Almost without exception, our current carmakers were founded by engineers. The men behind Buick, BMW, Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford, Jeep, Dodge, Mercedes, Porsche and Saab (to name but a few) all possessed tremendous engineering abilities. Long before the styling gurus like Harley Earl and Virgil Exner rose to preeminence, long before Harvard MBA’s assumed corporate control, car companies rose or fell depending on the quality of their engineering talent.
If you wanted to call these engineers a brotherhood, then The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) would be their conclave. In 1905, thirty automobile engineers (the word automotive was yet to be coined) gathered in New york City to form the SAE. Their mission: to protect and expand their collective skills. Since its birth, the SAE has included such luminaries as Henry Ford (their first Vice President) and Charles Kettering (inventor of the self-starter).
Over the next 105 years, the SAE has grown to include 85k members, working in 97 countries. In 1915, the SAE founded a collegiate branch to nurture new engineering talent. The SAE now claims over 17k student members in over 400 chapters, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. To encourage student participation, the SAE offers awards, scholarships, loans and internships to deserving students.
As part of their SAE education, stateside members must create a technically advanced automobile from scratch. Working as a team over a year, they formulate a business plan, fabricate parts, test them, and assemble a complete vehicle. The completed work is subject to a series of dynamic tests in SAE sponsored competitions. This competition is not for the faint of heart; only the most robust designs are capable of running the SAE's gauntlet without garnering a barrage of highly pointed professional criticism.
The exercise immerses the SAE student in a microcosm of real world automotive production: a cocktail of project management, technical challenges, and business demands — all that's missing from the experience is the dead hand of unionism and the enforced entropy of corporate beancounters. The end products of this endeavor fall into three predefined categories: a Formula-one style race car, a Baja-style off-roader and/or an alternative fuel vehicle based on an existing passenger car chassis.
While the F1 car and Baja projects start life as metal tubing and a dump truck full of creativity, the SAE alternative fuel vehicle must look and perform as close to the original platform as possible. All work must be completed within a limited budget. Factor in the time constraints of regular college coursework, and it’s clear the SAE’s elders have devised a proper pressure cooker.
Many SAE groups participate in a single event, others dive into multiple projects. Students at the University of Texas at Austin think big. In their "spare" time, UT’s SAE students also work on a pair of vintage rides: 1937 Chevrolet sedans in both stock and hot rod trim. These rides aren't an SAE sanctioned project; it’s a straight-up grassroots engineering gig. They are a rip-snorting tribute to engineering fundamentals, riding on a modern day suspension and motivated by a high performance powertrain.
The vintage rides’ inherent hotness rubs off on the more mundane projects and strengthens the group's image to potential sponsors and alumni. No matter how a UT SAE student pimps their technologically advanced Minivan or Crossover, they don’t stand out from other tricked out collegiate carriages. Put another way, the rods become halo cars for engineering nerddom.
With GM's Death Watches, Ford's Way Forwards and DCX’ Plan X From Outer Space, parts and sponsorship from domestic manufacturers (the SAE’s traditional benefactor) are getting thin on the ground. With a smaller project budget and limited access to the latest technology, how does today’s student engineering team git ‘er done? The answer isn't in a student handbook. Welcome to Las Vegas, baby.
In the quest for sponsorship, the UT SAE chapter packed-up their (work in progress) '37 Chevy hot-rod and carted it to Sin City SEMA. The students figured they’d find sympathetic souls at the world’s largest automotive aftermarket convention. And so they did. Once the fraternal order of grease monkeys caught sight of their handiwork, once they experienced the SAE engineers’ boundless enthusiasm, the sponsorship money and donations rolled in.
Engineers are not in charge of Detroit anymore. The days when startling mechanical innovation and sheer bloody minded engineering excellence determined an automaker’s fate are long gone. In fact, it’s fair to say The Big 2.5’s mechanical talent probably spend most of their working lives trying to solve problems pre-compromised by management greed, arrogance and incompetence.
But if the UT SAE chapter’s experience proves anything, it’s that American engineering's pioneering spirit is alive and well. As SEMA’s tuners discovered, not all student engineers wear pocket protectors and fold at the first sign of bureaucratic intransigence. Today’s engineers are working for their day in the sun. Meanwhile, they drive hot rods. Hell yeah.