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!”
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.”
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
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.”
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
…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.
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.
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.