branford snell, g.m. in china, the conspiracy against mass transportation and compressed air, flyweel cars

Being antisocial by nature, I never talk to the people seated next to me on airplanes. As that’s the case, I rarely meet interesting people people. (I certianly don’t meet them very often in my day-to-day life.) Linette flew next to Otto Preminger’s former secretary once… The following letter comes from my friend Dave in Seattle. It’s got me wondering how many interesting people I’ve sat next to over the years, and how many great opportunities I’ve missed. (It’s also got me pissed at GM.)

…I was out in DC last week for an installation. On my flight home (the first leg of the flight was into LA) I ended up sitting next to a guy named Bradford Snell. We got to talking and shared a bit of info about what we do. He said that he was a writer and was working on a history of General Motors. We talked about compressed air cars and flywheel power storage. I made the case for both of them and criticized the battery option on hybrids. He agreed with me, but was not familiar with the CAT. He did know about the flywheel technology. There are fleets of buses in Switzerland powered by them apparently.

We talked about GM and China. He said that his friend Ralph Nader had gone to China to try and convince them to invest in mass transit. He said China currently has 100 cities with populations over 10 million (that in itself is pretty scary.) and that they are quickly becoming the biggest market for cars, which will lead to all the associated problems. Nader was told while he was there that GM had been there 6 weeks earlier and had convinced the Chinese government that car manufacturing provides a base for large economic development. GM is happy as hell about this for many reasons: no regulations to deal with, free land and subsidized factory building, cheap skilled labor, huge market, etc. China does not want to deal with Toyota because they are a Japanese company, so this provides an even greater incentive to GM. “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

As we talked, I mentioned the GM Streetcar Conspiracy. Well, apparently he was the government attorney that presented information/evidence to the Senate in 1974 that painted the picture of GM systematically destroying the trolley lines in many American cities. The Senate was conducting hearings because the energy crisis at that time had many people angry. They wanted to know what led up to the current situation. So, it turns out that Bradford Snell is at the heart of the GM Streetcar Conspiracy. How strange is that?

I asked him later in the conversation if he knew of Preston Tucker, and he said that Francis Coppola hired him to research the SEC hearings for his movie “Tucker”.

As I was getting on the plane for the second leg of the flight home I noticed Ben Stein sitting in first class. He would have made for a great conversation too, but the only thing that I could think of to say was “Bueller.” So, I said nothing. I would have loved to talk to him about working for Nixon.

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  1. murph
    Posted June 21, 2006 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I think it’s generally agreed that GM didn’t _need_ to conspire to tear up the streetcar lines – it’s one of those things where the American public is guilty of the death, but GM makes a handy villain for hammering in that last nail.

    (What does make GM pretty annoying in all of this is that they weren’t content to just let the streetcars die – they had to pull up the rails and make it Final.)

  2. egpenet
    Posted June 21, 2006 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    As a child and growing young person, I owe it all to GM and my Dad’s successful career. His continuing generosity STILL keeps me afloat.

    However … here in Ypsi, keep in mind that as long as we continue (Ypsi City, Ypsi Township, even Jennifer in Lansing)continue to suck on anything dangling from an Impala or a H2 … it will be status quo … Groundhog Day … Deja Vu all over again.

    As far as Vu fans go, that’ll be great.

    My idol is Mikail Bakunin … and I’d love to seee a flaming barricade in our downtown streets betweeen Ford and GM and our wallets. No more giveaways. Go to China, Ford-GM. Good riddance!

    How much money did that UAW factory cleaning
    lady say she made a year? With 30+ years … $74,000.00 + benefits … + retirement. And my Dad? (How could I be so ungrateful, you ask?) Look at the mess they have left behind … one that no legion of cleaning ladies can mop up if they tried.

    Do YOU know about Water Street? Is it Brown Field or brownfield?

  3. DM
    Posted June 21, 2006 at 12:28 pm | Permalink


    I don’t know enough about the history of the streetcar to argue either way about its fate. I suspect that Bradford has taken a lot of criticism over the years for his stance. The reality is that the event is water under the bridge and Alfred P. Sloane is long gone. It is interesting history though. The streetcars probably could have been made to work ( they were working in Detroit when the city’s population was larger than it is now ) but people at that time were fascinated by the “freedom of movement” that the car offered, and public opinion is gold. The little that I have read about the conspiracy has indicated that the suppliers to these lines were bought up and closed, and that the rail lines that owned the city rails were coerced by GM ( who used the rails for moving very large quantities of freight ) to shut them down.

    But this is distant past and the fact is that the streetcar systems are gone. The question is whether they were working or not. When you consider that the Metro in DC, the NY Subway system, BART transit in SF, Portland’s MAX light, the CTA lines in Chicago, and others are packed daily with passengers it really makes one wonder if these older rail systems were failing. My friend Jon’s Dad rode the street car line into Indianapolis from the suburbs as late as the 50’s and sawit as a much more efficient mode of transportation for his daily commute. The Sound Transit light rail project out here is expensive, but when compared to the cost of road maintenance and construction the $4 billion dollar price for the project seems reasonable, especially considering that the cost of replacing the Viaduct in downtown is going to cost almost the same amount.

    Back in the 1920’s, the car must have been a pretty exciting thing. It was likely a status symbol, and I’d guess that people bought them if they could. The idea of getting out of the city on the weekend ( or every evening in the case of the suburbs ) was as attractive then as it is now. But the more prosaic daily commute is not as fit for the car. Enormous amounts of government dollars were spent to make streets and highways, and even today road repair sucks up a huge amount of federal, state and local budget- all to accommodate the gas vehicle. And there is the litany of other costs – lost land to parking lots, lost time looking for parking, car insurance, vehicle maintenance, salt trucks, neck braces, etc.

    I think many people would agree that an average speed of 25 to 30 mph on an urban stretch of interstate is similar to being a passenger on a larger mechanism, not unlike a rail, rather than the industry’s implied freedom of movement.

    The battle that Preston Tucker had with the auto industry is a simpler sketch. He took a ground up approach to vehicle design versus the top down approach of GM and Ford. More ideas could be realized this way, but the drawback was the limited production. If he had worked at Ford or GM, he would have had to make those changes within a framework of engineers performing tests and a 2 week annual retooling period – which to this day is still killing innovation.

    When I lived in Ypsi, I walked by his garage ( off River Street if I remember correctly ) a number of times. It had been converted into an apartment. The place should be preserved as a historic site in my opinion. It is a symbol of maverick innovation. I would be willing to guess that more innovative ideas come out of garages than labs or factories. More “freedom of movement” idea-wise. The gap between ideas and mass production is unfortunately very large, and the accompanying staff of large companies are limited by the need for production efficiency and profit.

    The fact that China is gong to be purchasing tens of millions of cars in the near future, and that GM and Ford will be setting up many new factories there, makes me believe that this is the time for people with their innovative ideas to work with the automakers to realize them. It seems like a huge opportunity. The automakers are going to take the path of least resistance to fortune, so it is critical to push them now. They are gearing up for a huge shift.


    Sitting next to someone on a plane makes it much easier for me to have a focused conversation. The combination of the white noise and the closeness of the person helps block out all extraneous things that would normally divide my attention. My partial deafness is not a problem at close range also. If I am in a situation with multiple conversations and movement, I am hopeless.

    Although the Dale Carnegie book on social interaction always struck me as manipulative and insincere, the point he makes about the best conversationalist being the person who says little and listens has proven to be very helpful.

    And as for meeting interesting people- you have met Peter Faulk and James Kuenstler recently. I think that has some weight.

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