New Yorker name continued on for three more years, 1993 would be the last year for Imperial. The Chrysler LHS, a full-size luxury four-door sedan, replaced the Imperial as Chrysler's flagship model for 1994.

The smallest of the Big Three, Chrysler has had a troubled existence. In 1998, Chrysler and its subsidiaries entered into a partnership dubbed a "merger of equals" with German-based Daimler-Benz AG, creating the combined entity DaimlerChrysler AG.

On May 14, 2007, DaimlerChrysler announced the sale of 80.1% of Chrysler Group to American private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, L.P., thereafter known as Chrysler LLC, although Daimler (renamed as Daimler AG) continued to hold a 19.9% stake.

Following the 2007 economic collapse, the sale of substantially all of Chrysler's assets to "New Chrysler,” organized as Chrysler Group LLC was completed on June 10, 2009. The federal government provided support for the deal with $8 billion in financing.

On July 21, 2011, Fiat bought the Chrysler shares held by the United States Treasury. With the purchase, Chrysler once again became foreign owned; however, this time Chrysler was the luxury division.

On 16 December 2014, Chrysler Group LLC announced a name change to FCA US LLC. Currently the models sold in the US are Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and the RAM truck line.

Ford

Ford has recently been number two in the Big Three, and it can be said they often try harder. They were the only Big Three company that didn’t seek government assistance in the recent financial downturn.

Back in the fifties their brands include Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln. A new model, named after Henry Ford's son, Edsel Ford, made its debut as a separate car division on September 4, 1957, for the 1958 model year. The front grill was said by critics to look like "an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon." It ended up being a marketing blunder that not only cost Ford almost $250 million, but also turned the word "Edsel" into an enduring metaphor for failure. The car sold poorly and production for the final 1960 model year had ceased by November 1959.

In 1956, Ford tried to revive the Continental brand as a standalone line of ultra luxury automobiles, but abandoned the attempt after the 1957 model year, by which time around 3000 Mark II cars had been built. The Continental thereafter became a successful car model under Ford's Lincoln brand. Ford also acquired Jaguar and Aston Martin.

Mercury was created in 1938 to fill the price gap between the Ford and Lincoln vehicle lines. On June 2, 2010, Ford announced the closure of the Mercury line by the end of 2010 after a 72 year run. In terms of sales, Mercury represented only 1 percent of North America's automobile market compared to the 16 percent share of Ford. Another victim of badge engineering, it didn't attract the customers it had in the 50s when it was positioned above the basic Ford car.

This was probably a wise decision by Ford Motor Company. Eliminating the Mercury brand freed production facilities to produce more Ford Fusions. Ford wants to challenge the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry for the title of second-best or best-selling car in America with the Fusion. It needs this extra production capacity to produce Blue Oval-badged sedans, not more Mercury Milans.

Ford Motor Company has stated that additional Lincoln models will be introduced to help replace any shortfall from the discontinued Mercury brand. The Ford and Lincoln brands are now all that remains in the line-up, along with Ford Trucks and, in response to the Cadillac pickup truck (who would of thunk it), the Lincoln trucks and SUVs.

General Motors

Finally, turning to the top American motor company and the largest automobile company in the world, General Motors. In the fifties GM sold five brands: Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac (plus Chevy and GM trucks). Since they were not around back then, I won't even mention that flash in the pan, Saturn (b. 1985, d. 2010). Saturn barely was old enough to drink alcohol before it expired.

At the time, Oldsmobile was the oldest surviving American automobile marque, and one of the oldest in the world, after Daimler, Peugeot, and Tatra. Though it was closed in 2004, it still remains an active trademark of the General Motors Corporation. One wonders how things would be different if GM had invested the money they put into establishing the Saturn brand into their existing automobiles. Could Oldsmobile have been saved with more investment in the product line?

Pontiac production ended in 2009, although, again, the trademark is retained by GM. (Saab and Hummer also died during the troubled times at GM.) It turns out that GM killed Pontiac on government orders, according to former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. That was surprising since Pontiac was well on the way to reinventing itself as a niche brand focused on rear wheel drive cars.

Some experts predict that GM may soon end the Buick line too, although that brand does very well in China and may be kept just for that reason. For much of its existence in the North American market, Buick has been marketed as a premium automobile brand, selling luxury vehicles positioned above GM's mainstream brands, such as Chevrolet, while below the flagship luxury Cadillac division.

Face it. What was the difference between a Chevy and a Pontiac? How was an Oldsmobile any different than a Buick. They were definitely redundant brands. Remember the outcry when the higher priced models were found to have Chevy engines?

The surviving Buick line retains the distinction of being the oldest active American automotive marque; the original Buick Motor Company was a cornerstone of the establishment of General Motors in 1908.

The fate of the rest

These disappeared brands from the Big Three: DeSoto, Plymouth, Imperial, Mercury, Continental, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile join Packard, Nash, Rambler, Hudson, Kaiser, Studebaker, AMC, Henry J, Willys, and Frazer. They join the Duesenberg and the Stanley, the Checker and the Hupmobile, the International Harvester and the Lasalle, the Mercer and the Overland, the Pope-Waverley and the REO, the Stutz and the Haines, and so many more.

Such are the facts of my history. Gone are many of the cars of my youth. Replaced by Toyota and Honda, by Volkswagen and Audi, by Mercedes and BMW, by Mazda and Subaru, by Nissan and Suzuki, by Hyundai and Kia, by Volvo (Ford!) and Saab (GM). The only thing constant is change!

It’s delightful, it’s delovely, it’s … gone.

Who will follow? Can VW recover from their latest kerfuffle? Will the Austin Martin survive for another Bond movie? Can Europe compete with the far East? Will China enter the world-wide market? What about the Corvette and the Mustang? How will the SUV, cum Crossover change things. Will Detroit ever recover? I don’t mean the Detroit automotive business … I mean DETROIT the city. Will these departed brands become legends told around the campfire of the time of the great V-8s and before the hybrids and Teslas (assuming that brand survives)? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Vulcan


From ancient times there were seven known planets. These were bright objects in the sky that wandered around the fixed stars. The name “planet” is Greek for “wanderer.” Some were amongst the very brightest stars and some were very faint.

Listing them in order they are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Wait, that’s only five. Well throw in the Sun and the Moon — very bright objects, and you get the magic number seven. You see, these ancients were also superstitious numerologists. They considered the number seven to mean completeness. Note there are seven days in the week and seven creative days in Genesis.

Around the 16th and 17th centuries, things started to change in a big way. The telescope was invented and Galileo observed moons on Jupiter and rings on Saturn. The heavens became messy. Kepler’s laws and Newton’s explanation of these laws with formulas and even a new form of math (Calculus) to solve the equations and science had a whole new view of the heavens.

Soon another planet was discovered: Uranus. If you’ve got really good eyesight and amazingly dark skies, you can see Uranus without a telescope. It’s only possible with the right conditions, and if you know exactly where to look.

Since it’s possible to see Uranus with the unaided eye, it’s amazing that it went undiscovered for almost all of human history. Uranus was only discovered in March 1781 by Sir William Herschel.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. There were several observations of Uranus before that, but in every case, it was mistaken as a star since it moves so slowly in the sky. The first recorded sighting was in 1690 by John Flamsteed, who spotted it at least 6 times. He cataloged it as the star 34 Tauri. The French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier also observed Uranus between 1750 and 1769.

Herschel’s original plan was to name this new planet after King George III of England. But in the end, British astronomers decided to name the new planet Uranus, after the father of Saturn in Roman mythology.

After the discovery of Uranus in 1781, astronomers noticed that the planet was being pulled slightly out of its normal orbit. John Couch Adams of Britain and Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier of France, used Newton's laws and mathematics to predict that the gravity from another planet beyond Uranus was affecting the orbit of Uranus. They figured out not only where the new planet was, but also how much mass it had. A young astronomer, Johann Gottfried Galle, decided to search for the predicted planet and observed Neptune for the first time in 1846.

That means that Neptune was the first planet to be discovered by using mathematics. Further demonstration of the power of Newton’s law of gravity.

Neptune was the god of freshwater and the sea in Roman religion. He is the counterpart of the Greek god Poseidon. In the Greek-influenced tradition, Neptune was the brother of Jupiter and Pluto (another god we will hear about soon); the brothers presided over the realms of Heaven, the earthly world, and the Underworld.

Recall the planet Uranus was found to have strange movements that could only be attributed to another body. Neptune's discovery in 1846 somewhat accounted for the orbit, but there were still discrepancies that led scientists to conclude yet another planet existed.

In 1894, businessman Percival Lowell built Lowell Observatory in Arizona near Flagstaff to study Mars. In 1905, he turned the telescope toward the search for the elusive Planet X, though he died before the new planet could be found.

When Clyde Tombaugh was hired in 1929, he joined the search for the missing planet. The telescope at the Lowell observatory was equipped with a camera that would take two photographs of the sky on different days. A device known as a "blink compactor" rapidly flipped back and forth between the two photographs. Stars and galaxies essentially remained unmoving in the images, but anything closer could be visually identified by its motion across the sky. Tombaugh spent approximately a week studying each pair of photographs, which contained over 150,000 stars, and sometimes nearly a million.

On Feb. 18, 1930, Tombaugh noticed movement across the field of a pair of images taken a month beforehand. After studying the object to confirm it, the staff of Lowell Observatory officially announced the discovery of a ninth planet on March 13. This ninth planet was named “Pluto” for the god of the underworld.

Of course, Pluto has now been demoted and is no longer officially a planet. It was a Mickey Mouse place anyway. No really. It’s orbit actually crossed that of Neptune and for some part of it’s revolution around the Sun it was the eighth planet. For that and other reasons it got kicked out of the club.

Meanwhile, back at the slide rule, scientists were noting some unusual perturbations or shifts in the orbit of Mercury, the innermost planet. With the success of the use of math to find Neptune and Pluto, it was natural to start looking for a planet inside the orbit of Mercury to explain its variation from the mathematical expectations. Possibly this new planet was so close to the Sun that we failed to find it in the solar glare.

In the late 1800s, French mathematical astronomer Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier announced he’d discovered a new planet. He didn’t find it with the help of a telescope, however. He used math. He even named his new discovery calling it Vulcan for the Roman god of fire, which would be very appropriate for a planet this close to the Sun.

There was nothing wrong with Le Verrier’s math. Recall that, a few decades before, Le Verrier had conjured up Neptune using Newtonian physics to predict the exact location of our eighth planet, before ever observing it.

The clues seemed there. However, the object observed by Verrier was not a new planet. The search continued for the cause of Mercury's subtle shifts.

It wasn’t until Albert Einstein came along in 1915 that someone was able to explain the physics behind why Le Verrier’s math did not prove Vulcan’s existence.

You see, Einstein discovered that Newton was wrong. His equations were wrong. Well, at least they required a correction. These corrections are required in the case of strong gravity or very fast motion. As the inner-most planet (as we now know) Mercury is both most affected by the Sun's great gravity and is also the fastest moving planet in its orbit. Einstein’s corrections, once applied to Mercury’s orbit, removed any need for another planet to explain the orbit. Newton’s ideas worked well for the rest of the solar system, but produced some errors when applied to the innermost planet.

What lesson is there to be learned from this tale? Now, with the recent announcement from Caltech astronomers Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin that there is likely a ninth planet (not counting Pluto) beyond Neptune, astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians are reviewing just what cautionary lessons the story of Vulcan may hold for today’s planet-hunters.

Thomas Levenson in his book “The Hunt for Vulcan … and How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe,” explains, that our understanding of the laws of physics is constantly changing, evolving. And, in the case of Vulcan, Le Verrier's mistake came from the fact that the understanding of the laws of physics was not as advanced as it is now.

Everything made sense. Newton's theory had worked in every application up to then. The calculations that Le Verrier did everybody knew. But in science a single brute fact is powerful enough to overturn the most beautiful theory.

It wasn’t until many decades later that a physicist came up with a theory that could explain the wobble in Mercury’s orbit.

Albert Einstein starts working on a different problem. Not the problem of explaining Mercury's orbit, but the problem of reconciling Newton's whole theory of of motion with his Special Theory of Relativity. His answer was to show how space (or more precisely, space-time) is warped by massive objects. This improvement is his General Theory of Relativity.

Einstein applied his theory to the real world problem of Mercury’s orbit. Mercury’s orbit behaved exactly as Le Verrier said it did, but … it was just rolling down the shortest path it could travel in curved space-time. You didn't need another planet, you didn't need some mysterious effect on the sun, you didn't need to play with the fundamental constants of nature. That's just the way it was. And it was a revelation.

Levenson is excited about the possible existence of Planet Nine. But he’s a bit more hesitant than some to believe it's out there.

“The thing that's beautiful about Planet Nine is, you know science advances, people do things differently now than they did in the 1850s. The mathematics that Batygin and Brown brought to bear … are much more sophisticated mathematics than Le Verrier had at his disposal. Just as Le Verrier had much more sophisticated mathematics than Newton had at his disposal,” Levenson says.

Underneath it all, the argument is exactly the same. There's stuff out there in the universe that is doing something that we can't quite fully explain. We may be jumping to conclusions. Somewhere some scientist may be trying to explain something entirely different and may end up modifying Einstein’s modifications of Newton.

That’s how science works. Nothing is sacred. No magic numbers. Just corrections and adjustments to allow for new data. Pretty exciting times I’d say. We now know much better than ever before just what Pluto looks like. Planet or not, it has some mysteries to be solved. Whether it has any companions out in the distant reaches of the solar system is yet to be confirmed. Who will find the answers?

Do You Love Me?

"You broke my heart,
'Cause I couldn't dance.
You didn't even want me around.
And now I'm back,
to let you know,
I can really shake 'em down.”

As a teenager growing up in central Montana, dances were a very important social event. Whether at the high school, the local teen club, or the Eagles, these were opportunities to make it of break it with the local gals. And, as a teenager, the local gals were very high on my list of priorities.

But, sadly, I couldn’t dance. Not that that really mattered much. The key was getting up the gumption to just ask a girl to dance. And be prepared for rejection. Oh, they did say yes now and then. And those were good times.

The music was always part of it. Even if you couldn’t get a dance partner, you could still groove to the music. That’s right kids of today, we would GROOVE to the music. Sometimes it was just records and we took off our shoes to save the gym floor: sock hop. Other times it was local bands. Especially John Uribe and the Sultans. Lot’s of memories that I’m sure many from my time and place share.

Those six little spoken lines that I started this essay and the song that comes after were written by Motown CEO Berry Gordy, Jr. There is some controversy whether he wrote the song for The Temptations or originally for the group that had it as their one big hit. That would be The Contours.

Now I admit I probably heard it first covered by some NW band such as the The Wailers, Kingsmen, or Paul Revere and the Raiders. The song has been covered umpteen times and was even resurrected when it was used for the soundtrack of “Dirty Dancing.”

The Contours struggled throughout their career and this was there only really big hit, their third try. Funny about how they got into the business. A possible lesson for anyone on dealing with rejection.

Joe Billingslea and Billy Gordon founded a singing group called The Blenders in their native Detroit, Michigan in 1959. They completed the group with Billy Hoggs and Billy Rollins, who had responded to an ad placed in the local newspaper by Billingslea. The group soon added Leroy Fair (in place of Billy Rollins) and bass singer Hubert Johnson and changed the name to The Contours.

In the fall of 1960, the group auditioned for Berry Gordy's Motown Records. Gordy turned the act down, prompting the group to pay a visit to the home of Johnson's cousin, R&B star and Gordy associate Jackie Wilson. Wilson in turn got The Contours a second audition with Gordy, at which they sang the same songs they had at the first audition, the same way, and were signed to a seven-year contract. Get that, second audition, same as the first, but this time they got the job! Or was that Jackie Wilson’s doing?

The 1962 release of their third song with its shouted lead vocals from Billy Gordon and references to several popular dances such as the Mash Potato, hit #1 on Billboard's R&B chart and crossed over to #3 on the Hot 100 in 1962. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.

Founding member Billingslea, now 77 years old, continues to perform with his group, The Contours with Joe Billingslea, which is among the acts featured in a DVD released by Motown in January 2007 called “Motown: The Early Years,” featuring its appearances on the Public Broadcasting System specials. In March 2010, The Contours were inducted into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame. The band has released 15 singles, many of which charted although never higher than #16, although the ’88 rerelease of “Do You Love” me went to #11.

They have ten albums including a 2011 release and you’ll find their work on several Motown compilation albums. There have been various ventures by individual band members and a few law suites over use of the name, but then lawyers were always an essential part of rock and roll.

Le’ me see you dance.
He can’t dance.
You can’t dance.
Watch me now!