Russell Begg, the little-known engineer behind Holden
In 1887, Russell Stewart Begg was born in Columbus, Ohio, in the USA and grew up in the horse-and-buggy and bicycle era. He went on to have an important influence on early automotive engineering and was pivotal in the development of the original Holden.
A Winton crossing the USA
One can imagine a young Russell being excited by the pioneering exploits of the Winton, one of the first motor cars in the USA. It was the market leader in 1901, with 700 units sold and was the first car to drive across the country.
Oldsmobile was the first volume-car brand, selling 2500 cars in 1902 and 4000 in 1903, but surprisingly, the Locomobile steam car was still the top seller. Before that, electric cars were the vogue in the USA, but they didn’t go very far, literally.
Another early volume producer was Jeffery’s Rambler brand, with 1500 sales in 1903, making them second to Oldsmobile. In 1906, Ford became market with leader, with 8729 sales. Buick under Billy Durant sold 8820 cars in 1908 – not far behind Ford’s 10,200 sales.
The USA had developed the world’s best practice machining standards by the late 19th Century, primarily to produce interchangeable gun components. A major technology leader of the day was Brown and Sharp. Henry Leland, who manufactured the first Oldsmobile engines and founded Cadillac, learned his machining trade there.
Against this background, Russell graduated in 1909 from the University of Michigan with a BSc degree and then joined the Sheldon Axle Company.
Following that experience he spent three years with the Packard Motor Company, then joined Hudson that was owned by a department store owner from downtown Detroit. Russell then had a period with the E B Thomas Motor Car Company.
Around 1914 he was appointed assistant chief engineer at Thomas B Jeffery Motor Company, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he was responsible for Rambler and Jeffery motor cars.
One of the most interesting products developing during Begg’s time with Jeffery was the Quad truck, four wheel drive that saw War service.
This turn of the century railway map shows many of the places so familiar in the fledgling USA auto world. Kenosha was on the west side of Lake Michigan, north of Chicago and had a population of about 12,000 at this time.
In May, 1915, Charles Jeffery was aboard the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. After surviving this near-death experience, he had an epiphany and lost interest in the business. Behind the scenes he looked around for a potential buyer.
Russell worked with Ned Jordan, Jeffery’s advertising and marketing manager. By late 1915 these ambitious young men were becoming uneasy about the company owner’s intentions.
1919 Jordan Suburban seven-seater – Free Library Philadelphia
On January 13, 1916, Ned Jordan and Russell Begg left the Jeffery Car Company and two days later Ned announced the formation of the Jordan Car Company. Ned’s wife was connected to the Jeffery family, who were believed to be among the investors in the new venture.
Shortly after that, Jeffery’s purchasing manager, Paul Zens and assistant sales manager W B Riley joined Ned’s new business.
The Jeffery family then sold its business to Charles Nash, former president of GM.
In February 1916, Begg set up an engineering office in Detroit and had the first Jordan prototype on the road by April.
An early recruit was young Dutch engineer, Gerhard Kuiper, who graduated from the Engineering School of Zwickau in Germany in 1915. He immigrated to the USA and joined Jordan as a designer. He and Begg were to work closely together for the next 35 years.
The product of their efforts being shown here to investors and prospective dealers was a luxury car pitched above Buick and below Cadillac, Packard, Pierce Arrow and Peerless.
Ned Jordan and his other former-Jeffrey colleagues didn’t have an easy time, because they had invested all their money in the business, lived in duplex houses and owned only one car between them, in which they travelled to work together.
On June 9, 1916, at the first board meeting of the new company, 28 year old Russell Begg was elected to the board as designer and chief engineer.
By then an assembly plant had been built in Cleveland, Ohio and the first cars were shipped in August. They didn’t muck about in those days.
Lacking the financial resources and facilities to compete in the low-priced, volume market Jordan became an assembler, using the best available suppliers and the latest engineering developments. Engineering focused on quality, reliability, ride, handling and performance.
Available initially with six-cylinders and later also with straight-eights, Jordans were powered by engines from Continental exclusively, built to their specifications and dynamometer tested in house prior to assembly.
Like all Jordans this Brougham emphasised personal driving performance – note the sloping windscreen.
Begg and Jordan travelled to Europe in 1919 and in the following years, to attend motor shows and follow developments; years before GM’s Harley Earl started his annual excursions.
Begg patented several suspension designs to give Jordan cars distinctive ride and handling characteristics, and Lockheed four-wheel hydraulic brakes were in introduced in January 1924.
Jordan was one of first brands in the USA to use Michelin steel disc wheels and introduced all-steel bodies by Budd on the 1926 models.
While annual volumes only ever reached as high as about 6000 in 1925, the company was quite profitable and it is believed original shareholders received 1800-percent return on their investment, during the life of the business. However, in September 1926 dividends were withheld.
Jordan dealerships and advertising were up-market
The dual causes were large scale investment in the ill-fated 1927 small car project and Jordan, like many others, had over-produced in the 1926 model year.
The 1927 small luxury car failed to sell and this was a financial loss from which the company never fully recovered. In the meantime, Ned Jordan had personal problems added to his business issues, being distracted by wine, women and song.
On March 31, 1928 Russ Begg resigned from Jordan, to become chief engineer of the Budd Wheel Company and associate chief engineer of the Budd Manufacturing Company.
Ned Jordan was reported as saying the parting was like a divorce that was no doubt made more painful when another of his original team, Paul Zens, departed in October. Zens had a couple stints as director of finance and supplier companies before also moving to Budd where he became vice president.
Another to follow Begg to Budd was Gerhard Kuiper, in the role of assistant chief engineer.
Jordan was then under new management and did not survive the Great Depression.
Edward Gower Budd, with Joseph Ledwinka, had pioneered the design and manufacture all-steel motor bodies in 1912, firstly for Oakland then in volume for Dodge and many others. In 1916 steel-spoke wheels were produced and later steel-disc wheels were made, under a license arrangement with the French company Michelin.
The future chief engineer of Holden moved to Budd at an exciting period of that company’s global influence and development. The 1924 Citroen had an all-steel body that used Budd’s methods and, in 1925, Budd formed a joint venture with Morris’s Pressed Steel Company, to supply all-steel bodies to a wide range of British carmakers.
Budd invested in Germany in 1926, forming Ambi Budd Presse Werke and also had a 25-percent holding in Adler, which built front-wheel-drive cars in the early 1930s.
The Budd Company was also in the final design stages of a front-wheel-drive car, named ‘Ruxton’, after a potential financier who dropped out. The initial design preceded the FWD Cord.
Ruxton promoter and Budd company director, Archie Andrews, was trying to put a consortium together to merge Jordan, Pierce Arrow, Peerless and Moon. Perhaps Begg’s move to Budd was part of those ambitions.
The Ruxton concept was shown to several mid-sized manufacturers, but none was willing to take a chance on the vehicle. A few Ruxtons were eventually produced in the Moon Motors plant in St Louis, Missouri, but its ill-timed introduction by a firm with no manufacturing facilities was just too much of a hurdle to overcome.
Budd did build a couple of hundred sedan bodies for the car, produced in England by Pressed Steel. The hub cap design was a Begg patent.
Budd built another front-wheel-drive prototype in 1929, for Andre Citroën, with an integral frame and chassis, where the bodywork, as well as chassis, was stressed. This concept was originally pioneered by Marmon in post-WWI USA and Lancia in Europe, and is popularly known today as unibody or monocoque construction.
In Germany Ambi Budd assisted in the development and manufacture of the new Opel Olympia and Kadett integral steel bodies and helped build the first Volkswagen.
After this influential period with Budd, Begg moved to the Stutz Motor Company in Indianapolis, Indiana, as chief engineer, with Kuiper again his assistant chief. However, this tenure was short-lived, as Stutz failed.
At this time, Archie Andrews was involved in another attempt to merge Jordan with struggling luxury car makers, including Stutz. It’s possible that Begg’s brief involvement Stutz relates to this, bearing in mind he was an original Jordan shareholder.
During the 1930s, Russell Begg filed patents for brake systems for Midland Steel, an industry supplier in Ohio, an air-brake drier and floating brake shoes.
When Stutz went out of business, Russell Begg was appointed by General Motors as engineer in charge of design in Lou Thoms’ Product Study Group (PSG) in Detroit.
He was then appointed deputy chief designer at Adam Opel AG, in Rüsselsheim, in 1934 and worked on the design of the Opel Olympia, while remaining a member of the PSG.
He was reassigned permanently to Adam Opel AG, in 1936, as assistant chief engineer and worked on the Kadett and the Kapitan. Kuiper later joined Begg at Opel in 1937 as his experimental engineer.
With the Olympia the engineers achieved weight savings of 180kg for Germany’s first mass-produced car with an all-steel integral body and frame. Following this market debut in 1935, Opel became the first German carmaker to manufacture more than 100,000 vehicles in a year. In 1939, for the fourth consecutive year, Opel was the largest automaker in Europe, with a workforce of 25,374.
It was during this period, according to Jack Rawnsley, one of the original Australian engineers to work on the program in the US, that the experimental small-Chevrolet prototypes on which the Holden program was based were built in Germany, under Begg’s guidance.
When War became imminent GM relinquished Opel and Begg and Kuiper went to the US in early 1939, accompanying the small-Chevrolet prototypes.
When Begg was put in charge of the design and engineering of the Holden program in late 1944, several of his former Opel engineers, including Gerhard Kuiper, joined him again.
Russell in centre with hat, Kuiper second from right
Jack Rawnsley worked directly and closely with Begg during the early stages of the project in an executive engineering role, organising the disciplines of part numbering and parts release and assembly control systems. Jack Rawnsley was closer to Begg than most and had great admiration for his capability.
Begg’s expertise, experience and strength of conviction guided his team to blend the diverse concepts of the four- and six-cylinder small-Chevrolet prototypes into a lightweight, six-cylinder, integral-body, six-passenger vehicle, with independent front suspension. Begg held out for the lightweight six, over suggestions of using a big four.
Following nearly two years of product development in the USA, both men were in the large Holden team in late 1946. However, Kuiper came to Australia in late 1945, to study Australian supplier capabilities.
Jack Rawnsley, in one of his last letters, commented that the role these highly experience people played, not only in design and development but also in working with manufacturing and suppliers, has been understated. He also noted that some aspects of the design were dictated by Australian supplier capabilities. An example was that Pilkington could not make curved glass for the windscreen.
The outstanding success of the first Holden car was due to some brilliant engineering, design and development for Australian conditions and market. The team included around 20 enthusiastic Australian engineers.
The Holden six-seater was 400kg lighter than Ford V8s and Chevrolet 6s, with comparable performance and significantly better fuel efficiency. It was also more suitable for Australian roads and had better reliability and durability.
Without doubt, the chief engineer of this program and the individual most influential in developing the car was 57-year-old Russell Stewart Begg.
Following the successful launch of the new Holden car on the 29th of November, 1948, Russell Begg and his wife left Australia on the SS Aorangi, arriving in Vancouver on January 14, 1949, for a vacation and a visit to the home office in Detroit.
By September, 1953, Russell Begg and his wife were comfortably retired in Florida. He died on December 1958 aged 70 years.
His outstanding legacy, the first Holden, was a uniquely-developed machine and one of the truly great cars of the 20th century.