The Greatness of Alex Tremulis, Part 3: Streamlining and Speed Records

The Greatness of Alex Tremulis, Part 3: Streamlining and Speed Records

Con­clud­ed from Part 2. My Tremulis piece was pub­lished in full in The Auto­mo­bile, March 2020. 

Alex Tremulis in the 1950s

When Kaiser left Wil­low Run, Alex Tremulis decid­ed it was time to work for a com­pa­ny with a future. In Dear­born, Ford Chief of Design George Walk­er hired him with an unchanged job descrip­tion: chief of advanced styling. There he joined Bob Thomas, who wrote warm­ly of him in 2008. “Alex thought he was back in the Army Air Corps, turn­ing out scores of 3/8th scale mod­els of futur­is­tic things like fly­ing cars and nuclear-pow­ered vehi­cles. It was here that I went to work for him, doing a full-size lay­out of the Volante fly­ing car. We formed a great per­son­al friend­ship.”

Alex con­tin­ued to pur­sue aero­dy­nam­ics, but the indus­try fix­at­ed on ever longer and wider blunderbusses—far from the type of car he deemed sen­si­ble. At a styling meet­ing in 1954, he told George Walk­er, “I see a bomb on the hori­zon and its name is Volk­swa­gen.” Walk­er expunged his com­ments from the min­utes, say­ing that if they were heard by high­er man­age­ment he’d be laughed out of the Design Cen­ter. Chrome and glitz were the order of the day.

He kept at it. He made a sketch of the plug-ugly 1958 Oldsmo­bile, adding musi­cal notes and a clef sym­bol to the four chrome bars on its hideous rear fend­ers. “I thought this sum­ma­rized the sit­u­a­tion per­fect­ly,” he said. “We design­ers were about the suf­fer the fruit of the seeds we had helped plant. The sins of the fore­fa­thers vis­it­ed upon…the fore­fa­thers!”

La Tosca

Alex Tremulis was one of the few Fifties design­ers who owned up to their sins in the age of chrome-plat­ed extrav­a­gance. “My own con­tri­bu­tion to utter excess was ‘La Tosca,’ in 1955. I named it for the Puc­ci­ni opera. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Alex Tremulis
Alex Tremulis dis­ap­proved of La Tosca’s gooey styling, which influ­enced the for­get­table 1958 Lin­colns. “The sins of the fore­fa­thers,” he cracked, “vis­it­ed upon…the fore­fa­thers!” (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

La Tosca was a 3/8ths scale mod­el which ran with remote con­trol. Its objec­tive was to demon­strate the ease of chang­ing body shells. Packard, fall­en on hard times, was talk­ing to Ford about just such a Packard on the Lin­coln chas­sis.

Accord­ing to Jim and Cheryl Far­rell in Ford Design Depart­ment Con­cepts and Show­cars, La Tosca was “an exer­cise to show stu­dents in the Advanced Stu­dio how hard it was, even for pro­fes­sion­al design­ers, to design a car.” Work­ing with Romeyn Ham­mond, Alex gave it rad­i­cal cant­ed rear fend­ers and a radio-con­trol sys­tem that could oper­ate the car from a mile away. He revived his hid­den head­lamp idea from the Chrysler Thun­der­bolt, adding a plex­i­glass roof canopy. This must have been like an oven on sum­mer days. It was a slip­pery, chrome-plat­ed vision of the 1950s. Some of its styling ideas were trans­lat­ed to the pro­duc­tion 1958 Lin­colns. Too bad for them.

The pub­lic final­ly stopped buy­ing fla­grant assaults on the taste of human­i­ty, but the dam­age had been done. By then, the home­ly VW Bee­tle Alex had warned about was tak­ing a seri­ous bite of the U.S. mar­ket. So was upstart Amer­i­can Motors, whose Ram­bler was mak­ing inroads against what AMC called “the Detroit dinosaurs.”

Ford Thunderbird Mexico

Alex Tremulis
Ford Mex­i­co, a 3/8th scale fiber­glass two-seater con­ceived with the Mex­i­can Road Race in mind. The aero­dy­nam­ic body and full under-pan would have giv­en it a remark­able top speed. But then Detroit stopped spon­sor­ing auto rac­ing. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

The Mex­i­co, con­ceived as a pos­si­ble entry in the Mex­i­can Road Race, was a 3/8ths-scale fiber­glass two-seater. Alex Tremulis made it as slip­pery as pos­si­ble. What it lacked in horse­pow­er, Alex said, was bal­anced by its aero­dy­nam­ic body, min­i­mal front end, fins for high-speed sta­bil­i­ty and a Tuck­er-like full under-pan. “When the mod­el was test­ed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land wind tun­nel,” recalled Bob Thomas, “it was pro­ject­ed to attain 200 mph with just 240 horse­pow­er.”

Ford Gyron

One of Alex Tremulis’s last bright ideas at Ford was the jet-pow­ered Gry­on, a tan­dem two-wheel­er bal­anced by a gyro­scope. Bob Thomas, who also worked on it, said they used two retractable out­rig­ger wheels to keep the car upright at rest. The Gyron dat­ed to 1956, but Tremulis revived it to improve on GM’s bub­ble­top 1959 Fire­bird III con­cept car. Ford cred­it­ed the styling to Syd Mead, was also on the project. Thomas remem­bered that

Alex Tremulis
Tan­dem two-seater Gyron was Tremulis’s answer to the bub­ble­top Pon­ti­ac Fire­bird III con­cept car in 1959. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

…the Gyron had its start in an Army-Navy Sur­plus store. Alex bought a toy gyro­scope and tied it to a bar with two tan­dem wheels, which caused all sorts of com­mo­tions at Ford Styling. He would pow­er up the gyro­scope with air pres­sure from the stu­dio air lines, give the thing a push, and it would go straight as an arrow to the oppo­site wall and crash. He said he was demon­strat­ing the sta­bil­i­ty of the gyro prin­ci­pal, and how it would work on a full-size, two-wheel car—typical Tremulis show­man­ship.

Only semi-retirement

Alex con­tin­ued to pur­sue the gyro-car con­cept at Ford and after. Arguably his ideas about aero­dy­nam­ics and coef­fi­cients of drag were twen­ty or so years ahead of their time. Today they are all impor­tant, but at Ford in the Six­ties, it just didn’t seem a way to go. In 1963, Ford sacked him. He spent too much time away from the Design Cen­ter, they said, lec­tur­ing any­body who would lis­ten, from engi­neers to stu­dents, on the virtues of stream­lin­ing.

When I met him in the ear­ly 1970s, Alex and Chrissie were in Ven­tu­ra, Cal­i­for­nia, where they’d moved in 1965. My brief was Kaiser-Fraz­er, sub­ject of my first book. With every delight, Alex arranged for me to meet three K-F styl­ists he admired: Buzz Grisinger, Bob Robil­lard and Herb Weissinger Grace­ful­ly he bowed out of the con­ver­sa­tion and let his old friends ram­ble. He was always gen­er­ous about his col­leagues. At Brig­gs, when he first saw the 1941 Packard Clip­per, he knew imme­di­ate­ly who had designed it. “I rec­og­nized the skilled hand of Dutch Dar­rin.” Odd­ly for a car design­er, unless prod­ded, he didn’t talk much about him­self.

When he did com­ment, it was often to tell a fun­ny sto­ry. He once had the idea of set­ting a new Land Speed Record—for motor homes! He arranged for the tri­al at Bon­neville, and built the vehi­cle to his own spec. The body was a stan­dard box, mount­ed on a front-wheel-dri­ve Oldsmo­bile Toron­a­do chas­sis, with its 395 hp, 7-litre V-8. “I shaved off every wind-defy­ing item on the body,” he said. “Then I put the ped­al down and turned off the air con­di­tion­ing. I thought I could hit 100, but had to set­tle for 97.6.” The record still stands—nobody else has felt com­pelled to try for it.

More aerodynamics

Alex Tremulis
Gyro­naut X-1 held the motor­cy­cle Land Speed Record from 1965 to 1970. L-R: AMA Pres­i­dent Earl Flan­ders, dri­ver Bob Lep­pan, Alex Tremulis and mechan­ic Jim Brud­flodt. (For more on this remark­able con­cept, vis­it Gyronautx1.com)

 

In Ven­tu­ra he designed a wind-cheat­ing body for a fleet motor­cy­cle, the Gyro­naut X-1, with a chrome-moly roll cage. Pow­ered by two 650cc Tri­umph TR6 Tro­phy engines, Gyro­naut set the motor­cy­cle land speed record of 245.667 mph at Bon­neville. The record held until 1970. Steve Tremulis, Alex’s nephew, restored the Gyro­naut in 2013.

Alex was a con­sul­tant the Indus­tri­al Design­ers Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca in Ann Arbor, Tran­sitread Fed­er­al Engi­neer­ing of Detroit, and Novi Race Cars in South Bend. For Goodyear Tire in Ohio, he designed the Wing­foot Express rock­et car. For NASA, who per­haps remem­bered his Dyna-Soar re-entry vehi­cle from the ear­ly 1960s, he sub­mit­ted a pro­pos­al for a two-wheeled gyro-sta­bi­lized Lunar Rover. But the space agency opt­ed for some­thing more con­ven­tion­al.

As a con­sul­tant to Sub­aru, Alex cre­at­ed the X-100 con­cept car, capa­ble of 100 mph and 150 miles per gal­lon. For pro­duc­tion, he designed the 1978-94 Sub­aru BRAT (‘Bi-dri­ve Recre­ation­al All-ter­rain Trans­porter,’ called ‘284’ in the UK). This four-wheel-dri­ve coupe-util­i­ty was Subaru’s entry in the light-truck mar­ket.

We all remember Alex

Alex Tremulis was a love­ly man. Accom­plished as he was, he was nev­er too busy to help an aspir­ing writer or design­er. His friend Bob Thomas recalled a touch­ing scene at the Los Ange­les Motor Show. A teacher of the blind approached, and asked if her stu­dents could touch his mod­els. “A scary thought for Alex, who all his life appealed to the visu­al sens­es,” Thomas wrote. “But he took each child’s hand in turn, guid­ing them as they touched the mod­els, show­ing them how the smooth sur­faces improved the aero­dy­nam­ics of each car. God blessed Alex that day. Sad­ly, the expe­ri­enced pre­fig­ured his own, for one of the strokes toward the end of his life left Alex him­self with­out his eye­sight.”

He died at 77 in 1991, mourned by all who knew him. Many who have only read of him admire his genius, his regard for col­leagues, his wit and will­ing­ness to give of him­self. Alex was him­self a kind of Land Speed Record. And a man nev­er dies as long as he is remem­bered.

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