Charles Kettering Is Alive and Well

October 23, 2008 - -

Or the spirit of GM's genius engineer from the early 1900s, anyway, seems to be burning brightly in the R&D laboratories of General Motors. Automotive News explained that GM has now revealed more impressive technical details of its in-development 4.5-liter Duramax diesel V-8, to be installed in its full-size pickups (Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra) and some SUVs (Perhaps Suburban, Tahoe, Yukon, Yukon XL) next fall. The engine promises to take no more space than the 4.8/5.3-liter smallblock gasoline V-8s it supplants while yielding efficiency gains of 25 percent.

GM's claim of identical real estate for the new engine is remarkable, given a turbodiesel's network of plumbing, exhaust-driven air pump (turbo), intercooler, and engine block, heads, and valvetrain that must withstand considerably more abuse and explosive force than even a high-compression, high-performance gasoline engine like the 3.6-liter direct-injection V-6 standard in vehicles like the new Chevrolet Traverse crossover. Or even high-stressed (but not high-strung), ultra-engineered wonders like Audi's athletic 4.2-liter V-8 (in the stunning R8) and the stalwart flat-six in Porsche's 911, the latter fortified for 2009 with gasoline direct injection and an ever-higher compression ratio. - -

Having already revealed the new Duramax's revolutionary upper-half design last year, GM has now revealed that its lower half (the part below the heads, pistons, and cylinders) is just as innovative. Throughout the design, weight is trimmed, high-strength steel and novel manufacturing techniques are used, all "things GM has never done in the crankcase of a regular production engine." Automotive News continues: "on paper, at least, it has the potential to be the first great engine of GM's second century."

This new "baby" Duramax, it would seem, is a far cry from the haphazard Olds 350 diesel that GM rushed to market in the late '70s/early '80s. And far more innovative than the stalwart 6.5-liter truck diesel that followed, and even the current Duramax 6.6-liter, a powerhouse and fierce competitor in the full-size truck wars today. Through World War II, General Motors was a hotbed of innovation and breakthrough design. Charles Kettering's starter motor eliminated the hand crank, enabling safe starting of the automobile by anyone who could afford one. And let's not forget Henry Ford, who pioneered assembly-line techniques that brought the cost of the automobile down from the moneyed elite to the working man.

It was also Henry Ford, says Automotive News, who said that the "best engineering is to 'simplicate and add lightness.'" That's a concept that we associate with lean, mean companies like Mazda, not fat-cat American manufacturers. It's remarkable to realize that we had the right, progressive thinking nearly 100 years ago here in our own country. It's time to return to those roots to ensure survival, and progress like GM's new Duramax look like huge strides in that direction.

Recently, in a response to a blog comment about the death sentence for the very mediocre GMT360 SUVs, I lamented the loss of leadership--specifically, technological leadership and innovation--coming from the Big Three in, really, the last three decades. We've seen the too-little, too-late mentality from Detroit for years. Japan does four-cylinders, GM follows reluctantly and half-heartedly. Europe embraces variable-valve timing, GM follows suit years later. And on and on, ad infinitum. That goes for Ford and Chrysler, too.

These are horrific times for the domestics, but hopefully this flame of innovation deep within GM will ignite a sea change of design that will result in fiercely competitive vehicles, from microcars to heavy-duty trucks. Even brilliant management can compensate for mediocre products for only so long, and in getting back to the basics--the very nuts and bolts and engineering of its products--I believe there is hope for General Motors. As it struggles through this economic downturn, I think we'll continue to gradually see signs of mediocrity banished from its fleet.

Sometimes the sickest of patients need heart surgery before they can begin the road to recovery. How fitting that, in 1952, "GM engineers, together with doctors from Wayne State University, developed the first mechanical heart pump, making open-heart surgery possible," according to Detroit Free Press. GM R&D is starting in the right place; delving into the guts of its vehicles to make them again truly competitive. In exhaustively reconsidering the design of the hearts that beat away under the hoods of its products--the very valves, cranks, pistons, and lungs that yield power and torque--GM stands poised to again deliver true innovation to the automotive marketplace, giving Americans vehicles that might once again proudly earn the title: "standard of the world."--Colin Mathews - -

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