Yoostabees: Auto Test Tracks

A look back at the history of proving grounds -- which could become obsolete due to a lack of open spaces and the introduction of new technology

By Mike Davis

Today, there must be a couple of dozen full-scale automotive proving grounds, more familiarly known as test tracks, in the U. S. The larger-volume producers have more than one, and even the imported brands (even if domestically produced) require "desert" or hot-weather sites not to be found in Germany, Japan, or Korea. Many of the auto supply companies have their own tracks, and then there are a number of independent facilities that exist to perform tests for government agencies (including military vehicles) and, these days, plaintiff's lawyers.

It didn't "yoostabee" that way. I suppose the first automotive testing was done on the streets of Stuttgart, Germany, where Karl Benz unleashed the first gas buggy, three-wheeled at that, in 1885. The best-known test-drives, though, took place on Detroit streets, first by pioneer Charles B. King on March 6, 1896, and then by Henry Ford three months later.

As the auto industry boomed in the early decades of the 20th century, virtually all engineering development was carried out in garages and on public roads. There was no template, no handbook, and no reference base - practical and trained engineers alike had to learn by cut-and-try how engines and transmissions worked and, importantly, how to improve their reliability and durability.

Early carmakers also depended on public performance events like oval-track racing, hill climbs and cross-country endurance trials to wring out problems, open therefore to public and competitive eyes - and mockery when things went bad. Some (Dodge, for instance) had modest test courses with artificial hills adjacent to assembly plants.

Flops and change

But the change to modern, highly scientific automotive proving grounds came about because of one of the industry's historical flops - the copper-cooled Chevrolet. This was one of the bad ideas of genius Charles F. Kettering, who patented the first electric starter. What seemed like a brainstorm, to eliminate radiators and the problems of freezing and boiling over, turned into a disaster for the rejuvenated General Motors after World War I. Alfred P. Sloan Jr., architect of the modern automobile company, recounted how a handful of the flawed copper-cooled Chevys actually got into some customer hands before the industry's first known recall was ordered by horrified GM executives in 1923. The problem was not only that the concept had never been tested fully, but also that there were no standardized procedures in General Motors (or anywhere else in the mass production auto industry) for such testing.

"Cars then were being tested on public roads," Sloan recalled in his 1963 classic, My Years With General Motors, "and there was no easy way of telling whether the test driver had pulled up at the side of the road, taken a nap, and then driven faster than the test schedule called for to make up the necessary mileage. Once one of our engineers discovered a test car jacked up outside a dance hall with the engine running up the required mileage on the odometer.

"The most important step we took to standardize and improve test procedures was the establishment in 1924 of the General Motors Proving Ground, the first of its kind in the automobile industry." The pioneering GM test track was located at Milford, Mich., in hilly open country just 40 miles northwest of the GM headquarters and nascent engineering laboratories in mid-town Detroit.

"The thought," Sloan continued, "was that we would have a large area [it grew to 4000 acres], properly protected, and entirely closed to the public. It would be provided with roads of various types representing all the various demands on the motorcar...There we would be able to prove out our cars under controlled conditions both before and after production, and we could also make comprehensive tests on competitive cars."

Indeed, the first time I visited Milford, as a BusinessWeek reporter attending a media event, I was amazed to see all the GM Security cars at the proving ground were 1958 Ford police units - what better way to evaluate the competition than simply use them routinely for extended mileage?

A new industry standard

Packard soon followed GM with its own somewhat less ambitious test track and engineering garages near Utica, Mich., some 20 miles north of its Detroit office and manufacturing complex. The banked, oval Packard high-speed track was hailed in 1928 as the "world's fastest speedway." Studebaker likewise built a proving ground west of South Bend, Ind., around 1926, while a Nash (later American Motors) testing ground was built at Burlington, Wisc., west of the Nash manufacturing center at Kenosha.

Oddly, according to Jack Miller, proprietor of Miller Motors in Ypsilanti, Mich. - the world's last Hudson dealer - Hudson Motors never had a test track, not even to refine the sensational "step-down" body introduced in 1948. And Chrysler's legendary engineering team likewise deigned it unnecessary to have a proving ground until the Chelsea Proving Ground west of Ann Arbor, Mich., was opened in 1954. This was the same year Ford opened its 3800-acre Kingman Proving Ground in northwestern Arizona.

Lacking its own test track, Chrysler had to use the Packard facility at Utica for testing Army tanks during World War II. The Utica track then was idled after Packard and Studebaker completed their merger in 1956. Ford bought the Packard Proving Ground property in the Sixties not for the test facilities but rather for a modern factory building that became a trim plant for the number-two automaker.

In addition to these large facilities, Detroit's Big Three operated a number of special test facilities around North America, including high altitude at Pike's Peak, Colo., cold weather in northern Minnesota, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and western Canada, and paint-and-plastic and high-humidity test stations in Florida. Major auto suppliers, especially tire companies, likewise developed proving grounds to test durability, handling, high speeds, and other segmented components of vehicles.

Environmental testing - desert, altitude, cold, etc. - began to be seriously needed in the postwar years as airflow to radiators was increasingly restricted by "lower and wider" body designs. Then came air conditioning, which arrived in full force as an option early in the Fifties. A third factor driving proving ground construction was the MUCH longer new-car warranties beginning with Ford's 12/12 of 1961 models (24/24 for Lincoln) and Chrysler's 5/50 powertrain warranty of 1963.

Meanwhile, the use of special-purpose engineering laboratories and test facilities had been growing rapidly, with an array of cold rooms, wind tunnels, light rooms, outside and laboratory safety-crash-test set-ups, engine dynamometer and transmission labs, and automotive emissions testing and development sites. The advent of California emission control requirements in the early Sixties, then Federal regulations for safety in the late Sixties and for emissions in the early Seventies made both the specialized test facilities and the ability to run extensive durability tests a necessity, not merely a choice, for auto engineers. Emissions and fuel economy rules imposed minimum 50,000-mile tests for every engine/transmission and vehicle size combination, with some now extending out to 150,000 miles. Testing became a growth industry in itself.

On the technology side, automotive engineers and suppliers began developing laboratory equipment to simulate rugged test-track routes with huge machines to shake and piston test vehicles up and down 24/7 with no drivers needed and with absolute repeatability. It was called "road-to-lab" transference. An example was Ford's Reliability Laboratory opened in 1966.

The next step in this advance of technology was use of chassis roll dynamometers in which the vehicle runs its 50,000 miles without leaving the garage, its wheels spinning huge rollers. A later variation of this was the dynamic chassis roll, in which the shaking and pistoning of the earlier lab tests was combined with the rollers, so that frames and suspensions could be tested and analyzed for endurance in the lab at the same time powertrains were squeezed out for their durability miles.

Now the trend is to try to simulate all this in the computer, even in laptops.

The Japanese join in

Getting back to the tale of the industry's proving grounds, the Nash track in Wisconsin became the American Motors track after the 1954 merger of Nash and Hudson. Jeeps joined the testing there in the early 1970s after AMC's acquisition of Willys, and then the track was idled when Chrysler bought out AMC in 1987. But in 1988, the facility was sold to a New York company called MGA, a descendent of the old Cornell Aeronautical Labs (later Calspan) in Buffalo, a pioneer in auto crash safety research. Today MGA rents the former Nash facility for automotive testing, ride-and-drive programs by auto companies, and even for movies and commercials. The National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a big customer.

Supplier firm Bendix Corporation acquired Studebaker's Indiana track after the South Bend automaker ceased making cars in 1966. Bosch, a successor to Bendix, now uses it.

In the meantime, around 1975 the State of Ohio built a 4500-acre proving ground called Transportation Research Center (or TRC) north of Columbus, hoping to cash in on all the federally required auto testing. The property became part of the successful effort by Ohio to persuade Honda to build its first U. S. automobile manufacturing in the buckeye state in 1988. Ohio State University actually operates the testing site with Honda merely the number-two customer after the NHTSA, even though the Japanese firm is the landlord. Other auto companies also rent the facilities, with OSU somehow ensuring that secrets are maintained. Honda also has a 3600-acre hot-weather test track in California's Mohave Desert.

As Toyota ramped up its North American operations it realized the need for proving grounds that couldn't be duplicated in Japan and obviously were closer. Hence in 1993 it opened a giant 12,000-acre facility about 16 miles west of Chrysler's Arizona Proving Ground. Nissan has a 3000-acre proving ground southeast of Phoenix near the VWoA track now up for grabs.

Other major players in the U.S. vehicle market so far have managed without proving grounds here, notably BMW and Hyundai. Mercedes, of course, can use Chrysler facilities but does so only a limited way. All do environmental road testing as required around the world - Africa, Middle East, South America - as well as in their home countries.

But the bottom line is that large land areas that once were out in the middle of nowhere are increasingly being threatened by totally unforeseen residential real estate developments. GM's Milford Proving Ground is surrounded on all four sides by subdivisions. Ford's Romeo track is only about a mile from new McMansions on five-acre plots steadily marching northward.

As the latest track-to-laboratory-to-laptop technology evolves and corporate bean counters - egged on by Wall Street - look longingly at ready sources of free capital, one has to wonder if auto proving grounds are approaching buggy whip status.

Test tracks as just another "yoostabee?" Could be.

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