John BurnsBy Carl T. Doman
September 25, 1954
When I joined the Franklin Engineering Department at the main plant for my 1921 summer vacation", I was again introduced to Mr. Burns. Later I knew him as Johnny Burns. He was Mr. Burns to young near-engineers as he was famous - famous for his exploits in driving contests, famous for his unusual wit and famous for his natural mechanical ability - his ability to engineer and build a product all by himself - characteristics so lacking in the young engineer of 1954.
Since I worked on the night shifts during my 1921 summer vacation I saw little of Johnny, but I did hear of his exploits from the boys on the day shift as we chatted at shift change. Typical of all "shops", the night men must get the news from the "lucky" fellows who work on the day shift. Of course the boys on days envy the ones on nights as "they get away with murder".
So Johnny remained the great Mr. Burns until I came to know him better after I returned to the main plant in the fall of 1922. My first recollection of John that year was at a student engineers' party at the Woolcott Dining Room in Syracuse. Twice per month the group was brought together. Topics for discussion were passed out after an unusually good fifty-cent dinner. At my first meeting I discussed "Power Increases in Automobile Engines from Application of Moth Balls". I discussed in very "technical" language the increase of output (you see I had recently graduated from the University of Michigan), the increase in acceleration, the races I had won in my "Ford Bug", etc. After the meeting John took me home in his 9B Franklin, as I was boarding in the Bellevue section, a short distance from John's residence on Reed Avenue.
Driving home that night John flattered me. He congratulated me for my "moth ball" speech. He stated that I had contributed much that evening to the complicated problem of "petroleum chemistry". Needless to say, from that time on, John was my hero, my friend, my counselor, and my guide.
John had not singled me out even though he was a friend of my father except for one thing - his interest in young men. He went out of his way to help young men who were respectful and loyal to Franklin and who would work. My father's training included the appreciation of good hard work seasoned with gumption, so he and John had great respect for each other.
Many thought John was friendly with the young engineers solely to gain their favor since some day one or several might well be directing Johnny. Truthfully, John needed to gain no favor. He automatically had the respect of everyone. He feared no one, including Mr. Franklin, Mr. Wilkinson, or any of the lesser executives, or their wives, except possibly Mrs. Doman.
Noonday lunches were memorable. John and I often ate at a little store on the corner where the waitress eventually eloped with one of John's mechanics, a married man. How John despises that man. I am sure fireworks would start now, thirty-two years later, were I to mention the name.
With lunch over we would rush back to the Experimental Department where Johnny seated at his desk was immediately surrounded by the boys waiting to hear oratory. Here the affairs of the world, the United States, the State of New York, the City of Syracuse, and The Franklin Company were settled once and for all - until the next day.
I well recall the discussion about Charles Lindbergh's New York to Paris Flight. Burt Wolcott, foreman of the experimental machine shop, brought down John's wrath with the remark "another damn German had to do it". John was Irish - his dander was up - he believed in fair play and the remark was out of order. John certainly handled the situation. Shortly Burt Wolcott took a leave of absence for a California trip. When he returned Ray Westcott, a very accommodating young but capable man, was in charge and Wolcott worked in the tool room as a machinist. Yes, John had power, great power in the Franklin organization.
John enjoyed the association of the young engineers. He was ever watchful of their interests. He could spot trouble under the most innocent-appearing situations and often "tipped off" the boys to "look out". One day he found Bill Simmons at his desk sound asleep. John cautiously listened to Bill's breathing and then said "Bill, Bill", then gently shook him and said "Bill, Ralph Murphy (the Chief Engineer) is just coming up through the shop". Bill yawned, stretched, and said "Go away. I was just concentrating." Bill was saved possible. Yet no one ever fooled the fox, Ralph Murphy.
John ruled the Franklin Experimental Build Up and Test Department with an iron hand. I often pictured him as the bull in the woods, a ruthless mean individual, yet I knew inwardly he was kind, mellow, and appreciative of his men1s efforts.
For engine assembly he had two marvelous mechanics, Bill Hachett, a fine gentleman, and Bill Morriss, a man who delighted in the taste of salted peanuts flavored with home brew. John ordered, directed, and threatened, yet both these boys just plodded along, did their work with greatest skill, and just grinned at John. Another interesting pair was Walter and Bill Gooley, who were assigned to assemble the new experimental cars. One day, after delivering an unusually frank, direct, and pointed lecture on some mechanical point, John suddenly realized that he had gone just too far so he changed his approach. He said "Boys you know I mean things as I say them. I mean no harm. You are tops understand." Walt spoke up and said "O.K., Johnny, we will just laugh at you." John then did scream "No - No - Don't do that - Anything - But don't laugh!" He then delivered another lecture never to be forgotten. Hard? No, just on the surface. He was admired and loved by everyone.
After John lectured me about being helpless he often said "Use your hands. Can't you? I do.", and I used them. While using them one day alone, I caught my left hand in an engine and severely cut three fingers on my left hand. Calmly I grabbed my injured fingers with my right hand, walked over to John who was superintending the assembly of a new car and said "John, I have cut off my finger." He looked at me, pointed his finger and delivered a serious yet marvelous Burns" speech on carelessness, then said "Follow me." Out the experimental room door he went on a dead run with me behind him headed for the first-air department.
As we entered, John gasped to "Doc" Locksaw "Doman has cut his hand off." Doman was supposed to be in a faint so they threw me onto a cot. Doman was O.K. The hand was numb. Later however when the feeling returned, I realized that weeks would elapse before the hand would be O.K. It never was O.K. as the end of the index finger was lost forever and also the ability to play my violin. Then I was morose from realizing that for the first time my body was no longer intact.
With my arm in a sling I attempted to carry on assembling and testing engines alone. If it hadn't been for the assistance of John and his men I couldn't have carried on. John was then as always true blue.
In 1925 as experimental engineer I was responsible for all engine testing on the dynamometer. For some strange reason my predecessor, Charles Grimes, had located the dynamometer room off by itself - at least five hundred feet from the Experimental Department. Of course I had no one to bother me. Yes, it was a bit lonesome at times but I sure liked engines. I do now. On this particular day one of the main cylinder thermocouples needed repairing. I had used the storage battery for electrical source often. So I gave little thought to the possible danger from an explosion of battery gas as I shorted the battery in the welding operation when, flash!, the battery exploded throwing sulfuric acid in my face. I was immediately blinded. In a matter of seconds my entire past and future life passed through my mind. I had had so many visions, so many hopes. What chance would I, a blind man, have? Then I remembered the wash bowl in the corner. I groped my way over, turned on the water, filled the bowl, and immersed my head in the water holding my eye lids up and flushed out the acid. Gradually my sight, or rather partial sight, returned. I prayed as I had never before. I finally wandered over to the Experimental Department where John found me and rushed me down to the celebrated eye specialist, Dr. Kevand. He treated my eyes and had John take me home. Needless to say, the ever present Johnny delivered one of his best speeches - again on the subject of safety. He was so right and I was so careless.
Once in a while one of the "smarter" young engineers might say "What does John Burns know about engineering? He didn't go to college." I often answered "My father never saw the inside of a high school nor the inside of a college, yet he provided every cent needed to put me through and he is one of the best engineers. John Burns is also one of the best engineers. Just look around and see what he accomplishes - every day something new - something novel." Eventually these young skeptics would see the light and begin to appreciate John’s greatness.
John often saved the jobs of the "seasoned" engineers. In 1924 one of the engineers had developed the "advanced", most scientific electric engine primer." It was perfect in all respects save one. The engine wouldn’t start when it was used. The engineer had established in his mind only that a highly combustible hydro-carbon was needed under all conditions. His elaborate laboratory tests conducted by me showed the need for a current draw of 135 amperes from a 6 volt battery. In the summer the current draw was no problem. At 200 F it was another story.
The engineer was quite vocal and promised to demonstrate the marvelous starting ability of the Series 10B engine with the "scientific" primer. He directed me to put the engine in the cold box set for ZOO F. He next phoned me to say that at 2:00 PM Mr. Marks, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Castor would be down for a demonstration. Furthermore, he directed that I take a nice warm battery, fully charged battery, and put it in the cold box at 1:30 PM. At 2:00 PM the group assembled including John Burns. After a "Scientific" lecture on the fundamentals of primer design, I was directed to start the engine. In less than three seconds the engine was operating. Ed Marks immediately said "That start reminds me of a warm fresh battery." "Carl" he said, "How long has that battery been in there?" I answered "Thirty Minutes". He said "This demonstration means nothing. You do as I say. Put a battery half charged (1,2.50 specific gravity) in the cold box and run the refrigerator all night bolding the temperature at [missing text] F. Tomorrow at this time we will return for an honest demonstration."
The next day at 2:00 PM the same group assembled in the refrigerator. At the signal of Mr. Marks I attempted to start the engine, holding the primer switch on to heat the element for a minute. The engine start. The drain of the primer was so excessive that there was little current left for the starter and voltage for ignition. The engineer was dejected, he was lost, he was not practical. Eventually John Burns, realizing that a primer specification release was inevitable, jumped into the situation. He reasoned that the electric primer on the previous model had been satisfactory so it should be satisfactory in the new model, providing its current draw was unchanged. John took the same length of heating element, reshaped it to fit the new housing and saved the day.
I could cite example after example where John's practical approach which seemed at the moment to lack fundamental theory later was proved sound. Many times the elaborate calculations of one of the "book trained" engineers proved John's deductions from pure hunches were sound and miraculously close to the ideal. Many famous automotive engineers have possessed this unusual faculty. Two designers of world famous race cars were so typical - Fred Duisenberg and Harry Miller.
When it came to the collection and filing of test data, John, I will admit, was unusual. He kept his own records in large bound notebooks. Every detail, every piece of data was recorded as only John could record it. Every Friday noon John "drew off" the information needed for his weekly reports and then the stenographers took over, attempting to edit and rewrite with constant threat from John to "Type as I have written it. You lose all sense when you write it in your high toned language." John's reports were masterpieces - complete – full of information and so readable when typed as John wrote them.
Occasionally John's records might become mixed a bit, just as do the elaborate record systems of Ford. I well recall running into sudden trouble with broken timing chains. On the dynamometer the engine would only operate for thirty seconds at 3800 revolutions per minute before the chain broke. Then John had noticed a tendency for the chains in his test cars to stretch, then "jump their timing". So after talking the problem over we decided to bring in the chain manufacturers for a conference. They were Whitney, Link-Belt and Ramsey. In discussing the problem with the Whitney engineers, John said "When are you fellows going to wake up? You used to make good chains - you are slipping." Mr. Belcher of Whitney replied "Mr. Burns, we do make a good product. What do your records show?" John reached for one of his famous notebooks and read "Whitney chain failed on dynamometer 8-29-30. Whitney chain jumped timing. Mileage car #3 - 8-2.2-30. Whitney chain stretched .530 center to center wear. Test Engine #32." Mr. Belcher next asked to see the chains John reached under his desk, pulled out three chains and said '1There you are - plain junk." Mr. Belcher looked each chain over very carefully, then with a twinkle in his eye said "Mr. Burns, the Ramsey people do make an inferior chain. Why not test the Whitney chain under the same conditions." We had been testing Ramsey chains. Naturally John was embarrassed. He was so proud of his data books, but subsequent tests showed that none of the three makes of chains were satisfactory until John Burns' magic was used. He simply set the valve clearance at .003" on the intake valve and .006" on the exhaust instead of the specified .007" Confidentially, Carl Doman spent that evening and in fact many evenings redesigning the camshaft since the trouble was caused by a synchronous vibration in the valve gear train. Regardless of this minor slip in John’s records, his system was the most direct and, yes, accurate of any I have seen used. In today's systems months of delays occur in correcting a trouble due to the red tape, paper control used in all automotive engineering departments.
Weekly reports at Franklin were so important to Ed Marks, Chief Engineer, and Ralph Murphy, the General Manager. Reports were due in Mr. Murphy's office not later than 11:00 AM Saturday morning, then studied in detail by Mr. Murphy the great engineer. Monday morning each contributor "looked forward" to either a call from Mr. Marks or a visit from Mr. Murphy. Then the details of the report would be discussed with great interest, with great intelligence, and with great patience. Reports can be worthless. At Franklin reports were extremely important, chiefly because the recipients appreciated them.
In John Burns' mind there is only one important city in the world - Syracuse, New York. Why? Because he was born there, lived there, worked there, and has the most friends there - a very plausible list of reasons. John was born on July 16, 1883, the son of Thomas L. Burns and Elizabeth Malone Burns. He was fortunate to have four brothers, James, William, Thomas, and Arthur, and four sisters, Sarah, Ann, Mary, and Marjory. Of these, William, Catherine, Arthur, and Marjorie are living. To the family John is the thing". He is the one who seems to know the proper move to make. All such closely knit families seem to look to one member for guidance. In the Burns' family, John was it.
From 1888 - 1896 John attended Frazer-Porter School and from 1897 - 1898, Syracuse High School. Then the urge to work overpowered the persuasion of his high school principal and John joined the Syracuse Cycle Co. Without doubt this was, next to his marriage to Marie F. Burke, the most important event in his life. There he became intimately associated with John Wilkinson. He became fascinated with Mr. Wilkinson's early experiments and today can relate by the hour interesting anecdotes about Mr. Wilkinson. He told often of the disposal of the cleaning liquid used in the manufacture of bicycle parts. In 1898, modern plumbing just didn't exist. Factories, it's true, had inside wash rooms and associated accessories of the multiple "Chick Sales" variety. The one in the Syracuse Cycle Company consisted of ten units in a row. As was so often the case the boys "sneaked" into the wash room to smoke. Smoking at work or in the factory was absolutely against the rules. These same units of "Chick Sales" were the convenient dumping place for the volatile cleaning fluid.
One day John Wilkinson escaped from his drafting table and went down into the shop to talk to John Burns and then had the urge to smoke. He slipped into the wash room, lit a cigarette, had the normal number of satisfying puffs and then flipped his lighted cigarette into the only opening not then in use. There was a sudden puff as the cleaning fluid burst into flames. Immediately nine workmen leaped to their feet with certain portions of their anatomies slightly pink, but never a word reached the ears of the boss. They were all John Wilkinson's friends and admirers.
John also told of Mr. Wilkinson's initial interest in an engine capable of propelling an automobile. In his spare moments at home, and apparently even while at work, Mr. Wilkinson completed the design for his first engine, a four-cylinder air-cooled unit.
Building the engine once the drawings were completed was a difficult task. Mr. Wilkinson's superiors at the Syracuse Cycle Company were not at all enthusiastic. Frankly, they were against it. Yet Mr. Wilkinson mysteriously made patterns, obtained castings, machined them, and assembled the unit. John Burns still chuckles when he relates how Mr. Wilkinson would slip down into the machine shop, pull the engine parts from under the bench and begin work. John B. "stood guard" and would relay to Mr. Wilkinson when "danger" approached. When the engine actually fired and turned itself over it was a red letter day to the two Johns.
John could well understand Mr. Wilkinson's restlessness at the Syracuse Cycle Company Mr. Wilkinson had a very practical engine and wanted nothing more than to see it powering an automobile of his own design.
When the Crimson Rim Syracuse Cycle Company closed its doors due to financial troubles, John joined the Fiske Rubber Company's Syracuse office. He attended a vulcanizing school at the plant's main office in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, in 1900. He then returned to Syracuse and, as John describes it, he was everything. He was vulcanizing foreman, shipping clerk, janitor, cashier, and assistant manager.
On the side John "delved'1 as he calls it in bicycling as a hobby. He repaired some machines" but more important assembled wire wheels during the winter months. He really enjoyed his work until his old friend, John Wilkinson, beckoned. John Wilkinson was established in the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company developing the Franklin car and badly needed John. So after five months of persuasion the Fiske Rubber Company released John, as he now says, with "humor" In 1904 - September 14 - fifty years ago - John was a true member of the Franklin organization.
Frankly, John's notes are a little difficult to decipher. So the dates of other activities possibly are incorrect. However, there are indications that while he was connected with the Fiske Rubber Company he had many activities on the side. He mentions traveling for Harvey Firestone, visiting principal cities in New York State, instructing and installing Firestone solid-side wire tires on fire department equipment, hacks, bicycles, and wagons.
Then he mentions designing a bicycle tire steam vulcanizer. Then he perfected a device for applying tires on baby carriages later manufactured by Willard Lipe, one of the founders of the great Brown-Lipe-Chapin Company, now a division of General Motors.
John later designed for Mr. Lipe the deluxe tube cement applicator. Then he embarked on another venture - manufacturing the mats for machine made cigar manufacturing equipment. This later was sold to the American Cigar Company.
John's thinking apparatus was never at rest, so his friends were not particularly surprised when he developed the original ten section tire. This incorporated ten separate air chambers so a puncture in any section would not seriously affect the functioning of the tire. John mentions a fortune being spent, but makes no reference to whose fortune. It certainly was not his, as he had very little of the world's goods at that time. Now it is surprising to learn that John experimented with dental items. He manufactured a few of the original molds for gold crowns. I smile as I write since John said "All this as a side line" and all accomplished during the youthful period of eighteen to twenty-one years. John concludes his notes with "Put that in your pipe and don't smoke it. I suppose Christine (my wife) has put in her order for one of those fancy pipes which the dear girls have taken up rather than smoke cigarettes." But we must return to John at the H.H. Franklin Company.
John's work so impressed the service manager that in 1905 he was used as a field service representative. For two fruitful years he traveled throughout the United States correcting troubles and there were plenty, but in the main he was a salesman selling Franklin cars through demonstrating their outstanding performance.
In 1907 John was a respected member of the Sales Department and continued with that group until 1911. As a member of Sales, he entered all types of contests and needless to say won the majority of them. Later as I knew John the engineer I listened intently to every word as he recited so vividly the "hair-raising events" of his younger days.
Management had become so impressed with John's remarkable mechanical and supervisory ability that he was selected to head the Production Car Test Department. In those days the chassis was subjected to a severe road test and thoroughly examined before having the body mounted on it.
John continued in this very important position until 1917 when the Engineering Department over the protests of the factory manager drafted him to head up the experimental testing activity of the Engineering Department. The Series 9, a completely new car, had just been introduced. It had its share of initial "bugs". Management decided that John Burns was the one man who could lick the problems in the shortest period. Franklin history has proved that management was correct - the problems were solved. The Series 9 became famous for one of America's truly fine trouble-free cars.
I may have conveyed the impression that John was an abnormal man with just one idea on his mind - the Franklin car. No, John was a very normal young man. He met Marie Burke through her brother, John, of the Franklin trim shop, and as I understand did the best selling job of his career, since Marie was 8 or 9 years younger and possibly was afraid of this young, dashing ambassador of Franklin. John and Marie were married in the St Michaels Church, Lyons, New York, with the usual family exclamations - "John is the finest young man. Marie is lucky to get him." and "Marie has a great future. John is sure fortunate to marry Marie." Both very true statements - both are wonderful people.
This marriage has been blessed with six outstanding children, exceptionally outstanding, of whom three are doctors, one a chemist, two daughters who, after very fine educations, decided that marriage was the only career for a girl. (But how lucky for the young man selecting these girls.)
In summary, below are listed the Burns children: Born Robert Burns, M.D. Specialty - Urology Lyons, N.Y. Sept.10, 1910 Thomas Burns, M.D. Eye Surgeon Lyons, N.Y. June 5, 1918 John Burns, M.D. Expert Anesthetist Lyons, N. Y. Aug. 29, 1919 William Burns, Ch.E. Chemist Syracuse, N.Y. July 26, 1916 Mary Burns Housewife Syracuse, N.Y. May 18, 1924 Marjorie Burns Housewife Lyons, N. Y. Sept. 23, l922
Regardless of John1s achievements in the mechanical fields he and his good wife would be classed successful in the greatest field - the rearing of outstanding children.
John Burns' life and experience in the Franklin organization is so complete and interesting that it is most difficult to sift out and relate the best incidents. Everything connected with Johnny was fascinating. Today we call it color.
In 1924 a mild recession descended onto the automobile business. Dealer stocks were high, so sales were slow. This eventually meant that budgets at the Franklin plant were cut and the Engineering Department was no exception. Out of the group of fourteen young engineers I was the only one to remain. John's crew was reduced to four. The experimental machine shop was cut to four men. Suddenly the four wheel brake was announced in the Rickenbacher and then by others. Franklin attempted to sell the merits of the transmission brake but the customers were not interested. Management, in 19Z5, decided hydraulic four wheel brakes, as developed by Lockheed, would be used. The drafting group was increased and put on an overtime basis. The experimental machinists were materially increased. John Burns rehired some of his old faithfuls. I was permitted to hire a young engineer - we were on our way. A new enthusiasm gripped the entire organization.
One rainy day John completed the assembly of the first car a Series lZA with hydraulic brakes. He secretly drove out into the country accompanied by the Lockheed engineer -neither wanted company. They knew that new ideas are usually accompanied by new problems. This first test was to be no exception.
John had promised that he would only take a short test trip, so when an hour went by and no Burns, we began to wonder. Thirty minutes more, then sixty minutes went by. We, including Ed Marks, Chief Engineer, had just about decided to put out a searching party when John and his associate drove in. The car was covered with mud, corn stalks, and grass. John excitedly jumped out and exclaimed, "Those brakes! I was driving at 45 and just touched the pedal and the car jumped off the road, down over the bank into a newly harvested corn field where it careened lazily one way and then the other as it was deciding whether or not to turn over." John then explained that by maneuvering he eventually escaped and drove back to the plant at a very low speed.
But John, during all the excitement, had been analyzing the problem and his analysis was later proved to be correct. The Franklin cars, except Series 17 and 18, used full elliptic springs, both front and rear. When the brakes were applied the front axle rolled back, materially changing the steering geometry which in effect was comparable to a very sharp turn. Needless to say, the problem was corrected and thoroughly proved by John before the four wheel brakes appeared on production cars.
While I have stressed John Burns' engineering ability, he was by no means a one-sided individual. He demonstrated day after day his sales ability by obtaining approval from Ralph Murphy or Ed Marks for some new idea. Interestingly, John had uncovered the "weak" points in lots of these gentlemen and would concentrate on those areas. As an example, if he had to sell Ed Marks an idea for himself or occasionally for me, he would outline his strategy something like this; "Ed is going to be difficult to sell on that change in the carburetion. I am convinced it is O.K. and that we should do it, but Ed is a skeptic. So tomorrow morning I will ask him to drive around the loop (a twenty mile drive over two very steep hills). You park yourself in the rear seat. I will state the problem as we pass Johnny Mantel's Saloon, then I will say we certainly are not going to have prosperity in this country until we have a Democratic president and bring back liquor." John knew that Ed was a strong Republican and a strict prohibitionist so he could argue for the entire twenty miles and keep Ed from being critical of the particular recommendation. This procedure invariably worked, yet John never used this plan unless he and some of the other engineers were absolutely sold that the recommendation was sound and would benefit the organization. Franklin came first to John at all times even if it meant a violent argument with Ed Marks or Ralph Murphy or me. An individualist, yes, often a non-conformist. Only John Burns could survive such maneuvering.
Many associates claimed that it was impossible to cooperate with John. I disagreed for, in spite of many arguments, at times very heated, we worked parallel and accomplished much together. I concentrated on the laboratory end of the Engineering Department and John concentrated on the vehicle testing. Many, many times we disagreed, honestly disagreed; a healthy situation in any progressive organization How well I recall the arguments we had over the proper procedure for checking valve clearance in the new 1930 Series 14 engine.
I had spent months observing change in valve clearances under various load conditions and believed that the technique developed by my group was sound. Furthermore, we had developed the compensating stud as a means of controlling clearance on the exhaust valve particularly.
So when I announced that the Series 14 engine as released by the research laboratory (my particular group) was satisfactorily compensating, John thoroughly and violently disagreed. He argued that the Series 13 engine then in production had perfect compensation. I disagreed as I had tested it also on the dynamometer and found it very lacking.
The method used by John to check his pet, the Series 13, was to drive fast down the road with Bill Hachett, the mechanic, beside him, then suddenly pull off the side of the road, stop, raise the hood, unfasten and remove the cylinder air housing, and finally the valve covers, before actually checking each cylinder valve clearance with the engine stopped.
John asked, "Do you infer that after all the years in this business I don't know what I am doing?" I said, "John, I am inferring nothing. I just don't agree that your method is sound. There is just too much hysteresis." He ignored me with a passing remark, "I am seeing Marks." Ed came down, talked to each of us separately and said, "You fellows must come to an agreement. You can't go on this way." We agreed. Next it was suggested that Steve Castor, Assistant Chief Engineer, listen to both of us and act as referee. This pleased me as I had already reviewed the construction with Mr. Castor in working out a patent application on the valve compensating mechanism. Steve suggested that we drive out to Lord's Hill and measure the valve clearances up and down the hill. This procedure necessitated sitting on the right front fender - hanging on at best was hazardous - and taking the clearances with hand feeler gauges. First I rode the fender and called out the results while John drove. Then I drove and he observed the readings. Steve sat patiently by as a catalyst of good relations. Soon John and I were grinning and agreeing. Possibly as John reads this he will start the argument again. This time I won't argue back as we have no adequate vehicle on which we can ride the fender and Steve has passed into the great beyond.
Many times, John, Steve Castor, and I worked extremely close; so close at times that we agreed if one was to be fired, the other two would be also. One instance stands out above all others.
A new touring car with the 100 horsepower engine had been built special for Mr. Franklin. It was a beauty with exceptional performance, outstanding riding, but one feature was not satisfactory. The engine was excessively noisy, so Ed Marks stated, and we reluctantly agreed. Ed said, "up to you three fellows to make that engine quiet or else." We three liked our jobs - We were wedded to Franklin, but we realized that we were not supermen. We drove out into the country with our tools. We adjusted the valve clearances as closely to specifications as humanly possible. The engine remained noisy. Back to the plant we went. We tried this. We tried that. The normal work day was over - evening came - we worked and worked - at midnight at a little cross road on the Onondaga Hill Road we decided that we were licked - we could do no more. So we concluded that in the morning Mr. Marks would say "Sorry boys. Nice to have known you. I need some new engineers." Little did we sleep that night as we dreaded the morning. We arrived early, well ahead of Ed Marks. When he drove he remarked, "You are three sour looking individuals. It can't be that bad." We simply said, "Ed, we are sorry we let you down". Ed with a smile said "You have done your best. If you are to be fired, then I will be fired with you." He continued, "All we can do is to let Mr. Franklin take the car immediately as he is driving to New York City." John Burns had the car washed and delivered to Mr. Franklin's home.
I believe that was the longest day ever experienced. We knew that Mr. Franklin would wire the minute he arrived in New York; that is, if he did arrive. Then about 3:00 PM Ed Marks came down to the Experimental Department grinning from ear to ear with a telegram in his hand. He called us together and read:
"E. S Marks Arrived New York City five hours exactly. Outstanding performance. Engine performance perfect. Riaing phenomenal. Thank the boys who engineered and prepared this car. Best regards. H. H. Franklin"
Remember Mark Twain said, "Most people spend their lives worrying about things never to happen."
Shortly after this trip we built another special car for Mr. Franklin - a 5-passenger convertible designed by the stylist, Ray Dietrich, called the Pirate. Again, John, Steve, and I spent endless hours adjusting and preparing this car. For once we were pleased and pronounced it O.K. Mr. Franklin with his chauffeur left on a trip through the midwest. We were so confident of this car that we soon put it out of our minds for some other pressing problems. In a couple of days we were suddenly brought back to the importance of Mr. Franklin. He had been in a serious accident and was at death's door in a Cincinnati hospital. Ed Marks, John Williams, and other executives left immediately and remained just outside his hospital room until he was out of danger. Out of danger, yet his convalescence was a tedious ordeal. We then appreciated more than ever the importance of Mr. Franklin to our organization.
In keeping abreast or ahead of the industry Franklin faced all types of problems. Of course to us in engineering our problems were of great importance and greatest magnitude. Yet we can look back and say that no problem ever licked us. We licked the problems. John Burns always the fighter proved to the organization that smooth engines required combustion chamber clearance volumes held to very close tolerances, within Z c.c. The production boys said impractical, impossible, yet John proved how necessary it was. The control was adopted in 1931. Here in 1954 engineers are stressing completely machined combustion chamber in order to maintain even clearance volumes. It is pronounced a new feature. New? It was adopted by Franklin, thanks to John Burns, Z3 years ago.
In 1930, body shake in the flexible chassis became a great problem so many thought. John Burns kept his council except to remark to me, "Carl, while every engineer and sweeper is concentrating on this body wriggle, something important may be going right over our heads. How correct he was, as we were suddenly faced with a piston scoring problem of serious proportions. Such serious proportions that a temporary fix for the body shake was reluctantly released and all effort placed on the piston problem. Later I was to purchase the Franklin with the alleged worst case of wriggles and I never noticed anything unusual. My mind was on pistons. This problem, thanks to John Burns, was soon behind us. He developed with a file a new surface contour which relieved the piston where expansion was the greatest.
John's ability to accomplish major assignments was uncanny. Here was this little Irishman who could not run a slide rule, who couldn't work simple problems in algebra, who was selecting important dimensions simply by intuition and common sense. He was unable to compute the volume of a gasoline tank. Yet when he was required to specify the dimensions for a tank to occupy a certain space and hold a certain volume he would be closer to the desired than all others.
In 1923 the Series 10 cars developed rattling noises in the transmission at 28 to 32 m.p.h. Engineering and Quality Control accused production of manufacturing inferior transmissions. Production disagreed, but reluctantly agreed to make the parts to closer dimensions. A new test room was provided. Still the rattles persisted. Dealers were becoming frantic. Customers refused to keep their cars. Franklin faced shutting down.
John Burns had been following directions of Louis Stellman, the Chief Engineer, but was not sold that the problem was caused by poor quality. He reasoned that the previous model, the Series 9, had been free from this trouble. That car had a rubber coupling between the clutch and the transmission, whereas the Series 10 incorporated a unit power plant, one where the transmission is bolted directly to the engine without any flexible member between the two. John reasoned that the introduction of a flexible member between the clutch and transmission should prevent the transfer of torsional crankshaft vibration to the transmission gear teeth.
Next he timidly suggested his solution to the Chief Engineer and was told without delay, "John, mind your own business. Do as you are told." As I have mentioned previously, John ignored organization channels if he wanted action. He secretly went to work to incorporate a flexible member in the clutch disc.
Next he asked Andy White, one of the test engineers, to select the car with the worst rattle from production. Under the cover of darkness John installed the flexible disc and with great anticipation drove the car over his favorite test route. He found the rattle absolutely eliminated and a resulting smoothness never before experienced in a Franklin car.
The next morning he asked of Mr. Stellman and Ed Marks, “Would you like to ride in a car that doesn't rattle?" His audience chuckled, "John, why joke? All of them rattle!" John was in no joking mood. He said, "Come with me. I ain't joking." They saw that he was serious and drove the car. Immediately they were sold. John Burns had developed a revolutionary device.
The Burns flexible clutch disc was immediately placed in production. Rattling transmissions were behind us. Mr. Stellman soon left the company and promoted for John and him the flexible disc successfully on a fifty-fifty basis with both parties being rewarded handsomely for their efforts. Unfortunately the patent had not been written sufficiently broad so after a few years the licensee developed a disc with springs and accomplished the same effect and the royalties stopped. John, at least, had accumulated sufficient assets so that all his children received the finest in education. The moral of this story is to "take heed when a rattle develops It may mean a fortune."
A few years later a booming noise was evident in the majority of cars with the increase in power. Again John introduced a flexible device. This time it was incorporated on the fan end of the crankshaft. I doubt that John could give a technical dissertation on the causes of the vibration. Frankly, he didn't care. His efforts had corrected the trouble. John was so right in the solution. Universally engines with long limber crankshafts have needed torsional vibration absorbers; however, very few of the new V-8 multi bearing engines of 1954 need an absorber since the crankshafts are so stiff that their critical speeds are out of the operating range.
Just a few more of John's innovations are the modern spark plug with the solid copper gasket, the foil on the fuel filter, features of the Powell muffler, manual control intake manifold heat, and thermostatic control of under hood temperatures. Many more could be added, but John's ideas were absorbed immediately into the design with only he and the designer the ones knowing of the true originator. As I have written many times, the Franklin organization was bigger in John's mind than individual recognition. John Burns was secondary so he thought, but not to others.
In the medical world we often hear of a great diagnostician. In the field of automotive engineering John Burns could truly be called a great diagnostician. He had no equal. Often I have observed with admiration mixed with wonder as he would listen or touch a malfunctioning unit and quickly announce the cause of the trouble. It made no difference if it was an engine, an axle, a carburetor, or a transmission. He was always the master - the true Doctor of Motors. During the last few years of our association in engineering activities John as always was very proficient in solving the problems arising in complicated aircraft engines. I will recall assigning John the difficult task of straightening out a very serious problem in engine cooling with the Republic Seabee, a postwar amphibian airplane. Previously we had sent out best engineers to the Republic factory at Farmingdale, Long Island, to correct the trouble. Not one was successful. Then in desperation I sent John, knowing that we as an organization were licked if John Burns were licked. He had never been licked up until that point.
John was new at the Republic factory, yet he stepped in, analyzed the situation, asked for a few simple materials, shaped them with his own hands, installed them, and the engine dooled. Later Mundy Peale, President of Republic Aviation Corp., in discussing the situation paying great tribute to John. He said, "I have seen many great mechanics and many great engineers, but I witnessed the greatest piece of diagnosing by little John Burns. He is terrific. He is the best yet."
As I write this story, across my mind passes a continual stream of events with John Burns as the principal. Possibly some day time will permit me to do justice to this great little character. I could write very interesting chapters of our coast to coast trip together in 1932 in the Franklin V-12 "bankers" car.
The story of a test trip through the Adirondacks in 19Z7 with John, Ed Marks, Steve Castor, George Dewey and "lesser eights" could be most interesting. This trek was for the purpose of comparing the new long stroke Series 12 Franklin with the Series 11B, a Packard, and a Buick. John, as always, was the director. He often told of Ed Marks' worries about the possible problems with the long stroke engine because for the first time we dared to wander away from Mr. Wilkinson's short stroke fundamentals.
As we sat on the grass at Fort Ticonderoga, Ed Marks, George Dewey, Steve Castor, and myself, for a snapshot a bird flew over and for some strange reason decided to drop a small "bomb" on Ed Marks' forehead which splattered a bit on his glasses. Ed jumped up and cried, "even the birds pick on me." The job is always tough, but Ed was fair. When he received praise he passed it on. When he received criticism justly he passed that on to us.
I could write of John's great help in building the Airmobile, a development job at Doman-Marks Engine Company. Then I could tell of John's great help, yes, and sacrificing when after solving engineering problems in the little four-cylinder engine for the White Horse Truck, he went to Cleveland and directed the installation in the first units of the White Motor Company, then remained there for many months more.
This was a difficult assignment, as John was in the midst of departmental feuds between two engineering groups at White Motor. John never complained when he would have preferred to be with his family. There was a job to be done and he did it.
Later when the Tucker Corporation, the ill-fated post-war auto maker, purchased Aircooled Motors, (Formerly Doman-Marks Engine Company) John was selected to be Aircooled representative at the Tucker Chicago plant. Here in 1948 and early 1949 he again demonstrated the same tenacious qualities so evidenced in the past.
The Tucker car, a rear engine unit, had the greatest accumulation of aggravating "bugs" of any vehicle ever assembled yet John Burns quietly one by one licked them to the surprise and pleasure of many. Only when the Tucker Corporation became finally financially distressed did John return to Syracuse, and then reluctantly.
Just recently John was bitterly complaining that he couldn't get a job. He said, "It isn't fair. My mind is better than ever. My health is good but nobody will hire me." I said, "John, you are just over sixty-five. You are in your prime." He looked at me with the typical disgust and remarked, "Sixty-five. Well I am seventy-two." I looked at him closely. Seventy-two years - erect - just the right weight - color good - eye sight good - energy same as at twenty-five. My mind then passed to my work in Detroit. How I need John. He sure could help me. Yet, why wish. I couldn't employ him. He was past sixty-five. Someday I hope that industry will recognize that minds continue to develop as the years roll by and that nothing is more valuable than experience when accompanied with enthusiasm. Then such men of genius as John Burns and others will be usefully employed.
As mentioned, John has furnished much of the material for this half of "The Two Johns" and has, under "interesting stories", covered very frankly and sprinkled with humor and affection, his opinion of some of his latest business associates: "Beer parties of Tubbert's give'n the boys by "Jones" Smith's cheapness, Ray Applegate's antics, "Williams"' domineering, Frank Chadwick's levelheaded decency, Bill Burrows coolness in general and great knowledge of ships and operation in flight, Fran Savage's foresight in getting away and joining Pratt & Whitney, squeeze play given Ed Marks, extra vacation you gave me for getting Sea Bea Republic engine through its acceptance test - 150 hours in record time."
Purposely I have substituted some names from John’s notes to avoid embarrassment. Possibly you say time will mellow John’s feelings toward some of his former associates. Never! John's convictions are definite. Nothing will sway him. He is convinced that there is a Heavenly Father watching over all of us. He is convinced that the best way of life is the honest, upright way and he expects his fellowmen to be likewise
Thus ends my humble efforts in depicting some interesting phases from the lives of two great men. Two men so fundamentally opposite in many ways but so interestingly alike in the real issues of life, love of families, love of things mechanical, and love for their fellowmen.