How Oldsmo­bile Hooked Up a Cadre of Col­lege Stu­dents With a Hands-On Learn­ing Les­son

Muscle Car Review - - Contents - By Diego Rosen­berg, Casey Marks, Ryan Weaver, and the Project W-31 team

How Oldsmo­bile hooked up a cadre of col­lege stu­dents with a hands-on learn­ing les­son

Amer­i­cans love to wax po­etic about 1969—Wood­stock, the moon land­ing, cool cars—but it also was a tu­mul­tuous time to be a young male. Post­war pros­per­ity and op­ti­mism gave way to as­sas­si­na­tions, the Viet­nam War, the Civil Rights Move­ment, and gen­eral cul­tural con­fu­sion. But for a re­volv­ing door of Michi­gan State Univer­sity (MSU) engi­neer­ing stu­dents, 1969-1973 was a sem­i­nal pe­riod. Through an in­ter­est­ing se­quence of events, they man­aged to con­vince Oldsmo­bile, MSU and its chap­ter of the So­ci­ety of Au­to­mo­tive En­gi­neers (SAE), and a host of sup­pli­ers to sup­port the prepa­ra­tion of a race car on a shoe­string bud­get.

Paul Au­rand, Rick Dolan, Bob Sed­lak, and Jim Min­neker (later to be­come a Corvette Hall-ofFamer) knew one an­other from MSU’s engi­neer­ing school, but they truly didn’t get to­gether un­til they joined the stu­dent chap­ter of the SAE. The club met once a month, of­ten spilling over af­ter­ward to Monte’s, a wa­ter­ing hole in nearby Oke­mos.

In the fall of 1969, Jim Miller, an Oldsmo­bile en­gi­neer and tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sor to the SAE chap­ter, play­fully de­rided the stu­dents for not do­ing more as a group. Rick Dolan re­sponded, “Why don’t you have Oldsmo­bile give us a car to build?”

Miller’s re­sponse sur­prised them: “If you guys find a place to work on it, I will find you a car.”

Dolan says, “We weren’t sure if it was Jim or the beer talking, but we took him se­ri­ously!” Within a week, he se­cured space in the black­smith shop with the as­sis­tance of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics pro­fes­sor Frank Roop.

“Now it was get­ting se­ri­ous,” says Bob Den­nis, who joined the team soon af­ter its in­cep­tion. “We be­gan look­ing at na­tional records and what Oldsmo­bile of­fered. We de­cided against a 4-4-2 be­cause they were not com­pet­i­tive, but folks were win­ning with W-31s. We spec’d out the en­gine, trans­mis­sion, and rear axle.”

Sev­eral weeks later, Paul Au­rand re­ceived an evening phone call from Jim Miller. “Be out­side in 15 min­utes, and be alone.”

They drove to the Oldsmo­bile Engi­neer­ing of­fices, en­tered a locked fa­cil­ity, and parked next to a red ve­hi­cle. Miller handed Au­rand the keys and warned, “The ti­tle has been sent to Lans­ing. The VIN has been re­moved. There’s no reg­is­tra­tion or in­surance, and it has no plates. This car doesn’t ex­ist. Kid, don’t get caught!”

Au­rand con­tin­ues, “I took the back streets on my way to campus. Sev­eral team mem­bers who had pre­vi­ously been alerted met me at our ‘garage.’ No­body saw us come in.”

“If you guys find a place to work on it, I will find you a car”

Hands-on Train­ing

What the team re­ceived was a 1969 4-4-2 hard­top that had been an Oldsmo­bile dura­bil­ity test ve­hi­cle set to be scrapped. Al­though the team had de­ter­mined that the 4-42’s 400 was not com­pet­i­tive at the drags, Oldsmo­bile had fol­lowed through by in­clud­ing every­thing they re­quested: fresh W-31, four-speed, and 5.00:1 rear.

“Un­for­tu­nately it was heav­ier than it needed to be for the

class, but beg­gars can’t be choosers,” says Fred Bowen.

The team had vary­ing amounts of au­to­mo­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, but all had a lot to learn. “We stud­ied magazine ar­ti­cles, in­clud­ing one fea­tur­ing a team con­nected to Labadie Olds,” says Bob Den­nis.

Adds Jim Min­neker, “We wanted to race on the G/S na­tional record (12.46). We raced in re­gional NHRA events, but it never got more com­pet­i­tive than that.”

Thanks to $1,000 in trea­sury dues that the SAE had col­lected over the pre­vi­ous 20 years, the team had the funds to buy equip­ment to make the Olds race-wor­thy. Yet it was the kind­ness of spon­sors that re­ally made it hap­pen.

“We went on a let­ter-writ­ing cam­paign,” says Min­neker. “We were whole­some col­lege kids rac­ing cars ask­ing, ‘Would you like a place on our car? A do­na­tion could give us a whole load of engi­neer­ing ex­pe­ri­ence!’”

Joe Guzek, en­gi­neer at Lans­ing-based Mo­tor Wheel Cor­po­ra­tion and an­other SAE tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sor, was able to score Spy­der wheels plus Goodyear 7-inch cheater slicks and Fron­trun­ner lightweights.

“It was sur­pris­ing how many were will­ing to do­nate equip­ment to us,” says Fred Bowen. “AC­CEL gave us points, caps, and ro­tors. Once we were at US-131 and were ap­proached by Calvin DeBruin, a 1950s-era MSU engi­neer­ing grad and em­ployee of Sealed Power. He pro­vided us the com­pany’s then-new ‘head land’ pis­ton rings.”

“The ser­vices we had to pay for were get­ting the heads cc’d and a three-an­gle valve job,” says Paul Au­rand. “That cost us a cou­ple hun­dred bucks, but every­thing else was do­nated.”

The team tore into pre­par­ing the Olds. Re­mov­ing the sound dead­ener, melt pads, and un­der­coat­ing was te­dious. Au­rand says, “We in­stalled OHC-6 Tem­pest front springs to im­prove front-end lift and weight trans­fer at the start­ing line. Air Lift airbags were in­stalled in the coils. We also in­stalled the Tem­pest’s drum brakes, which were mar­ginal.”

Rick Dolan was en­thused by the ma­chine shop and made steel bush­ings for the con­trol arms. The team also mod­i­fied the trans­mis­sion into a “slick shift” (with no syn­chro­niz­ers), which en­abled faster shifts.

Ini­tial test­ing re­vealed se­ri­ous rear-wheel hop upon starts, so a pin­ion snub­ber was built and in­stalled to con­trol this prob­lem.

Off to the Races

The team had a car, but how to get to the dragstrip? Ini­tially the guys bor­rowed what was soon deemed the Trailer of Doom. Bob Sed­lak ex­plains, “I was tow­ing with my 1963 Dodge wagon, and poor Bob Den­nis was sit­ting in the Olds. I was sim­ply try­ing to find the right speed, but there was no right speed. If you went 20 miles an hour it was mar­ginal, and if you went a lit­tle faster or a slower it was wildly out of con­trol.”

The group ended up bor­row­ing a tow bar and us­ing Al Wil­son’s 1964 Ply­mouth for the rest of the year un­til Cliff Grupke bought his 1969 Cut­lass. The pair pre­sented nicely as tow and drag cars.

Project W-31’s first out­ing was at Onondaga in the spring of 1970. To their dis­may, in­stead of G/S, they were obliged to com­pete in Su­per Stock due to wider-than-stock tires (the Goodyear “stock­ers” had yet to ar­rive). Jim Min­neker and Paul Au­rand pi­loted the Olds at the track. It per­formed ad­mirably, but at Tri-City (its se­cond out­ing), the trans­mis­sion broke.

“We flat-towed the car with the drive­shaft in place,” says Fred Bowen. “This caused in­ter­nal dam­age to the tranny due to in­suf­fi­cient lu­bri­ca­tion. Af­ter re­plac­ing the tranny, we al­ways re­moved the drive­shaft be­fore tow­ing.”

Few had pre­vi­ous track ex­pe­ri­ence. Cliff Grupke, who joined in 1970, de­vel­oped his own style. He says, “I usu­ally stabbed the clutch. Thanks to the gear­box mods we made, it shifted nicely. I re­call one time we were run­ning well and went up against this Chev­elle. I got to the line and used our rule of thumb: ac­ti­vate the Hurst Line Lock, bring your­self up to 6,000 rpm and, when you see the last yel­low, go. We never red-lighted! When I saw that yel­low, I let go of every­thing and got a good holeshot, but the Chevy also got out of the hole nicely. I reached for Se­cond gear and missed, then jammed it in and got it go­ing again. I still was ahead be­cause he too missed the shift, but I recovered faster.”

There also were ob­sta­cles be­yond their con­trol. Bob

“This car doesn’t ex­ist. Kid, don’t get caught!”

Den­nis ex­plains, “When we raced at Brohman M-37 Drag­way, their so-called tech guys made us re­move the air in­duc­tion sys­tem, which was reg­u­lar pro­duc­tion equip­ment for the W-31. We said it’s factory, but they were adamant. They were afraid we were go­ing beat the lo­cal guys, I think.”

Through­out the em­bry­onic team’s ex­is­tence, they also raced at Martin, Mi­lan, and Detroit Drag­way.


To test their hand­i­work, the team would tow the Olds across campus to the commuter lot, some­times arous­ing com­plaints from the mar­ried hous­ing com­plex a half-mile away. “The first time I did a test burnout was a dis­as­ter,” re­lates Bob Den­nis. “It was a late spring night in 1971. I brought up the rpm’s, popped the clutch, and I’m fly­ing along this park­ing lot.”

Den­nis Kline con­tin­ues, “I was in the car and re­mem­ber the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of the open­header launch was sud­denly re­placed by ab­so­lute panic when I saw a flash of light in front of us, which was a chain re­flect­ing our head­lights.”

Bob hit the brakes, but it was too late. The chain went up over the hood, broke the wind­shield, and con­tin­ued over the car.

In a later test run in the sum­mer, there was an enor­mous ex­plo­sion, fol­lowed by si­lence. Cliff Grupke tells us, “I re­mem­ber pulling the spark plugs there in the dark so we could look down into the cham­bers. John Shook had this lit­tle 12-volt light bulb rig that he could clip onto the bat­tery ter­mi­nals and lower through the spark plug hole. As he was peer­ing down num­ber 7, he ut­tered, ‘I won­der where the pis­ton went?’ Jim Miller later di­ag­nosed the prob­lem as an over-torqued rod bolt, which I never be­lieved be­cause I know how care­ful and pre­cise we were in build­ing the en­gine. Jim was able to se­cure an­other en­gine, which we promptly fit­ted with our rac­ing bits that had sur­vived.”

Uh-Oh, Part II

Aside from wide-open throt­tle tests in the commuter park­ing lot, the team never drove the Olds in pub­lic. None­the­less, bring­ing a tow ve­hi­cle and rig­ging a tow bar were la­bo­ri­ous, so Bob Den­nis had the idea to ob­tain a pro­vi­sion­ary pass to drive to the lot. “So, dumb me, I called Oldsmo­bile Pub­lic Re­la­tions.”

The call went nowhere, but even­tu­ally Jim Miller caught wind and said, “What in the hell are you do­ing? You’re get­ting peo­ple in trou­ble at Oldsmo­bile!” Dale Smith, Oldsmo­bile’s man­ager of ve­hi­cle test­ing and rac­ing sup­port, wrote about the episode (al­beit in­cor­rectly) in his book Rac­ing to the Past:

“I did get a car for engi­neer­ing stu­dents at Michi­gan State. Since they could not af­ford a trailer, they called Olds Pub­lic Re­la­tions to at­tempt to get the car reg­is­tered so they could drive the car to drag rac­ing events. I then re­ceived a call from a dumb $#!+ in­form­ing me that I had vi­o­lated the Gen­eral Mo­tors rac­ing ban, and that I had bet­ter get that car back be­fore I got into deep trou­ble

… I told him the bot­tom line on why you, me, or any­one else here ex­ists is to sell cars. In my job, I’m try­ing to im­prove Olds’ youth im­age and cul­ti­vate new cus­tomers.”

The Se­cond Sea­son

and Be­yond

In the spring of 1971, with MSU re­pur­pos­ing its fa­cil­i­ties, Project W-31 lost its space in the black­smith shop. Fred Bowen en­listed the help of Dr. Charles St. Clair, chair­man of the me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing depart­ment. “We drove around the area look­ing for a suit­able place to keep the Olds. We had

lit­tle luck, so he said, ‘For now, you can keep it tem­po­rar­ily in my back­yard.’”

From there, the Olds ended up in the drive­way of Pro­fes­sor Roop. “I think we swapped up­per and lower ball joints in his garage one time,” says Cliff Grupke. “We had ab­so­lutely no place to work on it, hav­ing to beg and bor­row every­thing. I can re­mem­ber writ­ing let­ters to our spon­sors ask­ing them to re­new their en­thu­si­asm for our club.”

In the fall of 1971, Cliff Grupke be­came pres­i­dent of MSU SAE. “I tried to get ev­ery­body else to drive, but no­body seemed in­ter­ested. I even threat­ened Al to drive it be­cause he had worked so hard on that car, but I ended up driv­ing quite a bit in 1972.”

Thanks to new mem­ber

Bob Senk, the team was able to fin­ish re­build­ing the en­gine and putting every­thing back to­gether at his fam­ily’s farm. “We pushed the car un­der a shade tree, took the hood off, and dropped the en­gine in with a block and tackle, just like you read about,” says Grupke. “Af­ter the sum­mer, we stashed it at my mom’s in South­gate. In the fall of 1972, a lo­cal team­mate named Jim Mauer had an empty garage at his mom’s.”

Where Did Project

W-31 Go?

All mem­bers went on to suc­cess­ful ca­reers in engi­neer­ing, and none for­got this early ex­pe­ri­ence. They were

re­united for the first time in 45-plus years be­cause there’s a story to be told, but the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion is: What happened to Project W-31?

The trail seems to dis­ap­pear in 1973. Rick Dolan re­calls see­ing the Olds at the trailer park next to Tom’s Party Store in Oke­mos. The car was sit­ting high in the front, as if the en­gine had been re­moved. Paul Au­rand says that Doug Ar­den, a later mem­ber, claims the Olds was raced by George Cor­nell, who may have had a Lu­nati con­nec­tion. Ar­den even thinks he has seen the Olds in more re­cent years— with let­ter­ing in­tact—in a Lans­ing lot.

Project W-31 was much more than a cool car story from back in the day. It’s about this great grass­roots ad­ven­ture by a group of engi­neer­ing stu­dents who gained real-world ex­pe­ri­ence through hard work, in­ge­nu­ity, and ini­tia­tive. Rem­i­nisces Bob Senk, “Ab­so­lutely thrilling! I’d go back right now and be glad to do it. As fun as can be. Way bet­ter than a roller­coaster!”

“We learned a ton of things in that short time. We also learned to build con­fi­dence in our­selves,” adds Bob Den­nis. “Everyone was very lucky be­cause we had some­thing on our re­sumes when we grad­u­ated. The hand­son ex­pe­ri­ence al­lowed us to stand tall and say, ‘This is what we’ve been do­ing while we were study­ing engi­neer­ing.’”

Al Wil­son agrees. “I was into it for a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause I’d never done au­to­mo­tive work be­fore. I learned every­thing I know from those years.”

n At Mi­lan in 1972,Project W-31 pre­pares to go against an­otherW-Ma­chine.

n Project W-31 at Tri-City in 1970. Bob Den­nis han­dled the first it­er­a­tion of the let­ter­ing via con­tact pa­per. “Ev­ery­body agreed that those lit­tle 2-inch let­ters were too small.” He also painted the cus­tom li­cense plate and Dr. Olds trunk lid.

n On its first out­ing, Project W-31 ran G/SS due to wider-than­stock rear tires. Note the air in­duc­tion sys­tem un­der the bumper.

n At Project W-31’s se­cond out­ing in 1970, the four-speed broke.

n Un­der no cir­cum­stances was Project W-31 to be driven in pub­lic.

n Jim Min­neker and Rick Dolan show off a tro­phy in 1970.

n The leg­endary Trailer of Doom, spring 1970.

n Af­ter blow­ing the en­gine dur­ing test­ing in the sum­mer of 1971, Project W-31 re­ceived a new en­gine.

n MSU’s SAE club re­cruited new mem­bers with the line, “Drag rac­ing is big­ger than you think it is, Leroy! Get caught up in it this fall at MSU!”

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