Car and Driver – January 1981

Frank Winchell being one of my best friends, I write this not as a journalist describing GM’s vice-president, Engineering Staff, but as one pal writing about another.  He doesn’t know I’m writing it, and neither does General Motors Public Relations.  Frank Winchell is an extremely bright guy, with a kind of free-form, questing intelligence that ranges all over the human and technological lot.  He has a mini machine shop and a complete welding outfit in his home.  He skis.  He ride dirt bikes.  He’s an accomplished photographer.  He’s a fly fisherman, a bass fisherman, and a scuba diver.  He says if the Lord told him he only had two days left, he’d probably spend both of them quail hunting.  John De Lorean has called him “as important in the development of the modern racing car as Colin Chapman,” referring to Frank’s pioneering work in ground effects and aerodynamics on the old Chaparral road racing cars with Jim Hall and Hap Sharp.  He flooded the Chevrolet Division of General Motors with Mini-Minors when he was director of research and development almost twenty years ago, in an attempt to convince the powers-that-were that small, tranversed-engined, front-drive cars were the wave of the future.  It took a while.

Frank could be described as outspoken.  In a 1965 letter to his close friend and associate Bill Milliken, then with Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, he criticized a book by a highly regarded automotive journalist: “he makes a big pitch about stability, which I agree is a very practical proposition as he puts it.  However, he and others seem to think that stability is all you need for controllability.  Whatever name you give it, I think we will all agree the most important thing is to stay on the road.  What possible significance could there be in sailing off the road, smack into a big sycamore tree, with a nice understeerring car, as opposed to crashing into one just like it on the opposite side of the road in an unstable oversteering car?  Controllability at the limit of adhesion is what makes the ‘old ones bold.’ “

Farther along, he says: “At this point I have to say that I am pretty annoyed and a little emotional with this guy…  What right does this ass have to expel such low-grade fecal matter on the blissful reader?  I don’t  think I have ever seen so much arrogance.  In fact, I’d like to bust this S.O.B. in the mouth.  (All of which is a pretty poor reflection on my own rationality and humility.)  Now I am not mad at this guy because I don’t think he knows anything about automobiles – he represents something to me, something I don’t know how to cope with, something I feel absolutely powerless against.  These people and the situations they create seem to be everywhere.  They are in the way of understanding… They clutter up the newspapers and magazines, TV, radio, the churches, the schools… Not only are they so saturated with their brand of knowledge that they are beyond learning, they are responsible for infinite misunderstanding.

“I want to distinguish myself from these people by making a better judgement of what I know and what I don’t know.  While I may never become a source of great understanding, I hope that I will never become a source of great misunderstanding.  My inclination to eliminate such people arises from my complete frustration in that they can never be made to believe that they really don’t understand.  Most of all, by one who himself doesn’t understand.  It is inconceivable to most people that a person admitting to not understanding should be able to convince them that they don’t understand either.  That to learn from such a person that they don’t have to knowledge they thought they had [might] enhance their own well-being is just not believable.

“… It seems to me [that] the greatest failing of mankind is his universal intolerance to a state of not knowing.  We have to answer everything, now.  If we are not able to observe repeatability, we conclude by logic formations that suits us best.  They gain authenticity with time until ultimately we are ready to defend them with our lives and with the lives of succeeding generations.”

At the end he says; “The greatest act of humility that I ever heard of was that of a man in a great cathedral who, in the presence of infinite knowledge and wisdom, occupied himself with the swaying of a chandelier, counting the regularity of its period with his pulse.  In this regal atmosphere, one man changed the world.  Complacency stifled the rest, and the last to turn his attention to such triviality would have been the guy on the podium.  I don’t know if Galileo was an S.O.B. or not – I doubt it.  But in any event, I would like to have been his friend.  He didn’t have many.”

Frank Winchell is a little deaf, from his years spent testing World War II tanks, tank guns, and fighter aircraft.  This helps him to affect a kind of naïveté.  He asks simple basic questions that invariably seem stupid to the stupid, pompous, and overbearing people he sometimes confronts.  He’s also a health nut.  He runs, works the light bag and jumps rope like a boxer, plays squash at least two nights a week, all this in spite of a heart attack he suffered a few years back – a heart attack that occurred toward the end of the week when he learned he had cancer of the bladder.  One of the reasons he’s as active as he is relates directly to his own innovative genius.  As a urostamate ( one who has undergone bladder removal), he has to wear a bag that performs the function of his missing bladder.  Soon after his operation he could see that the existing appliance was a nightmare of inconvenience and discomfort, so with the full blessing and support of General Motors be designed a new one.  This one attaches to the external duct with an O-ring and is supported by a surgical belt.  The old one was smaller and was held to the patient’s skin with an adhesive compound, a glue.  The new appliance is now patented and will be in production in February of this year, to provide relief and unimagined freedom for the hundreds of thousands of people who go through life thus equipped.  Not bad for a guy so willing to expose his own lack of knowledge.  I asked him, recently, what he’d like to do when he retires from General Motors.  He answered, “I’d like to put together a little company with some of the really talented craftsmen I’ve worked with over the years, and we’d build things, difficult things, that nobody else could handle.”  Not bad indeed.

– David E. Davis, Jr.