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10 American Car Brands That Went Under

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After the recent announcement that Chrysler would be going into bankruptcy, the discontinuation of the Pontiac line, and the imminent demise of GM's Saturn, let's take a look back at some other American car brands that have ceased to be.

1. Studebaker

What started in 1852 as a family owned blacksmith business would become the world's largest wagon builder by the end of the 19th century. Successfully turning their wagon juggernaut into a horseless carriage enterprise, Studebaker would turn out unique and creative cars, including the bullet-nose Land Cruiser, until 1966 when the last car rolled off the line.

2. AMC

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American Motors was originally created in a 1954 merger between Hudson (maker of the Hornet) and Nash-Kelvinator. The carmaker put out products under the Rambler and Rebel lines for a few years, but truly hit its stride in the late "˜60s and early "˜70s with unforgettably badass cars like the Javelin, Gremlin, Pacer, and Eagle. Personally, I'll never forget the 4WD Eagle wagon that our neighbors used for the carpool when I was seven. AMC was bought by Chrysler and ceased operation in 1988.

3. Duesenberg

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Makers of possibly the finest cars ever produced in America, Duesenberg was a casualty of the Great Depression. Even with celebrity owners like Clark Gable, Mae West, Phillip Wrigley (of chewing gum fame), and Howard Hughes, the top-of-the-line and top-priced autos simply couldn't survive the world of bread lines New Deal austerity. They made their last production car in 1936. The few that survive today rarely change hands, and when they do, seven figures are typically at stake. There's a reason why this car inspired the phrase "It's a doozy!"

4. Crosley

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Powel Crosley, Jr. was either ahead of his time, totally out of his league, or just a bad carmaker. Starting in 1939, his attempts to create a cheap American competitor to Volkswagen were greeted with little enthusiasm. His finest moment came in 1950 with the Crosley Hotshot, a small, economical, but amazingly well-built sports car that took awards in international racing and sold for half the price of most of its competitors. It wasn't enough to keep Crosley from ceasing operations in 1952. [Image courtesy of Flickr user Soggy Semolina.]

5. Pierce-Arrow

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Started as the George N. Pierce Company in Buffalo, NY "“ makers of iceboxes, birdcages, and bicycles "“ Pierce-Arrow developed into one of the few carmakers that could actually challenge Duesenberg as American's finest automaker. Like Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow found the market for its beautiful and frightfully expensive cars greatly diminished by the Depression. The assets of the company were sold off in 1938.

6. Muntz

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Earl "Madman" Muntz almost single-handedly created the stereotype of the crazy used-car salesman ("These prices are In-SAAAANE!). The successful Southern California car huckster, flush with cash, moved from selling cars to making cars in 1950. Muntz's Midas-touch didn't translate to the car-building business, however, and his operations ceased in 1954. Never one to slow down though, Muntz went on to make a fortune selling newfangled stereo cartridge tapes and big-screen TVs. [Image courtesy of Flickr user Simon Davison.]

7. Cord

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Another used car salesman from Southern California, Errett Lobban Cord, took over the Auburn Automobile company in 1924. In 1929, he introduced a car line under his own name, and although his cars weren't a great commercial success, the styling was second to none. The 1936 810 Sportsman two-seater convertible was, for my money, the best looking prewar car made in America. Unfortunately, by 1937 Cord had run his company into the ground, taking Auburn and Duesenberg (purchased in 1926) along with it.

8. Geo

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The General Motors brand, introduced in 1989, was originally built to compete with small, economical foreign imports. It's various models "“ Metro, Prizm, Storm, Spectrum "“ fared decently, but not well enough to stay a going concern. GM stopped production in 2004, which may have been about two to three years too early. With the huge gasoline price spike of 2006-2007, used Geo prices skyrocketed due to the cars' rather incredible fuel economy and dependable reputation.

9. Stutz

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Stutz, another Depression-era casualty, was probably most famous for making the Bearcat. A veritable symbol of roaring "˜20s conspicuous consumption and carefree joie-de-vive, the Bearcat was not just a leisure vehicle, but also one solid automobile. Bearcats won various endurance races throughout the teens and "˜20s, including cross-country escapades. The car's fame never seems to die, even inspiring a 1971 television Western called Bearcats!, in which the two heroes fight bad guys not from horses but from, you guessed it, Stutz Bearcats. Having neither the technological excitement of Knight Rider, nor the unbridled sensuality of Hardcastle and McCormick's Daniel Hugh Kelly, Bearcats! was cancelled midway through its first season.

10. Tucker

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Of course, no discussion of bygone American automobiles would be complete without mentioning Preston Tucker. The clever, charming, erudite, indefatigable Tucker tried to take on the Big 3 and lost. Or at least that's the Hollywood story, engagingly brought to life by Jeff Bridges in the 1988 film Tucker: The Man and His Dream. In reality, Tucker was probably a slightly less charming fellow, but still a great carmaker. The 1948 Tucker Torpedo, the only car Tucker ever built, was an incredibly stylish vehicle that actually performed better than it looked. With top speeds of up to 120 mph, an air-cooled rear engine and pioneering safety features, the car was way ahead of its time. Too bad only 50 were made.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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