Copyright 2012 Gyronaut X-1
Alex Tremulis (1914-1991)
Even as a child, Alex Tremulis was infatuated with automobiles and especially Duesenbergs. His father, Sarantos Tremulis, was a physician and used the excuse of having to make emergency house calls to equip himself with the fastest cars of the day. Stutz, Mercer, and the Templar at left were just a few of his cars. The Templar had a Duesenberg 4 cylindar engine under the hood. The young Alex thought it was the best looking car he'd ever seen. His mother, not so much. She was furious. "How are we going to take the kids?" she'd ask of Sarantos. "One at a time, Mother. One at a time..." was the standard reply.
At the office...
In his father's office was a photo of another Duesenberg that would influence Alex for the rest of his life. “I was fascinated by a picture he had in his office. It was the darndest picture I ever saw and I could sit and look at it by the hour as the two men chatted. It was a picture of the great Tommy Milton, an early race car driver. He was setting a world speed record in a Duesenberg at Daytona Beach. There was something almost hypnotic about the picture and the car it depicted. I felt drawn to the very sharp nose of the racer, angled down to keep the front of the car right to the track. The appearance of the car made a lasting impression.”
As a teenager growing up in Chicago, Tremulis would often play hookie from school just to draw the cars in the Stutz and Duesenberg showrooms. His talent for drawing concept cars was eventually recognized by Duesenberg showroom sales manager, Donn Hogan. He hired the 20 year old Tremulis to draw customer's cars under Duesenberg's own Walker nameplate. One such car Tremulis designed was the 1934 Duesenberg Model J LaGrande Convertible/Coupe. Three cars were built to Tremulis' illustrations, J530, J531 and J534. They became recognized as having some of the most beautiful proportions of any Duesenberg ever produced.
1937 Cord 812SC
Two years later, at the age of 22, Alex Tremulis was named Chief Designer at A-C-D. But by the end of 1936, the Great Depression had taken its toll on Duesenberg and it was clear that time was running out for the once-great automobile company. One of Tremulis' more bold moves, though, was to add the sidepipes onto the great Gordon Buehrig's timeless Cord 810. The new supercharged models, the 1937 Cord 812SC, identified by their chrome external sidepipes, became an instant success, and its promotion by the great Ab Jenkins helped solidify a lifelong friendship between Tremulis and Jenkins.
1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt
In 1939 while working under John Tjaarda and Ralph Roberts at Briggs Design, Tremulis designed the highly influential 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt while Roberts designed its sister show car, the Newport. He recalled the start of the project...
"I thought about my suggestion all weekend, and on Monday morning I showed up with what I have always considered my greatest masterpiece in the art of salesmanship. I entitled it “The Measured Mile Creates a New Motor Car’. Ralph was quite excited and got on the phone to K. T. Keller. In an hour we met in Dave Wallace’s office. Mr. Wallace at that time was vice-president of Chrysler Division. We were joined by Mr. Keller. I had prepared a series of rough pencil sketches that ran the gamut of land speed record cars from Major Seagrave’s 203mph Sunbeam and Frank Lockhart’s ill-fated Stutz Blackhawk, to Seagrave’s 231mph Golden Arrow and Sir Donald Campbell’s brace of evolutionary Bluebirds. I wound up with Captain George Eyston’s sheer brute force Thunderbolt that had recently set the land speed record of 357 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Alongside each of the race cars was a quick sketch of an imaginary passenger car inspired by the land speed record automobile. Of course, all these passenger cars had one thing in common with those illustrious race cars of the past: streamlining. They were all very aerodynamic and obeyed the basic laws of nature, established by Chrysler’s own engineering staff when they developed the Chrysler Airflow cars."
"The press coverage was tremendous. A typical headline was: “Chrysler. The Pioneers of the Airflow, Are Now Pointing the Way To The Future.” In our own little way we were erasing some of the stigma of the Chrysler Airflow. Eventually, both designs went on tour and were seen by a reputed six million people."
Custom Motors in Beverly Hills
As Alex recalled about Custom Motors: "So, in 1939 I was hired by Eleanor Powell, the famous tap dancer, to build custom cars for her and to help out Sid Luft. Sid Luft had been her public relations man and she wanted to get him started in the customizing business. He had tried several other things, but now was concentrating on customizing Cadillacs. The first one he built was a very nice custom Cadillac, but instead of selling it he started running around with the car. Pretty soon it got used, so when Eleanor Powell came to Chicago she hired me to go to California to put Sid’s business on a business basis. So I came to California."
Tremulis customized six or seven luxury cars before Luft ended up crashing and totalling one of the Cadillacs on his way to Chicago. Uninsured, this would eventually put an end to the venture, but not before Alex was to have a visit by the President of American Bantam.
Bantam Hollywood and Riviera
While at Custom Motors, Tremulis recounts how he was brought out to work on the American Bantams...
"One day I was having lunch at the bar in the Luau when all of a sudden I saw a little American Bantam Roadster pull up outside. There was a man in a polo uniform and two little polo sticks were sticking up out of his small little
car. The chap comes in and sits down next to me. I looked at him and said,
“Pretty ridiculous, big boy like you driving around in a kiddie car like that”. Of course he gave me a real funny look. He ordered a drink and then he said to me, “Do you know anything about those people across the street, Custom Motors?’ I said, “Yeah, I know them.” He said, “I’m looking for a guy by the name of Alex Tremulis, do you know him?” I said, “I know him pretty well”. He wanted to know when Custom Motors opened up, and I told him they were probably out to lunch. He said, “I’m anxious to talk to Alex Tremulis.” So I told him to finish his sandwich and then I would take him over to meet this Alex. So we walked across the street and into the shop. I had all my drawings on the wall… some real wild stuff too. He gets impatient and says, “When do I meet Alex Tremulis?” I tell him,” You’ve already met him”. We laugh and then he introduces himself. “I’m Roy Evans, President of American Bantam,” he said.
Tremulis went on to design the Hollywood, Riviera and several other Bantam designs just prior to the United States' involvement in World War II.
World War II, Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio
Shortly after Briggs, Tremulis served in the Army Air Force, first assigned to Chanute Field. He recalled, "Once in the Air Force they took a look at my drawings and I was told to go somewhere where people really understood what I was doing. I was sent to the Fifth Area Air Corps where I was to meet a colonel Sine. Sine said, "There's no doubt about it, you belong at Wright Field. That's where we do all of our designing." But it took Tremulis' perseverance with the base Commanding Officer to get there. As he recounted, "I came to the door that had 'Col O. L. Rogers, Commandant' on it. I opened the door, and before I realized I had come in the back door, it was too late. So I saluted him with my portfolio. He looks at me and says 'What's on your mind?' I said, "Well, sir, I'm at the wrong field." He said "What do you mean you're at the wrong field? Where do you think you should be?' I told him "Wright Field." I also told him "Colonel Sine told me that if I ever get down to Chanute Field that I should look you up because you are the only one down here that knows anything about airplanes." I opened my portfolio, and as it turned out the first thing I showed him was a drawing of a Packard Custom automobile, and he was a Packard owner. Then I brought out the airplanes. He took one look and started pressing buttons. He calls in public relations men; he calls in writers. Colonel Rogers said "Every American Mother in the world thinks we don't know what to do with her son whe he gets into the Air Force...Well, I'm going to show the whole world that we know what to do with talent when we get it."
And with that introduction, Tremulis finally made it to the aircraft design lab where he was to work on some of the most advanced aircraft of World War II. But his first love had always been automobiles.
From the Tremulis Vertical Takeoff to the Space Shuttle
In 1944, Tremulis designed an interceptor that could be launched with a rocket booster that would be jetisoned at altitude. The jet would perform its mission and then land back on Earth with standard landing gear. The project took on a bigger and bigger role as time went by, eventually turning into the Dyna-Soar project, an immediate precursor to the Space Shuttle program. The aircraft also had what Tremulis termed "jeterons" on the wingtip flaps for directional control where the atmosphere is too thin for airfoils. Unheard of technology for WWII.
1946 Tremulis-Jenkins Streamliner
Less than a year after the end of WWII, Tremulis would again team up with Ab Jenkins, this time for a rocket-powered land speed record attempt. Designed in 1946, it was to propel Jenkins to over 600mph using one of the Army’s newest TG180 power plants. Unfortunately, the Army’s jet engines were in short supply, but they did offer up one of its obsolete engines for the attempt. This caught the skeptical race car builder, Lew Welch of the Novi engine fame, off-guard and unprepared. The project never came to fruition, and neither did Tremulis' proposal for a Novi-powered streamliner, shown above, that was to provide Jenkins with a more conventional setup to attack several land speed records.
Preston Tucker: "That's it!"
In 1946 Alex had seen the press photos for a completely new car being built by Preston Tucker in Chicago. He decided to get an interview with the man and show him some of the concepts for the car. Tucker told Tremulis that he could only have fifteen minutes. Tremulis responded "Well that's all you're going to get!" They spent several hours going over their views of what an automobile should look like. Alex went back home and in 5 days he had prepared several views for what would eventually become the Tucker '48. Preston's response to the drawings was "That's it!" and Tremulis was subsequently put in charge of styling and building the first Tucker prototype, the "Tin Goose".
Alex had created one of the most exciting automobiles that anyone had yet seen following the war. With its distinctive third headlight, it was immediately recognizable as a Tucker. Lower and wider than the cars of its day, it was to make big news, but not all of it was good. In order to generate working capital for the company, Tucker sold accessories and dealerships even before the cars were available to the public. The Securities and Exchange Commission frowned upon this tactic and rumors and accusations flew that the entire company was a sham. Brought to trial and acquitted, both Tucker the man and Tucker the car would never recover. Today these cars are highly collectible for their innovative features and styling.
1950 - 1952: Kaiser-Frazer
I joined Kaiser-Frazer in 1950. When I walked in, it was ironic that they had just had a layoff, and six designers were walking out. I was quite impressed with what I saw, because I saw some of the great designers there. They had a triumvirate, let's say, of Herb Weissinger and Buzz Grissinger and Bob Robillard, who went on to become the Chief Designer for the Lockhead L1011 interior styling job which meant a styling staff of about 150 people. It looked like all the production designs were really being controlled by Buzz Grissinger and three designers. Someone had to do some advanced styling work, so I sort of became a self-appointed advanced stylist for Kaiser-Frazer, and it led to some advanced projections that PR-wise had a lot of value. It showed what Kaiser-Frazer designers were thinking of in terms of the future. But, having worked for so many automobile companies, I had seen some of the failures, and I could detect the death rattle of a company. Thanks to: Ford Oral History
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