Automotive History: The Longest Left Turn in History

1957 ford bonneville car

Besides just building cars, one of the primary functions of an automobile manufacturer is to sell their product by setting it apart from the competition.  If doing so necessitates something truly creative, that is even better.  In this never ending quest to win market share, automobile manufacturers have performed some rather amazing tests of durability.

Over the years, Ford has had several such methods of setting themselves apart.  During September 1956, Ford spent nineteen days breaking 458 speed and endurance records that truly did set them apart.

1956 Dodge Full Line Folder-02

It started with the 1956 model year.  In their effort to stand out, Chrysler Corporation sent a new 1956 Dodge to Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, for speed and endurance testing.  Hardly a slouch by any measure, this Dodge would achieve a number of highly impressive speed and endurance goals in its fifteen days of running, such as averaging 109.48 mph for a distance of 4,000 miles and 105.39 mph for four consecutive days.  This Dodge would ultimately travel over 30,000 miles at an average speed of 93.51 mph.

1957 Ford Fairlane-06-07

For the 1957 model year, Ford was introducing an entirely new line of cars.  These cars personified the “longer, lower, and wider” theme so prevalent at the time in North America.  Wanting to tap into some the excitement created by Dodge, as well as negate their publicity, Ford upped the ante with their plan.

1957 Ford Fairlane-06-07 - Version 2

Taking three pre-production prototypes built in June 1956, Ford prepared each for extended, high speed use.  Of the three, there was one convertible and two enclosed models.  The yellow and black 1957 Ford Fairlane seen at the top is one of the two steel roofed cars used at Bonneville.

1957 ford bonneville 3

Motivation for these cars was Ford’s 312 cubic inch V8 engines topped by two, four barrel carburetors.  A few sources indicated the possibility of multiple engine outputs among the cars, leading one to wonder if perhaps the convertible had only a single four-barrel carburetor.  Despite any variations in engine output, each car packed a three speed manual transmission.

In an effort to nullify any charges of bias, all testing was conducted and monitored by the United States Auto Club; the USAC also oversaw all preparation made to the cars.  Ford’s goal was to run for 50,000 miles, a distance comparable to about five years of ordinary retail use.

Also present during the testing for further oversight and documentation were representatives from the Federation Internationale de Automobile in France.

The track used at Bonneville was a ten mile oval.  Using the efforts of fourteen drivers, each having a three to six hour shift, the endurance test commenced on September 9, 1956, shortly after noon.

1957 ford bonneville 4

This particular Ford, labeled as Car 2 at the time, departed at 1504 hours on September 9, with twenty-four year old race driver Jerry Unser, Jr., at the helm.  Its first pitstop came about 140 miles later – it lasted seventeen seconds.

The second steel roofed car was a blue and white Fairlane.  These two, along with the convertible, underwent acceleration tests before hitting the ten mile track.  The convertible did not participate in the 50,000 mile endurance testing.

What was this testing meant to prove?  Danny Eames, crew chief for this endeavor, stated, “This kind of test is designed to improve the breed of cars, to test their durability.  We’re not after mere speed.

“The big thing is to torture the engine, the chassis, the body, and all the thousands of parts at high speed for tremendous distances.  Here we’ve got an all-new car, a new kind of Ford, and we wanted to prove to ourselves, as well as the American people, just what we had.”

1957 ford bonneville 2

The desire to torture all moving parts quickly came to fruition.  After beginning the challenge at 120 miles per hour, then dropping to 110 mph twenty-four hours later, every drive line component was subjected to the most strenuous automotive workout that set the record for quickest accumulation of mileage ever.  During the course of the test, the track itself became filled with many sizable potholes, testing the stamina of the suspension.  It was a grueling workout for these two cars.

On the flip-side, severe tedium soon overtook the pit crews and other support personnel.  With pitstops coming a little over an hour apart – and lasting for less than twenty seconds – there was a lot of idle time and monotony.  At one point, stemming from complete boredom, one of the crew members splashed the contents of a cup of water on the front of one of the passing Fairlanes.  With the water blob being hit at 110 miles per hour, it was like hitting a solid object, causing the water to rip through the windshield.  The glass was taped up and the car continued on its way.

At the end of the testing, Car 1 had averaged 108.16 miles per hour, including all stops, for 50,000 miles.  Car 2 averaged just over 107 miles per hour.  This is the only one of the three known to exist.

Said Eames midway through the testing:  “There it is, running like a streak, running perfectly after 30,000 miles at over 110 miles per hour.  Still sweet.  Still smooth.  This is better than fine-car performance.  This is a damned fine automobile.”

Model year 1957 was a very good one for Ford, as they outsold Chevrolet.  Did the longest left turn in history contribute to that success?  One can’t help but think it was a factor.

1957 ford bonneville car

 Pictures of the 1957 Ford found at the Russo and Steele website.