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Roberta Nichols, 73; Developed Alternative Fuel Vehicles for Ford

April 16, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Roberta Nichols, a pioneering female aerospace and automotive engineer who led development of alternative fuel vehicles for Ford Motor Co., has died. She was 73.

Nichols, whose married surname was Yakel, died April 3 of leukemia at her home in Plymouth, Mich.

The holder of three patents for the Flexible Fuel Vehicle, Nichols worked for Ford from 1979 until her retirement in 1995 as manager of its alternative fuel vehicle department.

She worked extensively on methanol, ethanol, natural gas and electric vehicles, and began experimenting with hybrid electric and gasoline vehicles.

A veteran of boat and vintage car racing, Nichols in 1994 drove Ford's electric Ecostar van in the 600-mile American Tour de Sol, believed to be the world's largest electric and solar vehicle road rally. She finished second, behind another Ecostar.

"We expected to come away from the rally with more real-world information about the performance of the Ecostar under these kinds of extreme conditions," she told Battery & EV Technology trade magazine after the race. "What we didn't expect was to do so well in our first race."

Enthusiastic about the engineering, Nichols always had doubts about the affordability of all-electric vehicles. Ford recently canceled its electric vehicle project.

"There is no one best choice" in fuels, Nichols told Automotive News in 1993, suggesting that natural gas served well for fleets, electric vehicles were good as commuter cars in large urban areas such as Los Angeles, and methanol and ethanol were useful for several varieties of privately sold vehicles.

In her initial study of hybrids, which are becoming increasingly popular a decade after her retirement, Nichols told Automotive News in 1993 that the extra weight of special equipment posed problems.

"From an engineering point of view," she said, "it is not one of our favorite vehicles."

Born Nov. 29, 1931, in Santa Monica, the only child of a Douglas Aircraft Co. engineer, Nichols grew up following her father to junkyards, learning to weld and helping to work on his vintage cars.

"I just grew up not knowing that girls weren't supposed to like to do those kinds of things," she told Woman Engineer magazine in 1992, after she had become a role model inspiring young women to go into her male-dominated profession. "As soon as I start talking to people about engines, they know I really do know what I'm talking about. It doesn't matter anymore that I'm a woman."

Nichols, while raising a family and working, earned a bachelor's degree in physics from UCLA in 1968, a master's in environmental engineering from USC in 1975, and a doctorate in environmental engineering from USC in 1979.

She began working as a mathematician at Douglas Aircraft and later was in computer technology at Space Technology Lab Inc. in Redondo Beach.

From 1960 to 1979, Nichols was a data analyst and researcher for the El Segundo-based Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit organization created by Congress in 1960 to provide technical direction for Air Force space programs. While there, Nichols worked on weapons systems and air-quality problems.

In 1978, Nichols also formed California's synthetic fuels office and single-handedly converted a Ford Pinto station wagon to run on methanol. A year later, a Ford official learned of her work and hired her. With her help, Ford delivered its first fleet of methanol vehicles to California in 1981.

Nichols often said: "My first love is the internal-combustion engine."

Initially, Nichols branched into what she called "funny fuels" not to curb air pollution, but to enhance the performance of internal-combustion engines in the boats and cars she raced.

From 1966 to 1969, Nichols held the women's world record for quarter-mile drag boat racing. She also raced hydroplanes and, from 1964 to 1972, headed the board of directors of the National Drag Boat Assn.

By 1972, Nichols decided to concentrate on racing vintage cars -- particularly a 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300-SL Gullwing once owned by actress Jeanne Crain that she bought in 1968. Nichols raced the Gullwing at Laguna Seca and other venues.

She raced a methanol-powered 1929 Model A Ford to her personal best, 190 mph, at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Nichols was the first woman chosen as a fellow by the Society of Automotive Engineers -- one of about 270 fellows among the organization's 80,000 members worldwide.

In 1989, the South Coast Air Quality Management District awarded her one of the first five Clean Air Awards for her work with alternative fuels.

She is survived by her husband of 20 years, Lynn Yakel; a daughter, Kathleen McDonald, from her earlier marriage to the late William McDonald; two stepsons, David and Dennis Yakel; a sister, Jacqueline Oblinger of Oxnard; and four grandchildren. Her son, Robert McDonald, preceded her in death.

Memorial donations may be sent to the UC Riverside Foundation for the Roberta Nichols Yakel Scholarship Fund, 252A Highlander Hall, Riverside, CA 92521.

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