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Copper cooled calamity: The 1923 Chevrolet Series C

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Photo from the writer’s collection. 

After Henry Ford almost singlehandedly created the low-priced automobile category with the Model T, the rest of the industry found itself playing catch-up with models like the Star from Durant, the Overland from Willys-Overland and the Chevrolet. Ultimately, the only one of those makes to thrive would be Chevrolet, but it took some time to light upon a formula that would successfully siphon away potential Ford buyers.

Chevrolet’s earliest attempt at parity with Ford was the Series 490 of 1916, conceived by General Motors’ founder Billy Durant. So called for its base price of $490, the 490 was $50 to $100 more than the Model T and arguably of lesser quality. Prices soon rose and the 490 was not the success that Durant had hoped, meaning that Chevrolet would not have the volume to create the economies of scale that would permit the company to go head-to-head with Ford.

1922 Chevrolet 490 roadster

The Chevrolet 490 was a thoroughly conventional car that had tried and failed to beat the Ford Model T at its own game. Via The Old Car Manual Project.

In 1919, Chevrolet was folded into General Motors, and by 1920, Billy Durant was gone from control of GM—a victim of his own stock-market machinations, over extension and the post-WWI recession that hit the auto industry hard. In his place were Pierre S. du Pont and Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Both men were possessed of sound business sense and a more conservative disposition than Durant. They set to work consolidating the success of the GM organization (mainly Buick) and pruning off dead weight.

Once GM was consolidated around its successful middle-priced operations, Sloan and du Pont turned to the Chevrolet division once again. While the two men had been cleaning house in the larger GM organization, Charles F. Kettering, inventor of the self-starter, had been performing experiments with air-cooled engines at the General Motors Research Corporation in Dayton, Ohio starting in 1918.

1920 Franklin art

Air cooling was not new technology in the 1920s, but it was generally limited to expensive cars like the Franklin. Via

Kettering believed he had developed an improvement over the existing air-cooled technology of the day, as employed by Franklin and a few others, by replacing the cast-in iron cooling fins with copper fins attached by electrical welding (later revised to an oven-brazing process). Kettering was attracted to copper because it conducted heat better than iron and was more readily available and easier to work with than aluminum.

The respected inventor’s enthusiasm for the project was contagious and he soon converted du Pont into a major proponent of the project. Sloan was less certain, however, and preferred to take a wait-and-see approach toward the abandonment of liquid-cooled vehicles. Kettering, however, was impatient and had a great psychological stake in the project, making noises about resigning from the GM organization whenever the rush to put the air-cooled engine into production was questioned.

1933 Charles F. Kettering art

Charles F. Kettering was widely hailed as a genius of automotive engineering. He was best known for the 1912 Cadillac self starter, but also invented tetra-ethyl lead, Freon and the two-stroke diesel engine. Via Wikipedia.

Charles Kettering was supposed to have said “Parts left off weigh nothing, cost nothing and don’t cause service problems.” And that sums up rather well the appeal of air cooling in the early 1920s: weight, cost savings, the elimination of freeze risks (antifreeze didn’t become widespread until the late 1930s) and reduction of complexity. It was likely the cost savings that was most attractive to the executives who green lighted the project.

Unfortunately in this case, the air-cooled engine did not live up to Kettering’s belief that eliminating the radiator would eliminate the associated service problems. Instead, there were a whole host of other service problems that failed to show up during the early stages of testing and created a great deal of friction within the company as to who would manufacture the air-cooled engine and when.

1927 Pierre DuPont art

Pierre S. du Pont was president of General Motors in the early 1920s and an enthusiastic supporter of the Copper Cooled project. Via Wikipedia.

Once du Pont had embraced the concept of the Copper Cooled engine (as the corporation had decided to label the engine, to differentiate from the air-cooled systems already being produced), it was decided at the corporate level that Chevrolet and Oakland would suspend development of liquid-cooled cars in favor of bringing out exclusively Copper Cooled vehicles. The decision was made in December of 1920 and the target date to replace the Chevrolet 490 with the Copper Cooled Chevrolet was the autumn of 1921.

Unfortunately, the executives had not consulted Chevrolet General Manager Karl Zimmerschied about this decision and his reluctance soon became palpable. Oakland General Manager George Hannum proved more receptive, initially, to the idea of a Copper Cooled six-cylinder serving as the division’s only engine. Kettering was happy to devote the majority of his efforts to a Copper Cooled Six for Oakland, but du Pont preferred to see the 490 replaced with something more novel as soon as possible.

1923 Oakland touring

The 1923 Oakland was supposed to have a Copper Cooled six-cylinder engine, but when the four-cylinder prototype failed its testing, the division was given permission to revert to a liquid-cooled system. Photo from the writer’s collection.

Both programs were pushed forward and du Pont gleefully made plans to discontinue liquid-cooled Oakland production in December 1921 and introduce the new Copper Cooled car at the New York Auto Show in January 1922. But when the Copper Cooled four-cylinder went to Oakland’s Pontiac, Michigan headquarters for testing in the autumn of 1921, bad news came back—the car had failed all of the tests to which it had been put. Hannum informed DuPont that it would require at least six months for his division to revise the Copper Cooled engine for production and that in the interim the division had its own, internally designed, liquid-cooled models ready to produce for 1923.

This liquid-cooled fait accompli was du Pont’s first inkling of a structural problem with the Copper Cooled program. Each division, having come under the General Motors corporate umbrella from a separate existence, considered itself to be essentially autonomous and largely operated as such. The act of the corporation suddenly thrusting a new model on the division was met with great indignation by the engineering and production staffs of those divisions. Instead of working with the experimental engineers in Dayton, the Chevrolet and Oakland staff viewed themselves as being in competition.

Kettering and Knudsen LOC

William S. Knudsen (right) left Ford and took over GM’s Chevrolet Division. He and Sloan brokered a deal with du Pont whereby Chevrolet would continue to produce a liquid-cooled vehicle until the Copper Cooled models had proven a success. He is seen here with Charles Kettering in 1938. Via the Library of Congress.

The crisis was tackled head on by the GM executives, and Oakland was relieved of its participation in the Copper Cooled program. In March of 1922, Zimmerschied was relieved of his position as General Manager of Chevrolet and replaced by du Pont himself. William S. Knudsen, newly arrived from Ford, was made Vice President of Chevrolet. Knudsen agreed to development of a Copper Cooled Chevrolet alongside an updated liquid-cooled 490, to be renamed Superior.

Kettering, meanwhile, shopped around among the divisional engineering staffs until he found someone sympathetic to his Copper Cooling concept at Oldsmobile. Because of du Pont’s desire that there be a middle-priced Copper Cooled Six, in November of 1922 it was ordered that Olds cease all experimentation with liquid-cooled cars immediately and proceed with production of an exclusively Copper Cooled line effective August 1, 1923.

1923 Chevrolet Series B art

Chevrolet started the 1923 model year with a redesigned 490 now called the Superior Series B. Via The Old Car Manual Project.

Chevrolet Copper Cooled production was to begin in February 1922 with the production of 1000 units, to increase each month until a target of 50,000 units in October. Those production estimates proved wildly optimistic, however, and in the spring of 1923, with water-cooled Superior models in huge numbers, only a trickle of Copper Cooled cars were leaving Flint—239 of the completed cars were scrapped without ever leaving the factory.

In the field, the news was even worse. The reports from the operators of the 150 demonstrator cars and from the buyers of the 100 cars that were actually sold to the public were of a car that was still in the experimental stages. Kettering had devised a system that was at home under high-speed conditions, but his draw-through cooling system was not up to the task of keeping the engine at a safe temperature at low speeds, in stop-and-go traffic or at idle. Worse, the standard reaction to overheating in that era was not to speed up to increase airflow through the radiator, but to slow down and allow the cooling system to draw heat away from the combustion chamber.

1923 Chevrolet Series C 02

The Copper Cooled Series C resembled the Superior Series B but lacked a radiator, having a louvered air intake instead. Photo from the writer’s collection.

Overheating and resultant detonation issues were the biggest problem facing the Copper Cooled Chevrolet, but other reports claimed a major drop in power when the engine was hot. This latter issue can probably be traced to cylinders warping due to the heat. These problems, combined with general design and quality-control problems shared with the liquid-cooled Superior models, scuttled the Copper Cooled Chevrolet’s reputation entirely.

In June, Chevrolet recalled all Copper Cooled models and destroyed them. Only two are known to survive: One in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and one in the National Automobile Museum (the former Harrah collection) in Reno, Nevada. The Henry Ford’s example, purchased new by Ford Motor Company to evaluate, was the subject of an eight-page feature in Special Interest Autos, Number 30 (September-October 1975).

Pioneer 01 Pioneer 02

A number of Copper Cooled Series C engines had second lives as stationary engines. Photos courtesy Pioneer Auto Show.

Interestingly, the Copper Cooled engine survives in larger numbers than complete cars. The design lent itself to good service as a stationary industrial engine in General Motors factories and some of those still exist in museums and private collections. Some claim that the DELCO home powerplant setups of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s were also available with (surplus? salvaged?) Copper Cooled engines, although we weren’t able to confirm that use.

Experiments with air cooling continued after the failure of the Copper Cooled Chevrolet, although Kettering’s iron/copper hybrid design would never return to production. Chevrolet itself, of course, would produce another air-cooled model in the 1960s, the Corvair, which had its own problematic reputation, but not due to the reliability of its engine.

1926 Alfred Sloan art

Alfred P. Sloan viewed the Copper Cooled program’s failure as an important lesson in corporate and divisional cooperation. Via Wikipedia.

Kettering, though he almost resigned over the Copper Cooled affair, was persuaded to stay by the ever diplomatic Sloan, who would go on to steer the company to the manufacturing powerhouse it became. Du Pont, meanwhile, quietly stepped down in the midst of the program and returned to managing the eponymous chemical company.

The Copper Cooled Chevrolet may have been a technological and marketing defeat for General Motors, but Sloan viewed it as highly instructional as to how a corporation should and should not be run. In that sense, it was an important lesson that contributed greatly to the company’s ultimate success.

1927 Chevrolet art

The 490 engine, which was almost discontinued in 1923, powered the 1927 Chevrolet Capitol, which was the first Chevrolet to outsell Ford. Via The Old Car Manual Project.

Ironically, it was the nearly abandoned Superior series that would ultimately be the platform with which Chevrolet started to wrest the low-priced market from the Model T. Sloan realized that the low-priced buyer didn’t necessarily care about gee-whiz technical innovation like an air-cooled engine, but rather wanted more style and luxury for his money. Those things proved easy to integrate into the Chevrolet without pricing it much higher than the Ford. Sales of the Model T would slide every year from their peak in 1923, while those of Chevrolet would grow.

Ford’s response would ultimately be the Model A, and Chevrolet would respond with the Stovebolt Six. But that’s the next round and therefore another story.