Chevrolet may be synonymous with baseball and apple pie, but it was a Brit who made Chevys ride smoother and steer more predictably in the 1930s.
That person was Maurice Olley, who came to General Motors from Rolls-Royce and became one of the world's foremost experts in ride and handling.
His work led to Chevrolet's adoption of short-long arm independent front suspensions in the 1939 Master Deluxe models. It was a much-improved alternative to the Dubonnet "knee action" suspension Chevy introduced in 1934.
"Olley's greatest contribution was the independent front suspension," said Kirk Walters, who worked with Olley at Chevrolet engineering in the early 1950s. "Even though other auto manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz had developed independent front suspensions, Olley made the technology feasible for mass production across all GM divisions."
Olley was head of Chevrolet r&d in the early 1950s. "In this capacity, he tested air suspensions," said Gib Hufstader, who worked for Olley at Chevy r&d. "The department was also experimenting with two-cycle engines."
Olley was the architect of the original Chevrolet Corvette suspension that debuted in 1953, which represented a masterful coordination of available Chevy parts to develop a sports car. In his book Corvette from the Inside, former Corvette chief engineer Dave McLellan summarized the challenges of the early Corvette program: "It was an opportunity for Maurice Olley's r&d department to demonstrate its packaging skills, knowledge of ride and handling, and skill at fabricating a body in the new fiberglass reinforced plastic material with which they were experimenting."
Olley also was involved in building a full-sized Chevy prototype in fiberglass in the early 1950s, before its use on the Corvette, which paved the way for production of the fiberglass body after it demonstrated sufficient strength for a rollover test.
The Corvette chassis provided a credible foundation for the performance improvements that Zora Arkus-Duntov would apply when the second-generation Corvette debuted in 1963. Olley was Arkus-Duntov's first boss at Chevy r&d.
'A fundamental engineer'
"Olley was what I call a fundamental engineer, as opposed to a higher-profile guy like [Chevrolet chief engineer] Ed Cole," Walters said. "Cole was an engineer, too, but took credit as an executive for a lot of other people's work. He was able to sell large programs to boards of directors and such that Olley couldn't do."
Olley was born June 12, 1889, in Scarborough, England, attended the Birmingham Technical School and the University of Manchester in England. He was a tool designer for H.W. Ward & Co. in Birmingham and was with Rolls-Royce from 1912 to 1917 as a designer on the personal staff of Sir Frederick Henry Royce.
"In that capacity, he was one of the three developers of the first Rolls-Royce aircraft engines," Walters said. "They were air-cooled eight-cylinder inline engines."
Olley moved to the United States in 1917 to take charge of aircraft engine production for Rolls-Royce in New York and Cleveland. He reported directly to Royce. "No drawing was ever approved unless Royce approved it himself with a big script 'R' on it," Walters said.
Olley was promoted to chief engineer for Rolls-Royce in America in Springfield, Mass.
In 1930, Olley joined Cadillac in Detroit as a troubleshooting engineer. His services were so much in demand that in 1934 he was given a specially created position in GM as engineer in charge of the Product Study Department.
From 1930 to 1937, Olley was largely responsible for the design of various independent suspension systems and their introduction on GM cars. His work helped define modern ideas of automotive ride and handling.
Olley returned to Europe in 1937 as passenger vehicle engineer with Vauxhall Motors, GM's English subsidiary. He took a leave of absence in 1939 to act as U.S. engineering representative on aircraft engines for Rolls-Royce, supervising the manufacture of Rolls-Royce parts and the start of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine production at the Packard plant in the United States.
During the final years of World War II he was an adviser to the British Ministry of Supply. After the war he return-ed to Vauxhall.
Led Chevy r&d
In 1952, Chevrolet named Olley director of r&d and special assistant to the chief engineer in charge of suspension development. He held these positions until he retired on Dec. 31, 1955. Olley's engineering work at GM resulted in more than 40 U.S. and Canadian patents, and he wrote numerous technical papers. He has twice been awarded the Crompton Medal, the highest award of the Institution of Automobile Engineers.
Much of Olley's technical writing has been captured in the 2002 book Chassis Design by William and Douglas Milliken, published by the Society of Automotive Engineers. It is the first complete presentation of Olley's life and work. Frank Winchell, who succeeded Olley as head of Chevy r&d, wrote the foreword for Chassis Design. Winchell offered Olley a place to work in r&d for several years after his retirement, and the two became close.
"He was articulate and funny," Winchell wrote in remembering Olley. "He was a quiet and attentive listener. He spoke and drew pictures. His perspectives of parts and assemblies, of anything that did or might move, were unmatched. His skills with words and pencil made him easy to understand."
Maurice Olley was one of those quiet heroes who didn't get a lot of publicity during his career, but contributed greatly to Chevrolet and to the modern automobile.