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Car of the Future

Viking 1 put Western's student car designers on the map

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Viking 1 debuted in 1972 at the Urban Vehicle Design Competition in Michigan. The following year, the car placed second at the Reduced Emission Devices Rally in Davis, Calif. | Photo by Western Washington University Libraries Special Collections
Viking 1 had a souped-up propane-powered engine and an innovative steering system that gave the car an extremely tight turning radius. | Photo by Western Washington University Libraries Special Collections

In 1971 Industrial Arts students told their professor, Michael Seal (‘66), they wanted to enter a national competition to build a car that didn’t pollute the air. Western had no engineering technology program at the time, other than a course that had students dismantle lawn mower engines, but Seal and his students went for it anyway. With the help of a donated Toyota Corona that had been damaged in shipping, the students went to work. When they were done, they had built Viking 1, a boxy little car with gull-wing doors and a spare-tire bumper. Inside was a souped-up propane-powered Toyota engine with Oldsmobile parts and an innovative steering system that gave the car an extremely tight turning radius.

Viking 1 debuted in August 1972 at the Urban Vehicle Design Competition at the General Motors Proving Grounds in Milford, Mich., and wowed the judges. The car’s “extreme Ackerman steering” enabled the car to parallel-park in a space just 10 inches longer than the car itself. Viking 1 took home the “parkability” award and won the internal combustion engine class, finishing third overall, behind the University of British Columbia and the University of Florida. The students also won an award for innovative student engineering. The following year, Viking 1 placed second in the Reduced Emission Devices Rally in Davis, Calif.

Viking 1’s success helped land the students a $30,000 grant from the State Department of Energy and Transportation to build Viking 2. It also launched what would become the Vehicle Research Institute and the career of its longtime director, Seal, who became a nationally recognized leader in automotive design education.

And 44 Vikings later, WWU students continue to build cars of the future.