Every time you check the traffic in your rear view mirror, you can thank a Saginaw resident who invented the device that saves thousands of lives every year. Ray Harroun was an automotive genius and the rear view mirror wasn’t his only invention or his only claim to fame.
He was born in 1879 and trained to become a dental technician but when the Spanish-American War broke out, he enlisted in the navy. When he came back from service, he entered the fledgling motor car industry.
Working with the Buick team of Bob Burman, Louis Strang and Louis Chevrolet, Harroun got into racing as a riding mechanic. In those days, each race car had a two-man team: the driver and a racing mechanic who watched the instruments (such as they were) and kept an eye on the traffic coming from behind. In 1906, Harroun got a chance to drive in a race in Lowell, Massachusetts. On that first attempt, he came in second, beaten only by Chevrolet. In 1910, he entered 60 races, won 45 and won the American Automobile Association’s national driving championship. After that season, he retired from racing to work for the Marmon Car Company They persuaded him to race just one more time. The Marmon Car Company was located in Indianapolis where an exciting new race track had just been built. A 500-mile race was planned for 1911.
Harroun was allowed to design his own car for that first Indy 500. All the other cars in the race were designed for the traditional two-man team. Harroun got rid of the riding mechanic, drastically cutting the weight of his entry and resulting in a far more aerodynamic car. It was sculpted into long and narrow lines with a flared cockpit and a pointed tail that acted as a stabilizer. A bright yellow paint job completed the look a newspaper writer named the Wasp.
Other drivers protested that the Wasp was a hazard on the track because Harroun couldn’t see the cars behind him. He responded by bolting a mirror on brackets over the steering wheel: the first rear view mirror. He won that first Indy 500 with a prize of $10,000 in gold. However, his car was so advanced that it was banned from further competition.
As Marmon’s chief engineer, he went on to develop other Indy 500 race cars. Along the way, he invented a carburetor in which the fuel mixture was heated by exhaust gas.
He moved to the Maxwell Company in 1913 and continued to build race cars. Noting that the Speedway’s brick surface tore up tires, he constructed a device that gave a thin, steady stream of oil to each tire of the car that Eddie Rickenbacker drove. Rickenbacker probably would have won the race but the car developed engine trouble later in the race. Harroun produced a racing Maxwell in 1914 that ran on kerosene and later started a company that made a car bearing his name.
When World War I came along, the government asked him to use his 200-a-day production line (one of the first) to make war equipment. Later he designed a monoplane and a low-slung cart to load bombs that was used throughout World War II. He foresaw the importance of seat belts and the transverse engine/front drive.
Harroun had met Alex Pribil, an executive engineer, when he was with Marmon. Pribil came to Saginaw in 1915 and in 1917, he became president and general manager of the Saginaw Stamping and Tool Company (later Saginaw Products Company. In the mid-30s, Pribil enticed Harroun to join him. During his years in Saginaw, Harroun lived in apartment 304 of the Amadore Apartments in the Cathedral District.
Together, Harroun and Pribil designed a vehicle that was far ahead of its time. The Pribil Safety Air Car foreshadowed the modern motorhome. Streamlined like a teardrop, it had room for eight passengers, slept four and was equipped with a sink, table, refrigerator and radio. It got 50 miles per gallon and sold for $1000. The car was to be shown to a national audience for the first time at the 1938 Chicago Auto Show. Tragically, Pribil died shortly before the show and the Pribil car was dropped.
Harroun left Saginaw in the mid ’40s and worked as an engineer for Chrysler. He eventually settled near Anderson, Indiana, where he was named president of the Indy Old-Timers’ Club.
He died in 1968 and is remembered as the most talented engineer of all pre-World War I race drivers and as a man who was always willing to share his memories and expertise.
His 1911 Marmon Wasp, restored to all its yellow glory, has a prominent spot in the Hall of Fame Museum at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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