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Published: Wednesday, 8/29/2007

Monroe-brand shocks strut their stuff at history exhibit

BY BENJAMIN ALEXANDER-BLOCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
An Indy race car sporting Monroe shocks is among the items on display at the Monroe County Historical Museum. An Indy race car sporting Monroe shocks is among the items on display at the Monroe County Historical Museum.
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MONROE - Monroe shocks and struts are easily one of the city's most famous legacies.

John Patterson, president of the Monroe County Convention and Tourism Bureau, acknowledges that Monroe shock absorbers, La-Z-Boy, and possibly Gen. George Armstrong Custer are some of the first things people think of when he is trying to promote the county.

If you type Monroe into Google, Monroe shocks and struts is the first result.

An exhibit highlighting Monroe shocks and struts at the Monroe County Historical Museum runs through Sunday.

The museum, at 126 South Monroe St., is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Jerry Wittkop, who worked at the Monroe Automobile Equipment Company for 39 years and set up the exhibit, is presenting a snapshot of history, when Michi-gan was the world's automotive center and every good American, suburban family needed Monroe shocks.

In the early 1900s, cars still rode on carriage springs and flat tires were a common occurrence.

In 1916, August F. Meyer decided there was an untapped market for tire pumps, so he started the Brisk Blast Manufacturing Company in Monroe.

Soon Brisk Blast was producing more than 5,000 tire pumps a week.

Charles S. McIntyre, a local Dodge dealer, partnered with Meyer in 1918.

In 1919, Brisk Blast became Monroe Auto Equipment Company.

But during the 1920s, service stations started offering free air, and Detroit auto makers began offering spare tires as standard equipment in their cars.

MAECO began using a technology similar to the tire pump to create shock absorbers.

By the 1950s, MAECO launched the industry's first major national advertising campaign and persuaded drivers to start asking their mechanic if it was time for new shocks.

And then there was Monroe's presence in the Indianapolis 500.

In 1953, Bill Vukovich - a racer whom enthusiasts still consider one of the greatest of all time - won the Indy 500 on Monroe shocks.

Since that early victory, racers began using the shocks and with the long history of wins that followed, the company built brand awareness among the public by linking Monroe's identity with the Indy racers' fame.

The museum exhibit highlights Monroe shocks' connection with Indy 500 racing. It features a race car, Indy race film, displays, and other MAECO race memorabilia.

According to the exhibit, more Indy records have been set and more races have been won in the United States with Monroe shocks than any other brand.

Many of the items in the display came from Mr. Wittkop's private collection of mementos.

"Very few people in the Monroe and Toledo area realize that MAECO was involved in over 20 years of Indy racing," Mr. Wittkop said. "Many of the experimental products were tried out first on Indy cars and then over the years, they were developed for the general public."

Mr. Wittkop also has a collected knickknacks from the Meyer and McIntyre families.

Mr. Wittkop prefers to remember what the company once was.

"It's changed over the years," he said. "If a car has shocks on it, they are generally warranted by the car manufacturer."

And he said that many car companies now produce their own shocks.

He left the company soon after Tenneco Inc. bought MAECO in 1977. He missed the environment of a family-owned business.

"I was known and addressed as 'Jerry' by the McIntyre family," he said.

"The Tenneco guys addressed me by Wittkop or my Social Security number."



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