U.S.-Russia detente ends


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Year
1980
Month Day
January 02

On January 2, 1980, in a strong reaction to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter asks the Senate to postpone action on the SALT II nuclear weapons treaty and recalls the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. These actions sent a message that the age of detente and the friendlier diplomatic and economic relations that were established between the United States and Soviet Union during President Richard Nixon’s administration (1969-74) had ended.

Carter feared that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in which an estimated 30,000 combat troops entered that nation and established a puppet government, would threaten the stability of strategic neighboring countries such as Iran and Pakistan and could lead to the USSR gaining control over much of the world’s oil supplies. The Soviet actions were labeled “a serious threat to peace” by the White House. Carter asked the Senate to shelve ratification talks on SALT II, the nuclear arms treaty that he and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev had already signed, and the president called U.S. ambassador to Moscow Thomas J. Watson back to Washington for “consultation,” in an effort to let the Kremlin know that military intervention in Afghanistan was unacceptable.

When the Soviets refused to withdraw from Afghanistan, America halted certain key exports to the USSR, including grain and high technology, and boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics, which were held in Moscow. The United States also began to covertly subsidize anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, the CIA secretly sent billions of dollars to Afghanistan to arm and train the mujahedeen rebel forces that were battling the Soviets. This tactic was successful in helping to drive out the Soviets, but it also gave rise to the oppressive Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist organization.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, who favored a more aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy. Reagan dubbed the USSR the “evil empire” and believed it was America’s responsibility to save the world from Soviet repression. He dramatically increased U.S. defense spending and ramped up the nuclear arms race with the Soviets, whose faltering economy ultimately prevented them from keeping pace. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

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World’s first parking meter installed

Year
1935
Month Day
July 16

The world’s first parking meter, known as Park-O-Meter No. 1, is installed on the southeast corner of what was then First Street and Robinson Avenue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on July 16, 1935.

The parking meter was the brainchild of a man named Carl C. Magee, who moved to Oklahoma City from New Mexico in 1927. Magee had a colorful past: As a reporter for an Albuquerque newspaper, he had played a pivotal role in uncovering the so-called Teapot Dome Scandal (named for the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming), in which Albert B. Fall, then-secretary of the interior, was convicted of renting government lands to oil companies in return for personal loans and gifts. He also wrote a series of articles exposing corruption in the New Mexico court system, and was tried and acquitted of manslaughter after he shot at one of the judges targeted in the series during an altercation at a Las Vegas hotel.

By the time Magee came to Oklahoma City to start a newspaper, the Oklahoma News, his new hometown shared a common problem with many of America’s urban areas—a lack of sufficient parking space for the rapidly increasingly number of automobiles crowding into the downtown business district each day. Asked to find a solution to the problem, Magee came up with the Park-o-Meter. The first working model went on public display in early May 1935, inspiring immediate debate over the pros and cons of coin-regulated parking. Indignant opponents of the meters considered paying for parking un-American, as it forced drivers to pay what amounted to a tax on their cars, depriving them of their money without due process of law.

Despite such opposition, the first meters were installed by the Dual Parking Meter Company beginning in July 1935; they cost a nickel an hour, and were placed at 20-foot intervals along the curb that corresponded to spaces painted on the pavement. Magee’s invention caught on quickly: Retailers loved the meters, as they encouraged a quick turnover of cars–and potential customers–and drivers were forced to accept them as a practical necessity for regulating parking. By the early 1940s, there were more than 140,000 parking meters operating in the United States. 

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“World’s Fastest Indian” makes U.S. debut


Year
2006
Month Day
February 03

On February 3, 2006, “The World’s Fastest Indian,” a movie based on the true story of motorcycle racer and land-speed record holder Burt Munro, opens in U.S. theaters. The film starred Anthony Hopkins as Munro, the sexagenarian who in the 1960s set several land-speed records on his modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Herbert Munro, who was born in Invercargill, New Zealand, on March 25, 1899, began riding motorcycles as a teenager. He later bought his Indian Scout motorcycle and raced it competitively in Australia and New Zealand. In the late 1940s, Munro, who was considered eccentric by some of his neighbors, stopped working and put all his time and energy into rebuilding his Indian and Velocette motorcycles, modifying the engines and frames and hand-crafting his own new parts. After setting various speed records in New Zealand in the 1940s and 1950s, Munro focused his sights on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Located approximately 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a hard, flat 30,000-acre expanse formed from an ancient evaporated lake. In 1914, Teddy Tezlaff set an auto speed record at Bonneville, driving 141.73 mph in a Blitzen Benz. By the late 1940s, Bonneville had become the standard place for setting and breaking world land-speed records and has since attracted drivers from around the globe who compete in a number of automotive and motorcycle divisions.

In 1962, Munro sailed to America on a cargo ship, working as a cook to pay his fare. After making his way to the Salt Flats, he set a world record of 178.97 mph with his engine bored out to 850 cc. Over the next few years, the determined Munro, then in his 60s, returned to Bonneville again, racing there for the final time in 1967, when he drove 183.586 mph and set a new speed record in the sub-1,000 cc motorcycle class. His one-way qualifying run of 190.07 mph was the fastest speed ever clocked on an Indian motorcycle.

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Future president William McKinley is born


Year
1843
Month Day
January 29

On January 29, 1843, William McKinley, who will become the 25th American president and the first to ride in an automobile, is born in Niles, Ohio. McKinley served in the White House from 1897 to 1901, a time when the American automotive industry was in its infancy. During his presidency, McKinley (who died from an assassin’s bullet in September 1901) took a drive in a Stanley Steamer, a steam-engine-powered auto built in the late 1890s by brothers Francis and Freelan Stanley. The Stanley Motor Carriage Company produced a number of steam-powered vehicles before going out of business in the early 1920s, after being unable to compete with the rise of less expensive gas-powered cars.

Theodore Roosevelt succeeded McKinley as president and during his administration the government owned a Stanley Steamer, although Roosevelt allegedly preferred horses to automobiles. William Taft, the 27th president, replaced the horses in the White House stables with a fleet of cars, including two gas-powered Pierce-Arrows and a White Model M Stanley Steamer. (In 1951, Congress officially eliminated horses and stables from the White House budget.) Warren Harding, the 29th commander-in-chief, was the first to ride to his inauguration in a car, a Packard, in 1921.

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William Cobb demonstrates first solar-powered car

Year
1955
Month Day
August 31

On August 31, 1955, William G. Cobb of the General Motors Corp. (GM) demonstrates his 15-inch-long “Sunmobile,” the world’s first solar-powered automobile, at the General Motors Powerama auto show held in Chicago, Illinois.

Cobb’s Sunmobile introduced, however briefly, the field of photovoltaics–the process by which the sun’s rays are converted into electricity when exposed to certain surfaces–into the gasoline-drenched automotive industry. When sunlight hit 12 photoelectric cells made of selenium (a nonmetal substance with conducting properties) built into the Sunmobile, an electric current was produced that in turn powered a tiny motor. The motor turned the vehicle’s driveshaft, which was connected to its rear axle by a pulley. Visitors to the month-long, $7 million Powerama marveled at some 250 free exhibits spread over 1 million square feet of space on the shores of Lake Michigan. In addition to Cobb’s futuristic mini-automobile, Powerama visitors were treated to an impressive display of GM’s diesel-fueled empire, from oil wells and cotton gins to submarines and other military equipment.

Today, more than a half-century after Cobb debuted the Sunmobile, a mass-produced solar car has yet to hit the market anywhere in the world. Solar-car competitions are held worldwide, however, in which design teams pit their sun-powered creations (also known as photovoltaic or PV cars) against each other in road races such as the 2008 North American Solar Challenge, a 2,400-mile drive from Dallas, Texas, to Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

READ MORE: The Cars That Made America 

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Volkswagen halts production during World War II

Year
1944
Month Day
August 07

On August 7, 1944, under the threat of Allied bombing during World War II, the German car manufacturer Volkswagen halts production of the “Beetle,” as its small, insect-shaped automobile was dubbed in the international press.

Ten years earlier, the renowned automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche had signed a contract with Germany’s Third Reich to develop a prototype of a small, affordable “people’s car.” The German chancellor, National Socialist (Nazi) leader Adolf Hitler, called the car the KdF (Kraft-durch-Freude)-Wagen (or “Strength-Through-Joy” car), after a Nazi-led movement ostensibly aimed at helping the working people of Germany. Porsche didn’t like that moniker; he preferred Volkswagen (meaning “people’s car”), the name under which the car had originally been developed. In 1938, the government built a factory to produce the car in the city of KdF-stat. The first production-ready Beetle debuted at the Berlin Motor Show in 1939. Several months later, Germany invaded Poland, sparking the conflict that would explode into world war.

During the war years, the German army’s need for a lightweight utility vehicle took precedence over the production of affordable passenger cars. The result was the Type 62 Kubelwagen, a convertible vehicle with a modified Beetle chassis, four doors and 18-inch wheels (compared with the Beetle’s 16-inch ones) to give it better ground clearance. Though production at the KdF-stat factory was dedicated primarily to the Kubelwagen and its amphibious counterpart, the Schwimmwagen, the factory did continue to produce Beetles from 1941 to August 7, 1944, when production was halted under threat of Allied bombing.

In the war’s aftermath, a devastated Germany was divided into four sectors. Those under British, French and American control would combine to form West Germany, while the region under Soviet control became East Germany. KdF-stat (soon renamed Wolfsburg), which was in the British sector, and its auto factory remained in relatively good shape for having been a target of Allied bombs. Volkswagen, then under the control of the British military, began turning out Beetles again in December 1945. By 1949, the company (now called Volkswagen GmbH) was back in German hands, and in 1972 the Beetle passed the iconic Ford Model T as the top-selling car in history.

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Dale Earnhardt Sr. wins his first Daytona 500


Year
1998
Month Day
February 15

On February 15, 1998, after 20 years of trying, racing great Dale Earnhardt Sr. finally wins his first Daytona 500, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) season opener and an event dubbed the “Super Bowl of stock car racing.” Driving his black No. 3 Chevrolet, Earnhardt recorded an average speed of 172.712 mph and took home a then-record more than $1 million in prize money. Following his victory, crews from competing teams lined the pit road at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, to congratulate Earnhardt, who drove his car onto the grass and did several celebratory doughnuts, or circles.

Earnhardt, whose tough, aggressive driving style earned him the nickname “The Intimidator,” was born on April 29, 1951, in Kannapolis, North Carolina. The son of a racecar driver, the younger Earnhardt dropped out of high school to follow in his father’s footsteps. He went on to become one of NASCAR’s most successful and respected drivers, with 76 career victories, including seven Winston Cup (now known as the Sprint Cup) Series championships, a record he shares with Richard Petty. Despite his success as a driver, victory at the Daytona 500–a 200-lap, 500-mile event first held in 1959–eluded Earnhardt for years. At the 1997 Daytona 500, Earnhardt’s car flipped upside down on the backstretch; however, he managed to escape serious injury.

His win in February 1998 represented Earnhardt’s sole Daytona victory. Tragically, on February 18, 2001, Earnhardt died at the age of 49 during a crash at that year’s 43rd Daytona 500. After being cut from his car, he was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead of head injuries. As it happened, the race which cost Earnhardt his life was won by Michael Waltrip, who was driving for the Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) racing team. Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., also a DEI driver at the time, took second place. Three years later, on February 15, 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500, with an average speed of 156.341 mph.

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Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” hits bookstores

Year
1965
Month Day
November 30

On November 30, 1965, 32-year-old lawyer Ralph Nader publishes the muckraking book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. The book became a best-seller right away. It also prompted the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, seat-belt laws in 49 states (all but New Hampshire) and a number of other road-safety initiatives. Today, Nader is perhaps best known for his role in national politics—and in particular for the controversial role he played in the 2000 presidential election—but Unsafe at Any Speed was the book that made him famous and lent credibility to his work as a consumer advocate.

“For over half a century,” Nader’s book began, “the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.” Technology existed that could make cars much safer, he argued, but automakers had little incentive to use them: On the contrary, “the gigantic costs of the highway carnage in this country support a service industry”—doctors, lawyers, police officers, morticians—and “there is little in the dynamics of the automobile accident industry that works for its reduction.”

Nader’s book popularized some harsh truths about cars and car companies that auto-safety advocates had known for some time. In 1956, at a series of Congressional hearings on traffic safety, doctors and other experts lamented the “wholesale slaughter” on American highways. (That year, nearly 40,000 people were killed in cars, and the number kept creeping upward.) Safety-conscious car buyers could seek out—and pay extra for—a Ford with seatbelts and a padded dashboard, but very few did: only 2 percent of Ford buyers took the $27 seatbelt option.

In Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader railed in particular against the Chevy Corvair, a sporty car with a swing axle and rear–mounted engine that was introduced in 1959. Nader argued that the car epitomized the triumph of “stylistic pornography over engineering integrity.” (Its swing axle made the back end unstable, he said, causing it to “tuck under during turns and skid or roll over much more frequently than other cars did.) As it turned out, a 1972 government study vindicated the Corvair, finding that it was just as safe as any other car (Nader called that study “rigged”) but the damage was done. The Corvair became an icon of dangerous, even deadly design, and the last one rolled off the assembly line in 1969.

Whether or not its particular examples were sound, Unsafe at Any Speed mobilized a mass movement, in which ordinary consumers banded together to demand safer cars and better laws. Today, seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes and other innovations are standard features in almost every new car.

Nader went on to advocate for a number of consumer causes and has run for president four times.

READ MORE: How Third-Party Candidates Have Changed Elections

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U.S. patent issued for three-point seatbelt

Year
1962
Month Day
July 10

The United States Patent Office issues the Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin a patent for his three-point automobile safety belt “for use in vehicles, especially road vehicles” on July 10, 1962.

Four years earlier, Sweden’s Volvo Car Corporation had hired Bohlin, who had previously worked in the Swedish aviation industry, as the company’s first chief safety engineer. At the time, safety-belt use in automobiles was limited mostly to race car drivers; the traditional two-point belt, which fastened in a buckle over the abdomen, had been known to cause severe internal injuries in the event of a high-speed crash. Bohlin designed his three-point system in less than a year, and Volvo introduced it on its cars in 1959. Consisting of two straps that joined at the hip level and fastened into a single anchor point, the three-point belt significantly reduced injuries by effectively holding both the upper and lower body and reducing the impact of the swift deceleration that occurred in a crash.

On August 17, 1959, Bohlin filed for a patent in the United States for his safety belt design. The U.S. Patent Office issued Patent No. 3,043,625 to “Nils Ivar Bohlin, Goteborg, Sweden, assignor to Aktiebolaget Volvo” on July 10, 1962. In the patent, Bohlin explained his invention: “The object… is to provide a safety belt which independently of the strength of the seat and its connection with the vehicle in an effective and physiologically favorable manner retains the upper as well as the lower part of the body of the strapped person against the action of substantially forwardly directed forces and which is easy to fasten and unfasten and even in other respects satisfies rigid requirements.”

Volvo released the new seat belt design to other car manufacturers, and it quickly became standard worldwide. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 made seat belts a required feature on all new American vehicles from the 1968 model year onward. Though engineers have improved on seat belt design over the years, the basic structure is still Bohlin’s.

The use of seat belts has been estimated to reduce the risk of fatalities and serious injuries from collisions by about 50 percent.

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Toyota sells 1 millionth hybrid in U.S.


Year
2009
Month Day
March 11

The Toyota Motor Company announces on March 11, 2009 that it has sold over 1 million gas-electric hybrid vehicles in the U.S. under its six Toyota and Lexus brands. The sales were led by the Prius, the world’s first mass-market hybrid car, which was launched in Japan in October 1997 and introduced in America in July 2000.

When the Prius debuted in 1997 it was considered a “gamble,” according to a May 2008 report on Wired.com, because “gas was cheap, SUVs ruled the earth and global warming was only beginning to penetrate mainstream consciousness.” However, the Prius’s hybrid technology–which uses an electric motor to supplement power from the gasoline, resulting in lower emissions and higher gas mileage–quickly developed a following. Upon its arrival in America, the Prius was an early hit in Hollywood and environmentally conscious celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz were spotted driving their Priuses around Los Angeles. For the 2003 Academy Awards, Toyota provided a fleet of Priuses to chauffeur celebrities such as Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart to the ceremony. Between 2000 and February 2009, Toyota sold over 700,000 Priuses in America, or more than half of the 1.2 million Priuses purchased around the planet.

Toyota went on to expand its stable of hybrids to include the Lexus RX 400h, the world’s first hybrid-powered luxury vehicle, which launched in April 2005, and the Highlander Hybrid SUV, which debuted in June of that same year. A hybrid version of Toyota’s bestselling Camry sedan followed in April 2006 and was also the first Toyota hybrid to be made in the U.S.

In 2008, Toyota passed America’s General Motors (GM) to become the world’s largest automaker. GM, which at the time had been hobbled along with the rest of the auto industry by a global economic crisis and slumping car sales, received criticism for being the home of the gas-guzzling Hummer and for failing to develop a hybrid vehicle when Toyota first launched the Prius (the name is reportedly linked to the Latin for “earlier” and meant to connote a car that’s ahead of its time).

The same week that Toyota announced its 1 millionth hybrid sold in America, the Ford Motor Company reported that it had built its 100,000th hybrid vehicle in the U.S.

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