We revealed the car in a big, fancy ceremony there in Michigan. Music, speeches, etc. My folks flew in, and Bill Weertman and his wife drove down the highway to see it.
Bill—Chrysler’s longtime Chief Engine Engineer—and I had been friends ever since I’d cold-called him from Denver after finding his name on the Slant-6 engine patent some years before, and we had a growing collection of this kind of photo:
At the unveiling, we expanded the collection again:
The start of the race was a big, festive event on a plaza in Washington DC. All the teams gathered, and many parents. More speeches and festivities. My folks were there, too, and my aunt and uncle who lived nearby in Maryland. All that was fun.
Markedly less fun was when the stop lights on our car flunked inspection. Aero/Body had recessed them forward of the trailing edge, and covered them and their recesses with clear plastic. The scrutineers said they couldn’t be seen out to the required 45 degrees, so we scrambled to cobble up some kind of bodge to increase their visibility angles without spoiling the aerodynamics of the body. By and by, off we went on a nine-day race to Florida.
The official account of the 1999 UM car is a paragraph long, and it says the team built their own solar panel array completely in-house, which led to power issues during the race. That’s one way of saying it; here’s another: y’member the amazement my use of RTV silicone generated? The thing about goop in a tube that turns into rubber is that there are about as many kinds of it as there are named shrimp dishes in “Forrest Gump”. There’s goop optimised for setting windshields, goop for sealing oil, for sealing transmission fluid, for sealing grease, coolant, water, gasoline, for caulking bathtubs, for sealing windows, for insulating wires, for fixing shoes—you name it. They are interchangeable to a limited degree, and that limitation is disregarded at peril of wrecking the job.
So it might have been best if whoever was tasked with selecting an adhesive to mount the solar cells to the car body had put more into it than just heading over to Home Depot and picking up a case of whatever random caulk came to hand. I’m sure if the caulk they bought had been used as intended, it’d’ve done fine.
But we hadn’t built a solar bathtub, or at least we hadn’t meant to. Bathtubs generally don’t know or care if their caulk is conductive when wet once cured, but solar cell arrays are rather pickier on that point. And you want to believe that caulk got wet and stayed that way; there was rain on most of the race’s nine days. Our car took on numerous gallons of water (like, from the outside to the inside of this solar cell-bodied car). Zzt! Shorted-out solar cells have a tendency not to deliver much power.
So during one particularly drenching day, we were crawling along the sparsely-populated interstate: lead van (“Lead”), solar car, chase van (“Chase”), all doing maybe 15 mph as the waterlogged car struggled under the dim skies. The project Manager drove Chase, a V10 Ford E-Series running two beacon bars each with multiple strobe tubes inside, the defoggers and wipers on high, the headlamps on, two high-ampacity inverters, three computers with CRT screens, radiotelemetry gear, and a cube fridge. This he did in Drive, not First, for long enough that Chase’s battery went completely flat. In rural Georgia—Toccoa, to be exact—on a Friday afternoon.
Race rules specified that each team had to have that caravan—lead, car, chase—at all times, so we had to pull over. Lead van, chase van, and a wet-nosed, inert solar car. Those of us who weren’t actively fussing with the car served as flaggers (including me) wearing fluorescent retroreflective safety vests and waving big fluorescent orange caution flags to alert highway traffic.
Along came a nincompoop in a then-current Ford Explorer. We could tell he was a nincompoop because he stopped (in the left lane of the interstate, mind you), rolled down his passenger window, and went “Yew cain’ jes’ stawp awf’n the road lack thet, wayvin’ thim ornge flaygs…they aspozeda be riyed flaygs, nawt ornge wuns!” (for those not fluent in Southern: “You can’t just stop off the road like that, waving those orange flags; they’re supposed to be red flags, not orange ones!”).
The speed limit on that stretch was at least 65, and traffic was approaching about half a mile behind the Explorer, i.e., about 25 seconds away. All of us were frantically hollering at him to get moving, get going or get off the road, and he was just sitting there, transmission in Park, going “ah neh-oh, butchyew cain’ jes’ stop off’n th’ road lack thet, wayvin’ thim ornge flaygs! You s’pozeda have riyed flaygs!”. By some miracle nobody was killed or hurt and no property damage occurred when the traffic caught up with him, but there was plenty of honking and some tire squealing.
We then proceeded to get even more soaked, by a local grudge run by a good ol’ boy who even kept a few metric screwdrivers up yonder awn th’ wall in case if one o’ them furrin cars might could need work. Charged us $300+ for an alternator rebuild which may or may not have happened or been needed—you’re the judge. While he was busy “rebuilding the alternator” (i.e., charging up the battery), we went walking to see what was to see in Toccoa.
First thing we wanted to see was a telephone; celphones were a thing in 1999, but not yet in Toccoa. We had on our UM Solar Car Team raingear, all blue and –
yellow– maize, and we ducked into the bank to see if we could use their phone. One of the tellers went “Eeeeee! Mah meemaw seen y’all on teevee! Y’all cum gitta loda theeyis; these gazzur thim sowluh cah keeyids!” (“Golly! My grandmother saw your team on television. Hey, coworkers, gather around; this is that solar car team”). Yes, we could use their phone.
I don’t remember the details of our exodus from Toccoa. It took awhile, and early on we resigned ourselves to watching hours tick by without solar-car mobility. It seemed like the kind of place one generally doesn’t escape.
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…