- Written by webmin
Frustrated Automotive Tinkerer Hall of Fame candidate No. 347: Alfred Raymond “Ray” Russell of Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan.
In 1942, while the rest of the automotive world geared up for the production of war machines, and while every other backyard tinkerer spent his time dreaming up novel ways of defeating the Axis, Ray Russell set out to radically alter the fundamental design and makeup of the automobile.
“The new car is not a hundred-mile-an-hour, chrome-plated, gadget covered hearse,” he said in December 1942. “It’s a safe, practical car to take us to work at 35 miles an hour, using only a gallon of gas every 40 miles.”
Of course, with a war on and with chrome-plated, gadget-covered hearse production suspended, nobody seemed to really care.
Russell, born about 1897, originally came from Wilmington, Delaware, attended the Chicago Art Institute and later studied sculpture in Detroit before he ascended to the presidency of the Detroit Industrial Designers Association (of which we’ve so far confirmed exactly one member). One newspaper account claimed he “is an expert in designing and has also invented many articles currently on the market, on which he holds patents. He has also done much important work in black-light photography for the army.” Of the 10 or so patents of his that we found, one from 1944 (2,340,227, assigned to the Burkhardt Company, to which a few of his other patents were assigned) did seem to result from his black-light work, though most were assigned after the war. Three were design patents for hood ornaments (D149,147, D162,227, and D154,327), and another (D150,462, assigned to Safticycle of LaCrosse, Wisconsin) was for a motorcycle design.
Variously described as a business executive, engineer, industrial designer and plastics engineer, Russell’s first experiments in automotive engineering occurred in summer 1941, when he built a plastic-bodied car, what he claimed to be the first such car in the country (though he would have to contend with Ford’s experimental soybean-plastic car for that title). Russell’s plastic car used a framework of welded steel tubing to support a wire mesh contour, to which he applied ethyl cellulose plastic up to 1/8-inch thick with a modified caulking gun. The envelope body styling might have been considered revolutionary, but the 1942 Chrysler-like grille bars suggest Russell had his eye on the latest Chrysler designs, including the envelope-bodied Thunderbolt.
The innovative plastic car earned Russell a mention in the December 1941 issue of Popular Mechanics, but for some reason, possibly due to wartime material shortages, Russell quickly abandoned his ethyl cellulose body-making method and switched to plywood a year later, using a design that hewed very closely to the plastic-bodied car. Again, he used a steel tube structure to define the shape of the car, but this time simply bonded two layers of plywood together with a waterproof resin (quite possibly ethyl cellulose) and attached the panels straight to the tube structure. Popular Mechanics again mentioned Russell in its February 1943 issue (thanks to Jean-Claude Marcoux for the tip), but as before made no mention of the chassis or drivetrain that Russell chose for the car.
Russell claimed that his plywood car, like his plastic car, was the first such car built (nope – squarely beat to the punch on that claim), estimated it weighed 600 pounds less than a typical automobile, believed he could sell it for $500, and agitated for the use of lightweight materials in automobile construction.
In constructing the plywood body, we are using resin-bonded, waterproof, laminated wood. This has the strength of steel at one-third the weight.
America’s search for non-critical materials has proven that plastics, plywood, hard fibre, structural glass and concrete can replace heavy metal items effectively. Many are better than the originals.
This fabricating job proved that such a job could be just as good looking and just as strong as other cars of steel, in addition to being quieter and just as comfortable. The plywood body also proved the fallacy of trying to incorporate compound curves in a simple structure without forming dies or a hundred joints. Any cabinet maker or furniture factory can turn out the plywood body without dies or heavy presses.
In 1944, Russell explored a third alternative body material with his 80-inch wheelbase “gadabout,” though this one was a little more conventional: aluminum. Styling also appeared somewhat more conventional with this little three-seat roadster, which had identical nose and tail sections “as a manufacturing economy.” A fuel-injected air-cooled two-stroke engine powered the gadabout, and according to Russell, the entire car weighed 1,100 pounds and returned 40 miles per gallon (though he also once claimed 50 MPG). The gadabout earned Russell extensive exposure thanks to a short Associated Press article and accompanying photograph (both of which made it to the pages of the January 1945 issue of Popular Mechanics), but the “good postwar possibilities” that Russell promised never materialized.
Not until Russell again appeared in Popular Mechanics in December 1945 (and in Popular Science in February 1946) did intrigued readers get a chance to see the powertrain under the skin of his three previous cars as well as his next effort. A hydraulic pump, bolted directly to the engine (details on neither were given), provided up to 1,000 pounds of pressure to four wheel-mounted hydraulic motors. Braking was accomplished by mechanical means as well as by reversing a four-way valve between the pump and the motors. Russell pointed out that the hydraulic drive system eliminated the complexity and weight of a transmission, driveshaft and differential while providing the benefits of all wheel drive, greater interior space and more flexible automotive layouts.
Where a 1941 Chevrolet chassis reportedly underpinned Russell’s first two cars, his fourth used a sort of space frame of Russell’s own design that he later bodied in plywood, abandoning his previous Chrysler-homage design for a pre-Winnebago look that even Popular Science described as crude.
Ford apparently hired Russell – perhaps on a consultancy basis – to oversee the company’s own efforts toward hydraulic powertrains, and this acceptance must have emboldened Russell to dream of adapting the hydraulic drive concept to amphibious cars and even to flying cars. What came out of that collaboration with Ford, we don’t know, but by April of 1946, we see Russell back in the pages of Popular Science with an aluminum-bodied, suspension-less motor scooter powered by a scaled-down hydraulic drivetrain, so we can only assume Russell’s time with Ford was brief.
UPDATE: Thanks to Timothy Wade’s suggestion below, we went flipping through James Moloney and George Dammann’s Crestline book, “Encyclopedia of American Cars, 1946-1959″ and found a couple more tidbits about the Gadabout and the second plywood car. More interestingly, we see from that book that Russell had designed the Detroiter, a fiberglass car built on a Ford chassis around 1953.