More MBS Coverage For 40 years, Dave Cole has been escaping the heat and humidity of downstate Michigan each summer for the usually cooler breezes of Traverse City to conduct his automotive management conferences.

Cole was a young University of Michigan engineering Ph.D. back then, with a strong automotive pedigree: His father was the legendary engineer Edward N. Cole, who had moved up quickly at General Motors Corp. and ultimately became president before he retired in 1974.

Dave Cole's first sessions were low-key, small affairs with perhaps a few dozen in attendance. Today, the Management Briefing Seminars, led by Cole's Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, MI, hosts more than 1,000 attendees and dozens of journalists.

Dave Cole (right), rubbing elbows in Traverse City with GM's John Devine.

Ward's began covering the sessions in 1972, when Cole devoted his entire program to the Wankel rotary engine. About 30 people attended that session at the Park Place Hotel in downtown Traverse City.

That year's conference proved to be a goldmine of stories about what, at that time, was an international Wankel frenzy.

Everyone was jockeying for a piece of the action: tool makers, manufacturing experts and nearly every field that needed engines, including marine, aviation and, of course, automotive.

There were only two companies actually producing Wankel-powered cars: Volkswagen AG's Audi division, a key licenser of the technology, and Japan's Toyo Kogyo Ltd. (now Mazda Motor Corp.). Audi had produced small numbers of its Ro80, but Mazda's rotary cars, by contrast, were selling briskly.

There were 21 Wankel licensees, including GM. Ed Cole saw a bright future for the technology and had GM well on the road to becoming a major Wankel producer. In early 1972, he boasted GM was ahead of Toyo Kogyo and Audi in the Wankel development race.

Small, light and powerful, the Wankel captured Ed Cole's imagination. And what was expected to be good for GM also forced all of the world's auto makers to take a hard look, even if they were far less enthused. Henry Ford II flatly said he hated the Wankel, but Ford Motor Co. nonetheless became a licensee.

Today, Mazda still makes rotary-powered cars, notably the RX-8 sold in the U.S., but otherwise there remains scant interest in the technology. The RX-8's 238-hp Renesis rotary earned a Ward's 10-Best Engines award in 2004 and 2005.

Compact and burdened with few moving parts, the Wankel had not been able to overcome its reputation as a gas-guzzler. Experts say it consumes shockingly more gas than a comparable piston engine.

The Wankel's poor fuel economy and technical problems, such as engine sealing, loomed large after the first oil embargo in 1973 produced long lines at gas pumps. When Ed Cole retired the following year, GM quietly began de-emphasizing Wankel development.

When Ward's first started covering the Traverse City automotive conference in 1972:

  • Foreign-based manufacturers held an 11.9% share of the U.S. market. Toyota Motor Corp., alone, now exceeds 12%, and the group as a whole is running at more than 40%.

  • General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. executives told reporters at the Chicago Auto Show, “imports may have peaked.”

  • Detroit was the fifth-largest U.S. city in population. It recently sank to 11th, behind San Antonio.

  • Henry Ford II, seen here in 1966, saw little merit in air bags.

  • Henry Ford II was quoted as saying, “We think airbags are a lot of baloney.”

  • The U.S. Big Three each reported record revenues for 1971: GM $28.3 billion, Ford $16.4 billion and then-Chrysler Corp. $8.4 billion.

  • Pontiac was the third-best selling nameplate, closely followed by Oldsmobile.

  • Chevrolet reported selling 3 million vehicles in 1971 – 2.3 million cars, 700,000 trucks.

  • Experts predicted on-board computers and digital instrumentation would become standard by 1980.

  • Ford and N.V. Phillips reported joint development of the Stirling (external combustion) engine.

  • A Buick Century was available for $3,700 (its '05 successor, the LaCrosse, is six times that amount).

  • Ford and GM launched Asian initiatives with small, Spartan trucks for developing countries.

  • Ford President Lee A. Iacocca, as quoted in the December 1972 issue of Ward's Auto World: “The Japanese, either singly or by group, will be heard from. They aren't going away from our shores.”