American Comment

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There will be no steam-powered cars at Indianapolis this year. The last of three such projects fall by the wayside when William Lear, the millionaire industrialist and inventor, announced that Lear Motors has abandoned plans to prepare two steam-powered cars for this year’s Indianapolis 500. The project will be continued, but on a lower priority basis and the 165 people working on the cars will no longer do any overtime. Lear cited the absence of rules governing steam-powered cars in U.S.A.C. Championship car events and a breakdown in correspondence with Tony Hulman, the President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as the reasons for the cutback. Although U.S.A.C. does not have appropriate rules, the Speedway has always reserved the right to accept non-conforming cars providing evaluation tests show that they can be expected to compete with regular entries “in a fair and equitable manner”. Lear, however, said, “We’re not about to spend the extra million dollars (in overtime) that’s necessary to complete the project in time so that we can go to Indianapolis and have the Race Committee tell us, ‘Well, we’re sorry you can’t run’.” Lear said that would be considered poor business on his part, adding “U.S.A.C. isn’t going to turn us down until we get to the track and they’re not going to let us run unless we can guarantee we can’t win”.

While this is undoubtedly a correct assessment of U.S.A.C.’s probable attitude, the programme also suffered from those common motor-racing maladies—an over-optimistic schedule and problems with experimental equipment. Lear said the design of the engine and the car was complete and part of the chassis had been built, but he did not mention setbacks caused by the failure of three boilers during testing. “The only thing we haven’t got”, he said, “are the parts for the turbine auxiliary engine, which could have delayed us up to the last minute, and this is the point I’m most concerned about.” The auxiliary turbine provides air for the boiler.

The Indianapolis project was only incidental to, and a means of providing publicity for, the basic commercial development programme of Lear Motors. This company was established in September last year to apply space-age technology to the basic principle of steam power and to create a practical power system for a complete range of steam-powered motors for automobiles, lorries, helicopters, aircraft, boats and stationary power plants. The Lear line of power units will include three steam turbines rated at 50 h.p., 125 to 256 hp. and 450 to 850 h.p., and two reciprocating steam motors. The larger of these, consisting of six cylinders with 12 pistons, weighs 150 lb., displaces 2.16-litres, and delivers from 125 to 700 h.p. (Two sets of three cylinders each are arranged in triangular form with a crankshaft at each apex geared to a common central crankshaft.) The smaller motor has eight cylinders, displaces 1.31 litres and is rated at 70 to 450 h.p. It is 14 in. long, 10 in. in diameter, and weighs 90 lb. Four steam generators of appropriate sizes have been developed for these motors. It is Lear’s avowed aim to put the common internal combustion engine out of business as an automotive power plant. “We will be developing soft tooling for limited production in 1970 and quantity production in 1971”, he says, and predicts a billion-dollar industry for steam-powered cars, lorries and buses in the next five to ten years. Now Lear is a man with proven credentials and huge financial resources, but it is a long, rocky road from drawing-board to production line. Even with his team of engineers and technicians devoting their time to commercial rather than racing applications, the schedule appears to be built more on optimism than realism.

* * *

The American tyre and automotive industries are in the throes of a hectic revolution—an advance described by one senior General Motors engineer as the greatest in car tyres since the switch from woven fabric (canvas) to tyre cord construction in about 1913. Even allowing for typical American hyperbole, it is true that when the 1970 models appear this autumn they will all be equipped with one “industry-wide tyre”—identical in half-a-dozen major specifications and differing in only three minor respects. All five major rubber companies will be producing the same basic tyre and all four major car companies will be using them. The new tyre that is producing this revolution is known as a bias-belted design, and as the name implies it is a compromise between the common cross-ply tyres and the radial tyre. Like the cross-ply tyre, the carcass of the new tyre will consist of two layers of cross (or bias) plies running from bead to bead at an angle of approximately 35 degrees, but like radial tyres it will have two belts running circumferentially under the tread. Despite strong efforts by both the rayon and nylon industries to have their materials used for the carcass plies and/or the belts, both the car manufacturers and the tyre companies have settled on polyester as the material for the carcass plies and fibreglass as the belt material. Among the common characteristics of these tyres, in addition to the number and material of the plies and belts, will be: tread width; tread depth—3/8 in., or 1/16 in. more than current original-equipment tyres; number of grooves—seven for most sizes (instead of five) and nine for the largest sizes; tread compound—a new, softer compound that will provide greater traction; and tread wear indicators on all tyres.

Although the softer compound will wear slightly faster, the greater amount of tread and the stability provided by the belts will produce approximately 40% longer tyre life, four times the puncture resistance, improved petrol mileage and much better traction than current crossply tyres. These new tyres will have a higher initial cost, of course, but an independent survey by a consumers’ magazine has shown that in the long run they provide the lowest cost per mile, lower even than radials. (The cost of the Goodyear Polyglas tyres tested worked out to $40 per 10,000 miles, while Michelin “X”s came to $46 per 10,000 miles. A common Goodyear cross-ply brand worked out to $60 per 10,000 miles.)

One of the most surprising things about these bias-belted tyres is the speed with which they have been introduced. The relatively small Armstrong Rubber Co., in conjunction with Owens-Corning Fiberglas, produced the first fibreglass belted tyres in 1966 but ran into problems. It wasn’t until last year that other makers put them into production in any quantity, and now, in late 1969, every new car coming out of Detroit will have them. Both the car and tyre companies have been under increasing pressure from safety organisations and the Government to produce better tyres, but it might well be asked why the manufacturers, after abandoning the cross-ply tyres they have used for so long, did not go all the way to radials? This is a thorny and complex problem. At least one car maker, Ford, and one tyre maker, B. F. Goodrich, have done a lot of work on radials and look on them favourably. But the biggest car maker, General Motors, and the biggest tyre maker, Goodyear, favoured bias-belted tyres. The big chaps won. The major objections American car makers have to radial tyres are their greater ride harshness and their greater cost. Most of the ride harshness could be eliminated by suspension redesign but that, too, requites money—and in an industry that measures costs to hundredths of a cent, there has to be a compelling reason for change. Nonetheless, despite the apparent victory of the bias-belted tyre, there are still engineers in the tyre and car companies who believe radials will win out eventually.

* * *

Following their one-two-three win at Riverside, Ford scored a dramatic victory in the biggest stock car race of them all—the Daytona 500—when Lee Roy Yarbrough’s Ford Torino passed Charlie Glotzbach’s Dodge Charger in the last turn of the last lap and the two cars took the chequered flag bumper to bumper. A crowd of over 100,000 witnessed this thrilling finish as Yarbrough completed the 500-mile race in 3 hr. 9 min. 56 sec. at a record average speed of 157.950 m.p.h. The previous record of 154.334 was set by Petty in 1964. It was a near thing for Ford in more ways than one because they nearly missed the race altogether. When practice began early in the month N.A.S.C.A.R. officials ruled that Ford’s new 7-litre porcupine engine (so named because of the asymmetric arrangement of push-rods and rocker arms) was illegal because it had not been produced in the necessary numbers (500) for homologation. This ruling was upheld by the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States, representing the C.S.I. Ford then had to decide whether to pull out or to go ahead with their older 7-litre tunnel-port engines. These engines were dominant last year when they ran with two four-barrel carburetters, but a rule change this year restricting all Grand National cars to one four-barrel has reduced their output by about 60 h.p. Ford decided to stay and launched a crash programme to produce a new inlet manifold that recouped much of the lost power. Meanwhile, Ford had missed the first qualifying weekend, when Baker and Isaac put their Dodge Chargers on the front row of the grid with laps of 188.901 and 188.726 m.p.h. respectively. (The remaining 48 starting positions for the 500 are determined by the finishing order in two preliminary 125-mile races. During practice for these Pearson in a Ford Torino set a new qualifying record for Daytona when he lapped the 2½-mile tri-oval at 190.029 m.p.h.)

Pole position winner Baker jumped into the lead at the start, followed by the similar Dodge Chargers of Isaac and Glotzbach, but by the third lap Cale Yarborough, the 1968 500 winner, had shot to the front in his Ford Torino. It was a torrid pace in the early laps, producing an average speed of over 186 m.p.h. Yarborough held the lead for 16 laps but then Baker and Donnie Allison (Ford Torino) pulled away from the field, while Yarbrough, Bobby Unser and Petty, all in Fords, grappled for third. Unser held the lead briefly, at the quarter-distance mark (50 laps) and then it was Foyt’s turn for two laps in his Ford. But Allison took over again on the 57th lap and reigned through to the 118th tour, with Yarborough in second place until he hit the wall just after the halfway point. Over the next 40 laps Glotzbach moved up to challenge Allison, taking the lead on laps 119-138, losing it on laps 139-145, regaining it again on laps 146-154, and then losing it on laps 155-160. All this time Yarbrough was running third, the only other driver on the same lap as the leaders, with Baker and Foyt fighting for fourth. On the 161st lap Yarbrough took the lead for the first time and began a fierce duel with Glotzbach that lasted the next 40 laps to the flag. The Dodge driver squeezed in front on the 178th lap and gained more time when Yarbrough made his final pit stop on the 181st lap. He only needed fuel but he decided to gamble and took the extra time to have the right-side tyres changed for a softer but faster compound. Five laps later Glotzbach made his final stop. Needing fuel only, he was out again in 18 sec. and still leading Yarbrough but only by a scant 5 sec. With 25 miles to go Yarbrough had cut the margin to 3 sec., and when they took the white flag (one lap to go) he was two car lengths behind. Yarbrough pulled up behind Glotzbach on the backstretch, got into his slipstream going through the final turn and then pulled out and used what N.A.S.C.A.R. calls the “slingshot” effect to pass him as they roared off the banking for the last time. The two cars crossed the finish line bumper to bumper. Yarbrough said later he had delayed his move until the last moment because he didn’t want Glotzbach to do the same thing to him. lckx and Elford had gone over to lend a European flavour to the proceedings. Driving a works Mercury, lckx unfortunately hit the wall during practice (without injury) and did not take part in the race. Elford’s works-assisted Dodge was not ready until late but he finished 11th-out of 27 in his qualifying race and then drove to 11th overall (out of 50) in the 500 itself.—D. G.

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