It’s coming…Google’s driverless car

Google driverless car

Photo credit: John Green

If you’re a Sci-fi fan, the concept of the driverless car is nothing new. But, seeing it actually happen in real-time is a completely different thing.

It turns out that Google’s driverless vehicles have now logged close to 700,000 miles in autonomous driving. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and has probably saved the company at least a few thousand dollars in coffee and caffeine pills alone. But there are many other potential benefits to be had.

Mercury News reporter Gary Richards had this to say about his recent test drive:

“Google’s grand experiment picked me up at home in West San Jose and ferried me to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Later other cars took me and numerous other media types on a 25-minute tour of city streets.

There were two Google workers along for each trip, but for the most part, there were no hands on the steering wheel.

Got that? No hands. The car made a few abrupt moves into left-turn lanes. And once it shuddered at another turn when a nearby bus seemed to confuse the onboard computers.”

Safety is a primary concern and selling point of the vehicles. “We actually haven’t had any at-fault accidents while the car is in self-driving mode,” said Google spokeswoman Katelin Jabbari. “The only at-fault accident was caused while a driver was in control.”

To tackle that, Google has packed these vehicles with $150K in specialized equipment, which includes a radar system with a price tag of $70K alone. All these gadgets enable the car to generate a 3-D map of its surroundings and can detect other vehicles, pedestrians and other things that lay in its path.

Per that, we still don’t know how much these cars are going to cost, but one can imagine. Stay tuned for more on that aspect.

For now, check out Gary Richards’ full review.



The Cost of Car Ownership Declines, says AAA

Car ownershipIt’s music to our ears over here at Advance HQ.

But is it true that owning and operating your car has gotten cheaper? So says a new AAA study.

 AAA released the results of its annual Your Driving Costs study today, revealing a 2.7 percent decrease in the cost to own and operate a sedan in the U.S. The average cost fell 1.64 cents to 59.2 cents per mile, or $8,876 per year, based upon 15,000 miles of annual driving.

“Despite increases in maintenance and registration fees, American motorists are experiencing an overall decrease in the cost to own and operate a vehicle,” said John Nielsen, AAA Managing Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. “A large decrease in fuel costs, [plus] lower tire, insurance and depreciation expenses are saving owners more than one and a half cents on every mile they drive.”

Here at AAP HQ, we wondered about the fuel costs part of it…do they really seem lower? It turns out that while gas prices haven’t actually tanked, overall they are less than they were in last year’s study, says AAA. Per that, we’ll take what we can get.

The study covers aspects such as fuel, maintenance, tires, insurance and more. You can read more about the study and download the 2014 Your Driving Costs brochure, courtesy of AAA.

And, don’t miss out on great tips for saving gas that you can easily put in place before hitting the road this summer.


Car news from around the web: Quirky Futuristic Cars

Euronews offers up a video of some of the wildest car designs found at the Geneva Motor Show 2014:

In just 2:31, you’ll see:

  • Wazuma GT, a motorbike/car/Batmobile mixture with a “Jaguar 4.0 litre supercharged V8 engine [that] achieves 375 horsepower and 387 pound-feet of torque.”
  • Fleche Rouge (Red Arrow), a car designed like an airplane; “700 kilograms of this red racer runs on a 4 cylinder 1.6 litre engine,” the same as the Citroen DS3.
  • Toyota’s FV2, where drivers lean forward to move the vehicle forward, lean back to reverse and steer by moving the vehicle side by side. If car color matters to you, check out another unique feature.
  • Nissan’s Black Glider, inspired by the ZEOD RC Le Mans racer, gives out zero emissions from twin on-board motors.
  • Volkswagen’s XL1, the most fuel efficient car on the planet at 313 miles per gallon, produces only 24g/km of CO2 emissions, which Volkswagen touts as a new benchmark.
  • Mansory’s car modification that boasts 0-to-100 in 4.4 seconds.

How to flip cars real good

If you’re a fan of car chase movies, you’ll want to read Car and Driver’s The Inside Story of the Academy Award–Winning Car Inversion Device, Or: How to Flip Cars Real Good. The article shares how 11-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner John Frazier practices the “mad science of movie mayhem” in an area that’s “filled with pick-a-part junkyards, ticky-tack indoor swap meets, and manufacturing businesses better off being ignored by OSHA.”

Frazier pneumatically flips cars up to 20 feet in altitude with “as much acrobatic spectacle as possible without necessarily modifying the car.” He has about two dozen car flippers that he rents out for $200 a day (one week minimum), not counting the cost of union labor required to operate the devices.

Transformation of cool cars

If you’re a fan of any of these movies, shows or cars:

  • Back to the Future’s Delorean
  • ·       Ghostbuster’s Ecto-1
  • ·       Herbie
  • ·       Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine
  • ·       The Partridge Family bus
  • ·       Ninja Mutant Turtle’s Party Wagon

then be sure to check out how Canadian illustrator Darren Rawlings turns these pop culture icons into Transformer Autobots in Mashable’s If Pop Culture’s Coolest Cars Were ‘Transformers.’

Good luck with THAT

No matter how many contests exist, there’s always room for another good one. Here, site visitors got to vote on the greatest road sign of all-time. The first place winner, one that shows a convoluted, virtually impossible-to-understand roadway graphic with the words “Good Luck” written below, received 30% of the votes (fourth photo if you scroll down).

The second place winner received almost 20% of the votes: Left Turn Under the Following 26 Conditions (tenth photo), and the third place winner, “No Outlet,” received 17% of the votes (first photo).

They’re all worth a look. Each winner received no prize “other than the obvious bragging rights associated with finding the most mind-boggling sign known to man … or at least out of the signs found this time around.”

Horseless e-Carriage coming to the Big Apple

For more than 100 years, couples visiting New York City have enjoyed romantic rides in a horse and carriage–but that may be coming to an end because of congestion issues and concerns about the horses. If so, the replacement may be an electric carriage with old-fashioned styling.

This vehicle seats eight and can reach 30 miles per hour, traveling about 100 miles before needing recharged.

What’s the quirkiest or weirdest car you’ve ever driven or seen? Let us know!

Editor’s note: Whether your ride’s from a salvage yard or a Sci-Fi flick, Advance Auto Parts has you covered, with a wide range of quality auto parts, tools and accessories. Buy online, pick up in store.

Going to Extremes: Cars From All Over the Spectrum

Lamborghini Veneno. Photo credit: Automobili Lamborghini.

Lamborghini Veneno. Photo credit: Automobili Lamborghini.

As human beings, we all love to noodle over what’s the biggest, what’s the highest, what’s the fastest, what’s the most expensive. That urge is what has kept the Guinness Book of World Records in business for nearly sixty years to date. Per that, we decided to pull together a few lists of extreme cars. Read on to see what we found…

Most expensive cars in the world

For this info, we turned to’s article, Dream wheels: The top ten most expensive cars in the world (March 2014). The good news is that, if you can spare $845,000, then you can own the cheapest car on this list: the Porsche 918 Spyder. This hybrid boasts 887 horsepower, enough to go 0-60 in 2.8 seconds. “For comparison,” the article reads, “that’s faster than the money you’ll have to plunk down for this thing can leave your bank account.”

At the top of this list is the Lamborghini Veneno at $4 million – but, even if you had that kind of dough, all three cars have already been sold. If you can scrounge together another 500k, though, you still have a shot at one of the nine roadsters. Digital Trends calls the Lamborghini Veneno “simply jaw-dropping,” also with 0-60 capabilities, which is “probably faster than sound can leave your body during a terrified scream.”

Ten cheapest cars

Assuming that not everyone will have the $845,000 needed for the Porsche, we decided to include’s list of The Ten Cheapest Cars Ever Sold. The cheapest car available in the United States right now (says this December 2013 article) is the Nissan Versa at $12,780.

There are cheaper cars in this list, but these prices correspond to the release dates of the vehicles so:

  • Yes, a 2007 KIA would have been free – but the catch was that you needed to buy a 2008 KIA at the same time.
  • And, yes. A Ford Model T was a great bargain at $3,895 in 1923 but. That was more than 90 years ago.
  • Even cheaper than a Model T was the Banner Boy Buckboard at $3,152 – but that photo kind of reminds me of my Big Wheel.


Rolls Royce 2013. Photo credit: Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited.

Rolls Royce 2013. Photo credit: Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited.

Big daddies

The “car guys” at who write for “car guys” decided to define the largest cars as the longest, listing the top 50 in production today (2014 cars in the list). Is it any surprise that the top three are all Rolls?

  • 2013 Rolls-Royce Phantom Extended Wheelbase: 239.8 inches
  • 2013 Rolls-Royce Phantom Sedan: 230 inches
  • 2013 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe: 220.9 inches

Those cars, though, don’t hold a candle to the 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 sedan at the astonishing length of 244.8 inches and the 2005 Maybach Exelro Coup at 245.3 inches.

Little dudes

As all good videos should, this one needs no introduction and is worth every minute.

Debate about the world’s fastest car has published what they call Fastest Car in The World: The ultimate guide (April 2014), where they examine claims of speed and provide their perspectives. They also clarify that, when talking about the fastest car in the world, they are meaning the fastest production car in the world. Otherwise, the Thrust SSC, a “jet-propelled car-rocket which broke the speed of sound and reached 763 mph (1,228 km/hr)” would have set the record on October 15, 1997.

As an aside, this article is worth reading for the photos alone.

Tortoise, not the hare

In The Ten Slowest Cars That You Can Buy (October 2013), Jalopnik determines the slowest car by the time it takes to go 0-60 – and the slowest car is also, not surprisingly, the smallest car: the Peel P50. That’s because it goes to 60 mph . . . um, well, never. It tends to top out at about 35 mph.

In fact, you have to go to the fourth slowest car to find one that can go 60 mph – and that’s its maximum speed: the MIA Electric Car.


This post wouldn’t be complete without a look at some of the world’s strangest vehicles – and, for that, we turn to Although written in 2007, this is an in-depth look at some very peculiar looking vehicles, complete with excellent photos and offbeat commentary:

• Part 1: The World’s Strangest Vehicles
• Part 2: The World’s Strangest Vehicles
• Part 3: The World’s Strangest Vehicles
• Part 4: The World’s Strangest Vehicles


Editor’s note: What are the most extreme vehicles you’ve seen or driven? Let us know here.

Oh, the horror…the story of monster trucks!

Shotgun Harry. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

Shotgun Harry. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

“A monster truck is fascinating because it can go anywhere—and over anything in its path. Here are trucks that typically weigh 10,000 pounds or more, jumping 25 to 30 feet in the air and performing long jumps upwards of 200 feet. This defies expectations, gravity, and the laws of physics.” (Jeff Cook, President and Founder of the International Monster Truck Museum & Hall of Fame)

If you’re a diehard fan, then names Allen Pezo, Dan Patrick, Scott Stephens, Gary Porter and Army Armstrong may ring a bell, especially as each was inducted into the International Monster Truck Museum’s Hall of Fame on November 9, 2013–during its third annual induction ceremony. Pezo had the most votes, while Stephens and Porter tied for second.

The International Monster Truck Museum (IMTM) & Hall of Fame was created in 2010 with the “mission of collecting and archiving the history of the monster truck sport and related aspects of the high performance aftermarket, focusing upon capturing history from the surviving pioneers and legends.” Each year, the IMTM will also honor accomplished people who contribute significantly to monster trucks by inducting them into the hall of fame.

This museum is different from many others in that, although it does house early versions of monster trucks, it is also recording “history” as it happens, archiving photos and data of modern trucks – rather than waiting 25 years and then seeking out the information. Here’s the breakdown:

Typically, there are three to four classic monster trucks on display at any given time in the museum, along with memorabilia and other historical items. Meanwhile, the website contains excellent resources, including a monster database of vehicles and relevant info surrounding each vehicle; here are three examples:

• Aaron’s All-American Dream Machine, a vehicle that set a world speed record of 96.80 mph in March 2012

• King Kong, belonging to Jeff Dane, one of the sport’s early celebrities

• Bob Chandler’s Bigfoot, the original car crusher

The site also includes driver profiles and loads of photos.

How it all got started

“Really,” Jeff Cook says, “one thing just led to another. There is a large museum complex in Auburn, including the National Military History Center, and the founder is a friend of mine. I was visiting him one day when he asked me if there was a museum yet for monster trucks and I said ‘no.’ We weren’t sure if we could pull one off but we got together with others in the industry and we were successful.”

“We have some early trucks in the museum,” Jeff adds, “which are now the dinosaurs of the racing world. They started out big and heavy, with real pickup bodies, as people competed to have the biggest truck on the block.”

Bigfoot. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

Bigfoot. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

And, just as “one thing led to another” in the creation of the IMTM, one thing led to another in the development of monster trucking itself. Here’s what happened.

Early days of monster trucking

No one sat up one day and decided to invent a monster truck. Instead, people gradually began modifying their pickup trucks and competing in truck pulling and mud bogging events. This then evolved into competitions (informal and then more formalized) to create the biggest truck.

People and trucks (with 48-inch-in-diameter wheels) that rose to attention included:

•          Bob Chandler: Bigfoot

•          Everett Jasmer: USA-1

•          Fred Shafer and Jack Willman, Sr.: Bear Foot

•          Jeff Dane: King Kong

Not surprisingly, all of these men – along with Dan Degrasso – were in the first group to be placed in the IMTM’s hall of fame.

In April 1981, Chandler used Bigfoot to drive over and crush cars, planning to use the results as a promotional tool for his business. He then repeated the performance in the Pontiac Silverdome in 1982; this time, the vehicle had tires of 66 inches in diameter. Around this time, the phrase “monster truck” was born. As other people began using 66-inch tires on their vehicles, the vehicles themselves became heavier, ranging from 13,000 to 20,000 pounds each, with super-sized suspension.

Was Chandler the first to perform the car crushing feat? It depends upon whom you ask. Some cite Dane as the first, late in the 1970s, while others believe someone else entirely was the first. What is true is that Chandler has the earliest video and that the Monster Truck Racing Association recognizes him as the first to perform this stunt.

In 1985, monster truck racing began, typically single-elimination races on obstacle courses. As people began to race, the heaviness of early monster trucks worked against them, so they began strategizing over how to lighten their loads and to boost their power, using fiberglass for truck bodies. In 1989, Jack Willman created a vehicle that only weighed 9,000 pounds, a significant reduction.

Monster Truck Racing Association

Goliath. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

Goliath. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

The Monster Truck Racing Association (MTRA) formed in 1988, setting safety standards. “We pride ourselves on being the safest motor sport, considering the number of events, for both participants and spectators,” says Marty Garza, director of communications for MTRA. “I credit that to the foresight of people in the association who proactively brainstorm for solutions for potential problems, rather than being reactive after an issue has happened. We risk being called alarmists, but we have a safety record that is unmatched.”

Five years later, in 1993, freestyle exhibitions began to appear at racing events for drivers to show off their fancy moves; in 2000 freestyling became a competition event.

“Part of the appeal of monster trucks,” says Marty, “is the unpredictability of the sport. Freestyling, for example, brings with it an X Games type of excitement. The height of the trucks, the amount of noise that monster trucking creates – well, it just appeals to the senses as it’s shockingly loud and highly energizing.”

Who are the fans?

Monster Truck Racing Association Online stated in 2010 that more than a million people attend monster truck events annually, with demographics matching those of people who buy pickup trucks. That makes perfect sense.

Then, according to Media Life Magazine in 2010: “Motorsports do bring in some moms and kids, but the majority of attendees are young male gearheads. The crowds are roughly two-thirds male, and more than 75 percent are age 44 or younger.”

Later in the article, though, a statistic shows greater female enjoyment of the events; according to Scarborough Research, when looking at adults who have attended a monster truck event within the past 12 months:

•          57% are males

•          43% are females

Wondering about ages?

•          22%: ages 18-24

•          28%: 25-34

•          27%: 35-44

•          15%: 45-54

•          6%: 55-64

•          2%: 65+


•          15%: below $25,000

•          22%: $25,000-$39,000

•          11%: $40,000-$49,000

•          17%: $50,000-$74,999

•          15%: $75,000-$99,999

•          12%: $100,000-$149,000

•          8%: $150,000 and up

Jeff Cook brings up another point about demographics: that children also attend monster truck events. “You see grandparents, parents and kids,” he says. “Events tend to be family oriented in that you see all ages and everyone seems to get something out of it.”

Predator. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

Predator. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

In fact, Jeff himself was one of those kids who was fascinated by big vehicles. “I was always wanting to put bigger tires on my toys,” he says, “and then I saw Bigfoot. I told my father that I wanted a truck like that someday and that I thought we should build one. Videos just don’t do monster trucks justice. You need to see them in action, in person, to see these massive vehicles going 60 to 80 mph as they do their stunts.”

The future of the sport

“All of this attention to monster trucks has boggled our minds. Ten to fifteen years ago, it seemed like nobody even knew what a monster truck was. We thought attention to events would slow down and top out, but people continue to get more and more performance out of their vehicles, with better technology and bigger stunts.

In other racing sports, vehicles are fragile, but monsters are durable. They can roll over, crash – and then keep going. So the drivers keep pushing the envelope, running it to the edge, especially since fiberglass truck bodies of today can be fixed much more easily. Monster truck racing, though, is still more of a bragging rights race. I think it will someday turn into racing for money, with more racing series and more corporate sponsors.” (Jeff Cook)


The Ford Mustang turns 50!

Ford MustangWe wanted to tip our hats to the Ford Motor Company and its fleet-wheeled filly, the Ford Mustang.

It was 50 years ago this week that the iconic muscle car made it’s debut, turning legions of casual drivers into die-hard fans.

Over the years, the Mustang has changed–for better and for worse–but has remained a beloved staple in automotive form and function, and a symbol of Americana.

Wired Magazine states:

Fifty years ago today, Ford unveiled the Mustang. It was a sleek and sporty car, named for a fighter plane and slightly European in flavor. Company brass hoped it might be something of a hit and expected to sell 100,000 of them in the first year.

They sold 22,000 on the first day.

Those are excellent stats, even by today’s standards.

Here’s more on the history of the Ford Mustang, courtesy of Wired:

Work on the Mustang began in 1960, when Ford’s marketing Mad Man Lee Iacocca realized the company needed to attract young buyers. He wanted something new, something unique, something to tap into the era’s sense of national optimism. Most importantly, he wanted “something that would be sporty but not a sports car,” said Bob Casey, an automotive historian and former curator of the The Henry Ford Museum.


You can read more from this informative piece at Wired Magazine.

And, check out our own resident Gearhead’s comprehensive blog on the 2014 Mustang GT.

Kudos to Ford on the 50th Anniversary of the Ford Mustang!


Writing off your car for business use

1040_tax_formWith tax time upon us, we thought we’d try to spread some positive news, especially as it relates to your car.

If you use your car for business, did you know you can write some of its costs off?

According to Tax Topic 510 – Business Use of Car on

If you use your car in your job or business and you use it only for that purpose, you may deduct its entire cost of operation.

That’s a pretty good deal in our book. But we aware, if you use your car for personal use, you can only deduct the operation costs (gas, maintenance, etc.) for the portion dedicated to actual business use. Sorry, taking the kids to soccer games doesn’t count and neither does competing on the drag strip – unless of course, you own the team!

On another note, if you find yourself in the enviable position of getting a tax refund this year, you can maximize it by taking advantage of the great deals at Advance Auto Parts–to get all those projects done in 2014.



The Scion Rock Fest Returns for Sixth Annual Festival

Scion Rock FestScion Audio Visual’s annual hard rock/metal festival, Scion Rock Fest, returns to Pomona, California on May 17, 2014 with an all-star line-up of hard rock and metal heroes.

In keeping with its rich tradition of cutting-edge car designs, Scion has curated a killer lineup of bands and artists for this one-of-a-kind music festival.


Headlining this year’s Scion Rock Fest, are heavy faves Machine Head and High On Fire. Other prominent artists appearing on the sixth installment of Scion Rock Fest are Red Fang, King Buzzo, Hot Lunch, Pins of Light and Windhand.

Since the 2009 debut of Scion Rock Fest, the annual outing has featured Mastodon, Down, Neurosis, Baroness, Morbid Angel and the Melvins. A rotating location has found the Fest in  Atlanta, Columbus, Tampa, Memphis as well as the 2011 event, which was also in Pomona. To RSVP, visit Scion Rock Fest.

Scion Rock Fest is one of the many music and cultural events curated by Scion Audio Visual, the entertainment division founded by Scion in 2003.

About Scion Audio Visual:

Scion Audio Visual (AV for short) is a creative enterprise of Scion devoted to the discovery, nurture, funding and distribution of compelling music and arts programming. Scion AV has created and championed projects for over 100 underground musical artists, supported tours and special events, created film documentaries, curated art installations, and produced a collection of ‘zines. Scion A/V Metal is specifically dedicated to the support of metal artists via content and events held nationwide.

About Scion:

Scion, from Toyota Motor Sales was developed with a new generation of youthful buyers in mind. The Scion FR-S made our list of best cars for first-time drivers earlier this year. Scion’s mission is to provide distinctive products, the opportunity to personalize, and an innovative, consumer-driven process at the retail level. For more information, visit


Michael Paul Smith: Behind the Scenes of Elgin Park

All it takes is one look at Michael Paul Smith’s renderings of cars, created with colored pencils, to know that he has an artistic touch. Impressive as they are, though, Michael is known for something quite different: using his building-and-car-diorama-making and photography skills to create “Elgin Park,” a Midwest town that exists only in his mind. Yes. Elgin Park is an incredibly detailed historical rendering of a place that has never existed.

Yet, it’s so real that it has:

  • Triggered long-buried memories in Alzheimer patients that they shared with their doctors
  • Soothed and calmed two children with autism so that they could sleep
  • Caused people to cry in a cathartic and uplifting manner
  • Allowed small children to connect with their grandparents in a brand new way

What is Elgin Park? It is comprised of a series of photos, uploaded to Flickr, that appear to be genuine photographs from the 1920s to 1960s. In reality, though, Michael has used forced perspective to allow the eye to perceive small die cast cars and models of buildings as full-sized ones.

A scene from the fictional Elgin Park. Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

A scene from the fictional Elgin Park.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.


A photo that reveals the "secret" behind the scene. Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

The “secret” behind the scene.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

This Yahoo video does a great job of providing a visual overview of Elgin Park – and it’s been appreciated, Michael points out, by an incredible number of people, as the 55-million-plus view mark indicates. “The photos,” he says, “clearly touch a very deep chord from all walks of life and cultures.”

Although Elgin Park is based on Michael’s hometown of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, it isn’t a replica of the town. Confusing? In an interview with the Internet Craftsmanship Museum, he defines the crux, scope and the appeal of Elgin Park: “For me, it conjures up the essence of ‘Small Town.’ It also says stability; a bit isolated but not desolate. Family. Unlocked doors. Home. Sewickley itself is only one square mile and touches the Ohio River. Granted, every town has its secrets and skeletons, but when you walk down those tree-lined streets and hear the train whistles echoing off the hills along the river, everything seems OK. It’s that Ok-ness I try to capture in my models and photographs.”

Although the pictures are amazing, what’s even more amazing is that Michael is not a professional photographer (although he clearly is a skilled photographer). Nor does he use Photoshop or any other computer software to add anything to his compelling illusions (more about Photoshop later).

Thanks to an interview with Michael, (along with a written document of his life’s journey that he graciously provided to Advance Auto Parks), we can share how Elgin Park came to be.

A look back in time

Michael Paul Smith was born in Sewickley, a small town about seven miles north of Pittsburgh, in 1950 and he grew up with four siblings. “My childhood,” Michael shares, “was pleasant and loving but, due to my extreme shyness, I kept to myself using my imagination to draw and build things.” By the time he was in grade school, he collected cigar boxes to “create interiors out of found objects. Miniatures, dollhouses, dioramas, train layouts and the like had and still have a mesmerizing effect on me.” To feed this hobby, he started going to flea markets and yard sales (and he also picked trash!) at the age of ten.

By the time Michael was that age, he also began noticing his father’s curiosity about the houses they passed – and that trait was clearly passed on to Michael. At the age of twelve, he assembled his first model car: a 1963 Chevy Impala, with working headlights, no less! He entered this model in the annual Fisher Body Craftsman Guild car design competition, held by General Motors for boys ages 11 to 19. Now, if this were a movie, Michael would win the competition at the very last second – or the contest would otherwise be a life-altering event. In reality, he never heard back from the contest organizers about his first entry – or about any of the other entries that he sent over the next few years. C’est la vie.

When he was sixteen, the family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. Ironically enough, his high school counselor told Michael that he had “no apparent creative talent that could be used for employment” and recommended that he skip college and work in the steel mills that formed the heart of Pittsburgh’s economy. (This is an especially odd response from the counselor given that Michael had won more than one art contest in high school and, one year, someone apparently loved his painting so much that he stole it.)

Fortunately, Michael ignored his counselor’s advice. He completed The School of Worcester Art Museum’s three-year program, a “well known school” where he learned how to “stretch canvas, make pigments” and more.

He went on to become an advertising art director (that “produced a heart attack at 33. Clearly this was a sign to get out of that profession”). Afterwards, he applied to be a model maker. At the time, this was a good field to enter; a model maker would take a 2-D drawing created by an architect and craft a 3-D version so that the architect could see how it would look. Sometimes, a model maker fleshed out only one section of a building; other times, the entire building.

The first place where he applied for a model maker’s job wasn’t too impressed with his lack of experience. Undeterred, Michael kept applying until one shop that operated out a basement let him work on a one-week trial basis – and then hired him full time. “The owner,” Michael remembers, “didn’t even know my last name when he wrote me my first paycheck.

Later, Michael worked at an international firm as a model maker, working there for 18 years. However, this industry has taken some “serious economic hits over the years. What used to be a thriving business has now been reduced to freelance nomads. The age of computer generated graphics, overseas production and automated 3D model making machines has all but eliminated the field.”

But . . . you know what? Michael is definitely not a one-note song! He has many other talents as his employment history demonstrates.

Other jobs have included:

• Wallpaper hanger (which he “really enjoyed”)
• Interior house painting (“another interesting job especially when I got to work with the client in choosing color and detail”)
• Editorial artist
• Illustrator for a textbook publisher
• House renovator
• Mailman

“And,” he concludes, “the list goes on. The best job was being part of a team that designed displays for museums such as the Smithsonian Institute and the Museum of Natural History at Harvard. All of these occupations have given me a solid foundation for my dioramas.”

Here’s what else gave Michael an advantage when it came time to create his first car diorama. From his jaunts to flea markets and yard sales, he “literally had thousands of pieces of the past.” He also collected die cast models of cars. “It dawned on me,” he says, “that I could build miniature versions of American life by creating scaled down buildings that would incorporate my die cast vehicles. Plus utilize all of the knowledge I had acquired by collecting and studying the 20th century. These scenes could be authentic down to the last detail. It was an Ah-Ha! moment.”

Behind the scenes

Michael initially sketches out the structure that will appear in a diorama. “If the building is too unusual,” he says, “it will overwhelm the photograph; therefore a prototypical style of a certain era is chosen.”

A glimpse at materials used.  Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

A glimpse at materials used.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.


He uses gatorboard for the walls; this material is a piece of thin film surrounded by two sheets of resin-coated paper. He likes this material because it’s lightweight and durable, simple to cut with a knife and easily sanded and painted. He then refines the buildings to add clapboard, brick, stucco and trim. He uses the following tools: an X-acto knife, a sanding block, a ruler and a “few other assorted hand held tools.”

“Improving,” Michael continues, “is the name of the game for me. A model maker I used to work for gave me some sage advice: If you can’t make it convincingly, then don’t make it at all, because it will stick out like a sore thumb.”

So, he takes his time choosing just the right materials and uses snow as an example to demonstrate his process. Michael had experimented with numerous products until he found exactly the right one: baking soda. “It was the correct scale,” he says, “it drifted convincingly and had a bit of sparkle to it. Baby powder, flour, salt, sugar . . . they just didn’t pass the test.”

Here are other strategies that he uses to recreate a sense of realism:

• He rolls car tires in the baking soda for a snowy effect.
• To add dirt to roads, he vacuums his rugs and then filters what’s been collected until it’s just right.
• He can also make something dirtier in appearance by adding powered chalk.
• He includes water in his scenes with milk trucks, as the early ones carried blocks of ice and left puddles of water wherever they

Here is what Michael had to say about how he backlights his night-time projects:

• All of the lighting is done with 40 or 60 watts bulbs.
• Also, white or orange Christmas tree lights work well to illuminate the interiors of the models.
• LED lights add another level of interest to lighting the scenes.
• “I’m not a technical person, so having strobes, umbrella reflectors and light meters are lost on me. I can barely figure out my
camera.” (We at Advance Auto Parts are having a hard time believing the last statement but . . . that’s what he said, so we’re
sharing it with all of you.)

Here’s more about the camera: “What has become a joke is the fact that I have no special equipment at all. My first camera was a 3 mega pixel digital Sony. I’ve since upgraded to a 6 mega pixel and then to a 14 mega pixel Canon, because some of my work is being enlarged and printed. It’s a technical thing and not the desire to use something fancy. A dear friend of mine actually gave me an incredibly expensive camera which took extraordinary images. But they were too good for what I was trying to accomplish. To achieve a look and feel of the past, I’ve found that a camera with a lens that blurs is the way to go. Too much information in a photo defeats the retro look of Elgin Park.”

And, once, a French fashion photographer wanted more information about the lens used by Michael. When he described his simple set up, the Frenchman replied with only two words and never contacted Michael again. Those two words? “You lie.”


Inspiration for a photo, he shares, “usually comes out of the blue. An image in a book, a song or a random thought will trigger the urge to create something.”

He then digs through the model vehicles that he has stored away and envisions the rest of the scene to share the story that emerges in his creative mind. Sometimes, the correct era, day and/or season come to him within an hour; other times, it takes days and then he reviews books and catalogues to make sure that what he creates is accurate for the era.

“I can spend a few days or a week soaking up all of the information,” he says, ”studying wallpaper samples, paint chips, and fabric designs, listening to music of a particular era or going through old photo albums might seem like mindless activities but they lay a concrete foundation for my work.”

Other times, the more than 300 die cast car models inspire him, with features such as the tailfin, “bulbous fenders, swooping roof lines, two tone color combinations or running boards” setting his creativity into motion. For example, the running board directs his focus to the Victorian or Edwardian type of architecture, where streets may or may not have been paved, and where electricity may or may not have been available.

Another retro scene from Elgin Park. Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

Another retro scene from Elgin Park.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

However long it takes, once he can picture his scene, he plays around with vehicles and buildings (on his kitchen table!) to get the best setup. Again, all may come together quickly or it may need to “percolate” for a few days.

For daylight shots, he then searches for the correct outside site for the official setup and photos. This has become increasing more difficult as more and older buildings are torn down by his home.

But, once he spends about an hour to set up the scene, keeping the set as simple as possible to preserve his own energy and to allow viewers to fill in missing details – he then starts taking pictures. He typically takes 20 to 30 photographs and then chooses the best two or three to become part of Elgin Park.

Back to the subject of Photoshop

Michael will use this software tool to remove any signs that or people who get into the photo. In fact, he makes it a practice to never include people in any of his Elgin Park pictures to keep the work “universal” and to allow each viewer to insert himself or herself into a “painting, film, photography or story.” His car diorama then becomes, he explains, a “mirror for your own life.”

He’s also used Photoshop to:

• Eliminate dents and scrapes from his models
• To de-saturate the color or add a tint to create a final look

But, again, he never adds anything to the picture.

Tips to make models look “real”

Michael shares these strategies:

• Keep everything in scale. From the thickness of the shingles down to the wallpaper design and door knobs, everything must be in
the proper relationship to each other.
• Keep the camera at the eye level of the imaginary person walking around in the scene. This gives the viewer the sense that they
are in the picture.
• Movies have given us newer ways of seeing the world, such as the bird’s eye view or the low to the ground angle, so this can s
sometimes be used in diorama photography. But it must be used sparingly and for the right reason; otherwise the reality of the
shot will be compromised. Our eye is very sensitive to ‘things not looking quite right.’

He tells his stories in simple and subtle ways. For example, he might leave a car door open, or light one store while keeping the others dark. He finds inspiration for these “one frame stories” from his own experiences. “Yet,” he adds, “as personal as they might be to me, there is also room for other people to see their own meaning in the photographs.”

News of Elgin Park spreads

For years, Michael took these pictures without sharing his “odd” hobby with others. But, he eventually decided that, if he posted pictures on Flickr, he’d just be one of millions doing the same thing – so he took the plunge. For the first year or so, he got few visitors, but then British Sports Car magazine ran a short article about Michael’s work with some of his photographs in their February 2010 issue. After that, Michael says, “the viewing counter on the Flickr site started to spin. After the first million hits, I thought there might be something wrong with the counter but it still continued. Within a month, it had reached 10 million views with comments and e-mails flooding in from all over the world.”

When asked how it felt to get all of this attention, Michael says that he hadn’t expected to get recognition but, the first time someone tracked him down by phone to compliment him about his work, he “sobbed.”

“I was remembering,” Michael says, “how my counselor had said I had no talent and I had carried that around with me. Not as a ‘poor me; thing but, still. I had carried it with me.”

Here’s another experience, post-fame. “Two years ago,” he says, “a reporter called me and wanted an exclusive. He said that if I didn’t cooperate, I’d never get an interview again, that he’d make sure of that. As far as I was concerned, I was a nobody before and I would be again after my 15 minutes of fame ended, so I didn’t take what he said seriously.

“Once you get your name and work out there,” he continues, “people want a piece of you. Not in a malicious way, mind you; they just do. What really fills my heart, though, is when people write and say ‘I want to learn from you. What can you teach me?’ I answer every email and I love it when someone takes a photograph and sends it to me. That means that I clearly inspired someone to just go out there and do it.”

When asked if there are critics of his work, he replies that he occasionally gets criticism. “If someone says something derogatory, I don’t respond. I just let it hang there, hang around their own necks. Fortunately, if someone says something negative about my work online, my fans get all over them in a delightfully rabid way.”

One of his best experiences involved being asked to exhibit his work at a prestigious international show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. “I asked, ’why me?’ and the director said, ‘Because nobody else does what you do.’”

For this show, Michael broke his standard rule about not using actual buildings from his hometown and he recreated his childhood home from photos that his brother had saved (the actual home had been torn down). In an interview with The Culture Trip, Michael says the following about his experience: “’building your childhood home is the best form of therapy one could hope for. The memories, both good and bad, just start to flow without any safety valves.’” The four month project was “an exhausting process both physically and mentally that helped assist with several ‘buried psychological issues by the time it was completed.’ Whilst Elgin Park has never physically existed, it has become a visual treasure chest of emotions and memories – a distillation of what has already passed.”

Although shy, Michael decided to attend the premiere of the exhibit. “I was surrounded by New York celebrities,” he remembers, “wondering if I was dressed well enough and how I’d ever work the crowd. But, then my ten-year-old self emerged and I thought, ‘I can do this!’” The show was so successful that his work also appeared in Lille, France at a month-long citywide carnival.

“The entire experience was thrilling,” he sums up. “A dream come true. Yet, it didn’t change who I am and didn’t cause me to think I was someone fabulous.”

More about Michael

Michael’s early work appears in a book, Elgin Park: An Ideal American Town (2010).

“It sold well,” Michael says. He was recently contacted by someone in Germany with an interest in a second volume – and he is definitely interested – so we may be learning even more about Michael and his work. Can’t wait!

Editor’s note: Building your own work of art on four wheels requires having the best parts and tools on hand. Count on Advance Auto Parts to help keep your dream machine running right all year long. Buy online, pick up in store.





Studebakers: from a $68 investment to the Studebaker National Museum

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Although it’s been a long time since you could purchase a brand new Studebaker, this brand once dominated the country, even before “horseless carriages” were available.

The Studebaker National Museum, located in South Bend, Indiana, contains more than 120 of these vehicles–meaning both cars and wagons–some dating back to the late 1880s. Typically, there are 70 vehicles or so on display at any one time. Vehicles include four presidential carriages, the first and last cars built in South Bend, the last Studebaker ever built, anywhere, and many other iconic vehicles.

But, the history of Studebaker begins more than twenty years before 1880. Here’s more.

History of Studebaker Company

Imagine yourself as a blacksmith in 1852. You decide to partner with your brother to open up a blacksmith shop, say, at the corner of Michigan and Jefferson Streets in South Bend, Indiana of February 16th of that year. You might expect to spend your days in front of an immensely hot forge filled with burning coals, putting bars of metal into the heat and then shaping them into axes or nails, or pots and pans, or door hinges or plow blades.

If you were Henry and Clement Studebaker, though, your business would develop a niche specialty, much like businesses do today, and it didn’t fit the typical blacksmithing mold. By the time their company morphed from H & C Studebaker into the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, they were in fact the world’s largest manufacturer of farm wagons and horse-drawn buggies.

Henry and Clement began making metal parts for freight wagons in 1852, with start-up capital of only $68 (equal to slightly more than $2,000 of today’s dollars). Freight wagons were railway cars, non-powered, that transported cargo.

On their first day of business, they had exactly one customer–a man who needed a shoe changed on his horse. Later that year, though, they were able to charge a customer $175 (comparable to about $5,300 in 2014 dollars and more than twice as much as all of their startup funding) to build a farm wagon. They painted the wagon green and red and boldly added “Studebaker” in yellow lettering, the first time a vehicle boasted their name.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

In 1853, Henry’s and Clement’s younger brother John Mohler decided to head out west to find gold, something countless men of his generation were doing. A wagon train would take him along without charging a fee as long as the brothers donated a wagon to the cause. The family agreed and, with $65 in his pocket, John sought out his fortune. Although he didn’t find the riches he desired, his talents as a wagon maker earned him regular work and allowed him to save up $8,000.

In Indiana, Henry and Clement continued their blacksmithing work, but also built about a dozen wagons per year. To get more into mass production, they needed more funds. Fortunately, John had those funds and, in 1858, he returned home, bought out Henry’s share in the business, and became part of the family business.

The previous year–1857–they’d also expanded their horizons by building and selling a carriage. According to A Century on Wheels: The Story of Studebaker, “Fancy, hand-worked iron trim, the kind of courting buggy any boy and girl would be proud to be seen in.” By 1860, their brother Peter Everst Studebaker was showing the family wares in Goshen, Indiana, the first of the Studebaker showrooms, albeit one that looked more like a shed. A fifth brother, Jacob Franklin, also ended up joining the company.

When the Civil War started, there was a huge need for wagons and so Clement, Peter and John shipped their wagons to the Union Army by train and steamship. In 1868, they formed the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, which ultimately became the “largest vehicle house in the world” despite two massive fires destroying their buildings. By 1877, annual sales exceeded $1 million and Clement traveled to Europe to find more markets for the company. The following year, their wagons won awards at the prestigious Paris Exposition.

They even sold a $20,000 version of their vehicle (figure $445,000 in today’s dollars, comparable to a Lamborghini Aventador), which could seat a dozen passengers. In the late 1880s, the family also bought out companies manufacturing the Lafayette and Lincoln carriages, further increasing their market share.

Era of the Horseless Carriage

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

In 1895, John’s son in law, Frederick Fish, began pushing for a horseless carriage to add to their product line. In 1897, Fred became the chairman of the executive committee and the company began actively working on an electric motor. Meanwhile, their wagon division continued to be strong as, in 1898, the company supplied wagons for the Spanish American War. Plus, the American Red Cross bought six yellow and blue ambulances and sent them to Cuba; each ambulance carried four stretchers, the bottom two hinged to be moved for sitting patients or medical personnel.

And, in 1902 the Studebakers debuted their first electric car. This was a year later than the Oldsmobile’s version and less complex than the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company’s 1902 entry of a gas-powered model, the Rambler. Thomas B. Jeffrey sold 1,500 Ramblers that years, compared to Studebaker’s 20 electric cars. More competition was right around the corner, too, thanks to Henry Ford, as well as the Overland, the precursor of the Jeep. Nevertheless, the purchaser of the second Studebaker electric car carried some real clout: a guy named Thomas Edison.

Although electric cars are certainly a 21st-century buzzword, there was a flaw in them in 1902: too many places simply didn’t have electricity, so where could you recharge your car? You certainly couldn’t lug along a can or two of emergency electricity like you could fuel, so electric car owners often saw their vehicles towed home by horses, which surely seemed a step back in technology.

The future, at least for the next century, was therefore a much smellier, less elegant option. Or as John “Wheelbarrow Johnny” Studebaker called gasoline-based cars, “clumsy, noisy, dangerous brutes [that] stink to high heaven, break down at the worst possible moment and are a public nuisance.”

Birth of the gas-powered Studebaker

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

The company began making gasoline-powered cars in 1904 in partnership with the Garford Company of Elyria, Ohio, located near Cleveland. What a confusing job it must have been to market Studebakers in this era, when they still sold horse-drawn carriages for the traditionalists, electric cars for drivers willing to stick close to home and max out at about 13 miles an hour, and gasoline vehicles “for wide-radius touring.”

By 1908, Studebaker had bought a majority interest in the Garford Company, but their cars were expensive–$2,500 to $4,500, and sometimes even more–and fewer than 2,500 were likely built during the entire 8-year partnership. Moreover, in 1908, Ford introduced Model Ts that sold for only $825-850, manufacturing more than 10,000 in just one year.

The year 1911 saw the end of Studebaker electric vehicle production as well as the demise of the partnership with Garford, although various other collaborations were tried for the gas-powered models. In 1914, Studebaker started supplying Britain, France and Russia with wagons for World War I, the last major war that relied heavily upon wagons. Later, they also supplied the United States in their war effort.

In May 1920, the company stopped production of horse-drawn carriages, liquidating their product line while they could still get reasonable prices for the vehicles. All told, they lost more than $700,000 in this move, but losses surely would have been greater had they waited. Ready to cringe, though? That figure translates into more than an $8 million loss today.

From this point on, the Studebaker company would flourish–or stumble–based on automobiles alone. Highlights of the next couple of decades include:

  • The company struggled during the Great Depression, as many others did, even going into receivership from 1933 through 1935.
  • The 1939 Champion is considered one of Studebaker’s most iconic cars.
  • In 1939, the company began building a small quantity of 6 x 6 military trucks for the French forces in World War II. Later, they provided B-17 Flying Fortress engines and the M29 and M29C amphibious Weasel personnel carrier.
  • After the war, Studebaker emerged with the first new design for a post-war car (production for personal cars halted in 1942 so that more efforts could be given to support the war).
  • The 1947 Starlight Coupe is another of Studebaker’s most well-known vehicles.
  • In 1948, production became multi-national once again with a production facility in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada. Studebaker had begun building cars in Canada in 1910, but stopped from 1936-1947.
  • In 1950, the bullet nose design was introduced.
  • The following year, the Studebaker V-8 was unveiled.
  • The 1963 Avanti is considered one of Studebaker’s most iconic cars.

Also in 1963: more than 110 years after Henry and Clement first set up shop, the US production of Studebaker vehicles stopped. On March 17, 1966, the final Studebaker produced anywhere in the world rolled out in Canada.

Studebaker National Museum

Fortunately, the Studebaker National Museum has preserved a significant amount of the company’s history. “The museum,” says archivist Andrew Beckman, “began with 37 vehicles. We are one of only three car museums with the American Alliance of Museum accreditation, which is sort of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for museums.” The other two, he says, are the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg in Auburn, Indiana.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

He points out that the 1950 and 1951 Bullet Nose vehicles are among the car museum’s most popular for visitors. Other vehicles of interest include the presidential ones, which include:

  • Ulysses S. Grant’s vehicle used during his presidential term from 1873 until 1877, which he continued to use until his death in 1885. Visitors who rode in this landau-style carriage included:
    • President Rutherford B. Hayes
    • President Chester A. Arthur
    • Civil War General William T. Sherman
    • Civil War General Phil Sheridan
    • King Kalakua of the Hawaiian Islands
    • Viceroy Li Hung Chang from the Chinese Empire
    • One of Benjamin Harrison’s five carriages used during his presidential term; altogether, these carriages cost $7,075 and were considered less pretentious than other choices (in keeping with Harrison’s personality) because they were “simple in design with silver and ebony trimmings rather than fancier gilt, and they bore no formal insignias.” Harrison continued to buy Studebaker carriages until his death in 1901.
    • Abraham Lincoln’s carriage that transported him (and his wife) to Ford Theater on the night of his assassination on April 15, 1865. This carriage has six springs, along with solid silver lamps, door handles and hubcaps. Because the steps connect to the doors, they lowered and rose as the doors opened and closed.
    • William McKinley’s carriage, one that boasted rubber tires for summer use and a removable extension top, along with springs and cushions in the seats. Like Lincoln, McKinley traveled in this carriage on the day of his assassination in September 1901.
Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

When asked why there is still such interest in Studebakers, nearly 50 years after production stopped, Beckman points out the longevity of the company. “This was the only company,” he says, “that successfully transitioned from the wagon business to the car business.” And, as author Patrick Foster points out in his book, Studebaker: The Complete History, “For many years, Studebaker held the proud claim as the vehicle owned by more Americans than any other brand. No mere local or regional phenomenon, Studebaker vehicles were known and respected around the world. An argument could be made that Studebaker was the first truly global vehicle brand. Studebaker was the natural choice of princes, kings and presidents.”

As proof of the continuing fascination with the Studebaker, Beckman shares that, even on the date of this interview, the blizzard of March 12, 2014, people figured out a way to get to the museum to see a presentation about the vehicle. Overall, approximately 40,000 people visit the museum each year, although the number increases once every five years when the international Studebaker meet takes place in South Bend. The museum has also witnessed an increase in moms with strollers, ever since they added an interactive children’s exhibit area about one and a half years ago. People also actively participate in Studebaker car clubs. In fact, Beckman says, “it’s the largest single mark auto club in existence.”

Editor’s note: Have you been to this car museum? If so, what did you think? If not, which car museums would you like to visit? And, be sure to let us know what your favorite vintage cars are.