Monday, May 03, 2010

Form and function -- Part 1

I see in the papers that the All-American Soapbox Derby has fallen on hard times. The organization is deeply in debt. Crowds for the all-national races in Akron, Ohio, have dropped from 50,000 to 15,000. Corporate sponsors have abandoned ship. Still, local competitions are held in 150 cities, and hundreds of local winners, boys and girls, take their cars to the national.

For those who don't know, Soapbox Derby contestants build their own cars, powered only by gravity on a downhill track. When I was a kid, standardized steel axles, wheels, and helmets were supplied by the national organization. There was an entrance fee, generally paid by a local business sponsor, who got to paint its logo on the car. The races have been held since 1934.

And here is yours truly, in 1948, almost 12 years old, sanding down the surface of his racer in the family garage in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The skin of this beauty is made from the thin slat sides of orange crates, scrounged from local markets.

Let it be said at once that I had a lot of help from my father. He was perhaps more excited about the competition than I was. He basically designed the car, then taught me how to build it. Cars were supposed to be entirely the creation of the boys (no girls in those days) -- the proverbial soapboxes on wheels -- but by 1948 it was generally conceded that the derby was a family affair. In fact, the cars that won had the look of being designed by Ferrari and built by teams of expert mechanics in machine shops -- and probably were.

While my father was designer-in-chief, he taught me how to do the building, all with hand tools and scrounged lumber. I mastered the usual tools -- saws, plane, chisels, brace and bit -- and became something of an expert with the drawknife.

I have mentioned here before my father as the consummate tinkerer. He was a mechanical engineer by training and occupation, and could fix anything in house or car that required repair. To get a sense of his obsessions, look at the axles on the car above (click to enlarge). They are four-inches thick. Why? Inside we embedded coil springs. That's right. Coil spring suspensions of my father's design! I didn't grasp -- at least not yet -- that a spring suspension on a smooth track was of little use, and presumably was only there for the comfort of the driver, who hardly needed comfort on a ride that lasted about a minute. Those thick axles surely added enough air resistance to slow me down by the fraction of a second that would cost the race. Which it did. We competed in heats of three. I came in second in my inaugural plunge down Ninth Street.

Was that the end of story? More tomorrow,