A Convention Hall, a Czecho-Slovak Immigrant, & Change

A Convention Hall, a Czecho-Slovak Immigrant, & Change

Credit: “The National Automotive History Collections.”

Fifty-three years ago, for the first time in history, the National Automobile Show was held in Detroit, Michigan from October 15-23, 1960. The place was the state-of-the-art Cobo Hall on the Detroit River. Incorporating 1.6 million sq. ft. of usable space (without the attached convention arena), Cobo Hall was proclaimed the world’s largest exhibition building.

Interestingly, the theme of the 1960 show was “Wheels of Freedom,” during a time when once again freedom was being challenged throughout the world. A “Wheels of Freedom” commemorative stamp was released at the show’s opening dinner where President Dwight David Eisenhower was the keynote speaker visiting the city less than a month before John F. Kennedy’s election.

Nobody was prouder of Cobo Hall (now referred to as Cobo Center) and its grand opening

Credit: Virtual Motor City Collection, WSU.

in 1960 than the 32-year-old, Czechoslovakian immigrant Charles Novacek. For three years Charles had been working on the Cobo construction as a project engineer/manager for the O.W. Burke Company. It was his first “major’’ engineering position since immigrating to Detroit in 1956. Charles called the Cobo job the “springboard into my civil engineering career in the United States.”

Many times Charles would reflect on what it took to get him to this place. . . fleeing his homeland from Communist occupation, enduring life in a displaced persons camp, relocating to Venezuela because there was nowhere else to go. . .

When Charles was finally granted permission to enter the United States from Venezuela after waiting eight years, he was elated, but “gravely concerned.”  In his memoir Border Crossings:Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Charles wrote:

“I was just as bad off as when we had arrived in Caracas; again, I felt useless, for I didn’t speak English, I didn’t have a dime to my name, and the streets of Detroit resembled those of Caracas—just as strange, just as forbidding—when I looked for a job there.

I realized I would be facing some problems using the country’s system of measurements; the metric system was a thing of the past for me. My engineering ability and my judgment of energy and force in design procedures, which I developed during my earlier training, became useless for a while. My skill in sizing and proportioning of structural components lacked accuracy because I did not have a truly clear sense of foot-pounds. I felt quite insecure; to protect myself, I calculated all structures in both standard measure and metric measure to cross-check. Because of that I had to work harder, and the calculations took me longer to complete. There were no electronic calculators.

In September 1957, I matriculated in Wayne State University to study English for the foreign-born. The cost of the classes was negligible, but the time required to come and go to school became a serious burden, limiting my working hours and causing our income to decline. I had to work more at night, and my stress level increased, affecting my health. Still, in the English class I made remarkable progress. . . “

The world, Detroit, and Cobo Hall have undergone many changes since Charles started to build his career. This week the 2013 North American International Auto Show opens in Cobo Center with fanfare and more change. The fifty-three year old convention facility has undergone a nearly $300-million makeover and upgrade that will once again dramatically alter its appearance.  A previous massive face-lift and expansion in 1989 had nearly doubled the original footprint and converted the original modern façade.

If Charles were here today he would probably wait for the excitement of the Auto Show to subside, then head downtown to examine the “new” Cobo Center. He’d check out the structural components and materials for durability and safety, marvel at the technology, and look to see what they did with the Carl Milles sculpture, “Spirit of Transportation.”

Take a look at the video of a commercial from the 1960 Detroit Auto Show:


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