Thursday, September 8, 2016

We Are Gone Away to the Air, I: My American Cousin

(Check it out: new label. "Space Race." Expect a few more posts bearing this label between now and 2040 or so.)

My American cousin is a nice lady who runs a very nice bookshop in Boisie. My American Cousin is a sweet little '80s Canadian movie about someone's American cousin driving up from California on Highway 97 to stay with her family in the Okanagan town of Penticton back in the 50s. He's glamorous and has a nice car, and there's much coming of age.

It's a distillation of an icon and an age, in other words. "The Fifties." Those were days when everyone wanted to be an Americano. Days when Canadians associated Americans with cars, the open road and glamouor. Oh, so much glamour. It's not a real age, being vaguely defined as starting some time before Korea and ending with the last pop song that played on the radio before the first Beatles song.
(This is not that song, because it's not an actual song. But it is a hit of the era, it does play on the loop at my home store, and come on, the video's got the Gipper!)

The question is, how did this happen? The idea is that my American cousin happened on his own, because Americans like cars and "the fifties" were sunshiney days of infinite possibilities. (Insert mandatory comment about there never being a "the Fifties" for women and minorities.) We're willing to let the government be involved with the interstates, Eisenhower-era American government being weird like that, what with the A-bombs and the bomb shelters and all. Besides that, though, it[s all free enterprise.

This paternity test on "the Fifties" points the finger elsewhere. First, from the Land of the Lost, the scenery of a forgotten land. No, seriously, it's a forgotten land. 300 kilometers and more up and around the Great Bend of the Columbia, tracing the route of the old Astoria fur brigades, past abandoned gold rush towns. No-one lives, or drives, here anymore.

The Big Bend Highway, officially in use from 1940 to 1962, but drivable from at least 1932. The road follows the "big bend" of the Columbiaaround from  Revelstoke to Golden, a more-than-300km diversion trhough basically howling wildernss. Clearly people took it, or there wouldn't be postcards on sale in Banff. but there can't have been that many. It's possible, given the route's importance to the old Astoria fur brigades, that the people who did take it had family connections rather than some insane desire to drive to Banff from the west. Who knows?

And now a message from the Ford Motor Company featuring an earlier leg of the route that would take you from California via Highway 97 to Banff, if you decided to tackle the Big Bend Highway.

Lincoln Motors' 1946 campaign relied heavily on beauty shots like this one, and the old ranscanada did lead east from Kamloops, and given the state of the mountain roads of the old west, I  choose to believe that the vacationers would have taken Hghway 97 and not the future I-5 (this is the era of my grandfather's story about having to dismantle a horse-drawn buckboard and carry it his car after they ran into each other head on in a narrow patch in the Fraser Canyon.) I am having diffculty imagining anyone dumb enough to take a brand new Lincoln around the Big Beng, but I'm having difficulty imagining anyone dumb enough to buy a 1946 Lincoln. 
Ford "Flathead" 221 cubic inch V-8 (1932--53)
Buy the 1946 Ford! It's cheap and old, but it has nice styling and the really cheap engine is also in the Lincoln, so it's got to have some hidden virtues! 

The Ford Flathead V-8 engine lasted longer than the Model T's. It was the first American, mass market V-8, and Henry Ford's last major contribution to Ford's engineering side before moving on to a fruitful second career as conspiracy theorist, anti-Semite and America-Firster. Its long career reflects America's understandable love affair with the V-8, and it is a well-loved engine for its day. At the same time, it was a notoriously cheap design, and a number of comprimising decisions, mainly the use of  three bearings on a cast crankshaft, versus five on a forged, made it vulnerable to the kind of engine failure that you would basically just have to walk away from if they occurred somewhere up the Big Bend. 

The Flathead would soldier on until 1952, thoroughly overtaken by the Cadillac 331 Overhead Valve V8 marks the "official start of the internal combustion engine's Modern Era." Per tradition, you could drive the future off a Cadillac lot beginning in the fall of 1948.

So that's when your "Fifties" start.
CC BY-SA 3.0,
What you would be driving is this innovative engine supplying 160hp of smoother-than-ever Cadillac power from 331 cubic inches. (0.483hp per cubic inch of displacement, compared with 0.419 for the 1936 monobloc, while weighing 200lb, and, for a point of cutting edge comparison, more than a third of the way from the monobloc to the 0.59hp per cubic inch for the original Merlin.) 

The linked Wikpedia article is actually pretty terrible for details of Cadillac's development. This enthusiast's page is better, but may not last as long as this port, so I should perhaps summarise it the improvements.First, the naturally-aspirated engine required a larger combustion chamber to take a larger gas charge made possible by increased octane ratings, so a wedge-shaped combustion chamber was designed for future expansion to take larger volumes of charge as octane ratings continued to increase, amd, if I understand the geometry right, and I probably don't, leading to the pushrod-operated overhead valves that give the engine its name. A wider bore with shorter stroke reduced heat transfer and boosted thermal efficiency at the expense of requiring more careful design to allow for proper gas and lubricant mixing. (Not mentioned by the site, but a problem holding back "fatter" pistons in the aeroengine business.) Crankshaft counterweights allowed for the use of shorter connecting rods, reducing the reciprocating mass and making for a smoother ride.

Smooth. Paint it pink and you get a gender-fluid hit.

Above all, compression ratios went up from 5.3:1 to 7.25:1. I've already signalled that change by referring to the larger gas charges, and it was made possible by the development of higher octane rating gasolines. Looking back on a terrible error, the natural focus is on the addition of tetraethyl lead to premium fuels, but new refineries producing gasoline by synthetic reforming methods also contributed. The new Cadillac engine would operate at between 84 and 88 octane rating gasolines, taking account of differences in regional supplies and altitude. 

You are not, however, to get your "big car quality" by running high compression ratios in standard engines --not unless you want your engine to sound and feel like a Merlin. (That's not a compliment.) The entire engine had to be redesigned for stiffness, which, given weight constraints, meant redesign for weight reduction in areas where stiffness was already redundant, such as the engine bloc. The result was, in most ways, a massively robust machine, but, in others, strangely finicky. If  you've ever done, or contemplated, doing work inside the engine, you will probably recall the instructions to only replace the head with a torque wrench, since the bolts holding it down were only in dynamic balance at the factory-selected settings.  A description of the design process, apparently paraphrasing a contemporary account and omitting metallurgical details, can be found here. 

Higher compression ratios also meant lower gas mileage, which is important even if we think of "the fifties" as the days back when the cat drank unleaded. Nash-Kelvinator, clearly still bored with making refrigerators, jumped in with a big six running at 8:1, which I mention here mainly because a long wade through Google results finally turned it up as a 1948 engine using part-aluminum pistons.  (But only in the Healey remake; the original used cast iron, favoured then, and to an extent now, because of its hardness and ease of honing for the high-friction function of running up and down the cylinder walls.) 

And also because it was the first sports car introduced in the United States since the Great Depression. Prosperity matters! 

This isn't the same view as the ad above, which is, unfortunately, a screen grab from the Time archives and so a little short on majestic beauty. (Though also of Dutch tilt and fuzzy text, so there's a tradeoff.) There has been a lot of road engineering done east of Kamloops in the last 70 years .Kamloops, remember, is a town of 70,000 in a province of 3.5 million. This road is more important than most, in that it's a National Unifying Symbol, but there are thousands of towns like Kamloops from one end of this continent to the next, and the same kind of transformations have been written in their roads, too. This is just an inconceivable amount of prosperity.

Given depression and war, the "Dominion Number 1" road in the Ford ad is probably a product of the 1920s, the last age of prosperity before 1946. Here's another product of that prosperity; more specifically, of the billions of dollars dropped on the aviation technology boom in the last three years of the 1920s.

 Here's another product of that prosperity; more specifically, of the billions of dollars dropped on the aviation technology boom in the last three years of the 1920s. 

Scraped from the Flight archives. 
By policy, Wikipedia does not let you put facetious, critical comments into articles, much less GIFs of Jennifer Lawrence, so the Wiki article on the Do X does not really do this fiasco justice. The writer can hardly avoid acknowledging that it took off on its American trip on 3 November 1930, and arrived on 27 August 1931, but then observes that the Great Depression "dashed Dornier's marketing plans."
This is not actually the case. What doomed this white elephant is that it took ten months to lurch across the Atlantic. The Flight article that I'm borrowing from has more details on the plane's aerodynamics, which makes it fairly clear that this could have been predicted. Though, that being said, this was an era of once-sky high technological dreams making flop sweat, and at least the DoX didn't kill anyone. Even the twelve back-to-back engines would reappear in Dornier use, and produce the same, desperate belief in miraculous technological novelty. (That is, in comparison with the DoX. Everyone was doing back-to-back engines in seaplanes in those days.) 

Here's another thing about the Do X: it had an engine room. This isn't quite as dumb as it sounds, as the engines had to be manually controlled. Flight engineer stations lasted a lot longer than the DoX! Given that the Do X has twelve engines, initially Siemens-built Bristol Jupiters, later changed to the more powerful, but, unusually for a commercial aircraft, water-cooled Curtris Conqueror V-1570 (26L), one of those technologies of tomorrow that was never quite ready for today until it was a thing of yesterday, it took a lot of controlling. The Conqueror, by the way, was one of a  number of American V-8 and V-12 watercooled engines sponsored by the Army and Navy, descending from the Liberty and leading on to the Allison V-1710, that gave GM the "war experience" leading to the OHV.  

Here's the engine room. It's basically for adjusting the throttles to cylinder temperatures, but I want to talk about  mixture control, which in these naturally-aspirated engines boils down to physically adjusting the fuel feeds. 

I believe that last time I went down this road, I noted the extension that allowed Zero pilots to manually twiddle the needle jet on their engne carburettors. It's a bit nuts, but it is, indeed, the best way to control fuel consumption if you don't have a "variable datum carburettor." 

This is probably unecessarily and half-assedly pedantic, but gas engines have two running fuel states: in "lean mixture," just enough fuel is introduced into the air flowing through the carburettors to combust all of the air. The lower limit of the size of the fuel charge in lean mixture is, in an ideal cae, the inertia of the system, where a further fall in rpm (or the sudden appearance of werewolves, ghosts, zombies, etc.) kills the engine.  "Rich mixture" can be defined as shoving in enough air to burn all the fuel that can be supplied, but that gets into talking about superchargers. For the purposes of this blog post, rich mixtures have more fuel than can be burned, which obviously gives lower fuel economy, but reduces the temperature in the cylinder through vapourisation.

Lean mixtures can achieve very high compression ratios, but low power, since most of the energy  store in the piston's restoring stroke goes into compressing the fuel-air charge without a commensurate contribution to the system from the fuel-air explosion. Rich mixtures achieve high compression ratios and high power, while thermally stressing the engine. (High compression ratios stress the engine physically, to the extent that there is a difference.)

There is, however, another limit, which is that gasoline is a mixture of different feed stocks with varying ignition points. Internal combustion engines use an electrical discharge through a spark plug to detonate the fuel at the apex of the piston's return stroke, simultaneously in all engine cylinders; but, some fractions of the fuel may reach their ignition point through compression heating before that. Motorists talk about "pinging," and aeroengine designers about predetonation. In either case, the higher the octane rating, the more highly compressed a fuel can be before it is subject to this damaging phenomena. (There are also actually two different octane ratings for lean and rich mucture running.)

So your Do. X engineer is a pretty busy person, monitoring twelve engines for temperature, listening for pings, perhaps using a remote analyser to sample the exhaust gas. With this information, throttles are adjusted, and any other controls fiddled with. It's all pretty preposterous, when you get down to it. It is hard to imagine now what Claude Dornier told his investors, or even who these chumps were, altough Mira Wilkins has turned up a GM-Dornier connection.

Instead of imagining or speculating, I'll turn to something actually in print. Flight notes the "auxiliary wing," the structure that you see joining the six engine mountings. Per the company's own information, this structure was designed to stiffen the six engine mountings under transverse loading, but apparently there were rumours that they were designed to provide a "slot effect." Without plunging back into the dead controversies of the 1920s at any length, I'm not really clear if the rumours were confused about where leading-edge slots should be, or whether they're referring to a more general idea that you could use slots, slats and flaps, adjutable or not, to alter a wing's aerodynamics in various ways that aerodynamics was not yet competent to describe. Obviously you can do exactly this. Blown flaps and boundary layer control are hugely important on modern aircraft, and it is quite likely that the visionaries of the 1920s could describe these desired outcomes without being very clear on the still science-fictional details.

Since, of course, they were science fictional. The DoX wallowed just as much as anyone could have predicted, and pretty much as you'd expect from a plane designed to take off at weights well into the B-29 range, but with only a fraction of the research and development.

 That's another way of say that there was  simply no way that a plane this big was practical especially so early. The Short Sarafand of 1932, with a much more conventional and conservative design, was designed for an operating all up weight of 70,000lbs --also far too high, but at least a bit more reasonable.

As you can see, Claude Dornier had no monopoly on the front-to-back engine configuration, although Short had access to actual cutting-edge engine technology, not that it used that access very well. Like the Do X, it was designed for transatlantic range. Unlike the DoX, public funding went in for a nominal half the cost. Like the DoX, Short Brothers delusions about the difficulties of designing a transatlantic liner were quickly and cruelly dispelled by the first actual takeoff. The big and obvious difference is that the Sarafand is a biplane. The English people, they are so backward!

Shift change at the Morris plant, Cowley, Oxford, 1946.  Get it? They make cars, but they don't own them! 
There's no point footing around the point any further. The DoX and the Sarafand are goofy litle planes that had no hope of accomplishing their design role. Yet, in 1946, the Atlantic was being routinely crossed by transatlantic airliners. The difference wasn't aerodynamics, as much as aerodynamics had advanced. It's that the Rolls Royce Buzzard of the Short Sarafand gave 955hp on 36.7L. The specially-designed Buzzard modification, the Rolls-Royce R, entered into the 1929 Schneider Cup trtophy race, ran at 2800hp. At the piston head, the difference is that between the Flathead and the Cadillac OHC -- a higher compression ratio (but still at only 6:1 vice 5.5:1 with no boost!), using a special fuel formulated by Rod Banks. Once "special fuel" became normal fuel, the OHC was possible -leaving only all the design innovations needed to produce a running, reliable, high compression automobile engine.

The American open road; brought to you by the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. 


  1. This reminds me of the time I picked up a copy of James Howard Kunstler's *Long Emergency*, flipped it open at random, and found him arguing that wind and solar power were useless because "find someone who can service a 1962 Cadillac".

    Mate, how many old-car nuts are there on an average suburban street? Nothing for it but to diagnose Pauline Kael Syndrome in Stage IV and issue a prognosis of progressive irrelevance. I didn't bother reading the book.

  2. If you drive up to your local garage in a '62 Cadillac making funny noises, you aren't going to find anyone who can fix it.

    Pauline Kael Syndrome is one diagnosis. "Expecting To Get Something For Nothing" Syndrome might be in effect, also.

    Speaking of high brow magazine journalism, four years ago, Maclean's sent Mark Richardson to travel the Trans-National-Unifying Symbol. Here's a quote of another journalist from his dispatch from Revelstoke:

    Journalist Bob Metcalfe once described a drive in 1960 in which he “joined a motoring fraternity whose Big Bend stories improved with age.
    “They’re stories of broken springs, shock absorbers, axles and nerves; cracked windshields, lights, sumps and composure; lost tailpipes, mufflers, hub-caps and reason. Skeletons of cars, stripped of worthwhile parts and abandoned after major mishaps, lie forlornly at intervals by the roadside; others that went over steep embankments lie where they came to rest, battered wrecks…”

  3. Just to expand here, there was a general consensus back in the 20s that since Canada was so a real country (shut up, shut up, not listening), it ought to be possible to drive across it, as opposed to cutting down into the States, which is what actual Canadian drivers did.

    In British Columbia, inhospitable mountain country made this difficult. Not so much the Rockies, with their global reputation, as they are relativelly old orogenies and the watersheds are engineerable, but the interior ranges. The Fraser River cuts through two of the major ranges, and is therefore a natural route for the second half of the east-west route through BC. The problem is to find a practicable route through the first half, through the trench of the Columbia River. The railroad surveyors had eventually given up and run straight up and down a pass through the Selkirks --modern Rogers Pass. The gradiants were terrible, but with enough timber trestles. . .

    . This is not how you build autoroutes, however.

    No-one wanted to pay for the alternative in the 1920s, never mind the Great Depression, when the building was actually done. It happens that you can actually follow the route of the Columbia, which arcs through a great bend in this region. Traditionally, this is one of the main legs in the brigade trail from Hudson's Bay and Montreal to Astoria. The brigaders crossed the Yellowstone Pass, descended to the head of a tributary of the Columbia near modern Vavenby, embarked at the poetically named Boat Encampment, and descended the many, many rapids to Spokane and Astoria. (People who didn't have to cross the Rockies used the valley of the Okanagan/Okanagon tributary,but no-one cares about them because they didn't incude any amateur sportsmen, tourists, or company dignitaries who would write about it.)

    Subsequently, there was a gold rush, and railroad building, and benign neglect. Even today, Revelstoke is the only major town between Castlegar and Golden (that is, for a very long distance --you'll need a map for any of this to make sense), and "major" only has meaning in this sense to a person from a very small town.

    So the relief crews were sent into this wilderness, hacked out a road along the old portage trails, 200 miles or so up and around the Selkirks from Revelstoke to Golden, and called it a day. It was a terrible road in the 90s, and I can only imagine what it was like in the 30s. But it did create a nominal all-red route across Canada.