1951 General Motors LeSabre

Having foreshadowed the style of General Motors' prewar cars with his 1938 Y-Job, Harley Earl was ready to set the tone for a new automotive era soon after World War II. The 1951 General Motors LeSabre not only showcased Earl's latest thinking about the look of cars, but it served as a symbol of his -- and GM's -- place in the auto industry.

Of the three American concept cars that truly changed auto design, Harley Earl's 1951 LeSabre had to be, by far, the most significant. Bits and pieces of the LeSabre kept cropping up on General Motors production cars throughout the 1950s. (Even its name survives to this very day on a Buick.)

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1951 General Motors LeSabre
The 1951 General Motors LeSabre was styled with
abundant jet-aircraft design cues and powered
by a specially built high-compression
supercharged V-8. See more classic car pictures.

Because most other automakers copied GM styling back then, LeSabre design cues ended up on everything from Henry Js to Thunderbirds.

Earl regularly drove the LeSabre to and from work. He'd use it to take special guests golfing, to restaurants, or to racing events. Sometimes his personal mechanics, Leonard McLay and Arthur J. Carpenter, would drive the LeSabre down from Detroit to Palm Beach, Florida, where "Misterl," as everyone called GM's larger-than-life styling czar, regularly touched up his winter tan.

For many, the LeSabre first gained attention on the cover of the March 1951 Motor Trend. That cover shot, in stark black on a blue background generated so much electricity it left many people utterly thunderstruck.

The LeSabre was very much the embodiment of what car-crazy kids dreamt. Wait, that's wrong; it went far, far beyond anything ever dreamt of. It was the car of the future.

This car stood for what Detroit had in store. Harley Early was not kidding. Detroit and South Bend had already been turning out some pretty dramatic postwar cars, but this one absolutely broke the mold. The wraparound windshield, that knee-high cowl, the fins, the "dagmars," the side ornamentation, that wonderful wraparound cockpit, the gorgeous supercharged aluminum ohv V-8: all unbelievable portents of things to come.

And come they did, one by one, as if Harley Earl were playing God with the auto industry. In the next section, find out how Earl's confidence and intuition made the dream of the LeSabre come to life.

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The 1951 General Motors LeSabre was conceived as Harley Earl's personal automobile. Earl, nicknamed "Misterl," was one of those industry titans who firmly believed in himself. He had total confidence that his own automotive likes and dislikes would become the taste of middle America. He had an uncanny intuitive sense combined with an almost naive innocence that said, "Well, if I like this, so will everyone else."

His intuition was usually spot-on. For decades, Harley Earl remained America's foremost automotive trendsetter, a position he actively pursued and jealously guarded. He certainly wasn't going to let any other car company get ahead of General Motors in terms of styling. And that was part of the reason why the LeSabre was born, yet it wasn't the entire reason by any stretch.

1951 General Motors LeSabre
General Motors styling chief Harley Earl drove the
1951 General Motors LeSabre as his personal car,
publicly flaunting the talents of GM's designers
and engineers.

Earl had a near-obsession to outdo his design rivals. The tremendously competitive Earl might have seen rivals where none actually existed, but prior to World War II, he saw himself doing battle on the streets of Detroit and Grosse Pointe with two people in particular: Ed Macauley at Packard and Edsel Ford at Ford Motor Company.

Edsel, who was anything but competitive by nature, kept coming up with wonderful, mouth-watering personal cars -- little Ford V-8 speedsters, big coachbuilt Lincolns, and his masterpiece, the 1939 Continental cabriolet.

Ed Macauley, who headed Packard's tiny styling department, also drove around Detroit, first in a boattail Packard speedster that he kept updating and then, in 1939, in a customized deauville coupe based on a Packard-Darrin convertible, a car he proudly called The Phantom. The Phantom's 1942 front end metamorphosed into the grille of the 1948 production Packard.

Don Kopka, who retired several years ago as Ford's design vice president, grew up in the tiny northern Detroit suburb of Pleasant Ridge. Kopka recalled how he used to go over to Woodward Avenue, where it bisected Pleasant Ridge, specifically to catch glimpses of Edsel Ford, Ed Macauley, and Harley Earl as they drove past in their insolent chariots. And he often did see them.

In those days, Misterl was still driving his shiny black Y-Job. The Y-Job was built in 1938 as a harbinger of future Buick styling, and it certainly served as that. But more important to Earl, the Y-Job gave him the opportunity to show off what he and his designers could do, and especially to flaunt it in front of his perceived Detroit rivals.

In one way, Earl "wore" the Y-Job just as he wore colorful, flashy suits and ties. All these appearance factors conspired to prove to the world that here was a man who set store by style, who chose his clothing carefully and drove not just the latest fashion but fashion that hadn't even come out yet. It was his way of telling his colleagues, Here's what you can look forward to, fellas, so you better watch out!

And thus it was with the LeSabre. The LeSabre replaced the Y-Job as Earl's manifest automotive destiny. He wanted a personal car for which there could be no competition, but he also wanted a car to show the world the promise of the future.

Harley Earl still drove his Y-Job for several years after the war, but he could see its design starting to fade. It had originally been made for Buick, using 1938 Buick mechanicals. Buick's general manager, Harlow Curtice, felt he'd gotten his money's worth from the Y-Job in terms of image, ideas, and publicity.

So when Earl talked to Curtice during the winter of 1946 and the two men began blue-skying postwar American automobiles, it wasn't hard for Earl to convince Curtice to foot the bill for yet another image vehicle.

Next, discover how Earl, Curtice, Buick engineers, and a new design studio played vital roles in the LeSabre's development.

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Many took part in developing the 1951 General Motors LeSabre. Buick's General Manager, Harlow Curtice, suggested that Harley Earl work with Buick's chief engineer, Charles Chayne, because this new car should be just as much an engineering feat as a styling tour de force.

Whereupon Earl, to ensure himself the right to keep the LeSabre for his own use, suggested to Chayne that they build two cars, one for GM Styling (Earl) and one for Buick Engineering (Chayne). Chayne agreed, but supposedly rather reluctantly, perhaps because he realized he'd soon be leaving Buick to become GM's vice president of engineering.

Either way, Chayne realized that this project would take up lots of engineering time and would cost 10 times more than the $50,000 spent in creating the Y-Job.

Earl codenamed his own car XP-8 and Chayne's XP-9. To satisfy Curtice, the XP-9 would predict the look of future Buicks, whereas the XP-8 would foretell all GM cars and would be a no-holds-barred vision of absolutely everything that Earl, Curtice, and Chayne could dream up to make it the most-advanced car possible.

Vertical "bullet" taillamps were just one of
designer Edward Glowacke's contributions
to the 1951 General Motors LeSabre.

On May 19, 1947, after Curtice agreed to underwrite the two experimentals, Earl appointed Edward E. Glowacke to supervise a newly formed studio called Special Automobile Design and set him to work on what became the 1951 LeSabre.

Glowacke, one of GM's most beloved and talented designers, deserves at least as much credit for the LeSabre as Earl. Both men had great respect for each other, and they worked almost symbiotically on this project.

Glowacke's significant contributions to the LeSabre were the pointed bumper bullets; the oval "kiss-mouth" grille; and the finely wrought cockpit, with its many aircraft borrowings. Glowacke raced cars and boats, flew his own private airplane, and had the ability not only to design but also to literally build an automobile body. He knew how far to take a design idea and still keep it doable.

Engineer Charlie Chayne was equally imaginative in creating engine prototypes for the two cars. Get information about these in the next section of this article.

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On the 1951 General Motors LeSabre engineering side, Charlie Chayne let his imagination run just as wild as Harley Earl's and designer Edward Glowacke's, and everything Chayne thought of he incorporated in both XPs.

Mechanically, the two cars turned out to be similar but not identical. The XP-9 (later called the Buick XP-300) was more complex than the XP-8 and, for that reason, wasn't nearly so drivable. For example, The XP-9's hydraulic system powered so many accessories -- seats, windows, door detents, cowl vents, etc. -- that it had a lot more places to spring leaks. Even though the XP-8 was fairly complex too, it simply had fewer hoses and hydraulic connections.

A 215-cid aluminum V-8 with square bore and stroke dimensions was designed to power the LeSabre. It has a Roots-type, three-lobe, Detroit Diesel supercharger, and the engine used to be set up to run on both gasoline and methanol. (It's currently fueled only by gasoline.) On methanol, gross-rated horsepower topped out at 335 at 5200 rpm, with torque at 381 pound-feet at 3650 rpm.

These were mind-boggling power outputs for 1951. Previously, the highest horsepower ever advertised in an American production passenger car was the Duesenberg SJ at 320 bhp. Even the early Cadillac V-16, with more than twice the displacement of the LeSabre V-8, put out a mere 185 bhp in its best years.

For a 215-cube V-8 to deliver 335 horses -- more than 1.5 horsepower per cubic inch -- seemed stratospheric at the time.

The LeSabre has two twin-barrel Bendix-Eclipse carburetors, each fed from a separate fuel tank. One carburetor and one tank are for gasoline; the other tank contained methanol and supplied the second carburetor.

The two 20-gallon aluminum tanks are situated in the rear-fender area and are accessible through filler doors in the tailfins. To open those doors, you push on the words "Gasoline" or "Alcohol" embossed into them. Each filler cap is integral with the door. The right-hand tank is for methanol ("alcohol"), the left for gasoline.

When used, the methanol tank needed a special funnel to keep liquid from spilling onto the finish because methanol destroys paint. The funnel, which still exists, has a pet-cock and an overflow tube that routes any spillage down to the ground under the car.

In Earl's day, the supercharged LeSabre engine normally ran on the gasoline carburetor only. When the driver punched the accelerator pedal, the methanol carb kicked in via a progressive throttle linkage and, at the same time, a valve in the fuel line from the methanol tank opened up. At that point, the 3800-pound LeSabre was pretty much ready to go into orbit.

The unusually low intake manifold, designed by Buick engineer Joseph Turlay, doubled as the block's valley cover and also suspended the camshaft from its underside.

The cam did not reside in the block as in most pushrod engines. Instead, it hung down from the bottom surface of the intake manifold and was chain driven. The supercharger, driven by triple vee belts, fit neatly into the engine valley.

But Harley Earl would reject this early prototype. Continue to the next section for the complete story.

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Buick engineer Joe Turlay's challenge with the first prototype engine for the 1951 General Motors LeSabre was to make it extremely low. When engineer Charlie Chayne showed the early prototype V-8 to Harley Earl, Earl rejected it.

"This engine's too tall," he stated, noting that he intended to keep the LeSabre's cowl height to 36 inches. That meant that the engine itself couldn't be more than about 28 inches tall. "Impossible," said Chayne, but Turlay had a few tricks up his sleeve.

On his second prototype engine, Turlay put a windage tray in the oil pan, which allowed him to make the sump shallower. And he made the flywheel out of bronze. Bronze is more massive than iron, so the LeSabre's flywheel diameter ended up smaller than normal. Finally, he set the twin air cleaners beside rather than atop the V-8, all of which helped lower the engine's final height.

Hemispherical combustion chambers in the aluminum heads contained two valves per cylinder set at 90 degrees to each other. Pushrods rode on mechanical rather than hydraulic valve lifters, and activated an unusual rocker assembly. The intake rocker arms mounted across the heads on a single shaft in the normal manner. But pushrods for the exhaust valves passed between the cylinder bores, which meant the exhaust rockers ran lengthwise along the heads, riding on little individual minishafts.

Compression ratio at 10:1 was high for the time, and the 18.2-psi pressure boost of the supercharger put tremendous strain on the pistons during hard acceleration. The aluminum pistons themselves rode in wet, Ni-Resist iron sleeves. To assure rigidity, the block skirts extended down below the crankshaft centerline, and the main-bearing caps were crossbolted. Like the block, the radiator was also aluminum to prevent electrolytic corrosion inside the cooling passages.

Fully dressed, the engine weighed 550 pounds. This was relatively heavy, especially considering that the generator and a hydraulic pump were driven off the input shaft of the rear-mounted transaxle. The hydraulic pump powered the car's four built-in jacks, one at each corner. The jacks could be raised and lowered from the cockpit.

The car's top mechanism and hidden headlights were intended to be powered by this same hydraulic system, but instead they used individual electric motors. The LeSabre's electrical system was 12-volt, unusual for an American car at that time.

In the next section, learn how engineers addressed challenges in designing the LeSabre's transmission and suspension.

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Harley Earl wanted the 1951 General Motors LeSabre to have an automatic transmission, and while Buick was willing to pay for an all-new engine, creating an all-new automatic transaxle would have been too expensive, even for this costly car. (Estimates put Buick's original combined outlay for the LeSabre and XP-300 at $1 million. This translates into roughly $10 million in today's currency.)

To solve the transmission dilemma, engineer Charlie Chayne took a stock Buick Dynaflow, hung it at the rear of the chassis, and attached the DeDion differential to it.

Somewhere along the line, the Dynaflow gave way to a four-speed Hydra-Matic, and that's what's in the car now. The original double-jointed axle shafts are magnesium, and the LeSabre uses a transverse, single-leaf rear spring. Finned rear drum brakes stand inboard, just off the differential housing.

The front suspension is equally unconventional. It consists of cast-alloy upper and lower A-arms, but the LeSabre used neither coil springs nor torsion bars at first. Instead, the pivot rod for the upper A-arm originally passed through-and was solidly embedded in-a big cylinder of solid rubber. The rubber cylinder had a steel outer casing and, with the rubber in torsion, supported the weight of the front end. So the rubber acted as the springing medium.

Tubular front shock absorbers, meanwhile, mounted to the steel casing up top and then bolted to the lower A-arm below. This system worked pretty well until the rubber started aging and losing its elasticity, after which Chayne installed a set of front torsion bars. (He'd had torsion bars under his XP-300 all along.)

The LeSabre's front brakes consist of finned, double-wide drums. This was before disc brakes became common, and Chayne recognized that the LeSabre needed stopping power to match its speed capabilities.

Since its wheels are 13-inchers to help lower the chassis, Chayne wanted to give the front brakes more swept area than normal. So he doubled the drum width and installed four shoes up front instead of the usual two.

Continue reading to learn about other cutting-edge features of the 1951 LeSabre.

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As different and advanced as the 1951 General Motors LeSabrer chassis was, the LeSabre's body was even more so. Most of the body structure ended up being cast -- not in aluminum, which would have been heroic enough, but in magnesium!

The cowl, for example, consists of one big, extremely complex magnesium casting. Likewise, the lock pillars for the doors: cast magnesium. And the big one-piece hood and one-piece decklid. Both are so huge that they have ribs cast into their undersurfaces for added strength. The body is about 25-inches thick in some sections.

1951 General Motors LeSabre, rear view
Cast magnesium was used liberally throughout
the 1951 General Motors LeSabre, including the
cowl and key external body panels like the
massive decklid.

The door skins are similarly cast magnesium, as are the front-fender valances. The forms for these castings had to be dead-on accurate. In the early stages of casting, though, since adjoining panels rarely matched on the first try, the pieces were melted down, the forms modified, and the sections recast using the same material. Harley Earl insisted on perfection.

The LeSabre's cockpit and trunk floors consist of honeycomb aluminum sandwiched between aluminum sheets. This added strength to the fully boxed, chromemoly steel frame, which is one of the few components that's fairly ordinary. The front bumper sports chrome tips and the rear bumper ends contain outlets for the dual exhausts.

The close-set headlights are fixed onto the back surface of the upper "grille." This isn't actually a grille at all; the air inlet stands beneath it. When the driver flips on the headlight switch, the upper ellipse moves inward, rotates 180 degrees, then pushes outward again with the lights on.

One of the LeSabre's most shocking and influential features is the panoramic windshield. Harley Earl experimented with wraparound glass way back in 1918, when he worked for Don Lee's custom body shop in California. At that time, he tried to have a company in San Francisco bend a big pane of glass so he could install it in a custom Cadillac. The glass, however, kept breaking instead of bending, so he put in a triple-windshield arrangement, with two small curved insets at the corners.

When GM's glass suppliers showed Earl that they could bend long rectangles of safety glass, he had them make a wraparound design for his LeSabre. Aside from its lowness, the windshield stood out as one of its most striking features to most people who saw the car in 1951.

The entire car took styling cues from jet aircraft: the high central "air intake," the front-fender "wing" forms, the side sweep, the second "air inlet" at the leading edge of the rear fenders, the high tail-fins, the barrel-shaped trunk with its central "rocket exhaust" taillamp, and then the wraparound windshield and aircraftlike cockpit.

One highlight of the panoramic windshield is its narrow, chromed frame. Designer Edward Glowacke took the sweeping shape of the windshield header and used it again in the cowl sill, a theme previously seen -- minus the wrapped glass -- in roadsters of the Twenties and Thirties.

Jet aircraft styling wasn't limited to the LeSabre's exterior. In the next section, learn how this theme was extended to the LeSabre's ultramodern interior.

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The 1951 General Motors LeSabre's interior was definitely not ordinary. Harley Earl didn't want a conventional rear-view mirror hanging down from the windshield header; he thought it ruined the effect of the continuous chrome framing.

Designer Charlie Chayne came up with a prismatic mirror set flush into the center of the dash sill. The LeSabre's cowl mirror is made up of small reflective sections, each about an inch by a quarter-inch in size. It works best with the top up, because the rear glass helps concentrate images on the mirror surfaces.

1951 General Motors LeSabre interior
Bright trim gleams around the bevy of gauges
and controls packed into the interior of the 1951
General Motors LeSabre.

The LeSabre's key cockpit elements borrowed from aircraft include the central altimeter/compass/clock arrangement, the floor console (one of the first in the industry), bucket seats, hang-down switches, and three separate gauge clusters. There's one set of gauges surrounding the base of the steering column, another in the center of the dashboard, and a third on the console.

Chayne also included a moisture monitor on the console. When it sensed a drop of rain, the sensor would automatically raise the top. Earl Liked to leave the LeSabre parked with its top down. When a rainstorm threatened and the first few sprinkles hit the moisture monitor, the people who'd inevitably gathered around the LeSabre found themselves watching the car raise its own top. They'd all stand there agog for a moment and then they'd head for cover just as the inevitable Michigan squall pelted them.

The LeSabre's speedometer is digital, its numbers lit by an internal source that the driver can adjust with a rheostat. Grouped around the steering column are the ammeter plus gauges for oil pressure, oil temperature, and water temperature.

Controls for the radio stand in the console, and both bucket seats are individually electrically heated as in modern cars, with temperature adjustment accomplished by another rheostat. (The seats in Chayne's XP-9 even had pneumatic lumbar bladders that he could pump up with squeeze bulbs from a blood-pressure cuff.)

Harley Earl loved his LeSabre so much he offered it as a pace car. Read on to find out how the LeSabre fared at a race in New York.

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Harley Earl loved motor racing and sometimes offered the LeSabre as a pace car. On one such occasion, he had the LeSabre trailered to Watkins Glen, New York.

Chaperoning the car, as on all such occasions, were GM Styling's two resident mechanics, Leonard McLay and his assistant, Art Carpenter. It was McLay's responsibility to keep the LeSabre running perfectly, which was no easy task.

On the day before the race. Earl took the LeSabre out for a spin. He slowed for a grade crossing, whereupon the engine flooded and died. Earl cranked and cranked the starter, all to no avail. Finally, he let the engine cool -- it suffered from overheating problems in the beginning -- all the while becoming more and more angry.

When Earl next tried the starter, the engine roared to life, and he held the accelerator to the floor. Without lifting his foot, he dropped the transmission selector into "Drive," whereupon the sudden burst of torque -- thanks to the supercharger and the activation of the methanol carburetor -- twisted the drive-shaft like an aluminum beer can. Earl limped back to Watkins Glen clunking and swearing the whole way.

Because Earl and the LeSabre were scheduled to pace the race the next day, McLay and Carpenter worked all that night to weld a new section into the driveshaft and true it up, which they did just in the nick of time.

That incident aside, the LeSabre was Harley Earl's all-time favorite car, according to his son, Jim. He drove the LeSabre from the day it became roadworthy -- probably in mid 1951 -- until he retired in December 1958. In those seven years, he put something like 45,000 miles on it.

In the next section, get a detailed description of the 1951 LeSabre's bounty of unique gadgets.

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Even today, the 1951 General Motors LeSabre's gadgets seem ahead of their time. Under the dashboard cowling stands the cruise control switch. This has a knurled wheel that lets you select a cruising speed by bringing up a printed number. The speedometer reads up to 150 mph, and the tachometer redlines at 7000 rpm -- quite high for a postwar V-8.

Switches for the built-in jacks have warning lights that tell which jacks are extended and when. To the right of the steering-column gauge cluster are three hanging switches for the power top, headlights, and wiper/washer. The headlight switch has three positions for parking lamps and headlights. The dimmer switch is a conventional toe button on the floor.

Ahead of the rain sensor that can automatically raise the top, and embedded in the console itself lies a St. Christopher medal. Harley Earl had such medals, dedicated to the traditional patron of travelers, in all his cars.

Also on the console are the two switches that let each passenger control the temperature of his seat warmer. The radio stands ahead of those switches. Oddly enough, there's no face or readout for the radio; the driver tunes to desired stations by ear and locks them in with pushbuttons. The console clock is 24-hour.

Above the emergency brake stands a large central altimeter that is adjustable. Above that is the odometer. Left of the altimeter are gauges for methanol and gasoline levels. To the right of the altimeter stand a manifold-pressure gauge for the supercharger and fuel-pressure dials for the gasoline and alcohol lines.

Behind and between the seats, up high, is an emblem that's a miniature of the headlamp grille at the front of the car. There's another hydraulic-pressure gauge and a battery on/off master switch in the trunk, behind the seat.

The trunk contains large baffles along the right and left sides, with the spare in between and a giant battery behind the seats. There's a voltage meter to the right of the battery that tells battery condition and a master on/off switch so that all power can be cut while the car's in storage.

There's also a series of relays for the power top, and these are vented to keep them cool. The trunklid has a hydraulic prop somewhat like a shock absorber.

To open the hood, the driver releases two mechanisms on the right and left sides at the front, beneath the bumper. For the trunk, there are two pushpins below the bumper.

Detailed specifications for the 1951 General Motors LeSabre -- including vital facts on its construction, engine, transmission, suspension, and more -- are next.

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Harley Earl's all-time favorite car set the tone for a new automotive era. Here are detailed specifications for the 1951 General Motors LeSabre.

1951 General Motors LeSabre
The 1951 General Motors LeSabre stands just 50
inches high, a testament to Harley Earl's
never-ending quest to make cars lower.

1951 General Motors LeSabre: Specifications
Wheelbase (in.) 115.0
Overall length (in.) 200.9
Overall width (in.) 76.8
Overall height (in.) 50.0
Tread, front /rear (in.) 58.0/60.0
Ground clearance (in.) 6.0 (approx.)
Weight (Ibs) 3,800 (approx.)
Body type two-seat convertible
Material cast-magnesium with honeycomb aluminum floor and steel panels
Type box-section with central X-member
Material steel
Type 90-degree ohv V-8 with Roots-type supercharger, hemispherical combustion chambers, and mechanical valve lifters
Material aluminum block and heads
Bore × stroke (in.) 3.25×3.25
Displacement (cid) 215
Horsepower @ rpm 335 @ 5200
Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm 381 @ 3650
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Main bearings 5
Carburetors twin 2-bbl Bendix-Eclipses
Lubrication full-pressure, gear pump
Cooling pressure, centrifugal pump
Fuel system twin 20-gallon tanks (one for gasoline and one for methanol), electric pump
Exhaust system tubular stainless steel, dual mufflers
Electrical system 12-volt
Type Hydra-Matic 4-speed fluid-coupling automatic, floor-mounted shifter
Ratios 1st: 3.82:1; 2nd: 2.63:1; 3rd: 1.45:1; 4th: 1,00:1; reverse: 4.30:1
Type DeDion, spiral-bevel gears
Ratio 4.10:1 (est.)
Front independent unequal A-arm with torsion bars and tubular hydraulic shock absorbers
Rear double-jointed axle shafts, transverse single-leaf spring, tubular hydraulic shock absorbers
Steering and Brakes
Steering type Saginaw ball nut
Brake type double-width 4-wheel hydraulic internal-expanding drums, inboard mounting
Drum diameter (in.) 9.0
Lining area (sq in.) 296.9
Parking brake Mechanical pull-type
Tires and Wheels
Tire size 8.00×13
Tire type 4-ply whitewall
Wheels 13 × 5.5 pressed steel
Calculated data
Horsepower per cid 1.56
Weight per horsepower (lbs) 11.3
Weight per cid (lbs) 17.7

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