Sunday, November 25, 2012

Formatting

I'm working out some formatting issues. Sorry for the hassle if you're having trouble reading this blog on your mobile device. I'll try to whip something up here soon to correct it. Thanks for hanging in there.
-D

Ottawa Test Loop


Its hard to pay attention to the brown "point of interest" signs on the highway nowadays. We're usually whizzing past them attempting to avoid the droves of distracted drivers playing with their GPS, reading a John le Carré novel, shaving with a USB-powered Norelco and drinking a Sobe life water while hunting for the hottest song on their iPhone 5 this week. Having recently spent some time up north with my family for Thanksgiving, Sarah and I once again passed the AASHO Test Road Site sign just outside of Ottawa, Illinois on Interstate 80. For years we have passed this marker and wondered what it stood for. It had to be a test road area for asphalt or cement we thought. We'd both take turns guessing what the AASHO acronym stood for. American Asphalt Society of Highway Officials? How about the Amalgamated Asphaltian Supporters for Huge Opportunities?

That game got old pretty quick.

A cursory internet search produced no information until very recently. Like this morning. After learning about the Ottawa test road's history and the important role Illinois played in the development of the pavement we drive (distracted) on every day, I thought it would be neat to share it here.


In reality the acronym stood for the American Association of State Highway Officials. The group got its start back in 1914 as a non-governmental organization that set standards for how roads and highways were designed & built. In the 1970's, the group incorporated the word "transportation" into their name since they also had a hand in various other forms of travel. As the U.S. was gearing up for the construction of a large interstate highway system, the AASHO wanted to ensure that engineers, government officials, and contractors had the information they needed to lay down a product that would hold up for decades. They also wanted to use that data to inform the government on how much money it would cost to maintain such a vast infrastructure so that they could adjust the gasoline tax rates accordingly. Then came the questions. What was the best type of concrete mix for heavy loads? What type of road bed created less rutting over time? What methods of patching cracks worked well?  These were just a few of the questions that the AASHO had, and the answer to those questions was the Ottawa Test Site.



The plan for the test road site was sketched out by the AASHO team and was bordered by US Route 6 to the south, and nestled between Illinois Route 178 in Utica and Illinois Route 23 near Ottawa. The configuration would call for six test loops over a seven mile stretch of virgin farmland. Different loops would be subject to various tests of actual vehicular traffic over a two-year period.
 

Construction of AASHO Test Track. Circa 1956.




Construction began in August of 1956 and the various loops were assorted in size, application, and building method. Some sections used an asphalt mix, while others were straight concrete.  There were a total of more than 800 short road test sections. Nearly 20 small bridge spans were crafted to examine everything from bracing techniques to pavement degradation. In all aspects, the AASHO engineers did their homework. 






The U.S. Army Transportation Corps carried out tests at the Ottawa Test Loop. Neighbors included miles of corn field and country roads. Photo Credit: Gerry Buehler


Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Test Loop #6. October 15, 1958.
By October of 1958 the site was prepared and  the first traffic simulation occurred. Teams of Army drivers would circle the loops in heavy trucks and  trailers for hours on end to put the pavement through its paces. While the average Chevrolet weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,500 pounds, a 1953 Mack Model B semi of the same era tipped the scales at 13,000 pounds...empty. You can see the value in running something more heavy duty if you're serious about testing its strength.


A truck leaves a turn-around and enters the straightaway at the Ottawa Test Loop.  Photo Credit: Gerry Buehler      





If you look at the map of the test site above, you'll  notice the army barracks on site. I'm sure working there had its high points, but to me, driving a 1950's semi truck in a circle all day in the middle of the Illinois countryside doesn't sound appealing. The value of their work was ultimately realized by the engineers and number crunchers in the main office. The data that was collected was indeed carried out during their 'experiments' behind the wheel. This laboratory was open until November of 1960, when the testing ceased and the AASHO compiled the data for publication and reference. 


Fuel Stop. Circa 1958
By 1962 the Ottawa test site had a new neighbor: Interstate 80. Life moved on and I'm sure by then there was a mountain of paperwork that was generated by years of study. All that's left of the site today is a short part of one of the loops and a brown point of interest sign on I-80 that most of us don't pay much attention to. In the end, what did this huge laboratory experiment yield?  It introduced the Generalized Forth Power Law, stating that a vehicle's damage to pavement was related to the 4th power of their axle weight. Or, in a nutshell, the tests gave engineers the proof they needed to make the following earth-shattering statement: 

Big trucks wreck roads quicker than small cars do.

And as more Americans wanted more and more goods and services delivered to them in the post-war boom years, the folks at the AASHO knew that more and more trucks would have to travel the interstates full of heavy trailers. Trailers crammed full of shiny Kelvinator refrigerators, Philco television sets and cases of Bubble Up cola. It wasn't just the big trucks that needed to go on a diet. The average weight of the American automobile was also creeping up toward 4500 pounds by the end of 1950's and there were more of them. More motorists and wider use of popular road network meant someone would have to eventually take care of it. This would eventually put a financial burden on the federal government to maintain the massive interstate system that was already under construction. Armed with the evidence, the AASHO clearly spelled out what causes the most damage to a highway and the best ways to counter that damage by sound construction and maintenance methods. Pretty neat stuff when you dive into the history of a simple road sign. If you pass it next time you're on I-80, give it a glance. That stretch of road near Ottawa, Illinois will never look the same to me again.


Epilogue, 5/2015 : I would like to extend a hearty thank-you to Gerry Buehler for sharing his service in the U.S. Army and for sharing his experience and photos from his time at the Ottawa Test Loop in 1960. (You can read his recollections in the comments section below.)

Its incredible history and we're grateful for your willingness to get in touch.

Cheers,


-D
*Photos in today's post were also courtesy of the Federal Highway Administration. They're good people. 

 












Sunday, November 18, 2012

Oscar: One Year Later


Most of you probably know the story of "Oscar", our 1947 Chevrolet Fleetline Sportmaster Sedan. He's an old car that followed my Dad home, (mostly because we were towing it behind our truck), in April of  2010. At the time we found him, Oscar needed some mechanical attention and had been sitting since 1973 in a storage facility not far from Peoria. I spotted him on a Craigslist ad and thought he could use some TLC and may be a fun project for our family. My brother Gordon, Dad, and I all snuck out of the house one afternoon and drove out to look at the car in Monterrey, Illinois. We really liked how untouched and solid it was once we saw it in person. Since Dad owned a 1948 Fleetline sedan many moons ago and the family enjoyed it so much, we decided to tackle this project with no major intentions of keeping it, we just wanted to put another old Chevy back on the road. Dad purchased the car, he & I hooked it up to a U-Haul trailer and our trusty C20 pickup brought him up to my folks place. Many weekends of work ensued in the Scott garage to make this old car roadworthy again. Mom may have blamed me for encouraging Dad's old car sickness. Its contageous, apparently because we all found ourselves out in the garage working on the Chevy during our usual summer visits to Mom & Dad's that year.

By the summer of 2011, the Fleetline was up and running again with a refreshed 216 cubic inch "Stovebolt Six" and completely rebuilt brake system. New tires, new exhaust, a new clutch and new electrical components completed the task and its journey back to life was complete. Mom and Sarah installed seat covers. Dad cleaned it up & drove it a little bit. Gordon helped dial in the valves, and by then the summer cruise season ended and the season had turned to fall. We had one more fling in early November, 2011 while attending the Illinois Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America's  "Run to Brighton" fall tour. All was right with the world. Then, the question came. 

"What now?" Dad said to me at the breakfast table while visiting one weekend. Winter was coming and Mom and Dad really enjoyed having a two car garage so that their daily driver wouldn't be subject to snow and ice. Keeping the '47 Chevy and his '62 Olds in the garage that winter wasn't in the cards. The idea of putting the Fleetline up for sale came up, and I instantly worried. I envisioned some mulleted greaser buying the car, the new owner ripping out all the original parts we just installed. I had thoughts of a small block Chevy V-8 going in between the frame rails and chopped tops and bad purple flame paint jobs instead of the original six cylinder engine and well-worn black lacquer finish. Most importantly, we all  knew that the family enjoyed breathing some new life into a forgotten machine, and we learned so much together in a short amount of time. Heck, we even started calling him "Oscar" after my Dad did some homework and found the name of the original owner and talked with the second owner. This was a first for our family since we never named any of the other classic cars we restored. Oscar was, like it or not, becoming part of our family.  

My brilliant solution to make everyone happy? Someone like me needed to drive the Fleetline 200 miles south to our home in Peoria where it could live out the rest of its days as an original "survivor" car and be cherished for ever and ever. Nobody else could look after such a prime example of Chevrolet history and blah blah blah. The idea worked, and in late November of 2011 Sarah, our coonhound Mabel, and I drove up to adopt our new member of the family. The rest is history, but I remember it went a little something like this...

Driving Oscar back to Peoria at night was a stressful experience. Here I had a 64 year-old car that had been taken apart and put back together with hand tools by three Scott boys & two Scott ladies. I trusted it, but only so much. Dad & I checked the fluids and I brought some spare tools just in case we needed to make roadside repairs. I fired up the motor and let it warm up before heading out with Sarah behind me. Everything started out fine, but I was constantly freaking out and watching over the gauges. We left at sunset and drove into the West on two-lane Route 173. It was peaceful way to get started without having to deal with interstates and traffic.


I kept the car right at 50 mph since everything seemed happier there. With a 4.11 gear and a 3 speed, the little 216 couldn't really do much more without spilling its guts all over the highway. Plus the car just didn't seem to have all the power it should. Oil pressure looked good at 15 psi or so, and the generator was putting out plenty of power. We stayed the course and plugged along until we needed a fuel stop near Belvidere. 
Belvidere was the point of no return. We checked things over once more, threw some more gas in the tank and prepared to take I-39 south, the longest stretch of our journey. For this leg, I would have to push Oscar a little bit faster than I wanted, but I was confident that he'd hold together just fine. I pushed the starter pedal and with Sarah and Mabel following in the Jeep, we went for it. I-39 was moderately busy and I slowly brought Oscar up to 55 and then to 60 miles per hour. I checked the gauges every few seconds and scanned the road ahead. No problems whatsoever. 
We soldiered along on the interstate while I fought the fierce November winds as they blew across the open farm fields. The sloppy steering box and heavy gusts made for a few unexpected lane changes. Oscar just kept motoring along, happy and consistent. No strange noises, no smoke, no anything. It was one of the most pleasant trips I'd taken in an old car in years! We passed through LaSalle and the traffic lightened up. I kept talking nicely to Oscar, telling him what a good job he was doing and patting the steering wheel. (You folks with old cars probably do the same thing, right?)


We exited the interstate and took two lane roads for the last leg of our journey. It was smooth, desolate, and comforting. As I passed through older rural towns I couldn't help but imagine if Oscar passed through some of the same towns decades earlier. While those towns had changed some in 36 years, Oscar was the same Chevy he'd always been. After 4 hours, we pulled Oscar into our driveway and shut off his engine. It was a comforting sight to see, even if it was pitch black outside and we couldn't see much. 







It was one year ago this week that we brought this old Chevy back to Peoria to enjoy, preserve and restore. Since then, we've improved a few more small things and added 1,200 miles to his odometer. In June we took him 100 miles north to a Vintage Chevrolet Club of America Central Meet in Sandwich, Illinois. I got to meet some wonderful people there and talk cars for a few hours. Sarah & I went to numerous local car shows, cruise-ins and took the ice cream joyride once every two weeks or so from June through September. Oscar became a Sunday driver as well as the summer commuter car. I've had several co-workers complement me on what a neat old Chevy I've got sitting in the parking lot. In October Sarah drove him during the VCCA fall tour. I never thought we'd do this...but we even let Mabel ride in Oscar despite her fur getting all over the place. One year later & so many memories have been created with an old Chevrolet. I only hope 2013 is as enjoyable as 2012 has been. Thanks, buddy. you've been a great little addition to the Scott family. 

-D 
Photo Op at Terry Doyle's Garage. March, 2012
Removing old gas tank and fuel system rebuild - May, 2012
Buff & wax job - June, 2012


Enjoying the open road - July, 2012


Metamora Super Cruise - June, 2012
 VCCA Central Meet, Sandwich, IL - July 2012
 
Sandwich, IL Cruise Night with Dad & Sarah - July, 2012



Sharing a Cigar - July, 2012

Pekin Street Cruise - July, 2012
 
Downtown Peoria for Dinner - August, 2012

Photo Op at the former Jim McComb Chevrolet- with members of the Northern Illinois Region VCCA - October, 2012


Stopped at the Grandview Drive Overlook with NIR VCCA Fall Tour - October, 2012






Have a Great Thanksgiving Everyone!





Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fishbowls



It happened again last night. I was perusing eBay for car parts for the '47 Chevy. Not much seemed to jump out at me, plus we have no money right now going into the holiday season. So, next I decided to type one of my strange searches into the keyword search box. I chose "General Motors Bus" this time. Immediately, the auction for this old thing popped up...

Its a 1959 GM "New Look" Transit bus, the first year that GM came out with this model. It served as one of Oklahoma City's first air-conditioned buses. After plans to restore it and put it in local transit museum fell through, the collector decided to put it up for sale. So here it is, one of 1,799 models made that year and probably one of a handful that have survived. A single repaint at some point in its life has now faded, but its all there and the paint seemed to protect its skin from becoming too weathered.
 





The "Buy it Now" price? A modest $2,250. It even has the original interior and looks like its fairly untouched. Its also got the Detroit Diesel 6v71 and an Allison 2 speed automatic transmission so it wouldn't be too taxing to drive. 







Look at this beast! All the glass appears to be in good shape. Those iconic green-tinted forward-facing side windows, the smiling face. It looks like a giant Matchbox toy!
  





 "That's great and all, but why the heck are you looking at eBay auctions for 53 year-old buses?" 

The sad part is that I don't really have a good answer for that. But what I can tell you is that I think these machines are something special, and something worth preserving at the same time. You see, like many car enthusiasts, I appreciate machines that do a job every day. I know our daily drivers technically perform a task every day but I'm mostly talking about machinery that gets used and abused. Something that's flogged for months before being serviced. The kind of rolling iron that is treated poorly and still expected to perform under any condition and any season. Buses definately fall under this category in my opinion. When's the last time you saw or rode on a city bus and thought "Wow, this is in great shape. Someone really takes care of this thing.".

Exactly.

Back to the GM Bus. While officially referred to as the "New Look" bus, these workhorses were affectionately called the "Fishbowl" bus by enthusiasts due to their convex windshield. Introduced in 1959, this model was a radical departure from the previous motor coaches manufactured by General Motors Coach division in Pontiac, Michigan. The buses didn't have a standard body-on-chassis design, but instead used a patented uniform stressed skin construction method similar to airplanes that allowed the sheet aluminum skin to hold the bus together. This made for a lighter bus with a different look than its predecessors, which were a glorified streetcar body with an engine and wheels. GM also powered their new bus with another one of their inventions...the Detroit Diesel 6v71 or 8v71 two-stroke engine.

Many of you will remember seeing these things running around the streets of the city nearest you through the late 1980's and maybe early 1990's. Even though my brothers and I grew up an hour from Chicago, as a family we did go to the Windy City quite often. The large GM fishbowl buses made up the majority of the Chicago Transit Authority fleet for roughly three decades, and provided great service to millions of passengers during that time. Sure, they were slow in traffic. They also belched mushroom clouds of black soot from their exhaust stacks and made the urban air quality terrible. And yes, they didn't offer much in the way of creature comforts besides a metal framed chair and maybe working heat or AC.

But here's what they did have: Durability.

The brute toughness of the Detroit Diesel powerplant made a fantastic noise too at idle and at speed. The sound was a proud whirring noise while getting up to speed from a dead stop. Once the little V6 propelled the behemoth up to cruising speed, the Allison transmission would 'plunk' itself into second gear and lurch along melodically until the bell rang for the next stop. Brakes squeeled, doors opened with a quick hiss of an air-powered actuator, and the cycle repeated several times a day. Let's take a little spin on one for old time's sake.  



What a great sound, eh? I'm sure you remember seeing, smelling, hearing or even riding these at some point in your life, even if you're not a total OCD gearhead like me. You also got to see the fishbowl have top-billing as a co-star of the 1994 Keanu Reeves film. (Check it out, its the one on the movie poster that's jumping through a wall of fire.) The bus clearly made an impression as a tough old mutt that could not only drive above 50 miles per hour all day, but could also do it occasionally while driving on three wheels and take a 100 foot jump off of a freeway bridge without totally turning into a pancake. For the record, they really did that jump.

The fishbowl had a long design run from 1959 all the way to 1977 here in the U.S. and even longer in Canada before being replaced by the GM RTS bus model which, incidently, Peoria's City Link service just retired last year. The GM fishbowl bus, another vehicle that I love, and would love to own someday if I have the space and the bread to make it happen. What about that one on eBay right now? I could make a retro party bus out of it! Think of a Mad Men-inspired night of debauchery complete with a swanky, mid-century bus to take you from place to place? Or I could make a vintage 40-foot motorhome

Okay, fine. These are all dumb ideas. Surely, it wouldn't be practical and I have no idea what I would do with such a machine, but damnit I still want one!  Sadly, most of these old buses will die a death similar to the white one in the video below at a scrapyard in Indiana.  I only hope that some of these elegantly simple machines are still around for us to remember what an effective tool they were as we moved to and from work each day in the big cities in post World War II America .


 

44,000 of these Fish Bowl buses were made. Who's going to click the "Buy it Now" price on the one on eBay right now? Maybe I will.  



Go to https://www.facebook.com/stuffabuspeoria to learn how a retired fishbowl bus is still making a difference this holiday season in Peoria. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Omnivore


The discovery of this late 80's vintage Dodge Omni on the way into work one morning dredged up some memories of a high school evening in the middle of winter. It was probably 1995, sometime after the holidays. A phone call from a friend of mine asked if we wanted to get a group together to go ice skate at the rink in Zion, IL. For those of you laughing hysterically right now, it was still "cool" to go both ice skating and / or roller skating in Lake County in the mid 1990's. Leave that alone.

Anyways, I said yes to the skating and our gang piled into a friend's '88 Dodge Omni and we headed out for a night of slippery, ankle-twisting, tailbone-fracturing fun at the Zion ice rink to goof off and maybe pick up girls from another town that didn't know what idiots we were. Now I should mention that this friend drove a Dodge Omni with the 2.2 fuel-injected four cylinder, and it was equipped with a 5 speed manual transmission. While this particular little hatchback probably left the Belvidere factory pumping out a wimpy 93 horsepower, it was overhauled after a spun rod bearing sidelined it. This friend and his resourceful family of gearheads rebuilt the motor and bored out to 2.5 liters. It also had some minor tweaks that helped it pick up a few stray ponies along the way. The Omni was then in great shape to serve as  a 'first car'. A 16 year-old guy with a lead foot and a cheap black hatchback was a dangerous combination, especially with a carload of testosterone-filled cohorts egging him on to "do a burnout". For being a lightweight, this little thing would scoot! And yes, it would blow the tires off the car every time you dumped the clutch. The asbestosy smell was standard!


The ice skating night started out innocent enough. The Omni arrived, full of flannel clad teens with bad attitudes. We all laughed and joked while listening to loud rock music and fogged up the windows on the way to the rink. Plenty of snow and ice covered the road before we left and eventually the voyage turned into a white-out blizzard. The little front wheel drive Omni would slip and slide over the powder falling on top of the slush that was already on top of the two lane highway. A quick upshift and a lift of the throttle would correct it. Then it would break traction again. Sometimes on purpose to demonstrate "how much power this car has" and other times just because of the road conditions. This repeated for some time, all the while the lights of the oncoming traffic became less frequent. The occasional sideways slide was usually accompanied by a few curse words and laughter. It was getting nasty out there, but we were invincible in our tiny Dodge.

Should we turn back and go home?

"Nah."

Wouldn't the ice rink be closed?

"Nah."

Are we gonna die?

"Maybe."

We plugged along, and eventually slid into the parking lot of the surprisingly un-crowded ice rink. Apparently we were the only ones stupid enough to want to go ice skating in the middle of a blizzard. The rink was open, and we did go and goof off for a while by ourselves.

"Nobody's here."

"There's no chicks."

"This sucks." 

Depressed with our prospects, we all piled back into the Mopar and decided to take the opportunity afforded by a large, empty, snow-covered parking lot and a compact car with a working emergency brake to perform a string of endless stunts.

Most of these involved some form of a donut and/or 180 slide. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the popular reverse donut, this being a front wheel drive car and all. I think that was the first time I'd ever seen that done. While sitting in the back seat with two other chuckleheads, our evening concluded with a simple reverse donut that lasted approximately 5 minutes. This obviously felt like hours. We went around and around and around...I almost puked from car sickness after looking at the lamp posts in the parking lot whizzing past in rhythmic succession. We finally came to a stop, and just sat there for a minute trying not to lose our cookies from the nausea and acrid smell of a smokey clutch. I don't remember anything else about that night, other than we made it home in one piece and so did the little Omni.

Being 16 was wonderful. You could pretend that your sub-100 horsepower compact car losing traction in the snow was a 1,000 horsepower fire-breathing, pavement-shredding burnout machine. Its still fun to pretend that every once in a while even as an adult, am I right?

For the rest of my life, I'll always think of two things when I see a Dodge Omni...

1. Donuts in a snow-covered parking lot.

2. The smell of a  burned clutch.

Strange memories to have triggered in the parking deck on the way to work.







BTW
For those of you who may want to learn about the European origins of the Omni / Horizon platform and Chrysler's successful attempt at beating the import hatchback craze of the late 70's, I recommend a few minutes at the ALLPAR website. They've got a nice little writeup on it. The C2 platform, along with the K-car, helped keep Chrysler from going belly up well before they almost went belly up a few short years
ago.

-D