Archive for category Old Stuff

Five things that probably shouldn’t be nuclear powered

Once upon a time, people thought the atom was the key to the future. It may have just been the ultimate threat to human existence at the time, but Cold War engineers thought nuclear power had plenty of utility as well.

Using a small chunk of metal to power a city for decades seems like a good deal, as long as you don’t consider radiation and the occasional bout of China Syndrome. Before people started thinking about those little foibles, they came up with some pretty creative uses for nuclear power.

Ford NucleonCars

A functioning nuclear-powered car was never actually built, but Ford toyed with the idea. The company’s 1958 Nucleon concept was a 3/8 scale model intended to show what a production atomic car could look like.

The Nucleon had the cab-forward look of the Dodge Deora (of Hot Wheels fame), but instead of a pickup bed for storing surfboards, it had a rear-mounted nuclear reactor. While it would have made an interesting rival for the Porsche 911, it’s probably best that the Nucleon never made it to production.

Convair NB-36HAirplanes

During the 1950s, ships took their place in the triad of strategic defense thanks to nuclear power, so it’s not surprising that the American and Soviet air forces wanted to extend that success to their strategic bombers.

Strategic bombers patrolled enemy airspace in anticipation of a nuclear strike, a la Dr. Strangelove. A bomber with the unlimited range of a nuclear submarine would definitely have been an asset.

While a nuclear reactor never powered a plane, both Cold War rivals sent them aloft in conventional aircraft to see if they and their heavy shielding could be lifted. The Americans built the Convair NB-36H, a variant of the B-36 Peacemaker, and the Soviets converted a TU-95 into the TU-95LAL.

General Electric also built a prototype reactor in Idaho for the follow-up to the NB-36H, the X-6, but thankfully it proved unnecessary. Advances in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) eventually negated the need for a long range nuclear-powered bomber.

Atomic airship illustrationAirships

If a nuclear wing aircraft couldn’t work, what about one with the Hindenburg’s propensity for spontaneous combustion? The airship was out of vogue by the 1950s, but that didn’t stop The U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Naval Weapons from proposing an atomic version as part of the Eisenhower Administration’s “Atoms for Peace” program.

The Navy reasoned that an airship’s low power requirements would allow it to use a lighter reactor, and that it serve as a “flying aircraft carrier,” defending itself with its own fighter planes.

An even more ambitious proposal appeared in a 1956 Mechanix Illustrated article. Author Frank Tinsley envisioned an airship 1,000 feet in length (nearly twice the length of the Hindenburg) that could be used to publicize the Atoms for Peace program.

Ike ended up building the nuclear cargo ship Savannah instead, and that’s probably for the better. Given large airships’ inability to stay aloft (the entire U.S. airship fleet of the 1930s was lost in crashes), it’s probably best that one didn’t take to the skies with a nuclear reactor on board.

Russian nuclear lighthouseLighthouses

Before GPS, lighthouses were all that kept mariners from crashing into rocky shorelines and underwater obstacles. To keep the lights on, keepers needed to make sure there was plenty of fuel or electricity at the lighthouses’ remote locations.

That must have seemed like too much of a hassle to the Russians, who built a few lighthouses powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), the same type of generator that powers the Curiosity Mars rover.

Unlike nuclear reactors, RTGs rely solely on the energetic decay of a piece of radioactive material. As the material decays, it emits energy that is converted into electricity.

A box of plutonium might generate plenty of power for an otherwise inaccessible structure, but is it really a good idea to leave said plutonium unsupervised?

Project Pluto SLAMDrones

If you think the all-seeing Predator drone is scary, wait ‘til you meet “Project Pluto.” An atomic nightmare, it was a pilotless nuclear powered cruise missile that could launch its own nuclear weapons.

Known as a Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile (SLAM), Project Pluto’s mission profile exemplifies Cold War desperation. The reactor powered a ramjet, heating air fed into the craft as it moved and expanding it to produce thrust. this would have allowed a Pluto missile to travel at speeds up to Mach 3 and stay airborne for months at a time, allowing it to deliver a payload of hydrogen bombs to multiple targets.

It gets better though: Pluto’s unshielded nuclear reactor would spread radiation as it traveled along, making it pretty dangerous to the country that launched it. Developers believed low altitude supersonic shockwaves could also be dangerous to bystanders, but that didn’t stop them from testing a prototype nuclear ramjet engine in 1961.

In his memoir, Silent War, Navy special projects director John Craven recalls hoping that a defect would be found in the engine, shelving Project Pluto. To his (and my) relief, the military eventually gave up on its atomic death machine.

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Other People’s Cars: Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

1985 Pontiac Firebird Trans AmHas a car ever winked at you?

Jake Kara sent me this photo of a 1980s Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that looks like it’s either trying to get the viewer’s attention, or is having a seizure.

This car has what collectors call “patina,” which makes it look incredibly out of place parked in the center of Monroe, Connecticut, a town with a lot of history and a lot of money.

The third-generation Firebird, produced from 1981 to 1990, is one of those cars that seemingly obligates its driver to grow a mullet. They always seem to look like this car, and always seem to be heading to the local 7-11.

That wedged shape also made third-gen Firebirds popular fodder for “Fauxrrari” body kits, which transformed them into Ferrari Testarossa knock-offs.

This Firebird did have some good qualities, though. It was the basis for KITT in Knight Rider, and it was one of the few true American muscle cars of the 1980s.

The Firebird, and its Chevrolet Camaro twin, were among the few 1960s performance nameplates to survive the purge that took place in the early ‘70s, at the hands of rising insurance costs, EPA regulations, and OPEC.

This car’s “High Tech” aluminum wheels identify it as a 1985 (or later) model, which means it has a 305 cubic inch fuel-injected V8 under the hood. When new, that engine was good for 210 horsepower. That doesn’t seem like much, but keep in mind that a base 1984 Corvette only had 205 hp.

So this car’s owner deserves a little credit for going for the Trans Am and not a regular Firebird, although how they ended up with this example is a question for the ages.

In fact, there’s plenty of mystery surrounding this seemingly unremarkable car. Did that ding in the front bumper come from a dramatic police chase? Why did the driver back into that space in such a photogenic way? Why is the car winking at us?

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Other People’s Cars: Oldsmobile Delta 88

Oldsmobile Delta 88This may not look like a very impressive car, but bear with me. You probably have a better chance of seeing a Porsche on today’s roads than seeing one of these babies.

This is a car from a brand that no longer exists and, fittingly, it represents a type of car that is on the verge of extinction.

Ask a kindergartener to draw a car and they’ll probably come up with something like this: a four-door sedan with no curved lines other than the wheels.

At one time, this Platonic automobile really was the most common sight on American roads. If it wasn’t an Olds Delta 88, it was a Chevy Caprice, or a Ford LTD, or a Dodge Monaco.

Today, however, the automotive landscape is much more diverse. Cars try to be all things for all people, which is why we have crossovers that look like tough 4x4s, but are actually based on front-wheel drive sedans, and “four-door coupes” that try to combine style and practicality.

In contrast, the big American sedan has become a niche item. There are still a few around (Dodge Charger, Chevy Impala, Chrysler 300, Ford Taurus) but they are the automotive equivalent of vinyl.

That’s not exactly a bad thing. Today’s cars are safer, faster, and better for the environment than this gas-guzzling Olds, although maybe not as old-school-cool.

Either way, this 88 is a noteworthy sighting. It’s both a historical reminder of a time when cars were expected to have the square footage of a small apartment, and a rare car in its own right.

Oldsmobile may have made legions of these things back in the ‘70s. but you’d be hard pressed to find one on the road today. That’s why I’m glad I did.

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The young anachronism

AMT Grumman F9F PantherMy birth date puts me firmly within the generation that grew up with computers and smartphones, yet I sometimes feel like an anachronism. I’ve watched some of my favorite things (books, magazines, bookstores) and my chosen profession (print journalism) become threatened by digitalia, and the cycle isn’t stopping.

In a recent column, Car and Driver’s Aaron Robinson chronicled the demise of hobby stores. Yet another analog activity bites the dust.

I guess I’m lucky that my local hobby store isn’t affected by this trend. I’ve got a 1971 Dodge Charger plastic model kit on my workbench right now, with a Cold War-era guided missile cruiser and an F-104 Starfighter in the queue.

Given that the death of print books has been forecast for several years and Barnes & Noble is still open, I won’t be running down to the hobby shop to clear the shelves like a crazed prepper just yet. Still, it never feels good to have one of your passions make the transition from mainstream to old fashioned.

Sometimes, it makes me feel like I missed the boat on the digital revolution, but only just. When I purchased by first SLR camera in 2001, digital SLRs were extremely expensive and 35mm film was still putting up a fight in the battle for relevance. I also remember the typewriter my dad used to use for word processing.

That’s why I still prefer to shoot with film, draw with a pencil, read a physical book, and assemble plastic toys for fun. Like many older people who are expected to have a fondness for such things, I can truthfully say that I grew up with this stuff.

“At 43, I don’t feel ready to be called “old school,’” Robinson said in his Car and Driver column. At 25, I feel the same way.

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Other People’s Cars: GMC Jimmy

GMC JimmyI was out with my non-smartphone again, so I don’t have a photo of my latest find. So you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure an image of a GMC Jimmy like the one above, but with dark blue paint and blacked-out trim, sitting on Bank Street in New Milford, Connecticut, the same street that was filled with Corvettes for the ending of Mr. Deeds.

The Jimmy was a copy of the Chevrolet Blazer. Like the Chevy, it started out as a shortened two-door pickup with a removable top, making it a de facto SUV. Both models eventually left General Motors’ full-size truck chassis behind, downsizing to the compact Chevy S-10/GMC Sonoma chassis.

The Jimmy had to change over the years as the idea of a convertible SUV fell out of favor (weird, right?), but now that idea is coming back.

Everyone laughed when Nissan came out with the Murano CrossCabriolet, but is it really any more ridiculous than this roofless wonder? The GMC gets a bit of a pass for having genuine off-road capability; it’s following the precedent set by the Jeep CJ and Land Rover Series I.

The Murano is a road-going crossover, so it can’t claim that inspiration. Neither can crossover “coupes” like the BMW X6 and Range Rover Evoque, although the latter at least looks good and has some off-road abilities.

That’s a problem, because removing the “utility” from SUV didn’t work for the Jimmy or its brethren. Vehicles like the Jimmy, Blazer, Ford Bronco, and International Scout were popular because they’re optional tops made them more practical than open-bed pickups trucks.

Once SUVs diverged from pickups and became more refined, the appeal dissipated. That’s why the two-door SUV is nearly extinct.

Will the newer, more car-like crossovers turn this niche around? It’s hard to tell, but the Murano CrossCabriolet definitely won’t look as cool in 45 years as this GMC does now.

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Other People’s Cars: Ford Fairlane Squire

Ford Fairlane SquireI found this gem a few weeks ago while I was in Manhattan for the New York Auto Show and took a photo because its an awesome old station wagon parked on West Side Drive.

I’ve been trying to think of something else to say about it, something more significant, but that’s pretty much it.

The wagon in question is a Ford Fairlane Squire, the wagon version of Ford’s mid-sixties midsize sedan. It was built in either 1966 or 1967, the only two years this body style was made.

I’m not sure which engines were available on the Squire, but I bet this one is having a bit more trouble keeping up with New York traffic than it did when it was new.

Yet it looks just fine parked where it is; like the cool kid leaning against a building with one heel on the bricks.

This is why I like walking around cities. You never know what you’ll find.

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A little blue caboose in Grand Central

Metro North cabooseI love finding old things, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this caboose sitting on Track 14 at Grand Central Terminal as I was catching a rush hour commuter train out of New York.

It’s easy to recognize a caboose from children’s books and model train displays, but they’re actually quite rare. They were mobile offices and living quarters for freight train crews, but these days most trains run with two-person crews that can easily be accommodated in a locomotive cab.

Hauling around an extra car that doesn’t produce any money for the company may be romantic, but it doesn’t make business sense.

That makes this caboose a survivor. Perhaps it was forgotten in this dimly-lit corner of Grand Central, or left because it was too difficult to move it through the terminal’s web of tracks to a scrapyard. Maybe it’s been sitting for years, like a time capsule.

Actually, there’s just no point in throwing away something that you still have a use for. Metro North, the commuter rail agency that serves points north and east of New York City, keeps this caboose for physical plant maintenance.

The letters MNCW on the side of the car are the “reporting marks,” basically official initials, used for Metro North’s maintenance equipment. That explains why this caboose isn’t in a museum, and why this freight car is sitting on the platform of one of America’s most famous passenger rail terminals.

It was coupled to some flatcars with garbage dumpsters on them. Apparently, it’s part of a train that hauls trash out of Grand Central.

This old caboose won’t become a subject for moody urban explorer photos just yet, and that’s fine with me. There’s nothing wrong with admiring historic objects for their oldness, but they were designed to serve a purpose, not to be gawked at.

Countless buildings, railroad cars, and other artifacts have outlived their usefulness, but this caboose hasn’t.

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