By Drew Hardin
Real Long Test
Photography Courtesy Walt Woron, Petersen Publishing Company Archive
At first glance, this Motor Trend photo from 1959 looks like a very strange comparison test. Who would be cross-shopping a Volkswagen Beetle and a Corvette? And what’s that third vehicle hiding behind the other two?
Editor Walt Woron’s “Driving Around” column in the November 1959 issue (that’s Walt facing the camera) explained the situation.
“Constant improvement of our road test techniques is practically an obsession with us at Motor Trend,” he wrote. “In looking ahead to 1960 and the many new cars that will be showing up, we have been investigating new methods of testing. We have also been searching out new courses over which we could take the cars. We want such courses to include every conceivable type of terrain and road, and—as much as possible—to also include different weather conditions.”
Except “different weather conditions” can be a tough ask in Petersen Publishing Company’s sunny Southern California home, he admitted. Which is why he and two other staff members decided to take three cars on a “jaunt to Las Vegas, Nevada, by way of Death Valley. We knew that on the way there we would encounter some city and town traffic, numerous winding roads, some good straight stretches of highway, lots of desert, a number of grades, and a long run at below sea level. Our route back would take us cross-desert once more, up and over a 7,900-ft. summit, through miles of mountain roads (where there’s plenty of snow in the winter), then down through city traffic. It was to be a two-day run of over 700 mi. Temperatures at this time of year [late August] would vary from a low of 70ºF in the mountains to 110ºF in Death Valley.”
The photo was taken at the 7,378-ft. Blue Ridge Summit in the Angeles National Forest. It was from a different roll of film than pictures Woron shot of the cars in Death Valley—parked in front of a “Sea Level” sign—so we can’t be sure if this was on their way out or back. Given the cars’ clean condition, we’re guessing they hadn’t logged too many miles since leaving Petersen’s Hollywood offices.
The cars Woron chose to run the route represented “a good cross-section of the types we will be testing this year.” The Corvette “was fairly typical of the sports and touring cars,” while the car that’s obscured in the photo, a Studebaker Hawk, “represented the family sedan contingent.” The VW, fitted with a Weber 1/2-in. stroker kit, represented “two types: the imported sedan that is normally not used for such long over-the-road hauls, and the hopped-up, small-engined cars which we expect to become increasingly popular (because it’s one way for them to compete more favorably with the new Detroit compact cars).”
Woron said that the trip was “highly successful” and that the magazine would be using the route for future tests.
“The more mileage you put on a car, the more you can learn about it—good and bad,” he said. “Look for some real long tests in upcoming issues.”
And while the trip wasn’t meant to be a comparison of the three cars, Woron did make note of their “speed and mileage figures.” The pack traveled at an average speed of 49.6 mph, with the running order frequently shuffled “to discount the advantage given to the lead car.” The Studebaker averaged 16.7 miles per gallon, the ’Vette (“with four-barrel carb and Powerglide transmission”) averaged 17.6. “The 1,417cc Volkswagen, despite being in such fast company, averaged an extremely high 28.2 mpg.”