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Aero mods - 1930's style
Posted Tuesday, October 3/06 in General
Harry Stevinson was decades ahead of his time. In 1933 at the tender age of 17, he put his self-taught mechanical & design talents to work fabricating a streamlined one-off car that was both faster and more efficient than the Model T Ford it was based on.
I learned about Harry and his car from his son, Tom, who lives near the same town I live in. Tom and I sail together in the local sailboat races, and the topic of his dad's Model T came up one day in the marina parking lot when he commented on some modification I had made to the Blackfly.
What emerged is a fascinating story along similar lines as the aero-modified Metro XFi - only this story took place 60 years earlier...
Driving prodigy ...
It wasn't just Harry's design skills that were ahead of their time; he was a driving prodigy too. At just 11 years old, he - rather than his dad - drove the family car on a trip through the Rocky Mountains, because he was better at it!
But the story of the streamlined Model T took place in Bashaw, Alberta - a little bit east and a few years later than that family trip through the Rockies.
In 1933, Harry got himself a junked Model T, which he initially put on the road in the same form as other T's its age. Befitting the tough economic times, many of the parts he used to rebuild & repair it came from the "nuisance ground" (dump), paid for through barter. Labour was mainly manual - e.g. spending 15 hours cutting a hardened steel drive shaft by hand.
Streamlined motivation ...
Harry's car didn't remain "stock" for long. Based on his interest in & knowledge of airplanes (sparked partly by the antics of the barnstormers of the era), the young man evaluated conventional car design and said to himself, "this isn't good enough!"
Clearly, Harry understood the role and importance of aerodynamics, which led him to the obvious conclusion: cars should be streamlined too - both for higher speed, and better fuel efficiency.
And he achieved both goals. Compared to the Model T's top speed of 45 mph (72 km/h), the streamlined & modified car would go 70 (113 km/h). Its fuel economy was also improved: 45 imperial mpg (38 mpg US) compared to the Model T's 30-36 imperial mpg (25-30 mpg US) - though obviously not at 70 mph!
Some rough estimates (Thanks Mighty Mira) indicate that Harry managed to reduce his car's CdA to just 26% of that of a stock Model T.
Beneath the skin ...
But the improvements to the car's performance didn't come exclusively from better aerodynamics. Harry also made a fundamental change to the driveline to squeeze every last bit from the Ford engine's 20 horsepower.
He did it by mounting a Chevrolet transmission inline - backwards - after the original Ford unit. This gave him 7 forward gears, and 5 reverse. Of course not all the gear combinations would have been practical or even usable, but with some experience and forethought, the driver could pick the best one for the job.
Stopping the whole works was also done using the transmission's service (shaft) brake and gears rather than the stock Model T's rear drum brakes. Their brake shoes tended to get worn down quickly anyway in the prairie dust & mud.
Custom body ...
Of course the car's most striking modification was its custom made, boat-tailed body:
At first, there appears to be one large aerodynamic oversight: the absense of shaped fenders or streamlined wheel pants. But this wasn't an oversight - it was a conscious decision. It's easy to forget that we haven't always had the luxury of paved roads to travel on. In fact, at that time the car was built, there were only 10 miles of paved roads in all of Alberta. Fenders would have just accumulated mud, and the thick gumbo would have hardened in them, locking the wheels or hindering the suspension.
Esteemed company ...
I found it very interesting that Harry Stevinson's streamlined Ford was created around the same time as a number of other pioneering aerodynamic cars, including the first aerodynamic Tatra T77 (1934), the Dymaxion car (1933), and the Chrysler Airflow.
Esteemed company indeed.
Untimely demise ...
What ever became of this unique machine?
Harry drove his creation for a several years before selling it. Unfortunately, the new owner tangled with a train, and while he survived, the car didn't: it was spun around in the crash and lost both its nose and shapely tail.
It was an unfortunate end for a remarkable car.
Harry's interest in automobile efficiency didn't end with the aero T. In later years, he equipped an Oldsmobile with a basic fuel economy meter: a graduated glass cylinder (in the cabin) which fed fuel to the carburetor. He used it to monitor fuel consumption on the road.
Harry was also an early adopter of the original VW Beetle. Even then, he was aware of its missed potential: despite its relatively good fuel efficiency (for its time), his son Tom remembers Harry explaining that its poor aerodynamics held it back.
His sheer inventiveness and obvious interest in aerodynamics foreshadowed later accomplishments.
After earning an electrical engineering degree at the University of Alberta, he eventually ended up working in the Canadian National Research Council's Flight Research Laboratory, where he was credited with inventing the "Crash Position Indicator" (CPI) - one of the first reliable aircraft emergency beacons.
The CPI helped rescuers locate a downed plane. It had to be ejected at or just prior to impact, and was aerodynamically designed to fly clear of the airplane, decelerate, and fall gently to earth (or water, where it floated) to preserve its fragile radio components (think glass tubes). It was widely adopted, and saved lives. It was even nominated as one of Canada's 50 greatest inventions by the CBC.
More about Harry Stevinson:
- Extraordinary Inventor - U of A Engineer Magazine
- The Crash Position Indicator - Aviation Safety - IEEE Canada
- The Greatest Canadian Invention - CBC
Related Links & Resources ...
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