William F. Milliken Jr.: A Daredevil’s Closest Shaves

There are two things you should know about engineer, pilot and race car driver William F. Milliken Jr. One is that he literally invented the field of vehicle dynamics, authoring the definitive textbook on using advanced mathematics to model and improve how cars handle on the road. The other is that he was a veritable master of disaster, the sort of death-defying daredevil most of us have seen only in movies.

Milliken, who passed away at age 101 on July 28 in Williamsville, N.Y., is probably best known for helping to create a driving stunt that he didn’t actually perform himself: the famous barrel-roll in the 1974 James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun (watch it here).

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In the late 1960s, a team under Milliken’s supervision at  Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory used computer simulations to prove that it was theoretically possible to roll a car in midair and have it land in one piece. According to Lee Pfeiffer’s book, The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007,  it was the first time such calculations were used to create a movie stunt. British stunt driver “Bumps” Willard actually performed the feat, in an AMC Hornet hatchback that Milliken modified with a central steering column and lightweight interior. Even so, the trick was so dangerous that cranes and divers stood in wait in the event Willard had to be rescued.

But the stunt’s inventor had plenty of his own hair-raising close calls. As a 21-year-old mathematics major at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Milliken, inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, built his own airplane, the 1933 Milliken M-1 Special, using a 27-horsepower motorcycle engine and wood salvaged from a canoe. During flight tests on a beach in Maine, Milliken got into the air just fine but had difficulty landing. On his third attempt, he flipped the plane on its back and crashed. Fortunately, he not only escaped without serious injury, but was so encouraged by his achievement that after graduating in 1934, he went to work for Boeing as an aeronautical engineer.

In his side career as a race-car driver, Milliken had a number of close shaves. He drove a Bugatti Type 35 in a 1948 road race in Watkins Glen, N.Y. He was speeding along at 100 miles per hour when he got the urge to overtake another driver in an MG on a turn. “I managed to pass high, but it was so close to that corner and the brakes on the Bug are not the world’s greatest,” Milliken recalled in a 2001 newspaper interview. “I lost it on the corner and spun out and hit the hay.” The Bugatti flipped, but again, Milliken emerged unscathed. “The thing that saved me was the seat belt,”  he later recalled. The turn has since become known as “Milliken’s Corner.”

In another race at Watkins Glen, this one in 1950, Milliken was in second place in his Bugatti when he tried downshifting to use the transmission for braking, a common trick among race car drivers. That time, however, it didn’t go so well. “I lost the favorable road camber and the tail started to come around,” Milliken later explained. “I got in some reverse steer, but needed traction to hold the path and overdid it. The front wheels hit the ditch, the car swung around, rolled over and a fire started in the engine compartment. I crawled out.”

Milliken was so famed for his feats of automotive daring that, in 1968, Popular Science magazine asked him to give ordinary drivers advice on what to do if they started to skid while coming around a hairpin turn on the road. One secret to survival, he explained, was a driver’s seat position. “You must leave enough room between your torso and the steering wheel to be able to turn the wheel through great angles very quickly,” he explained. “If you’re sitting too close, all you can manage is a half-turn – and that’s not much on a typical passenger car.”

We’ll trust him on that one.