The Corporation: The Story Of My Father, A GM Executive Part 2 – From Churchill Tanks To Body Rot

Platt book

(first posted 9/6/2013.  For those that didn’t make the jump to Part 2 the other day)     In 1980 my father’s autobiography was published under the title “An Addiction to Automobiles”. I remember my mother putting the book down and frowning at him. “You didn’t mention your family,” she said. “Not even once!”

“It’s a book about cars,” he told her, sounding puzzled. He was gentleman engineer who wore his jacket and tie everywhere, even while sitting with his wife and child on a beach. Also, as the book title clearly stated, he was a car addict. He didn’t feel qualified to write about human relationships.

lagonda london 925

Lagonda – photo from author’s collection.

He had started his career as Technical Editor of a British automobile magazine named “The Motor”. This allowed him to road-test all the great touring marques of the 1920s, when cars were still named after the founders of their companies. When I look at his old photo albums, I get the impression that he enjoyed a rakish life style.

lagonda 925

Lagonda – photo from author’s collection.

I can imagine him saying to some fashionably dressed flapper girl from Chelsea, “I’ve got the new Lagonda, and I’m going to take it on a spin to Brighton over the weekend. We can stop for a pub lunch and a few gin-and-tonics on the way. Would you like to come along?” No DUIs on the British roads in those days. No speed limits, either, as soon as you were out of town.

churchill tank 500

photo from author’s collection.

My father joined Vauxhall in 1937, and two years later found himself helping to design the engine for the first Churchill tank. This was a rush job, as Britain owned hardly any tanks, and Winston Churchill had committed the country to fight Germany. The tank engine went “from drawing board to test bed in 89 days,” according to the scrap book that I inherited.

churchill engine

image courtesy

It was an opposed twelve cylinder “boxer”, displaced 21 liters, and developed 350 horsepower at 2100 RPM. The armor consisted of flat steel plates bolted by hand to a frame of welded angle. If you made your own tank in your back yard, it wouldn’t look much different.

L-type 925

Vauxhall L-Type (Velox/Wyvern 1948-1951) author’s collection.

After the war, Vauxhall was compelled to reinvent itself. GM was talking unashamedly about “dynamic obsolescence,” and Harley Earl plainly stated the corporate mission as being “longer and lower.” My father was amused by this styling ethos, because it must eventually lead to an infeasible end-point. If the cars became much lower, people wouldn’t be able to fit into them, and beyond a certain length, five yellow lights would have to be installed at the front of the roof because the vehicle would be reclassified as a truck.

velox 925

Vauxhall Velox (1951-1957) author’s collection.

Still, GM seriously believed that “longer and lower” was a recipe for greatness, and if it worked in Detroit, it should work in England. The Americans had helped the British to win the war, so now, everyone should want to drive cars that looked like American cars. It was a no-brainer.

Narrow lane 2

image courtesy

When my father tried to explain that British people didn’t actually want larger cars, no one believed him. He had to wait for occasional, sporadic visits by US GM executives to the Vauxhall factory located in Luton, in the mostly rural county of Bedfordshire. My father would then take them for a drive along “the lanes” near the factory. These little roads snaked between massive hedgerows, so that oncoming traffic was hidden until the last possible moment. If a truck or bus came roaring into view, the passing clearance would be just a few inches.

Finally, the guys in Detroit began to get it. The British desire for undersized vehicles wasn’t just a perverse national neurosis. There were practical factors. So, okay, the cars had to be small–but they should still look American! Bill Mitchell insisted on it, and David Jones, the chief stylist at Vauxhall, was willing to oblige. Thus beginning in the latter 1950s Vauxhall marketed a series of vehicles which attempted to prove, unsuccessfully, that American designs were downwardly scalable.

Vauxhall 1957 victor

image courtesy

The first Vauxhall with a truly postwar appearance was the 1957 Victor (CC here). It had a panoramic windshield and looked like a toy-sized Buick Century. The British press ridiculed it as being tasteless, flashy, and ugly–the same adjectives that British people generally applied to any product that came from (or was influenced by) the United States.

Vauxhall 1958 Cresta 1

Next came a redesigned Vauxhall Cresta, which looked maybe like a child’s version of an Oldsmobile 88. It not only had a panoramic windshield, but boasted small tail fins and a two-tone paint job. Later, after I had moved out of my parents’ house, I bought a second-hand Cresta, which my friends referred to affectionately as a pimpmobile.

Vauxhall Cresta_1958_11

image courtesy:

As always, GM exerted pressure on Vauxhall to get the model into production at a pace which British employees found unrealistic. The British didn’t quite share the American corporate zeal. They liked to spend a couple of days a week at home with their families. Therefore, to save time, Vauxhall accepted a design from Fisher Body in the United States.

This was a unibody design that used door sills fabricated from box-shaped longitudinal members to provide structural stiffness. Each sill was welded shut, but alas, sooner or later, water found a way in. Rain being almost a daily event in the UK, rust was the predictable result, and because it started on the inside, you only discovered its extent when most of the metal had been eaten away, leaving just a thin layer of paint. The phenomenon became affectionately known to Cresta owners as “body rot.”

Vauxhall Cresta rusty

The problem was quickly forgotten in the US, where perpetual changes were a fact of life. Fisher Body simply abandoned the design and moved on. In the UK, however, a Vauxhall model was expected to last without significant modifications for five years, and the company was stuck with its rotting door sills. Eventually it developed a technique to spray anti-rust coating inside the sills, leaving a hole open at either end to allow drainage, but Vauxhall’s reputation had been severely damaged. As my father always liked to say, styling was only more important than engineering in the short term.

Vauxhall design Studio 1957

Vauxhall Design Center 1957 (courtesy

Engineering and styling were two very different departments in the early 1960s. They shared the same building at Vauxhall, but the engineers were always trying to keep the stylists under control, and the stylists were always trying to do unscrupulous end-runs around the engineers.

Vauxhall HA concept 1963

1963 Vauxhall HA concept (courtesy

Sometimes, on weekends, I would hear my father arguing patiently on the phone with his nemesis, David Jones. “You have to expect this kind of thing from a stylist,” he said to me afterward. “They’re artists. They’re unreasonable by nature.”

Vauxhall Cresta film

image courtesy

I enjoyed my Cresta, but when it accumulated about 45,000 miles, I ran into problems. My father confessed with some embarrassment that 40,000 was the unofficial design limit for most British brands, with the possible exception of Rolls Royce and Bentley. The combined land mass of England and Scotland measured only a bit more than 700 miles from end to end, so no one had much need to drive very far, and a typical car owner should really be ready to buy a new model by the time the odometer reached 40,000.

My Cresta became an oil-burner. It developed an unexplained vibration at high speeds. The engine acquired a habit of misfiring when water mysteriously penetrated the fuel system. A U-joint spontaneously disassembled itself (I will always remember the noise that the end of the drive shaft made, when it hit the road under the car). Most humiliating of all, the dreaded body rot finally appeared. When I pushed a door sill with my thumb, the pressure made a dent, and I heard a faint crunching sound from underneath.

Vauxhall cresta fog

I decided that I should put the car out of its misery. With some friends, I drove to a piece of empty land in Scotland, overlooking the River Forth. The land had been used for training troops during World War II, and had remained abandoned ever since. We pushed the car over a cliff–which was not as easy as it sounds, because after the front wheels went over, the underbody of the car stuck on the edge, and we had to rock it to get it free. Finally it slid away from us, turning as it fell, and landed on its roof with a sound like someone stomping on a big metal can.

 We took a train back to London, where I was woken the next morning by two police officers on my doorstep. “What happened to your car?” they asked me.  “We tried to hold it back,” I said. “But it just got away from us.”

cresta wreck 925

photo by the author

When I revisited the crash site a year later, the dented body was still there, stripped clean of anything useful. Today, the land has been re-purposed as an upscale housing development, and my Cresta has been removed, presumably by the real-estate developers.

Part1: A Visit to GM Headquarters     Part 3: Viva Russelsheim!

Charles Platt writes for Make magazine and is a former Senior Writer at Wired magazine. He is the author of “Make Electronics” (an introductory guide) and is gradually writing “The Encyclopedia of Electronic Components” (the first of three volumes are currently in print). He likes to explore the dirt roads of northern Arizona in a 4×4 Mitsubishi Montero Sport, and has been known to test the limits of his Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart turbo on I-40 across the Mojave desert–but still harbors a nostalgic yearning for an Olds 442.