NATIONAL INFLUENCES ON AMERICAN CAR DESIGN
ON February 1st, Maurice (They, late of Messrs. Rolls-Royce, Ltd., and now with Messrs. Vauxhall Motors, Ltd., read his paper” National Influences on American Passenger-Car Design”
before the I.A.E. It was a refreshing paper, digestible in the main by nontechnical mortals, and an interesting sequel to Maurice Platt’s paper on British design influences, reported in our December issue. The series will later be completed by Brian Robbins’s paper, “Some Impressions of Germany, its Roads and Cars.” We herewith report Mr. 011ey’s paper in condensed form, editorial comment appearing within brackets. The author first traced the history of transportation in the “U.S.A., from the time of the original American citizens who started life in the midst of a whole mass of emergencies, clinging to the edge of a wilderness several sizes too big for them, desperately short of money, and lacking in arts and crafts. From such triumphs as the river steamer, the cotton gin and the McCormick reaper they learnt they could develop a mechanism to meet every need. The first fifty years is a his tory of water transport. The railroads then moved in from the Atlantic sea board. The farming community spread outwards fanwise, refusing to confine themselves alongside the railroad. The problem of feeding the railroad was met In Great Britain by extravagant, fullgauge branch lines, in France by metregauge light railways, in the States by horse and buggy. The automobile became the ” horseless buggy.” From the start of the Oldsmobile by R. E. Olds in 1900, American automobile leaders with vision have had the common-sense Idea of supplying a lot of people with a lot of transportation at the lowest possible price. Henry Ford was not the first, but he achieved the most successful vehicle for replacing the horse-buggy, the model T-Ford, which really “motorized the earth.” The Oldsmobile of 1901 sold for 650 dollars and 4,000, all alike, were built in 1908. From 1908-5 Cadillac built 16,000 one-cylinder cars and from 1905 onwards 67,000 four-cylinder cars of one model. Ford built 15,000,000 model T-Fords from 1908 to 1927. These figures represent a fine achievement— to provide real and universal transportation first to a nation, then to the world at large. The author quoted them a little regretfully as representing something far removed from the present situation with its constant changes in tinware, a yearly succession of new and more startling” noses” and a constant fiddling with instrument boards. The American industrialist likes to develop a market rather than just to supply a demand. He makes enormous profits or enormous losses ; but he doesn’t care very much because he is in the game for the fun of it. [Truth is ever stranger than fiction I] The motor industry started, very fortunately, before there were any roads. It went through an interim period when all American cars were arboreal in their habits, adapted rather for climbing trees than for ordinary use. [Our small sportsears seem to be in such an era to-day.] About fifteen years ago road programmes began to catch up and design changed rapidly to meet improved road conditions. These roads were expressly built for running motor-cars, not for playgrounds, bicycle tracks or car-parks. They were not designed merely to give delightful vistas for landscape artists or amateur photographers. The greater part of the road mileage varies between a complete absence of anything to look at and the extreme of depressing ugliness. The driver is not tempted to loiter. He attends to his business, goes where he is going, and if he stops for any reason he jolly well gets off the road. [Perhaps we should be thankful for thousands of miles of roads entertaining to drive over. Modern highways are either very dull, or, like the Kingston By-Pass, modern in name only. The late Sir Henry Segrave warned us of the drabness of straight arterial highways and universal traffic control over ten years ago. See” The Lure of Speed.”] No American motorist is going to drive aimlessly about for the doubtful pleasure of looking at a lot of waste land and billboards. Since there is nothing to distract his attention he expects to be com fortable. He also expects the interior finish to be easy on the eye. And, since he is human, if some of the passengers are easy on the eye also, this serves to distract his attention—sometimes disastrously. [Which seems to contradict the earlier statement that the American motorist attends to his business and goes where he is going without loitering, though it may explain why if he stops he, as Mr. 011ey has it, jolly well gets off the road.] The outside air is generally uncomfortable, hence the universal adoption of closed cars and absence of sunshine roofs. Motor-cycles are left to the police. The American car is distinguished by its uniformity in engine-size, weight, wheelbase and passenger and luggage accommodation—essential where a day’s journey between major cities is 800 to 500 miles. Many children have never travelled by train. They drive themselves or “thumb their way” from coast to coast. The average American pays 000 to £240 for a new car. The average comes out at 1/per lb. out of which the maker gets about 8d. per lb. New cars are coming out at the end of the lines at an average rate of about twenty-five per minute. They resemble bright new pennies because they all look alike, so that it is difficult to decide whose production line is being watched. But there is no difficulty in recognising that they are 1938 cars, or ’36 or ’37 as the case may be. The wise man who buys a 1938 car shall not be confounded for the poor misguided chump who bought a vehicle of say 1936 or 1937, when, naturally, the industry being in its infancy, the product was very defective. [British manufacturers who have shown a tendency to ape U.S.A. in the matter of ” fashions ” should shudder under Mr. 011ey’s sarcasm.] If the speedometer last year resembled a slide rule, this year it must be made to look like a grandfather clock, or vice versa. Car” noses” are developing along lines of increasing frightfulness. This may well continue until children wake shrieking at night from dreams of daddy’s new automobile [if indeed, the children are not case-hardened by looking at the photographs in the American illustrated papers.] Every American car is the product not only of its own engineers alone, but also of eight or ten engineering departments maintained at the expense of suppliers. Without this, the constant and rapid progress and succession of yearly model changes would be impossible. This factor also explains to some extent the family resemblance of all makes of American car of any one year’s production. If last year’s ” nose ” was aquiline and this year’s ” nose ” is retrousse, there is the ever-present danger that the owner of last year’s car, having inured himself to its appearance, may refuse to consider a retrousse “nose.” If so, the chief engineer is to blame. On the other hand, if he goes on turning out aquiline noses, he is obviously beginning to stagnate. At 8d. per lb. for the finished product, no chief engineer’s life is a happy one. Also, he has to live in four years at once. The assistant engineers at Detroit to-day have forgotten 1938. They will get rid of 1939 by the end of March, and their
present real interest is 1940. But the chief has l 938 teething troubles in his lap, has to see 1939 out by March, must prevent the boys going hog-wild in 1940, and is getting started on 1941. Speaking of design, the author said that running boards are gradually disappearing, leaving traces of the grin of the Cheshire cat in “Mice in Wonderland ” ; the gear-lever has risen from the floor to temporary resting-places here and there about the steering column ; engines have become monolithic lumps of cast iron,; carburetters have been turned upside down and fastened to the roof ; sparking plug gaps are now measured with a foot rule instead of a feeler ; wheel diameters have shrunk from 25′ to 16″; tracks have passed the 5 ft. mark and are still growing ; and rear passengers now ride on the car instead of behind it. Most American cars at three passenger load now put nearly equal weight on all four wheels. A driver pays the engine the supreme compliment of ignoring its existence. The author had ridden with chief engineers of factories producing ” sixes ” and” eights” who could not say which they were driving at the moment. [Good for somebody’s “six” or bad for somebody’s ” eight. ‘] Most engines develop 100 h.p. or a bit more. The loaded car weighs 2 tons. Maximum speed is 80 to 90 m.p.h. actual. Cruising speeds are 45 to 65 m.p.h. for hour after hour, at over 3,000 r.p.m., with air temperature in excess of 100°F. Carburation must be fully automatic, meeting a range of at least 130°F. and up to 10,000 feet altitude. American cars must rank as high performance vehicles without being in any sense “sports-cars.” They must be completely silenced and have roomy closed bodies built high enough for good road vision. Their low-speed traffic performance must be effortless in high gear. [In defence of the designation “sports-car” ” we commend to Mr. 011ey the 41-litre sports Bentley.] Mr. Olley concludes a sensational paper by very valuable technical references to road-holding and. suspension, grouped under the headings of Riding, Rolling, Handling and Motions of the Unsprung Masses. While a new model was announced to the public the poor engineers were wondering if it would stay on the road. Aircraft engineers got busy from the very start to find out how their vehicles actually operated but the automobile industry went on for thirty-five
years with no real conception of the complete vehicle. Blind, sharp corners are quite rare in the States. The sensation of trying to cheat a little and then having to tumble over a roof-ridge of a high crown road in a hurry, to squeeze past an approaching truck, is not one of the normal American’s driving experiences. There is as much prejudice in the States against a car which rolls too little as there is here against too much roll. ” Softer “
cars give audible warning before skidding. The author finally concludes by saying that his picture may be a little exaggerated in some spots and a little vague in others [a fair and brave admission]. He says nothing about future tendencies for fear of prosecution under the Betting and Gambling Act, but does mention possibility of chassis frame elimination and says the average output of over 3,000,000 American vehicles annually will pay for considerable development work.