Twisted from the Sprue is my little corner of the internet. Its both a place for me to talk about scale modeling, Pittsburgh and any other random thoughts that cross my mind - and a backup website for the Three Rivers IPMS model club. You can find the real Three Rivers web page at www.tripms.org (or click on the Build or Die logo above).

Why does a model club need a backup website? Because Murphy's Law guarantees that your main website will be hacked at the worst possible time - like the week before your big model show. So if you've found this site while looking for the Three Rivers IPMS web page, please bookmark it just in case, or even subscribe to get updates.

But before you go, take a look around - you just might find something interesting here.

Don Schmitz

Contact me

If you have questions or just want to chat about any of the articles here, or about the Three Rivers IPMS club or our model show, feel free to email me at dnschmtz@gmail.com

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A (not so) Brief History of the Muscle Car - Part 1

When I got my drivers license in 1976, the only cars I (and most other working-class teenagers) could afford were well worn 1960s muscle cars. With plain-jane 1960s Mustangs and Chevelles and such selling for north of $20K today that probably seems a little unbelievable, but in 1976 we had just weathered the first OPEC engineered oil crisis. Leaving the politics and economics involved for another day, in the fall of 1973 the price of gasoline at the pump had gone up from less than $0.50 per gallon to more than $0.70 a gallon (remember minimum wage then was just $2.30/hour). Worse than the price hike, for several months there was a shortage of gas combined with panic buying that caused gas stations to literally run out - which at the time seemed akin to the sun not rising.

Suddenly all anyone cared about was fuel efficiency. Everyone wanted 6 cylinder Dodge Darts and Ford Mavericks; big-block muscle cars filled the classified ads at give-away prices.  Since high school kids don't drive all that much or have families to support, we were the only ones who could afford to drive 10mpg cars (just not very far). I bought my '69 Road Runner, with 70K miles on the clock and one dented quarter panel - for a whopping $500! As a result my high school parking lot looked like a scene out of American Graffiti.

As I now approach curmudgeon-dom (hold on a second while I chase some kids off the lawn :) - I'm often amazed at the confused and generally rose-colored view that today's car buffs have of those halcyon days. Like most (all?) 1960s American cars, muscle cars had the aerodynamics of a brick, the handling of a well worn pickup truck, and they rusted faster than a 16 year old kid could sling Bondo. The only things they did really well was go like stink and attract attention like Miley Cyrus at an awards show - and being part of that sure was fun!

I wanted to tell the real story of the muscle car era, but I couldn't decide where to begin - so I pretty much started at the beginning and spent way more time than I ever planned on this subject.  So sit back and read along, and by all means let me know what I got wrong!

Note: This is an article that cries out for pictures, but most of my photos from back in the day - taken with a cheap Kodak Instamatic - are either not very good or have long since gone missing. I won't just grab photos off the internet without permission, but if you'd like to contribute photos of your own, email them to me at tripms@zoominternet.com and I'll add them here - thanks! Don

From the earliest days of the automobile, there have been performance cars.  While the very first cars were largely curiosities that were less capable than a good horse, by the 1920s high end car makers such as Bentley, Cadillac, Duesenberg, and others were offering models with top speeds approaching 100 mph (if you could find a road straight and smooth enough to drive that fast). Today these would be considered sports cars or  GT cars or maybe exotics, as they also cost quite a bit more than the Ford Model Ts and As and Chevrolet 490s that everyday people were driving then. 

Throughout the 1920s  mass market cars were getting by with 4 cylinder engines more like something designed for a tractor than the hi-tech 4 cylinder engines you'll find in a modern Ford or Honda. The Model T - which sold a whopping 15 million cars - had a 2.9L flathead 4 with all of 20 horsepower and a top speed around 40mph. It could also run on kerosene or alchohol or most anything semi-flammable you might have to pour in the tank!

Ford's Model T had gone into production in 1908; by the early 1920s it was looking a little dated, and many were simply worn out after hard lives on farms and such (if you lived in a city with good streets and streetcars or commuter trains, you probably had little use for a car).  As the number and quality of roads increased, people were looking for a car that could comfortably travel longer distances, which would make them appealing to a much larger number of buyers. General Motors saw this as an opportunity to overtake Ford's dominance in the lucrative low-price but extremely high volume part of the market; they targeted the newly acquired Chevrolet division to go head to head with Ford.

By 1925 Chevy had evolved their model 490 from a Model-T clone into a reasonably modern car with a steel body, fully enclosed passenger compartment (optional) and smooth running steel wheels (also optional), but still powered by a low-tech 4 cylinder engine. In 1927 Ford would introduce the new Model A, a much improved replacement for the T, powered by a new and improved 4 cylinder engine now producing 40hp and capable of 60mph.  Chevy would one-up Ford in 1929 with a new inline 6 cylinder engine. The 6 produced little more power than Ford's new 4-cylinder, but many prestigious cars of the time had 6 or 8 cylinder engines; the 6 gave Chevy a bit of prestige and bragging rights, and helped them steal business away from rival Ford.

For 1932, Ford would return the favor when they introduced an all new car with the first volume production, reasonably priced V8 engine. Although officially named the type 18, the new car quickly became known simply as the V8 Ford.  Just like Chevrolet's 6, Ford's flathead V8 was not especially sophisticated - cranking out just 65 horespower - but until that time only high end cars were packing more than 6 cylinders.  Like a one-eyed man in the land of the blind, Ford's V8 was king of mass market automobiles.

Through out the 1930s Ford sold the type 18s and subsequent models as fast as they could build them. Thanks to the Great Depression and WWII, other car makers were hard pressed to catch up; Ford would ride the success of that first V8 into the post war period, when things started to get really interesting.

In 1929, Chrysler - one of the more prestigious car makers of the time - had created Plymouth - a brand of low-priced cars to compete directly with Ford and Chevy. Plymouths were priced about the same as the Fords and Chevys but generally offered slightly better technology; during the 1930s most Plymouths were powered by straight 6 cylinder engines that made as much power as the V8 Fords. Plymouth's strong value for money was perfect for the Depression; before Pearl Harbor rolled around it had become the number 3 brand in America and helped keep parent Chrysler afloat through the lean years of the Depression.

Moreover, the Plymouth strategy set the tone for that pre-war decade, with an emphasis on cost, reliability and efficiency ahead of flash and style. Those (not many) with a few extra dollars could splurge on a V8 Ford, but many buyers settled for the more practical and cheaper Chevy or Plymouth..

Following WWII, Americans were back to work and hungry for new cars. Detroit's factories had been building tanks and bombers and jeeps for 4 years, but by 1946 they were building cars again - although most had simply dusted off the tooling from 1941 and started cranking out the same cars they had been building 5 years earlier.

Chevy, Ford and Plymouth were all just parts of larger companies that built broad lineups of cars under various brands. Chevy was part of General Motors, which owned Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac (plus a few others that came and went). Ford owned Mercury and Lincoln, which paralleled the structure of GM on a slightly smaller scale; likewise Plymouth was part of Chrysler, which also owned the Dodge and De Soto brands.  Between them, these 3 companies - known as the "Big 3" - accounted for about 80% of all new cars sold in the US.

Prior to WWII, the other brands owned by the Big 3 were building fairly high end cars compared to the Fords, Chevys and Plymouths. As automobiles became more indispensable to American life, automakers started to rethink this strategy. Competition and economies of scale were pushing up the quality of the low end cars so much that it was hard to build a high end car that justified a price 10 times more than a base-model Chevy.  If the low-end products were generating so much profit, it made sense to shift some of those high end brands down a notch to appeal to buyers who wanted something nicer than an everyday Ford (or Chevy or Plymouth) but couldn't  afford the big step up to a Mercury (or Oldsmobile or Dodge).

In addition to the Big 3, at the end of WWII there were still a few small independent auto makers fighting for a piece of the pie, most notably Packard, Studebaker, Hudson and Nash.  Faced with the overwhelming sales volume of Ford and GM, these companies were desperately trying to duplicate the success that Chrysler had with Plymouth in breaking into the low-price part of the market. 

Remember the Baby Boomers? In 1950, the oldest Boomers were still toddlers and their parents were buying houses in newly built suburbs where dad had to drive to work and mom had to drive the kids to little league and ballet lessons. Families would soon find they needed two cars, at least one of them capable of hauling a complete Cub Scout troop in the backseat.  Detroit responded by making cars bigger and bigger, which created the need for more powerful engines.

Even though many automakers had developed sophisticated inline 6 and 8 cylinder engines during the 1930s and 40s, the success of Ford's V8 had raised the bar for buyers. Automakers knew they would need modern V8s to be competitive in the 1950s.

GM began developing modern overhead-valve V8s - different designs for each of its many brands - starting with a redesigned Cadillac V8 and the Oldsmobile Rocket V8 in 1949, followed by the Buick Nailhead V8 in 1953, and the Pontiac Strato-Streak and the legendary "small block Chevy" in 1954. Chrysler would introduce their "FirePower" hemi-head V8 in 1950 and develop similar but strangely different variants for DeSoto and Dodge; Plymouth would wait until 1955 for the cheaper non-hemi polyspheric variant of the Chrysler V8. Ford would revise their now dated "flathead" V8 for 1948 and use it until 1954 when they would launch their first modern overhead-valve "Y-block" V8.

Of the independents, Studebaker launched a (smallish) V8 in 1951. Packard would finally produce a V8 in 1955, a somewhat uninspired engine that cribbed from the latest Cadillac V8s. Hudson had entered the 50s with a very good 6 cylinder engine - as powerful as many of the V8s of the time - but car buyers wanted V8s ; Hudson would eventually license Packard's V8. Nash had concentrated on smaller cars and never needed or could afford to develop a V8; they would merge with Hudson in 1954 to form American Motors Corporation. AMC would finally develop its own new V8 in 1956.

Being first to the party gave Oldsmobile a golden opportunity: they would fit their new V8 to both their big 98 and their new 88, a smaller, lighter car with modern (for 1949) styling. With 50 more horsepower than Ford's now hoary flathead V8, the Rocket 88 would dominate the newly created NASCAR race series (back when they actually raced stock cars), radically change Oldsmobile's stodgy image and give car buyers their first taste of high performance.

With all of these companies offering similar cars with similar engines and chasing the same buyers, getting customers to even consider a particular brand became a matter of marketing. Automakers soon learned that marketing went beyond billboards and magazine ads;. they would support various kinds of racing, give cars to celebrities, provide cars for movies and TV shows - anything to get their products noticed.  Someone at tiny Hudson came up with the idea of the halo car: a special model or package that existed largely to catch the buyer's attention and get them into the showroom to at least look, even if they then bought a less flashy model.

The Hudson Hornet was introduced in 1951 to do battle with the new Rocket 88 Oldsmobiles. Hudson had long been an upmarket brand with a reputation for good engineering and quality, and the same stodgy image as Oldsmobile. Independent Hudson did not have the vast resources of General Motors, so developing a new V8 on short order was out of the question, but they had a big (308 cubic inch) modern inline 6, to which they added the Twin-H-Power option (higher compression and dual carburetors), producing an Oldsmobile beating 175hp. They also broke ground with the Hornet name, being one of the first cars with a name that sounded more like a fighter plane than some sort of kitchen appliance.  The Hornet would rule NASCAR for the next 4 years, but never managed to overcome the stigma of its 6-cylinder engine; Hudson would eventually merge with Nash and soon after disappear as a brand.

In 1953 Packard would go the halo route, creating the Caribbean, a somewhat glitzy (at least by Packard standards) convertible. Initially fitted with Packard's aging straight 8, in 1955 Packard would fit their new 275 horse V8 and offer the Caribbean in several striking two-tone paint treatments. The car was a modest success but too little, too late to save Packard; by 1958 Packard had merged with Studebaker and likewise disappeared.

1955 was a big year for halo cars. Chrysler had been quietly building their first generation hemi-head V8 since 1950, but the big displacement hemis were destined to drag around monstrous Chrysler Imperials and DeSotos. But Chrysler was tired of seeing Oldsmobile and Hudson get all the NASCAR publicity. In '55 they would launch the Chrysler 300, named for its 300 horsepower 331 inch hemi engine - complete with solid lifters and dual 4-barrel carburetors - and win 18 NASCAR races.

1955 was also the year Chevy introduced their first V8, officially known as the Turbo-fire engine, but soon to be famous as the "mouse motor" or just the "small block Chevy". Being the last GM division to develop a V8 allowed Chevy to learn from the rest of GM; their engine was physically smaller and lighter than the Oldsmobile and Buick V8s, with an innovative cylinder head that would set the standard for the next 40 years. Being smaller and lighter meant Chevy could fit this engine to smaller and lighter cars, yielding some of the best power-to-weight ratios of any American car at the time. That first year, Chevy would fit the new engine to their new BelAir and the struggling Corvette. Displacing just 265 cubic inches and making as much as 195 hp set a new performance benchmark and gave the Corvette a new lease on life as Chevy's  halo car.

After merging with Packard, Studebaker had access to Packard's V8; they would install it in their own Golden Hawk halo car. The big 352 inch Packard V8 in the mid-size Studebaker body made for surprising performance (when they ran out of Packard engines, Studebaker would use a super-charged version of their own 289 V8). The Golden Hawk was another example of too, little too late, Studebaker would straggle on for another few years before closing the doors for good in 1965.

Not to be left out of the halo club, Ford would introduce their two seater Thunderbird in 1955, powered by their new Y-block V8.  The Y-block was a more old-school design than the new Chevy V8, with a deep skirted crankcase extending below the crankshaft center-line, but it actually out performed the Chevy in stock form.  Ford would sell a lot of two seater Thunderbirds and more than anything that success kept the struggling Corvette alive through those early days.

1955 would also be fateful for two highly visible tragedies: in June at Le Mans a Mercedes 300SLR would go airborne into a spectator stand, killing 80+ people and injuring dozens of others.  And in September, American movie actor James Dean would die while driving his new Porsche 550 to a race in Salinas CA. Fast cars were getting the wrong kind of attention, and American auto makers began to worry that the government would start writing safety regulations.

GM, with slightly more than 50% of the American market really wanted to keep a low profile lest too much attention got the feds start thinking about the M word (as in GM might be a monopoly in need of breaking up). So in 1957 American automakers would enter a gentleman's agreement banning support for auto racing. While they would still build sporty cars, they agreed not to sponsor racing teams or advertise performance numbers, and GM went so far as to set limits on engine size for their various models.

The new American Motors Company (a merger of Hudson and Nash) would produce a new kind of car in 1957: an intermediate size sedan - smaller than the full size Fords and Chevys - with AMCs new 327 inch V8. Named the Rambler Rebel, it showed little AMC daring to go outside the box to compete with the big boys. While the big-motor Rebel could match a Corvette in 0-60 times, it looked like a scaled-down Edsel; it didn't sell well and the next year the 327 engine option would be gone, with only AMC's smaller 250 V8 available.

As the 50s wore on the demand for ever bigger cars continued.  The first round of V8s had displaced roughly 300-330 cubic inches, but it soon became clear that wasn't enough for the land-yachts Americans craved. For 1958 engineers would go back to their drawing boards, either stretching their original engine designs or penning entirely new "big blocks" to complement their existing "small block" engines.  Chevy would debut their new "W" motor - a slightly reworked 348 cubic inch truck engine in their new full-size Impala and rival Ford would trot out its new FE V8, including a high performance 352 inch version known as the Interceptor, for the full size Ford.

1958 was also the first big glitch in the post-war US economy. After more than 10 years of rapid growth, inflation was starting to worry the Feds, so starting in 1955 they had slowed government spending just a little bit. However industry had forgotten how to slow down; they kept cranking out consumer goods until suddenly in the fall of 1957 there was way more stuff on store shelves than there was money to buy it. The bubble had burst: unemployment ticked up a few points, which scared those who still had jobs enough to slow spending on frivolous things like chrome-laden high-horsepower automobiles. The Recession of 1958 (also known as the Eisenhower Recession) would only last a few months, but it made Americans a little skittish about spending. Cars finally stopped getting bigger, and the seeds were sown for what would become intermediate and compact sized cars.

For the next few years the fall out of the recession and the racing ban put a damper on halo cars, at least those with an emphasis on performance. To be sure, all of the Big 3 cheated on the "ban", but they did it quietly: big engines could still be ordered from the factory, but they were referred to as "heavy duty" rather than "high performance". Racing parts destined for NASCAR teams, often with no official part numbers, were delivered through back-door channels.

Studebaker would take one last shot at a halo car, producing the Avanti in 1962: a sporty coupe with pony-car proportions and a supercharged 289 V8. Sadly the Avanti was the last gasp for Studebaker; less than 2 years later Studebaker would stop producing cars, having built as many Avanti's in that entire time as Ford would come to build 65 Mustangs in a week.

By the early 1960s, the first generation V8s from the 50s had made their way into hot-rods, giving young (and youthful) Americans a taste of the performance a big motor in a lightweight car could provide. At the same time European makes were making inroads into the US auto market:  VW's Beetle was making a reputation as super-cheap basic transportation, while Porsches and Jaguars and Austin Healeys and such were getting attention from youthful buyers. Gas was cheap, unemployment was virtually non-existent and high performance was in the air.

At Ford and Pontiac two young and hungry executives - Lee Iacoca and John Delorean - recognized the value of performance as a way to market and promote cars. They would simply ignore the gentlemen's agreement and build the cars they knew would sell.  Ford had a new compact car, the Falcon, and an all new small V8 displacing as much as 289 cubic inches; Ford would combine the two and add racy sheet metal to create the sporty Mustang. Over at Pontiac, Delorean would shoehorn their big 389 V8 into the mid-size Tempest to create the GTO. Both cars would hit the showrooms in 1964, and were an example of being in the right place at the right time: they would sell so well that other car makers couldn't ignore them.

Chrysler was in a somewhat odd position; for the 1962 model year they had downsized their full size Dodges and Plymouths (which were really big) to a size somewhere between the mid-size and full-size cars being offered by Ford and GM. That meant in 1964 Chrysler already had a (more-or-less) mid-size car available with big V8s, including a monstrous 413 with dual 4 barrel carbs. Depending on how you look at it, that made Chrysler either early or late to the muscle car party: while they were manufacturing what were essentially muscle cars as early as 1962, they didn't start marketing them as such until 1966 when they introduced the fast-back Dodge Charger.

In the immortal words of Mick Jagger, "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing". By the end of 1964 Oldsmobile would offer the 442 with a hotted up 330 inch V8 and Chevy would add their hot 327 inch V8 to the new intermediate Chevelle. The real tipping point may have been the introduction of Chevy's new big-block "mystery motor". Developed largely to keep up with Ford's new FE big-block in NASCAR racing, the Chevy big-block (soon to be known as the "rat motor") made no pretense of being a station-wagon motor; it was a thoroughly modern hi-performance design that dominated NASCAR. And in 1965, Chevy was ready to stuff it under the hood of every car they built. The rat-motor would ignite the horsepower wars in a way no one could have imagined just two years earlier.

With cars flying out of the showroom the semi-fictional un-official racing ban would quietly fade from memory. By 1966 Ford, Mercury, Chevy, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and even Buick and AMC would have a mid-size car with a 400 cubic inch engine and 300+ horsepower, 4 speed transmissions and racy sounding nameplates. And while the Mustang ruled the newly created pony-car niche (challenged only by the frumpy looking Barracuda and eccentric Corvair) GM and Chrysler had solid competitors (Camaro, Firebird and a greatly improved Barracuda) in the works for the '67 model year. The next three years were a free-for-all, with every automaker willing to stuff their biggest V8s into their smallest cars. The muscle-car era was in full-swing and would escalate every year for the rest of the decade; by 1969 every auto maker would have an engine flirting with (or outright breaking) the 400 horsepower mark stuffed into the smallest cars they offered.

What made these cars successful beyond their value as halo cars - in a way the Rocket 88 or the Golden Hawk never managed?

For starters, the cars offered a combination of performance and flash in a very affordable and practical package. Unlike a two-seat sports car that was worthless as a family grocery-getter, a GTO or RoadRunner had a perfectly usable backseat and trunk; even the Mustang had a token backseat that a young father could rationalize would hold the kids - at least until they were six or seven years old! From a manufacturer's standpoint, it cost little more to build a big engine than a small one, and heavy-duty brakes and suspension parts were often "borrowed" from full size cars. In 1964, the GTO package added about $600 to the cost of a $3000 Tempest - not a small amount at the time, but not a lot when spread over 36 easy monthly payments!

Maybe more importantly was that the US economy was booming. The muscle-car is often thought of as a baby-boom phenomena, but in 1964 the oldest Boomers were just 18 years old; few of them were able to make a $100 per month new car payment. But thanks to the Depression, the generation preceding the boomers - the so called Silent Generation - was as unusually small as the Boomer Generation was unusually large. That translated to a labor shortage in the second half of the 1960s, when unemployment averaged a record low 4%. Everyone was working and post-war optimism was still very much alive; a big-block GTO with three carburetors seemed like a fairly small indulgence!

And then, after just 6 years - like the proverbial bolt from the blue -  America's fling with high performance would be over.  But that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sneaking Through the Sound Barrier

Humans - men in particular - have a fascination with speed that is so universal that it must be genetic (probably the same gene that makes dogs stick their heads out of car windows). Coming of age in the 1970s, it was a rite of passage among my gearhead high school crowd to take our cars to a lonely stretch of highway and try to peg the speedometer. This was foolish beyond the chance of losing your license; the cars we were driving had crumby bias ply tires, stone-age aerodynamics and 120 mph speedometers. North of 80 mph the front of the car would start to lift and the steering got a funny disconnected feel; pushing past that was more aiming than driving. The only reasons any of us survived this stupidity were optimistic speedometers and a willingness to lie about how fast we actually went before backing off.

In the fall of 1947 a much higher stakes version of this game was playing out at the Muroc Army Airfield (soon to be Edwards Air Force Base) in the California dessert. Two experimental aircraft, both supersonic capable, were being flight tested by two distinctly type-A pilots.

The Bell X-1 was an experimental rocket-plane, built for the sole purpose of generating scientific data on supersonic aerodynamics. It was the culmination of a 5 year joint effort between the Army Air Force and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics - the NACA - to be renamed NASA a few years later. Designed in 1942, the X-1 used rocket engines - the simplest and most reliable way at the time to make enough thrust to push the plane through the sound barrier. Rockets are not very efficient in terms of fuel consumption, but the whole idea was just to get an instrumented air-frame up to supersonic speeds; the X-1 was never intended to be a practical aircraft. To get the most possible supersonic flight time the X-1 was carried to altitude by a B-29 and given a 300 mph head start. Once released, the pilot would light the rocket engines for a few minute ride to Mach 1, then glide back to the desert floor for an unpowered landing.

By contrast, the North American Aviation XP-86 was the prototype for one of the first jet powered fighter planes. The XP-86 Sabre-jet had benefited from aerodynamic data captured from the German aircraft industry at the end of WWII, from several years of jet engine research and development, and from the same top notch engineers that had designed the P-51 Mustang. As a result the XP-86 had a swept wing that improved stability at supersonic speeds, an engine with enough power for a conventional takeoff, and the range for extended test flights.

Of course the X-1 was flown by Chuck Yeager, while the XP-86 was being flown by more obscure NAA test pilot George Welch. Welch was a bit of a character, but there was no doubt he could fly. He had been an Army Air Force pilot in the Pacific during WWII; he was one of the few pilots to get a P-40 airborne at Pearl Harbor on December 7th.  Welch and fellow pilot Ken Taylor had been at an all night party/card-game; they raced to the airfield in Taylor's Buick and literally took off with bombs falling around them. Welch is credited with 4 kills (3 Vals and a Zero) and Taylor 2 kills (both Vals); its likely they both scored a few more that couldn't be confirmed.  If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it is one of the many bits of history mangled by Disney in their version of the Pearl Harbor story, with Welch being replaced by Ben Affleck playing the fictionalized character Rafe McCawley.

A brief diversion: Most of the historical articles on this blog are based on trivia I've picked up from an assortment of books, bull sessions, campfire stories, personal experiences - basically anything that catches my interest.  Then I try to piece together a coherent story from diverse and often conflicting sources.  In this case, much of the information is drawn from a single book called Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1, written by former test pilot Al Blackburn.  I found Aces Wild under the Christmas tree this year. Its not especially well written; it is Mr. Blackburn's first and only book, and it wanders and repeats itself a bit too much.  But Blackburn tells the story of George Welch and post war aviation that only he could tell, and it is worth reading for that alone - but consider checking it out of the library before you buy one for your collection.

Blackburn was a test pilot at North American Aviation (NAA) in the early 1950s; he knew Welch and many of his contemporaries, and he heard the stories first hand from the people who were there and had made an effort to leave no evidence. Now back to my story...

Welch had 16 kills in WWII, many while flying the less than outstanding P-39, before malaria put him out of the war in mid 1943. Strangely, all of Welch's reported kills were for multiple aircraft; some folks think he simply didn't bother to report single kills. While he was ambitious and competitive, he didn't have to keep score of his personal accomplishments.

One of the many stories circulating about Welch that gives you an idea of who he was: while stationed in New Guinea with the 36th Figther Group, he  supposedly asked his commanding officer when his squadron would get the new P-38s that Dick Bong and others were using to shoot down Zeros with such great efficiency. He was told "when we run out of P-39s". Shortly after, Welch and his fellow pilots began to experience "engine trouble" just before they made it back to base, "forcing" them to bail out and send the P-39s into the Pacific.

But in the fall of 1947, Welch was just like Chalmers Goodlin : another ex-fighter pilot working as a test pilot for a big aircraft company that wanted to sell the Air Force lots of aircraft. Stuart Symnington, the newly appointed Secretary of the newly formed U.S. Air Force, badly wanted a bit of prestige for the new branch of the service. He let the executives at North American know that he expected the X-1, with a USAF pilot, to break the sound barrier first.

So on the first flight of the XP-86, on October 1st, Welch did what you would expect from a pilot willing to parachute into the Pacific in hopes of scoring a better plane: he took the Sabre to 35,000 feet, advanced the throttle to full and eased into a steep dive. Because he wasn't supposed to be doing any of that (he wasn't even supposed to retract the landing gear on that first flight), he didn't turn on the recording devices and cameras that would have created evidence to be used against him. So when he saw the air-speed indicator freeze even though the plane was still accelerating, then jump 50 knots to something in the neighborhood of Mach 1, there was only his oral report to the NAA engineers to verify what had happened.

On the ground - especially at Pancho Barnes's Happy Bottom Riding Club which was fortuitously located just below his pull out - a number of people heard what they would soon recognize as a sonic boom. But while a number of people heard a boom, it isn't clear whether the YP-86 actually went supersonic or just got very close.  Goodlin had managed to make a tiny boom - actually more of a "crack" - in the X-1 at less than Mach 1 by pulling up and then diving, a maneuver that caused airflow over the wings to go briefly supersonic. It was possible Welch had done something similar while pulling up from the dive.  The YP-86 would not be tracked by accurate ground radar until several weeks later - after Yeager's historic flight - when it managed a best of Mach 1.04 in a similar dive.  But that didn't stop Welch from repeating the trick the morning of October 14th, sending another boom across the Muroc air field just about the time legend has it that Chuck Yeager was using a broom handle to latch the door on the X-1 before taking off to make history.

Official or not hardly mattered to Welch or North American Aviation; they had let the Air Force know the F-86 was a pretty amazing airplane, and then scored additional points by cooperating to give the Air Force the big success they needed. Having Welch's name in the record books was not nearly as sweet as purchase orders for new F-86s.

Interestingly enough, while Yeager is generally credited with being the first pilot to go supersonic in level flight,  I discovered  that he does not hold an official record for breaking the sound barrier. The Swiss Federation Aeronatique Internationale  (FAI) sets the rules for aviation records, and in 1947 the rules required the aircraft to takeoff under its own power and to set the record speed in level flight at sea level. The warm dense air at sea level means the speed of sound is 100 mph higher than at altitude, and also means the aerodynamic stresses are higher. Neither the X-1 or the XP-86 could manage mach 1 at sea-level (about 740 mph).  The first plane to accomplish that feat was NAA's next generation fighter, the F-100 Super Saber, a plane that would take Welch's life during a test flight in October of 1954; if he had lived another 25 years Wolfe's the Right Stuff may have read quite a bit differently!

Normally I would throw in a few lines about building a model of Welch's YP-86, but strangely enough there are no readily available kits  of the prototype (all of the kits out there are Korean era F-86s, with significant detail differences). If you're reading this, maybe you could drop a note to your favorite kit maker and tell them there are modelers out here who want one of these.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Car Modeler's Breakfast

Its been a while since I wrote one of these articles about where to get breakfast in the 'burgh, but its a lot easier to knock one of these out than actually doing some modeling to write about. The Trolley Barn Eatery on Library Road is a classic breakfast dive; its a single storefront in a block building that holds a handful of other businesses (its too small to qualify as a strip-mall or shopping plaza). Inside are small tables with vinyl table cloths; you order and pay at a counter in the back, then pour your own coffee and wait for the food to be served to your table.  This is breakfast at its simplest: every imaginable combination of eggs, sausage, bacon, home fries and pancakes - but the food is good and cheap.

What makes the Trolley Barn truly special is that 200 feet further down Library Road is the Castle Shannon Fire Hall, site of two big Pittsburgh model car shows: the Three Rivers Automodelers hold their show here in the fall, and in early spring the South Hills Model & Toy Show is held at the same spot. Both shows have an amazing turn out of model car vendors, and most have their stuff priced to sell - I almost always come home with something unusual. My last score was an Aurora Cobra Daytona kit - complete and unstarted - for $10!

I don't have dates for the 2014 shows yet, but I'll update this post when I do.

If you're going to one of these shows, leave a half hour early and stop at the Trolley Barn to carb-up for multiple laps around the vendor room!


Monday, November 18, 2013

Things that go bump in the night...

There is something a little magical about fall in Pittsburgh. While evening comes early, the days are often sunny and warm and dry - a welcome change from the heat and humidity of summer. Many trees hold on to their leaves well into October, but the less hardy varieties add a splash of color and the wonderful smell of fallen leaves to the air.  Its a great time to be outside.

Getting the final bits of yard work done - raking leaves, mowing the grass one last time, putting the grill and lawn chairs away - often keeps you outside well into dusk. The shadows and thinning foliage and clear skies change the familiar horizon into something just a little spooky; along with the inevitable wave of Halloween inspired TV shows and the assortment of UFO, Bigfoot and unsolved mystery shows running continuously on the cable channels its easy to imagine glowing eyes watching you from the shrubbery or a headless horseman riding across your backyard.

So it wasn't too surprising when on an October visit to my parents in Westmoreland county (two turnpike exits east of Pittsburgh) I saw neatly printed signs planted along the roadside announcing a UFO convention at the local community college. I grew up in the area and had heard all the stories about  big hairy creatures killing big mean farm dogs and how the army hauled something out of a Kecksburg field in the middle of the night, but usually I heard those stories from my Dad and his friends on all night fishing trips, when I figured their goal was to scare the crap out of us kids so we didn't go wandering around the woods in the dark.  In high school I had close friends who lived in Kecksburg that I spent a lot of time with, and while we discussed all the mysteries of life that are important to 17 year old boys, the subject of aliens never came up. As a teenager I drove the dark back roads of Kecksburg many times and can tell you its easy to imagine all sorts of things lurking in the shadows that 1960s sealed beam headlights couldn't penetrate, but I never saw anything big and hairy or thin and grey-skinned step out on the pavement.

But now we have the internet. I came home from my parents and typed "kecksburg ufo" into Google and spent a guilty evening reading alleged eyewitness accounts and conspiracy theories about something that happened in my own backyard.  I have grave doubts any extraterrestrials dropped into Kecksburg, but it seems likely that something happened there in December of 1965.

Here is what we're reasonably sure of. About 4:45 pm on December 9th, 1965 - a Thursday evening just before sunset - a fireball blazed across the sky over Detroit and appeared to to head south over Lake Erie. More sightings came in from Ohio, from Cleveland to Columbus, including reports of grass fires started by flaming bits of something falling to the ground. I emphasize appeared to because depending on the object's trajectory it may well have dropped straight into Lake Erie, and still been visible far to the south.  Natural meteors (rocks) can enter the atmosphere at a steep angle such as this.

If the fireball was actually a piece of space junk falling out of orbit (or a reentering spacecraft), it would have entered the atmosphere at a shallow angle, essentially following the earth's surface as it shed speed and eventually fell to the ground. If this was the case, the object would have been moving at 1000s of miles per hour in the general direction of Pittsburgh, passing over Cleveland and Akron on the way.

In Kecksburg - a tiny town (really just a few farms sharing a VFD)  about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, some kids came inside to tell their Mom they had  seen a "burning star" fall into the nearby woods; Mom looked and thought she saw a bright light in the woods. About 6:30pm - probably after the supper dishes were cleared - Mom called the story into local radio station WHJB (talk radio shows were the social networks of 1965). The radio station notified the state police. It was a dry, warm night with a full moon and the word was out:  reporters, police, volunteer firemen and curiosity seekers descended on Kecksburg en masse.

And then it gets fuzzy. Those who got there early - including WHJB announcer John Murphy - claim to have seen a few PA state troopers walking around with flashlights and a bronze-colored, bell or acorn shaped metal object about 6 feet in diameter and 10 feet long half buried in the ground in a wooded lot.  Those who arrived a little later saw armed soldiers guarding the site and warning onlookers they would be shot if they tried to go into the woods.  Some witnesses reported there were men in hazmat suits with NASA logos walking around. Much later, after most of the civilians had left, the military types used a bulldozer (where did that come from?) to load the something on to a flatbed truck that drove off into the night. The official police report issued the next day was that nothing was found the night before.

Over the years more and more witnesses have come forward to tell their stories of that night. Members of the Kecksburg VFD have told about the massive military presence that rolled into town.  A former Air Force officer claimed to have guarded the truck during a brief stay at Lockbourne AFB near Columbus Ohio, allegedly on its way to Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton (it seems a little odd that the truck would stop an hour short of its final destination). A contractor claims to have delivered a load of bricks to a Wright Patterson hangar where he caught a glimpse of a bell shaped object.

Today there is precious little proof of anything, including whether the Army was ever there.  In 1965 cameras didn't fit in your pocket, and no photos seem to have been taken. Most of the details of the story came out in interviews done for a TV show in 1990, 25 years after the event; plenty of time for records to be lost and memories to fade and shift.

There may be no proof of a recovery because it never happened. There are lots of reserve and National Guard armories scattered around southwest PA, but they are primarily training centers for part-time soldiers; there aren't teams of men and equipment sitting there waiting to deploy on a moments notice. The nearest actual Army base that could have mounted a major deployment would have been in Letterkenny PA, 120 miles east of Kecksburg. Unless the military had advance warning (unlikely, unless whatever it was was one ours) it seems doubtful any of them could have assembled a detachment of men and equipment and got them to Kecksburg by late evening.

According to some websites there are documented reports - obtained under the Freedom of Information Act - indicating that the Air Force sent 3 men from the Oakdale PA radar station to recover whatever had fallen there. Oakdale is just south of the main Pittsburgh airport and about 50 miles west of Kecksburg; until 1969 the Air Force had an air defense radar there to guide fighter planes to Soviet bombers should the Cold War ever turn hot. You can find reports from the Oakdale site online suggesting that investigating stuff that may have fallen from the sky and answering queries from UFO buffs was a common and less than rewarding job for the unit. Oakdale was just an hour away from Kecksburg; that would have fit the time line. It seems likely that the 3 airmen from Oakdale (maybe they took a few extra men to help guard the site) were the only military there, and the stories of a large Army presence were exaggerated by time and imagination.

But did they find anything in those woods?  Or did an Air Force truck roll out of Kecksburg loaded with nothing more than the search lights and shovels and winches they brought with them? And if it was a piece of space junk, why all the secrecy?

Remember that in the early 1960s both the US and USSR were launching lots of stuff into space. Mixed in with the scientific probes and commercial communication satellites were spy satellites, military communication and navigation satellites and probably a few missile component tests. But aside from manned spacecraft, the only things meant to come back from space were film canisters and warheads. Moreover, the Soviets had been hinting they had an ICBM with fractional orbit capability that could lob a nuke around the south pole into the US, undetected by the north facing early warning radars - a development that would have seriously derailed the "mutually assured destruction" doctrine that was seen as the only thing preventing WWIII. Against that backdrop, anything that reentered the atmosphere and made it to the ground in one piece would have been extremely interesting to the military and men in black suits, and unlikely to ever be declassified; you'll have to make up your own mind about what happened in Kecksburg.

Obligatory scale modeling reference: Are you a military vehicle modeler who is tired of the SciFi modelers having all the fun lighting up their models with LEDs? How about building a deuce-and-a-half with a tarp covered load that glows and pulses blue light? Put it on a base with some trees and a Kecksburg road sign. I'd love to see that diorama! Imagine the fun of convincing the judges it does not belong in the Sci-Fi category. And if someone tells you the details are wrong, ask him exactly how he knows?


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Racing Ponies

Not too long ago I wrote the story of how the Ford Mustang came to be. In 1965 they were flying out of the showrooms as fast as Ford could build them. But the 60's were a time when change happened fast.  The basic formula for the Mustang was simple: take a small sedan and re-skin it with racy sheet metal, drop in a small block V8 and add bucket seats. Ford had leaked enough teasers to build interest in the Mustang before the car went on sale that the competition at GM and Chrysler already had their own "pony" cars in development when the Mustang went on sale.

Ford knew that while most Mustangs would be used to commute to work or bring home the groceries, the appeal of the car was its sportiness. Even before the Mustang was on sale Ford was preparing to give the Mustang a racing pedigree. Alan Mann Racing in England was already campaigning the Falcon in European rally races; in early 1964 they received one of the first Mustangs off the production line for testing purposes, followed shortly after by 6 more cars to prepare for racing. Holmann&Moody shipped an equal number of race-prepared 289s across the pond. The Mustangs - red coupes - were prepared for rally racing and placed 1st and 2nd in the Touring Class of the 1964 Tour de France (a series of French road races - not the bicycle race), beating the Jaguar MkIIs that had dominated the class for several years. Interestingly enough, Carroll Shelby was also there with his Cobra Daytonas, which lost this series to the Ferrari GTOs.

In the US Ford really wanted to beat rival Chevy's Corvette, but the only place the Corvette was being raced was in amateur Sports Car Club of America races - an organization that interpreted Sports Car to mean two seater and set the rules to allow only minimal modifications. But where there's a will there's a way:
Ford would go to Carroll Shelby - already building Ford powered Cobras and working on the factory GT40 race cars - to turn the Mustang into an SCCA legal race car.

Shelby was king of the loopholes: by setting himself up as a manufacturer, he could make all sorts of changes to the Mustang that Ford would never want their name or warranty attached to. To handle that pesky two-seat rule Shelby simply unbolted the back seat and installed a fiber-glass package shelf, which was the perfect place to fit the spare tire after Shelby installed a bigger gas tank that filled up the trunk.  The SCCA rules allowed modifications to either the suspension or the engine, but the Mustang really needed both in order to be competitive with the fuel-injection and independent-rear-suspension of the 'Vette. Shelby first upgraded the Mustang's suspension, transmission, and rear end, and bolted headers and a bigger carburetor to the stock engine to create the street GT350 and then further tweaked the stock Ford 289 to create the GT350R racing cars. With every spare ounce stripped from the GT350R, and the tiny 289 pushed to 350hp, the Shelby Mustang handily beat the plastic Chevys, winning 5 of the 6 regional SCCA championships, with Shelby team driver Jerry Titus winning the overall SCCA B Production championship in 1965.

The Camaro and Firebird would appear in showrooms in 1966 as 1967 models.  The first Plymouth Barracuda actually went on sale in 1964 a week before the Mustang, but its styling was so dated in comparison that no one paid it much attention; Chrysler gave the car a massive restyling that also appeared in the '67 model year. Both GM and Chrysler took the opportunity to design in lots of room under the hoods: all 3 cars had big-block options that would soon grow to include the biggest (7+ liter) engines available.

With all of these muscular little 4 seaters being built in Detroit, in 1966 the SCCA created a new racing series just for them: the Trans American Sedan Championship, or just TransAm as the series quickly came to be known. To entice manufacturers (and big name drivers) to participate, the SCCA established a point system to award a manufacturer's championship.  Now Ford had a another loophole to fill: obviously they wanted to compete with the GM and Chrysler cars in the new series, but Shelby had homologated the fastback Mustang as a two-seater, and TransAm demanded four seats. Rather than re-homologate the fastback cars the notch-back Mustang coupes were homologated  (and of course many of those cars promptly received the same Shelby parts and suspension modifications developed for the fastback GT350Rs). Shelby built a few dozen TransAm ready '66 and '67 Mustangs - a few for the "factory" Shelby team and the others sold through Ford to independent racing teams.

With factory and Shelby support, the Mustang took the Trans Am manufacturers championship in both '66 and '67. Interestingly enough, one of the Shelby team cars was sponsored by Grady Davis, a Gulf Oil VP with a taste for racing whose office was in downtown Pittsburgh.

Now that the competition had arrived, it was clear that the '67 Mustang would have to be something special just to keep up. And in my opinion, Ford nailed it: the '67 Mustangs were just enough bigger to fit a big-block engine, and as a result Ford cleaned up much of the "stubbiness"  that gave the first generation car a few unflattering angles. Based on the roaring success of the first few years, Ford cut a few less corners as well; there was a bit more chrome and trim available, without crossing the line into gaudiness. Under the hood, the top option for '67 was a 390 V8. Much like Ford's small-block, the big-block "FE" motor was not an especially high-performance design. In the "S-code" Mustangs, the 390 carried a 320 hp rating, although that was probably a little optimistic. The 390 was barely a match for the 327 Chevy small-block, let alone the 396 Chevy big-block that was available in the new Camaro. For the '68 model year Ford would up the ante with a hot-rod version of the 428 inch station wagon motor, using cylinder heads developed for Ford's 427 NASCAR engine to create "Cobra Jet" Mustangs that were on more or less equal footing with the best the competition had to offer (yes, there were a few big block GM and Chrysler engines available that could out-muscle a Cobra Jet, but their extra top-end power was largely overkill for the stoplight grand prix action most of these cars were limited to).

Still, sales of the '67 Mustang dropped about 20%, and dropped again for the '68 model. The Mustang would never regain the insane sales numbers of the first two years, but Ford had created a racing heritage for the car that would carry it through rough times ahead (when America fell out of love with fast cars during the oil embargoes of the 1970s).

But I'm getting ahead of myself - Ford racing would close out the '60s with a bang, or more accurately - a Boss. But this article has gone long enough; that's a story for another time...


Friday, July 5, 2013

Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix

Just a quick note for old car buffs and modelers: the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix is kicking off next weekend - July 12th through the 21st (the racing and cars shows in Schenley Park are the last weekend - July 20th and 21st).  Check out the details here: http://www.pvgp.org/

The Ford Mustang has been chosen as Marque of the Year, and while the Schenley Park course is a little too tight for the big V8s, the Mustangs and other hairy chested cars will be racing the weekend before at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex (http://www.pittrace.com/)  - just north of the Beaver Falls exit of the Turnpike (map).

In addition to the racing, Saturday in Schenley (July 20th) is the day all the local car clubs organize car shows throughout the park; if you can't find something cool to look at there you just don't like cars... Both weekends are definitely worth a road trip - and make sure to clean out the memory card in your camera as there will be lots of cool stuff you just won't see at the local car cruise.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Mustang Turns 50!?!

The first Ford Mustangs appeared just about the time I started to notice cars were cool, and even at 4 years old I knew the Mustang was a lot cooler than Dad's Galaxie or the Impalas and Furys that my uncles drove.  So it was with quite a shock that I happened across a web page showing an artist's conception of the all-new Mustang that will launch next spring to mark the pony car's 50th anniversary. Because if the Mustang is going to be 50, that means I'm going to be... well, you can do the math.

The roots of the Mustang go back to the early 1950s. Its hard to imagine, but in those post-war days Ford sold just 1 model of car. To be sure, it was available in different trim levels and body styles under various names (Mainline, Customline, Crestline, Crown Victoria, Fairlane, etc) but aside from the chrome, they were essentially the "same" car.

So when Ford introduced the two-seat Thunderbird in 1955, it was a big deal. While a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the Corvette, the Thunderbird was much more luxurious and well built (and less sporting) than Chevy's two-seater. The Thunderbird only made sense as a second car; it was first and foremost a car to be seen in. The automobile had become such an essential part of American life that families were beginning to consider a car for both Dad and Mom, and automakers were beginning to think in terms of a range of different models, each tailored in size, cost and features to a particular segment of the market.

Much like the early Corvette, the Thunderbird was a flop in the showroom.  The T-bird certainly appealed to young men thinking it was the perfect car to drive their girl friends off unchaperoned, but the middle-aged doctors, lawyers and bankers who could actually afford one (it cost nearly twice the price of a new full-size Ford) didn't have girlfriends - or if they did, they didn't want to be seen driving them around with the roof down!

At Ford, number-cruncher Robert McNamara studied the demographics and decided the Thunderbird should be a 4-seat monster capable of carrying multiple sets of golf clubs to the country club and sealed the two seater's fate. He then turned his attention to every day transportation, and decided Ford should build a small, efficient 5 passenger sedan; a first car for young families or a second car for slightly older Moms to haul the kids to football practice and piano lessons. That perfectly practical (and perfectly boring) little sedan was the Ford Falcon, introduced in 1959, a car that would anchor the small end of Ford's model range for the next decade (and its spiritual descendants, the Maverick, Fairmont and Tempo for two decades after that).

But what does all this have to do with the Mustang? Enter Lido "Lee" Iacocca. Iacocca grew up in Lehigh Pennsylvania, the son of Italian immigrants. Due to to a case of rheumatic fever as a child, he ended up 4F and spent the WWII years in college studying engineering. He joined Ford as an engineer in 1946, but quickly decided that sales and marketing were more to his liking. He was an ambitious man with his eye on a corner office type job, and as the cliche goes, he climbed quickly through the ranks; by 1957 he was McNamara's right hand man. Where McNamara understood logistics and manufacturing costs, Iacocca had worked with the salesmen at the dealerships and understood all the irrational reasons that people bought cars. Then came the fateful day in the fall of 1960 when JFK called to offer McNamara a job as Secretary of Defense. In the blink of an eye, 36 year old Lee Iacocca was vice-president of the Ford car and truck group.

The Falcon was actually selling in reasonable numbers, but it wasn't making Ford much money. The car was stealing sales away from the full-size Ford, and there were few high-markup options available for the salesmen to add on. With McNamara out of the way, Iacocca began changing the product line to offer cars people not only needed but wanted, and more importantly that would make profits for Ford.

Ford had invested many millions of dollars in the Falcon so Iacocca couldn't just scrap it, but he could add trim packages, bucket seats and bigger engines. But there was only so much you could do with the Falcon's bland shape. Iacocca did his own demographic studies and realized the oldest baby-boomers were just reaching driving age, and in a few more years would be buying cars of their own. College campuses were awash in MGs and bathtub Porsches and the like, brought home by servicemen cashing in on GI-Bill funded educations. At rival Chevrolet, the Corvette was slowly gaining a following and the Corvair Monza was being promoted as the "poor man's Porsche". If Ford wanted to stake a claim on youth buyers they needed a fun, sporty car at a price even high-school graduates could afford.

Iacocca assembled a team of executives known as the Fairlane Group, a sort of skunkworks team who met at the bar of the Fairlane Inn twice a month to discuss potential projects.  The first result was a tiny two-seater show car with lightweight construction and a mid-engine V4 borrowed from a Ford of Europe small car, called the Mustang I. While distinctly sporty, it lacked the broad appeal Iacocca was looking for: he realized that to avoid a repeat of the Thunderbird the new car had to seat 4 (although maybe 2 of those seats could be child-sized) and have enough trunk space to bring home a week's groceries.

Meeting the price target meant the new car would need to share Falcon mechanicals, but at least the styling had to hint at Ferrari. The final design came down to a contest among the various studios inside of Ford. Joe Oros lead the team in the Ford studio who brought in the winning design. Legend has it that it was the Mustang name that finally convinced Henry Ford II to take a chance on the car.

And, the rest, as they say, is history.  The Mustang was an instant best seller. People lined up to put down deposits.  In less than two years Ford had sold over 1 million Mustangs. Lido Iacocca was promoted to president of Ford. Except the story isn't nearly that simple (nothing at Ford is ever simple). The next 50 years would see the Mustang (and the world) go through a lot of changes, and if not for some amazing people and a lot of luck it might have gone the way of the original Thunderbird. But that's a story for another article, or maybe two.

Stay tuned!