Home » Let’s Talk About Round Radiators And Why They Never Really Caught On

Let’s Talk About Round Radiators And Why They Never Really Caught On

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Who’s excited for a new sporadically-updated new series that has at least a 50% chance of being forgotten about after this first post? You are, that’s who! Welcome to Forgotten Fetishes, where I expose you to some bit of automotive design or practice or technical approach or marketing concept or metallurgical formula or something that had some brief flowering of niche interest, and then all but died out. To start things off, I want to talk about an automotive design solution that hasn’t really been seen with anything approaching regularity in over a century: the round radiator.

Yes, round radiators! The kind where there’s a big circular shape at the front and the whole hood is shaped like a prone barrel. I can’t say that these were ever a popular choice, but they did show up a good number of times over the years before finally becoming pretty much extinct by, oh, 1920. I think a comprehensive list of every carmaker to use a round radiator would be difficult, since so many of these cars were in that early 1900s era when car companies were popping up like hives on an irritated arm and then disappearing even faster.

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There’s an example of such a car in this 1903 footage of Boston, found by an eagle-eyed car geek at the Pre War Car site (should be cued up, but it’s at 1:55 if not):

While round radiators were exceedingly rare, there were some notable carmakers that at least tried round radiators for some period of time, cars with names that are familiar to all of us, like Cottereau, or Bentall, or Marlborough, or Sigma, the Swiss company, or Britannia. You, know, the famous ones.

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Threeroundradiator Examples

I’m kidding, of course; those are all painfully deep cuts. Like, deep, gonna need to drive to the hospital deep, cuts. In fact, there’s only two manufacturers that dabbled in round radiators that I can think of with names that may be recognizable: Riley, and maybe National.

Riley National

The Riley 12/18 there was made from 1908 to 1914, and had more of an oval radiator than a round one, but I think it basically counts. National is perhaps a bit more interesting, because they really leaned into the whole round radiator thing, using it as their primary brand differentiator, at least for a while:

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National Round1

Other National cars dispensed with the round radiator, but for a while, that was very much National’s Thing. As far as why National went with a round radiator, they were nice enough to give some kind of explanation in their advertising materials:

National Explain

So, they claim the “cylindrical form” gives it “unusual strength and rigidity” and note that the cooling fan covers the entire area, I guess because the round area described by the swirling fan blades would ordinarily leave the corners with somewhat less airflow, though I suspect in practice this really isn’t too big a deal.

Also – and this is my own speculation – I wonder if a round radiator had less propensity to leak, since there might be fewer seams, as the outer rim could just be made of a contiguous metal strip that meets at one seam? Potentially, rectangular radiators may have required seams at their corners, increasing the possibility of leaking. This may have been a thing?

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The truth is, I’m not really certain. What I do know is that overall, round radiators really never caught on, so whatever advantages they offered couldn’t have been terribly dramatic. And, stying-wise, round grilles are unlikely to make a comeback, I’d think, at least based on modern styling trends.

Actually, that reminds me of one other sort-of example of the round radiator. I say sort of because there was no radiator involved, because the car was actually air-cooled.

Franklin

Yes, Franklin Motors, who pioneered air-cooling for mainstream cars, had some models that used barrel-shaped hoods with round grilles that, while they didn’t actually have any sort of radiators in them, still looked very much like a round-radiator car. And, in this case, that was an entirely aesthetic decision. Honestly, I kind of like it, especially flanked by the big round headlamps.

Round radiators are a long-gone, and mostly forgotten automotive kink, but I think one worth remembering. When you do see a round-radiator car, it sticks in your head, and makes an impression, and what more do you want from your cars?

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Scott
Scott
9 months ago

I ate one third of a Trader Joe’s chocolate mini-sheet cake while reading this article. Just FYI.

The round radiator gives of a sort of locomotive vibe, which is appealing. I also dig the big round headlights on many of these cars, separate from the radiator and fenders. Nice simple round sealed beam units that you could replace at Pep Boys with a $20 bill and still get change back. 😉

Strangek
Strangek
9 months ago

Can we get a photoshop study of what modern cars would look like with round radiators? Like, what if BMW went round instead of beaver teeth?

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
9 months ago

I came looking for an exploded view. I know how normal radiators work, two end tanks, bunch of horizontal pipes and fins in the middle. How did these flow?

Drg84
Drg84
9 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

Considering the generation of cars in question, it would be vertical pipes on these vs the cross flow radiators we use today. Early cars use natural thermal flow. Cold water in the bottom of the block, heats up, goes out the top towards the radiator, which cools, drops down, back into the block. Look at a Model T radiator if you get the chance, you can see the vertical tubes.

A. Barth
A. Barth
9 months ago
Reply to  Drg84

Scroll up to the National ad: there’s a gear-driven water pump.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
9 months ago
Reply to  Drg84

So is it really short vertical ones on the side and long ones in the middle?

Cayde-6
Cayde-6
9 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

I think it would be more of a spiral setup

Myk El
Myk El
9 months ago

Since Franklin is featured in the article, if you find yourself in the greater Tucson area between mid-October and Memorial day, there’s a museum dedicated primarily to Franklin cars, though they have a handful of others.

https://franklinmuseum.org/

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
9 months ago

What about the Tim Burton Batmobile?
Reminded me of the Spyker at the time.

PlatinumZJ
PlatinumZJ
9 months ago

I appreciate National’s honesty regarding their water pumps.

ES
ES
9 months ago

offhand, maybe the aesthetic vibe was leaning on the shape of steam locomotives, presumably the contemporary epitome of speed and power?

Jack Beckman
Jack Beckman
9 months ago

If this is the only post of the series it will be the most meta series ever.

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
9 months ago

You did not mention the film “Geneveive” which stars a Spyker with a round radiator, for a significant proportion of the British public this film is what they imagine all veteran cars to look like.
Is it even possible that you have not seen this film?

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
9 months ago
Reply to  Nic Periton

Never heard of this movie even though it apparently spawned one of my favorite old car chase movies, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!”

Harmon20
Harmon20
9 months ago

Sure, that blurb explaining it sounds good, but they had to come up with something other than, “We did it to get in your head.”

The whole point to the shape was because it communicates strength and reliability. When these cars were a thing the person seeing them would, even if unconsciously, immediately associate them with the boilers of big, powerful locomotives. You know this is true because the entire engine section is round, not just the radiator. That is a purely asethetic choice, not a practical constraint, and it just reinforces the locomotive association. The most surprising thing about it is that they have two headlights and not one big one in the middle. A bridge too far, I guess. Can’t be too obvious.

(I guess you could argue blending a circle into a box section would be too difficult or expensive, but they could have easily embedded the circle radiator in the flat end of the box section.)

Last edited 9 months ago by Harmon20
ES
ES
9 months ago
Reply to  Harmon20

whoops, didn’t see your comment before i commented

Brammachu
Brammachu
9 months ago

The Franklins Headlights are enormous, jesus

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
9 months ago
Reply to  Brammachu

And probably put out about 5 lumens.

Brammachu
Brammachu
9 months ago
Reply to  Thomas Metcalf

Sounds about right

67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
9 months ago

that little Franklin in the bottom just looks so fucking happy. Bless him..

Ben
Ben
9 months ago
Reply to  67 Oldsmobile

Reminds me of the toon car in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Martin Dollinger
Martin Dollinger
9 months ago

Here in Europe let‘s not forget Spyker, which really leaned into the round radiator styling until the 1920s:
http://www.radiatoremblems.com/2019/04/spyker-netherland.html?m=1

Sundance
Sundance
9 months ago

Yes, and the 14/18 even made it from Bejing to paris in 1907

https://www.supercars.net/blog/1907-spyker-1418hp/

Dutch
Dutch
9 months ago

I also thought of Spyker (or Spijker) right away, how could Jason forget to mention them here? A photo link to the beautiful round-radiator 1905 Spyker 12/16-HP Double Phæton that starred in the 1953 car rally film Genevieve: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spyker#/media/File:1905_Spyker_12slash16-HP_Double_Phaeton_photo1.JPG

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
9 months ago

A rectangular radiator has more cooling area than a round one in the same footprint. And a rectangular frame can be made with a single seam, too.

My guess is it was a pain in the rear to install so it was lined up just right, so they went with rectangles instead.

Last edited 9 months ago by Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Black Peter
Black Peter
9 months ago

The truth is, I’m not really certain. What I do know is that overall, round radiators really never caught on, so whatever advantages they offered couldn’t have been terribly dramatic.

To play off Harvey’s comment; cost is always a factor.. even is the cooling was better.

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
9 months ago

That historical film clip was hypnotic! I couldn’t pull my eyes away. Hell, I even subscribed. Again, fantastic!

Thanks, Opa

Cerberus
Cerberus
9 months ago

One of my (open wheel) car designs called for an annular radiator under a NACA cowling. Of course, the NACA cowling wasn’t developed until 1932 and I’m not even sure NACA tested profiles that would be appropriate for something that would have an expected optimal cruising speed that would probably be near or even below stall speed of many of the aircraft of the time, though maybe there’s some mathematical calculations that could ballpark something. Of course, almost nobody GAF about aero in cars back then, anyway. Closest thing was the Monaco-Trossi, but that seemed more like it was a simple cowling than a NACA aerofoil and it had an air cooled radial (even more bizarre, it was a 2-stroke 2-bank 16 cylinder with 8 common combustion chambers), not a radiator.

Bob Rolke
Bob Rolke
9 months ago

100% chance we Autopian Torchgeeks will not forget about the series even if you do. This is much better series than Meh Car Monday.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
9 months ago
Reply to  Bob Rolke

Meh car Monday was a masterpiece and I want it back!

Bob Rolke
Bob Rolke
9 months ago

I kind of liked Meh Car Monday too, but I think this has better potential. I like learning new things more than being reminded of what I forgot.

Tim Cougar
Tim Cougar
9 months ago

I’ve always associated round radiators with Pope-Hartford, but looking at them now they’re wider at the bottom and not perfectly circular.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
9 months ago

National was so, so close to saying “round for a reason”, too bad they didn’t have the marketing genius of Tom Kruse

A. Barth
A. Barth
9 months ago

I’m surprised they didn’t go with a trademarked name like “Round-i-ator”. That seemed to be the style back in the early 1900s when new technologies were invented.

Stones4
Stones4
9 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

Radial-ator?

A. Barth
A. Barth
9 months ago
Reply to  Stones4

That works, too. 🙂

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
9 months ago

That’s just hard to get my mind around.

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
9 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Just cool down, and you’ll thoughts will be circling back soon.

Protodite
Protodite
9 months ago

This is exactly the kind of series I’m here for. Yes please!

MrLM002
MrLM002
9 months ago

Round is the optimal shape.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
9 months ago

Yes original science shows a cylinder, not round is the better shape, until science shows a rectangle when driving sloughs off more heat. Then as faster cars and safety a flat radiator cools faster.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
9 months ago

That Franklin!! It looks SOOO happy!

Last edited 9 months ago by Cheap Bastard
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