The Truth About Cars » john tjaarda http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:25:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » john tjaarda http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com An Illustrated History Of Automotive Aerodynamics – In Three Parts http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/an-illustrated-history-of-automotive-aerodynamics-in-three-parts/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/an-illustrated-history-of-automotive-aerodynamics-in-three-parts/#comments Sun, 14 Feb 2010 20:29:41 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=345269

[Note: A significantly expanded and updated version of this article can be found here]

That air presented the greatest obstacle to automotive speed and economy was understood intuitively, if not scientifically since the dawn of the automobile. Putting it into practice was quite another story. Engineers, racers and entrepreneurs were lured by the potential for the profound gains aerodynamics offered. The efforts to do so yielded some of the more remarkable cars ever made, even if they challenged the aesthetic assumptions of their times. We’ve finally arrived at the place where a highly aerodynamic car like the Prius is mainstream. But getting there was not without turbulence.

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Racers, particularly those chasing the coveted Land Speed Record (LSR), were generally the first to employ aerodynamic aids. The La Jamais Contente (The Never Satisfied) was the first automobile to break the 100kmh (62 mph) record, in 1899. Like all the first batch of LSR holders, it was an EV. The driver’s position seems to negate the aerodynamic aids, or maybe he was just posing, and more likely crouched down for the actual run.

The evolution of aerodynamics for LSR cars was remarkably rapid, as this Stanley Steamer Rocket of 1906 evidently shows. And the increase in speed was even more dramatic: the Rocket broke the 200km barrier, with a run of 205.44 kmh (127.66  mph). That would not be bettered until 1924, and not until 2009 for steam powered vehicles.

The first known attempt at streamlining a passenger car is this Alfa Romeo from 1914, built by the coach builder Castagna for the Italian Count Ricotti. Due to the very heavy bodywork, it turned out to not improve on the top speed of the open Alfa it was based on.

Undoubtedly, the real breakthrough aerodynamic passenger car was the German Rumpler “Tropfenwagen” (teardrop car) of 1921. Unlike the impractical and heavy Castagna Alfa, the Rumpler was as dramatically different (and influential) for its completely integrated and original design and engineering. It had a mid-engined W6 engine, and four wheel independent suspension using swing axles which Rumpler patented. The Tropfenwagen was tested in VW’s wind tunnel in 1979, and achieved a remarkable Coefficient of drag (Cd) of .28; a degree of slipperiness that VW’s Passat wouldn’t equal until 1988.

It’s important to remember that the Cd is a coefficient, and denotes the relative aerodynamic slipperiness of a body, regardless of its overall size. A brick of any size has a Cd of 1.0; a bullet about .295.  To arrive at the critical total aerodynamic drag that determines power required and efficiency, the frontal area (cross section of the vehicle looking straight on) is multiplied by the Cd. The Rumpler was relatively very aerodynamic, but it was also quite tall and boxy, which resulted in the one hundred or so production cars being used primarily as taxis. An ironic ending for Rumpler, but his ideas spawned imitations and extensions world-wide, and opened the whole field.

To put the nascent field of automotive aerodynamics in perspective, the typical two-box car of the twenties was more aerodynamic going backwards than forwards, as this ass-backwards car showed. That brings back memories of Bob Lutz stating that the Volt concept would have had better aerodynamics if they put it in the wind tunnel backwards.

Hungarian-born Paul Jaray used his experience working int the aeronautical field, and especially designing Zeppelins, to develop a specific formula for automotive aerodynamic design principles that lead to a patent, applied for in 1922 and issued in 1927.  His approach was influential, and numerous companies used Jaray licensed bodies during the streamliner craze that unfolded in the early thirties. His early designs tended to be very tall, and with questionable proportions and space utilization (below).

His designs eventually became more mainstream, and Mercedes, Opel, Maybach, and numerous other makes, primarily German, built special streamliner versions using Jaray bodies, like this Mercedes below:

The limitation of these cars is like the Castagna Alfa, they were re-bodied conventional cars with frames, front engines and RWD. Jaray only addressed the aerodynamics, not the complete vehicle like Rumpler had. It was a start, but others were taking up where Rumpler left off, like the English Burney, below:

Obviously more Rumpler influenced and less by Jaray, the 1930 English Burney featured a then-radical rear engine and also four wheel independent suspension.

One of the most influential and lasting designers of the whole era was Austrian Hans Ledwinka. After he took over as chief design engineer at the Czech firm Tatra in 1921, he developed the basis of a series of remarkable Tatra cars and eventually streamliners with platform frames, independent suspensions and rear air-cooled engines that Ferdinand Porsche cribbed from heavily in his design of the Volkswagen (VW made a substantial payment to Tatra in the 1960s to compensate them for this theft of IP).

The compact Tatra v570 of 1933 (above) is the forerunner of both the larger Tatras soon to come, and obviously of the Volkswagen. We’ll come back to Tatra later.

This Volkswagen prototype from 1934 (above) shows a very strong resemblance to the cribbed Tatra v570, with the benefit of some further refinement. Although the visual cues are not really as significant as they might appear to us now, because these were the leading-edge design elements of the time, and widely imitated or shared, on both side of the Atlantic.

As this 1934 prototype for an American rear-engined sedan by John Tjaarda shows, the Europeans weren’t working alone. This fairly radical design became tamed-down for the production 1936 front-engined Lincoln Zephyr, of which the less common but handsome coupe version is shown below:

Of course, Americans’ introduction to streamlining had come two years earlier  in 1934, with the stunning Chrysler Airflow (below). An essentially pragmatic approach, the Airflow also kept the traditional Body On Frame (BOF) front-engine RWD standard, but made some significant advances in terms vehicle design by pushing the engine further forward over the front wheels. This, combined with a wider body, dramatically improved interior space and accommodations. The Airflow had the same basic configuration as American cars from the late forties and early fifties. Progress is not always linear.

The failure of the practical Airflow can probably comes down to one thing: that overly flat waterfall grille. That was too much of  a break for the symbolism still engendered in the remnants of the classic car prow. The Zephyr had one, and it was a success, despite not being nearly as a good a car as the Airflow.

An even less pragmatic but remarkably practical and effective American vehicle was the Stout Scarab (above). Aviation engineer William B. Stout designed this extremely roomy mini-van precursor using  a unitized body structure and a rear Ford V8 engine. The first was built in 1932, and several more variations, a total of nine, were built in the mid thirties, but series production never got off the ground, due to an asking price almost four times higher than a Chrysler Imperial Airflow of the times, and even those weren’t selling so well just then.

A much more radical approaches to streamlining was Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion. The first of several prototypes also saw the light of day in 1933, in the midst of this fertile period on both side of the Atlantic. The Dymaxion also had a rear Ford V8, but with a tricycle carriage and rear wheel steering, which allowed it to turn on the length of its body.

Another lesser-know variation of the popular Ford V8 engined aerodynamic vehicles was this Dubonnet Ford of 1936, whose very slippery body allowed it to reach 108 mph. I appears to have  Isetta-type front doors for the front seat passengers. About as much crumple zone too.

Let’s jump back to Czechoslovakia and the fertile Tatra design studios. Here are some clays from about 1933 or so, showing the development of both the smaller VW-like v570 on the right, and the larger streamliners in the rear. The first of these, the T77, arrived in 1934 (below):

The T77 was measured to have a Cd of .212, a number that was not broken by a production car until GM’s EV-1 of 1995, which measured at .195.  A remarkable achievement, the long-tailed T77 was powered by a rear air-cooled V8, and began a long series of Tatras until the 1980′s along similar lines. My retrospective of Tatra is here.

Tatra became synonymous with the advanced streamliner of the pre-war era, enabling remarkably fast travel (100 mph) on the fledgling Autobahns of the Third Reich. Favored especially by Luftwaffe brass, they had a nasty habit of killing them, due to its wickedly-abrupt oversteer, thanks to the combination of rear V8 and swing axles. That earned it the nick name of “the Czech secret weapon”.  So many died at its hands, that supposedly Hitler forbade his best men to drive them. In many (other) ways, the Tatra 87 was the Porsche Panamera of its time.


To demonstrate just how far the aerodynamic envelope was pushed in this golden decade of streamlining, this 1939 Schlörwagen prototype was tested originally at Cd .186, and a model of it was retested by VW in the seventies with a Cd of .15. Either of these values put the “pillbug” at or near the top of the list of the most aerodynamic concept cars ever built, like the Ford Probe V of 1985, with a Cd of .137. Built on the chassis of the rear-engine Mercedes 170H, it was substantially faster as well as 20% to 40% more fuel efficient than its donor car. The Russians took the Schlörwagen as war booty and conducted tests as a propeller driven vehicle. It represents a state of aerodynamic efficiency in league with the most aerodynamic cars being considered today, such as the Aptera.

Its important to note that the rise of interest in aerodynamics in the 1930s arose out of the desire to reinvent the automobile from its horse and wagon origins and the assumptions that average driving speeds would be on the rise with modern roads. This made it a forward looking undertaking, as most drivers were plodding along at 35-45 mph outside of cities. But the first freeways were being built in Germany, and improvements in US roads, including the first parkways and freeways were taking place. It also explains the particularly strong interest and adoption of streamlining in Germany.

Note that I have not attempted to survey the influence of aerodynamics on the styling of cars in the latter thirties and up to WW II. Needless to say the influence was utterly profound, and gave us some of the most remarkable cars of the late classic era. But this had relatively more to do with style (and even affectation) than a genuine effort to push the envelope in terms of leading edge aerodynamics. Nevertheless, the benefits and beauty that resulted, like in this Bugatti Atlantique coupe are undeniable, but beyond our scope here.

Part 2: 1939 to 1955

Part 3: 1955 to the Present

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Lincoln: A Brief History Up To 1961 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/curbside-classics-lincoln-week-part-1-a-brief-history-up-to-1961/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/curbside-classics-lincoln-week-part-1-a-brief-history-up-to-1961/#comments Mon, 08 Feb 2010 19:43:25 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=344577

In honor of our greatest president’s birthday this Friday, it’s going to be Lincoln Week at Curbside Classic. We’ll start with a brief history of the brand to set us up for the sixties, when our featured cars begin.

Cadillac and Lincoln shared an almost identical early biography. Both were founded by “Master of Precision” Henry Leland. And both were eventually sold off to their current corporate owners. Caddy was first, having been founded in 1902, and quickly establishing itself as the “Standard of the World”, which actually reflected Leland’s obsession with standardized precision parts that could be interchanged rather than some inflated PR claim. Caddy went to GM in 1909, and after WW I, Leland started Lincoln.

By 1922, Lincoln was in trouble and this time Ford came to the rescue. It particularly gave son Edsel Ford an opportunity to engage himself in something slightly out of Henry’s control-freak influence over the Model T and A. The Lincoln Models KB and KA were highly regarded during the classic era, with superb engineering, large V12 and V8 engines, and the finest custom coachwork. Except for a visual example here, we’re going to skip over the classic era because it was a dead end, and is largely irrelevant to the continuity of the brand, post WWII. That’s not in any way a reflection on these exquisite cars, but we can’t do them justice here.

The car we’ll start with is the Lincoln Zephyr of 1936. The Depression was killing the classic big cars, which created an opportunity for fresh thinking on a smaller and more affordable scale. The Zephyr was Lincoln’s counterpart to Chrysler’s Airflow; both of them arising out of the new obsession with streamlining everything from trains to toasters. The Zephyr had its origins in a series of radical rear-engine designs by John Tjaarda, using airplane-type stress analysis to prove the advantages of unit construction. The prototype that led to the Zephyr is below.

Tjaarda did his work in conjunction with Briggs, one of the major pressed-steel body builders of the day. Eager to find a client for their efforts, they ended up at Lincoln. But the radical rear-engine construction, which was remarkably similar to the Tatra 77/87 of the same vintage, was highly ambitious. Since the Tatra was a favorite of my childhood, it’s no wonder I transferred that to the Zephyr after our move to the USA, as there were still some around on the streets of Iowa in the early sixties. Interestingly, Briggs built almost the complete Zephyr for Ford at its own plant, leaving Lincoln to install the drive train and mechanicals. It was a foreshadowing of outsourcing to come.

The final production Zephyr was only radical in its semi-unit construction. The streamlined styling was toned down enough to make it palatable to conservative buyers, unlike the doomed Airflow. And under the skin, the Zephyr was anything but radical, using the same transverse leaf spring suspension as the Model T, and its engine was essentially a 12 cylinder version of the Ford flathead V8, but suffered even more severely of that design’s inherent thermal deficiencies. The small V12 developed a bad rep, and many were later swapped out. But it didn’t keep the Zephyr from being a commercial success, at a critical time as the big Lincolns fell out of favor.

Now we get to the real beginning of the Lincoln Continental DNA. Edsel Ford commissioned a special one-off convertible for him to use during his winter vacation in Florida in the winter of ’38-’39. Edsel laid out the basic shape and design, and it was executed by Bob Gregoire. With the idea of capturing a decidedly European flavor, the “Special Lincoln-Zephyr”  became known as the Continental. And everyone who saw it wanted one. So in 1940, the Continental cabriolet was put in production. As is readily apparent, its design cues have been rehashed by Lincoln ever since, most notoriously again right now, with the baleen-mouthed new Lincolns aping the original Continental grille, in a highly exaggerated and garish way.

The handsome (if not exactly brilliant) Continental survived for ten years, right through 1948, but not without losing its delicate face to a heavier and somewhat overpowering mug for the bulk of its ten year run. I had a notorious slumlord in Iowa City in the early seventies, Henry Black, who’s only car was exactly like one of the later ones as shown below. I have vivid memories of riding in it with him to the hardware store (I was briefly an indentured servant of his). It suited his personality perfectly, and he undoubtedly drove it until he couldn’t drive anymore, although I doubt legalities had anything to do with that.

I rather prefer the more delicate original, but isn’t this 1948 Continental Mark I a perfect foreshadowing of Marks to come? Moving right along, we’re going to have to skip the plebian Lincolns of the fifties, which had some interesting moments, but for the most part lived deep in the shadows of Cadillac’s exuberant fins for the whole decade. Even the Imperials from 1955 on were much more interesting. Here’s a quick glimpse of what we’re missing.

Instead, lets give the remarkable Continental of 1956 some time. Technically, Continentals from 1956 through 1958 weren’t actually Lincolns at all, because the Continental division was given brief autonomy in Ford’s ambitious but disastrous attempt to go mano-a-mano with GM, by having five separate divisions: Ford, Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln, and Continental. Well, that sure didn’t work out so well, and not only did Edsel and Continental bite the dust, but even Lincoln was almost killed. More on that later.

The Mark II was a very ambitious attempt to recreate the Continental mystique and compete with the most expensive European luxury brands. Priced at $10k ($80k adjusted), its then very lofty price was more than twice what a Coupe DeVille went for. Extreme quality measures and small-scale production meant that each Mark II was built at a hefty loss.

Stylistically, it’s a mixed bag. If it didn’t have the fake grafted-on “continental” rear spare tire cover stamped into its trunk lid, it’s just remotely possible that we might have been spared decades of that over-worn cliche. That alone spoils it for me. But it certainly manages to convey an air of exclusivity, in an authentic way that its legions of Mark successors never could.

Meanwhile, the big Lincoln introduced in 1958 was another ambitious and expensive bust. The ’58-’60 Lincolns were far bigger than anything Americans had ever laid their eyes on, since the Depression, in any case. A vast and rather bizarre land-yacht, it also had by far the biggest engine (430 cubic inches) of the times. It did feature unibody construction, although that didn’t keep them from weighing less than some 5,000 lbs. Arriving right in time for the nasty recession of 1958 doomed them, and they only widened the gap to the far distant best selling Cadillac. As a child, I found these Lincolns to be awe inspiring on some primeval level that included fear of such an utterly incomprehensible and alien device, which was reinforced by their scarcity on the streets.

So that takes us to the dawn of the sixties, with Lincoln in danger of being axed altogether. As is so often the case in actual life as with our automotive expressions of it, near-death has the remarkable ability to draw out new levels of risk-taking and creativity. That was certainly the case with Lincoln, as we’ll see in our next Curbside Classic.

More new Curbside Classics here

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