Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nils Wahlberg and Nash - Salute To A Great Engineer And Unsung Automobiles

I've been wanting to do a piece about this subject for a long time. We celebrate the great engineers of the cars we revere...Ferdinand Porsche is a good example of an automotive engineer of whom everybody is aware of, even nearly 60 years after his death. But certain other people who broke new ground in automotive engineering go nearly forgotten, along with the superb automobiles that were the result of their creative and innovative minds. Nils Eric Wahlberg was one of the best and brightest of these people, and he left a legacy that we all enjoy in our cars every single day. He deserves honor and remembrance. The company that Mr. Wahlberg spent most of his career with was Nash Motors, which later became American Motors Corporation when it merged with Hudson in 1954. Nash automobiles, under the engineering and technical guidance of Wahlberg, became probably the automobile industry's most technically sophisticated cars, in the overall sense of the word, available anywhere during the 1940s and early 1950s. Wahlberg, a Norwegian who immigrated to America as a boy early in the last century, holds a list of personally developed innovations that would do credit to a platoon of other fine engineers.

This is a list of the major, and some not-so major, yet still significant, achievements of Wahlberg's Nash company:
1. Modern fully-unitized/monocoque body construction, as still in use today (1940 Nash 600)
2. "Weather-Eye", the very first fully integrated automotive heating and ventilation system (1940 Nash)
3. Scientifically developed aerodynamic design for a mass-produced passenger sedan (1949 Nash Airflyte)
4. Scientifically designed, ergonomic driver-oriented instrument panel ("Uniscope", 1949 Nash Airflyte)
5. Fully reclining seats that converted passenger compartment into a serviceable bed (1949 Airflyte)
6. Serious refinement of powertrain and vehicle airflow characteristics toward goal of top fuel-efficiency in a large passenger car (1949 Airflyte)
7. One of first manufacturers to offer factory-installed safety belts and safety-padded instrument panel (1949 Airflyte)

Nils Eric Wahlberg during the 1930s:

The concept of unitized body construction (self-supporting bodywork constructed of welded sheetmetal, with no separate frame to lend support) was not brand-new in 1940; several, among them Lancia (the pioneers in productionizing unitized bodywork in 1922), Lincoln (1936 Zephyr), Cord 810, Chrysler's Airflow of 1934 and a few others, had developed either primitive unitary, or semi-unitized (Lincoln Zephyr , Cord and Airflow) construction, but Wahlberg took it that final step into complete frameless unitization that established the path for all automakers to eventually follow. This was a major advancement in the technological development of the automobile, both with respect to pure technology and production engineering, and also from the aspect of the automobile's ultimate utility, safety, and even comfort for its passengers. As is so often the case throughout the automobile's history, a small, independent carmaker stole the lead from the larger, more wealthy companies, and set the pace for all to follow in later years. Mr. Wahlberg's, and the Nash company's diligence and innovative spirit took a relatively primitively constructed machine, with its ancient separate frame with an attached, unstressed body, which was little different from horse-drawn wagons of ages-old, and brought the automobile into a state where they suddenly rivalled the technological prowess of modern aircraft, with their "monocoque", or unitized construction.

From brochure for 1949 Nash automobiles, a cutaway illustration featuring the unitized construction of the body/chassis, and relating it to the most modern, and likewise unitized, aircraft of the time:

This illustration demonstrates the way Nash promoted its new unitized construction in the earliest models that featured it; the Nash 600, of 1942. These cars, with their all-steel, of-a-piece construction, were a long-lead preview of the future of automobiles everywhere:

For many years during the early decades of the automobile, riding in a car was often less than comfortable, largely because nearly all cars, even the most extravagant and expensive of them, did not have even the most basic of heating and ventilation systems. Even during the 1930s, which was a great "age of refinement" of the automobile, car heaters were still something of a luxury, and always optionally available if at all. Then, the heaters themselves were crude and offered their own set of discomforts for the passenger, with stale, recirculated air because of the lack of fresh air circulation, along with "hot spot" heating due to the heater's lack of ducting. This made for a hot zone near the heater itself, and the increasing coldness as one moved farther away from it within the interior. Windshield defogging was pretty much a matter of wiping the glass with a towel, or scraping the ice away manually. With the new Nash "Weather-Eye" system, introduced in 1940, Wahlberg brought completely new and revolutionary levels of comfort, and even safety, to automobiles. Wahlberg's Weather-Eye system, when seen in a cutaway, is recognizable to anyone who is familiar with a modern automobile's HVAC system, by the way. He got the fundamentals exactly right in the first place, and it is a tribute to his years of research and development work on it. The system provided pressurized (Wahlberg was the first to recognize the necessity of creating positive inner pressure inside the car to eliminate drafts and dust penetration) fresh air to the car's occupants. The incoming air was also filtered (the Nash was the first car to make use of a disposable filter in the air-intake to clean incoming air), and heated and dehumidified (for maximum defogging effect of the windows). This was a major advancement in the development and maturation of the automobile, and its ability to transport passengers in comfort.

Typical period Nash print advertisement, featuring Weather-Eye. For years no other manufacturer could equal the all-weather comfort of Nash automobiles at any price:

Following is a page from a Nash owner's manual from the 1940s. It could almost be taken from any car's owner's manual of 2009:

Wahlberg's extensive work in the wind-tunnel resulted in the aerodynamic (to the point of looking very unusual, even in its time) Nash Airflyte models of the early fifties, which were remarkably efficient, and also very quiet-riding, with almost no wind noise, due to the careful management of airflow over the car. This also had, along with Wahlberg's and Nash's devotion to fuel-efficiency in large cars through careful engine and powertrain design, the effect of making Nash cars capable of far better fuel mileage than their competitors, and also the side-benefit of actually giving Nash cars better high-speed capability while needing less sheer horsepower to make such speeds possible. The Porsche automobile company in Germany, at this time, was building itself into legendary status through the exact same kind of carmaking philosophy, as applied to small and efficient sports/GT cars, as Nash Motors was applying to full-sized passenger sedans. Not even the darling of enthusiasts, when it comes to advanced aerodynamic thinking, namely France's Citroen, had embarked on this path in 1949, and their great product advancements, that being the now legendary DS of 1955. Once again, as so often is the case, an American carmaker can be shown to have set the path for others to follow, yet receives little or no credit for its accomplishment. I'm out to set that record straight.

In the end, the thing that's remarkable to me, when considering Wahlberg's design parameters, and the resulting cars, is that he was on an almost parallel path with Dr. Ferry Porsche's car company over in Germany, only he was doing such things with large cars, whereas Porsche was with small sports/GT cars. Then, when you put an early Porsche 356 side-by-side with the "bathtub" Nash Airflyte, the similarities become even more striking. These Nash cars are so significant and so interesting that I predict their values will be climbing in the years to come, as more enthusiasts discover the true significance of them, and of their "father", Nils Eric Wahlberg. Economical operation through efficient and scientific design was VERY advanced and visionary thinking at the midpoint of the 20th century. This Nash advertisement unashamedly proclaims as much. Much advertising copy is hyperbolic in nature. Nash was simply stating fact, in my opinion:

This photograph nicely illustrates the smoothness and air management discipline that Wahlberg built into the Airflyte's design (the air-intake/grille was only as large as necessary to keep the engine cool). The somewhat odd fully-skirted wheel openings were an integral part of the aerodynamic approach of the Airflyte's design. Wahlberg pretty much disdained "styling", and approached a car's design as a scientist/engineer would. The ironic thing is that, to the eyes of observers 60 years later, these formerly "dumpy looking" Nashes (this is the way they came to popularly be seen) are probably more advanced and attractive looking than the majority of its 1949 contemporaries are. Look closely, and you can see sleekness and a kind of care-in-design that makes them look, instead of "dumpy", downright slippery, especially when taken in the context of their time:

The more you think about it, these Nash automobiles were Volvos before Volvo ever thought of being Volvos! "Cars for people who think" and all that. Very admirable, in my opinon.

Contrary to popular modern perceptions of those times, many people did indeed concern themselves with fuel economy in their cars. The "Mobilgas Economy Run" was one of the most prestigious competitive events that a manufacturer could win victory in for many years (see the one Nash ad). The rise of the big, be-finned and chrome-larded V8 powerwagons of the fifties is the predominant way that the decade is remembered today, but this was only one element of that marketplace, and since it was the most flashy, glamorous and visible, that's what is remembered today.

Keep in mind that the "foreign car invasion" of small, economical European cars began in the late 1950s, and the sales of these cars, while tiny in numbers at first, grew exponentially in just a few years, until Volkswagen, in particular, was viewed with real fear by the Detroit automakers, largely on the strength of VW's (along with Renault and others) image for being stingy on fuel. I personally had many relatives and neighbors, schoolteachers, etc when I was a boy in the sixties who wouldn't have even thought of owning and driving a "gas hog" (many of them drove Ramblers and Nashes, by the way). Not everyone by any means was as wasteful and profligate as that era's Americans are characterized as having been, en masse, back then. Thrift, if anything, was even more of a virtue then than it is today.

Nash advertising stressed economy of operation and of fuel-consumption:

Comfort and convenience in the operation of an automobile, as a field of research, was coming into its own during the post-WWII years, and again, Nash was a leader in this new field of "ergonomics". One of the significant products of this line of research was Nash's "UniScope" instrument panel that debuted in the 1949 models. The UniScope integrated the various instruments such as speedometer, fuel gauge, ammeter, oil-pressure gauge, and temperature gauge into one unitized module that was mounted, in direct line-of-sight of the driver, and close enough to permit easy viewing, atop the steering column. UniScope also promised easier servicability for repair technicians, and also permitted a recessed and safety padded panel to face the front seat passengers, which enhanced collision safety notably.

Nash cars of these years became famous (infamous?) for their fully-reclining front seatbacks, which enabled the creation of a workable bed inside the passenger compartment. It was a Nash exclusive for many years, and was the source of anxiety for many parents who would fret about their daughters going out for dates with boyfriends driving Nashes. But the improvement in comfort and convenience was undeniable, and this feature eventually found its way to being an industry standard in modern times. Nobody laughs at reclining seats anymore.

It helps to remember that the adult generation of the 1950s were all fairly recent survivors of not only the Great Depression years, but also of World War II and the austerity that it imposed on everyone, everywhere. It's not an excuse for the crazy cars that came to be during the "Flamboyant Fifties", but that also can help explain the way that people found their ability, through postwar prosperity and material abundance, to "cut loose" and enjoy a little bit of "wretched excess" here and there. They'd paid their dues. But along with the excesses and material abundance of the 1950s there was a tempering spirit of old-fashioned thrift still alive with the public. Nash catered to that spirit. The company thrived and prospered as a result. It's important to not forget the great and visionary leadership of one of the truly great industrial executives of all time here. George Mason was the president of Nash Motors during these years of innovation and leadership, and he worked in concert with Nils Wahlberg to bring the best products possible to the public. Mason was a hardworking, honest, and charitable man with a big heart, and his story is one deserving of a separate article. Mason's protege, George Romney, the father of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, followed in his footsteps as the president of Mason's new American Motors Corporation (the result of Nash and Hudson merging in 1954), following Mason's untimely death that year, and kept Mason's spirit of thrift, combined with innovation and quality, alive during his tenure with the company. Romney left AMC in 1962 to become the governor of Michigan.

The portly George Mason, seen here posing with Clark Gable at the 1946 Indianapolis 500, where Nash served as the Official Pace Car:

It is a popular misconception among many enthusiast-types today that the automakers of yesteryear had relatively little to work with, since they did not have the highly evolved electronic tools that are available today to designers and engineers. Thusly, the thinking goes, they were limited in what they could do. Actually, the automakers had much to work with in those days. What they had was the power of intellect, coupled with vivid imaginations, possessed by great gentlemen like Mr. Wahlberg. Thusly, on the contrary, their possibilities were limitless. There were so many like him, too, with deep and wide educational backgrounds combined with fertile and creative and inquisitive minds, and the result was the automobiles that we revere so much today, or that we should revere, like these underappreciated Nashes. That's why I start topics like this, in the hope that more, if even only a few, enthusiasts find something that they look at and say WOW! that's worth knowing more about.


  1. Hello!
    do you know where I can find a photo in High definition of Nils Erik Wahlberg?
    thank you.

  2. The photograph I used for this piece was the only one I could find, other than a few that I've seen in "Hemmings Classic Car" magazine a few years ago in a profile piece on his life. IIRC. Sorry I can't be more helpful. He was quite a person, wasn't he?

  3. I just finished a good book about the history of Nash, Hudson, and American Motors. It is titled "Storied Independent Automakers, Nash, Hudson, and American Motors" by Charles Hyde.

    It was a good read and I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn read more about these makes.

  4. Helo, just learned that Nils Erik Wahlberg was a Finn like me! Where can I find a biography of him?

  5. I just read an article by Reni Hildeen on the magazine "Automobiili" (published by Car Historic Club of Finland, SA-HK). Story of N.E. Wahlberg.
    Born in Finland anno 1885, he had to fled to Suisse in year 1907 to escape from draft to the Russian imperial army. At that time he was in the middle of his technical studies in the polytechnic school of Helsinki. (Finland became independent from Russia ten years after, 1917). After finishing his technical studies Mr. Wahlberg immigrated to U.S.A. His first employer was Maxwell-Briscoe, followed by Thomas Motor Co., Packard and Oakland Motor Car Co. (as part of GM) As Charles W Nash resigned form CEO of GM to start his own enterprise, Wahlberg followed him to the new company. Company which came to be a fruitful soil to his inventions.

  6. Great article. THANKS!

    I have been working on a book about Milwaukee's industrial heritage. The book includes a chapter on Seaman Body - the 'captive' auto body manufacturer for Nash that was eventually absorbed by Nash Motors.

    Seaman's factories were located in Milwaukee, and the finished bodies were then shipped to Kenosha by truck.

    In researching the various innovations of Nash, I came across references to Niles Wahlberg.

    I found an obit for him, which provides some additional background. I'll post it separately.


  7. Obit for Niles Wahlberg:

    Nils Wahlberg, Pioneered Nash Auto Developments

    From the Washington Post
    January 22, 1977

    Nils Erik Wahlberg, 91, a pioneer in the automobile industry, died Thursday at Georgetown University Hospital. He had been a resident of Washington for the last 20 years.

    Born in Finland of Swedish parents, Mr. Wahlberg earned an engineering degree from the University of Zurich in Switzerland.He came to this country in about 1908 and settled near Detroit where he became associated with General Motors.

    When Charles W. Nash, then president of General Motors, resigned in 1916 to form the Nash Motors Co. in Kenosha, Wis., he took Mr. Wahlberg with him as vice president for engineering and research.

    When Mr. Nash formed the Nash Kelvinator Co. in 1937, moving headquarters to Detroit, Mr. Wahlberg remained at the Kenosha plant, commuting from his home of many years in Chicago.

    He was credited with leading the development of the first American compact car, the Nash Rambler, which was introduced in 1950.

    Mr. Wahlberg also had played a major role in other developments in the auto industry, including the fresh-air heating and ventilating system, which was introduced by Nash.

    Mr. Wahlberg retired in 1952, two years before Nash and the J. L. Hudson Co. merged to become American Motors, which still builds its cars in Kenosha.

    He is survived by his wife, Katharine White Wahlberg, of the home here.

  8. Thank you for reading, Thom, and thank you v. much for your information on Mr. Wahlberg.