Nineteen Forty-Six. The Vaporette.

29 Dec

In 1946, the tallest building between New York City and Chicago was the 52-storey Terminal Tower in Cleveland, Ohio. That was where Terry Daw was to meet the industrialist who held his future in his hands.

Entrance into the city by rail deeply impressed the young auto engineer. His milk blue eyes surveyed the soaring structure that dominated the downtown. A haze from the steel mills on the Cuyahoga River lay over the crowded streets. The train suddenly sped underground, slowing into the Union Terminal beneath the central skyscraper.

Terry put on his chesterfield coat and tan fedora, preparing to end his transcontinental journey.

His mind focused on the coming appointment with the manufacturer, Cyril Harwood. How would his meeting with the titan of auto parts turn out? he worried.

The train stopped. Daw and the multitude of other passengers exited into the cavernous underground depot that resembled a great windowless cathedral. He stopped and looked about at the racing streams of travelers. Shops lined the sides of the concourse. An echoing loudspeaker reported arrivals and departures of trains.

It took Terry several minutes to find the baggage room and claim his suitcases. A gigantic clock on the ceiling informed him that he had only two hours before the appointment. Just enough time to get to his reserved room at the adjacent Pick Hotel, shave, and change his suit. The office of Harwood and his corporate holdings was on the forty-sixth floor of the Terminal Tower. There he would face the ruler of a minor, secondary factory empire, one who dreamed of going to the top of the automobile industry.

Cyril Harwood, wiry and energetic in his sixties, stepped around an enormous desk and took the hand of the younger man. The industrialist, short and spare, wore an ordinary suit of light brown gabardine. His castaneous eyes sparkled and twinkled, thought Terry. Wisks of white hair remained on his shiny bald head.

The pair shook hands, then Harwood invited his visitor to sit down as he did the same.

“How was your trip, Mr. Daw? It’s a long journey by land. I’m surprised you didn’t fly from California. You must be extremely exhausted by now.”

The small man gave a radiant smile. Terry understood then why he was such a success in business.

“I enjoyed the sights my travel provided,” he said. “Who can see much from up in the stratosphere?”

Harwood, all of a sudden, seemed to be focused far away.

“When I was young, there were many opportunities for me to travel. In those days, I went to see customers everywhere. It was possible for me to take the pulse of the whole country, get to know people from all walks of life. But now I have to tend to my many companies, mostly in the Cleveland area. We have become the machine tool center of the country, of the world. My time is no longer as free as it once was. And there are so many civic and community responsibilities I have to fulfill, as well.

“In my earlier years, there were many dreams and enthusiasms in me. The young Cyril Harwood was a lot like what you are, my friend. What I mean is this: my aspirations centered on the development of new techniques and mechanisms. I was fascinated by inventions. I had no narrow groove to stay in, as it is for me today.”

He paused, studying the long, narrow face of his visitor for several moments.

“Perhaps I am reliving my youth in this new matter, Mr. Daw. Back in the 1920’s, I was fascinated by the last of the steam automobiles. Couldn’t they be improved and renovated so as to rival the gasoline-fueled, internal combustion engines? But they died out in the brutal competition of the day.

“That should not have been allowed to happen. It was a tragedy. The war showed how dependent our country was on petroleum supplies, and how vulnerable. There were still hopeful possibilities in prior decades, but Detroit quashed them. That is why what you achieved on the West Coast excited my interest so much. What if…?” The manufacturer’s face reddened. His chestnut eyes dilated. “There is a chance that you and I can turn transportation as it is today upside down,that we can return steam to cars and trucks. That is why I wanted to hear directly from you about the breakthrough you made.”

Terry realized this was his opportunity to win the financial backing his project needed.

“Let me tell you my history,” he carefully began. “My father built and repaired steam motors for cars in the early 1920’s. That was in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Steamers were a passion, a mania for him. He passed that on to me. Before the war, I worked with him in San Diego in our family machine shop. In 1938, he patented a new, vastly improved steam engine design, the Daw Cycle. It possessed a completely new kind of water recompression system. Our engine, with its four cylinders, had a single-acting, uniflow pattern of operation. All the components were combined into a single, unified line.

“I myself added a new feature to the engine: an automatic bleeder valve. It allows the condensed liquid to escape efficiently from the cylinders. As a result, we have a cold operation of the engine as it is able to turn on water pressure alone, without heating to high temperatures. In the older steam engines, it was always necessary to warm up the cylinder walls by forcing steam though the engine block for several minutes before it would run. With us, that is no longer required. Our steam motor is totally different in concept.”

“Yes, I remember there was a great problem of warming up the engines,” interjected Harwood. “Is the new valve an automatic one?”

Terry nodded yes. “But there is also a second major innovation in our design, sir. That came in 1941, just before we went to war. A new valve automatically matches and balances two crucial factors in the motor: The engine compression ratio and steam pressure. In the past, a uniflow steam engine did not run smoothly when it faced rapid variations in land conditions beneath the vehicle. Rough or steep surfaces were hard to negotiate. Engines would often buck and stall when compression in the motor exceeded the inlet pressure. Nothing could be done about this. Drivers would refuse to buy a second steamer after suffering such trouble. It discouraged people, making them only one-time buyers. That problem sank many car companies who made only steamers.”

“Yes, I know,” moaned Harwood. “When I returned from the war in 1919, I bought and drove a Doble. It was a luxury car made here in Cleveland. I loved it, despite the bucking problem. It ran until the 1930’s.”

The multimillionaire grew abstracted for a short time, but then shook himself into attention to the business at hand.

“Young man, could you build me a model of your engine here in Cleveland and test it in an auto body that I will provide? There is a section of my oldest auto parts plant that can be used by you. My machine tool shops can do whatever work needed by you. What shall we call the new, modernized steam car? The choice is yours to make.”

Terry did not have to think long for an answer.

“Vaporette,” he announced. “That is what Dad christened it before he died.”

“He did not live to see 1946, then?”

The other answered with a sad nod.

“Rest up,” said Harwood. “We will discuss details tomorrow. I think I’ll take you to Eastlake to see the building that can be used for this purpose.”

The next day, the pair rode out to the facilities of Harwood Industries in a chauffer-driven Lincoln Continental.

“I didn’t sleep much, thinking about what you told me about the Daw Cycle. And something else occupied my mind. How is steel to be obtained at a low price for the new automobile? Detroit works hand-in-glove with the steelmakers and gets the most favorable terms. But then I thought of Cleveland Motors, which produces heavy trucks right here in East Cleveland. I own a substantial minority of the stock of that company. If I increased my holdings in the next several months, I could win control of the firm and gain authority over whom it will supply with cheap steel.”

“That would help us to manufacture our future steamer,” grinned Terry.

“You put together a Vaporette,” explained Harwood,” and I’ll get everything that is needed to make it a commercial success. Cleveland will again become an automobile maker.”

In the days that followed, parts for the advanced engine arrived from California. Several needed repair because of rough handling by rail. Terry meticulously oversaw the assembly of the engine, the frame, and the body. Piece by piece, the Vaporette became a single, interconnected unit.

Cyril Harwood visited the assembly building every other day, eager to measure progress on the work. He continued to ask Terry what he could do to facilitate and speed up the work.

The industrialist discussed the continuing strike at all General Motors plants. It had begun in November of 1945 and still went on. “The giant is losing money by producing nothing for so long,” he told Terry. “All of Detroit’s auto production is below prewar levels in 1941, because everything  they need is scarce. Expectations for sales are still low for all companies. Government regulation of metals and prices is hampering everyone. If I could gain control over Cleveland Motors, then their local steel furnaces could be made available for Vaporette production.”

As spring began, the model steamer reached completion and was ready to roll.

“Can we take it out for a test drive on the streets?” excitedly asked the older man.

“Yes, of course,” said Terry. “You will accompany me on board the Vaporette tomorrow morning.”

The Daw model had the boxlike shape of a 1925 Doble steamer, the pride of Cleveland’s past automobile industry. It took only fifteen seconds to start the engine, unlike those of bygone days. The car moved silently out of the building where it was assembled. Its ride felt smooth and comfortable. Gear changes proved quick and imperceptible. Terry, at the steering wheel, had full control over the vehicle. Both of them sensed that the advanced engine was a success.

Was this steam power? It felt atomic in its strength, steadiness, and fluidity. It would surely be competitive with what Detroit put on the road in 1946. The Vaporette proved itself suitable for city traffic. Soon they were on Euclid Avenue, part of the busy morning traffic on that central artery.

An idea struck Cyril. “Can you take it downtown, Terry? That would be a good test of how it handles.”

For over an hour, they progressed into the main business district, then returned to Eastlake.

The overjoyed industrialist beamed at his driver. “We need some speed testing, too. Let’s try it out at the Glenville Race Track. I can make the arrangements at once.”

A test driver with experience at the wheel of fast autos took the Vaporette around the track at amazing speeds of over eighty m.p.h. Both Daw and Harwood were gratified at what the tested steamer was capable of.

Terry drove the car to Akron and back to try it out on the highway. This proved another success.

“Ohio will one day build a high-speed turnpike across the state,” predicted Cyril. “It will be an extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and stretch all the way to Indiana. Why don’t you take a test drive eastward to the Pennsylvania Pike and see how the Vaporette handles on that super road?”

Terry made such a trip for the next six days, establishing the strength and durability of the car and its steam engine.

People stared in wonder at the odd-looking automobile that accelerated noiselessly.

At the same time, Cyril Harwood was busy in Cleveland banking and financial circles, selling his idea of making the city and its region a center of a new kind of auto industry. He grew accustomed to the doubt and suspicion aroused by his enthusiastic words. He reported on this wall of coldness and outright opposition to Terry Daw.

“I can detect the influence of Detroit and Texas in the lack of response that I find,” explained the industrialist. “And these oil interests are allied with the manufacturers of gasoline-fueled autos, who in turn are major customers of the steel corporations. All of them are a united team that even the big regional banks fear riling up. You see how hard my job of selling the Vaporette is? That is why I am buying up the shares of Cleveland Motors. Once under my control, that company will become the key to manufacturing the new steamer on a significant scale.”

Louis Jacks, publisher-owner of the “Cleveland News” was an old acquaintance and personal enemy of Cyril Harwood. He considered the industrial titan a wild dreamer and adventurer who threatened the economic future of the city with his strange investment schemes. It was his natural reflex to oppose the Vaporette the moment he heard of it. His newspaper started the public campaign against the plan for the rebirth of steam automobiles with scathing criticism in both articles and leading editorials.

Jacks was on close terms with all the main personalities in both the economic and political elites of Cleveland and did not hesitate to speak out against what Harwood was planning to do. Wherever he went, whomever he talked to, the powerful publisher would bring up the immediate need to crush the idea that could damage the postwar future of the city on the lake that called itself “the best location in the nation.”

No one on the local business scene was as influential as James Furth, the banker. Not only was he the president of the largest financial firm, the Ohio Savings and Trust. He sat on the Federal Reserve Board in Washington and was the Chairman of the regional reserve branch on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland. Positioned at the apex of the economic pyramid, he had no competitors in power and information. No one recognized how important he was more than Publisher Jacks, who was surprised when the banker appeared at his newspaper office one spring morning.

“I did not make an appointment, Lou,” remarked Furth once he was seated, “because the matter is quite urgent. I had to talk with you immediately.” The banker paused for breath. “No doubt you are able to guess what my visit here has to do with.”

Louis Jacks crinkled his wrinkled face into a dramatic, cynical smile. “I would bet that your visit here concerns the latest daydream occupying the spacious brain of our industrial genius, Mr. Cyril Harwood.”

“That’s it!” said Furth with a short, sharp laugh. “Cyril and I attended the same private academy out in Brathenhal when we were young boys. We were all from families of wealth, but Cyril’s was the richest of all. He knew it and he made everyone else acknowledge his superiority as well. There was no one else so hard to get along with as him.

“Both his parents were killed in a horrible automobile accident and he was left with a gigantic fortune at an early age. I believe that cars became a passion with him, and the secret dream in the back of his mind was to make them safe and accident-proof. That would have been his reaction to what happened to his mother and father. So, although he became a parts manufacturer, he had some sort of ambition to create a car to compensate for his early family loss.

“Cyril was the golden boy of Cleveland, clever and successful enough to pay the bill for any whim that flew into his imaginative mind. He had a great deal of luck with his machine tool ventures during the war, and now he has made steam-powered cars his new hobby-horse.”

Jacks realized he had an ally with strong convictions about Harwood. “I am determined that the “News” prevent this man from making Cleveland into the nation’s laughing-stock. This steam car is a joke that will allow outsiders to belittle and degrade our whole community. Every leader I have spoken with sees danger to the city’s economic future if we let Cyril throw wads of capital into this hopeless gamble of his.”

James Furth frowned. “I’m determined to squash this at once. I foresee disaster for Cleveland should Cyril ignite an industrial civil war with the majors in Detroit. Peacetime conversion has been slow and weakened by the General Motors strike. The big three auto companies are probably operating at a loss today. Why would they ever invest here if we allow this wildcat enterprise to take root in our region? He could become the cause of a general catastrophe for Cleveland, even when the steamer fails in competition as did those of the 1920’s.”

“The man is not stupid, though,” muttered Jacks. “Rumor has it that he is secretly buying up control of Cleveland Motors with a plan to convert some of its facilities in East Cleveland to making his steam automobile there.”

A pause followed, during which both men considered the situation they were facing in the conflict with the hometown industrial egoist.

A grand showing of the Vaporette with a modern, newly designed body was arranged by Cyril Harwood. The streamlined steamer was to be officially unveiled to the press and the public at a large hall in the Terminal Tower Building.

“This will be like a formal coming-out party for a social debutante,” laughed Cyril in his tower office. “It will be a mark of success for both of us, Terry. I predict that the patents you hold are going to make you an extremely rich inventor.”

“I am ready to give our audience a technical explanation of the innovations that make our car competitive against the prewar models that Detroit is now starting to turn out. The new, modernistic body will put the Vaporette far ahead in general design. Only we have a vehicle that can be considered the car of the future.”

All of a sudden, a telephone rang on the large desk of the multimillionaire. He turned to it and picked up the receiver.

Cyril said nothing to the caller for a considerable time, but his face appeared to change into a stony mask as he listened to some disturbing message.

Terry Daw watched him with a vague feeling of alarm. Was something wrong? he wondered.

“You are sure of that?” was the first question asked over the telephone at this end.

“It’s they who are behind it?” was the second question from Harwood’s mouth.

After another long period of listening, the industrialist gave an order. “Keep me informed by noon, when the news conference downstairs will be over and I’ll be back in this office.”

He put back the receiver, then gave a cold stare to the man who had brought the Vaporette to him.

“Something unexpected is happening. There has been some terrible news out of Detroit. For one thing, the strike at General Motors is over and that company is preparing to restart production. But there has been another announcement at G.M. headquarters. It affects my plans in a bad way.

“There have been secret talks up there. The officers of Cleveland Motors have offered to merge with them and have just accepted the terms from General Motors. To me it seems obvious that it was Detroit that first proposed to buy the truck maker and invited the chiefs to come up and bargain over the terms.” Cyril frowned darkly. “It is clearly a move to stop me. Without Cleveland Motors, I have no way of getting my hands on cut-rate steel. This is all a clever tactical move by the giant to freeze me out of direct competition. They figure that without a steel supply that is advantageous, I can’t turn out an economical steam car.”

For a time, Harwood looked at the inventor with an expression that Terry was unable to decipher or interpret. Cyril suddenly glanced at his watch.”It’s time we got to the unveiling in the conference hall,” he said in a voice without feeling.

The public event went smoothly and the press conference by Cyril Harwood and Terry Daw was short and perfunctory. Nothing was said or asked about the merger announcement in Detroit.

As the program ended and the press and the public left, Cyril spoke to the inventor in terse words.

“I’ll see what I can salvage, but no one can be certain now.”

Terry had an almost sleepless night in his hotel room. Next morning, the “Cleveland News” and the other early newspaper featured the news of the merger in bold headlines. The story about the Vaporette did not even make the front page.

A knock at the door brought Terry there to open it. A male assistant of Harwood stood there and handed an envelope to the surprised inventor. The latter closed the door and removed the message sent to him by the man who had promised to manufacture the steamer.

Cyril had left for a vacation in Florida. Conditions looked horrible for the Vaporette. Expensive steel would be a problem that had no solution in the present economy of 1946. Shortages were certain to stymy and delay starting up production on any practical scale. All plans had to be re-evaluated. That would take time. Nothing seemed possible this year. For the immediate present, the Vaporette had to be put in mothballs.

Cyril felt profound personal sorrow. He was unable to carry out what he had promised his good friend and technical partner. Their plans had been blocked through a conspiracy behind the scenes.

For the first time in years, Daw found himself starting to weep.

I must return to California, early tomorrow morning. This is an old area with technology from the past. The future of the Vaporette is not here in Cleveland. I must find a place, wherever it happens to be, where the new has a hope and a chance to take root.


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