Page 19 of Wheels

Tires screamed savagely, and smoked, as the car flung hard left, then right, then left again. Each time, centrifugal force strained urgently, protestingly, against the direction of the turn. To the three occupants it seemed as if the car might roll over at any moment, even though knowledge told them that it shouldn't.

Adam glanced behind him. Brett DeLosanto, sitting centrally in the rear seat, was belted in, as well as bracing himself by his arms on either side.

The designer called over the seatback, "My liver and spleen just switched sides. I'm counting on the next bend to get them back."

Beside Adam, Ian Jameson, a slight, sandyhaired Scot from Engineering, sat imperturbably. Jameson was undoubtedly thinking what Adam realized - that there was no necessity for them to be going around the turns at all; professional drivers had already put the Orion through grueling tests there which it survived handily. The trio's real purpose at the proving ground today was to review an NVH problem (the initials were engineerese for Noise, Vibration, and Harshness) which prototype Orions had developed at very high speed. But on their way to the fast track they had passed the entry to Serpentine Alley, and Adam swung on to it first, hoping that throwing the car around would release some of his own tension, which he had continued to be aware of since his departure from the press session an hour or two earlier.

The tension, which started early this morning, had occurred more frequently of late. So a few weeks ago Adam made an appointment with a physician who probed, pressed, performed assorted tests, and finally told him there was nothing wrong organically except, possibly, too much acid in his system. The doctor then talked vaguely of "ulcer personality," the need to stop worrying, and added a kindergarten bromide, "A hill is only as steep as it looks to the man climbing it."

While Adam listened impatiently, wishing that medics would assume more knowledge and intelligence on the part of patients, the doctor pointed out that the human body had its own built-in warning devices and suggested easing up for a while, which Adam already knew was impossible this year. The doctor finally got down to what Adam had come for and prescribed Librium capsules with a recommended dosage. Adam promptly exceeded the dosage, and continued to. He also failed to tell the doctor that he was taking Valium, obtained elsewhere. Today, Adam had swallowed several pills, including one just before leaving downtown, but without discernible effect. Now, since the S-turns had done nothing to release his tension either, he surreptitiously transferred another pill from a pocket to his mouth.

The action reminded him that he still hadn't told Erica, either about the visit to the doctor, or the pills, which he kept in his briefcase, out of sight.

Near the end of Serpentine Alley, Adam swung the car sharply, letting the speed drop only slightly before heading for the track which was used for high-speed runs. Outside, the trees, meadows, and connecting roads sped by. The speedometer returned to 60, then edged to 65.

With one hand, Adam rechecked the tightness of his own lap straps and shoulder harness. Without turning his head, he told the others, "Okay, let's shake this baby out."

They hurtled on the fast track, sweeping past another car, their speed still climbing. It was 70 mph, and Adam caught a glimpse of a face as the driver of the other car glanced sideways.

Ian Jameson craned left to watch the speedometer needle, now touching 75. The sandy-haired engineer had been a key figure in studying the Orion's present NVH problem.

"We'll hear it any moment," Jameson said.

Speed was 78. The wind, largely of their own creating, roared as they flew around the track. Adam had the accelerator floored. Now he touched the automatic speed control, letting the computer take over, and removed his foot. Speed crept up. It passed 80.

"Here she comes," Jameson said. As he spoke, the car shuddered violently - an intense pulsation, shaking everything, including occupants.

Adam found his vision blurring slightly from the rapid movement.

Simultaneously a metallic hum rose and fell.

The engineer said, "Right on schedule." He sounded complacent, Adam thought, as if he would have been disappointed had the trouble not appeared.

"At fair grounds Brett DeLosanto raised his voice to a shout to make himself heard; his words came through unevenly because of the shaking.

"At fair grounds, people pay money for a ride like this."

"And if we left it in," Adam said, "most drivers would never know about it. Not many take their cars up to eighty."

Ian Jameson said, "But some do."

Adam conceded gloomily: it was true. A handful of madcap drivers would hit eighty, and among them one or two might be startled by the sudden vibration, then lose control, killing or maiming themselves and others.

Even without accident, the NVH effect could become known, and people like Emerson Vale would make the most of it. It was a few freak accidents at high speed, Adam recalled, with drivers who over- or understeered in emergencies, which had killed the Corvair only a few years ago. And although by the time Ralph Nader published his now-famous indictment of the Corvair, early faults had been corrected, the car had still gone to a precipitate end under the weight of publicity which Nader generated.

Adam, and others in the company who knew about the high-speed shake, had no intention of allowing a similar episode to mar the Orion's record.

It was a reason why the company high command was being close-mouthed so that rumors of the trouble did not leak outside. A vital question at this moment was: How could the shake be eliminated and what would it cost? Adam was here to find out and, because of the urgency, had authority to make decisions.

He took back control from the car's computer and allowed the speed to fall off to 20 mph. Then, twice more, at differing rates of acceleration he took it up to 80. Each time, both the vibration and the point at which it occurred were identical.

"There's a difference in sheet metal on this car." Adam remembered that the Orion he was driving was an early prototype, handmade - as were all prototypes so far - because assembly line manufacture had not yet started.

"Makes no difference to the effect," Ian Jameson declared flatly. "We've had an exact Orion out here, another on the dynamometer. They all do it.

Same speed, same NVH."

"It feels like a woman having an orgasm," Brett said. "Sounds like it, too." He asked the engineer, "Does it do any harm?"

"As far as we can tell, no."

"Then it seems a shame to take it out."

Adam snapped, "For Christ's sake, cut the stupidity! Of course we have to take it out! If it were an appearance problem, you wouldn't be so goddamn smug."

"Well, well," Brett said. "Something else appears to be vibrating."

They had left the fast track. Abruptly, Adam braked the car, skidding so that all three were thrown forward against their straps. He turned onto a grass shoulder. As the car stopped, he unbuckled, then got out and lit a cigarette. The others followed.

Outside the car, Adam shivered slightly. The air was briskly cool, fall leaves were blowing in a gusty wind, and the sun, which had been out earlier, had disappeared behind an overcast of gray nimbostratus. Through trees, he could see a lake, its surface ruffled bleakly.

Adam pondered the decision he had to make. He was aware it was a tough one for which he would be blamed - justly or unjustly - if it went wrong.

Ian Jameson broke the uncomfortable silence. "We're satisfied that the effect is induced by tire and road surfaces when one or the other becomes in phase with body harmonics, so the vibration is natural body frequency."

In other words, Adam realized, there was no structural defect in the car.

He asked, "Can the vibration be overcome?"

"Yes," Jameson said. "We're sure of that, also that you can go one of two ways. Either redesign the cowl side structure and underbody torque boxes" - he filled in engineering details or add biases and reinforcement."

"Hey!" Brett was instantly alert. "That first one means exterior body changes. Right?"

"Right," the engineer acknowledged. "They'd be needed at the lower body side near the front door cut and rocker panel areas."

Brett looked gloomy, as well he might, Adam thought. It would require a crash redesign and testing program at a time when everyone believed the Orion design was fixed and final. He queried, "And the add-ons?"

"We've experimented, and there'd be two pieces - a front floor reinforcement and a brace under the instrument panel." The engineer described the brace which would be out of sight, extending from the cowl side structure on one side, to the steering column, thence to the cowl on the opposite side.

Adam asked the critical question. "Cost?"

"You won't like it." The engineer hesitated, knowing the reaction his next words would produce. "About five dollars."

Adam groaned. "God Almighty!"

He was faced with a frustrating choice. Whichever route they went would be negative and costly. The engineer's first alternative - redesign - would be less expensive, costing probably half a million to a million dollars in retooling. But it would create delays, and the Orion's introduction would be put off three to six months which, in itself, could be disastrous for many reasons.

On the other hand, on a million cars, cost of the two add-ons - the floor reinforcement and brace - would be five million dollars, and it was expected that many more Orions than a million would be built and sold. Millions of dollars to be added to production expense, to say nothing of lost profit, and all for an item wholly negative! In auto construction, five dollars was a major sum, and auto manufacturers thought normally in pennies, shaving two cents here, a nickel there, necessary because of the immense total numbers involved. Adam said in deep disgust, "Goddam!"