The South Wind Heater Story

The SW Heater

This is a true story, sadly of a failed project. It also reveals something about man.

The "South Wind Heater" Story

By Frank Greenhalgh

Whenever I try to rationalize to my wife, my latest off the wall expenditure for a project, she always smiles and reminds me of the "South Wind Heater". Now this was an event that occurred forty years ago and involved a very small amount of money (in today's terms) but it also represents a classic failure of mythical proportions and it still rings "failure" in my ears.

It started on October 6th, 1957. On that date I took possession of my first new automobile. It was a 1958 model Volkswagen Cabriolet Convertible. I plunked down my last $1,950 for it. The standard "Beetle" only cost $1,350, and my paying a $600 premium for a "rag top" indicated the height of impracticality. I bragged a lot about this car. How superior the German designer Dr. Porsche had been! A rear mounted air-cooled engine, independent rear torsion bar suspension, thirty miles to the gallon and a four-speed Trans-axle. None of these features were on American made automobiles. We discerning motorists knew how wise our choice was and we would beep and wave to each other proclaiming our love for the "Beetle".

The Volkswagen was a popular car in Europe and now it was migrating to the United States. The migration required some changes to appease the spoiled US motorists. In the 1958 model, VW had added safety glass, a gas gauge to augment the reserve tank lever, a gas pedal (it had been a roller) and an all synchronized transmission. What they didn't add was heat. The 1958 VW had a 36 horsepower engine with a top speed of 72 mph. It was enclosed in a shroud with a fan mounted above it. The fan would blow outside air down on the engine exhausting at the base of the shroud. If the heater was off the air would go out the rear of the car. If it was on, a pair of flaps would direct it to a pair of tubes into the front sides of the cabin. Over the winter months, I became aware of how inferior this system was. A thermostat regulated the air intake and wouldn't open until the engine temperature was quite high. On a cold December day, it might not open unless you have driven a half-hour or so. The requirement that I wear gloves and a warm jacket while driving was a new one and one not to be tolerated.

That spring I got married, and after settling in our new abode, I started a project. The project was to correct the heat problem in my VW. Research showed that there was an answer: the "South Wind Heater". In the early days of automobiles, cars were sold without radios or heaters. The car's owner could install after-market products such as "Motorola" radios and "Stewart Warner" heaters. A very popular heater for Fords was the Stewart Warner South Wind Heater. "It would melt the women's nylons", Archie the mechanic told me. I called every auto supply store in my area until I located a brand new (but about 15 years old) South Wind Heater that was still in stock. The price was about $90. I bought it even though it represented more than a week of my navy salary at the time.

When I got it home and read the installation instructions, I realized that this heater was intended to operate with the assist of the car's engine. The heater required a vacuum line from the intake manifold to draw the gasoline into it. It also required a gasoline supply which normally was obtained by tapping into the pressured fuel pump line. A 1941 Ford had a 100 horsepower, V8, flat head engine, providing plenty of vacuum to run the windshield wipers and a heater. The small VW engine would not idle smoothly if it had to supply vacuum to the heater. Not to mention having to run a copper vacuum line the length of the car.

I hit the catalogues. J.C. Whitney had the answer. It was a vacuum pump designed to boost vacuum on trucks and buses when they were climbing hills. This was to insure proper operation of the vacuum windshield wipers. I bought the booster and also a small lawnmower type gas can with the necessary tubing. A mounting template was designed and built in a sheet metal shop and mounted on to the firewall of the VW. It was in July 1958 that I installed the heater in the car and the vacuum pump and gas tank in the front storage area. It looked beautiful. I turned on the power to the heater. The sound of the vacuum pump hummed, a light lit on the heater, indicating ignition, the fan started and heat poured forth. I smiled. I was now the owner of a VW that would be warm in winter. What a triumph! A short lived one though. The heat stopped about two minutes after it started. I troubleshot the system. The vacuum pump had failed. Opening the pump revealed that the bellows diaphragm had burnt up. Of course, I thought. The exhaust of the heater is very hot. No problem for a Ford manifold, but death to the booster.

I removed the heater and mounting bracket, the pump and the gas can and put it in the basement. Years later, it still remained there as though I was unwilling to admit failure as though I would eventually find an answer and use the heater on another project. Eventually I put the "Brand New" South Wind Heater into the garbage and hung my head down in defeat. Total cost: about $140 or two weeks wages for a second class petty officer and the shame of being unable to complete a project.

I am not alone. In my defense I would like to say that I am not alone. The idea of starting a project and never being able to finish it, due to one minor (or major) oversight is a tradition in the engineering and scientific industry. To sight a few such oversights:

  1. Artificial Intelligence: In the 1980s, the fascination with computers led scientists to believe they could match man's intelligence with the ones and zeros on a microprocessor. MITI in Japan decided to fund a consortium to develop artificial intelligent machines that could read Japanese and convert it to English and visa versa. The program went the way of my heater after spending $500 million
  2. Cold Fusion: In the 1970s scientists begged for money to produce "Cold Fusion", a way to generate energy without the nuclear dangers associated with normal reactors. I do not know how many millions or billions have been spent in research. The fact is that not one single "Cold Fusion" has occurred to date.
  3. Superconductivity: In the early 1980s a discovery allowing superconductivity to take place at about -280 degrees K and not the usual -470 degrees K caused scientists to become ecstatic with visions of trains floating off the ground and almost perpetual motion motors. Of course that was assuming that the next step would be superconductivity at room temperature. That never happened.
  4. Star Wars: Ronald Reagan envisioned the United States protected by an invisible shield that would destroy an enemy's rockets before they could enter our airspace. Scientists agreed and spent about $30 billion without any results. Surprised?
  5. The Electric Car: What a farce. How could both the politicians and Detroit believe that Americans would plunk down $35,000 for a car that can't go over 60mph nor run more than three hours at that speed and cost about $2,000 to replace the batteries every two years.
  6. The Network PC: Still kicking but almost in its grave is the Network PC. This invention by the "Enemies of Bill" could never operate applications fast enough on a network and still be cost competitive with a standard PC. It was doomed from the beginning. The PC lives.
  7. Iridium: Why don't we build a multi-billion-dollar satellite system that can be accessed in any part of the world. We will charge $3,000 for the large and heavy cell phone and about $5 to $50 a minute. We should expect millions of customers. Want to bet? Iridium is just about ready to join the South Wind Heater in the basement of life.

I am glad I have gotten that story off my chest. Forty years is a long time, too long for closure. I am relieved that my associates in industry have also had some failures due to short sightedness. I actually am proud that I was able to admit defeat and go on to put the only separate10 watt amplifier and rear speaker in my 1958 Volkswagen. That project succeeded.