Bill Smith, November 13, 2015

Title

Bill Smith, November 13, 2015

Subject

Automobiles
Local business
McLaren Engines
Climate Change
Childhood
Richfield Springs, NY
Norwich, NY
Detroit, MI
Vermont
Colorado
Cooperstown, NY
Public opinion
Land use
Emissions
International business

Description

H. William Smith Jr., known as Bill Smith, grew up locally in Cooperstown, NY. Mr. Smith’s family has lived in the area for several generations on his maternal side after his great-great grandmother first settled in the area. Mr. Smith grew up around automobiles; his father originally worked at gas stations along Route 20 and later owned a local automobile dealership. Mr. Smith’s childhood passion for cars resulted in his multiple successful business endeavors, all within the automobile industry.

Mr. Smith has owned several automobile dealerships nationwide and is one of the founding members of McLaren Racing Limited, developing race cars, and later on McLaren Engines, where he built engines and tested emissions for multiple well known automobile companies. Mr. Smith is currently retired and now lives between Norwich, New York, Cooperstown, New York, and Colorado. He enjoys spending time skiing, golfing, and working on his farm in Norwich.

I interviewed Mr. Smith at his home, 4 Pioneer Street, Cooperstown, NY. I have taken the liberty of making some minor edits to this transcript for the sake of clarity.

Creator

Leigh Graham

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2015-11-13

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
28.8 MB

audio/mpeg
11.8 MB

image/jpeg
2.9 MB

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image
Text

Coverage

Upstate New York
1927-2015
Cooperstown, NY

Interviewer

Leigh Graham

Interviewee

Bill Smith

Location

4 Pioneer Street
Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2015

LG = Leigh Graham
BS = Bill Smith

[TRACK 1, 00:00]
LG:
This is the November 13, 2015 interview with Bill Smith for the Cooperstown Graduate Program Research and Fieldwork course recorded at 4 Pioneer Street, Cooperstown, NY. So, thank you for joining me today; how are you doing?
BS:
I’m doing well, thank you.
LG:
Let’s just get started; if you could tell me when your family first came to Cooperstown.
BS:
Well, I was not born here in Cooperstown, but my mother was from here and my father was from Minnesota and during the period that I was born the hospital in Cooperstown was closed so I was born in Utica, but my other five brothers and sisters and siblings were all born here. My mother’s from Cooperstown, my grandmother’s from Cooperstown, my great-grandmother was from Hartwick which is just outside, and my great-great-grandmother was from here, but on my mother’s side, so I spent a good portion of my time here as a young lad here in and around Cooperstown.
LG:
When your great-great-grandmother first came to the area, why did she come here?
BS:
I think that my great-great-grandmother was a full-blooded Indian. So I don’t know where she came from around here, but she’s a Mohawk, so I suspect the Mohawks were here. I don’t know where my great-grandfather was from, I do know the other portions, where my grandfather was from, but my mother’s side, and the female side, we can trace.
LG:
How much have you gone into tracing that?
BS:
Not a lot, but enough to know that portion.
LG:
What did your parents do when you were growing up?
BS:
My father was in the automobile business. He had an auto dealership in Richfield Springs, a Ford dealership, and prior to that he had a number of gas stations early on when Route 20 was the major East Coast highway, all the way from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, or vice versa and so we had for instance in Richfield three gas stations and a number of cabins in the summer time, mostly gas stations were closed in the winter time because there weren’t that many cars. At the Springfield four corners he had two gas stations there, he had one in Cherry Valley, one in West Winfield, all the way up around Route 20. But he came from Minnesota; his father and mother had both died and he lived with an uncle who had a number of livery—this is a term from the late 1800s to the early 1900s—and they were teams. When you came to a train station, you needed some sort of livery so that uncle had all these horses and wagons and you would rent them and so my father would go from one train station to another to see and then he finally came east to see his sister who was sent here to live with a minister in Schuyler Lake, NY, that little stone church that is on the corner. That fellow’s name was Sylvester Darryl so she married a fellow, his name was Baker, and if you notice on the west side of Canadarago Lake there’s the big Baker Farm and Baker Beach which they had that and then they sold that to another relative and moved to Richfield, so my father came east to see his sister, that’s how he met my mother in Cooperstown.
LG:
How do you think he first became interested in going into automobiles?
BS:
As a younger kid there surely wasn’t as many cars around when I was growing up and I think I probably started driving at ten, twelve years old. Jump in a car, then probably with my father having the autodealership, I know my first car was a Model A and I think I paid $50 for it. It really ran well I think. It was 1929 and most all cars then were manual shift and I could drive all over with it and it was great. So anyway as I grew up I went away to school to Union College. Was out of school and took a job, I didn’t want to be an auto dealer myself. I thought I wanted to work for Ford at the factory level so I got a job and I lived in Dearborn, Michigan. And I went there in 1947 and I could see that most all the people who were there were finance people. Everybody everyday would come in and have a new three-by-five card with all the statistics in the world, they were all finance people. I didn’t want to be in manufacturing, but I thought I wanted to have a reasonably large job with the company so then I said to them why don’t I get an auto dealership on my own, someday somebody is going to have to sell these cars because after World War II you could sell anything so I got to look for a dealership and all of the company branches had also manufactured their cars. This happened to be Buffalo, they manufactured the Ford cars and trucks and they had also jurisdiction over all of the dealerships in the western part of New York and some of northern Pennsylvania, so I found a dealership in Norwich, New York that was losing money at that time and the man didn’t really have an interest you know. To make a long story short they made arrangements for me to buy it. I was single, I took a train down to Syracuse, they picked me up, I met the fellow, made a deal with him and I bought a dealership. So I was only going to give it a couple of years. Things were so good that I never went back to Detroit; I stayed in the auto deal. So that’s my entrée. Later on the dealership in Cooperstown became available. My father had the one in Richfield Springs which my younger brother took over so we started the one in Cooperstown and then I had another one in Burlington, Vermont. But during this period of time I still had a lot of contacts in the Michigan area and I was in the auto racing business, the fellow who really pretty much introduced me to it was the father of Henry Rudkin who was married to Dorothy [unclear] Smith of Sam Smith’s Boatyard, it’s Sam’s sister, so I got involved with them. Then, I did some driving myself. Finally, I got involved with a fellow and we started a company in England called McLaren, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Limited, and that went very well. We were doing our own engine work development, not the factory. So we started a company called McLaren Engines. It was in California for one year and we moved it because that was crazy; don’t send English, New Zealanders, Australians to southern California because they will go crazy by the end of one year so we moved it to Lavonia, Michigan. The reason why we really wanted it there was, in England if you were trying to buy some special double aught seven metal steel or something, it would take maybe three months or six months. The supply base in and around Detroit, Michigan was fantastic for anything in the automobile, so we were there. We grew that company and did a lot of our own work and then finally there was no need of doing it because you usually used the large motor companies, McLaren has Honda now, but then they used Mercedes and different people. We started doing work for different people, for BMW, Mercedes, General Motors and Ford, never any Chrysler work at all, Volvo, Peugeot, Renault, mostly engine testing and we finally ended up with nineteen engine dynamometers, they are very complicated testing pieces of equipment and motoring stands where we would just run the engines hours after hours, collecting the data to see. Toward the end it was a lot of emissions work which really is sort of crazy because today you hear about Volkswagen and what they did to circumvent the emissions on the diesels and everybody was wondering how they were doing it. Our people, not me, but our people were wondering how they could do this without using urea or some other way for the NOx and now we find out because these guys were, I don’t know how they ever thought they were going to get away with it, because I think there are six or seven hundred thousand of them in the United States and twelve million in the world that do not comply with the emissions standards that you should have. But the company grew and grew and then we had a company called Specialized Engineering Services, so we would have employees that I call rent-a-bodies and so Ford needed some people to do a project and they would use our people, go in-house, and they would go to work just like they work for them but they would work for us and we would bill them each month and maybe GM would do the same thing. And then I finally sold the company to the employees about eleven years ago now and they have sold it to a company called Linimar in Canada, which is a wonderful, wonderful company. The people that started it were from Austria and they couldn’t get into the United States and it’s the second largest company in Canada today. Magnum, which is another Austrian that couldn’t get into the United States, and I had a partnership with a man named Heinz Pretchter in Detroit and he’s the first guy to do sunroofs in the United States, he’s from Austria also and later on we started a company called ASC McLaren. We built specialty cars, the little car that I have in the garage here, we took a Mustang, cut the roof off and made it look like a little 450 Mercedes, we did the Buick GNX car, we did the Pontiac Grand Prix car so we’d make these special cars, and that was a separate company. The poor fellow was an extremely bright guy, had very high and lows, and he committed suicide. It was a tragedy to lose such a great talent, but there’s where I am now, I’m sitting talking with you in Cooperstown, New York at 4 Pioneer Street retired, still have an interest in the motor racing and watch it from time to time. We had an Indianapolis team, we won twice, we finally left that because we didn’t have the funding we needed to continue it. We did two big BMW projects where we built the cars for them, this is a separate company called McLaren North America, and we’d race these cars as sedan cars, very, very sophisticated for sports car type racing, but each car would cost about a million and a half dollars or so, but they would be paid for by BMW so we would build the cars, race them, using basically their vehicles and their engines and redevelop them to be much more powerful. But again all of those projects are done. I had a great time doing it during the time and you never know, everyday is a different day.
LM:
What was your favorite part of working in automobiles?
BS:
I’m a reasonably hands-on guy but I’m not a tech and I’m not a super mechanic or anything like that. We had people, some of these New Zealanders and Australians and English, not that we don’t have a lot of great people in this country, but to hand make manifolds and exhaust systems, and they’d do them all by hand and the welding, some of these people were so fantastic. A lot of them are still out there. You see a lot of things that you see manufactured later on have to be done on a prototype but today we did have a lot of computer. At McLaren we got into computers very early, but today you do a lot of CAD designing and three and five access machines. You put a piece of metal in and this machine will change tools and make that little part. You’ve heard of 3D printing? It’s similar to that and every little pictel is picking up. These machines are very expensive, but they are unbelievable. A lot of that work that was done by hand before can be done by the computer-controlled or CNN machines. If you notice automobiles today, I don’t care whether it’s a car from Korea, we did a lot of work for Hyundai. The first Hyundais, they were so bad it was just terrible but if you look at one today they are pretty darn good once you have everything controlled by the computer [unclear] and the machinery it’s pretty darn good. Every once in a while sure there are some glitches but in total the whole industry, at one time there was that one car, the Moskvich I think it was and another one, the Yugo, that was from Yugoslavia, and then the Trevi was a German car or East German, plastic car. In fact in China we did all of the work for, via General Motors, their division, we did all of the homologation for the emission controls for the Chinese government. At one time I went to the office in Detroit and they had about forty Chinese in one of our very nice deluxe meeting rooms and the smoke was, you couldn’t even see it was so deep, because they all smoked so I told them you get them a room in the back or in one of the different buildings if they are going to be here, but anyhow, Buick is the largest selling car in China, I don’t think people would realize that, and it’s only because they were on the cutting edge of doing and I have to give credit to the Chinese because they were so backward that they wanted to take and be on the forefront. They could build cars now that could beat all of the emissions in the world if they wanted to. I wouldn’t doubt that eventually they will be shipping cars here so we’ll see. I’m getting worn out here; talking too much, give me a question.
LG:
Have you seen people in the automobile industry become more concerned about climate change?
BS:
I think that you should err on the side that yes there is a problem, climate change and I think you’re driven by in the U.S. government today the new standard for MPG [miles per gallon]. I think 41 miles for the average fuel economy, the CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy], whether they will ever meet it right away I don’t know but it’s being driven and that’s being driven basically by the climate change desire for the federal government. That’s going to take an awful lot. For instance Ford’s pickup truck that F150 is made of aluminum now, why are they making it out of aluminum? To save seven hundred pounds. Climate change is a big influence on what’s going to happen in the auto industry and I think you’ll find that cars will probably have to get smaller and smaller and every year all the things that you cannot imagine that go into the engine of a car today, variable valve timing, anti-friction, all the things, the size of the piston rings, the things that people would never ever think would be involved, but again I’d say goes back to the climate change.
LG:
You said that your brother also worked in the automobile industry, is he local?
BS:
My brother Ed who lives right next door here. He has the automobile dealership that we started back in the 50s here in Cooperstown. When we first built it we bought a frozen food place that is across from the Cooper Inn. It was an auto dealership, became a frozen food place after World War II; it was still a food business and then we bought it and put it back to an auto place; that was crazy and finally because of the zoning here we finally found a place where it is now down on Route 28 south near Hartwick and that was selling commercially and it was a building already; it’s across from that little cemetery there and so we built that over and moved out of the other place. But my brother Ed is the one that owns this here now and my other brother in Richfield Springs, he died so that is owned by some other folks up in Richfield.
LG:
Are there any stories you would like to share about your father growing up in the area or your grandfather growing up in the area?
BS:
Obviously my father didn’t grow up around here.
LG:
Oh yes, sorry
BS:
My grandfather did, and I used to spend as a young guy time with him. In fact where the Fenimore Museum is, I went up there as a little guy when they were building that, or finishing it off. He was a carpenter and that one particular room as you go in to the right, I think it was the library at that time, I remember him doing the dental work and the moldings all by hand, there were all these hand tools and I went in there a number of times. And my grandmother ran the house that is no longer there across from the Otesaga which was Lin Vincent’s family, the Johnson’s, so she ran that household for them. They had quite a few people working there; a butler, maids, chauffeurs, what have it, and she would [take care] of the desires of Mrs. Johnson and put those to work and as a little guy I used to be able to go, I’d have to dress up pretty well, and go to a lot of the parties or hang around the parties, they’re great entertainers. That was a magnificent home called The Orchards.
LG:
Could you tell me a little bit about what it’s like to run a business in a seasonal town like Cooperstown?
BS:
Well, I never worked over here, I did run the place that I had over in Norwich and then obviously ran the ones, but not on a day-to-day basis that I did in Michigan, but I was on some other boards, I was on the Victory Markets board and I was on the NBT Board, the bank board, and I think one thing that was maybe not as easy today, but back when I was in the auto business, is it’s not an awful large investment. If you work very hard you could make a reasonably good living, so that was an entrée to getting involved with other businesses and I guess that’s why they put me on the bank board and why I was put onto the Norwich Manufacturing and there was another, Victory Markets. There are a number of other businesses in town in and around the Norwich area, but not just there, they were branched out all over so it was a great entrée.
LG:
How did you become involved in the Burlington, Vermont dealership?
BS:
My oldest son went to the University of Vermont, but I’ve always been a skier from the time I was a little guy and used to go to Stowe, Vermont and I found out that the Ford dealership was going to be available and they were downtown Burlington and my partner in the engine development and the head of McLaren had a cousin that lived in the Burlington area so I teamed up with him. He didn’t know anything about the auto industry. So anyway he was on premise. We couldn’t use the place, it was downtown, we built a brand new place outside on Shelburne Road, south of Burlington and it really was a large, large dealership then, but it’s a lot larger today. Burlington has four colleges and General Electric and IBM and it’s protected pretty much on the west by the lake and of course there are people who love to ski or be outdoors or sail or what have it, but that’s how I got involved and I’m still an avid skier. We have a home in Colorado and will be going next month off and on for the winter. We do come back from time to time, but that was how I got into it and it was really a great thing and later on I got very busy and I sold it to the partner that I had and he didn’t last very long at it. He’s now sold it to somebody else, but it’s a very large dealership and they’ve added Toyota to it now. I had a Volkswagen place once, but early on. When it was just the Beetle, it was great and then they became bigger and bigger. Didn’t do well in Norwich, New York, I don’t know, but so I closed that.
LG:
How did you start going out to Colorado?
BS:
Mrs. Smith has become a wonderful skier, but she does not like cold weather and I don’t think she likes Stowe, Vermont that much because you get on the chairlift and they have to put blankets on you so we went out and spent some time with some friends in Aspen, Colorado and on the way back we had some other friends and we stopped. Veil had just started and she kind of liked that because it’s sunny and it’s not cold and yet there’s snow and it’s nice snow so we stayed there a couple years and then we bought a place and have been going back all the time. So our children and now our grandchildren are now all great skiers.
LG:
Are there any other activities that you like to do besides skiing?
BS:
Well I like to play golf but I’m not very good at it. I wished I could have had a little bit of my luck at skiing in my golf game.
LG:
How did you get started playing golf?
BS:
I played many years ago and then after I retired pretty much from business I took up golf again and it’s taken me a lot of time. We live in Norwich and this is our summer place and I think I have and I think we have quite a large farm, but we don’t farm anything but I keep these meadows and drive the tractors and it really looks great. We have the ponds and fish and a lot of game so I spend time now doing that. I love to be on the tractors and I don’t want to mow all day long, but my tractors are big.
LG:
Have you ever partnered with any other businesses through the automobile business?
BS:
No, I’d say that the engine company in Detroit, I had a partner Teddy Meyer and in McLaren North America I had another one Tyler Alexander joined that group, so I’d say I’ve had partners in a good number of my businesses and I think it’s wholesome because you can’t do everything yourself.
LG:
So it sounds like you’ve been all over the country with all of your different dealerships and visiting different places, what keeps you coming back to this area of New York?
BS:
Well I think there couldn’t be anything nicer than Cooperstown. Otsego Lake, just look at this place, it’s a little rainy today but it’s still beautiful out here. You know, there are no leaves on the trees to speak of, but the summer’s pretty, and I played golf Monday. It was wonderful. Today’s a little puce, but they tell me on next Monday it’s going to be sixty degrees so maybe I’ll play golf again. But just to be here is wonderful.
[START OF TRACK 2, 00:00]
Obviously a lot of people, including myself, would like to be away. I’m not a person to go to Florida, I go once in a while, but I love Colorado in the winter. A lot of people go there to spend the summer but why not spend [it in] Cooperstown.
LG:
How long have you been living on Pioneer Street?
BS:
I think we built this house twenty-five years ago or so and my brother owned all of this property over here on this side, the [Tury (sp?)] house and then he built the salt box, then he built his house and he wanted to take and give this to the village at a modest fee to be a part of the park. When he bought it years ago this brook meandered down through here, there were car bodies and it was just a junkyard but then he straightened it out. My son that’s an architect, he went to Harvard and brought the head of the school and they changed where the brook was to fix it all and we also owned Five Mile Point up here. That was before the condos were there. So we would have given this to the village and they didn’t want to do that, they wanted to be able to get the tax dollars, you know, have homes here so then we sold that place up there and built here. So he built first and then people were all in an uproar, but they had every opportunity. I felt sorry for my brother because he lived here, to take all of that grief. I don’t think people know about it now, but they missed the boat. They could have had it, all we would have liked to have had was to get an appraisal and get a deduction for our gift to the village, so that’s history.
LG:
Why do you think people were in an uproar about it?
BS:
Well, I think a lot of them, you know, don’t care for change. They thought this was going to take and ruin the view of the lake. Well it does, because there’s a house there now and our house is here and they didn’t realize that with the salt box with this open lot there that it looks like it’s all part of the park. My brother would let the fire department use it for whatever, for Fourth of July functions and they’d sell their hot dogs and pulled pork and what have you and all of a sudden it’s not that, but a lot of things happened. They never liked the condos, well that’s over now, people have that. When Ron Torrentz had the place up and back, way up on the hill on the east side of the lake, oh that was a big uproar, I don’t see it, that’s all growing back up again. You don’t see the condos. You hardly see them even from the lake in the summer. As much as I love Cooperstown, I’ve never seen a place where there are more and more things that people need as a cause temporarily and then it goes away. The one that it’s going to be now, it will be interesting to see happens to Brookwood up here. They could have gotten all of the money that they needed to survive but they’ve given that up and now, but I don’t want to get into that sort of political thing. [siren sounds] There goes our fire department.
LG:
Do any of your kids still live nearby?
BS:
No, oldest son lives in California, has two boys. Middle son lives in California and has two sons, northern California. Our youngest daughter who has been living in Brooklyn now is moving to Santa Barbara, California. She lived out there at one time before and I have a daughter who lives in Connecticut, she did have a place in New York, and she has a gallery in Manhattan and she has a gallery in Connecticut, an art gallery, and then I have another daughter who did for seventeen years work for Polo, early on when they were doing their home pillows and all the things and now she lives in Bedford, but they do come up here. She has three children. The oldest daughter doesn’t have any children and youngest daughter doesn’t have any children. So we only have seven grandchildren, four boys and three girls. The youngest granddaughter is now at Deerfield and her mother went to Hutchins but her father went to Deerfield, but our middle son went to Deerfield so we have a Deerfield connection.
LG:
You said that you used to go with your grandmother sometimes when she was running the Johnson house; do you have any stories about it or memories you’d like to share?
BS:
I just thought it was an unbelievably beautiful home and my first cousin drowned in their swimming pool, but that was an unfortunate accident, I guess he was visiting. I was around here, but I wasn’t there when that happened. But otherwise Mr. Johnson, that’s Lin Vincent’s father, he could not have been a nicer guy. He had a Cord automobile, a 1937 or something, and for me to ride around in that Cord automobile that had these pipes coming out the side, it was a convertible, it was fantastic, I mean it’s kind of a crazy thing to remember but that was a wonderful time. And they also had a place up, in those days at the Otesaga there were a number of boat houses there and you know what the Chief Uncas is and the Narra Matta, those boats like that, they had boat houses and they had a number of electric boats inside of them. I used to swim down there all of the time. They had a very wide dock and always had some sort of fabric on it so you never got a sliver in your foot. Even the ladders going into the water were covered. Thanks to the Clarks, I ought to genuflect every morning to thank them for all of the things they have done and are still doing in and around Cooperstown. You probably wouldn’t have this school you’re going to if it weren’t for them and bringing NYSHA [the New York State Historical Association] here. I think they were in Plattsburg before they came here. That plus the hospital and the gymnasium, how about the flowers on the street everyday, all of the wonderful, wonderful things they’ve done for the community.
LG:
It sounds like you’ve always had this strong interest in automobiles, you remember riding in the automobile from the Johnson house, have you ever wanted to do anything else?
BS:
Sure you’d like to do so many things, but I think you’ve got to know if you’re capable of it or not. I didn’t want to be an astronaut because growing up they’d never heard of them, there were guys with a pack on their back in the comic books, but no one ever thought they’d be going to the moon, so no, I’m happy with what happened.
LG:
Are there any other topics that you’d like to go into?
BS:
No, I just hope that the graduate program continues. I think it’s a great addition to this area. It’s been here quite a while, but I hope it continues and I hope the State of New York appreciates what’s happening up here. I just hope you do well.
LG:
How did you first get the idea for McLaren Engines?
BS:
When we started first McLaren Racing Limited, the first car that we bought was a car that someone else had had and we put an Oldsmobile engine in it and we had a company in California called Traco do the engine work, make it from a passenger car into a race car and then we started doing our Pan Am series and General Motors gave us these aluminum Chevrolet blocks and we had these people again in California doing that. Then we decided hey, we have to start doing this ourselves. Why have somebody there when we can control it so then that’s when we started the engine company ourselves in California as I said, we ran it one year and then we moved to Detroit and we were closer to Chevrolet, plus we were closer to all the bits and pieces so we were building our own engines for our own race team at that time, then as I said later on the major auto companies were involved. So it’s the same as Ferrari builds their own engine for Ferrari and then for [Node (sp?)] and for Williams and we had a Honda and then we had Cosworth. These were motor company subsidiaries and they would take a supply the engine for us and today I think Mercedes is around two hundred and fifty million dollars a year to build the engines for the Mercedes cars, not for the car itself, but just the racecar, so it’s a very expensive business, so we got out of that and started doing some work on the race business, but doing a lot of emissions work and other work, development work, for the motor business.
LG:
We are coming to the end of the interview now, are there any final stories that you would like to tell?
BS:
No, I think I’m worn out. I thank you.
LG:
Well thank you for sharing this with us today

Duration

30:00- Track 1
12:17- Track 2

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Files

H.WilliamSmith_photo.jpg

Citation

Leigh Graham, “Bill Smith, November 13, 2015,” CGP Community Stories, accessed December 8, 2019, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/236.