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Gone Racin'...Dawson Hadley: Soft Spoken Genius Nov. 28, 2012

Gone Racin'...Dawson Hadley: Soft Spoken Genius Nov. 28, 2012

Gone Racin'...Dawson Hadley: Soft Spoken Genius
Story by Bob Falcon, edited by Richard Parks


Most likely you have probably never heard his name before, but those of you who drive a modern motor car powered by a direct fuel injection, computer controlled engine have him to thank for his development efforts on such a system with these benefits in the early 1970’s. That is when Dawson and your writer first met and the introduction did not progress all that smoothly at launch. I had taken a position with The Echlin Manufacturing Company whose central location was in Branford, Connecticut. My job was with their newly formed Auto Emissions Division located in West Los Angeles. This division was created to compete in a new auto emissions program begun by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to combat a new element that was polluting the Southland air. This unnamed pollutant was identified as NOX. Technically this element is composed of oxides of nitrogen that form in the combustion chamber of an internal combustion engine. It is the result of ultra high combustion temperatures coupled with the CARB mandated lean fuel mixtures in the 1970’s engines as dictated by the CARB war on smog and the automobile. Echlin had developed a device that was quoted to be a high frequency sound wave generator that directed a high frequency vibration at the fuel mixture as it passed from the carburetor to the intake manifold. The division was composed of a group of Field Service Engineers who assisted the auto dealer service departments, auto parts jobbers and auto service training schools in dealing with The Echlin Device and CARB dictates.

My job was in the field services group and as part of an army of six representatives that covered a huge portion of Southern California to the Mexican border. Echlin, an old line auto ignition parts manufacturer, also had a high performance division for their auto ignition equipment line that was marketed under the “Accel” banner. Accel had purchased a small, local company that was owned by a pair of dry lakes racers; the Spaulding brothers. The Spaulding’s, who produced a line of aftermarket high performance ignition systems, had just introduced a system that employed an optical system in place of contact points as the trigger. Their system, named “Breakerless Distributor Ignition” (BDI) was a new form of the high energy “Capacitive Discharge” (CD) ignition systems that were all the rage in high performance automotive circles. When Accel purchased Spaulding Ignitions they also obtained the services of the designer of the BDI system, Dawson Hadley. The emissions division had moved from West Los Angeles to Huntington Beach, which is in Orange County. The new Accel Ignition facility was located in Monrovia, California in the San Gabriel Valley. The CARB NOX program had become a “political football” and was bouncing around several state courts due to the moans and groans from several of the manufacturing participants.

While the program was in a paused stage I needed something to do in my downtime. I had been promoted to chief field service engineer, so I asked our division manager, “Skip” Gackstetter, if it would be OK for me to visit the Monrovia facility and see if I could provide them some help on their service desk, if they had one, and he agreed that it might be a good idea. He also told me that Dawson was managing the facility composed of nearly 20 people and had several new products under development on his drafting table and he would probably welcome some assistance from a qualified person. I visited the shop and introduced myself to Dawson and we soon discovered that we had a lot of mutual friends in the auto racing business which went a long way in reducing the stigma that I was a “Hatchet Man” assigned by top management. He was struggling to maintain full production while he was completing some designs on new applications of the Accel re-branded “Breakerless Electronic Ignition” (BEI) systems.

Wearing that many “hats” working as general manager, purchasing agent, manufacturing and testing engineer, and chief designer, he was like the theatrical juggler who had several “balls in the air” at any given moment. I asked if there was anything I could do to ease his burden. He seemed suspicious of my reason for being there; that perhaps I was dispatched by Echlin management to take over his operation. I suggested we take a lunch break to discuss why I was there which, in reality, was that I needed some real work to fill my days since my division was marking time. Once he realized my honesty, we decided that I would work at the Monrovia plant three days a week and spend the other two days at The Echlin Huntington Beach facility. This was a smart move on my part since Monrovia is just a short city street drive from my home in Rosemead. I called “Skip” at Emissions and mentioned that I had visited with Dawson and he was happy to have me to help operate his facility and that we had discussed it over lunch and I informed him of the schedule we determined. His response was a simple statement, “You spend all the time you need there and if I need you for anything I’ll give you a call.” Long story short; Dawson and I made a good management team.

That’s when he told me about a free lance project he had designed in conjunction with Fairchild Electronics in Palo Alto, California. The system was a computer controlled fuel injection system that measured the fuel requirement for each cylinder based on air flow and temperature and the computer adjusted the fuel quantity and spark timing for that particular cylinder. He had completed a prototype test unit that was tuned for a demonstrator auto fleet that could be moved from one car brand to another quickly. These modified cars were dispatched to the car factories for testing and evaluation. Each test car model was specific to a particular manufacturer. The prototype was now installed on a late 1960’s Lincoln (I’m not sure of the Mark series number). The electronics package was in the form of a “bread board” that was placed on the front seat close to the driver. The Lincoln was due to be driven to Michigan for a presentation to FoMoCo (Ford). Fairchild needed an auto manufacturer to sponsor miniaturization of the circuit boards into film chips, which was a very expensive proposition at the time, well into the mid-six figure range. The current US manufacturing formula of “cost multiplied by five times” added to the Retail selling price was considered prohibitive. The Lincoln was ferried to the proving ground for the demonstration and the driver was directed to return with the car to Silicon Valley in northern California.

One day during one of our frequent lunch meetings, Dawson remarked, “You know that driver and the Lincoln disappeared!” Turns out that no one had heard a word from him in more than three weeks and his pay checks were waiting for him at the Fairchild headquarters in Palo Alto. About two weeks later Dawson declared, “They found that driver. He is in Louisiana and he ran out of money. He’s been Street Racing all over the country and has been quite successful but his streak ended.” On one occasion when that Lincoln was down here in Los Angeles I had the chance to drive it. The circuit board housings were in the front seat and they were fitted with adjustable “pots” on the boxes and you could dial them to an “economy” setting and register fuel mileage in excess of 30 MPG from that 460 CID engine. A setting of “performance” would smoke the rear tires off their rims. Dawson was a graduate mechanical engineer and was self taught in electronic and chemical engineering. He was the target of a lot of bad criticism by members of the emissions staff in part due to his manner of voice which was of a very low volume and identified his detractors to the negative side since they believed him to be of low intelligence. Many experts in the auto field thought the BEI at that time was a fraud. But not long afterward Chrysler, and then followed by GM, introduced their versions of electronic ignition systems.

In racing circles the BEI was on the receiving end of adverse publicity because of failures in the Indy 500. The problem there was that the Spaulding BDI located the electronic circuit board assemblies inside the Amplifier housing that was a 3 x 4 x 3-inch aluminum casting. Vibration from the four cylinder Offy engine and the stiff springing of the down force of the current Indy cars caused the solder joints for the electronic components to disintegrate and the electronics failed. Filling the assembled Amplifier housing with epoxy, a new process in aerospace electronics at the time, rigidly located the circuit boards, and the failures stopped. But the damage was done and use of the BEI on USAC Championship Circuit dwindled to six cars. I will have more about this subject in a future column. The BEI was doing great in the auto aftermarket and in NASCAR racing. We had field service engineers present at the drag racing events of three different associations around the US. We were also supplying a few Gold Cup boat teams with the BEI ignition systems for their Allison powered hydroplanes. They replaced the heavy wartime aviation magnetos with the lightweight units which amounted to an overall performance improvement.

Dawson could see that much had to be done in high performance equipment to keep them out of the focus of the CARB, a group which was anti-automotive in nature. He sensed that product design and marketing needed to place more emphasis on cleaning up the air we breathe especially for our children, and he had a large group of those “Little Rascals” at his home! I sat amazed at a dinner table when Dawson and “Racer” Brown were having a conversation about emissions and racing engines. Two noted racing equipment geniuses discussing the steps that would improve the air quality and at the same time improve the power of racing engines. They left me in the dust! Later my job was changed from chief emissions field service engineer to that of manager of the engineers servicing the various racing bodies that the Echlin/Accel Company supported with their contingency awards program. Each of my field service guys toured the country in a van that was equipped with a Sun Distributor Machine and a supply of spare ignition parts. This team also was scheduled to hold briefing sessions and provide distributor service at various auto parts jobber and speed shop facilities.

Their weekends were spent at a drag strip or a race track somewhere. I continued to reside in Los Angeles and commuted to Branford, Connecticut every week. I would visit each of the events on Thursday to make certain my guy was on-site and set up properly. Often I would visit one site on Thursday and another on Friday but I covered the USAC Championship Indy Car circuit by myself. Of course I also stayed in close contact with Dawson since we had six teams that we needed to service and we had a lot of bad publicity that we had to prove wrong to the participating teams. We handled that in the best way possible by winning the 1973 USAC National Championship with the Lindsey Hopkins team that had Roger McCluskey as the driver and Don Koda as the Chief Mechanic. I had become good friends with this team so they transported my tools and spares to each venue on the schedule. Incidentally, this was the very first car to win the National Indy Car championship that was equipped with an electronic, battery powered ignition system.

All Indy cars at present are outfitted with battery powered electronic ignition systems. Unfortunately, at present they are not Accel BEI systems! Dawson ultimately left Echlin/Accel and began doing a lot of work for Edelbrock Equipment. He designed an aftermarket Water Injection system but for some reason it never got off the ground. Dawson had established a small laboratory in Montclair but not long after a massive heart attack took this soft spoken automotive genius away from us. When Joanie called me to deliver the news she stated, “…he awoke in the middle of the night and the attack which took away his two largest virtues, his brain and his heart!” I always held Dawson in very high regard as did many of his friends.

Gone Racin' is at [email protected].
Bob Falcon is at [email protected].