Switching to freewheeling door locks: The inside story

In 1955, I was assigned to the Structures Laboratory, reporting to Bill Ingram in the Hardware Section. We handled locks and hitches, hinges, window mechanisms, and the like, testing them devices each model year.

In these early years, our door latches were “non-freewheeling;” when the door was locked, the door latch “froze,” with no movement at all. This caused an entertaining experience involving Karl Pfeiffer, our Engineering Division head at the time.

Warren Steele

Karl was one of those “Prussian Generals,” like Ernie Rothaar — we peasants always thought these guys would have looked right at home wearing Kaiser helmets with that spike on the top. Karl had an obsession for cleanliness and demanded respect, near reverence, from us all. He was a rotund man who demanded things such as removal of everything from our desks at day’s end; only a vice could remain on any desk or workbench, and it had to be chrome plated! He was feared.

The 1957 Imperial was new [suddenly it was 1960], and our Washington Office had arranged for an influential senator to get one of the first Imperial cars off the line. One evening this senator and his wife went to a huge formal event at the Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda, whose members included Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Richard Nixon.

1957 Imperial ad

When the senator pulled his new Imperial onto the circular driveway, valets attempted to open the locked passenger’s side door, pulling the “paddle-door handle” smartly. It would not move because of the design, and then the overstressed latch rod broke—BANG!

Now our senator’s wife was locked inside the car, but no matter, try the driver’s door. Attempting this—BANG!— that rod broke the same way the passenger side had.

Now neither rear door could be opened, and they had to pull our senator and wife out through a lowered window. Highland Park heard about this big time!

As a laboratory engineer, I had been working on a variety of door rod fixes, testing them using the Tinious Olsen Testing Machine in the Laboratory Building; so I was invited to demonstrate my ideas, from the best (and most costly) to the least inexpensive.

olsen tester

We had set up a door and chair on supports, so they would be in similar places as in the car, to try to replicate the problem—overstressing the rod due to that non-freewheeling door latch. My managers, the three Finks [Fred Finkenauer, George Fenstermacher, and John Fodermaier] set up a show under the overall direction of Emil Provost. As Karl entered our offices, everyone was lined up in their fine suit coats, greeting Karl and eventually introducing me as the engineer to conduct the show.

Because we had to reach inside the door’s inner panel access holes to install rods, I had put painter’s tape around the sharp edges to avoid cutting my arms when reaching inside. I was the only attendee with my shirt sleeves rolled up, with wrenches and rods in my hands ready to demonstrate.

1957 Imperial sedan

At the introductions Karl looked around to see everyone standing at attention, with a slight German accent, he said, “Vell, I am glad to see vun man in this department is doing vork.”

Okay, Karl, sit on the chair and pretend you are in the car and trying to force open the door latch; as he was stressing and pulling the inside door, the production rod broke exactly as it had been doing in service. Karl’s chair was thrusted backward, and the three Finks jumped to recover Karl, who was sprawled out on the floor. He was helped up—he needed a lot of help.

Beet red in the face, he said, “God dammit, Emil, this will be fixed immediately and cost be damned—I will expect a change request on my desk by 5 pm!”—then stalked out with his entourage in tow.

A request was quickly put on his desk—it specified a strong, costly strap of tempered steel, 2 serrated pieces with Allen screw attachments.

That’s the end of the story — except to say that a model year or so later, we went to the freewheeling type door locks — never a problem from that time onward.

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