Motoring Memories: Copper Cooled Chevrolet motoring memories
1923 Chevrolet “Copper Cooled”
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The 1960s rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair had an air-cooled engine, and many assume this was the first air-cooled Chevrolet. Such was not the case. While the Corvair came to a rather ignominious end, thanks to Ralph Nader, the first air-cooled Chevrolet’s demise was even worse.

Air cooling eliminates the radiator and associated hoses and hardware, and produces an engine that is lighter and immune to frost damage. It has been widely used in aircraft applications, and was used for many years in Franklins and other cars.

Ferdinand Porsche made air cooling famous in his German Volkswagen design of the 1930s. Until recently, all rear engined Porsches were air cooled.

Charles Kettering, the brilliant head of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco), GM’s research wing in Dayton, Ohio, was also captivated by air cooling. He started developing an air-cooled automobile engine in 1918.

Rather than traditional cast iron fins, Kettering used vertical copper fins welded to the iron cylinders. Despite some problems associated with using dissimilar metals, he wanted copper because its heat conductivity was 10 times better than iron. A big fan cooled the engine by drawing air up and over the cylinders. The copper fins prompted the corporation to officially change the name to the copper-cooled engine, although Kettering continued to call it air cooled.

Although Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., head of GM’s advisory staff, had strong reservations, Kettering was allowed to continue his work on an air cooled engine.

While Sloan’s administrative genius was already becoming recognized, he was reluctant to oppose air cooling too vigorously, particularly in the face of Kettering’s already formidable engineering reputation. Besides, GM president Pierre duPont was openly pushing for air cooling. It was to be used in the low priced Chevrolet, and later in the Oakland (forerunner of the Pontiac).

By the fall of 1921 the Oakland Division was given Kettering’s first air-cooled test car. The shocking news soon came back from Oakland’s test engineers: the air-cooled engine was unacceptable! Oakland wanted to withdraw from the program, so was exempted until air cooling had proved itself. Oldsmobile, on the other hand, wanted to get in.

Kettering, dismayed but not deterred by the Oakland report, managed to convince the corporation, and Chevrolet, of the merits of air cooling. Parallel air and water cooled engine programs were run at Chevrolet, with air cooling to become exclusive when it proved reliable. Chevy was looking for something novel to compete with Henry Ford’s extremely popular Model T, and this seemed like just the technical edge needed by its fading 490 model.

A Chevrolet with a four-cylinder, copper-cooled engine was finally introduced at the New York auto show in January, 1923. The two-door car was well accepted by the public, and the future looked bright.

Plans called for the production of 1,000 copper cooled Chevs in February, rising to 50,000 a month by October. As Sloan said in his book, My Years With General Motors, “The only question that seemed to remain at the beginning of the new year regarding the water cooled car was the exact date on which it should be abandoned.”

But the new engine proved difficult and slow to assemble. Production lagged, and by May only 759 copper-cooled Chevrolets had been built. About a third of these had to be scrapped, and of the remainder, 500 went to the sales organization. Some 300 found their way to dealers, who sold about 100 to retail customers.

When the air cooled Chevrolets reached the sales organization and the public, trouble arose. The engine pre-ignited badly and lost power when hot. Oldsmobile stayed with water cooling.

The air cooled Chevrolet was a dismal failure, its problems so extensive that the only option was to discontinue it. In June, 1923, an embarrassed Chevrolet recalled all of the air-cooled cars and destroyed them. Kettering was so upset he threatened to leave GM.

In addition to the humiliating recall, the matter revealed a GM management flaw. The different opinions held by the advisory committee (Sloan), research (Kettering), and the car divisions had led to confusion, and allowed an under-developed product to reach the public.

When Sloan became president in 1923 one his jobs was to convince Kettering to stay, which he did. Sloan also ensured that there were clear lines of authority and accountability in the corporation. In the process he laid the foundation for General Motors to become the world’s largest manufacturing organization. Thus, while the first air cooled Chevrolet was a failure as a car, it did make a significant contribution to the General Motors organization.

Those original air-cooled Chevrolets are now extremely rare, but one of the survivors resides in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.