Mister Supernatural by Karl Ludvigsen
Automobile Quarterly, First Quarter, 2004
On the ground and in the air Bill Milliken has been unlocking the secrets of better handling and stability for road cars and aircraft since World War II. Enjoying himself rudely in the process, the indestructible Milliken is still advancing exciting new ideas for future automobiles.
By rights you shouldn't be reading this. The subject of this profile should have been dead and buried long ago. He's stuck out his tongue at the Grim Reaper more times than that menacing gentleman can count. Defying all the odds, however, Bill Milliken is still very much with us, still up to his distinctive ears in the automobiles and airplanes that have been so much a part of his life and to which he has contributed so profoundly.
Meeting Bill, you might think you were encountering a dry-as-dust New Englander, a down-easter who might be a town clerk or head librarian. Five and a half feet tall, he's no heavier than the 130 pounds he weighed in high school. And his engaging politeness knows no bounds. "I never could manage to get through a door after him," said a friend. "He always opened the door for others and went through after them."
But looks do deceive. For Bill Milliken the right word is dynamic. Nothing static ever interested Bill. Driving a car in a straight line wasn't for him. Milliken wanted to know what happened in a turn, why it happened and what could be done about it. As both driver and pilot he was driven to understand the subtleties of control in dynamic maneuvers. Teaming with knowledgeable colleagues, Bill built the foundations of our knowledge of how and why cars and airplanes handle as they do.
How seriously is Milliken's work taken? When Ferrari's racing department conducted an audit recently it rounded up 14 copies of his Race Car Vehicle Dynamics, written with his son Doug. When major race teams simulate lap times to plan their race strategy they use a computer program developed by Bill's Milliken Research Associates. Decades of Bill's inputs and analyses have provided the basis for GM's understanding of vehicle dynamics. Major racing organizations and companies like DaimlerChrysler pay five-figure sums for his analytical programs.
As well, Bill Milliken played a key role in the wide use that Lotus gained for its experimental active suspension system. When car makers need their sports-utilities tested for their rollover propensities, they turn to the Millikens. In 2002 Bill won GM's Innovations Prize and wowed the spectators at Goodwood in England with his slope-wheeled "Camber Car." And just to put the icing on the cake, Bill helped an associate create the world's most astonishing auto stunt, the barrel-roll of an AMC Javelin over a river in the James Bond movie Man with a Golden Gun.
In retrospect it's surprising that Bill himself didn't take the wheel of the Javelin to develop the stunt that its promoter called the "Astro Spiral." It must be the only risk he's renounced during his long life. As a youngster he had scrape after scrape, from which he emerged with this philosophy of life: "I had the feeling that I'm never going to have any excitement in life if I'm not willing to have a few accidents. And when I think about my life it's been nothing really but a whole series of accidents. Somehow they never seemed to bother me!"
If anything those accidents, and Bill's miraculous escapes from them, enhanced the living legend that is Bill Milliken. "Our theory was that Bill had made a deal with the Devil," said a colleague. "He must have had something supernatural that worked for him. At a high-level auto safety meeting Bill said he'd developed 360-degree vision without moving his head because he was driving without a license. He'd been at least a year without one, he said." His aggressive style at the wheel was subtly remarked on by a GM engineer who invited him to test the first Corvette prototype at the Proving Grounds. After they'd driven for a bit the engineer tapped Milliken on the shoulder and said, "This is our only Corvette."
Thus it's ironic that the Astro Spiral, by far the most spectacular and most public event with which Milliken's been associated, didn't find him behind the stunt car's wheel. Its first tests were run on the concrete apron adjacent to the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (CAL) in upstate New York, where Bill was director of the Transportation Division until his retirement in 1976. On this same apron Bill had demonstrated the self-limiting handling of a VW Beetle to a new employee by circling a research airplane at higher and higher speeds until the Bug's inside rear wheel lifted, providing automatic speed control. "People were peering out the windows," recalled the new hire, "wondering when Bill would crash into this invaluable test aircraft."
The new CAL employee was Ray McHenry, who would turn to Milliken in 1968 to get real-world validation of a computer program he'd created to simulate the motion of a car over irregular surfaces. They did it by bouncing cars over the ramps of a stunt-driving team, which put them in touch with this arcane genre. To push his program to the limit and demonstrate its versatility McHenry contacted the All American Hell Drivers run by W. Jay Milligan, Jr. Together they came up with the astounding idea of a ramp-to-ramp jump in which a car turned 360 degrees in the air-a barrel-roll, if you will. It was a stunt that could only be computer-generated; no trial-and-error effort could ever have achieved it.
To test the ramps that McHenry's computers designed, they fitted the trial Javelin with a modified cruise control to hold its speed, automatic steering, and remote-controlled braking as an abort system. These guided three unmanned jumps that showed that the stunt worked-surprisingly well. Although observing these unorthodox proceedings with a jaundiced eye, CAL's top brass allowed them to go ahead. "There were those in CAL's management who were hoping it would crash so they'd be done with it," McHenry recalled. "The spiral jump would never have gone ahead without Bill. He had tremendous influence on CAL's chief, Ira Ross, that let him get away with things that others wouldn't have."
Three manned jumps on CAL's apron followed the unmanned launches before the Astro Spiral was debuted inside Houston's Astrodome on January 15, 1972. Fifty thousand Texans went berserk at the incredible sight of a barrel-rolling Javelin, applauding and hollering. Among the race-suited ramp hands were McHenry and Milliken, arch-intellectuals given a rare moment in the limelight. The later jump for the James Bond cameras in Thailand was, according to Bill, one of the best they'd ever had. The resulting publicity was such that CAL's Ira Ross sold many more of McHenry's programs-giving a hint as to why Ross was willing to tolerate Milliken's less conventional initiatives.
Bill Milliken has found the limelight hard to avoid. His accidents alone have added to his notoriety. "In his fifteen years of driving in about a hundred and fifteen races," wrote Griff Borgeson about Bill's outings in a four-wheel-drive Miller, "it was only with the Miller that he did not have a serious accident." This, it must be said, is an exaggeration. Take his record at Sebring, for example. He was sixth on handicap co-driving Frank O'Hara's MG TC in the first six-hour race of 1950. In 1955 he shared an Austin-Healey 100M with Les Smalley, retiring with engine problems.
In 1957 Milliken was asked by Zora Arkus-Duntov to provide the timing and scoring at Sebring for his radical new Corvette SS. He and his five-man crew were tasked to keep track of its standing on index of performance as well as overall, no small assignment. To Bill's great relief the SS retired early: "Nobody could have been happier than I was when the car broke down!" Millard Ripley provided the Elva-Climax Mark II that Bill and its owner drove in the 1958 twelve-hour race. They finished 28th overall and fifth in Sports 1100. In 1959 Ripley and Milliken were supposed to drive a Lotus 11, but after they'd fetched, prepared and practiced the car Lotus boss Colin Chapman yanked them in favor of another crew. In 1960, in his last competition appearance, Bill teamed with Argetsinger to take the latter's Alfa Giulietta Sprint Veloce to 27th overall and fourth in GT 1300. Here, then, are quite a few cars that Milliken managed not to crash.
Not one for half measures, Bill Milliken contracted the sports-car bug in a big way after the war. He remembered the instant of infection precisely. On a business trip to New York in 1946 he "stayed at the Lexington Hotel. I walked out and there was this MG TB. I'd read about them, seen pictures of them but I'd never seen one in my life. Jeez, I was really impressed. So I waited around until the guy who owned it came back, and I said, 'Why don't you sell it to me?' He said, 'All right, I will.' So I wired my mother and got the money-fifteen hundred bucks-bought the car and drove it back to Buffalo."
Bill wasn't the only one infected by sports-car fever in 1946. Up in New England enthusiasts had formed the Sports Car Club of America, which Milliken eagerly joined. When he drove his MG from his home in Buffalo for an SCCA meeting in Boston he was struck as by lighting with the sight of his first Bugatti, a Type 35A Grand Prix car. Bought from Malcolm Campbell's London showrooms in the early 1930s by Hunt Smith, the Bug became one of the first properties of newly minted New York Bugatti dealer George Rand. In 1934 George sold it to McClure Halley, who had it fitted with the elaborate dashboard packed with aircraft instruments that Milliken found so appealing. In '35 Dick Wharton acquired the red Type 35A and raced it in ARCA events for three years before selling it to Bob Fuller, who continued competing with it before selling it to Paul Wilson in 1940.
Hartford, Connecticut wheeler-dealer Russ Sceli acquired the Bug in sad shape. In 1946 he took the restored racer to a Boston SCCA meeting, where Bill clapped eyes on it. "God, the minute I saw that I thought, 'That really is something.' Russ said, 'Why don't you give me that MG and for $2,000 more you can have the Bug.' I thought that sounded great. We agreed that we'd do it in the fall. By that time I figured I'd have enough money to pay for the Bug! So I went up and picked up the Bug. Fortunately I had a flying suit because it was snowing and cold as a son of a gun. I filled up the front of this flying suit with newspapers and that's how I finally got home. Drove it into the hangar at CAL, and I decided right then and there I was going to keep it in the hangar so it could be maintained by our aircraft mechanics."
With Bill's Bug safely under cover at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory in Buffalo, New York, it's time to learn how Milliken got there. He was passionate about land and air machinery from his earliest years. Young Bill was given time and space to explore his interests by a disparity of spirits between his parents, his mother a sensitive pianist and his father a civil engineer who liked to be on the road, surveying big railroad projects. "After their marriage my mother originally liked to travel with him, living in tents and stuff. He'd take a crew out with surveying equipment and decide where the railroads should go. But when I was born they returned to Maine. Unable to pursue their individual career interests, they became frustrated and I was exposed to an unhappy family life. As long as I was working on one project or another upstairs in our barn, they left me alone."
The first of the couple's two sons, William Franklin Milliken, Jr., was born on April 18, 1911 in Old Town, Maine, a small town on the rocky banks of the Penobscot River just north of Bangor. His mother's maiden name was Abbie Lucia Cooper, from a family of carriage and sleigh builders. His mother's sister was married to one of Old Town's leading lights, whose son-somewhat older than Bill-was mad keen on auto racing. "When he went to the University of Maine he went in the back of the library where he found early issues of Motor Age and of course he cut out everything he wanted. He had a huge wall in his room with all these pictures of Jimmy Murphy, Ralph de Palma, Ralph Mulford-a whole bunch of them-and Grand Prix stuff and he always had The Autocar or The Motor magazines.
"Ed Waterhouse was his name," Bill recalled. "Ed and a friend seemed to recognize that my situation with my parents was not too happy, so they decided to build what looked like a little race car. It looked just like a single-seat Miller. It had a nice tail on it. Looking down on it you'd think it was the real Miller-almost. Of course it had little wooden wheels but other than that it looked like a Miller. It was the most exciting thing when he was building that. God, I was tracking this thing second by second. There was another one; they made a Duesenberg two-seater. In all they made about four of these little cars. We had all the kids in town pushing them."
Hilly though it was, Old Town's terrain soon lost its appeal for outings with these motorless pushmobiles. "One day Ed said, 'Well, why don't we tow this thing?' So we hooked it on behind the Waterhouse's Packard and we were running around town-of course my folks didn't know about it-and then one of the wheels busted. It dug in and flipped over and I was immediately a small-sized hero in the locality." Milliken's legend of inviolability in crashes began early.
"Shortly after that I managed to save up enough to buy an Excelsior motorcycle," said Milliken. "It was a big banger, almost as big as a Harley. I had to really fight with my family for it. That was my biggest sales job. We took it up to a horse-race track and we were taking turns at seeing how fast we could get around and I lost it. I went through a fence into a field and wrecked the motorcycle. What did we do now? This friend of my cousin's found a wrecked Imp cyclecar. We used its wheels in front and the motorcycle's in back so we had a three-wheeled thing. That worked pretty good. We built I don't know how many of these things."
One of "these things"-still with the Excelsior's engine-with its tractor propeller looked like an earthbound airplane, said Bill: "I was kind of building up toward an airplane. The wheels were located like landing gear and the fuselage was quite short, braced like an airplane fuselage. It sloped up-you couldn't see anything through the propeller-and a single wheel and the brake on the back. We called it the 'Aero Triple Cycle.'"
It was raining the day Milliken got it going. "It was working great-the propeller was pulling, it was pretty exciting-but with the propeller out front and the rain I didn't have much visibility. And there was a car parked in the street with a California top-that padded top, he had the only one in town. And the first thing I knew I was going alongside of him and the propeller was just chewing up this top. Meanwhile my landing gear in the front collapsed, so everything came to a stop. Of course the guy was mad as hornets. My father had to fork over a hundred bucks to keep him happy."
A little over a month after Bill's sixteenth birthday his budding interest in aviation was further inflamed by Charles Lindbergh's successful solo crossing of the Atlantic. There was nothing for it but to build an airplane of his own-the Milliken M-1. "I wasn't very good in school," Bill admitted, "because I got interested in building this airplane. I started sketching and designing-behind the geography book. It took five years to build it. I didn't quite finish it in high school, so I got into the University of Maine-about five miles from my home-and that helped because I'd been reading NACA reports, to try to figure out aeronautics and airplane design. Getting a little first-hand knowledge in the university, like a good drafting course, really helped."
Helping too was Old Town's leading industry, the canoe company. With its production of 3,500 canoes the year Bill was born, Old Town billed itself as "Canoe Capital of the World." From the Old Town Canoe Company had come the slim wood panels that shaped the bodies of the "Millers" and "Duesenbergs." Its fine materials also went into Bill's airplane, with its 25-foot wingspan and air-cooled 27-horsepower Heath-Henderson engine, which was built on the heated second floor of the canoe-company owner's garage. "The loft was nicely finished, had a nice floor and had a little workbench and a few tools so I built it there. I had a hand-cranked phonograph and the other kids that I knew would come up there in the evening. I'd be working and they'd be dancing and-well, it's sort of like building an airplane in a dance hall!"
It's one thing to build an airplane, and another to fly it. The dynamic Milliken had done something about that. Noticing that the Boeing School of Aeronautics in Oakland, California offered training courses to the winners of an essay contest on aspects of aero engineering, Bill entered and came second among national entrants-"which wasn't too hard to do, frankly." For transport from Maine to California Milliken Senior contributed a Model A Ford roadster. At Oakland Bill took the controls of a big radial-engined Boeing biplane for his two weeks of instruction. "After nine hours I soloed and I put in another six hours solo. I didn't go up for a license at that time but at least I got into the air on my own. You couldn't say I was a real pilot yet."
With his fabric-covered parasol monoplane dismantled so that it could be extracted from the garage and towed by a truck, Milliken and his friends drove south almost to the New Hampshire state line to Old Orchard Beach. This small town's seafront was an ideal landing strip at low tide, as Charles Lindbergh discovered when he set down the Spirit of St Louis there in July, 1927. Coincidentally the town had a Milliken Pond and Milliken Street, thanks to the nearby textile mills of the same name.
The Milliken M-1 suffered a broken propeller during its taxiing trials. After repairs Bill decided he'd be better off in the air. "I held it down and then I eased the stick back a little and the thing jumped up in the air like a scared rabbit. Anything that I knew about flying disappeared at that point. It was really a handful. I had built into this aircraft-to give you an idea of the level of my knowledge-every form of instability. It started this tremendous Dutch roll. Here I am rolling around and side-slipping this way and that, so I had my hands full. And of course I'd lose altitude, gain altitude, so finally I figured out I'd better get down on the ground. On the third try I got it down and of course it flipped over." Its uninjured pilot crawled out and ruefully assessed the damage after his plane's one and only five-minute flight. Repaired, the Milliken M-1 is now one of 28 aircraft on display in Maine's Owls Head Transportation Museum, where it's said to be the first home-built airplane in Maine that actually flew.
Witnesses to their son's involuntary aerobatics at Old Orchard Beach, his parents decided that in spite of the privations of the Depression-his dad had started a new business that then came under financial pressure-they'd fund two years of study for Bill at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. To dodge a requirement that he study German, Milliken registered as a maths major and then signed up for "all these great aeronautical courses, including some postgraduate ones. For my thesis I did a design for a transatlantic airplane. It turned out to be kind of a nice thesis, but when it came time for graduation the Math Department woke up and said, 'We're not going to give a degree to a guy that's designed an airplane.' Fortunately my friends in the aeronautical department went to bat for me."
Bill graduated from MIT in 1934 with a degree in aeronautical engineering and mathematics. Even better, he was offered a job as an assistant in the university's wind tunnel. "The best part was that I got to know all the top professors by working there," Milliken recalled, "like Stark Draper, the man who later produced the gyros for the moon shots. He was teaching an instrument course, a remarkable guy. I'd also been through Otto Koppen's course in airplane stability and control, the first course in our country that used the equations for motion that had been developed in Great Britain by Professor Bryan in 1911. Koppen-really a tremendous guy-introduced these equations in the so-called derivative form which is still used fundamentally in the aircraft industry. His was viewed as a tough course, but for me it was the easiest and the most interesting. I took it over again so I really knew it, and produced some notes on the course, which with the professor's approval I sold to the students." Thanks to his MIT job and his entrepreneurship young Milliken was flourishing-by his standards-in the Depression.
His MIT professors gave Bill his entrée into the aviation industry. His first job was with Chance Vought, where he worked on the control system of the famous F4U Corsair fighter and spoilers for Kingfisher seaplanes. In 1939 Vought was merged with helicopter-maker Sikorsky, Milliken following suit. "Just before the war I went to work for Boeing," Bill related. "I'd met Eddie Allen, the famous test pilot who'd come back to dive-test one of the Vought airplanes. When I heard that he'd set up a new flight and aerodynamics department for Boeing it seemed like a real opportunity. He insisted on having aerodynamics as part of flight test, independent of Boeing's engineering department."
Bill's pact with the Devil, already sealed at the time of his M-1 flight, was still in operation. He joined Boeing soon after its chief engineer and ten staff were lost in a crash of the first four-engined Stratoliner in March, 1939 when it was being flown by a KLM pilot. Bill moved up to assistant chief of flight testing for Boeing, acting as flight engineer in early tests of such landmark aircraft as the B17 and B29. His team pioneered high-altitude military flying on oxygen, Milliken personally logging more than 50 hours at over 35,000 feet. This work was not without risk, said Bill: "The B29 had the Wright R3350 engine, which was built just for that airplane. It was not as developed as the airframe, and every one of those first flights I was on, every flight, we had engine fires. We lost the second B29 in a very bad accident. We lost twelve of our most experienced people, including Eddie Allen. A lot of my friends."
Soon thereafter Bill joined Avion, which was building the radical Northrop-designed XP79 fighter with a prone pilot position. Milliken's efforts to enhance its stability with various aerodynamic devices were defeated by idealist Jack Northrup, who was determined to have a pure-wing airplane: "We tried fins, all kinds of things. Every time we'd get something that we thought helped Jack Northrup would come over and say, 'Well, I don't think we want that sticking out of its wing,' so we'd get defeated. The guy I was working with was also supposed to fly the first one. He'd gotten to the point where he didn't want to fly it, so they fired him, and since I was his assistant they fired me too. Which was probably all right." The XP79 crashed and burned in its one and only flight in September, 1945, less than a month after Bill's departure.
"I had to start looking for a job," said Milliken. "Somebody recommended that I contact a man who was working at the Curtiss-Wright Research Laboratory in Buffalo. They were just about to start a flight department at the lab, so I was hired as assistant manager of flight research. In a couple of years I got to be head of the department." By then it had another identity. At the beginning of 1946 Curtiss-Wright gave its facility to Cornell University, which operated it as the non-profit Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory. At the time it had 545 employees and only enough cash to stay in business for a few months.
"One day the boss called all the department heads and assistants in and said, 'We're independent now. If we're going to stay in business you guys have got to figure out how to bring the contracts in.' I charged off to Wright Field where I got to know a lot of people when I was doing all that wind-tunnel stuff," said Milliken, who reckoned to have worked or tested in a dozen tunnels and water tanks during the war. "I got the test pilots down there interested in doing research on airplane dynamics. They gave us some contracts, and that's how we got into flight dynamics." That search for business drove Bill Milliken to be in New York in 1946 where he had sight of the MG TB that soon morphed into his Grand Prix Bugatti.
First with airplanes and later with cars at CAL, Bill made his reputation with his analysis of behavior under transient or dynamic handling conditions. "There hadn't been much work done on what you might call the transient behavior of airplanes," he recalled. "A lot of work had been done on steady-state wind tunnel data but the transient aspects of airplanes were not well understood. I was thinking in terms of getting numbers and values for the constants in Otto Koppen's equations of motion." From this desire-inspired by his struggles with the recalcitrant XP79-Milliken built CAL's powerful reputation in the handling and stability of aircraft.
Bill's initiative led directly to the creation of fly-by-wire aircraft whose control characteristics could be varied by on-board computers to simulate changing aerodynamic conditions or even completely different aircraft. By 1953 such systems had been installed in an F80 and a B26. CAL's late-1950s variable-stability airplanes included a T33 jet trainer that featured control variability throughout its flying envelope. In 1954 the T33 was given the long nose of an F94 to hold its burgeoning control system, which evolved over a 35-year period from relatively primitive analog controls to advanced digital systems. With colleague Waldeman "Walt" Breuhaus, Milliken's work in this field led to their receipt of the Laura Taber Barbour Award for 1967. It was given for a "significant or group effort contributing to improving aviation safety, with emphasis on original contributions…performed above and beyond normal responsibilities."
To Bill Milliken, newly infected by the auto-racing bacillus, the challenge of automobile stability and control in only two axes instead of an aircraft's three seemed relatively straightforward. "You can't race very far before you begin to wonder about handling," said Bill. "We didn't know anything about automobiles and we kept thinking that there must be a textbook like there are for aircraft. We couldn't find this textbook, so we said, 'Let's go down to Detroit and visit two or three car companies and see what they know about car dynamics.' All we wanted to know was, Do they have a textbook?" This was slightly ingenuous; the CAL engineers had in fact already searched the existing literature and corresponded with tire makers about the characteristics of their all-important products.
Through a contact at the General Motors Proving Grounds they arranged an early-1952 meeting that-to their surprise-was attended by a score of GM engineers. One of them turned to Bill and said, "You guys wanted this meeting. Start talking!" Talking was never a problem for Bill Milliken. He explained the work they were doing at CAL on aircraft, and how they'd derived the equations of motion in such a way that they were able to use them to vary aircraft behavior-and could use them to study cars as well. As Bill put it in his seminal April, 1952 paper, "The automobile like the airplane is a dynamic device. The way it feels to the driver and the manner it reacts to external excitation is by no means simple, but depends on the compounding of many separate and frequently small effects. Until these are considered in the aggregate in a full dynamic analysis of the complete equations of motion, no really profound understanding can be had."
Bill was just getting into his stride when one of the GM engineers jumped up and said, "We should do it!" This was Briton Maurice Olley, whose work in the 1930s laid the foundations for our modern understanding of car handling. "Before we left we had a $25,000 contract," said a confounded if delighted Milliken. Milliken and Olley became close friends and colleagues as the work for GM snowballed. Before the end of 1952 Milliken had set out a detailed and broad-based work program on automobile stability and control that a colleague called "a work of genius." Its aim was "to establish a substantial analytical procedure for the prediction of handling qualities of automobiles, methods for experimental measurement of these qualities, determination of desirable handling qualities and, finally, ways and means of specifically improving them."
Thanks to Olley and a colleague, Robert Schilling, and later to Frank Winchell of Chevrolet R&D, GM had an almost insatiable craving for this information. "Within a year we were getting $100,000 contracts," said Bill, "and we were free to publish." A landmark of the latter kind was a suite of five papers on their work to date given to London's Institution of Mechanical Engineers on October 9, 1956 by Milliken and his team. One engineer in the audience judged that "the papers comprised almost a complete textbook which would be referred to for a long time by those people who had to deal with the many problems mentioned," while another called them "a monumental contribution to the literature on automobile science." In addition to Bill they were the work of David Whitcomb, Leonard Segel, Albert Fonda, William Close and Clifford Muzzey. As Fonda said later, "Bill's always been very generous in giving credit to others-but not to himself."
The IME papers-which America's SAE had rejected as "too mathematical"-were a watershed in the CAL's relationship with the car community. "Afterward we got a half-million-dollar contract from GM," said Milliken. This paved the way for the establishment of a Vehicle Dynamics Department at CAL which was able to invest in both mobile and fixed tire-testing equipment to generate the basic tire/road interface data that was the essential foundation of any analysis of automobile handling. The variable-stability aircraft were paralleled by variable-stability cars, the first a 1958 Buick that could even simulate the steering of a submarine-to the astonishment of one admiral who tried it.
In the Nader Years of the 1960s CAL set up its Transportation Research Division to conduct studies on all aspects of auto safety. The new group absorbed the old Vehicle Dynamics Department and Bill Milliken became the Division's head. It was one of the nation's leaders in the new field of passive safety with such researchers as Edward Dye and Ray McHenry. However, Milliken's heart wasn't in it. "Bill's view was that Darwin's theory was still at work," recalled McHenry. Crashes would simply cull less capable drivers from the roads! "What the hell," queried Bill; "there's not going to be any more fun?" Fun, Milliken had found, was still available in full measure off the highways.
The new-born SCCA was quick to exploit Bill Milliken's skills and enthusiasm. At the beginning of the 1950s he headed its Contest Board, a term borrowed from the AAA. Bill consulted on the index of performance used that year at Sebring. He'd been instrumental in insisting on seat belts in the entries for the first Grand Prix on the roads around Watkins Glen in 1948 and urged the use of crash helmets as well. Bill soon became a member of the race board at Watkins Glen, not far from his Buffalo base. "At Cornell we got to thinking that it would be great if Watkins had a permanent circuit. I put together a bunch of slides of pictures of circuits all around the world. I also had an artist at the lab make up a big chart and draw a typical circuit on it. We spotted around the circuit the kind of industry that you could have-a speed shop, tire shop and so on.
"I made this presentation to the board," Milliken continued, "and Henry Valent, who was chairman, stood up and said, 'Let's do it.' I thought the chance of doing it was one very long shot, but about two weeks later Henry called up and said, 'I got the land. I went out and talked the farmers out of 550 acres.' We had to pick out the circuit. It was in the middle of the winter and Cam Argetsinger and Henry and I went up and waded around in the snow." Argetsinger set the goal of a 100-mph lap when the new track would be used by Grand Prix cars, so CAL was contracted to create a lap-time simulation program that would validate the circuit's potential. "We predicted that in a couple of years somebody would get a 100-mph lap-and they did," said Bill. The new track opened for business in 1956.
Over a decade when The US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen was the richest of all the Formula 1 contests Bill Milliken was the race's chief steward. In coping with protestations from team managers Bill drew confidence from the design of the Glen's timing systems and staffing of its scoring teams by friends and co-workers from CAL, led by Bill Close. Milliken's involvement with the Glen went back to the first race there in 1948 on its demanding 6.6-mile road course. He competed in his Bugatti, which he'd raced at Pike's Peak in 1947, placing a commendable sixth on the demanding climb.
In the four-lap qualifying race at the Glen in 1948 Milliken passed Haig Ksayian in Briggs Cunningham's supercharged MG TC into third place on the fast downhill run into town . "I managed to pass him," said Bill. "In the Bug I couldn't get my right foot on the brake so I had to push with my left foot. I learned that my left foot really wasn't as good as my right foot, at least that was the way it felt. Pushing as hard as I could I got into the corner at the bottom of the hill much too fast and lost it, went backwards a ways and hit the hay bales and turned over." Crawling from his inverted Bug, Bill narrowly escaped being hit by the pursuing Ksayian! Bill took quiet satisfaction from his indestructibility and the subsequent baptism of that turn on the original Glen circuit as "Milliken's Corner."
By 1948 Bill Milliken was racing a new/old set of wheels, a 1932 four-wheel-drive Miller built to the order of the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company of Clintonville, Wisconsin. Last raced at Indianapolis in 1937, the husky two-man Miller was leased to Milliken by the FWD company on the grounds that he would shoulder all the costs of competing with it. Bill was inspired to explore the merits of four-wheel drive by his experiences on the loose surface of Pike's Peak the previous year. When he took the Miller to the Peak in 1948 Bill found that it worked best by far with its center differential locked-although according to FWD this was a major no-no. He had it running extremely well until its transfer case cracked half-way up the mountain on his timed run.
Milliken's experiences with the Miller are chronicled in detail in Griff Borgeson's The Last Great Miller. His sole attempt to race it at Watkins Glen in 1949 was spoiled by a faulty magneto. The big car's greatest exploits were in Vermont's Mount Equinox hillclimb, where Bill vied for top honors with George Weaver's Grand Prix Maserati. Milliken triumphed in 1950 with the only run under seven minutes. In 1952 they staged a battle royal: "I think between the two of us we broke the record five or six times. He was the last to make his run, and it was the best." After 1953 the Miller went back to Clintonville, whence it was later prised by a collector. Bill has enjoyed his chances to drive it since, notably in Goodwood's Festival of Speed in 1997.
Another Bugatti interlude for Milliken came courtesy of New York plastic surgeon and car fanatic Dr. Samuel Scher. Having acquired a potent Type 54 Bugatti Grand Prix car, the good doctor asked Bill to prepare and race it. His first outing was at Bridgehampton in 1950, where the Big Bug's cracked transmission housing leaked its oil away and halted Milliken's run. No new Type 54 transaxle was available, so the CAL crew considered alternatives: "We began looking at truck transmissions and other things and we couldn't find anything that seemed to have the capacity. One day one of the guys in the office who owned a Buick Dynaflow said, 'Why don't you try my car at lunchtime?' The Dynaflow had just come out. I tried it and wondered, 'Could we put one in?'"
Bill found a Bugatti fanatic at General Motors, the Corporation's chief engineer Charles Chayne. "He was really interested. He said, 'Give me a half hour so I can get together with my engineers.' He called back and said, 'I think it'll work. We'll supply you with a Dynaflow for nothing.'" Installing it was another matter, but young MIT graduate Cliff Muzzey took on the job of mating Buick's torque-converter automatic to 4.9 liters of straight-eight twin-cam Bugatti. GM cast and machined an adapter to Muzzey's designs. The completed rig was tested on a chassis dynamometer, from which Muzzey extrapolated a top speed of 120 mph at 3,600 rpm. "When I drove it to Watkins," said Bill, "there's a long stretch alongside the lake so I opened it up. It went up to 120 and stopped! I called Muzzey and said, 'Cliff, you were right on, right on.'"
Bill Milliken found that after lots were drawn for the bigger cars he and the Big Bug were starting from the front row of the grid for the 1950 Watkins Glen Grand Prix. This was no small responsibility, the 39-year-old reflected before the start. "I thought, I can never drive this damned thing today. It was the heaviest car in the race, had difficult handling and a novel transmission. But when I got into the car it was the biggest transformation psychologically I think I ever experienced. I was really scared as hell, but the minute I got in the car you couldn't have gotten me out of there for a thousand bucks. I wouldn't have swapped seats with the King of England.
"I wouldn't say it was the best race I was ever in," said Bill of the Glen in 1950, "but it was certainly the most exciting race I was ever in." Starting with the Dynaflow in low range, Millliken upshifted to high and left it there. He was running second behind the eventual winner when, on his sixth of 15 laps, he overdid it on a right-hand bend. "The tail of the big Bugatti drifted out to the left," reported Sports Car, "and in the attempt to correct Milliken motored sideways with full power on for a time and looked like he might save the situation. Unfortunately the front wheels hit the shoulder on the right and the car continued to swap ends, flipped and landed upside-down on the right-hand side of the road, facing downhill. Immediately, it took fire.
"Bill apparently had some difficulty unfastening his belt," continued Sports Car, "but being a man fully checked out on what to do with upside-down Bugattis, he soon emerged, completely all right." Milliken hadn't been able to remember which way his aircraft-type belt released, but the sight of an engine in flames focused his attention: "I said to myself, I gotta look at this goddamn belt to figure it out! I looked at it close, ripped it and fell down into about six or eight inches of water-which was appropriate anyway since I had a fire!" Thus another dramatic accident embellished the Milliken legend. Bill raced Dr. Scher's repaired Bug in the Giant's Despair Hillclimb, where he won in the Unrestricted category.
Bill missed Watkins Glen in 1951 because he was in London to deliver a technical paper. He took advantage of his stay in Britain to visit the Prescott Hillclimb, where he saw Sydney Allard's Steyr-powered special and heard about a car using the same air-cooled V-8 engine in a four-wheel-drive chassis, built by Archie Butterworth. Clintonville's FWD Auto Company would buy the car, Milliken ascertained, but Butterworth wasn't inclined to sell-wasn't, that is, until he crashed his special at Shelsley Walsh and decided to part with its remains. "When we opened up the box it came in," said Bill, "one of our engineers looked at it and said, 'Well, that's the Butterworth car all wrapped up in a ball.' So it became the 'Butterball.'"
Taking full advantage of CAL's skilled mechanics at a rate of $2 per hour, Milliken and his colleagues substantially rebuilt the idiosyncratic Butterball single-seater, keeping Butterworth's ingenious five-speed sequential-shift transmission. His first outing with the big white car was at Watkins Glen in 1952, where too-flexible steering gear pitched him into the hay bales at-where else?-Milliken's Corner. Bill raced it on and off for the next half-dozen years in circuit events and hillclimbs before it was retired to the FWD museum in Clintonville.
On a 1957 visit to America, Britain's Laurence Pomeroy, Jr. caught the essence of the CAL experience-although misidentifying the institution. "We flew to Buffalo to meet Milliken at Cornell University and his associates, who are all men of science," reported Pomeroy. "But although they are engaged in deep analysis of the handling characteristics of cars on the road, and aircraft in the sky, and live in world of calculators and computers, a fervid interest in motor sport is immediately apparent. After-dinner cakes and coffee were accompanied by films of local speed events and well after midnight, with the thermometer outside registering 46 degrees of frost, a Porsche distinguished itself by leaving for home from a slippery slope which caused Milliken's Hudson a substantial delay with wheelspin."
Somehow Bill Milliken also found time for a private life, although his auto racing placed it under considerable stress. While at Boeing during the war he'd met his first wife, from whom he parted a few years later. Barbara, the second Mrs. Milliken, soon realized what her competition would be like. She and her sister were visited by Bill and his CAL crew when they towed the Big Bug on a rope from New Jersey to Bridgehampton in 1950, passing through the Holland Tunnel and Manhattan Island on the way. "After three years or so of phoning and traveling to New York," Bill recalled, "we decided to get married.'" Barbara and Bill have two sons, Doug and Peter, and a daughter Ann. Doug followed Bill in graduating from MIT and is active in Milliken Research Associates (MRA), the consulting company that they set up in 1976 after Bill's retirement from Calspan, as CAL had become in 1972. Peter, who had also worked in MRA, was tragically lost to multiple sclerosis.
Milliken's many contacts with the racing-car community bore fruit for MRA when former BRM chief engineer Tony Rudd took charge of engineering at Lotus. Looking for someone who could introduce that company's advanced fully active suspension to Detroit's auto makers, Rudd and his colleague Peter Wright thought of Bill. "Rudd said, 'We don't have a lot of contacts at GM, Ford and Chrysler. Would you be willing to help us? Or introduce us?'" Lotus offered a commission on any business gained. "It looked pretty good to me, although of course I had no idea whether their active suspensions would sell."
Sell they did, at the rate of a million dollars or so per prototype plus a technology fee of $100,000. "In the next two years I sold fourteen active prototypes," Bill recalled. "I sold one to General Motors and Goodyear together, two cars, and I sold another one to Corvette, another which was a light truck for GM and yet another which was the last one for GM, an extremely elaborate active car-active ride and active handling. In rattling around at GM one day I happened to bump into the engineer who was thinking about the [four-cam Corvette ] LT-5 engine or an engine of that type, so I thought, 'This sounds like the sort of thing Lotus can do; they have Tony Rudd.' So I got the word back to Lotus and they got the contract. They insisted on giving us our commission on the selling price of the engine. Lotus viewed it as a good deal and it was terrific for us."
This windfall helped revive a radical prototype that Milliken built in the early 1960s. Colleague Al Fonda's 1956 IME paper had revealed the powerful cornering forces that steeply cambered tires generated-banked tires like those of motorcycles. While Fonda built a banking-wheel test vehicle to experiment with this in the real world, Milliken started fabricating a tube-framed mid-engined single-seater with its wheels fixed in banked positions-splayed outward at both sides. "With his high-camber car he kind of invented around me," Fonda recalled. "I knew what I was doing, but not what he was doing. He was taking my enthusiasm for the high camber force of the tilted wheel and making use of it in a different way."
Completed in 1967, Bill's MX-1 "Camber Car" is powered by an 80-horsepower two-stroke driving its rear wheels. After tests and evaluations it was put in storage around 1980, only to be resurrected in the 21st Century thanks to the enthusiasm of Jim Himmelbach and Dean Butler. It was restored and entered by Butler for Bill to drive in Goodwood's 2002 Festival of Speed. After its appearance on Goodwood's hill, where it wowed the knowledgeable spectators, Bill and Butler took the red MX-1 to a proving ground where they could probe its limits.
"The secret of it is that when you go round a corner, pretty soon you've got no load on the inside wheels to speak of so it's all on the outside wheels," Milliken explained. "It turns out that the camber thrust-which is helping you-is directly proportional to the load. This to me is astounding. The more load you transfer, the more that tire wants to stick. You don't have to get the center of gravity low; in fact the more weight transfer there is the better it likes it. It likes load transfer. We set it up so it's neutral steer at the limit. We adjusted the brake distribution so that it just brakes a tiny bit first on the front so you can't spin it. The car itself doesn't want to spin. At Goodwood the car was one helluva lot better than the driver. I kept going into the turns faster than I felt comfortable, and it just went around! I never had the time or the guts to go in as hard as I'm sure the car would have done."
A high-speed automobile that probes the limits of vehicle handling and cornering in a revolutionary way-what could better exemplify the extraordinary career of Bill Milliken? Somehow he's beaten the Devil to continue to contribute to our automotive and aviation knowledge. And he's having a lot of fun doing it!
The author wishes to thank Dean Butler for his courtesy and hospitality in arranging for an extended interview with Bill Milliken after the 2002 Goodwood Festival of Speed. This was one of many interviews conducted by the author over the years with his subject, who also reviewed and corrected the text of this profile. Thanks are owed also to Doug Milliken, Ray McHenry and Al Fonda for interviews and assistance. The author is grateful to Theodore P. Wright, Jr. for the gift of a set of the papers of his father, who was president of CAL during the early Milliken years. Reference is made as well to a profile of Milliken by Kevin Clemens in the May, 1995 issue of Automobile.