“Kick the hell out of the status quo.” -Motto of Ed Cole, master automotive engineer
If you are a car enthusiast, you know who Edward Nicholas Cole is - the man who directed the invention of the small-block V8 engine to power the 1955 Chevy passenger car. We‘re not just talking about some one-off racing engine either, or something relevant only to halcyon automotive age of the 1950s. Oh no.
According to Larry Carley, blogger and car fanatic, Chevrolet has produced about 90 million small block V8s since 1955 - following an evolutionary arc that took it from 265 cubic inches and 110 horsepower in 1955 to 427 cubic inches (7.0 liters) and more than 500 horsepower for today‘s smokin‘ Corvette LS7. “That‘s a huge number of engines, probably more than any other engine that's ever been built - an amazing record of longevity,” said Carley.
Think about this for minute. Cole - killed tragically in a light plane crash in 1977 while flying solo in the rain and fog on his approach to an airport in Mendon, Michigan - single-handedly revolutionized the design of the V8 automotive engine on the one hand while also creating a platform that could be improved upon for decades to come. Quite an accomplishment for a Michigan native born on a farm in 1909 who originally wanted to be a lawyer, yet found his instinctive - some say obsessive - need to tinker with things drove him into vehicle engineering.
I bring Cole up because I wonder where the trucking version of him exists today - indeed, where a near-aproximation of him might be found anywhere in the automotive world of the 21st century. I mean, he‘s the “classic” engineer, if you ask me: a guy so consumed with building something new, something better, something that breaks the mold, that he kept a prototype of the ‘55 Chevy and his V8 in his garage at home, tinkering with it endlessly on weekends and at night.
Back then, GM‘s executives were all in his corner, too, giving him almost carte blanche to create an engine that would blow the doors off the competition. The ranks of Chevrolet‘s engineers ballooned from 850 to 3,000 between 1952 and 1954 as Cole directed the creation of the small block V8 (a process vividly chronicled in the late, great David Halberstam‘s book “The Fifties.”)
That kind of engineering derring-do is needed today, I think, as trucking grapples with the need to lower emissions, improve fuel economy, maintain power and performance, while in many cases burning non-petroleum fuels. That‘s a tall order, but one I think the Cole‘s of the world would relish and, perhaps, achieve.
Cole proved a classic in other ways, too - a break-the-rules, bull-in-the-china shop type of personality, totally focused on building great cars ... and then fighting on to make them better. And then there‘s the sad epilogue to his GM career - the 1959 Corvair, a “small car” project that got hamstrung by the same GM brass that once backed his engineering efforts to the hilt. For these executives in many ways become focused solely on profits and stock prices, not good products.
“The issue ... was nothing less than the entire purpose of American industry: whether it was to make the best product possible or whether it was merely to make the maximum profit possible each year,” Halberstam wrote. “The two, as it turned out, were not compatible - not by a longshot.”
Cost cutting condemned Cole‘s Corvair design, as the car‘s power overwhelmed the suspension system. He wanted to add a stabilizing system to the rear end - something that would‘ve cost a mere $14 to $15 more per car back then - but GM nixed it. The car -- though now considered a classic -- proved disastrous for GM.
GM executive Harlow Curtice‘s comments to Cole about the Corvair sums up, I think, why American automotive engineering went off track - and would take a generation or two to fully recover. “This is amazing - there‘s as much headroom in here as a Buick,” Curtice said. Then, according to Halberstam, he paused for a long moment. “Take some of the headroom out. We can‘t have a little car like this with as much room as a big car.”
Cole‘s iron will didn‘t help matters, either, as he forged ahead with the Corvair despite major engineering compromises that made it difficult to handle, especially at high speeds and around sharp turns. Ralph Nader, as we all know, used the Corvair to humble GM and put product safety on the map, but GM learned the wrong lesson from this experience, said Halberstam, “convinced that their great mistake had not been in trying to do the car too cheaply, thus making it a dangerous vehicle, but in bothering to produce a small car in the first place.”
Still, the engineering acumen of Cole - despite his flaws - would be well used today, I think. And who knows? Maybe there is indeed a later-day Cole (make or female, I stress) waiting in the wings out there to lead the industry in new and perhaps surprising directions.