MY TEN YEARS OF CAR-TESTING (Mar, 1956)
MY TEN YEARS OF CAR-TESTING
Here are the fabulous hits and the colossal flops of Uncle Tom’s first decade as America’s “Mr. Car Test.”
By Tom McCahill
LAST MONTH we completed ten years of car-testing. More than 250 tests ago, in the February 1946 issue, Mechanix Illustrated published the first automobile test articles ever seen in America. Selling this series was tougher than trying to juggle pyramids as no other publication had ever had the guts to write both the good and the bad about Detroit. Since we started this controversial hassel, imitators have risen up like, mosquitoes in a tropical swamp and more guys have stolen our car-testing idea than you could find in all the Federal pens.
Selling the articles to MI was only the first step, perhaps the easiest. The hard deal was selling the manufacturers the idea of letting me run tests on their first post-war offerings. I was bluntly told by several, “We test our own cars and aren’t interested in outside opinions.” With hundreds of thousands of post-war orders in hand immediately after V-Day, many of the manufacturers were as independent as a bowl of garlic and their interest in Tom McCahill could easily be termed static. So, in order to keep this series from dying at birth, I donned my Liars’ Club suit and descended on the City of Steel Stampings in the guise of a photographer.
I took endless pictures of company big-shots smiling happily with their new cars. After that I would persuade the proud executive that I had to take the car for a short run into the country to get more flattering picture backgrounds. On these junkets I was usually accompanied by a company public relations man, whom I contrived to lose in one way or another while I borrowed the car “for a moment” and forgot to come back for several hours. Once I had managed to get one of the proud beauties alone, I drove hell out of it and the results were the first professional automobile tests ever conducted for an American publication. Sometimes I had a little explaining to do, like the time when I was towed back to the factory at the end of a rope with a completely blown engine, or again when a roof got slightly flat on top from trying the car’s upside-down approach.
The 1946 Ford was the first car we tested. In the same issue we ran the first Buick test, which was done in an automobile I drove out of a freight car in the New York Central yards in New York. The Ford piece opened the door for later tests on Chevrolet and Plymouth. The Buick story helped me crack the higher-priced field. As Hugh Ferry, former President of Packard and Chairman of the Board, told me just a few days ago, “Everyone in the industry hated your guts but we all respected you.” This was one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever had. When the copyists came along with their car tests several years later, the road had been smoothed for them by our articles.
The last ten years have seen a 20-foot shelf filled with automotive history. Quality has remained the same with some cars and has gone down with some others. New makes have been born and gone out of existence. The one thing that has continued to rise is the price. I bought one of the first 100 post-war Fords sold, in October 1945. This was loaded with extras, including a then-deluxe heater and radio, and it was the most plush Tudor model. I paid full retail price in New York, $1,184.00 delivered, including city sales tax. Today, that sum of money would just about get you a good outboard motor or a sharp team of harness goats.
The post-war era saw many attempts to pluck the billion-dollar bud from a car-starved market by men who never manufactured automobiles before. In 1945 and ’46 any guy with a slightly clean blueprint and a hazy idea for building a car immediately got thousands of volunteer backers who sank basketloads of money into these ventures. The most notorious and publicized company of them all was the famous Tucker. Hundreds of dealers signed up to handle this still-unborn car and thousands of dollars were invested in a vehicle which was heralded as the first new thing in transportation since they wheeled a wooden horse into Troy. Everything from its Cyclops Eye and streamlined body to its aircraft engine in the rear was all new.
We brought you the test of the Tucker in August 1948 and believe me, it was a lot closer to being off the ground and a success than anyone may think. When I tested this car, and I tested several of them in the spring of ’48, it was the best-performing automobile in America, by far. Despite some fantastic yellow journalism by some well-known publications, the Tucker car was in production, the assembly line was moving and they were building cars. I saw all this with my own eyes. The history of what really sank the Tucker will be truthfully written some day.
Another car that almost got off the ground but didn’t quite make it was the Davis three-wheeled car, the test of which appeared on these pages in August 1948. This was a tremendous-performing, agile car, designed on the original model built by Frank Kurtis in 1941 for the late Joel Thome, who killed himself and a lot of other people in 1955 by crashing his plane into a Hollywood apartment house. Thorne sold the original model to Davis, who started manufacturing in Van Nuys, Calif. Unfortunately for Davis, getting into production was too slow and the money went too fast.
Back in August of ’46 we brought you the test of the famous front-wheel-drive Kaiser, a copy of the Citroen system, that overnight became the rear-wheel-drive Kaiser. This car now has vanished, as have the Frazer we tested at the same time, the Crosley we first tested in July 1947 and a number of other cars, all of which flared like shooting stars on the horizon, only to disappear in an eye-blink. Among them were the Keller, Bobbicar, Playboy, Motorette and Jeepster. The last one to hit the dust seems to be the Aero Willys, which was around for several years.
The most successful new car of all the post-war offerings was the Nash Rambler, the story of which we brought you in May 1950, based on tests made in the fall of ’49. I was the first person, aside from a company official, ever to drive a Rambler much less test one. Back in ’48, the British MG started the sports car ball rolling and it has been snowballing ever since. Our test of the then-current TC model ran in the January 1949 issue and this write-up of the car, Mr. J. S. Inskip the distributor told me, started an avalanche of interest in foreign sports cars that hasn’t shown any sign of letting up to date.
In 1950, Briggs Cunningham brought a standard Cadillac 61 coupe to the Le Mans race and finished tenth with it. Immediately afterward, Cunningham started building his own Cunningham cars which swept all sports car racing in this country for several years. He barely missed winning the Le Mans race on two occasions, though he bagged a couple of third places. Cunningham did more for American sports cars than all others combined. Unfortunately, after five years he has deemed it advisable to shut his factory. The Cunningham car made its permanent niche in race history but it is no longer being built. We brought you the first story about the cars and the first personality yarn about Briggs himself (“Meet Mr. Sports Car”; October 1953 MI).
The performance of stock automobiles has risen tremendously in the last ten years and here are a few for-instances. My 1946 Ford, one of the hottest cars selling in the medium and low price range, could just eke out 84 mph after a helluva tune-up. Its 0-60 time was 21.5 seconds. A 1956 Ford can do over 100 mph in a breeze and will go from 0-60 in 11.8 seconds. In 1951 I personally won the National Speed Trial Championship in the first V8 Chrysler ever seen, three days before its official introduction, averaging 100.13 mph with a top speed of 104. The interesting point is that though this was just five years ago, this V8 Chrysler was the only car to top 100 mph. Four years later, in 1955, better than 90 per cent of the more than 300 American cars competing at Daytona topped the 100 mph mark by many miles an hour, with the Chrysler 300’s getting up to 130 mph with a 127 average.
As recently as 1952, my Mark VII Jaguar set a world’s record for sedans on Daytona Beach at 100.97 average, which wouldn’t even get you tenth place in today’s [Continued on page 198] cheapest production car trials, just four years later. The MG that fathered all the sports car interest dwindled in popularity, due mostly to the fact that its performance didn’t keep up with the times. For example, my MG still holds the record on Daytona Beach for MG’s, at 79.86, which any fast kid on a bike today should be able to top.
Hopping-up and hot-rodding, as it used to be, does not seem to have the appeal that it once had when we ran the MI Ford story back in February 1950. With Andy Granatelli of Chicago, we took a standard 1949 Ford Tudor sedan and gently hopped it up, showing the readers each step we made and exactly how much it cost. This was one of our biggest stories of all. That MI Ford could do 0-60 in ten seconds flat and had a top of 112 mph.
In late ’54, Ford introduced the Thunder-bird after its rival, Chevrolet, had come out with the Corvette just a year before. As this goes to press over 16,000 ‘Birds have been sold since introduction. My Thunderbird, in winning the American Production Sports Car Division at Daytona with top speed of 126.9 and an average of 124.4 (topping all the Jaguars and other foreign sports cars selling for less than $5,000) unfortunately ripped a big hole in the foreign sports car balloon. The ‘Bird was America’s first major attempt at building a sharp two-seater in many years and though its brakes and suspension were not made for tight road race circuits, it is an extremely fast car in a turnpike hassel and less than $100 spent on AirLifts and shocks could make it as solid as a rock. The tiny Volkswagen which we plugged years ago in 1950, while other “motoring journalists” were looking down their noses at them, is now the most popular import in the country, and the journalists are all raving.
From 1948 to March ’54 I was aided and abetted in every test by my Labrador retriever, Joe, who really loved speed and fine cars. Twice he was the official American team mascot at Le Mans where his picture appeared in all the newspapers. After his death, Joe’s widow Dinah got anew husband named Pinney who is all hunter and not interested in automobiles. One of their pups looks exactly like Joe.
In a general way the styling of today’s cars was originated by Studebaker in 1946 with the introduction of the notch-back sedan, a profile design that has been copied by all manufacturers. For several years after Tucker went out of business, other makers picked the Tucker’s bones clean and swiped not only its styling but its outstanding features. But the drawing-board kids of Detroit can take a sweeping bow for such monstrosities as wrap-around windshields, tubeless tires, chrome of water color quality and the greatest collection of undisciplined rattles known to man. Brakes are much better, payments are longer, but the quality in general is not as good as when I tested the first post-war cars. In those days, dime store instruments, cheap paint and rattles were something no factory would put up with.
Most of our cars are now fantastically fast compared to their counterparts of ten years ago, and starting with this year, manufacturers are on a safety kick campaign based on meaningless statistics compiled by brainy non-drivers who can tell you what your chances for survival are if you run head-on into a light pole at 20 mph but who look aghast when you ask, as I have, “What do you do when you go into a slide at 70 mph?” This Ivory Tower approach to safety is better than nothingâ€” just about. Stock car doors still have to be strapped to keep from flying open in races. But the Detroit experts’ pitch for safety belts is goodâ€”one we’ve been plugging on these pages for over eight years, or just about six years before they thought it up.
Of the 1946 cars introduced in ’45 less than 15 per cent had automatic transmission. Today, these figures have been reversed and an automatic transmission is as standard as sour cream on pot cheese. Air-conditioning started coming into its own in 1955 and I predict that by 1960 it will be as common on all cars as heaters were right after World War II.
This has been a great ten years. MI Editor Bill Parker has asked me to predict what the car of 1966 will be like. Why? After all, you’ll need a helicopter to get over those H-bomb craters.
Favorite McCahillisms These comments by Uncle Tom about cars he has tested over the years have made Mi’s readers chortle loudest. For more, turn to The Editor’s Workbench, page 12.
Some small foreign engines wouldn’t pull a greased kitten out of bed. . .
The car was as stripped as a newborn oyster in a hurricane. . .
This little egg crate is like a box of matches exploding in your hand. . .
. . . It’s rugged, tough and reliable as the Rock of Gibraltarâ€”and just about as fast. . .
. . . about as exciting as a pocketful of wet pancakes. . .
The brakes are excellent. . . capable of tossing Granny right through the windshield, if you time it right. . .
… accelerates like a homesick gazelle with a tail full of wasps. . .
. . . it vibrated and thundered like the butterflies in a Skid Row bum’s stomach on Sunday morning. . .
Sliding out the ashtray was as effortless as pulling a comb through my hair. . .
. . . fast enough to keep the flies off Aunt Nellie’s head as you whip over to the pool parlor. . .
A car in which hitting 110 is as easy as getting arrested. . .
. . . as smooth as an eel in a bucket of castor oil.. .
The instrument panel is as easy to read as a Marilyn Monroe calendar…
… a one-of-a-kind deal, like striped hair or a six-legged horse. . .
I felt as secure as a guy going over Niagara Falls in a canoe…
. . . put together like a Chinese laundry man’s version of a Western sand-