Carl Breer, one of Chrysler’s Three Musketeers
Carl Breer was born in Los Angeles, California on November 8, 1883. His father, a German immigrant and blacksmith, built one of the first brick houses in Los Angeles, replacing their original adobe house.
Growing up in a thrifty family taught Breer how to be inventive. Breer and his brothers and sisters made tricycles, bicycles, a Kodak camera, special coasters, and dog-drawn wagons. Inspired by a walk to the Los Angeles Water Works, Breer gained an interest in engineering at a young age. With the help of Fred J. Fisher, the works’ chief engineer, Breer was able build his own generator, which he used to wire the Breer house for lights, before he finished grammar school.
Breer's interest in cars was sparked when he saw a Duryea car on the streets in Los Angeles; Fisher later encouraged him to start work on a steam engine car. Breer made a dimensional drawing of a two-cylinder, double-acting steam engine with valves for forward and reverse, then made details for each part as he needed it. He carved wood patterns for the foundry castings; the foundry was unable to cast the cylinder block and eventually gave up, but Breer made the casting successfully (on his first try).
Breer travelled to Fisher Body in Buffalo to get the tubular running gear with wheels and tires, and a 16-in-one-piece drawn steel head and shell boiler.
The one-piece, cast iron burner required nearly 3,000 small holes to be drilled into the inner chamber around each air tube to act like Bunsen burners. Needing a high-speed drill, Breer designed a Pelton waterwheel type of direct drive drill press to operate on water pressure from an outdoor water faucet. He also used an extra volume air tank to make it easier to start; using a mixing valve, Breer converted raw, cold gasoline into a burning mixture to operate the main burner directly, long enough to maintain its own gasoline vapor supply. The body was made of wood; the only help Breer had was from carriage workers in trimming the upholstery and painting it.
Finally, in the fall of 1901, Breer tested out his steam car for the first time. With some fine tuning, he was able to drive his car to Fred Fisher. Over the next few years, Breer made numerous improvements, including an independent steam-operated water pump with a trip-trigger valve mechanism to avoid stalling, a steam whistle, and an auxiliary gas tank, which allowed Breer and his brother Bill to travel 35 miles to go trout fishing one morning, a feat that wouldn't have been practical with a horse and buggy. Several photographs show him with the car, at the age of 18 and later in his life.
The Beginning of Breer's Engineering Career
Looking for experience and dreaming of going to college, Breer went to work for the Tourist Automobile Company for several years during summer vacations. This led to job opportunities with the Toledo Steam Cars, Spalding, Northern, White Steamer, and Duro.
Breer was interested in attending Stanford University’s engineering program. While his two and a half-year's completion of the then three year standard course at Los Angeles Commercial High School had no credit standing, Throop Polytechnic Institute was able to put him through in one year and Breer entered Stanford's mechanical engineering course in the fall of 1905.
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, Breer went to work for Allis-Chalmers, one of 25 men chosen for this oppurtunity; at Allis-Chalmers he first met Fred Zeder, and they became good friends.
In 1911, Breer left the automotive industry for a while and organized the Home Electric Auto Works, a service and accessory business, before starting an experimental garage and shop.
Working at Studebaker
Carl Breer had worked with Fred Zeder at Allis-Chalmers; Zeder moved on to Studebaker Corporation, and later invited Breer to join him. Upon arriving at Studebaker, Breer discovered that the mechanical lab was miniscule and the engineering department was uninspired. Breer set out to fix the flaws in the Studebaker mainline engine:
... By the time the twin-ported cylinders at each end received their firing mixtures, the center cylinders became overly rich, fouling their spark plugs. ... The first experimental change our laboratory made gave us great encouragement. The engine's warm-up period was greatly reduced, and the engine began to fire more uniformly. ... After various modifications, we soon had it producing 65 hp, quite a boost from the former 26...
The engineering team then evaluated the Radcliff transmission, intended for production, which had encountered problems during road tests. Racliff claimed it increased output because of the hydro impeller used in place of the cone clutch. The team used two dynamometers in the lab, to measure input and output; they found severe torque losses, graphed the input and output, and found the problem lay in two adjustable stop screws, safeguards to cushion sudden overload shock. Radcliff refused to accept these findings, and they had to discard the transmission.
The next project for the Breer team was to discover the source of high oil consumption, which was usually around 200 or 300 miles to the gallon — far from normal even then.
Each piston was made of cast iron and equipped with three rings. A fourth ring would mean a costly design change, and would add undesirable piston weight. We began to experiment with the rings ... By notching a rectangular groove about 3/64 x 3/64 in around the lower outside face of the ring, something new occurred: The notch would scrape the surplus oil from the cylinder wall on the down stroke, and pocket it in the groove instead of pushing the oil back into the space behind the ring. ... With it we could get 1,000 or more miles per gallon of oil.
The team installed windows and lights in the side of the crankcase to really see what was going on. They discovered that, while clever rod dippers were supposed to splash oil from troughs onto the parts, oil does not splash as water does, and the rod dippers were just making grooves in the oil. Breer drilled holes to the center of the four main bearings and straight through the cam bearings to the oil supply, forming oil passages; the overflow was thrown off the crank to lubricate the valvetrain.
Other problems were likewise approached and resolved through research and scientific problem-solving until the onset of World War I.
World War I: Carl Breer and Liberty engines
During World War I, as Studebaker built tanks, Breer was released to work on Liberty aircraft engines for the government. He was responsible for 50-hour tests at the Lincoln plant, headed by Henry LeLand. Breer was working on why the engines tended to combust at a certain point, discovering (thanks partly to one pilot heard a noise and turned the engine off right before it was about to explode) a localized load fatigue from concentrated, repeated forces on the connecting rod structure. The problem was cured, and while the war was over before the solution was put into production, his work made the engines safe for those who would use the engines after the war, largely air-mail carriers.
Early in the war (in 1918), Breer married Fred Zeder's sister, Barbara; they later had four sons.
After World War I, Breer went back to Studebaker, with the goal of designing an engine that would run 3,000 revolutions per minute at wide open power for 50 hours without failure. Studebaker had set up a checkup department over the engineering division while Breer was away, causing a delay in engineering releases being put into production and hurting morale.
Saving Studebaker (again)
Studebaker was facing financial troubles, and it became apparent that their car needed a complete redesign. Fred Zeder, vice president of engineering, Carl Breer, director of research and laboratories, and Owen R. Skelton, directing and handling design, accepted the challenge of redesigning the entire car. The body styling and engineering division was, ironically, in Henry Ford's original factory building.
Skelton worked on redesigning a simple and less costly axle (the Studebaker’s most problematic point) and Zeder toured the country visiting dealers "on an educational and selling campaign."
A new, conventional three-speed transmission was developed, and located "amidships" on the chassis. Parallel channel frame members supported the engine forward and extended back to carry the transmission, solidly fastened with three straddling arms.
Sales decided on three different models: two sixes and one four-cylinder, named the Big Six, the Light Six, and the Four. Mr. Erskine came up with the idea of driving the cars to Lake Saranac and presenting them and a gold headed cane to Henry Goldman on his birthday. Mr. Goldman's approval meant the production of the new Studebaker.
Everything was ready to go when two of the big Sixes with Ball and Ball two-stage carburetors caught fire during testing; the team found that the angle of the carburetor had resulted in a pocket which could accumulate fuel. The team quickly designed a baffle outside the second stage opening, which cooled any backfire flame turned it upward, away from the gasoline pocket. They were retrofitted to cars already produced, and added as a running change.
Joining Walter P. Chrysler
In 1919, turnaround artist Walter P. Chrysler invited the Studebaker engineering team to join him in his new job at Willys-Overland; he had seen their recovery of the troubled Studebaker car and wanted that magic to work for him. A team of 31 men moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey to fix problems of Willys’ new six-cylinder car. They saw a practically non-recoverable design, and started work on a new one; with Chrysler as their D’Artagnan, the three men earned the nickname of “the Three Musketeers.”
Their alternative car design used a new straight-six L-head engine, with an updraft carburetor, hot-spotted intake manifold (for a uniform distribution of fuel and air), a Hotchkiss rear axle setup, and semi-elliptic front and rear springs.
In 1922, John North Willys, seeking to regain control over his company, threw it into receivership, and the Elizabeth plant, complete with the new car, went up for sale. The ZSB design had been announced two years earlier, and was still not in production. Chrysler resigned, and told Zeder, Breer, and Skelton and their team to set themselves up as consultants in Newark, New Jersey. The plan was for Chrysler to take over the plant and new car design, but he was outbid by William C. Durant — the founder of General Motors and Chevrolet, who had twice been ejected from a GM; he was better at building than managing. Durant presumably meant to repeat what he had done with Chevrolet (and what Steve Jobs would later do with Pixar-Disney) — build up a new car company and merge it into GM, regaining control by becoming the largest stockholder.
There was a period during which the ZSB consulting team hired itself out to other companies; finally, Walter Chrysler took a job at the top of Maxwell-Chalmers, brought in the ZSB team, and by 1923 had the car that would become the 1924 Chrysler. [Full story of their work and the car itself.]
While work on the Zeder, Skelton, Breer car progressed, Chrysler heard that Studebaker was looking for a car. Chrysler invited Studebaker executives to look at the new car, and the deal was nearly clinched when Chrysler told Fred Zeder of his plans. Zeder exploded, "Walter, if you sign that contract without my signature I'll call Carl Breer in Detroit and have every blueprint destroyed!"
In 1923, Zeder, Skelton, and Breer headed the engineering team that designed the Chrysler Model B, which would be shown to the public in the New York Auto Show later that year. One of the major features of that car would be the first application of modern hydraulic brakes, ostensibly designed by Lockheed. As presented to Chrysler, the system had been unworkable: after a few stops in the desert, the fluid was all gone. By the time Breer and his team were done with it, the only thing it had in common with the original system was the idea of using fluid to transmit force from the pedal to the brakes; they had changed the actuators, added key improvements, and switched to a completely different fluid and different materials throughout. However, Breer assigned the patents to Lockheed — because he figured it would allow the spread of this key safety innovation throughout the industry.
Breer headed engineering research from 1925 to 1949, the year of his retirement; he worked as a consultant for Chrysler for another four years. His main function at Chrysler was directing and applying research to solve problems and take advantage of new innovations. During his time in charge of engineering research, Chrysler could boast the most advanced engineering of any medium- and low-priced line of cars, in the world.
In 1928, Breer and Chrysler decided they needed to form a new student apprenticeship system for training new employees. This was the beginning of the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. Zeder, Skelton, and Breer were all listed as educational administrators and were involved in the institute throughout their lives.
Through the rest of their careers, they maintained their status as a consulting firm, ensuring their freedom to explore other fields. The spacious Breer home on Boston Boulevard was among the first in Detroit to have air conditioning. Breer’s years at Chrysler Corporation were recalled by co-workers with warmth; he remained daring and skillful throughout his life. Breer was a member of the Chrysler board of directors from 1937 to 1953.
Working with Chrysler and Breer's Retirement
Breer maintained his innovative spirit throughout his life; after World War I he developed an automatic dishwasher which he installed for his wife. He was especially proud of the Airflow car that featured so many new design and styling concepts, which was built by Chrysler and De Soto from 1934 to 1936. The Airflow was a result of Breer's ponderings about developing a car that would fit to the human form and take advantage of laws of motion. This led to his experimentation with wind tunnel investigation and the development of the Airflow, which was a huge success. The weight distribution of the Airflow improved in ride and stability, all because of the mathematical research done by Breer and his engineers. Production delays caused enthusiasm about the Airflow to ebb, and gave a chance for competitors to slam the car and spread malicious rumors about it; not that the styling didn’t turn off customers on its own. Breer owned an Airflow himself, and also maintained his steam car that he invented in grammar school.
The Airflow was have been a disaster for Chrysler, overall, despite its clear superiority to most cars on the road at the time; later automotive historians, including European writers, would declare it too advanced for the time, but the model for more modern cars. The research Breer did for the Airflow, though, was put to use by Chrysler — in its little-known engineering work on railroad cars.
Breer maintained an interest in cars even following his retirement as executive engineer and director of research in 1949; he found electric cars fascinating, but thought atomic power was going to be the source any major changes in the automotive field. He maintained a machine shop in his basement where he worked on objects such as outsize binoculars in order to watch the lake traffic.
Some of Breer's major accomplishments were leading the development hydraulic brakes, floating power, redistribution of weight, modern steam-lining, high-compression engines, and fluid-drive transmissions. He also helped develop the first all-steel bodies. As a team leader, he tended to be somewhat self-effacing, in some cases allowing other people to take patents for the good of the industry.
Carl Breer was awarded honorary master and doctor of engineering degrees and was active in the Society of Automotive Engineers, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, National Research Council, American Standards Association, American Institute of Physics and other engineering organizations. The Walter P. Chrysler Museum wrote: “He dressed impeccably and remained physically fit throughout his adult life. Carl Breer was the most cerebral of the ZSB trio, a thoughtful, idealistic and intellectual man who at times appeared a dreamer.”
Carl Breer died at the age of 87 in 1970, one year after Owen Skelton.