Bill Milliken’s White-Knuckle Ride
In spite of a hazard-packed life, William F. Milliken, Jr. died in his 101st year. A guru of car handling, Bill tested his theories in more than 100 races. And he treasured his early aviation years.
When you open the pages of Bill Milliken’s book, Equations of Motion, fasten your seat belt because you’re in for a bumpy ride. Every misadventure that could occur on land or in the air seems to have befallen this plucky character. As a youngster Bill had scrape after scrape, from which he emerged with this philosophy: “I had the feeling that I’m never going to have any excitement in life if I’m not willing to have a few accidents. And when I think about my life it’s been nothing really but a whole series of accidents!”
Milliken’s mishaps are part and parcel of his notoriety. “In his fifteen years of driving in about a hundred and fifteen races,” wrote Griff Borgeson, “it was only with the Miller that he did not have a serious accident.” This was hyperbole on Griff’s part. Milliken raced at Pike’s Peak and Sebring frequently in a crash-free manner. But when Bill went ass-over-teakettle in his Bugatti at Watkins Glen in 1948 the offending turn was instantly named “Milliken’s Corner”. There’s even a nearby mural to celebrate his crash!
William Franklin Milliken, Jr. was born on April 18, 1911 in Old Town, Maine. Passionate about racing cars as a youth, with the help of friends he built numerous powered and unpowered vehicles that taught his first lessons in control dynamics. After an erratic flight in a home-built airplane he concluded that “the best handling results from plenty of control, modest amounts of stability and adequate damping of any oscillatory tendencies.”
That flight ended with the Milliken M-1 upside-down, not the only one of its kind in the book. They’re among the many period photographs that are one of the considerable pleasures of Bill’s amazing book from Bentley Publishers. He takes us back to 1927 when, at the age of 16, he was entranced by the preparations for Transatlantic flight that culminated in the success of “dark horse” Charles Lindbergh. The Lone Eagle’s success convinced Milliken that “I could physically and mentally condition myself to a more adventurous existence…that I had some control of my life.”
Bill took control by plunging into aviation, aided by the professorial contacts he made at MIT, where he helped manage the wind tunnel. With World War 2 on the horizon he soon found himself at Boeing, running high-altitude tests on the B17 and later the alarmingly fire-prone B29. Though marred by deaths of colleagues these were halcyon days for Milliken. “Like a first love,” he tells us, “nothing in my career can quite come up to those adventurous years and the Seattle I knew.”
Peacetime saw Bill at the Buffalo-based Aeronautical Laboratories of Cornell University, where he exploited his wartime contacts to get project work. Here more adventure waited. As an observer with Cornell pilot John Seal he “witnessed a masterful display of piloting as John, all-out on the controls, wrestled with the airplane. Charged with adrenaline, cursing and swearing, he gave the impression of having the airplane by the throat.” They both walked away from that landing.
Milliken’s racing passions were reawakened by the sight of an MG TC on the streets of New York. He soon traded up to the Bugatti with which he crashed so memorably at Watkins Glen. That he wasn’t injured was owed to his authorship of the rules for this, the first major road race in America after the war. He made both crash helmets and seat belts mandatory — a pioneering move at the time.
Bill Milliken became chief steward for the Grand Prix races at the Glen, which began in 1961. In this role, he said, “I experienced both woe and satisfaction. It was my responsibility to collect the drivers, make sense out of the Driver’s Meeting and start the race on time (not always successfully). GP drivers are a tough and independent lot, so I tried to focus on the few essentials.” He held this cursed chalice for a decade.
In his own racing Milliken was fascinated by four-wheel-drive machinery. In 1948 he borrowed one of two 4x4 Millers built for the 1932 Indianapolis Race and campaigned it for several seasons. Its 1952 successor was another 4x4, a British AJB Special S.2 with Austrian Steyr V-8 power. Much later Bill built a radical single-seater of his own with steep negative camber on all four wheels—the outcome of studies at Cornell. With the help of his great friend Edward Dean Butler he starred with it at Goodwood’s Festival of Speed in 2002.
Milliken successfully married his interest in racing with his knowledge of aircraft stability to win car-industry contracts for fundamental research and analysis of why cars behave as they do, work that still underpins our understanding more than half a century later. Setting out a project program in 1952 that a colleague called “a work of genius,” Bill won General Motors as a first client for Cornell’s know-how. “Within a year we were getting $100,000 contracts,” Milliken recalled, “and we were free to publish.”
I always enjoyed picking up the phone and hearing the unmistakable dry drawl of the Maine-nurtured Milliken. Born in 1911, Bill died in 2012—a long and harrowingly eventful life. I shared part of it and still do, working closely with his son Douglas on various projects. However few of them could top the Astro Spiral, the amazing stunt-driving jump that saw an auto turn 360 degrees (almost) in the air and land with car and driver intact. You saw in in the Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. This grew out of an analytical program on vehicle behavior developed at Cornell! And I had an exclusive on its creation and debut.
Equations of Motion is both a revealing personal memoir and a repository of insights into the nature and findings of research into the dynamics of ground and air vehicles. Bearing in mind Bill’s colorful career, I particularly appreciated his thoughts on the nature of risk and the avoidance of its possible consequences, as follows:
“Arising through an unforeseen factor, a risk is detected before it becomes catastrophic. If there is enough information, or experience, available to make a remedial decision and time to take positive action, and if panic is avoided and the action avoids compounding the problem, and if sufficient feedback is available, success may be achieved albeit by a very small margin.”
To this Bill added, “In any narrow escape the element of chance cannot be totally discounted.” Discounted? I’d say that Milliken harnessed chance and made it dance!