Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Sunday, May 31, 2009
The Citroen SM. It came from France, but please don't hold that against it! For one, glorious moment, the French got it RIGHT:
So, what does an encounter with a funny-looking French car have to do with the title of this screed? Nothing really, except for this: It got me to thinking, long and hard, about how much my thinking about automobiles has changed in recent years, yet in so many ways, remains pretty much the same at the same time. Pretty schizoid, eh?
Well, to any young whippersnappers out there, just you wait until you get to be MY age, dagnabbit! Back when I was a kid (which would be, say, south of approximately 30 years old), the whole automotive universe was in perfect order, and everything made perfect sense to me. I had it all figured out, you see. It was simple, really. I can state VWLarry's Theorem of Automotive Relativity in one simple declarative sentence: German cars are all that is good and right and perfect, and all other cars are scheisse (German for "poopee"). See! Isn't that easy, and isn't the logic absolutely airtight? The world of cars, seen through the prism of my youthful enthusiasm, was easy to understand, and of course I KNEW that I was right. After all, my buddies all felt the same way that I did, and we endlessly validated each other's opinions about the wonderfulness of German wagens (German for "car". We felt then that we had to use German words as often as possible when talking about cars, in order to elevate ourselves, and the cars, out of the mundane). German cars were engineered...no, over-engineered. They were elegant, stern, and defiantly UN-stylish. They were beautifully crafted and assembled, and they were the cars of the AUTOBAHN. 'Nuf said. Needless to say, that last statement was about the ONLY thing that my buddies and myself weren't completely full of scheisse about.
This illustration is only slightly less idealized than my youthful image of the Deutschen Autobahnen:
We ran around in Beetles, Karmann Ghias, Porsches (356s and 912s), Volkswagen Type 3s, a Mercedes Benz 190SL or two (just about the most beautifully crafted postwar car I've ever laid eyes on); even a fabulously weird and wonderful '52 Mercedes Benz 220S sedan that my best friend bought for a song from a local import-car guru, and other goofy and totally unpatriotic (we lived in steelmill country on the Southside of Chicago, and "foreign car" types like us hippie/commies weren't too popular with the locals) automobiles. Most of them were rustier than the Titanic (another delightful characteristic of German cars of yore), but we didn't care...we drove GERMAN cars! I was the "scholar" of our group, and read everything that I could lay my hands on that dealt with the automobiles of Germany (along with anything else that remotely dealt with automobiles, period...I'm obsessive, folks). German cars were IT; Germany was the Nirvana of motorized creation, construction, and transportation, and Germans had the Secret of Automotive Perfection installed in their very genes. I mean, who could argue such truth?
German cars, even rusted, clapped-out Beetles, were all direct descendants of these Teutonic totems, in our view:
As for the cars from other nations, well, we had our opinions. British cars were amusing, even fun, and they always inspired the best jokes about them (Why do the English drink warm beer? Because they have LUCAS refrigerators! HAH! ), and so on. But who in their right mind would ever want to DRIVE AROUND in a car that would most likely NEVER assist you in reaching your destination? I mean really! And those goofy SU carburetors...who in the hell could ever figgerout how THEY worked? British cars also always seemed to smell wet inside, too, kind of like a metallic English Sheepdog just in from the rain. I couldn't ever own an English car anyway, since my dad HATED oil stains on his driveway. The one English car I ever owned myself was a 1964 English Ford Cortina GT. Somehow it did not leak any oil. I think it was the only one.
My Cortina GT looked like this one. It not only didn't leak any oil, but it was a BLAST to drive. Nobody ever said the Brits don't build FUN cars.
Italian cars were interesting. "Interesting". That's a way of damning them with faint praise. You could hear them rusting if you listened hard enough, and the steering wheel was always too far away, with the pedals too close. You felt like they were designed for gorillas to drive, fer cripesakes! But, they sure were pretty, for the most part. This was a real virtue for Italian cars, because keeping them running involved endless searching and waiting for spare parts, so you basically were left with nothing but a nice thing to look at most of the time. True story. I had a friend who dated a girl back in the early 1970s, and she drove a Fiat 850 Spyder. It was a very cute and very "cool" car in many ways, but it very seldom actually ran for much more than a half-hour or so consecutively, even though it was well-maintained and in good running condition. One night, very late, after downing many many beers with another buddy, my friend and the other fellow went out into the garage where the little Spyder sat, and took turns whacking it for the next few hours with a sledgehammer. By daylight, they had reduced the Fiat to about 16 inches in height, and that morning, 6 or 7 big strong guys carried it out and put it into my friend's dad's pickup truck for disposal. "Fix It Again, Tony", done Sopranos style.
So pretty, yet so troublesome. Most of them sleep with the fishes today:
American cars were for dolts, period. They were cars for mouthbreathers and bottomfeeders and tirescreechers at the local drive-in. We sniffed and sneered in their general direction, and left it at that. Some of us, though, had these lingering feelings of affection toward them, yet dared not reveal our terrible, dark secret. To express even grudging approval of a 1970s American car back then would be to invite ridicule, and possibly complete ostracism from the "brotherhood". I liked Ford Pintos, but you damned well didn't hear it from ME!
My first new car came the year I graduated from high school. It was a shiny new 1971 Pinto. I LOVED that car. After I finished modifying it, it looked something like this one. My heresy lasted two years.
Japanese cars basically didn't exist in the early seventies, especially in our neck 'o the woods, the industrial Midwest. They simply weren't yet on the radar screen. My brother and I went to the local Ford dealership, in January of '71, my senior year in highschool, and test drove a funny little new car from Japan they were selling...the Honda 600 Coupe. It was a two-cylinder microcar that we almost couldn't fit into, and I remember we found it strangely fun, yet entirely meaningless. The heater was a door on the dashboard where the radio was on other cars, and when you opened it, you could actually see the engine, and along with heat, came NOISE. Honda? CARS?? It's a good thing they're so good with motorcycles. Anybody could tell that Honda cars weren't going anywhere.
So much for the "vision thing":
French cars. Yes, French cars. French cars were from another planet. They had incomprehensible liquid suspension, mooshy-cooshy seats, completely indecipherable instruments, and sometimes they even had different wheelbases on either side of the SAME car (re: Renault 16). Everyone knew that you couldn't get parts for a French car unless you chartered a plane to Paris yourself, and even when you got the part you needed, the car STILL wouldn't run anyway. So what was the point? Did Frenchmen ever actually DRIVE those things? Were French cars the source of that infamous French grumpiness we had always heard about from our WWII veteran dads? We seriously doubted it, since it seemed like every French art movie we watched in downtown Chicago snooty art movie theatres always featured lots of trains and bicycles and horsecarts. The cars were usually just parked on the side of the road. Mais oui.
Renault, at one time, was the #2 importer of cars in the United States, right behind Volkswagen. There were lots of little Dauphines coming off of cargo ships and being distributed around the country. But, honestly, did anyone ever see one of them moving under its own power?
So, we flash forward to the current century. VWLarry still loves cars (some would say to a degree approaching psychosis), but he doesn't see quite the same thing he did thirty-some years ago. Scanning down the scoresheet, German cars are the biggest losers of all. I've rarely been so disappointed in anything as I have in the carmakers of Germany in the last decade. They have truly lost their way, and have nearly totally flushed their collective heritage down the drain. Volkswagen is riding off in all directions at the same time, trying desperately to be something that they are NOT. Mercedes Benz is in a design-funk that has no end in sight, and they continue to whore themselves to the altar of mega-horsepower idiocy, while letting their reputation for peerless quality evaporate around them. BMW is so damned full of itself it isn't even funny, and if anyone can show me any remaining genetic link between cars like the 2002 and the current lineup of BMW bling-mobiles, apart from the increasingly mutated "Hoffmeister Kink" C-pillar styling signature, please show me. Porsche is the greatest letdown of all. Their cars are mere caricaturish silhouettes of their mostly glorious past. They are fat, and overpowered (I'm gonna get crucified for that one, but sob e it), and obscenely expensive even for Porsches). That's their cars. I won't even comment on Porsche's trucks. Worst of all, Porsche...PORSCHE has absolutely NO presence of any consequence in bigtime motorsports. Shameful and impossible to digest for this old Porschephile. Only Audi seems to be progressing, albeit at the usual stratospheric, nosebleed-levels of pricing of German "greatness" we all suffer from today. It's a shame really. As a working stiff blue-collar type, I'm doomed to only press my greasy nose to the showroom window and sigh.... But now, you wanna talk about German cars of the pre-mid-nineties era? Pull up a chair and have a beer with me, meine freunde.
British cars are still fun and interesting, but they are now also relatively reliable, and those damnable SU carbs are finally on museum shelves and committed enthusiast's workbenches, where they belong. Italian cars are still Italian cars...nice to date, but you wouldn't really want to MARRY one, would you? Japanese cars are, well, they're pretty much the whole show, now, aren't they? Who woulda thunkit all those years ago, when everybody knew Honda as a really nice motorcycle maker, and Toyota had a car called the Corona that some wonky professor at Purdue had purchased, and whatinthehell was a NISSAN(Datsun)?
SU Carburetors. It's a carburetor, but you are supposed to fill it up with OIL? You're kidding, right?
French cars. Ah yes, French cars. Well, some things do remain the same, don't they? Puh-leeze, spare me the sermons about today's Renault and Peugeot cars; you're not fooling me for a minute.
What about American cars? If irony could materialize, it would be in the form of a contemporary American automobile. Today, the cars from GM, Ford, and even Chrysler, at times, are among the best and the brightest coming from anywhere on the planet, at least in my opinion. But, as Ford struggles to stay afloat and solvent, Chrysler is already being methodically taken-apart by Italy's Fiat (too weirdly ironic here for words), and the once mighty General Motors Corporation is about to, in about 24 hours from the time I'm writing these words, to be transmogrified into a ward of the state that may not even carry the name "GM" any longer. Chevrolets have never really been better cars than they are today, likewise Cadillacs, and even Buicks are showing spark and vitality that couldn't have been predicted 10 years ago. But at this point, does any of this even matter anymore? Oldsmobile flared bright and strong just before the axe fell on them, and Pontiac, perhaps the marque, other than perhaps Chevy, that is most emblematic of American Automotive Joy in the post-WWII era, is on the slab, being embalmed for its upcoming funeral as we speak. There is little joy to be found these days in the automobile bidness, no matter the country of origin, though. It seems like everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop, and no one is quite sure of what the world of cars, and car enthusiasm, will look like 5 or ten years from now. Change is now the only constant.
"Aye-aye, sir. The deck chairs are all re-arranged, and the leaks should be plugged any time now."
I still love those damned Citroen SMs, though, and I still have those old sketches. Maybe that guy in Salisbury will put his up for sale someday.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I've been wanting to do a piece about this subject for a long time. We celebrate the great engineers of the cars we revere...Ferdinand Porsche is a good example of an automotive engineer of whom everybody is aware of, even nearly 60 years after his death. But certain other people who broke new ground in automotive engineering go nearly forgotten, along with the superb automobiles that were the result of their creative and innovative minds. Nils Eric Wahlberg was one of the best and brightest of these people, and he left a legacy that we all enjoy in our cars every single day. He deserves honor and remembrance. The company that Mr. Wahlberg spent most of his career with was Nash Motors, which later became American Motors Corporation when it merged with Hudson in 1954. Nash automobiles, under the engineering and technical guidance of Wahlberg, became probably the automobile industry's most technically sophisticated cars, in the overall sense of the word, available anywhere during the 1940s and early 1950s. Wahlberg, a Norwegian who immigrated to America as a boy early in the last century, holds a list of personally developed innovations that would do credit to a platoon of other fine engineers.
This is a list of the major, and some not-so major, yet still significant, achievements of Wahlberg's Nash company:
1. Modern fully-unitized/monocoque body construction, as still in use today (1940 Nash 600)
2. "Weather-Eye", the very first fully integrated automotive heating and ventilation system (1940 Nash)
3. Scientifically developed aerodynamic design for a mass-produced passenger sedan (1949 Nash Airflyte)
4. Scientifically designed, ergonomic driver-oriented instrument panel ("Uniscope", 1949 Nash Airflyte)
5. Fully reclining seats that converted passenger compartment into a serviceable bed (1949 Airflyte)
6. Serious refinement of powertrain and vehicle airflow characteristics toward goal of top fuel-efficiency in a large passenger car (1949 Airflyte)
7. One of first manufacturers to offer factory-installed safety belts and safety-padded instrument panel (1949 Airflyte)
Nils Eric Wahlberg during the 1930s:
The concept of unitized body construction (self-supporting bodywork constructed of welded sheetmetal, with no separate frame to lend support) was not brand-new in 1940; several, among them Lancia (the pioneers in productionizing unitized bodywork in 1922), Lincoln (1936 Zephyr), Cord 810, Chrysler's Airflow of 1934 and a few others, had developed either primitive unitary, or semi-unitized (Lincoln Zephyr , Cord and Airflow) construction, but Wahlberg took it that final step into complete frameless unitization that established the path for all automakers to eventually follow. This was a major advancement in the technological development of the automobile, both with respect to pure technology and production engineering, and also from the aspect of the automobile's ultimate utility, safety, and even comfort for its passengers. As is so often the case throughout the automobile's history, a small, independent carmaker stole the lead from the larger, more wealthy companies, and set the pace for all to follow in later years. Mr. Wahlberg's, and the Nash company's diligence and innovative spirit took a relatively primitively constructed machine, with its ancient separate frame with an attached, unstressed body, which was little different from horse-drawn wagons of ages-old, and brought the automobile into a state where they suddenly rivalled the technological prowess of modern aircraft, with their "monocoque", or unitized construction.
From brochure for 1949 Nash automobiles, a cutaway illustration featuring the unitized construction of the body/chassis, and relating it to the most modern, and likewise unitized, aircraft of the time:
This illustration demonstrates the way Nash promoted its new unitized construction in the earliest models that featured it; the Nash 600, of 1942. These cars, with their all-steel, of-a-piece construction, were a long-lead preview of the future of automobiles everywhere:
For many years during the early decades of the automobile, riding in a car was often less than comfortable, largely because nearly all cars, even the most extravagant and expensive of them, did not have even the most basic of heating and ventilation systems. Even during the 1930s, which was a great "age of refinement" of the automobile, car heaters were still something of a luxury, and always optionally available if at all. Then, the heaters themselves were crude and offered their own set of discomforts for the passenger, with stale, recirculated air because of the lack of fresh air circulation, along with "hot spot" heating due to the heater's lack of ducting. This made for a hot zone near the heater itself, and the increasing coldness as one moved farther away from it within the interior. Windshield defogging was pretty much a matter of wiping the glass with a towel, or scraping the ice away manually. With the new Nash "Weather-Eye" system, introduced in 1940, Wahlberg brought completely new and revolutionary levels of comfort, and even safety, to automobiles. Wahlberg's Weather-Eye system, when seen in a cutaway, is recognizable to anyone who is familiar with a modern automobile's HVAC system, by the way. He got the fundamentals exactly right in the first place, and it is a tribute to his years of research and development work on it. The system provided pressurized (Wahlberg was the first to recognize the necessity of creating positive inner pressure inside the car to eliminate drafts and dust penetration) fresh air to the car's occupants. The incoming air was also filtered (the Nash was the first car to make use of a disposable filter in the air-intake to clean incoming air), and heated and dehumidified (for maximum defogging effect of the windows). This was a major advancement in the development and maturation of the automobile, and its ability to transport passengers in comfort.
Typical period Nash print advertisement, featuring Weather-Eye. For years no other manufacturer could equal the all-weather comfort of Nash automobiles at any price:
Following is a page from a Nash owner's manual from the 1940s. It could almost be taken from any car's owner's manual of 2009:
Wahlberg's extensive work in the wind-tunnel resulted in the aerodynamic (to the point of looking very unusual, even in its time) Nash Airflyte models of the early fifties, which were remarkably efficient, and also very quiet-riding, with almost no wind noise, due to the careful management of airflow over the car. This also had, along with Wahlberg's and Nash's devotion to fuel-efficiency in large cars through careful engine and powertrain design, the effect of making Nash cars capable of far better fuel mileage than their competitors, and also the side-benefit of actually giving Nash cars better high-speed capability while needing less sheer horsepower to make such speeds possible. The Porsche automobile company in Germany, at this time, was building itself into legendary status through the exact same kind of carmaking philosophy, as applied to small and efficient sports/GT cars, as Nash Motors was applying to full-sized passenger sedans. Not even the darling of enthusiasts, when it comes to advanced aerodynamic thinking, namely France's Citroen, had embarked on this path in 1949, and their great product advancements, that being the now legendary DS of 1955. Once again, as so often is the case, an American carmaker can be shown to have set the path for others to follow, yet receives little or no credit for its accomplishment. I'm out to set that record straight.
In the end, the thing that's remarkable to me, when considering Wahlberg's design parameters, and the resulting cars, is that he was on an almost parallel path with Dr. Ferry Porsche's car company over in Germany, only he was doing such things with large cars, whereas Porsche was with small sports/GT cars. Then, when you put an early Porsche 356 side-by-side with the "bathtub" Nash Airflyte, the similarities become even more striking. These Nash cars are so significant and so interesting that I predict their values will be climbing in the years to come, as more enthusiasts discover the true significance of them, and of their "father", Nils Eric Wahlberg. Economical operation through efficient and scientific design was VERY advanced and visionary thinking at the midpoint of the 20th century. This Nash advertisement unashamedly proclaims as much. Much advertising copy is hyperbolic in nature. Nash was simply stating fact, in my opinion:This photograph nicely illustrates the smoothness and air management discipline that Wahlberg built into the Airflyte's design (the air-intake/grille was only as large as necessary to keep the engine cool). The somewhat odd fully-skirted wheel openings were an integral part of the aerodynamic approach of the Airflyte's design. Wahlberg pretty much disdained "styling", and approached a car's design as a scientist/engineer would. The ironic thing is that, to the eyes of observers 60 years later, these formerly "dumpy looking" Nashes (this is the way they came to popularly be seen) are probably more advanced and attractive looking than the majority of its 1949 contemporaries are. Look closely, and you can see sleekness and a kind of care-in-design that makes them look, instead of "dumpy", downright slippery, especially when taken in the context of their time:
The more you think about it, these Nash automobiles were Volvos before Volvo ever thought of being Volvos! "Cars for people who think" and all that. Very admirable, in my opinon.
Contrary to popular modern perceptions of those times, many people did indeed concern themselves with fuel economy in their cars. The "Mobilgas Economy Run" was one of the most prestigious competitive events that a manufacturer could win victory in for many years (see the one Nash ad). The rise of the big, be-finned and chrome-larded V8 powerwagons of the fifties is the predominant way that the decade is remembered today, but this was only one element of that marketplace, and since it was the most flashy, glamorous and visible, that's what is remembered today.
Keep in mind that the "foreign car invasion" of small, economical European cars began in the late 1950s, and the sales of these cars, while tiny in numbers at first, grew exponentially in just a few years, until Volkswagen, in particular, was viewed with real fear by the Detroit automakers, largely on the strength of VW's (along with Renault and others) image for being stingy on fuel. I personally had many relatives and neighbors, schoolteachers, etc when I was a boy in the sixties who wouldn't have even thought of owning and driving a "gas hog" (many of them drove Ramblers and Nashes, by the way). Not everyone by any means was as wasteful and profligate as that era's Americans are characterized as having been, en masse, back then. Thrift, if anything, was even more of a virtue then than it is today.
Nash advertising stressed economy of operation and of fuel-consumption:
Comfort and convenience in the operation of an automobile, as a field of research, was coming into its own during the post-WWII years, and again, Nash was a leader in this new field of "ergonomics". One of the significant products of this line of research was Nash's "UniScope" instrument panel that debuted in the 1949 models. The UniScope integrated the various instruments such as speedometer, fuel gauge, ammeter, oil-pressure gauge, and temperature gauge into one unitized module that was mounted, in direct line-of-sight of the driver, and close enough to permit easy viewing, atop the steering column. UniScope also promised easier servicability for repair technicians, and also permitted a recessed and safety padded panel to face the front seat passengers, which enhanced collision safety notably.
Nash cars of these years became famous (infamous?) for their fully-reclining front seatbacks, which enabled the creation of a workable bed inside the passenger compartment. It was a Nash exclusive for many years, and was the source of anxiety for many parents who would fret about their daughters going out for dates with boyfriends driving Nashes. But the improvement in comfort and convenience was undeniable, and this feature eventually found its way to being an industry standard in modern times. Nobody laughs at reclining seats anymore.
It helps to remember that the adult generation of the 1950s were all fairly recent survivors of not only the Great Depression years, but also of World War II and the austerity that it imposed on everyone, everywhere. It's not an excuse for the crazy cars that came to be during the "Flamboyant Fifties", but that also can help explain the way that people found their ability, through postwar prosperity and material abundance, to "cut loose" and enjoy a little bit of "wretched excess" here and there. They'd paid their dues. But along with the excesses and material abundance of the 1950s there was a tempering spirit of old-fashioned thrift still alive with the public. Nash catered to that spirit. The company thrived and prospered as a result. It's important to not forget the great and visionary leadership of one of the truly great industrial executives of all time here. George Mason was the president of Nash Motors during these years of innovation and leadership, and he worked in concert with Nils Wahlberg to bring the best products possible to the public. Mason was a hardworking, honest, and charitable man with a big heart, and his story is one deserving of a separate article. Mason's protege, George Romney, the father of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, followed in his footsteps as the president of Mason's new American Motors Corporation (the result of Nash and Hudson merging in 1954), following Mason's untimely death that year, and kept Mason's spirit of thrift, combined with innovation and quality, alive during his tenure with the company. Romney left AMC in 1962 to become the governor of Michigan.
The portly George Mason, seen here posing with Clark Gable at the 1946 Indianapolis 500, where Nash served as the Official Pace Car:
It is a popular misconception among many enthusiast-types today that the automakers of yesteryear had relatively little to work with, since they did not have the highly evolved electronic tools that are available today to designers and engineers. Thusly, the thinking goes, they were limited in what they could do. Actually, the automakers had much to work with in those days. What they had was the power of intellect, coupled with vivid imaginations, possessed by great gentlemen like Mr. Wahlberg. Thusly, on the contrary, their possibilities were limitless. There were so many like him, too, with deep and wide educational backgrounds combined with fertile and creative and inquisitive minds, and the result was the automobiles that we revere so much today, or that we should revere, like these underappreciated Nashes. That's why I start topics like this, in the hope that more, if even only a few, enthusiasts find something that they look at and say WOW! that's worth knowing more about.
Monday, May 18, 2009
The great, and I'm talking about the really extraordinary automotive designers are truly artists, IMO. Battista (Pinin) Farina, Harley Earl, William Mitchell, E.T. Gregorie (Ford), Gordon Buehrig (Cord), etc are among the most artistically talented people of the twentieth century, and they just happened to focus their talent in the shaping of the cars we drive. From time to time I want to present some of the great automotive designers to the reader, and give a kind of "thumbnail" review of their careers and accomplishments, because these people deserve to be celebrated, as well as their creations, which have given so many people not only the utility of being an automobile, but also have graced our roads with beauty and originality. I've been learning more and more about the life of Virgil Exner lately, and he is definitely among the elite of the greatest designers, but he's not very well-known today. This is perhaps because his most famous accomplishment, the tail-finned "Forward Look" Chrysler Corporation cars of the 1950s, went from being industry sensations to their later, and more well-known role of being derided symbols of '50s excess, which was perhaps unfair to these cars and to their "father", Exner. The tailfins on these cars were conceived as part of a "clean break" with the past and into a new era of bold design, and moreover, Exner, in concert with Chrysler Corporation's engineering department, really did test these fins for their aerodynamic functionality, and they were touted as being beneficial to the directional stability of the cars that they appeared on. The actual amount of functional benefit, in retrospect, may be debatable, but the amount of excitement that this totally new look generated for Chrysler's cars when they debuted in 1957 is inarguable. The public LOVED the new look, and sales zoomed at Chrysler, and the competition's designers, on both sides of the Atlantic, were sent back to their drawing boards to catch-up with Exner's futuristic (at that time) look. All fashions fade though, and eventually Chrysler's, and Exner's insistence on hanging onto the tall fins led to the company's cars looking dated and out-of-step, but only because the company just wouldn't move ahead when they needed to. William Mitchell's design staff at General Motors pronounced the tailfin dead in the early sixties, but Exner didn't read the obituary, which led to his firing at Chrysler, but it doesn't detract from his brilliance as a designer in previous years.
Virgil M. Exner, proudly posing with his landmark 1957 Chrysler "New Look" lineup:
Just hitting on some of the high-points of Mr. Exner's distinguished career, one can see how influential this man was in the industry, and on the shape of cars that we drive to this day. It was Exner who was responsible for the landmark 1947 Studebakers, which established the completely new look of post-WWII, the "three box" design (hood, passenger cabin, trunk) that remains in existence today. The far more famous industrial designer, Raymond Loewy, is credited for the "Is it coming or going?" '47 Studebakers (the coming-or-going line came from the car's new and groundbreaking look of nose and trunk being of roughly equal length, which became the industry-wide norm), but Mr. Exner, who was employed by Loewy Studios at the time, was the principle designer of these cars. Raymond Loewy was a brilliant man and a great designer, but he was also a master of self-promotion, and this was not the only time that he accepted the applause for a design that wasn't actually his to claim, other than in name.
The following illustration is an advertising photograph of the 1947 Studebaker. These were among the most trendsetting cars of the post-WWII era, and were also notable in being the first brand-new designs of the postwar era, with the rest of Detroit's manufacturers still only offering warmed-over prewar automobiles. The bodystyle shown here is the "Starlight Coupe", which brought a unique new application of glazing with its multi-piece curved wraparound rear backlight. Studebaker resisted the Detroit "Big 3" carmakers' postwar policy of producing warmed-over versions of its prewar products, which happened largely because of the huge pent-up demand for new cars following World War II's end, combined with materials shortages and labor troubles that pre-occupied the carmakers to the point of delaying all-new products for several years into the future. Studebaker's bold strategy of bringing its all-new cars into the marketplace so soon, along with the similar actions at Packard, were to end-up costing them greatly less than 10 years hence, when they became out of step, both stylistically and financially, with the rest of the industry, thus forcing their somewhat desperate (and ultimately disastrous) merger:
Exner was very creative during his Loewy years, and here are just two samples of his work while on the Studebaker account. The first is of a proposal for what became the '47 production Studebaker, and shows the flair and elegance that he brought to his art. This model also reveals the beginnings of the famous Studebaker "bullet-nose" styling trademark that would appear on the 1950 models. Note also the hinting at rear-engine configuration. The postwar American automotive industry seemed to have an obsession with rear-engine placement (Tucker, Ford prototypes, Studebaker here, among others), and this would ultimately show itself in production, when Ed Cole (Chevrolet's engineering chief and later GM president) realized his dream of a rear-engined Chevrolet with the 1960 Corvair:This rendering, of a proposed new Studebaker coupe, was rendered probably during the late 1940s, and again, it shows the foresight and European influence that showed-up so frequently in Exner's work. It also is a strong, yet odd, preview of a historic Studebaker that Exner had nothing to do with; the classic 1953 Starliner coupe. This could have been, as was the Robert Bourke-designed Starliner, a very lovely automobile in its own right:
In 1950, when Exner moved over to Chrysler as their director of design (he was fired by Raymond Loewy when he discovered that Exner was working directly for Studebaker in secret), he was instrumental in creating a series of concept/show cars that brought huge amounts of European design influence into the American mainstream. He was greatly influenced by the already in-place cooperative effort between Chrysler, and Italy's Ghia Carrozzeria, which had designed and built a proposed replacement for the current Plymouth sedans. An interesting footnote to this story is that it was Fiat's management who referred Chrysler's management to the Ghia Studios, through their postwar Marshall Plan-arranged cooperative work in production and engineering projects. This presaged the current Fiat-Chrysler merger proceedings by nearly 60 years. The automobile that initiated Chrysler's relationship with Ghia was the 1950 Plymouth XX-500 sedan prototype. The car was initially to have been a "by the book" construction project for Ghia, as Chrysler sent the complete specifications of what they desired, and Ghia was to have built the car exactly as instructed. But, Luigi Segre, the head of Ghia Studios, "took liberties" with the design, and the improvements he made were med with delight by Chrysler's management, along with Virgil Exner. It was ultimately rejected, however, by Chrysler management as being too European looking for domestic tastes of the time (Chrysler's management was largely Texas-based, and notoriously cautious, at the time). This is arguable today, of course, in hindsight, but the important thing about this concept car was that it got Ghia's "foot in the door" at Chrysler, and, with Mr. Exner's new presence there, the die was cast for a coming decade of great European-American cooperation in the design of coming Chrysler Corporation automobiles, both concept and production models.
It's interesting to contrast the Chrysler Corporation of the pre-Exner years, design-wise. Chrysler's automobiles were famed at this time for their world-leading engineering excellence, but, when it came to styling and "eye appeal", they were pretty much of the "sensible shoes" school of thought. The company's president, K.T. Keller was a well-known "fuddy duddy" in his personal life, and he issued a company directive to the effect of forcing all of Chrysler's automobiles to have roofs tall enough to allow a man to wear a fedora hat while driving. Wearing of fedoras by men was still commonplace then, but was showing the first signs of losing popularity, and this enforced stodginess in the design of Plymouths, Dodges, DeSotos, and Chryslers did no favors for their sales numbers in a postwar society that was filled with young people looking for something with some STYLE. This advertisement for the 1950 Plymouth amply illustrates the fuddy-duddy look of all of Chrysler's cars in this period, since they were all pretty much "same look, different sizes":
So we come to Virgil Exner leaving Studebaker for Chrysler in 1950. What Exner accomplished at Chrysler Corporation is the kind of thing that legends are made of. He turned the company's image upside-down in a matter of just a short few years, and brought profits and success to the company, throughout all of its divisions, btw, that shocked its competitors to the point of their scrapping entire plans for forthcoming new products and literally starting all over again, in order to answer the challenge of the futuristic Chrysler cars. Where the Ghia/Plymouth XX-500 had established the Italian studio as Chrysler's carrozzeria of choice, the addition of Exner and his talented staff brought the imagination and design-power into Highland Park's fold. The "high hat" Keller years were OVER. One of the most celebrated examples of the feeling of complete change that Exner brought to Chrysler is embodied in the 1953 Chrysler "d'Elegance". Nine examples of this car were built, and the impact that this design had on the company, and indeed on the industry, on both sides of the Atlantic, was great. Today it is regarded as one of the true milestone automobiles of the post-WWII era. After Chrysler had finished its cycle of showing the car at auto shows, the company released the design rights to Ghia, the constructor. When, in 1954, the management of Volkswagen went shopping for an outside design for its upcoming sporty coupe, based on the Beetle's mechanicals, Ghia's managers presented an adapted (smaller, rear-engine configuration) version of the d'Elegance to them for appraisal. VW's people liked the car so much that it went into production, almost unchanged, as the famed Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. Look at the d'Elegance from the B-pillar rearward, and the similarities with the VW are obvious:
Another of the many varied Exner/Chrysler/Ghia concepts was the Dodge Firearrow of 1954; an interesting and attractive concept for its time. Notice the early and pioneering use of curved side windows. The Chrysler Imperial of 1957 became the first production American car (Volkswagen Karmann Ghia of '55 being the first ever) to use this advanced glazing, which has become standard industry-wide in the years since:
This car is the 1954 Plymouth Explorer concept car (again from Ghia). It is one of my personal favorites because of its beautifully done "eyes", those being the headlamps. The best-looking automobiles always have one common characteristic for me, and that is their ability to effect the look of having "eyes", and thus, a kind of "face" in their design. Even certain cars with concealed headlamps manage to accomplish this. My favorite design of all time, the 1936 Cord 810, has concealed headlamps that give the car a look of a "sleeping beauty", that I find irresistible. But, I digress. (Mention a Cord and I ALWAYS digress...):
By 1955, Exner's revolution at Chrysler was in full-song. The tailfins of the 1950s have undergone a kind of "rehabilitation" in recent years, with the high-flying and flamboyant styling gimmick having fallen into ridicule and parody during the intervening years; particulary the 1960s and 1970s, when they were symbols of obsolescence and excess. But Exner's tailfins began as a legitimate design departure, and an attempt to provide something really new and daring to the buying public. In fact, the first Exner fins were pretty modest, as this advertisement for the 1955 Plymouths shows, as well as the following detail shot from a 1955 Chrysler 300. If anything, they were understated and extremely attractive, IMO. Note also the way Plymouth went from "old maid" appearance (the 1950 model above) to "sexy debutante" in just 5 years. Exner was truly and agent of change:
The 1956 Chrysler 300 is a greatly admired automobile today, both for is high-performance abilities, and for its temendously successful styling. This was perhaps the apogee of Detroit's "1950s flamboyance, yet without excess". The flair and excitement were there, but were not overpowering, as coming years would bring, unfortunately:
This car, the 1955 Chrysler Falcon, is every bit as beautiful and elegant, and sporty-looking, as anything coming from the European makers of that time IMO. Imagine how successful this car might have been if Chrysler's executives had made the decision to manufacture it as a competitor to the two-seater Thunderbird (it reportedly came close to going into production), which debuted the same year.
Exner was not just good at sporty-looking automobiles, though. Chrysler made one of their several intermittent attempts to create a separate division out of the Imperial nameplate (usually Imperial being the top-echelon Chrysler model) in the middle 1950s. Exner's studios designed a handsome and sophisticated Imperial Crown Executive Sedan, which was built by Ghia in limited numbers, for 1955. Very conservative, yet dashing and elegant at the same time:
The year 1957 was the real "no turning back" point for Chrysler and its Exner designs. The company was flush with cash, and they wanted desperately to overtake Ford for the #2 spot in sales, behind evergreen GM. The cars that Chrysler Corporation fielded for 1957 were new, literally, from the "ground-up". Even the tires were new, with smaller, 14" tires becoming standardized in order to bring the cars even lower to the ground. The suspension was new, with Chrysler's torsion-bar front suspension bringing improved handling and ride to the general public. But the REAL new was the styling. This advertisement looks quaint to us today, but put yourself in 1957, when these cars hit the scene with a BANG. Razor-thin rooflines, huge glass areas, low-low waistlines and hoodlines, "space-age" sleekness oozing from every line, and those FINS! The ad-copy was not hyperbole at the time. It was FACT. These cars were Virgil Exner's personal triumph. They literally sent GM's designers back to the drawing boards. They had been caught flat-footed and behind the times for the first time in decades:
Even Chrysler's "red-headed stepchild division", DeSoto, got the youthful makeover treatment for 1957, and, in fact, just may have been one of the most exciting looking cars from any American maker of that year. Chrysler's cup, styling-wise, was running over. Sales set new records across the board at Chrysler:
The tailfins had a fatal, built-in flaw, though. They aged VERY quickly, and became passe in just a few years' time, yet Exner, who had heretofore been an industry trendsetter, now, inexplicably, fell into a kind of design stupor, and with him so did Chrysler Corporation's products. Harley Earl, GM's design chief since 1927, and the "Grand Old Man" of automotive design worldwide, retired in 1959, and his successor, William Mitchell, brought an entirely new, and just as revolutionary as Exner had been, sensibility to automotive design that was all his own, and it was the antithesis of Exner's latter-day approach. Tailfins and chrome, suddenly, were OUT. The "extruded look" of GM's early 1960s cars, such as the linear and sleek 1961 Pontiac, were IN, and almost overnight, GM's position as the "Pied Piper" of the industry, in terms of design trends, was re-established. Exner's Chrysler cars persisted, stubbornly, with ever-taller and more elaborate tailfins, as if to say to its competitors that, if the public was bored with the tall fins, then by golly, even BIGGER fins is the answer! It didn't work, and Chrysler's sales in the early 1960s went into a tailspin that the company never completely recovered from.
By 1962, Virgil M. Exner was fired from Chrysler Corporation. He became, unfairly in my view, a scapegoat for many of the problems that Chrysler experienced in those times. He had actually, in the time just before his termination, developed proposals for new, finless and very sleek/modern Chrysler models, yet a recessionary economy, combined with a management scandal at Chrysler in 1961, along with incorrect information about GM's upcoming new products (they were rumored to be "downsizing" for 1962, which never happened), caused the cancellation of Exner's programs in favor of smaller, hastily developed cars for 1962 that have now been judged to be among the most homely and undesirable automobiles in history. Those were not Exner's fault, but the damage had been done.
Mr. Exner went on, after leaving Chrysler, to design several independent projects, including a really novel and attractive Bugatti-revival prototype (Bugatti has been revived over and over again). He also was involved in an abortive project to revive both Stutz and Duesenberg automobiles. These designs are best left unseen, IMO:
This has been just a thumbnail review of a great designer's long and distinguished career, but it's worth knowing a little bit about Virgil Exner's influence on the products that we hold so dear. He was one of the real giants, and deserves far more recognition that he receives. Thank you for reading.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Doble Steam-Powered, the Greatest External Combustion Car Ever, Plus Random Steam Power Musings...by Larry Tebo
I really love steam-power. My dad got me turned onto it when I was a kid and he took me to lots of the "Threshermen's Shows" that are popular in the Midwest farming country, where steam-powered tractors, grain threshers, and other machinery is shown and demonstrated. There's hardly anything more awesome to me than the sight of a huge steam-powered locomotive flying down the railroad tracks with its smokestack churning out great clouds of smoke, and its steam exhaust shooting out from the sides of its drive-engines; the huge drive-wheels being spun by the immense power of steam.
Steam power, also more formally identified as "External Combustion Power", was not limited to just farm implements and locomotives, though. Abner Doble was an American who was a true genius, and he's largely forgotten today, which is a terrible shame, because not only did he truly innovate in the engineering sense, but he started a car company that built the greatest steam-powered automobiles ever built, and surely the most beautiful. Automobile Quarterly published a great article on the Doble story years ago, and that's what gave me the idea to write this tribute to not only Abner Doble, but also to the greatness that was steam power in the field of transportation.
This is an example of the rare and beautiful Doble Steam Automobile. It is a 1925 model:
An interesting opener/teaser factoid about Doble's cars is that they could be driven away under their own power in one minute or less, even when the ambient temperature was below freezing! A British publication conducted a controlled test to confirm this in the 1920s, and the results amazed everyone. One of the greatest drawbacks to steam engines in cars is that they ordinarily take a long time to reach their operating steam-pressure, so one must plan ahead when driving the things. Abner Doble's patented system conquered this, along with his closed-condenser system of water recycling, which resulted in much longer range between water fillups, through the condensation and re-use of water instead of exhausting it as waste-steam. He was a VERY clever fellow.
The ideal fuel requirement of the Doble was for kerosene, I believe, but, as Doble owner Jay Leno likes to point out, these automobiles are capable of burning nearly any aromatic fossil fuel. Again, Doble trumped the other, more famous steam-car makers, the Stanley Brothers in particular, by devising a one-fuel system for his machines. Stanley automobiles and others required dual-fuel; both kerosene, for a "pilot light" affair, and gasoline for the actual burner that produced steam. When a 16-year-old Abner Doble (he was already a student at MIT, btw) drove his improved steam-powered automobile to the Stanley Brothers' factory, and showed the Stanley Brothers his system (the brothers were twins, who went by their initials, F.E. and F.O.), they dismissed it out-of-hand. The brothers, although brilliant themselves, were of the N.I.H. school of thought ("Not Invented Here").
Doble was an advocate of "double-acting" steam engines, in which each piston does work in both reciprocating directions. Steam pressure is admitted at the top of the piston, and at the bottom of that power-stroke, steam pressure is then admitted to the opposite side of the piston, so that it is "pulling AND pushing" the piston rod. This greatly increased power output, torque, and even the smoothness of the engine.
Two illustrations of a Doble double-acting steam engine and powertrain. Note the electrical generator drive, which is taken off the differential:
I was once lucky enough to have been given a brief ride in a Stanley automobile, and it was a 1921 touring car. The silence is eerie as one moves away. They make electric cars seem noisy. Plus, I remember the feeling of humungous torque in that old girl, like she could have been hitched up to half-a-dozen boxcars and just pulled them like...well...like a train.
Period advertisement for a Stanley Steamer similar to the car I rode in:
It is important to remember that, actually, steam power, when applied in reciprocating motion as in the Doble and Stanley cars, is comparable to electric power, in that full power and torque is available from zero rpm. There is no "idle" speed for these powerplants. They're stationary until called upon to move the vehicle. Thusly, the only noise one hears when at rest in these cars is the occasional sound of the burner firing to replace lost steam pressure. Otherwise, blessed silence.
I strongly recommend that anyone interested in these things find your local steam-power exhibition this summer and GO! These shows are full of farmers and old-codgers, but they're the ones who still understand these forms of power, and are able to operate these engines and demonstrate them for younger people (even me!) like us. I guarantee you'll be hooked after you see them in operation. Steam power is almost like a kind of "organic" motive power for vehicles; much moreso than internal combustion engines ever will be. The Threshermen's shows are always lots of fun for "gearheads", and you'll probably discover many things about engines and engineering that you never knew existed. Plus, if there was ever a more friendly and eager-to-inform-and-enthuse group of people than steam-enthusiasts, I have yet to meet them. Those farmers and "codgers" will be delighted to answer any and all of your questions, and in exchange you will get to know some of the nicest, most salt-of-the-earth people on planet Earth. These shows are a lot of fun, filled with friendly (no "attitude") people, and a nice bit of respite from today's high-tech tornado we all live in. Just Google "threshermen" and find one close to you. There might even be a Stanley Steamer at the show near you! Summer is nigh, and the steamers are firing up.
This is a fairly typical steam tractor of long ago. Seeing a picture of one is not enough; you must SEE and HEAR and SMELL these things under power. They're amazing.
My guess is that this maroon roadster is a Murphy creation. The Murphy coachworks were in Los Angeles, and were world famous for its surpassingly excellent and beautiful coachwork on all of the world's most expensive and exclusive marquees of the Classic Era. It just seems to have that "Murphy look". Also, look closely at that particular car, and remember the year it was built. If that is the original bodywork (sometimes these cars were rebodied after several years in order to keep them fashionable by their wealthy owners), then it is quite a piece of "predictive" design work. The crowned fenders, for example, did not become fashionable until the later twenties, as well as the non-drum-shaped headlamps. Drum-shaped headlamps were THE fashion on expensive automobiles from about 1920 until perhaps 1927 or so. In fact, this Doble from 1925 looks strikingly similar to a Rolls Royce Phantom III from the early-mid thirties in many ways. I actually suspect this is a rebodied car for that reason. Nevertheless, it's very attractive. Notice how Doble was able, as was Franklin with their air-cooled powerplants, to effectively conceal their non-conformism with designs that made them look, for all the world, just as conventional as any other gasoline-powered, liquid-cooled IC-engined automobile of the time. Very challenging, and they succeeded, IMO
1925 Doble Model E. It's nearly impossible to tell that this is not an internal-combustion automobile with a conventional radiator. The "radiator" is actually Doble's condenser system for recovering waste-steam and condensing it back into recyclable boiler water. The Stanley automobiles were "total loss" steamers, and exhausted all waste steam to the atmosphere. They thusly left big clouds of steam behind them wherever they went. A Doble left minimal steam in its wake, and also needed far fewer water tank refills. The "normal" appearance of a Doble can be seen in this photograph of Jay Leno's Doble sedan:Another distinguished, and very convention looking, Doble
It is a commonly asked question about Stanley Steam automobiles as to whether they are a "fire hazard", largely due to the Stanley's characteristic open-flame burner, which is much like an outdoor barbecue's gas flame burner. The Stanley may have been a fire risk at times, but one thing an owner of a Stanley Steamer didn't have to worry about was a boiler explosion. I read somewhere that there has never been one single recorded instance of a Stanley automobile's boiler exploding. Why is this important? Because back then, the public was accustomed to picking up newspapers and reading about the latest railroad steam locomotive's catastrophic boiler explosion that maimed and killed people by the score, or worse. It was not an uncommon occurrence in the era of steam railroad power. So when trying to convince a prospective buyer of one of your steam-powered automobiles that they're not taking home a disaster-in-waiting, the Stanley brothers went completely over-the-top in taking precautions against such an occurrence with their cars. What they did at Stanley was to wind multiple layers of high-tensile piano wire around the boiler, thus girding it in a very effective kind of "containment vessel" that enabled the Stanley boiler to withstand extremely high over-pressurization if the control valves were to fail, or if the owner was neglectful of the gauges. It was VERY reassuring for customers, apparently, and was a strong selling point for Stanleys.
This is a "Frequently Asked Questions" piece that was found on the internet, and I'm reprinting it here for the readers. It is very informative:
Steam Power FAQ
1. Steam cars run on water.
No. - Steam engines are (external combustion, Rankin cycle) heat engines. Water is the working fluid. They convert heat into mechanical work. The internal combustion Otto cycle engine in your car does the same. Both the internal and external combustion engines burn fuel producing heat. The heat of that combustion raises the temperature of a working fluid in a confined space producing an increase in pressure. This pressure exerts force against a piston in the engine. The piston moves turning the crank, turning the wheels moving your car along.
2. Steam cars are likely to explode.
No. - They are less likely to explode as they use less volatile fuels. Modern steam generators for automotive use are constructed in such a way that in case of a rupture they have very little water at the saturation point, preventing an explosion. The Stanley boiler, a vertical fire tube design unlike modern generators have large amounts of water at saturation temperature, was tested at the factory by forced failure. The failure occurred in the fire tube expansion joints which acted as a safely valve, safely releasing the pressure preventing an explosion. Fred Marriott set a world speed record of 127.66 mph in 1906 in a specially built Stanley. In the following year he crashed while trying to improve on his record. It was estimated that he was traveling at 180 mph at the time of the crash. The boiler did not explode!! And Fred luckily lived to tell the tail.
3. Steam is outdated and old fashioned.
No. - Most of our electricity today comes from steam engines. In atomic power plants, steam is generated by the reactor and drives a steam engine.
4. The internal combustion engine is used today because it is more efficient.
No. - At the start of automotive development the steam engine had the advantage. It was more powerful and easier to operate as it had no transmission or clutch. Then the electric starter was invented. The internal combustion engine was now a 'get in and go machine'. Steam cars of the time needed a lot of preparation that required about 30 minutes or more before they could be driven. On condensing models lubricating oil mixed with the water which then had to be changed every other day or so. Very messy. Water also would get into the crank case of the engine requiring monthly oil changes. Both types of automobiles at the time where obtaining 8 to 13 miles per gallon of fuel. And the steam car used less expensive fuel oil or kerosene. Today modern steam power generating plants obtain 40% to 60% efficiency. The I.C. automobile engine only gets 25% efficiency.
5. Steam automobiles can use a variety of fuels.
Yes. - Steam is generated in a boiler separate from the engine. The combustion chamber in the boiler can be designed to accommodate any combustible substance. The fuel is burned clean producing no more pollution then a household gas heater. In an automobile the fuel would have to be restricted to one that can be transported and fed automatically. Liquid fuels are the best choice as propane or natural gas are stored under pressure and are vented in case of over pressure creating a danger of explosion. A Stanley, whose pilot had been converted to use propane exploded when vented gas from a spare propane tank carried under the passenger seat ignited killing the driver and injuring the passengers. Possible liquid fuels are kerosene, fuel oil, diesel fuel, and soybean distillate fuel. A properly designed burner system could burn a variety of fuels by using an oxygen sensor in the exhaust to control the proper fuel air mixture.
6. Steam cars of the past outperform I.C. cars.
Yes. - The Doble cars produced between 1923 and 1930 weighing over 4000 lb. could accelerate from 0 to 75 mph in under 5 seconds, and could maintain a top speed of over 95 mph. The early Stanley's produced so much torque that they lifted the front wheels off the ground when the throttle was opened too quickly.
7. Steam cars are unreliable and require a lot of maintenance.
No. - A Doble E14 produced in 1923 was driven over 600,000 miles requiring only normal maintenance. The Doble cars required no more maintenance then their internal combustion counter parts. Other Doble's are known to have traveled over 200,000 miles having only routine oil and tire changes.
8. The Doble Steam Motor Company failed because of engineering design problems.
No. - The company failed because of lack of funding. This is a sad story for the steam car company that could have been. The lack of funding was brought about by one Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty, the Commissioner of Corporations in Los Angeles California. Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty refused to issue the permit necessary for the sail of additional stock until 50 cars had been produced and had given satisfactory service in the hands of owners for six months. This was all very peculiar as Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty had received the independent report concerning the excellence of the car under test. Also the Cooperate Securities Act designed to prevent fraud in the sail of stock provided that if the Commissioner (Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty) upon examination of the application finds, that the proposed plan of business of the applicant is not unfair, unjust or inequitable, that it intends to fairly and honestly transact business, that the Commissioner (Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty) shall issue to the applicant a permit. It was reported that Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty repeatedly stated that he did not question the integrity of the officers of the company, and at one time gave them a letter as follows: Pursuant to your inquiry regarding the Doble Steam Motors Corporation, beg to advise that there is nothing in our files or that has come to my attention, personally, which reflects upon the integrity of the promoters of the Doble Steam Car or the Company.
Every person who really loves automobiles, and I'm talking about not just the driving of them but the machinery and the "means to the end" part of automobiling, needs to experience the visceral thrill of being in the presence of a steam-powered vehicle of some kind, IMO. They seem almost supernatural in some ways, as if they're filled with a kind of life force, especially steam locomotives and the huge steam tractors I talked about earlier. The way they snort and grunt, and shoot their "breath" while working, coupled with the eerie silence of their power delivery makes them so fascinating for any "motorhead". Once they get into your consciousness, it's almost impossible to ignore the mechanical pleasures they hold out to the receptive mind.
Everyone has a memory of something that happened to them when they were very, very young; so young that few other events of the time are remembered, so that this event must have been particularly happy/sad/shocking/etc in order to be remembered. I was about five years old, which would make it 1958, and my grandmother's house was directly adjacent to the tracks of the New York Central line that ran north-south through NW Indiana. One day I was sitting on a porchswing by myself (this was out in the country, and a very quiet day), when, in the distance, I remember seeing HUGE clouds of grey smoke rising from a train that was approaching. As it got closer, I remember getting REALLY scared, because this train wasn't like the others that went past all day (diesels were the norm by the late-fifties). The train got closer, and I swear to God, the ground and the house SHOOK like I don't ever recall before or since. This train was composed of nothing but big, dingy grey and tan steam locomotives and their tenders, hooked nose-to-tail, perhaps ten or fifteen of them, and all of them the BIG kind, like maybe 4-8-4 or more (4 front guide wheels, 8 big drive wheels, and four trailing wheels). I seem to remember that they were all under power and driving together, and the NOISE and the SMOKE were overwhelming and REALLY frightening for a five-year-old boy who had never before seen anything like this. It scared the hell out of me! I ran to the tracks after they passed, and I still remember seeing them receding into the distance, all smoke and ghostly grey. The rumble and noise lasted long after they receded from view. I played with Lionel electric trains as a boy, and those locomotives looked like humungous, real-life versions of my favorite toys, of which I'd never seen a real one heretofore. It was a thrill I've never forgotten.
My dad explained to me several years later that those locomotives were on their way to be scrapped at the steel mills up north in Indiana Harbor (he was a steelworker there at the time). Today, I think of that moment often, and it makes me almost cry in sadness for the thought of witnessing the literal swansong of the great American steam locomotive. It was sort of like seeing big, majestic elephants marching to their doom. It still makes me feel sad.
This brings things back to Abner Doble. Since he was a young and well-educated man in the early 20th century (born in 1895 and graduated an engineer from M.I.T. before age 20), he was very aware of the latest developments in metallurgy, and took advantage of these new materials and techniques with a flourish. This is what helped him to outsmart the Stanley twins (F.E. and F.O. Stanley were identical twin brothers) and "build a better mousetrap" with his improved steam-engines mounted on much more modern chassis in his Doble cars. Doble was perhaps as committed to, if not even MORE committed to quality than even the Rolls/Royce partners in England, or Henry Leland in America (founder of Cadillac and Lincoln and famed worldwide as the "Master of Precision"). Doble's automobiles were world-renowned for their supreme quality of design and construction, and this is perhaps what helped to drive Doble out of the car business by the early thirties. He had very little business-sense, and nefarious stock-dealings done by others in the corporation without his knowledge put the final nail in the Doble automaking era, with only about 125 magnificent machines ultimately built. Here is another photograph of a beautiful 1925 Doble Model E roadster:
It's also revealing to discover who drove Doble automobiles. One person who publicly stated that the best car in the world was a Doble was none other than mega-millionaire businessman Howard Hughes, who swore by the cars; they were his favorite marquee. Many of Hollywood's biggest stars drove Dobles, as did quite a few of Europe's wealthiest and most visible elites. That's one reason why so many of the Doble automobiles built still survive today; they were owned by notable people, and have been preserved accordingly.
Some people assert that Doble automobiles were the "original hybrids". This is not really true. Here is the original hybrid in fact. The Lohner-Porsche was propelled by electric hub-motors (front-drive too...ironic considering the Porsche-origin!) that were supplied with current generated by a conventional IC gasoline engine. Dr. Porsche patented his "Mixte" system of gas/electric propulsion, and the Lohner Company put it to use in its products. This was the machine that made Ferdinand Porsche famous. His hybrid predated the current eras by nearly a century. Photograph of a Lohner-Porsche powered by Porsche "Mixte" hybrid drive:
I've never read the details regarding Dr. Porsche's conception of his idea, but considering the erratic and difficult-to-modulate nature of IC engines in the primitive stage that they were in at this time (turn of the 20th Century), it probably was perfectly natural for Dr. Porsche to devise a way to use the IC engine without the encumbrance of having to modulate the throttle/engine rpm, and just run the engine as a constant-speed generator powerplant. Carburetors, for example, in the early days were often little more than metal-mesh screens suspended in the intake airstream that had gasoline dripping onto them. The surface tension of the fuel on the screen held the fuel in suspension, and the rush of air over the screen simply atomized and pulled the fuel into the intake charge. Just like you or me sipping a hot cup of tea or coffee. This was not an efficient, nor an easily controlled way of metering fuel to the cylinders at all. The invention of the float-bowl/venture carburetor early in the century greatly advanced the cause of the IC engine; perhaps nearly as much as the later invention of the electric self-starter.
The December, 2007 issue of Hemmings Classic Car magazine has a terrific article on a 1925 E-Series Doble roadster that is owned today by the J.B. Nethercutt Museum in California. EVERY Doble is special (only 41 E-Series cars were ever manufactured from '24 to the company's end in 1932), but this particular car is REALLY special, since it is the Doble that Howard Hughes owned. (See photo above) It is an awesome automobile (the steering wheel on these Dobles was constructed with a rim made from Ebony, with hub and spokes in German silver, just as an example of their extremely high quality), and I recommend this magazine article to anyone interested in the Doble. They even have great photos of a companion bare chassis Doble, and go into some detail about the technical and operating aspects of these magnificent automobiles.
Two eye-popping factoids...the E-Series Dobles have been timed at 0-75mph in five seconds, and the engine in these cars produces (are you ready?) 1,000 lb/ft of torque from ZERO rpm! This is a 5,000-pound automobile from EIGHTY years ago!!! It is actually very easy to literally tear the tires off their rims with these cars if the throttle is not used carefully. They must make even a mighty Duesenberg Model SJ look sedate!
An interesting thing about the Stanley cars compared with Dobles is the Doble's comparative simplicity of operation, not to mention the technological prowess of the Doble versus the Stanleys. Abner Doble, while a student at MIT in 1914, in fact, visited the Stanley Brothers in Massachusetts with his proposal for the flash-boiler/condenser system that he eventually patented for use in his cars. The Stanley brothers, then on top of the hill in steam cars, rejected his ideas, to their detriment. The latter-day Dobles, like these E-series cars, are quick-starting and relatively easy to master (steam-pressure at ready-stage in 90 seconds from cold-start, automatic regulation of boiler pressure, etc), while a typical Stanley steam car required much dedication from its owner in terms of both time (long startup time; as much as 30 minutes or more before ready to drive away), as well as in investing much time and effort in the mastery of the technical and operative aspects of a Stanley. Stanleys were "old school" steam cars and had much in common with the locomotives of the time. Doble advanced the game substantially, but at a cost. Abner Doble made steam power in an automobile "modern", and a basically practicable proposition, for far more motorists than Stanley ever gave consideration to.
I have to take a moment to thank my late dad for "priming the pump" of my love of steam-powered machines. He was a farmer for many years before moving to the city, and when he was growing up in the thirties and forties, he worked every summer around steam-powered tractors and threshing machines at harvest time. In later years, he invited me to go with him to various steam-power festivals in Indiana and Illinois (they're very popular and I recommend them to anyone here; see earlier comments). At these festivals, which are nothing more than a joyful celebration of American work-ethic and technical/inventive genius via steam-powered farm machinery, they have "live" demonstrations of the huge and powerful steam tractors, which, with HUGE leather belts driving equally HUGE pulleys, power the threshers which separate grain from chaff, etc., along with many other fascinating and surprising demonstrations of "old school" technology from decades ago. One of my favorites is to watch the steam-powered sawmill demonstrated. Very impressive. I still attend a local festival here in Delaware in the summer. My dad is gone now, but he taught me lots of pretty cool stuff, including a love and respect for the people and machines of the past.
Years ago, I bought my dad a working scale-model steam tractor for his birthday. It was made in Germany and I can't remember the name of the manufacturer (Pasco?), but it was an authentic, tiny steam engine that was fired by small fuel pellets that burned odorlessly, so one could "fire her up" in the house. It looked something like this:
He really enjoyed that thing, and so did I. My son, when he was small, would always go for that thing immediately after we would arrive at Grandpa's house for a visit. "Make it go!" he'd say. I hope I've passed some of that passion for steam on to my boy.
Steam power for personal transportation today is, in my view, nothing but an anachronism; its time has passed. The idea of an essay like this one though, is to celebrate what went before us, especially when it involves people of sheer genius and creativity, like Abner Doble. In my opinion, he deserves the same elevation in stature as an automotive "engineering artiste" as say, Ettore Bugatti or Ferdinand Porsche, etc. The fact that he and his creations are so forgotten today is a SIN, in my opinion, and little conversations like this one do some small justice to his memory, if only because we keep them alive in memory. Mr. Doble and his fabulous automobiles deserve no less.
From the "Six Degrees of Separation/They Said It Couldn't Be Done" department comes this little oddity of steam power. In 1933 an aircraft was designed and built, and flown, over Los Angeles that was powered by a two-cylinder, 150-horsepower steam engine designed by a former Doble employee. It was said to be unnerving to observers on the ground because it was utterly silent. It showed some promise, since the condensation of steam back into water was enhanced in the cold of high altitude flight, and the aircraft didn't need radio-wave shielding due to no ignition system, etc, but it proved to be a dead-end, even with Boeing continuing research into this field into the late thirties. It's certainly interesting as an engineering oddity, though.
In recent years, BMW in Germany has been conducting tests of an advanced new supplementary power source for IC engines that uses steam power, called the "Turbosteamer". The last time I read about it, BMW's engineers were really progressing nicely with this "alternative hybrid" concept, which, while not really an "external combustion" steamer, still uses the tremendous power of superheated steam to provide something like 15-20% additional power to a conventional IC engine. It uses the "free" energy contained in both exhaust gases and in the waste heat in the engine coolant to generate steam in a twin-circuit ("low" for the coolant, "high" for the exhaust gas) auxiliary steam turbine (I believe) that inputs its power through the engine's crankshaft. It looks absolutely ingenious, and perhaps even very practical. A diagram of the BMW Turbosteamer system
Jay Leno, of show business and car-collecting fame, is a devoted steam-power enthusiast, and is the owner of several steam automobiles, including a few Stanleys, and at least one Doble Model E. It's so amazing, yet typical of Jay Leno, that he is enough of a free-thinker to actually take one of these virtual "automotive Faberge Eggs" out on public roads and use it as a car, just like it was built to be used. I admire him so much for that alone. To lock them up in the silence and sterility of a museum-setting would be very sad. I figure that everywhere Leno goes with a car like that Doble steamer, he sparks the imagination and interest of at least a handful of young people who probably otherwise never would have even known about such machines, or such great people as Abner Doble. Mr. Leno is nearly unique in the automotive world in this respect. In a way, he is the official "Goodwill Ambassador" for the old car hobby. That he does this so generously, un-self-consciously, and with his great gift for humor just makes him all the more admirable, IMO.
Take a look at this video produced by Jay Leno, in which he gives a "tour" of his Doble sedan. I'm wiping tears from my eyes after seeing that. God bless Jay Leno; that's all I can say. I really mean it when I say that I feel like he and I are kindred spirits; the one thing that differentiates us is his ability to live the dream and not just think about it.
I'd never heard Leno discuss automobiles in that manner before; usually it's the "sound bite" kind of thing that cannot fully expose his real depth of knowledge and insight. I've wondered for years how he would really sound when given the time to fully express himself. I wasn't disappointed. He may very well be the best thing that has ever happened to the collector/vintage automobile movement. The love of automobiles is in his soul and being; you can feel it, and he is single-handedly helping to popularize and perpetuate that love of the automobiles of the past so that future generations will not forget and neglect them. Honest to God, I'd give anything just to meet him and thank him for what he does. Maybe this sounds like I'm slobbering all over the guy to some, but I'm not. This man deserves to be honored.
Here is a photograph of the instrument panel in Leno's Doble. In case anyone is wondering, the large ebony ring mounted above and within the steering wheel is the car's throttle control. There was no accelerator pedal on the E-series Dobles. You turned the ring to open the throttle or close it. I've read that in Leno's car, he had it modified to have a conventional foot-operated accelerator/throttle pedal, since the ring on the steering wheel can apparently get VERY confusing when cornering and modulating speed at the same time. I would love to be able to poke my head inside Leno's Doble. The aroma of wool upholstery, varnished woodwork, lacquers, horsehair padding, etc is so pleasant and evocative for any lover of old automobiles. They smell…wonderful. Regarding Leno driving his Doble around Los Angeles, it is perfectly fitting, in that the Doble factory was located in California, in a town called Emeryville, which is near San Francisco
There was another notable American steam-power automobile maker, namely Locomobile. Locomobile, a nearly forgotten marquee today, built steam automobiles from 1899 until about 1905 or so, and then switched over to gasoline-engined machines until they went belly-up in 1929. Locomobile, btw, built some of the most respected heavyweight, luxurious, expensive, and beautifully crafted cars of their time, with Hollywood celebrities among their frequent clientele. They were also, in their later gasoline years, notable race-winners too, and famed for their speed. Here is a 1900 Locomobile steamer, all spindly and "stone-age", but still chugging away a hundred years later. How many of today's cars will still be running in 2108, I wonder?
One of the last, and certainly one of the most interesting steam-powered cars to be built was the 1953 Paxton Phoenix retractable-hardtop convertible. It was designed, and custom-built by the famous industrial designer Brooks Stevens for a wealthy business executive named Robert McCulloch, maker of the famous chainsaws, who desired a modern interpretation of a steam car. A refined version of Doble's steam powerplant was being developed for the Paxton car, which was to have gone into limited production, but when funding the project became too expensive to support any longer, the steam engine was replaced with the engine and transmission from a Porsche 356 (the suspension was already donated by a Porsche 356), and the production program for the design was cancelled. The prototype still exists, however.
It is intriguing to me, in the way that this car linked the ideas of two great automotive geniuses, Ferdinand Porsche and Abner Doble, in an unexpected way, and then included the ideas of one of the great design geniuses, Brooks Stevens, who designed this car for Mr. McCulloch. It's another kind of "six degrees of separation" phenomenon in the form of one automobile.
Steam power is like a kind of primeval thing in some ways. You can actually SEE the power being produced with steam engines; you can feel it in a way that can't be duplicated with IC power. It is almost as if the machines are alive. I love it, and I'm glad that a chosen few out there also enjoy these machines. It has been my pleasure to write a few words about it. Thank you for reading.