Interview With a Legend: Bob Gurr
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Walt's custom Autopia car
LP: Can you tell us a little bit about the
development of the Autopia cars from the Mark I through to the Mark VII?
BG: It was very obvious - everything we were trying to design in a car, we would try various engines and various drive trains - and one of the crucial things was the cars were always banging into one another even though the ride operators say don't do that. We had a car that was the Mark VI which was built by Arrow Development with the idea of being a very light weight, low cost car. That car broke up very badly structurally. Disneyland was going absolutely nuts with it. And I was down there one day talking to Arnold Lindberg, the maintenance head, and I said "you know Arnold, these cars are busting up faster than we can go and I have some ideas as to what's wrong." And he said "you go back to the studio and you come up with the idea of what we ought to have".
And I remember coming up the Santa Ana Freeway thinking "I've got it figured out." If we figure the car is like a platoon of five cars moving crashing into a platoon of five cars parked, that means the forces on a car are much greater than just the force of one car. And the fact that these cars kind of hit at a diagonal like left front to right rear, etc., that meant there's a lot of diagonal shearing force in the car. So in the time it took to drive from Disneyland back to the studio, I had the theory in my mind that the chassis of the car should be flexible. It should be what we call a cow belly frame. That is to say the frame should be a round tube and it should be kind of bowed outward in the middle and go back to the narrow dimension in front and rear for the bumpers and all of the major structural parts should be clamped together rather than welded.
The idea was if you have an impact on what we call a cantilever loaded welded part, it can fatigue crack over a period of time. But if it's flexibly mounted and it's clamped together mechanically, you can't get a fatigue crack in it. And that was the overriding principle. So I established a rule that said no design of the car should have any cantilever welded part, a very simple rule. That's a very technically sounding bunch of words but what it amounts to is you can bash and bash and bash the car and you can't hurt it. And now, after over 30 years, that sucker's still out there going bash, bash, bash and they don't fatigue crack. And they're able to recycle these cars, keep changing engines, changing clutches, repainting bodies, changing wheels, repairing wear parts and the car just goes on and on and on because we came up with a theory, by 1967, as to what does it really take to make a car that would be durable on the Autopia.
Of course, that car was very expensive to build and Arrow Development, who later did get a contract to build the cars for Walt Disney World, said "boy that is a hopelessly expensive car". But in their recent book on the history of Arrow Development, they admitted that was the most economical decision because that car turned out to be bulletproof. So even though it was more expensive than Arrow would build, it made sense for Disneyland where Disneyland would say it's okay to spend that kind of money and make a car that would literally last forever. And that's why the new Autopia, when they decided to redesign the attraction and make a really good looking queue line area and make it have a good looking entry to it, the new designers got kind of scared and said "we're afraid to change anything, the thing already works." And I pointed out to them and said "yeah, you can change all of these parts but here's a few parts where you don't touch them, they work." So they recognized that.
So oddly enough, next year when the new attraction opens, it'll open with a 32 year old cars and it might go another 20 years. Goodness knows, it's a curiosity - though you're always making new equipment - we may someday see the 50 year old Autopia car. Even though there might be a more modern power plant, maybe we'll go to battery electric power with electronic sound and all kind of trick stuff, but structurally those kids are still going to go out and bang cars, so structurally that car, the basic heart of that car, has to survive.