Auto industry's first proving ground ended hit-or-miss testing methods
It could even give way to a night on the town, as Alfred Sloan recalled in his memoir, My Years with General Motors.
"Once, one of our engineers discovered a test car jacked up outside a dance hall with the engine running up the required mileage on the odometer," Sloan wrote.
"Cars then were being tested on public roads. And there was no easy way of telling whether the test driver had pulled up at the side of a road, taken a nap and then driven faster than the test schedule called for to make up the necessary mileage."
In 1923, the need for a controlled environment with repeatable test conditions became even more compelling. GM engineers tried using public roads near Flint, Mich., to evaluate a new safety technology: four-wheel brakes.
They were attempting to determine "an exceedingly important technical policy under such adverse conditions that essential fact finding was almost futile," Sloan wrote in 1944 on the 20th anniversary of the proving ground.
Around the same time, Charles "Boss" Kettering, GM's research vice president, proposed building "a mile of concrete pavement for road test purposes" next to GM's research laboratories in Dayton, Ohio.
Noise & vibration
Emissions & fuel economy
Hybrid vehicle development
Fuel cell & alternative fuels
Safety & crash testing
A better way
"The urge to provide a better way of doing such things stood out crystal clear," Sloan said. "And the General Motors Proving Ground was the final result."
In 1924, GM bought a 1,125-acre patch of hilly farmland about 40 miles west of Detroit. There it built what is now known as the Milford Proving Ground.
Today, the Milford Proving Ground spans more than 4,000 acres. Its numerous test roads and tracks cover the equivalent of 132 miles of two-lane highway. The 5,000 workers at the high-security facility spend their days conducting crash tests and rollover tests and evaluating such things as handling, emissions and fuel economy.
"In those early days they looked at the proving ground as an outdoor lab basically," says Jerry Wilson, the proving ground's unofficial historian.
"This was going to be a facility where we could control all the inputs into the vehicle performance and development," says the 30-year Milford employee, "as opposed to kind of seat-of-your-pants development."
Chevrolet was the first of the GM divisions to try out the proving ground, followed by Buick and Oakland, which later became Pontiac.
The proving ground can boast a series of firsts, including the industry's first rollover tests in the 1930s, the first ride-and-handling test circuit, and the first use of a machine to analyze brake performance. Drivers Gus Bell and Bill Rader set a record at the proving ground in 1927, driving a LaSalle roadster on a continuous run of 1,000 miles at 95.3 mph.
Slick to bumpy
Some roads at the proving ground replicate real public roads, down to the street names, bumps, potholes and other imperfections.
"We spend as much money keeping our roads in a steady state of disrepair, in some cases, as some cities do keeping theirs repaired," Wilson says
The Vehicle Dynamics Test Area dominates the central section of the proving ground. It is nicknamed Black Lake because, when wet, its blacktop surface resembles a body of water. It is the size of about 59 football fields.
In World War II, the Milford Proving Ground mobilized to support the troops. Canon fire sounded across its picturesque landscape, and tanks rolled in as Milford began testing military vehicles, weapons and equipment. An occasional tank or armored personnel carrier still can be seen on the property, undergoing engine testing.
The proving ground has become ingrained in U.S. industrial culture. Walt Disney World built a thrill ride inspired by Milford at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. Action star and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger learned to drive a military Humvee at Milford. Spy photographers, drawn by the hopes of capturing a picture of a next-generation Chevrolet Corvette, prowl around the proving ground's edges, thwarted by carefully planted trees and other foliage.
Most every product GM sells eventually passes through the proving ground, now one of seven GM operates worldwide. An eighth is being built in Shanghai.
The proving ground is mostly off-limits now. In the early days, though, the village of Milford was the boondocks, so there was no need for GM to build fences to shield the location from prying eyes.
"There is even one portion of the track where a public road went by the high-speed track, and people would come out and have picnic lunches and sit there and watch the cars go by," Wilson says. "There were no cell phone cameras and stuff like that."
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