Early in 1946 Ab Jenkins and I met in Chicago. I had just left the Air Force, where as luck would have it, I had spent four of the most exciting years of my life working with such giants as Theodore Von Karmen, father of the supersonic break-through - probably the world's greatest aerodynamist, Dr. Wattendorf, no doubt the world's greatest wind tunnel expert and Col. Roscoe Wilson, a brilliant aircraft designer, whom we always called "Bim" with great affection. Surrounded by men of this calibre reminded me of my early days at Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg when men like Augie Duesenberg, Gordon Buehrig and Ab Jenkins were also my tin gods. If only 1 or 2% of these men would just rub off on me, I might know what the hell I was doing as a designer some day.
I told Ab if he wanted to be the fastest on earth that I would design a jet car for the record, designed around the 4000 lb thrust TG-180 gas turbine that we used on the P-80. When I first saw a print of the engine early in 1944 instead of designing an airplane around it I immediately laid out a land speed record jet car design. Ab wasn't enthusiastic at first. He really thought it best to do it with a wheel driven vehicle. He said: "How about two Curtiss Conquerers?" Not enough power. "Then how about two Allisons?" No Ab, the British will kill us with their two stage Rolls Royce supercharged job and Fred would come back to haunt us the rest of our lives if Rolls Royce ever knocked us off. It had to be an all-American project including the tires. Dunlop had the only 400 MPH capability. Our tires could be no larger O.D. than 36 inches for my design and knowing Dunlop they would probably go 48 inches or more for 600 MPH. Ab said he would look for a sponsor and not to worry about tires that Firestone could do anything in the world.
Early in May Ab called me from Salt Lake City and told me he wanted me to meet with Lou Welch and to meet him at the Indianapolis Speedway during the qualifying trials. I joined Ab at Indy and met Lou Welch and was introduced to the legendary NOVI race cars. I also met Ralph Hepburn who was 54 years old at the time, the same age as Ab. Hepburn and I were to become very close friends when he joined us as Director of Racing at the Tucker Corporation two years later. Lou, Ralph and Ab were ecstatic about the NOVI. Its creators Bud Windfield and Gene Marcenac were wringing an unbelievable 400 HP plus, BG (Before Granatelli, that is). Not to short circuit my good friend, STP Andy, as Andy in later years was to nurture this engineering masterpiece to an awesome 817 HP out of 168 cubic inches.
Ab, in his greatest moment of frustration, asked: "Alex, What is wrong? I had my foot in the Mormon Meteor as deep as any man could go. One hour at 191 MPH and on one lap on the 10 mile circle when the oil and the grease in the axle got thin and warm I covered one lap at 196 MPH. All I needed was 4 more MPH, I would have settled for one lap at 200 MPH and forgotten about 200 MPH for one hour. I told Ab it was a question of aerodynamics. 750 HP simply wasn't enough - but don't worry about the Mormon Meteor. It is old and ancient, its streamlining belongs to the last generation. I'll give you 200 miles in the hour and then put you through the measured mile and we'll knock off Rudi Caraciolla's 268 MPH in the Mercedes on the Autobahn.
All I ask is that you let me streamline the vehicle with all four wheels fully enclosed. I had even incorporated the first adjustable aerodynamic wing to stabilize the C/G [center of gravity] on the 10 mile circle.
The Novi-powered Jenkins/Tremulis/Welch streamliner with adjustable winglets. June 1, 1946
Well, we had a press conference at Indy and the news clipping stated what we were going to do. I had sent a letter to General Le May as Lou Welch said if I could get a jet engine he would sponsor the car. As luck would have it good old Bim Wilson was his deputy. Naturally I couldn't get the TG-180 but the I-40, so what, it was only 4 more inches in diameter instead of the 36 inches I had designed for. The I-40 still had 4000 lbs thrust and who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth. A couple of calls to Washington plus an agreement with the Air Force that they would work out the air entry duct system and my agreement that we would allow for 500 lbs of AF instrumentation in order to justify the loan of the engine to the taxpayers. It looked like we would have an engine. As the engine was still restricted we would be given a wooden mockup of the engine in which to build our car and upon delivery to Wendover Air Base the engine would be installed and prepared for the Bonneville record runs upon 30 days notice.
I had moved too fast for Lou Welch. Frankly I always believed that he thought that I would never be able to get an engine from the Air Force and that it was just a good publicity stunt anyway. I was embarrassed no end - having grabbed the ball
and running with it and then being forced to drop it. At any rate, Lou decided to streamline the NOVI. My drawing was given to Frank Kurtis and the car was streamlined, but because of the limited budget the wheels were left exposed.
Ab took the NOVI to the salt and, with his son Marv driving, could only lap at 174 MPH. The exposed wheels were costing at least 30 MPH and the project died. The NOVI could have become the most illustrious race car of all time. With its eventual awesome 800 HP in super streamlined form it could have reached 300 MPH at Bonneville. In the 50's and early 60's when Indy was sympathetic to aerodynamic experimentation the NOVI was sacrificing 200 HP with its appendages torturing innocent air. In its career it should have won the 500 several times.
In 1963 when I proposed it run in rear engine form it could have shaken the earth and could have really started the trend. I was delighted during a recent visit to see that Joe Granatelli was restoring the original Ab Jenkins streamliner.