Memories Of An Automotive Milestone at the Pontiac Silverdome

A million years ago, in 1978 or thereabouts (don't hold me to the specifics of this story, but the basics are true), I was Associate Editor of Motor Trend and attended an automotive technology event that was, at the time, most unique.  It was held at the General Motors proving grounds in Detroit, then as now called 'Black Lake' and was a competition among teams from various colleges to create vehicles powered by unique fuels.  As I recall, there were unique ideas on display, like a hydrogen-powered vehicle (possibly a Corvair?) powered by hydrogen released from hydride crystals(?)  It was a several day event with a fair number of participants, and was won ultimately by a team that effectively and comprehensively 'gamed' the rules by producing the most miles per gallon (121 mpg?) in a tube-frame recumbent bicycle that used some little putt-putt engine to multiply the muscle power of the drivers/riders.  And then they had the awards ceremony at the Pontiac Silverdome…

If you take away all the people, and reverse the viewpoint so that you're looking out the windows of the restaurant on the opposite end of the stadium, that was the view of attendees at the awards.  I'm sorry to say that, instead of imprinting on my memory the names of the pioneers participating in this event, I was bemused by the fact that, at this event focused on ultra-efficient use of energy, the sight that held my attention was of a couple of kids holding a sandlot football scrimmage... on the turf of a then-major stadium, under about a million watts of light.  

I assume they were the children of the groundskeepers, playing while their fathers worked.  At least, that's the way I've told the short-form version of the story in intervening years. 

It was, in retrospect, and despite the contrary name of the venue, a golden moment, the seed of a brighter future.

Sad to say but Pontiac as an automotive brand is now gone, along with Oldsmobile, Mercury, Saturn, Plymouth, and so on.  And what remains of the iconic Pontiac Silverdome -- originally built in 1975 at a cost of $55 million for many years the largest stadium in the NFL until falling on hard times and being sold to a Toronto real estate developer in 2009 for $583,000 -- is this.

A useful lesson in the impermanence of things.  Looking to the bright side, however, the participants in that long-ago event are surely today's entrepreneurs, CEO's of energy companies, electric car manufacturers, heads of automotive development and testing facilities, aerodynamacists, etc. And boy, have they come a long way...

Sticking with the putt-putt bicycle concept... 12,665 miles per gallon...

Something resembling a real car... 261 miles per gallon

A semi-real car that you can buy at a dealership... 124 miles per gallon


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