1928 Franklin Phaeton
1928 Franklin Phaeton. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Cooling an engine by blowing air directly over the cylinders, rather than carrying the heat away in a liquid and its associated plumbing, seems much more efficient.

Charles Kettering, General Motors’ brilliant research chief, was so captivated by air cooling that he designed an air-cooled, overhead valve four-cylinder engine for the Chevrolet, with a plan to extend it to other GM cars. In the Chevrolet engine, vertical copper fins were fused to the cast iron cylinders. The engine was enclosed in a sheet steel housing and cooling was achieved by using a squirrel-cage fan at the front to draw air up over these fins.

The “Copper Cooled” Chevrolet was introduced in 1923, but unfortunately it pre-ignited badly and was a disaster. All had to be recalled and GM abandoned air cooling. Chevrolet would return to air cooling four decades later when it was used successfully in the Corvair.

In spite of use in aircraft engines and millions of small industrial applications, air cooling became largely identified with only two cars: the German Volkswagen and the American Franklin, although Porsche also used air cooling because of its Volkswagen roots. While VW and Porsche eventually switched to liquid cooling, every Franklin ever built was air-cooled.

In effect Franklin handed the air cooling mantle to Volkswagen. The Beetle saga began when Ferdinand started designing it in 1934, the same year the Franklin car ended.

The Franklin story started in 1901 when John Wilkinson, a brilliant mechanical engineering graduate of Ithica, New York’s Cornell University, designed a car for the New York Automobile Co. When the company failed to pay him, Wilkinson sought other possibilities.

This led him to Herbert Franklin, a die casting manufacturer in Syracuse, New York. He was so enthusiastic about Wilkinson’s prototype that the H.H. Franklin Co. went into the automobile building business, with Wilkinson as chief engineer.

Wilkinson’s design was somewhat unorthodox and quite advanced. He achieved a good ride and exceptionally long tire life by fitting full elliptic springs. The car had an unusual wooden frame, which Franklin would keep until the late twenties, and an overhead valve, four-cylinder engine. The most novel feature was direct air cooling for the engine, which was mounted transversely and didn’t require a cooling fan.

Only 13 Franklins were produced in 1902, rising to 184 in ’03. The trend continued, with Franklin’s reputation receiving a boost in 1904 when one broke the San Francisco to New York speed record in a time of just under 33 days.

A gear-driven, axial cooling fan was fitted to the now longitudinally positioned engine in 1905. This was superseded in 1910 by a proper sirocco-type blower which blew air down over the cylinders. In 1930 it was replaced by a fan that blew the air horizontally across the finned cylinders. This produced better cooling and required less power.

A sliding gear transmission replaced the planetary type in 1906, and a six-cylinder engine was added. In 1914 the company went to sixes exclusively, a sturdy, advanced design with a seven main bearing crankshaft and aluminum pistons.

To dispel any lingering doubts about the Franklin’s cooling capacity, a test was conducted in 1915 in which second and top gear were removed from the transmission. The car was then driven over a rugged 1385 km (860 mile) route from Walla Walla, Washington to San Francisco in 83 hours and 40 minutes.

At the insistence of dealers, Franklin began fitting a phoney radiator in 1925 so it would look like a conventional car. This so infuriated engineer Wilkinson that he left the company, leading to a 20-year estrangement with H.H. Franklin.

Franklin was an early convert to the use of closed bodies, and although some sporty open Franklins were made, the company preferred practical sedans.

Franklins built up a loyal following. Management astutely gained publicity in speed and endurance runs, and by attracting celebrities. In 1928, record driver Erwin George “Cannon Ball” Baker beat the crack 20th Century Limited train from New York to Chicago.

Then in 1930 he drove a Franklin to a 69-hour-and-31-minute, coast-to-coast record. Baker would drive hundreds of cars over his record setting career but he always maintained that the Franklin was his favourite.

Franklin gained publicity in other ways. It named its Airman model after Charles Lindbergh, and made sure he had a new one annually for several years after his pioneering solo Atlantic crossing – which was powered by an air cooled engine of course.

Other aviation celebrities such as Amelia Earhart, Orville Wright and Glenn Curtiss drove Franklins. Thus the connection between air cooled aircraft engines and the Franklin was always nurtured.

Franklin’s best year was 1929 when it sold 14,423 cars. The Depression dealt Franklin a heavy blow, as it did others. In spite of a new, more powerful 1930 model, sales slipped to 6,036, then 2,851 in ’31, 1,905 in ’32, 1,011 in ’33, and a mere 360 in ’34.

In spite of a dramatic new 1932 air-cooled V12, Franklin’s end was clearly in view. Its final model in its final year was the 1934 Reo-bodied Olympic.

Franklin had been experimenting with aircraft applications for its engines. When it discontinued cars, the patents were acquired by Air-Cooled Motors Corp., which later become the Franklin Engine Co., specializing in horizontally-opposed, aircraft engines. Preston Tucker would use a Franklin engine, converted to water cooling, in his radical but ill-fated, rear-engined 1948 Tucker car.

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