Random slings & arrows

1960 postage stamp delivers a reminder of change . . . and continuity

This stamp, issued 50 years ago tomorrow, is among those I mounted in an album as a young hobbyist. Though I quit collecting stamps long ago, that childhood binder is among keepsakes in a closet 650 miles from its original home in an Upper Manhattan apartment. And in the curious way that saved items whisper stories, this stamp has more than its four cents worth.

The “Wheels of Freedom” commemorative was released Oct. 15, 1960 at the opening of what was then called the National Automobile Show in Detroit’s newly built Cobo Hall. President Dwight Eisenhower attended, making his only visit to the city less than a month before John Kennedy’s election.

Now look closely at the artwork, somewhat ironic a half-century later.

The overseas-facing tractor, car and truck represent an industry that made three-fourths of the world’s vehicles – though change was coming from portions of the globe on stamp’s right side. China’s first auto plant opened four years earlier, followed by its first light truck plant in 1958. Still, as late as 1985, that country made just 5,200 cars annually and imported over 350,000 cars and 111,000 trucks from the United States.

Fast-forward 50 years and the vehicles could face the other way.

China is the largest vehicle producer and marketer, with 2009 sales of 13.8 million vehicles (versus 10.4 million by U.S. manufacturers). On a brighter note, Detroit’s three carmakers are moving out of intensive care and off the critical list. As past colleague Bill Vlasic reports this week in The New York Times:

Sales of Detroit’s vehicles have climbed 11 percent this year through August, compared with an 8 percent increase for the overall market. GM and Ford are profitable for the first time in years.
GM, for example, can hardly keep up with demand for its hottest new vehicles. Even Chrysler, which has struggled since emerging from bankruptcy in June 2009, is gaining traction.

Things also are changing for the better at Cobo Center, which seemed at risk of losing the North American International Auto Show because of cramped, outdated space.  A nearly $300-million expansion began last year to add 166,000 square feet as part of a state legislation creating a five-member regional board appointed by the governor to oversee operations of the city-owned hall.

Yes, all this may seem like a lot to read into a 1.5-by-1-inch piece of perforated paper. Actually, it’s a reminder of a connection that spans the same 50 years.

The boy who collected stamps still appreciates pieces of history that tell stories . . . shared through a medium unknown in 1960.

[This post first appeared Oct. 14, 2010, as a Facebook Note.]

This float, created for the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, promoted the 1960 Auto Show.
[Detroit Public Library| National Automotive History Collection]

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