Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mobilgas Economy Run, Part II ; Les Viland, a 1954 Ford, and an Indian Chief

Les Viland, perhaps the greatest of all Mobilgas Economy Run Drivers, and Carl Doman from Ford Motor Company, 1954.

A Post WWII Restart

After nearly a decade in abeyance, 1950 was a propitious time to begin the Economy Run anew. Automobile industry executives were touting new engine designs that were more fuel efficient and powerful. GM vice-president for engineering J.M. Crawford stated that “the engineering emphasis of the future will be directed to more economical motoring,” the consequence of work on higher compression engines that were bottlenecked only by the availability of higher octane fuels. To that end, GM engineers in May 1951 announced the development of a carefully timed, high compression engine with a better combustion chamber design which gave 40% more mpg than the Kettering V-8 in a Cadillac. Concurrently, the Texas Company developed a new high efficiency engine that combined fuel injection with combustion head design and spark ignition. And up for discussion in technical circles was a single valve engine design of Alex Taub and his associates that claimed enormous efficiency gains. Finally, the Chrysler Corporation unveiled its hemispherical head engine, or Hemi.

But the most powerful impetus towards gasoline conservation was the onset of the Korean War. Again there were fears of gasoline rationing similar to WWII, and by the fall of 1950 California oil was in such demand that it was no longer shipped eastwards. As one oil industry publication made clear, there was a “new national need for conservation of gasoline.”

As in the past with the Gilmore Runs, the key individual related to the success of the early Mobilgas Economy Runs was Clarence Bessemeyer. One publication went so far as to name Bessemeyer the “Big Chief” of the Run. Bessemeyer was assisted by Frank Meunier, advertising manager for General Petroleum and the leading corporate advocate for the Run after the former left the Socony-Vacuum Mobil organization in 1953.[7] Bessemeyer’s imprint on the Run was enduring, for he was a showman extrordinaire, and that style continued throughout the history of the Runs.

Consequently, the Run was seen by many as a continuous cocktail party for the press and hangers-on. One year the closing featured a celebration of Navaho tribesman, and the next year a Hopi war dance. Ending at resorts that included the Lodge at the Grand Canyon and the Sun Valley Resort, one could only wish to be the lucky newspaper reporter that was on the bus or express train following the race route.

In addition to Bessemeyer and Meunier, other prominent figures in the early 1950s Runs included speedway designer and AAA Chief Steward A.C. Pilsbury; all-time racing great and Referee Tommy Milton; Honorary Referee and vice-president of the Indianapolis Speedway T.E. “Pop” Myers; and Steward Earl Cooper, one of racing’s most famous drivers. And for years, the starter’s flag was dropped in downtown Los Angeles at 3 am by the colorful and flamboyant A.C. Agajanian.

The rules and procedures associated with the Run changed little between 1950 and 1968. Most significantly, it was a contest for American cars of the current year; imports were not allowed, although separate, small-scale events for foreign cars were organized towards the end of the 1950s to placate a changing marketplace and consumer. Cars were classified according to cost and engine size, and were selected by the AAA Contest Board from showroom floors, dealer lots, or factory assembly lines. These vehicles were no different than the average American would own, and certified as stock. Minor changes could be made in terms of carburetor jets, timing, and tire pressures. Break-in runs were allowed, and that was when the rules were stretched. Tires were scrubbed to reduce rolling resistance, brakes worn down a much as practically possible, and support cars dragged chains in front of the race vehicle so as to have as much dust and sand enter engines minus air cleaners. Cars were impounded and sealed before the race, but despite the precautions, tweaking and break-in resulted in cars that were quite different from an everyday vehicle.

Routes were chosen so as to vary both altitude and temperature. Cars were often greeted by high school marching bands as they stopped in smaller towns along the way, yet, the early Mobilgas Runs were more than a crowd-pleasing spectacle. It was big business; since Socony-Vacuum initially centered its $9 million advertising budget on the event; thus, a payback was expected, and early indications suggested a 9.8% sales increase in the Western region in 1951.

The auto industry, or at least segments within it, also became enthusiastic supporters of the event, providing that its cars did well. For example, Studebaker focused its 1951 advertising on the slogan “The Thrifty One in 1951,” and Lincoln, a Sweepstakes winner, displayed 120 cars painted exactly like the contestant vehicle in West coast showrooms. Car manufacturers began mentioning the event in sales brochures, making sure that the AAA Contest Board seal was inserted. For example, in 1953 Dodge distributed the brochure “Dodge Tops All 8’s in 1953 Mobilgas Economy Run.” The copy went on to assert that “this great new ’53 Dodge Coronet Sedan provided absolute proof of the basic design superiority of the 140-horsepower Red Ram V-Eight engine….Hemispherical combustion chamber provides the ideal shape for maximum thermal efficiency. It squeezes more power out of every drop of fuel.” Competitors -- including brands made by divisions within the Chrysler Corporation -- must have cringed when reading the last page of the brochure, in which nine other class participants were listed in order of finish.

With time, the complexity and the cost of the event grew. Literally hundreds of Mobil employees became involved, and executives soon included it in corporate strategy. In an undated memorandum from the 1950s entitled “How to Realize More Productive Attention for the Mobilgas Economy Run,” four main outcomes were listed: 1) a direct effect upon sales; 2) enhanced prestige from the sponsorship “with what is becoming the most widely known type of auto performance trial in the world;” 3) the opportunity to connect with auto manufacturers and safety organizations; and 4) the ability to make news of interest to the public. Two internal committees within the firm were charged with steering this event in such a manner that these outcomes would be realized -- the Advertising and Sales Promotion Committee and the Publicity Committee. The former group was charged with creating the printed material to promote the event, to inform salespersons and dealers, to formulate a variety of contests, and to film the Run. The Publicity Committee, on the other hand, was on the ground throughout the competition, hosting guests and press, touching base with local newspaper editors, and making sure that everyone was comfortable and entertained. Both were daunting jobs, made logistically more challenging as the route lengthened from several hundred to several thousand miles. In sum, there were many specific tasks to perform before, during, and after the event.

The drivers spanned the spectrum of racing experience, talent, and social class, although particularly in the early 1950s, many were highly qualified.One of the best was Les Viland, an engineer educated at the University of Southern California and Cal Tech, who was a sweepstakes winner in 1951 and 1953, and who got the best mpg in 1955. Popular racer Mickey Thompson won his class driving Pontiacs in 1962 and 1963. The family of Mel Asbury, a Hollywood Chrysler dealer – sons Mal and George, wife, and daughter-in-law – won numerous times during the 1950s. With women entering the field in 1957, former sports car drivers Mary Davis, Myra Buchanan, Marian Pagan, Ina Mae Overman, Marilyn Miller (the wife of famous racer Ak Miller), and Betty Skelton distinguished themselves while at the same time demonstrating that women were, if not better than, at least equal to men in economy driving events. The 1959 class B winner Mary Hauser wrote that

You men probably think, because I’m a woman, that I’m a lousy driver and don’t know the first thing about how to get good gas mileage. So you’re surprised, maybe even a little peeved, that I managed to win a class in the 1959 Mobilgas Economy Run. Well, I’ll admit that many women are stupid drivers. So are many men. They have their minds on a thousand other things.

Big Money, an Ambitious Scale, and International Events

As the scale and scope of the Run gradually evolved over the 1950s, so did its geographical locus. Beginning in 1954, the Mobil Run went international, first in France, then in 1955 in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Some staggering mpg numbers were recorded resulting in the ban of coasting; nevertheless, in 1955 a Renault 750 traveling through the English Midlands achieved 76.36 mpg! Subsequently, events were also staged in the Philippines, Rhodesia, and Malaya. With the petroleum shortages caused by the 1956 Suez Crisis, the event became western European in 1958, with a 2,700 km route that began at the World’s Fair in Belgium, and then traversed Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy and France.

With the relatively huge influx of foreign cars in the U.S. after the brief recession of 1958, foreign car events were staged briefly on the East and West Coasts and on a limited scale. Between 1958 and 1959 Mobil sponsored rallies in California, and predictably, small displacement European marques put up impressive economy statistics. For example, in 1958 a Fiat 750 won its class with slightly more than 50 mpg; even a class D Volvo sipped gasoline with a 36 mpg result. In 1960 a similar event started in New York City, and a small Renault got more than 49 mpg

The rise in interest over miles per gallon that typified American thought between 1958 and 1962 also forced race organizers to rethink the use of the ton-miles-per-gallon as the criterion for determining the sweepstakes trophy winner. It seemed illogical that heavy cars should win an economy event, yet, that is what happened, as in the case of the 1958 Run, when a Chrysler Crown Imperial won the overall contest. Thus in 1959 the switch to mpg was made, and the Independents – American Motors and Studebaker – topped the field. Yet, figures were disappointingly low across the board, as low-priced, 6-cylinder cars barely squeezed 20-22 mpg, and the event-winning Rambler American Deluxe only got 25.3 mpg

As the 1960s unfolded, the Run became bigger and more complex than ever. Likewise, there was more hoopla involved, whether a $100,000 sweepstakes and car giveaway for dealers and their employees, or the remarkable exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. At the Mobil exhibit a complex electronic computer system with individual consoles was set up so that 36 fairgoers at a time could test their skills while behind the wheel of a simulator. Each participant received a sticker, and each group winner a certificate. Some 1.2 million visitors were expected to get behind the wheel. All of this outreach cost plenty of money. For example, Mobil’s expenses related to the 1966 Run amounted to nearly $550,000, and the company spent an additional $440,000 to advertising the results.

Not only were women drivers featured, but also teenagers – Chevrolet fielded an entire team of teens in 1964. The first African-American teen driver, Marty Payne, entered the competition in 1966, with some trepidation on the part of Mobil executives who were concerned about racial incidents that might take place along the route.

An End to the Runs?

Courtly, white-haired Frank Meunier, a throwback to the General Petroleum days of the 1930s, remained the leading advocate for the event. However, the Run, and indeed all Mobil-sponsored competitions, including their involvement in the Indianapolis 500, came under scrutiny. As he approached retirement, Meunier’s long standing arguments in favor of the event began to fall on deaf ears. A new generation of advertising executives was now on the scene at Mobil, and they were asking hard questions concerning the event’s effectiveness in promoting corporate objectives.

Consumer researchers, including Alfred Politz, were consulted on the value of the Run, and his views markedly contrasted with R.S. Brophy’s in-house study. Politz argued for the Run’s continuance, stating that “The motorists’ fascination with gas mileage seems not to wear out—just as sex appeal has held its ground over the ages.” Brophy countered this view by stating that “It is interesting to note that the one area of greatest effort, the Economy Run, cannot be related to any meaningful difference….” Brophy also harnessed the results of a consumer survey, citing that some 42% thought that professional drivers were used, 35% had concluded that cars were especially adjusted, and 16% doubted the miles per gallon results.

Among the points that were debated were the following. First, while performance events factored little into consumer gasoline purchases, getting more miles per gallon did. Ironically, and perhaps with some embarrassment, most consumers did not recognize Mobil as the best gasoline in terms of mileage; rather it was Shell. Thus in 1966 a group of Mobil executives concluded that “at present the Run does not offer a favorable opportunity for our use in a national advertising campaign.” Indeed, Mobil’s ad agency, Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach was not interested in using any performance events in their advertising strategy. Yet, the Run was not scrapped at that time. Recommendations were made to reduce costs, shorten the route, and cut the number of ads.

The Run continued for two more years. The 1968 event was underway when the assassination of Martin Luther King forced organizers to end the race in Indianapolis instead of New York City. In December 1968, Mobil rather abruptly announced the end of the Run. The decision was based on perceptions of changing consumer attitudes along with changes in engine pollution controls and a shift in corporate advertising strategy. The America of 1968, despite its internal strife and controversy over the Vietnam War, was experiencing an unparalleled prosperity, low gasoline prices, and an expanding youth market. Yet around the corner was a burgeoning second wave of imports, coming this time not from Germany, but from Japan. And only five years later, in 1973, the U.S. experienced its first “Oil Shock,” an event of profound long-term economic and social significance. While “your mileage may differ,” gasoline supply and usage emerged as national concerns, at least for a while.

Currently, Americans are facing another oil crisis, and issues of drilling on protected lands, carbon emissions, vehicle design, and economical driving are at the forefront of daily news discussions. Despite its shortcomings, perhaps it is time to bring back the economy run, if for no other reason than to raise public awareness concerning the values of thrift and conservation.



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