Welcome!

Twisted from the Sprue is my little corner of the internet. This site started as a simple web presence for the Three Rivers IPMS model club - as in middle-aged guys who never quite out-grew gluing together miniature cars and planes (and not a club of really good looking people who have their pictures taken for underwear ads and the like). But the club now has a spiffy full-featured web-site, and this blog has morphed into a place for me to post stuff I personally find interesting or just want to ramble on about.

While a lot of what I write about here has some loose connection to the model-building hobby, after a while I discovered I was writing more broadly about the topics of Aviation and Automotive History, the stories of unsung Pittsburghers, and the best places to get a good plate of eggs-and-bacon when you're in the 'Burgh.

I'm working on reorganizing the page so if you're interested in only one of these topics it will be easier to find it and ignore the other types of trivia bouncing around my head and out onto the page, but for now its all kind of lumped together just like it is in my brain. Please bear with me...

Its reassuring to know your not the only guy with an obsession with eclectic trivia - if you happen across something interesting here, or have a question or something to contribute, please leave a comment or drop me an email at dnschmtz@gmail.com

Don

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Life After Death - part 4 of A Muscle Car History

When I started writing this mini-history about the American Muscle Car phenomena, I expected to knock out 10 paragraphs and call it a day.  When you're doing this blog-thing, 10 paragraphs is sort of the sweet spot for telling a good story, keeping the reader's attention, and not spending all your time writing about things instead of actually doing things to write about. But somehow this story got in my blood and I decided to do a multi-part series, and even after I covered the backstory, the rise and fall of what is generally considered the Muscle Car Era (1964-1970), there was still lots of stuff left over. Let me try to wrap it all up in 10 sweet paragraphs.

While muscle cars literally went out of fashion in 1970, it was too big a thing to just stop. Developing new cars and engines takes 3 or more years of engineering, so products that had entered the development pipeline in 1967 were just hitting the market in 1970, including:
  • Chrysler had just rolled out their new Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda pony-cars, based on a shortened version of their mid-size chassis. These two corporate twins finally had the mean, modern styling to compete with the Mustang and Camaro, and an engine bay that made the Hemi look small. OK, not small, but average.
  • Plymouth had restyled their boxy Valiant compact into the swoopier Duster model and offered it with the muscular new 340 inch small-block V8.
  • Ford's had just launched two new engines families, represented by the 351 inch Cleveland small-block and the 429 inch big-block V8.
  • Ford's Fairlane would be renamed the Torino and given swoopier (more Chevelle-like) styling.
  • GM had introduced the first major restyling of the Camaro, with a high-performance version of the trusty 350 inch Chevy small-block V8 that provided big-block power-levels without the big-block's weight and thirst for 100 octane premium. Much like the Cleveland-motored Mustang, this was one of the best performing Camaros ever.
  • Across GM, the various big-block engines had been stretched to 7.5 liters (454 or 455 cubic inches), and these big big-blocks would be offered in the various GM mid-size models (Chevelle, GTO, Cutlass/442 and Skylark/GranSport) for a few more model years.
But with muscle car sales in the toilet things would change quickly.

In 1971 Ford would launch a new much larger Mustang that was more of a cruiser than a sportscar. This new plus-sized Mustang was influenced by Bunkie Knudsen, the father of the GTO, who Henry Ford II had wooed away from GM.  Knudsen had revitalized Pontiac with a big-car, big-engine strategy and he would try to do the same at Ford: the new Mustang was offered with the new 429 V8 (without the special NASCAR inspired Boss cylinder heads) and a still fairly stout version of the 351 Cleveland, but the car had lost its athletic looks and engine output would drop over the next few model years.

In 1972 Ford's racy new Torino mid-size would morph into the Gran Torino, another plus-sized redesign that included a change to body-on-frame construction for improved ride and crash resistance, and would offer the same 351 and 429 engines as the Mustang, and later would offer the 429's big brother - the 460 V8 - but by then it wasn't much of a performance motor.  The performance oriented 351 Cleveland (with four-barrel carb) would hang on until 1974, but even it was fairly ordinary by 1960s standards.

GMs 7 mid-size cars would hang on largely unchanged through 1972, including the new 7.5 liter engines, although selling in ever smaller numbers. The GTO name plate would be appear briefly on the 1973 Grand Am (a heavily restyled mid-size Pontiac) and on the 1974 Ventura (Pontiac's clone of the Nova) before disappearing into history.

The new Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird would soldier on throughout the 1970s, although again every year would bring less powerful engines.  Pontiac would make one last gasp in 1973 with a Super Duty version of their 455 V8 that would have been right at home in the 1960s, but it sold in limited numbers and would not be offered again.

Chrysler would offer the Hemi through the 1971 model year and keep selling the restyled Challenger and Cuda until 1974, but would take the same path as Ford and GM, de-tuning engines every year. Plymouth would field a RoadRunner package on the 1976 Volare (a re-designed Valiant), but it was mostly a decal-package; the real muscle was gone by 1973.

Sealing the muscle car's fate was something automakers could never imagine and plan for in 1967 or even 1970: the OPEC engineered oil boycott of 1973. While the politics and economics of the boycott are complicated, the end result was simple: in October of 1973, just as the new 1974 model cars were hitting the dealerships, US gasoline prices tripled, and thanks largely to panic buying there were actual shortages - gas stations simply ran out. Suddenly no one wanted the big safe cars Detroit imagined they would be selling through out the 1970s, and four-barrel-carburetor became a dirty word in auto showrooms and used car lots.

Even worse, Detroit had no efficient full-size cars in their development pipeline. Ford had their new sub-compact Pinto and Chevy had the Vega, but these were cheap, tiny (and slow) little cars meant to compete with the VW Beetle and the newly arriving Japanese imports. If you wanted a reasonably fuel-efficient car that you could pack mom, dad and a couple kids into, the only choices were the 6 cylinder Dodge Dart and Ford Maverick, which were really crude little cars that dated back to the early 1960s. To be sure, they were reliable transportation, but nobody lusted after a Maverick.

Somehow the Big 3 had to make 4000+ pound Ford LTDs, Chevy Caprices and Dodge Polaras easy on gas. The only short term solution was to stuff smaller engines and steeper rear-end gear ratios into these land yachts, and hope that since all the other cars coming from Detroit were just as dog-slow no one notice.  That strategy might have worked, except that the Japanese and Europeans had been dealing with expensive gas and safety standards for years; they had already developed space efficient, light-weight and reasonably safe cars that gave reasonable performance with 4 and 6 cylinder engines that were half the size of even a small American V8. Cars like the Toyota Corolla, Datsun 510, BMW 2002 and Saab 99, while not huge sellers would slowly build a following in the US and would show the direction US cars would take.

Perhaps the low point of the times was the "all new" Mustang II introduced in 1974. The new Mustang had a back-to-basics strategy championed by Lee Iaccoca, and at least on paper appeared to be a first step towards building an American import-fighter: the car was smaller and lighter than the previous generation (1971-1973) Mustang. For the first time there was a true hatchback, a practical feature America was learning to love in the imports. The styling was inspired by the first generation Mustang, but it lacked the chrome of the original, using plastic front and rear bumpers to meet the new 5mph impact regulations. Power was provided by a 2.3 liter 4 cylinder or 2.8 liter V6.

With gas prices spiking, the new small-motor Mustangs sold well, but they lacked the power and sporty handling of the imports.  While seemingly a match for the latest sporty cars from Japan (Datsun's Z-cars and Toyota's Celica), the Mustang betrayed its Pinto roots when pushed hard.  After the first year, Ford would offer a (fairly tame) 302 V8 in the new Mustang, which helped, but not nearly enough. Chevy was still offering the 350 small block V8 in the Camaro, and Pontiac the 400 big-block in the Firebird, and while these were heavily de-tuned engines there were lots of performance parts available in the aftermarket. The Mustang would become the poster-boy for the emasculated performance car.

Of course it wasn't that American automakers couldn't build the same kinds of light, sporty, reliable and fuel-efficient cars that the Japanese and Europeans were building; it was just that they had never had to before. It was a change - not just in their products but in their very business model - that would take another 5 years just to get started. In 1978 Chevy would roll out its new Malibu and Ford the new Fairmont; both reasonably modern small mid-size cars. Not great cars, but respectable first efforts.

To help pay for developing these new cars (and more new models still in the pipeline) Ford and GM would limit changes to the rest of their lineups (no more yearly updates to the chrome strips and upholstery). Chrysler - always the smallest of the big 3 - didn't have the cash for an all new car and would struggle to survive going into the 1980s.

By 1978 the Mustang II was 5 years old and really showing its age. For 1979 Ford would return to the original formula for the Mustang, bolting a sporty body to a shortened version of the new Fairmont's chassis. Ford would dabble with a turbo-charged 4 cylinder in this all new Mustang, but would also tool up a small-block V8 option. The new Pony's first few years weren't very memorable - in 1980 and 81 the top engine option was an anemic 255 inch V8 making just 120 (net) horsepower - but by 1982 the world oil market had stabilized and Ford took a chance on a performance option for the Mustang: a 302 with bigger valves and a hotter camshaft sourced from Ford's bottomless parts bins, kicking out 157 horsepower in a car weighing just 2600 pounds.

No one would confuse this new Mustang GT for a Cobra Jet or even a Boss 302 from 1969, but it was at least in the same league as the first 289 V8 powered Mustangs.  And with its light weight and an over-drive 4-speed transmission, the V8 still gave respectable mileage.  After most of a decade where high-performance meant a high-revving 4 cylinder, America would rediscover the wonderful instant-on power available from even a small-block V8, and it was love all over again. If you could swing the insurance payments, you ran out and bought a V8 Mustang before Ford came to their senses.

Finally the Mustang could hold its own with the foreign competition, and GM had no choice but to upgrade its aging Camaro to keep up. In 1983 Chevy would roll out an all new Camaro and Firebird, with their own high-performance tuned small-block V8. Ford would up the ante with an honest-to-God Holley four-barrel on the 302, pushing horsepower up to 175 and kicking off a round of tit-for-tat one-upmanship between Ford and GM that continues right up to today. 1983 was like 1964 all over again.

And - no surprise - it looks like we'll need at least 10 more paragraphs to wrap things up. Stay tuned...



Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Day the Music Died - part 3 of A Muscle Car History

Don McClean released the album American Pie in 1971, his anthem to the rock-n-roll of the just ended 1960s. The title song runs for over 8 minutes and takes up most of the first side of the vinyl LP, but it still managed to be a big hit. The lyrics are cryptic in the way of early Bob Dylan, but while exactly what it all means is up for debate (McClean once said "It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to!") the names and events mentioned clearly refer to the songs, singers and musicians of the decade. It starts with a verse about the day in 1959 that early rock-n-roll legends Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash - "the day the music died" - but its just as easy to imagine he was singing about the end of the hot-rod and muscle car era.

The evolution and popularity of fast cars largely paralleled that of rock-n-roll (and a lot of early rock-n-roll featured hot-rods and muscle-cars, including songs like Hot Rod Lincoln, Mustang Sally, Little GTO, Dead Man's Curve, and every song the Beach Boys put out before 1966). But by the late 1960s music had gone in a new direction - much like the rest of pop culture - thanks largely to the Beatles and the war in Vietnam.

Its hard to read about the events that led the US into Vietnam and not think: "Did Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, McNamara, and Westmoreland all sleep through history class? What were they thinking?!" There were eerie parallels to the American Revolution, except the US was playing the part of the British, and if you remember, they didn't win either.  Thanks largely to politicians who didn't want to look "soft on communism" the US got itself entangled in a revolutionary war that had grown into a civil war, in a third rate country half way around the world, of no strategic or economic value - and stayed at it long after it stopped making sense.

For those of you too young to have picked this up in the newspapers, modern Vietnam started out as a colony of France. It was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, when France was busy being occupied by the Germans. Following the war the native Vietnamese decided it was time for independence, and set about having their own Revolution to kick out the French. It was your typical grimy little war of a colony against a weakened and preoccupied home country halfway around the world, and after nearly 10 years of fighting the French washed their hands of the place.

Which should have been the end of it. Colonies were very much out of style, and many gained their independence following WWII when the last colonial powers (England and France) were busy trying to put their cities and economies back together. Except most of the Vietnamese revolutionaries were nominally communist (communism probably sounded like a really good idea in a country where the national industry was subsistence farming), and "communist" was a very dirty word in US politics in 1954.

So the US pulled some strings at the United Nations and managed to take over propping up the remains of France's puppet government in Saigon.  For the next 10 years the nominally communist Vietnamese (who mostly lived in the northern part of Vietnam), fought the nominally democratic Vietnamese in the south in a grimy little civil war. The communists had the numbers while the democratic government had US military aid, but that just delayed the inevitable: by the mid 1960s the Vietnamese government was about to collapse.  Which led to 200,000 American troops shipping out to Vietnam in 1965, a number that would grow to over 500,000 by 1968.

As the number of US troops deployed grew in 1965 and 66, public sentiment quickly turned against what was seen as (depending on your point of view) a pointless, immoral and/or un-winnable war. While teenagers facing the draft were the ones protesting in the streets, the war was equally unpopular with their families, religious leaders, celebrities, military veterans and just about everyone else except the defense contractors.

In 1967 Arlo Guthrie released his first album - Alice's Restaurant - another LP with one whole side dedicated to the title song - actually more a comedy monologue than a song - encouraging young men to protest the war and the draft. This wasn't the first anti-war protest song, but it was the first really popular  one, and it came just as US casualties jumped from in-the-noise to levels not seen since the Korean war. Alice's Restaurant would set the mood for pop music and American culture for the rest of the war. Hit songs would soon have titles like Fortunate Son, Street-Fightin-Man, Revolution, and War.

Despite public opposition to the war and some really good protest songs, presidents Johnson and then Nixon both tried hard to "win" the war, believing it would be political suicide to withdraw and accept the stigma of being Commander in Chief of the first ever American military defeat. As a result, the war in Vietnam dragged on for yet another bloody decade.

But I've drifted way off topic - I was talking about the end of the Muscle Car era.

Look at the sales figures for any of the popular muscle cars of the 60s and you'll see a big drop in the 1970 model year, even though total sales (across all models of cars) were about the same as in 1969. Mustang sales dropped by about 30% even though the 1970 model was visibly little different than the '69, and with the new 351 Cleveland engine was probably the best of the first generation Mustangs. GTO sales were similarly down over 40% in a single year, as were sales of the Chevy Camaro.  And sales would keep falling for the 1971 model year.

There are a lot of theories as to why.

In the 1960s people started worrying about leaded gasoline. When it burned, the lead ended up in the air and people breathed it. Even though the concentration was low, the exposure was constant everywhere there were roads, and there was increasing evidence it was causing health problems. Other kinds of pollution - un-burned hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen - were causing smog in cities like Los Angeles where the geography tended to trap exhaust fumes. In 1970, the newly created Environmental Protection Agency passed a law phasing out leaded gasoline and setting limits on tail-pipe emissions. Even though the law didn't kick in for several years, in anticipation automakers started lowering the compression ratios of their engines, which meant lower horsepower. But the compression drop didn't happen until the 1971 model year, and the pollution control systems were phased in gradually throughout the '70s, well after muscle car sales had fallen off a cliff.

OPEC - the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries - basically Saudi Arabia and a handful of smaller middle-eastern countries - figured out they could cut production and drive up oil prices and so make more money selling less oil. This was bad news for muscle cars that gulped gas at 10mpg (or less!)  but again the artificial shortage and price hikes didn't happen until 1973. In 1969 and 70 gasoline was as cheap and plentiful as it had been throughout the decade.

Auto insurance companies started raising their rates on muscle cars, presumably because the kind of people who bought them did foolish things in them that caused more accidents than more normal cars (or maybe they just figured out that the people buying new muscle cars had more disposable income and could be squeezed a little harder than most). Its hard to figure out exactly when this happened, but it seems to have been well before 1970. As early as 1967 car makers were under-rating the horsepower of their most powerful muscle car engines (for example the Chevy L88 and Ford "Cobra Jet" engines) to placate insurance companies who thought muscle cars were already too fast. Again, insurance rates were no doubt hurting muscle car sales, but that didn't suddenly change in 1970.

What did happen in the run-up to 1970 was a little more subtle.

First there was inflation. After a decade of stable prices, in 1966 inflation started edging up - not a lot, but a little, and a little more every year. Flash back to the beginning of this ramble: inflation was up because the government was printing money to pay and equip thousands of newly drafted soldiers (and NASA engineers, but that's another story). The government was trying to buy guns and butter, hiding the true cost of the war in the hidden tax that is inflation while hoping to keep the economy cranking away so hard that no one would notice. Unfortunately the government was buying a lot of guns and the bill was coming due.

At the same time the Baby Boomers were just starting to enter the work force, delivering wave after wave of new high school and college graduates faster than the economy could absorb them.  1970 would see unemployment edge up for the first time in over 10 years.

Neither of these economic factors were big (yet), but they nibbled away at disposable income and consumer confidence. Muscle cars are the kind of guilty pleasures you buy when you've already paid for the important things and still have money left over, and there just wasn't as much left over as there used to be.

Then there was safety. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s Congress would hold investigations into automotive safety, partly because automakers tended to cover up safety problems (for obvious reasons), and partly because (extremely biased personal opinion) the auto industry was a juicy target. The investigations at least gave the impression that Congress was looking out for everyday drivers/voters, while creating lots of opportunities for politicians to curry favor with rich auto manufacturers. Basically business as usual for Washington, but it helped sow the seeds of American Industry as evil capitalists who would sell their own grandmother for a fast buck.

One of the government flacks at a few of those investigations was a wet-behind-the-ears Harvard Law School graduate named Ralph Nader. Young Ralph had quickly traded relatively honest work as a lawyer and history professor for a government job. In his spare time he wrote a book called Unsafe at Any Speed chronicling the evils of General Motors, including an especially damning profile of the handling problems with Chevy's first generation Corvair.

Nader's book demonstrated a poor understanding of engineering and business and a willingness to twist the facts to support his arguments, but he came a little too close to the truth on the industry's indifference to safety. At the time American cars and roads were the safest in the world; Detroit's sin was in thinking that was good enough and so putting money into the styling and performance that sold cars instead of making them safer still. As Nixon would discover a decade later, the real damage in any scandal is in the attempt to cover it up: GM would hire private investigators to dig into Nader's personal life, harass him and even try to entrap him with eager young ladies. Nader would sue GM for an invasion of privacy and win a little over $400,000 (which was real money in 1965); he would use the money to lobby for automotive safety regulations.

Nader's efforts are often credited with the creation of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration in 1970, which finally provided some much needed oversight of the auto industry, but as a side effect the auto makers became increasingly skittish about building performance cars. When muscle car sales sagged, the automakers would abandon that part of their lineup without a fight.

But perhaps the biggest impact on the muscle car came through a curious bit of serendipity.

On June 22nd, 1969 the Cuyahoga River would catch fire. That seems ludicrous today - and even in 1969 it was the source of a lot of late-night TV punchlines. Truth be told the Cuyahoga was no more polluted than other US rivers (like Pittsburgh's Monongahela) but it was a winding and slow-moving river running through northern Ohio and past Cleveland on its way to Lake Erie. There was a lot of heavy industry on the river and no one worried if a bit of solvent or lubricant was spilled and made its way into the water, and then all you needed was a spark or open flame. The fire wasn't especially big compared to those in the past: it did only minor damage and was pretty much out before anyone showed up to photograph it.

But then on July 18th, 1969  Senator Ted Kennedy would drive off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, resulting in the death of a young woman.  And just two days later, Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon, bumping the Kennedy story off the front pages. But if you were up late watching Armstrong and Aldrin take their historic first steps, you know the TV camera they had with them wasn't very good. America would have to wait a week for actual film to make the trip back to see clear color images of Neil and Buzz.

So it was that TIME magazine would put Kennedy on the cover the following week, along with a special feature on the moon landing, and purely by chance, tucked in the back a one-page story on the Cuyahoga fire (they would dig up some photos from an earlier and more dramatic fire in 1952 - the last time the river had burned). Millions bought the magazine for the moon photos, got all the sordid details on Kennedy as a bonus, and eventually got around to reading about the somewhat inconsequential river fire.

Those two stories - Chappaquiddick and Cuyahoga - would further erode America's confidence in government and industry and kick off a grass-roots effort to clean up the environment. As the 1960s ended, it was like the end of one of those seemingly endless grade-school summer vacations, and suddenly America was ready to deal with more important things. Against this background of public opinion, muscle cars had become a symbol of wretched excess. The times had changed, and the automobile had moved on, at least for a little while.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

More Muscle Car History - Part 2

How to describe the 1960s to someone who wasn't there?  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... The economy was booming, the US was going to the Moon, there were riots in the streets and 1000s of young men would die in Vietnam. The decade would start with incredible optimism and faith in the "American Way" and end with riots and a deep mistrust of government and industry that lingers to this day.

In the part 1 of this ramble down memory lane I told the story of the great American performance car from automotive pre-history up to 1964 and the first Mustangs and GTOs, and then I ran out of gas. While the muscle car era lasted less than a single decade, a lot of things happened in that time that would shape the future of both the automobile and American culture. With the background out of the way, lets set the Way-Back machine to the summer of 1962 and take another  look.

In the early 60s NASCAR was the most visible sort of racing in the US. There were lots of races, including a few outside of the core south-eastern states (Heidelberg Raceway near Pittsburgh would host several NASCAR races - the last in 1960 - sadly the historic track was replaced by a strip mall in the 1970s).

Automakers saw NASCAR as prime advertising. At the time the cars were still largely "stock" - aside from the sponsor names painted on the fenders the race cars looked just like the ones you could buy down at the local dealership and had to be powered by the same basic engine as the street cars. The top drivers were often colorful, bigger-than-life guys who didn't worry about saying something that might offend their sponsors when they talked to the press - they were the rock-stars of the gear-head demographic. A car buyer deciding between a new Ford or Chevy might well be swayed by who won the most races or what car their favorite driver was driving.

Believing in the theory of "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday", the auto makers would support the top racing teams with special parts and outright sponsorship - even during the years of the unofficial ban on racing (although during those dark days the support was largely of the backdoor variety).

Because back then NASCAR required race cars to actually be based on stock production vehicles the automakers would build street cars just to meet the demands of racing. The Big 3 had played a long running game trying to one-up each other with ever more powerful engines for NASCAR duty. In 1957 the hot engines in NASCAR were the  small block 283 Chevy with fuel injection, the 312 Ford Y-block with a super-charger and the 392 Chrysler Hemi with two 4 barrel carbs. Bill France, founder and CEO of NASCAR wanted to avoid a technological arms race that would make racing too expensive for the teams filling up the grid at NASCAR races, so in 1958 he would issue a ban on fuel-injection, forced induction and multiple carburetors, leaving the manufacturers no where to go but bigger.

In the late 1950s the Big 3 had all developed new, larger and more modern V8 engines to haul around their ever growing full-size cars.  These engines started out around 350 cubic inches - Ford had a 352, Chevy a 348 and Chrysler a 361) - but the basic engine designs had plenty of room to grow. By 1962 they would be pushed to 406, 409 and 413 cubic inches respectively. Pontiac would also get back into NASCAR in a big way, developing a 421 cubic inch version of their V8 to power their big Catalina. These "big" big-block engines were really overkill on the street but they were necessary to be competitive as NASCAR began pushing the 150mph mark. At those speeds aerodynamics would become important, and suddenly lower rooflines and fastback rear windows would come into style.

1962 would also mark the start of something new from Detroit: the introduction of the Ford Fairlane, their first mid-size car. The Fairlane (a name  previously used on the full size Ford) looked like a 3/4 scale Ford Galaxie (the new name for the full size Fords, and yes, that is how it was spelled), but it was more similar in construction to Ford's Falcon compact car introduced a few years earlier. The car used unit-body construction (opposed to the more traditional body-on-frame design) so that the Fairlane had nearly as much interior space as a Galaxie, while being lighter, cheaper and generally making more sense as basic family transportation. Initially Ford didn't see the mid-size cars as performance vehicles; they would introduce a modern but small and somewhat pedestrian V8 displacing just 221 or 260 cubic inches (officially named the Challenger V8, but eventually to be known as the Windsor engine family) to power the new mid-size - although that would soon change.

At the same time Chrysler had decided (based on some misunderstood rumors out of Chevrolet) to downsize their full-size cars: the 1962 Plymouths and Dodges were roughly the same size and used the same unit-body construction as Ford's new Fairlane.  But Chrysler had no small V8 available, so the new Belvederes and Polaras would be offered with their 361, 383 and even the 413 inch V8 engines. While the downsized Plymouths and Dodges were not exactly pretty (the re-design had been rushed and their styling suffered for it) or popular with buyers, the combination of a smaller, lighter body with a big engine gave them an edge in NASCAR.

1963 was the year that Ford gave up all pretense of following the racing ban; they would adopt a marketing strategy known as Total Performance that would create performance oriented versions of every car model they produced and support practically every sort of racing. While Ford had a strong performance heritage in the U.S., they were a global company and in Europe their cars were considered rather dull. This lead to Henry Ford II attempting to buy Ferrari; when Enzo backed out of the deal Henry would launch Ford into European endurance racing to take revenge. In 1963 no one knew how far this new focus would go to actually putting hairy-chested almost-race-cars on the street.

Ford would respond to the threat posed by the smaller Plymouths by punching their big-block V8 out to 427 cubic inches, developing new heads with bigger valves and reinforcing the block for racing duty. Chevy was in a tighter corner: their top-dog 409 V8 was originally developed as a truck engine and it had been pushed about as far as it could go performance wise. Chevy would develop a radical new canted-valve cylinder head and design an all new block to produce the 427 cubic inch "mystery motor" that bore no resemblance to the then production 409 big block. The new engine was allowed to run in NASCAR with Chevy's promise that it would become a production engine later in the year, but before that happened GM's upper management would decide that their backdoor support for racing was getting out of hand (at the same time Zora Duntov was building Grand Sport Corvettes for road racing and Ralph Nader had started poking around in accident reports for the Corvair). GM would clamp down their no-racing ban and completely pull all support from NASCAR. The "mystery motor" would eventually morph into Chevy's MkIV big-block, the so called "rat motor", but that was still a few years into the future - 1963 and 1964 would be hard times for Chevy and Pontiac based NASCAR teams.

Back in 1960 GM had launched a grand experiment in the form of a family of compact cars that included the Chevy Corvair, Pontiac Tempest, Olds F85 and the Buick Special.  Much like Ford's Falcon, these were small low-priced cars meant to compete with the growing numbers of cheap small cars being imported from Europe, especially the VW Beetle. Unlike the Falcon, GM's entries were all somewhat unconventional: the Corvair was rear-engined with an air-cooled flat-6, the Tempest was front-engine/rear-drive but used a big 4 cylinder engine that was essentially half of Pontiac's big 389 V8, and the Olds and Buick were powered by a tiny all aluminum 215 inch V8 with an optional turbocharger  (eventually GM sold the design and tooling for the little V8 to British Leyland who used it to power the performance versions of various Little British Cars like the TR8 and MGB GT).

With gas hovering around 25 cents a gallon, the technology in the GM compacts was a little too unconventional; buyers stayed away in droves, opting for full-size cars with big V8s.  So in 1964 GM would revamp the Pontiac, Olds and Buick versions into much more conventional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive mid-size cars with traditional body-on-frame construction to compete with the new Fairlane. The Corvair soldiered on as a rear-engined sporty compact (to give the new Mustang a little competition), but Chevy would receive their own version of the mid-size platform in the form of the new Chevelle.

A small (300 inch) V8 would have been more than adequate in these cars, and in keeping with their good-boy image, GM would impose a 330 cubic inch displacement limit. But unlike Chevy with its small-block and big-block, Pontiac, Olds and Buick had only one engine family to draw from, and their engines were all on the large side. That meant the mid-size cars were designed with plenty of room under the hood - which made it easy for Pontiac to develop the GTO package for the Tempest on the sly, replacing their small 326 inch V8 with the 389 inch version of the same engine family.  The muscle car had been born!

Back in the world of NASCAR, Chevy's "mystery motor" would have far reaching consequences. Much of NASCAR's success came down to Bill France making rules to keep the cars based on relatively cheap production vehicles and components. Since 1958 the manufacturers had developed a simple strategy for NASCAR: every year they would push up displacement a bit and tweak the heads and manifolds for a bit more power. The changes were incremental, which meant that the factory backed cars were only slightly faster than the privateers pushing year old hardware around the track. By contrast the "mystery motor" was an all out racing motor that made no sense in a street car; if not for the racing clamp-down Chevy would have most likely produced a few 100 of these engines that would have ended up in a very few special "production" cars that only well connected racers could buy. We can guess that, because that is exactly what Chrysler would do the following year when they developed the new 426 Hemi (the so called elephant motor) and dominated NASCAR in 1964.

Ford responded to the Hemi by developing an overhead cam semi-hemi head for their 427 (the SOHC or cammer motor), at which point Bill France put his foot down and said "no more", banning both the Hemi and Ford's cammer. As a result Chrysler would boycott NASCAR in 1965. Ford wasn't exactly happy with their SOHC motor being banned, but with Chrysler out of the running Ford looked to clean up. Chevy was still officially out of racing, but they would finally put a slightly modified version of the "mystery motor" into production as the "Mark IV" big-block displacing 396 cubic inches; this was enough to give the privately backed Chevy teams a chance to be competitive, especially when the new big-block was fitted to the mid-size Chevelle.

In the automotive world, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. With GTOs flying out of the showrooms, everyone else quickly stuffed the biggest engine that would fit into their mid-size model and added bucket seats and racing stripes. Chevy would put their potent 327 "big" small-block into the Chevelle, followed by the 396 big-block when it arrived a year later. Plymouth and Dodge would go back to making truly full-size cars in 1965, but would keep the downsized models on as mid-sizes, known as the Belevedere and Coronet, with the full range of Chrysler big-block engines available. Ford's Fairlane wasn't designed to hold a big-block so it would have to make do with a hi-performance version of the 289 small-block until 1966 when a redesign allowed the big-block to be shoehorned between the shock towers.

In 1966 Chrysler did the unthinkable: they reworked the massive NASCAR 426 Hemi into a streetable engine and offered it to the public in the mid-size Plymouth and Dodge. NASCAR would un-ban the Hemi but not the SOHC motor, sending Ford into a snit of their own, resulting in Ford pulling support for much of the '66 NASCAR season. Making the loss of NASCAR coverage a little easier for Ford to take was that their GT40s - powered by NASCAR derived 427 engines - were cleaning up in road-racing: they would win 1-2-3 at LeMans that year.

The shock waves of the street Hemi were enormous: suddenly nothing was too extreme when it came to street engines, and even with hefty price tags the gear-heads were lining up to buy them. Chevy would bump their new Mk IV engine up to 427 cubic inches. Ford's 390 that had served for years as their flagship street motor was suddenly not nearly enough; they would bore and stroke it about as far as the block would go (428 cubic inches) and fit NASCAR developed heads to create the Cobra Jet.. Chrysler found itself in an odd position: while the Hemi was undeniably the top-dog, even in "street tune" it was totally impractical as a daily driver. Chrysler needed a cheaper alternative to keep up with Ford and Chevy's attempts to keep up with their Hemi; they would develop the 440 inch version of their big big-block engine - with 3 two-barrel carbs - until it was almost a match for the street Hemi (although too big to run in NASCAR).

Whew! For all of that, I've only made it up to 1966 and I've left out half the story... Let me catch my breath and take another pass through the first half of the 1960s.

1960 had seen all of the Big 3 auto makers launch compact cars.  In addition to the innovative GM compacts, Ford and Chrysler would launch fairly conventional small cars: the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Lancer (soon to be renamed the Dart). All 3 would use unit-body construction and were initially powered by fairly tame inline 6 cylinder engines. But of course that wouldn't last...

In the early 1960s Ford was selling lots of Falcon's, but they were all fairly low end cars for the simple reason that there weren't many options available. When Lee Iaccoca took over as General Manager of Ford in late 1960 squeezing more profit from the Falcon was one of his top priorities. While that would eventually result in the new Mustang (a sporty body wrapped around Falcon mechanicals), in 1963 Ford would drop their new 260 inch small V8 into the Falcon. While the 260 was a big step up from the tiny inline 6 the Falcon had been born with, it was still far from a performance car - but the wheels were set in motion.

In 1962 Chevy had released the Chevy II, a fairly conventional compact car very similar to Ford's Falcon. Naturally soon after Ford offered their small V8 in the Falcon, Chevy would offer their 283 inch small block in the Chevy II.  While Ford's 260 V8 was a fairly low performance engine that added just a bit of spice to the Falcon, the 283 Chevy small-block was a very capable engine with lots of performance parts available - in a Chevy II it was stiff competition for the early mid-size big-block muscle cars.

When the Mustang launched in the spring of 1964, Ford would offer a 289 inch high-performance version of their small-block in both the Mustang and the Falcon. Not to be left out, Chrysler had been developing their own small V8 (the LA engine family) and would offer the smallest 273 inch version in the '64 Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda.  A few months later Chevy would up the ante by dropping their 327 V8 into the Chevy II, giving it true GTO levels of performance. Just one year after the first GTO rolled off the assembly line, the junior muscle-car was born.

By 1967 muscle car engines had gotten about as big as was remotely practical (there would eventually be even bigger engines, but that would be later).  NASCAR and other racing series had settled on 7 liters - 427 cubic inches - as the upper limit on displacement. GM had softened on their racing phobia enough to stretch the production version of the new Chevy big-block to 427 inches, joining the 7-liter club and restoring the competitive balance to NASCAR. But that didn't mean there was nothing new to come...

Along with the displacement limit, there were other big changes in NASCAR that would impact production vehicles. With everyone packing 7 liter engines, the simplest way to go faster was to wrap that big engine with a smaller car. The private Chevy racers had been doing well with the mid-size Chevelle and Plymouth with their Belvedere; Ford really wanted to race their Fairlane, but its unit-body front suspension made a big-block V8 and wide speedway tires a tight fit.

Near the end of the 1966 season Ford (who was still boycotting NASCAR) had the Holman and Moody racing shop graft the front-half of a full-size Galaxie frame onto the Fairlane's unit-body and drop in their standard 427 NASCAR engine, and then convinced Bill France to make this hybrid legal. Bill wanted Ford back on the tracks and probably felt like he owed them a break after allowing Chrysler's Hemi back into the series, and moreover the half-frame car actually made sense for the other teams: they could develop a standard front frame and suspension and re-use the design and parts season after season.  Racing shops like Holman and Moody and Banjo Mathews developed a standard NASCAR chassis around the Fairlane setup and sold it to everyone, a basic design that would last until roughly 2007.

In the early 60s the automotive styling pendulum had swung away from the wretched excess of fins and lots of chrome mouldings and taillights that looked like rocket exhausts, towards boxy slab-sided cars, until by 1966 cars were looking kind of plain and boring. This was doubly true for the first generation of mid-size cars, which the manufacturers saw more as a "transportation appliance" for the bargain minded buyer than something "car guys" would lust over. But the mid-size cars were now running in NASCAR and aerodynamics were important, and after the Buck-Rogers period of the 1950s it finally was the space-age! Detroit styling was about to get swoopy again.

Ford would add a long steep fastback to the Fairlane to create the new Torino model that would quickly appear on NASCAR tracks; Chrysler would redesign the Coronet and Belvedere with subtly flared front and rear fenders and a heavily raked rear window. Dodge would go even further, taking a cue from Ford by lowering the roof and adding a fastback to the Coronet to create the new Charger model. And at GM, the 1968 mid-size A-body for the Chevelle, Tempest/GTO, Cutlass/442 and Skylark/GranSport was like something out of the Jetsons: the cars were all sweeping compound curves with a tail-high stance that gave the impression of a big cat about to pounce.

There was one more twist to the muscle car that would play a big part in cementing its place in automotive history. For the first few years when muscle cars had been new and in demand the dealerships typically slathered on options in the way of sport wheels, tape stripes, deluxe upholstery and AM/FM radios to add a little extra profit. But with everyone building muscle cars (even stuffy Buick would drop a 401 inch V8 into their mid-size Skylark to create the Gran Sport) competition would kick in. The gearhead crowd realized they could buy a slightly used, plain-jane mid-size with the every-day V8 and then bolt on performance parts or swap in a bigger engine and have a car just as mean and nasty as the factory was building. Something we tend to forget is that in the 1960s the reliable life of a car was about 5 years, so 3 year old cars could be had at a steep discount.

As the old saw goes, "if you can't beat them, join them". In 1968 Plymouth would raid their parts bins and put together a 383 inch "small" big-block engine with the big-valve heads and hotter camshaft of its 440 inch big-brother, an engine soon known on the street as the 383 Magnum (that was actually Dodge's name, the official Plymouth name was the Super Commando, but you have to admit the Magnum name was just so much catchier). Plymouth dropped this hot-rodded V8 into a stripped down version of their Belvedere/GTX (even carpet was optional), named it the Road Runner, added a horn with a beep-beep sound straight from Warner Brothers, and gave it a bargain-basement price.

The 383 Magnum was an engine that punched way above its weight: seat of the pants impressions and drag-strip times suggested it was just a tick slower than Chrysler's big 440 V8. With nothing more than headers and slicks (and an experienced driver) the Road Runner was capable of high 13 second quarter mile times.

The Road Runner sold like the proverbial hot-cakes, and quickly inspired other automakers to offer their own budget-muscle-cars.  Dodge would create the Super Bee (basically a twin of the Road Runner),  Oldsmobile would offer the Ralley 350 Cutlass to complement their top end 442, and Pontiac would offer the Judge version of the GTO.  Ford and Chevy already had lower priced compact-based muscle cars available in the form of the Chevy II and Falcon, and they were selling Camaros and Mustangs as fast as the factories could stamp them out, so they made less of an effort; Ford would slap some left-over Cobra emblems on the Fairlane, and Chevy would simply offer their most powerful engines in base model Chevelles. The Baby Boomers were finally reaching new car buying age, and they snapped these budget cars up like free pizza. This would put enough of these cars into circulation to fuel several more generations of high school gear-heads.

About those Mustangs and Camaros... The Mustang was originally conceived  more as a sporty car than a sports car. To be sure, Ford wanted the pony car to compete with the Triumphs and MGs and Porsches that were becoming popular with college kids, but those low-end sports cars were relatively under-powered by American standards - in the lightweight Mustang a small V8 was more than enough to do battle with the Europeans. Ford's high-performance 289, somewhat optimistically rated at 271 horsepower, would carry the flag for the first 2 model years.

But the Mustang was just too successful and too easily copied for Ford to have all the fun, and GM and Chrysler were coming loaded for bear with pony-cars of their own with engine bays designed to hold their biggest big-blocks. When the '67 Camaros and Firebirds and Barracudas debuted the Mustang was ready with a big-block option of its own, although its aging 390 V8 was somewhat out matched and would be quickly upgraded with its 428 inch sibling. While purists don't consider the pony cars true muscle cars (saving that term for mid-size performance cars), these second generation pony cars are at least first cousins.

Truth be told, a big-block pony car puts too much weight over the front axle and too much power to the lightly loaded rear tires, and in the 60s the tires were hard skinny things.  Despite their shorter and unusably small backseats, the pony cars weren't all that much lighter than a mid-size, so the real drag racers stayed away, but when it came to smoky burnouts and sexy-looks, the big-block cars were The Bomb.

Of course as soon as there was more than one brand of pony car there would be a racing series designed just for them: the SCCA would create the Trans Am for the sporty little coupes - a professional racing series with a prestigious Manufacturers Championship. Trans Am had a displacement limit of 5 liters - 305 cubic inches - and a fairly strict rule requiring stock based engines that would lead to the closest thing to race cars to ever to leave a dealership: the Boss 302 Mustang, Z28 Camaro, and TA 'Cuda and Challenger, but that is another story...

1969 was basically a rewind of 1968, except for another NASCAR inspired wrinkle known as the aero-car. While NASCAR had already taken its first big steps away from racing truly stock cars, it still required stock body panels. With everyone limited to the same size engines and running the same size cars, Ford would look to gain an advantage in aerodynamics. Ford would take its fastback Torino, stretch the nose and rework the grille to reduce lift and drag, and then build a limited number of these cars to meet the NASCAR definition of a production vehicle. The Torino Talladega was named after the NASCAR super-speedway in Alabama, making its intentions clear: the new less-than-pretty body work was all about speed.

Dodge would answer with aero-modifications for its Charger, creating the Charger 500 (probably named for the 500 copies built to meet the NASCAR rules), and when that wasn't enough they would add a massive wing and nose-cone to create the swoopiest of the aero-cars, the Charger Daytona (the winged Plymouth Superbird was essentially a twin of the Charger). While it was amazing that the aero cars were sold to the public, they weren't any faster than the more mundane models they were based on and a lot of them sat around in dealer showrooms. NASCAR would quickly draft new rules effectively outlawing the aero-cars, and the experiment would end after just 1 year.

Which brings us to 1970, the last gasp for the muscle car era, but of course no one knew that then. Developing new cars and engines typically takes years, so the plans for 1970 had been set in 1966 at a time when cars were still getting bigger, Chrysler had just launched the ridiculous 426 Hemi and CanAm racing (with unlimited displacement) was challenging NASCAR in popularity.

Ford had been developing two completely new high-performance capable engine lines: the 351 "Cleveland" small-block and 429/460 inch big-block (the new engine lines had no sexy names, officially they were referred to as the 335 and 385 engine families). All of the GM divisions would stretch their existing big-blocks to 7.5 liters (454 or 455 inches). Chevy would tweak the heads and camshaft on their small-block, already up to 350 cubic inches, to produce the fabled LT1 engine to better compete with Ford's new Cleveland motor.  Chrysler continued on with their massive 440 big-block and street Hemi, but they would release a high-performance version of their 340 small-block for use in their new Cuda and Challenger pony cars, an engine that was the equal of the new Ford and Chevy small-blocks.

Strangely, Ford would drop a high-performance version of its new 429 into a limited version of the Mustang to classify it as a production engine for NASCAR purposes, creating the 429 Boss Mustang.  On paper the Boss big-block's special semi-hemi heads made it more than a match for the Chrysler Hemi and 427 Chevy, but from the factory the street version was in a fairly mild state of tune and with so few available it never got the development work needed to realize its horsepower potential.

On the sheet metal front, the Torino would get still swoopier lines and become a bit more Chevelle-like. GM would update the Camaro and Firebird with a restyle similar to their curvy A-bodies but more so; in 1970 these cars literally looked like space-ships. And of course Chrysler would roll out its new pony-car twins.  Under their aggressive  skins, the Cuda and Challenger were essentially shortened mid-size cars with lots of room under the hood. You have to wonder what Chrysler had planned as a follow up to their Hemi (Chrysler had once dabbled with the idea of a 4-valve per cylinder, DOHC version of the Hemi).

Whew. For all of that, I've still left lots of stuff out.  I've pretty much ignored drag racing and street racing. I haven't mentioned AMC or Mercury's forays with muscle cars and pony cars, and I've glossed over lots of niche subjects.  It is amazing how much happened in those few years, but hopefully I've given you a taste for those times.

The rest of the story will have to wait for part 3...

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Full disclosure: I was born in 1960, so I only remember the later half of the 1960s, and a lot of that revolved around the goings on at Third Ward Elementary school.  My Dad was a mechanic at a Ford dealership, and I have fond memories of handing Dad wrenches and asking him non-stop questions about how engines worked when he was working on our car in the driveway. For practical purposes the 1970s weren't all that different than the 1960s - especially in the small town I grew up in - so I count myself lucky to have been there for at least part of the Muscle Car Era.

Again, if I've got something wrong, drop me a line.


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 dnschmtz@gmail.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 thrown 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!

Don

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?

Don