The test chassis was exactly that: a rolling welded aluminum and carbon-fibre frame used to test motors and controllers and other parts. We had the run of one of the university stadium’s grounds at night, so the test chassis needed headlamps and a safety beacon. I went to a local parts store, picked up a couple of rectangular sealed beams, someone welded up some aluminum frames to cage them in ,and they got lashed to the front of the chassis. I made up a safety beacon out of a halogen bulb, a flasher, and a few bits of wire. Round and round the stadium the test chassis went, through the night brightly.
The car—the actual solar car—posed more and bigger challenges than the test chassis. We couldn’t just throw parts on it; we had tight packaging and mass constraints, race regulations to comply with, and conflicting needs for various aspects of the thing. It was very much like conceiving and realising a production vehicle, which was sort of the point.
But despite all those constraints and conflicts and regulations, there was still often more than one way to do whatever was at hand. For example: turn blinkers. The race was to be run on public roadways, so the car had to have stop lights as well as front and rear turn signals. The actual light units, front and rear, were provided on a sponsorship basis by some sketchy outfit called of Daniel Stern Lighting. The front ones were VW turn signal repeaters, while the rears were wide, low-profile central stop lights intended for incorporation into spoilers; all made by Hella. Okeh, but there was some intra-team kerfuffle about how to control them. A few of the team members debated whether to use an oscillator or a flip-flop or some other kind of circuit I don’t remember with a sonolert or other annunciator and a switching logic board to control and indicate the turn signals. They were worried about having to find a place for four lights on the razor-thin rear of the car, which Aero/Body would not agree to unless absolutely every other option had been studied and rejected. So they were designing ever-more-complex circuits to have the brake lights double as turn blinkers.
I excused myself and drove to the nearby auto parts store, where I fetched a particular 2-pin turn signal flasher for $7. Drove back and tossed it on the table, where it garnered some blinks and stares of incomprehension. I picked up the dry marker and drew a simple circuit on the whiteboard: the lamps’ feed wires were to be hot full-time, and left and right A/B toggle switches would select between two ground paths: one via the stop light switch on the brake pedal (only for the rears), and the other via the turn signal flasher (fronts and rears). There was a fair amount of doubt, but they wired it up and the system worked fine. Even had a nice, loud click audible to the driver. How many days and dollars would’ve been taken up designing and debugging a complicated circuit and bypass arrangement to do exactly the same thing? I guess more than the 45 minutes and $7.
All the other teams used pickup trucks or Suburbans to pull Haulmark or Wells-Cargo type trailers just big enough for their cars, but we were the University of Michigan, so ours was a semi-truck type, a 48-foot box on wheels. It had exterior speakers wired up so we could play the UM football fight song loud enough for all the rest of the teams to hear, which I thought was unseemly and tacky and nobody cared to hear my thoughts on the matter.
We built a full machine shop into it, with a special compartment for the car in the aft lower deck. We built a powered liftgate large enough to accommodate the entire car, then lift it up to be rolled into its berth, then fold up vertically to form the rearmost wall of the trailer. For roadside safety, the shop door was on the starboard side of the trailer box. The trailer and its contents were powered by a trio of generators with Briggs & Stratton 2-cylinder engines, all in an underslung housing made out of diamondplate and angle iron.
The Chief Engineer used threaded black iron pipe to create a rather nice six-into-three-into-one exhaust system for the generators, with the single 2″ common pipe passing through the forward wall of the housing. But the niceness didn’t survive the trip through the wall—to the threaded end of the 2″ iron pipe he clamped a 90° automotive exhaust elbow, with the other end pointed starboard. To this he clamped an automotive muffler. The tailspout was a plain straight pipe about 6″ long, ending about a foot away from the shop door.
Eventually, once we were on the road and in the race, machine shop users started complaining of persistent headaches when using the shop. It hadn’t shown up as a problem before, because why use the trailer shop when the much bigger homebase shop was available? I got in one of the vans, drove to an auto parts store, and picked up some elbows and lengths of plain exhaust pipe, some hangers, and a downturn tailspout. Back on site, I removed the straight tailspout and rotated the muffler-and-elbow counterclockwise about the headpipe through an angle of 135° so the muffler outlet was looking down at about 45° on the port side. I ran straight pipe down to just inside the lower corner of the box, then a 90° elbow exiting rearward, then a length of pipe running rearward, then a 45° elbow drafting outward from the lower corner of the box, and capped it off with the downturn tailspout, well away from any air access point to the inside of the trailer. The machine shop got a lot quieter and the headaches went away.
That wasn’t my only involvement with the trailer, either. It needed an exterior lighting system that would meet both US and Australian regulations, as we really had our eyes on that Australian race, and we really had the means to ship the entire freakin’ 48-foot trailer halfway round the globe. So I went on a great big shopping spree, extra-fun because it wasn’t my money I was spending for thirty-three part numbers and a hundred and thirty-eight items. The new rear lights went on the outside surface of the liftgate.
There was some astonishment one night when I fetched a tube of RTV silicone and used it to seal something or other back there—maybe a wire access chamber or something. I certainly wasn’t the only one on the team who knew about RTV silicone, but I was the only one in that group that night: look here, he’s got some kind of miracle: squeezable goop in a tube that turns into actual rubber if it’s left alone awhile! This is not me claiming to be the only smarty on a team of idjits; I wasn’t and they weren’t. But it might’ve been good if there had been some attempt at a formal, organised exchange of knowledge rather than its ad hoc distribution, too thick in some places and way too thin elsewhere. Keep the RTV in mind; we’ll be back to it in a bit.
What a great story, thanks for sharing! It can be a slightly disturbing sense of accomplishment when you stop a hare-brained scheme with a simple solution. Like, are you guys insane or I am completely misunderstanding this problem?
Glad you and the crew survived your driving while tired experience. I did it once. No longer twenty-two and sure it will be fine to push on, I pull over and have a kip.
Also, nice hat!
This is the kind of story that almost never gets told. Everyone loves to tell the “Lookie at how great we were when we did this amazing thing” story, but the “Zowee, but we had a lot to learn” stories usually go untold.
It is a belief of mine that during my lifetime there has been an overabundance of highly trained specialists and a shortage of smart, curious, self-taught guys with a lot of common sense. This is not just in engineering and manufacturing, but everywhere. The first group is necessary, of course, and important. But the second group brings something to the table that is not often-enough appreciated.
Well said. An excellent example of a self taught guy is Percy Spencer who only had an elementary school education. Wile working at Raytheon he made enormous improvements to magnetron tubes making them more efficient and easier to manufacture. All this was hugely important in WWII. He later invented the microwave oven. Pretty important contributions to society I say.
Another example is Frederick McKinley Jones, an African-American engineer and inventor in the early 20th century. He left school when he was teenager because he was very bored and didn’t like the strict structure at the school. He taught himself the mechanical engineering when working at various jobs and at the car repair garages.
Mr Jones was credited for developing the experimental snowmobile (with propeller attached to the rear like swamp boats), portable x-ray devices, improved refrigeration units for lorries and railroad cars, ticket dispensers for cinemas, improved sound track synchroniser, and so forth. He was largely responsible for the success of Thermo King and worked there until his death.
It is rare to find a Wolverine with enough self-awareness to publish a sentence like “We had too much money, too much luxury, way too much sense of entitlement, not enough hunger, not enough incentive, and we were busily getting experience just after we needed it.” Most UMich grads carry their hubris into the real world and just beg to be brought down a peg or two by the rest of us in the same field. Thank you for this very entertaining read.
Y’welcome and thanks!
My experience with these type of teams in college was that the leader was often hand picked by the dean because they were high potential and fair haired. Those with common sense and technical skills were brought on as “hired help” and treated as such. A prelude for future lessons in the workforce.
I’m sure you’re often right. This time, though, it was very democratic: those who wanted to try for the Project Manager position made their case to the team, who then voted.
Another great story .
I bet many here have good learning stories to share, I certainly do, I’m amazed I’m still alive .
I remember those solar cars, was disappointed they didn’t change things like I thought they would .
More please .
I am always fascinated about the different approaches of solving the engineering and mechanical problems, mostly thanks to my brother who has a strong knack of figuring out different approaches or solutions. He loves to talk about them with me. This article is just perfect for that and has lot of interesting detail!
I recalled the big news involving the solar car race challenge in the late 1990s, and I never knew that you were part of the UM team. It’s shame that the solar car race challenge hadn’t changed the world (yet).
“Yew cain’ jes’ stawp awf’n the road lack thet, wayvin’ thim ornge flaygs…they aspozeda be riyed flaygs, nawt ornge wuns!”
Being deaf, I appreciate the letter-for-letter transcription of accents, dialects, and likes, because it shows me clearly the regional pronouncations. Not to mention the accurate descriptions of sound that I can replicate in my mind like a person can read the sheet music and imagine the sound in the head. You have a gift for that, and I do hope to see more of that in the forthcoming articles! Thanks very much for that!
An enjoyable story, and fun to hear about the team’s efforts from the inside. I recall reading about this as it was happening, and I also recall seeing the car in person when it was exhibited at the Boston Museum of Science for quite a few years in the early oughts.
Daniel, I was worried that because you were going to be subbing for Paul for a few days, we (your loyal readers) would have to wait for further COALs from you – but here you are with several consecutive home runs!
Your statement that your team had too many resources handed to them too easily (“affluenza”) rings true – I recommend “Slide Rule”, Nevil Shute’s autobiography. “Nevil Shute” was Nevil Shute Norway’s pen name. Although an accomplished aeronautical engineer, he is best known for his novels, a few of which I consider outstanding.
The relevant part here is that young Shute was one of the engineers involved with the privately-built R100 airship, while a well-funded government team worked on the R101 in parallel. The R100 was successful (although the day of the dirigible was swiftly passing), but the greatly more expensive R101 was failure, crashing with the loss of all crew members.
This may be a simplification, as I haven’t read the book in about 35 years, and I’m not trying to be Ideology Boy here, as for most of my career I worked in telecom engineering at a public utility, and remain very proud of the work our team did under some significant constraints. (So in no way do I think that the issue is a public-private one, but rather that I think having constraints drives creativity and conscientious work – one is more likely to measure twice before cutting if one has a limited budget for wood.)
I’m impressed that your family came out to cheer you on – good on them, and good on you for leaving the project to be with your dad in his illness.
Given that solar cell efficiency is said to have increased greatly in recent years, I wonder whether solar cars are a bit closer to being viable.
In any case, please keep them coming!
I wasn’t on the teams, but had friends who were on the Mini Baja and Moonbuggy teams at Tennessee Tech during that time range. I can tell you they did not get support like you’re describing, though there were certainly gifts from automotives and suppliers in the region. I know most of those folks did have late nights but good times.
That’s a great history of what really happens. Love the twenty year old rationale for decisions.
Back in 1976 we built a steam car for the Australian government to deal with “oil crisis” .remember that.
After 2 years we delivered our composite chassis mid engine roadster with double acting compound piston engine. Only 2 batteries to worry about.
And I see your altered Valiant, there in the background!
Yes that’s the Val. Modded when I was 25 and knew a lot more….
I have a mid engined vw version of steam car now.
Daily driver ? Tesla 3 of course!
NZ-spec Valiant – photo taken during our year in Whangarei (2003/04).
What does the Hemi badge on the trunk signify? Surely not the 426 V8. Some sort of mod to the Slant Six?
Check out that aftermarket rear-window defroster – I was unsuccessful installing one similar in a 1970 Corolla.
That badge refers to the Aussie Hemi six, bigger than the slant six. 245 inches, 165/185hp in this iteration.
I’d forgotten about those aftermarket rear window demisters!
I just read the Wiki article on the Aussie Chrysler inline-6 “Hemi” – quite fascinating (given that I’m a bit of an engine nerd).
I’d always assumed that the Aussie Valiants used the Slant Six or a variation thereof.
They did, until the 1970 “VG” models when the Hemi-6 came in. It was only put in cars for Australia and New Zealand; six-cylinder Valiants and related cars built in Australia for export elsewhere (e.g., to South Africa) had the 225 Slant-6 right up through the end in 1981.
The adhesive in that type of aftermarket rear defogger softened when heated. Mistake! Learned the hard way.
Hey, what adhesive shall we use for our defroster grid comprising resistive elements that produce heat when an electric current is passed through them?
I know! Let’s use an adhesive that will get soft when heated!
The vw version of steamer
Hemi means Australia/ Nz 6 cylinder from VG on. In 215 , 245 and 265 ci.
Much faster than old 225 and engine was lighter.
Hemi was a close description of head shape.
I have some video from the TV news of the 1990 Sunrayce. That year it ran from Florida to Detroit and the next to last stop was in my hometown near Lansing.
The UofM car was featured prominently as they were both local and leading the race.
Yep, I think the UM team won that first Sunrayce in 1990.
Anyone who stops in the fast lane of an interstate highway clearly isn’t very intelligent .
Goes to show, it is a lot more fun to screw up with Other Peoples’ Money!!!!!
Regarding southern accents, I’m reluctant to throw stones, as I am always appalled when I hear a recording of my own Prairie Hoser voice. Never met a “g” at the end of a word I didn’t wanna drop, eh?
That said, I associate a southern accent with the fibre-optic folks in Georgia and the Carolinas – in my job there were regular phone calls back and forth between simple me and the resident geniuses at Corning, AFL, Alcatel, Draka, OFS, and so on. To me, a southern drawl is the voice of technical competence and authority.
Lots of southern-drawl competence portrayed in “For All Mankind”, a very good show centred round NASA in an alternate timeline.
Yes! Space geek that I (also) am, how could I forget the voices of mission control?
Thanks for the tip – I will check out “For All Mankind”! (Loved “From The Earth To The Moon”.)
Daniel, I finally watched the first episode of “For All Mankind” last night. Oh my oh my! It was written for me … just flipping brilliant.
All of the real history is firmly embedded in my memory banks, so to see this alternative history is absolutely fascinating to me.
Little things like “Senator Kennedy has cancelled his trip to Chappaquiddick!” – oh my, doesn’t history hinge on such things.
Thanks so much for the tip!
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read Daniel. Thanks for sharing! I really laughed at the rationalizing of the Chicago pizza detour on what was supposed to be a get there as quick as possible trip…