Lynch explains goals of the Collier Collection and the new Revs Institute at Stanford
By Michael T. Lynch
As an enthusiast, I’ve often wondered over the years where the automobile went wrong with Academia. Although the automobile has had a huge impact on many intellectual disciplines, little scholarly work has been written about it that wasn’t negative. Certainly cars have had deleterious effects on society – pollution, urban sprawl and fatal accidents among them — there have been positive aspects as well. When I left the Midwest to go to school in the Northeast, it occurred to me that in centers of intellectual inquiry like New York, Boston, New Haven and Philadelphia, these cities all had working mass transportation systems. Many people didn’t even own cars, simply renting them for occasional weekend excursions. Intellectuals operating in these public transportation hothouses could only see the evil in the automobile, not considering what a miniscule portion of our population is served by even minimally-effective public transportation. Certainly the automobile is positive in that a huge percentage of American workers could not get to their jobs without one and would have no ability to start a new job, if they lost one.
Working backward, I considered the bifurcated American public education system, where for many decades, smart kids in high school were put on a college track and those deemed slower learners were relegated to what was usually referred to as “shop” – technical training. Shop usually contained an automotive component, so when intellectuals proceeded forward with their education, they already had a built in bias – cars and dumb kids were associated in their universe. The automobile certainly wasn’t a legitimate object of intellectual inquiry. The suburbs that our middle class fled to after World War II could never have been built without the availability of the automobile. At the same time, our national priorities have been skewed by the automobile in ways that were certainly not in the national interest. Without intelligent inquiry on both sides of the issue, the general public is left out of public policy discussions of how we can change our use of cars for the better.
Recent developments that began in the enthusiast automotive community may have the effect of moving academia toward a more balance view of the automobile. Rolling back the rock is a visionary collector, Miles C. Collier.
Collier is American racing royalty in that his father, C. Miles and uncles Sam and Barron were founders of the Automobile Racing Club of America in the 1930s. The club’s stated purpose was to revive European-style road racing in America at a time when all top line racing here was conducted on ovals. The Colliers also became the MG importers and C. Miles raced in Europe a few times in the 1930s, an extreme rarity for an American at the time.
Although the ARCA wasn’t always either an artistic or financial success, some impressive events were held with members entering European GP machinery. The real contribution of the Colliers was to have the vision to promote road racing in America when there was none. The ARCA was shut down after Pearl Harbor and never revived. However, after World War II, several members including George Weaver, C. Miles and Sam were influential in turning the fledgling Sports Car Club of America’s mission from preserving older sports cars to promoting racing. Within a decade, sports car racing became a major sport in the U.S. with some SCCA events rivaling the Indianapolis 500 in attendance.
Miles C. Collier became interested in road racing and he first built an important collection of Porsches which he raced in vintage events. At the end of 1986, he bought the collection of sportsman Briggs Cunningham, who had been an early road racer and an associate of his father and uncle, Sam. Some of the cars Miles acquired from the Cunningham collection had been raced by his father and uncle.
As Collier culled the collection over the years and added to it, he developed strong theories on the responsibility of collectors to form a rationale for their collections and to preserve the past. In a world of over-restored cars, Collier became a voice of reason. Collectors slowly came his way and major concours began to mark cars down for over restoration. This gave less credence to “trailer queens”, cars that are trucked from show to show, but are never driven. Slowly, barn finds were only cleaned up rather than receiving a ground-up restoration and major concours began having classes called “preservation” or “survivor” to accommodate them.
By 2000, Collier began a series of biennial symposiums on collecting. These included faculty like historian Doug Nye, driver/historian/restorer Phil Hill, restorer Paul Russell and others at the top of the collector car world. Guests were limited and the attendance was mostly made up of significant collectors who came away with a new appreciation of their responsibilities.
In 2009, the Revs Institute was founded as an educational institution. Miles Collier said, “The idea is to add intellectual and academic stature to the study of the automobile, and recognizing that we had an asset here in the form of a special library collection that really was one of the preeminent research engines in the world for the history of the car, we ought to make that available to serious researchers, academicians and other kinds of students of the automobile. That’s what the Revs Institute is all about; making this special collections library available to people.”
Since then, Miles has expanded what he wants to achieve, which seems to be nothing less than the acceptance of the study of the automobile at the highest levels of academia. That led to the Revs Program at Stanford which was launched earlier this year through an eleemosynary arrangement between Collier entities and Stanford University. On April 17th, a symposium entitled “Celebrating the Automobile, Past, Present and Future was held at Stanford. Speakers included scholars from the following disciplines; Archaeology, Communication, English, Humanities, Law, Mechanical Engineering, Medicine and Psychiatry. There was a racing dialog that included ALMS team owner Duncan Dayton, vintage racer and promoter Murray Smith and a Stanford undergraduate racer, Julia Landaur. There were also people from Dr. Michael Shanks’ Metamedia Lab and the Stanford University Libraries. Subjects touched on the past, present and future of the automobile.
To try and comprehend how the automobile intersects with these various disciplines, I recently spoke to the Director of the Revs Program at Stanford, Dr. Clifford Nass, the Thomas More Storke Professor at Stanford University, with appointments in communication, computer science, education, law and sociology.
I asked what he saw as some of the Program’s first initiatives. He said he, “…wanted to bring the automobile to the center of the university, appearing in research and in courses of every discipline.”
Because the automobile has had such a profound effect on technology, society and culture, Nass “…finds it remarkable that academia ignored the automobile as a subject of study and relegated it to lower pursuits.”
One of the first exercises undertaken has been to develop what the Program is calling an “auto-biography” of selected cars. Nass says this, “…is an effort to fully understand an automobile from the vantage point of different disciplines. We are attempting this through studies as varied as determining the provenance of the vehicle to placing sensors on the car to determine handling characteristics to using EKG and skin conductance to measure how the driver is responding to the car’s performance.”
The Revs Program at Stanford’s long term goal is to, “Create a picture of specific worthy cars that can be recreated through simulation. With 3D systems making such rapid progress we might be able to allow a person to not only experience what the car looks like and feels like, but also to create a social and cultural background that would give the driver the feeling for the historical context. Also, by collecting such data we might be able to create a data base that would allow us to draw some conclusions on why certain cars became icons while others did not inspire people.”
Another initiative is support the creation of new automotive-related courses across the curriculum. The positive response from faculty in a variety of disciplines is highly encouraging.
Perhaps of most interest to the Veloce Today audience is the Revs Institute archive, which added the images of the Karl Ludvigsen Collection earlier this year. Ludvigsen is a journalist, auto industry executive and consultant who was at major races, factory visits and important auto introductions during his career. He also had the foresight to buy the collections of photographers who worked both earlier and later than he did. The Revs Institute is working with Stanford Libraries toward getting the entire Collier archive online for researchers and other qualified people in digital form.
In the immediate future, Nass and his fellow faculty and students will be involved in the feast of cars and car-related events during the week-long run up to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. During the pre-Reunion weekend and the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, the Revs Program at Stanford will have a booth in the paddock area to enable people to learn more about the program.
The Collier Collection will have two Porsches entered at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. One of the new features of the Reunion is a section of the paddock known as the Showcase Stage. It will have a ramp and significant cars will be described by informed hosts and personalities from each car’s past. I am happy to say that I will be one of those hosts and on the Saturday of the Rolex Reunion weekend we will bring the Collier Porsche 356 Abarth Carrera up on the ramp. This is not just any Abarth Carrera, but the first one built as a factory race car. It won its class in four Sports Car World Championship events including Le Mans.
When the Abarth is on the ramp, I am hoping Dr. Nass and some of his associates can tell the crowd much more about the Revs Program at Stanford than I can impart in these few words. Certainly we can all agree that this is a long overdue and noble effort.
The Revs Program at Stanford’s website is http://.revs.stanford.edu.