Interview with Milt Wood, Superbird and USAC Charger owner;
and Chelsea Proving Grounds employee, 1969-1999

When did you start at Chrysler?

Milt WoodI started in 1969, about almost a year after I got out of the Army. I did some other jobs and started at Chrysler in ’69. I got laid off a couple of times, but short ones. I worked until 1999. When I hired in, we were doing performance muscle.

Those were some good times. The first car I’ve seen them working on was the No. 71 Dodge Daytona, the prototype that they ran at Talladega.

Did you work on the wing cars?

I didn’t work on them, but I was around them. I knew the guys working on them, got to know them pretty well. The whole time I worked there was good. It was better than some places I’d seen outside. But the muscle car era was the best.

We had some real nice cars, and I worked on almost all of them. When I first hired in, I was in the service department so if people came out from Highland Park, they ran them on a test. They’d assign one of us to the job, and we’d run the test for them and help them run it; help them set it up. I got to run pretty much everything that we did. I had to work at the emission rolls at times, worked on chassis dynamometer at times and go out and drive – all kinds.

What was the routine for a test drive?

I don't know if there was a routine. If you were in the department that ran endurance, they had schedules. They’d run so many miles of dirt road; they’d run so many miles of paved road and then they’d run on the oval so many laps and then they start the thing all over again.

You mentioned that sometimes you worked on the rolls and sometimes out on the track.

Well, it depended if somebody come home from Highland Park and they needed a driver, then I’d go out and run. Maybe the rolls needed somebody that day, I’d then go down there and work for them maybe for a week or two weeks – depends on what the work schedule was.

At that time, it wasn’t like “come in every day and you read the rolls every day.” It was “come in and if the rolls need somebody today, go down there and work.” If there’s a guy coming out from Highland Park and wants to run, you’d stay here and run that, or just do general maintenance around on some of our cars, of our service cars and stuff.

And then I went into performance, and then you had a routine. You come in and you take your car that you’re going to run performance on, you build it up – check everything over; put your equipment in, then you go out and you run, depending on what they wanted – like fuel economy – go run all your fuel economy stuff and run your coastdowns on it; run accelerations.

What were each of the tests like?

We had fuel economy, go around the oval and you just run. You had your equipment in there to monitor how much fuel you were using. You run like three laps at 30 miles an hour, then you run 40 miles an hour, 50, 60 up to 80 miles an hour and they’d figure out the mileage for each lap, and then it would also figure out overall mileage.

Milt Wood's SuperbirdIn coastdowns, different tires coasted at different rates. Some would coast real good; some wouldn’t coast very good. So you go out, you run it up to 80 miles an hour, then you put it on neutral and let it start coasting down and you flip a switch and see how long it took from 60 down to say, 20. I don't remember all the speeds right now. That was a long time ago. You run so many coastdowns north, so many south. They took an average of how far that car would coast with different tires. That’s used for helping fuel economy figures.

And accelerations, same thing. You go out there and you run 0-60, 0-80, get your times and they’d average a mile to see how fast it goes from different speeds. It was all fun.

You worked sometimes just setting the car up there, it was fun doing it.

At that time, we were using reel-to-reel tape recorders and we’d use a fifth wheel and it would send a signal to an inverter that would set and record it onto the tape recorder. But then, later on, we went to computers.

When we went to computers, then you could record all kinds of stuff. They’d record rpm’s and wheel revs and just things I’d never thought we could record with the old tape recorders. Those were the big old things… you’d set it in the car, tie it down. You put tape on there, or reel, thread it through, and that’s what you used. But that was the real early… that was the early ’70s and I can’t remember when we switched over to computers and started using them.

I think there was something else in between the old tape recorder and the new computer. There was something, but I don't remember, because I had left that department for a while, then I came back. It’s hard to remember all of it.

I remember seeing the pictures of the crash testing at Chelsea, the man with the tape recorder equipment and umbilical cord attached to the car that you were crashing. Were you involved in any of that?

No. I watched them once in a while a few times, but I wasn’t in that department, never worked there. I hauled the cars away later. When they were done with them, when I was in service department that was one of our jobs. We’d go where the impact when they’d set for so long over there and then they’d haul them out in the scrap yard and the guy would come and pick them up and crush them. But I never got involved in crashing them.

I did watch them impact a Hemi Charger at 60 miles an hour instead of 30. That one required 30. They did this one at 60 for I don't know what reason. Put the engine back in the front seat.

You would have thought that they would use a cheaper car to do that test?

I don't know what they were trying to do. It may have been a prototype so that it didn’t matter.

So then, you said that you were off for a few years. What were you doing then?

Oh, I just went to a different department. I was laid off a little while, then I came back in performance. Then I went back to the service department but they had changed. We did more stuff at the rolls then at that time. At the emission rolls – kind of stayed at the emission rolls for a few years. Then the service department changed, and I wound up back in performance again.

Were the rolls for certification, or just for testing emissions?

For certain emissions. We did a lot of running, testing them, and tweaking at everything, get them ready to pass the emissions tests. Then we’d run a schedule just like the EPA ran. If they passed a few times, then they were all set to go to be certified. If they didn’t pass, they made some more changes in them.

We still ran them out here even with the Auburn Hills [testing center in operation]. There was a lot of development work that goes on on here yet. The muscle carrier – that was the early ’70s – that’s my favorite. I liked those cars, still like those cars.

Any particular favorites in mind?

No, all of them, all of them with muscle. The 440s, I think, they were a little easier to work on. The Hemis were the muscle car, but the 440 was a good street car, a good all-around car.

You must have worked with a lot of memorable people.

Yes, I met Carroll Shelby; I met Rod Hall who used to do off-road racing. I used to work the long lead press previews in June when I was in that service department.

You know, when you take the cars out there and sometimes you had to hang around and make sure they were okay, some of them guys would come out. Most of them, we were able to talk to. There are some once in a while… they didn’t really care about talking. The majority of them are good guys.

I even worked with Rod Hall one day. They had an off-road course set up for the magazine writers to run. So I worked with them all day out there doing that.

I worked with some good engineers. I did a lot of work with John Pointer, who did the Daytona-Superbird aero stuff. He’d do a lot of other work out there also, not just on the Daytonas and the Superbirds, but later on, he’d come up and run tests for other stuff. I worked with him quite a bit.

I used to like to work with him. When they were working on the station wagons, I used to run a lot of tests on that little wing on the back to keep the back window clear, out on the dirt. He was one of the guys that would come out and would run. There were two of them; they’d come out and we’d play around with them. They were good. John lives over here in Ann Arbor. I still see him.

Yes, I worked with a lot of different engineers. I don't remember all their names. Some of them were good; some of them were… “Go back to Highland Park, guys.”

Once the racing was fading away, did you continue aerodynamics on regular production cars?

Not so much out there like we were doing. If they did it, they must have done it in town, in Highland Park or the new Tech Center. We didn’t do a whole lot. A little now and then, but nothing big.

As I recall you got a wind tunnel in Chelsea.

Yes, there’s a wind tunnel out there. I don't know if the wind tunnel did aerodynamic work, or if they were more for cooling, and things like that. But they did a lot of work over there on cars in the tunnel. I knew guys who worked over there but I never worked over there. Later on, when we started getting back in NASCAR [in the truck series, in the 1990s], then they did some more aerodynamics in the wind tunnel and also out on the track.

I remember the Intrepid came out and they made a big deal over the low drag.

They might have done that in the wind tunnels. I don't remember… I didn’t get involved anyway doing that out on the road, around the track, but they may have been doing more of that in the wind tunnel, or somebody else might have done and I just don’t remember.

Did all the changes at Chrysler affect you?

We’re so far down the ladder, we’d see stuff going on, but it didn’t really affect us other than maybe our workload would be a little lighter in this area, and be a really heavier in this area, because more emphasis would be put on something else. You know, like when they Iacocca came in, we had to get some good fuel economy cars and stuff like that. Performance stuff went away, so we were working on getting fuel economy and stuff like that.

But as far as them guys affecting us directly, no. And then when Daimler came in, I only worked a year or so after they came in. I had 30 years and I was 55, so I was going, no matter who was up there. I’d made up my mind and working more than 30 wasn’t going to give me that much more money down the line. I was going to go and have some fun. So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since I left.

I restored that racecar that I got; played around with my Superbird; got connected up with some race teams; been playing at the racetrack with some race teams and a NASCAR race team.

I go out to the track. Go out to the track and help them out in the pits, and help them beforehand get set up for qualifying. I’ve even gone over the wall on race day and (inaudible) tires over the wall. To me, that’s playing around. It’s fun; it’s not a job that I have to go to everyday. I’m not committed to be in at every race. I just tell the guys when I got time, I’ll come and help you. So it makes it fun. But when you got to be there every week, then it quits being fun.

That must be one of the attractions working at the museum, too.

Right. There are a lot of nice people coming through there, especially like this week and next week. There are a lot of good guys coming through there. You never know who’s coming through. You get to talk to people from everywhere. The [CEMA] auto show brings them in. And the NAIAS show brings a lot of people in. There’s a lot of people coming down to the museum during them shows - a lot of the reporters, a lot of the writers. I met people from a lot of different places.

Yes, I only saw a couple of reporters there when I was there, but this isn’t a normal year, I think.

No.

I think Chrysler’s got to prove themselves again. I’m optimistic.

Oh, yes, I think it will be okay. This can take some time. I met a guy from Australia one year down there. Mopar Nationals is out in Columbus, Ohio. He flew in from Australia, came down to the museum to meet up with a guy that was driving one of his vintage cars, muscle cars down to Mopar Nats. He went through the museum, met up with this guy, and they drove down to Columbus together. Then he would then fly back home after Mopar Nats.

So when did you get your Superbird? That’s a kind of rare bird these days.

I got it about 1989.

The ideal time.

Yes, price was right. I was looking for something, but I wanted something different. I didn’t want just the plain old Roadrunner or Charger and I found this at the right price and grabbed it up.

It was in good condition. I drove it around before I brought it home. I got it in Detroit but it was in the winter, so we drove around the block a little bit and the guy I bought it from had to play with it just for his last time. After we got done, we loaded it on the trailer and brought it home.

When the warm weather got here, I just fired it up and we went cruising around the rest of the summer. The paint needed to be redone, so I drove it for the summer, and then we repainted it and it’s been like that since.

So, it’s pretty much original, except for the repaint.

Yes. The color’s wrong. The guy that I got it from had painted it gunmetal gray, and put an air grabber hood on it. But other than that, it’s a Superbird.

There’s something about putting an air grabber hood on the most aerodynamic car.

Petty RamYes, there is, but it looks good. It’s not the only one any more with an air grabber. There’s two or three others around now that guys build up and put air grabbers on.

It’s a 440, 6-barrel [the Dodge version was the Six-Pack], 4-speed.

Oh, it is. I really enjoy it, but I think this year, I’m going to give it a rest. I’d bought a Richard Petty signature edition pick up a couple of months ago. I think I’ll drive that this summer and give the Bird a rest. The pickup is… as far as I can tell, the information I’ve got, it’s one of 1,500 built. It’s a nice running truck, a ’96.

It’s my first time hearing about the Petty edition.

Well, there’s a lot of people who don’t know about them. The guy I bought it from, he said this truck was in Michigan all its life and he says there’s only been four registered in Michigan. All the rest of them are down south, or most of them.

Petty RamI’ve seen them when they were new. I was on Richard Petty’s place, his museum, and he drove in with a black one. They were made in three colors – red, black, or white, and they have his silhouette on the box and on the headrest. They’re all leather seats and they had that raised yellow tires with American racing wheels. Some of them had fiberglass covers on the box and some of them just had little rails on the box. It’s a nice-looking truck, a little different. They did them when they were doing some of them Indy Pace trucks.

They pushed the Indy Pace trucks more. I think they might have pushed the Petty trucks in the south, but not up here. That’s where I’ve seen most of them, too. I’ve seen a couple of black ones and a couple of red ones. I’ve never seen a white one in person; I’d just seen a picture of them. And that white one was in New Jersey, on sale.

Milt Wood's Ram pickup

[I had a Spirit R/T some time ago.]

I ran one of those 150-point-something miles an hour out there for max speed run. But they were not stable at 150. The front end liked to move around.

Then I took one of the Daytonas with the same engine, the same year. I ran 150 with it also, but that was nice and stable.

Yes. Somebody said there were some things you could do to them, and they’d even go faster.

I’m sure that there were things you could do, but I said, “Yes, there probably isn’t more I should do.”

… Now the guys that run general endurance, they might know about stuff that would break, but not running general endurance, we’d get it in performance and we’d have the car a week or two weeks and then it’d be gone. We’d have another car to do the same test on it, so we didn’t have a car a long time to really figure out what broke and what didn’t break. Then you go down to endurance and some of them guys could tell you, “Hey, man, this thing’s always broke. This part’s always broke, whatever it is.”

So what’s your daily drive for these days?

Jeep in the winter, then in the summer, I drive the Bird a little bit; drive my wife’s Le Baron convertible a little bit. She’s got a ’93 Le Baron convertible for summer time.

The LeBaron has 85,000 miles with the original top. I got it from a guy whose transmission went bad and he parked it. It sat for five years, so I bought it from him, pulled the transmission, had it rebuilt and we’ve driven it for a couple of years now. It’s a great little car. It has a nice outside… get it and go for a cruise in the evening with it, put the top down. But mainly my Jeep. I need to replace it; it’s getting worn out. It’s a ’97, with a 165,000.

The Jeep still runs good; it still goes down the road. I just hate to get in debt right now. I was just thinking about getting one, maybe three or four years newer. You know, just so I didn’t have to do a lot of payments.

I also have my Dodge pickup, I call it my hauler. It’s my work truck. It hauls my fifth wheel camping trailer and it hauls my fifth wheel car trailer.

Then you drive the Bird when you go to shows.

If I go close, I drive it. If I’m going a long way, then I’ll trailer it. I’m talking like ten or 12 hours away, then I’ll haul it. But if it’s four or five hours, I’d drive it. I’ve driven it two days in the Hot Rod Power Tour. We went from Detroit down to St. Louis with them. It was great driving. It’s just on hot days, it’s hot. There’s no air conditioning in them. Yes, we haul it somewhere.

Like we went to Virginia last year. I hauled it down and then we drove it anywhere from then on. We drove to Martinsville Speedway and then we drove… I can’t remember all the places we drove. It’s nothing if you put 200 to 300 miles on it in a week.

It’s nice to actually see them getting driven.

Yes, I drive it. I know some guys who don’t drive theirs. I drive it.

If I had to buy it for the high dollar that they’re going for now, it’d be hard to drive. But I bought it when the price was just right. I don't mind driving it. I mean, there’s places I won't drive it, or if I do, I really take it easy, but I drive it a lot.

I won't drive it on Woodward Avenue cruise. It just doesn’t like that slow driving. It gets too hot. Not a lot of air flow through the radiator on the Woodward cruise. But, you know, I’d go from here to… like on a Hot Rod Power Tour, fine, take off, go. I even took it out to Nevada. The have what they call the Pony Express run. It’s a 100-mile run an on open highway. You pick out the speed you want to run at, and you try to match your time. I’d ran 100 mile an hour and we averaged 100.3 miles an hour for the run and finished fourth place.

That car, at 100 miles an hour, it snuggles right down to the road and just goes. It’s great running. You put the windows up and just whew, we were there.

What’s the highway mileage like on that?

I don't even check. People ask me that and I say, “I don't know. I just put gas in it and drive. When it needs some gas, I put it in.” I never think about it. I enjoy the car.

I like to know the gas mileage so I know if something goes wrong.

Oh, yes, that wouldn’t be a bad idea, but usually on them 6-packs [Dodge held the “six-pack” name; on Plymouth it would jsut be “six-barrel”], if one of them carburetors get messed up, they start smoking bad, so you can tell.

Usually it’s that power valve in the center carburetor. You change that power valve and you’re all set again. But sometimes, you can’t tell. I had spark plug wire come off and I didn’t even realize it. I drove it a long way. I found the wire off and you could hardly tell the difference because they just make power. They just run good.

I mean, if you were racing, you probably could have been able to tell, but just normal driving, I didn’t even know it was off.

And you were able to do all the tuning yourself, with three carburetors.

A guy at work showed me how. The guy that did a lot of the development on the 6-pack. I hung around him a little bit and picked some ideas up. And if I can’t, he’s still around. I just give him a call and say, “Hey.” So, yes, not too bad on that.

Did you have any memorable incidents?

Well, when I was restoring that car, I’d go down to North Carolina looking for a car and looking for parts. Finally, I got in with the in guys that had the parts and everything and then I got to know a bunch of these drivers. Then I’d go to these racer’s reunions because they asked me to bring the car there to them.

Just like Iowa. I’ve been there twice, and that car, when I take it out there, there’s all kinds of people that recognize the car because they used to go to the USAC races, so I get all kinds of stories. Then the drivers that show up there, they know the car and they know Bob Brevak, so I get stories about the car, stories about Bob. It’s great to do that.

Can you tell me about the car you restored?

Milt Wood's Charger

The ’72 Dodge Charger that raced USAC. Bob Brevak out of Ashland, Wisconsin, drove it and owned it, him and his wife and it was built by Bemco Engineering which was owned by Bill Bembemster out of Wausau, Wisconsin. Bill used to work for Ray Nichols until Nichols Engineering cut back in ’71 or ’72 and then Bill went and opened his own shop. It’s all back, real close to the way it was when Bob had it; when it was first ran. The color’s the same. It’s got a Maurice Petty built HEMI engine in it.

I’d take it to vintage events once in a while. The last two years, I took it to Darlington. We ran hot laps without a pace car. I got some 100-mile-an-hour laps or so. Before that, I had an MIS doing hot laps, same thing, a vintage event – probably 130 mile-an-hour laps.

Is this a production car that’s been converted to race duty, or is it like a funny car?

No, it’s a real Charger. It looks like a Charger. It raced at MIS. It raced some NASCAR and ran USAC most of the time, from ‘72 and they… They re-skinned it and everything… The rules back then, they let you run a car for three years. While in USAC, maybe more; I don't know. It ran until ’77 as a Charger, then got re-skinned as a Magnum. Bob ran it as a Magnum one year and he says that’s the worst car he had. So he sold it and got something else.

Bemco body

I’ve owned this since ’96, but when I got it, there was no body on it. It was a rolling chassis, so I cleaned it all up, put a new body on it, and painted it up and got some of its history and been playing around with it ever since.

When I retired in ’99, I went down to my shop and started working on the car. Two years later, I rolled it out, all done. I’ve been playing ever since. It’s fun. I’ve been to Daytona with it. I went down there for…

Charger interior

The Living Legends have a parade down there during Speed Week. I went down there for that. I took it down to Morrisville, North Carolina and displayed it with one of the race shops when the Chargers came out and started racing them. I’ve been to Kiacuck with it, MIS, Darlington, just different places. It was in a museum for six months in Auburn Hills. It was at the Detroit Science Center for a week and they had a NASCAR display down there. So the car’s been fun.

You can’t drive it on the street, but it’s fun to take places.

We make no guarantees regarding validity, accuracy, or applicability of information, predictions, or advice. Please read the terms of use and privacy policy. Copyright © 1994-2000, David Zatz; copyright © 2001-2016, Allpar LLC (except as noted, and press/publicity materials); all rights reserved. Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler, Ram, and Mopar are trademarks of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.


Wagoneer on hold — “oops” again?
us-sales
What’s in the driver’s seat?

Ram rodeo recap

Dodge returning to NASCAR?

All Mopar Car and Truck News



The always-future Dodge Dakota pickup High torque, long life: Jeep 4.0 LED third brake lights for classic cars Honey, we screwed up the truck

Will the Wagoneer be Grand? Shelby Dakota: hot or not? Washer fluid bags! Chrysler Crossfire: fauxpar?