Automobile Magazine – May 2001

American Driver – by David E. Davis, Jr.

“Try to imagine a wild duck designed to pass a government crash test.” – Frank Winchell

Frank Winchell died last Monday.  He was eighty-three, suffering from a variety of ailments, and badly wounded by the passing of his wife, Marguerite, a few months earlier.  I owe Frank Winchell a lot.  As head of Chevrolet Research and Development, he worked with Jim Hall in the creation and subsequent development of the hugely successful Chaparral racing cars — cars that really meant the world to me.  He taught me a great deal about the dynamic behavior of automobiles.  With Hall and vehicle-dynamics maven Bill Milliken, Frank Helped me write one of the most difficult yet successful pieces I have ever did, a treatise on the dynamics of rear- and mid-engined cars in Car and Driver.  He arranged for me to attend my first major-league quail hunt at Riverview Plantation thirty years ago.  He introduced me to driven bird shooting in England.  He made me laugh regularly for three decades, and he provided me with a fund of stories that will still be making the long after I’m gone.

For instance, it was Frank Winchell who, in 1967, wanted General Motors to build and updated and refined version of the BMC Mini instead of the horrible Chevrolet Vega.  It was Frank Winchell who proposed the GM abandon all of its various racing programs in the Sixties and replace them with a single, tightly focused, engineering-driven Formula 1 racing program organized on the Mercedes-Benz model.  It was Frank Winchell — with his Number Two, Jim Musser — who created the racing-driver training program that Mark Donohue put forward in his book, The Unfair Advantage.   It was Frank Winchell who could stand at a chalkboard with five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio — despite the fact that neither spoke the other’s language — and carry on a spirited discussion of oversteer and understeer faster than a translator could translate.

It was Frank Winchell who suggested that the GM system was so obtuse that if they’d had Stradivarius building violins, the only way they could have rewarded him for his genius would have been to make him a plant foreman.  It was Frank Winchell who, after driving a prototype car that was steered by a sliding Gates belt instead of a steering wheel, called the engineer responsible and said, “If we’d been building cars your way for seventy years and some guy came along and offered us the steering wheel, we’d pay the sonuvabitch a billion dollars!”

Frank was ordered to take early retirement with only a few months left before he was sixty-five.  This insult cost him a fair bit of money, and it was done to him because he would not suffer fools gladly.  Specifically, he found it almost impossible to tolerate Howard Kehrl, a GM vice chairman who may well have been the least competent executive in the history of that corporation.  Kehrl employed staff people to provided him with “interesting questions” that he might ask at engineering meetings, and on meeting days, one bright young guy would be stationed outside Kehrl’s office to guild him to the meeting site, since he had demonstrated a tendency to get lost on these occasions.

About the time of Frank’s bad luck, I found myself waiting far a civic meeting to start in Detroit, standing between E. M. “Pete” Estes and Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudson.  Estes was a retired GM president and Knudson was a second-generation heavyweight who’d gone on to be president of Ford Motor Company.  Estes allowed that Frank had gotten screwed, and Bunkie rebutted that Frank had always been a pain in the ass.  Estes said, “Bunk, Frank Winchell contributed more to General Motors with his brain and his two hands than anybody in the corporation’s history, except maybe Boss Kettering!”  Bunkie’s rejoinder was, “You may be right, but he’s still a pain in the ass.”

Frank Winchell and Jim Musser and I worked on the ill-fated Chevrolet Vega together.  In my launch plan, I asked that the corporation consider something like a modern platform team to manage the rollout, with the key people from each major discipline all working together in the same facility.  We were denied this, but we did manage to gather all the key players in one room once a month.  When it was all over, Frank and I got drunk, and Frank drifted off into introspection.  “That was the best bunch of guys I ever worked with,” he mused “some of the brightest people I knew, and that still turned out to be the worst car we ever built.  I think about all of us in those meeting, studying the critical path analysis, reviewing the data, talking through problems with guys you really respected, not once, do I remember any one of those individuals coming into the room yelling, ‘Hey you guys!  I got it!  Here’s what we’re gonna do!  We’re gonna build a really shitty little car!’ “

One frigid moonlit night Frank and I were wedged into a tiny pop tent high in the peaks of Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation.  The occasion was a hilariously unsuccessful bear hunt.  While we struggled to get comfortable in our sleeping bags, I began to pick on my pal.  “Frank,” I blurted, “you’re one of the smartest guys who ever worked for GM.  You’ve written dozens of papers, you’ve got forty-one patents, and nobody knows who you are or what you do.  There are jerks above you in the chain of command plagiarizing your stuff every week with the press or in some government hearing.  You have to stop hiding your light under a bushel and start promoting yourself, or you’ll never get the recognition you deserve.”

Frank mulled this, then replied, “Well, I’m not like you.  You come down here, and immediately know all these indians by their first names.  You could stand on top of a car and give a speech in a goddamn gas station.  I can’t do that.  Every time I walk into a room, I expect somebody to ask, ‘Who’s that dumb bastard that just walked in?’  Hell, if I looked like you, I wouldn’t be able to leave my house!

Automobile Magazine – September 2001

American Driver – by David E. Davis, Jr.

Letters from the editor emeritus…

To Frank Winchell, deceased

Dear Frank:

You would have enjoyed your memorial celebration last night.  An army of your friends and associates was on hand, and a lot of great Winchell stories were retold.  Bill Milliken came in from New York, and I’d say if you’re expecting that aged repository of everything there is to know about vehicle dynamics to join you any time soon, you’re probably going to be disappointed.  Roger Penske, the son you never had, was there, looking very spruce and every inch the captain of industry.  Since you died before Memorial Day, you may not be aware that Roger’s cars took first and second in the Indianapolis 500 this year.  If I can’t get Speedvision at my home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it may not be available where you are, either.

When we saw each other at Turtle Lake last grouse season, you complained that I had allowed the ends of my mustache to droop.  I guess I did that as a sort of grudging acknowledgement of encroaching old age, and I apologize.  However, you should know that I showed up at your memorial last night with ends turned up again, as they were for forty years, and I feel much better about myself.  Anything you say, Frank.