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Chrysler Institute of Engineering

Walter P. ChryslerWalter P. Chrysler was quoted as saying, “I will surround myself with the finest and keenest minds that man can commandeer.” He did just that, nurturing and hiring Frederick Zeder, Owen Skelton, and Carl Breer (“the three musketeers”) on the engineering side, and Joseph Fields on the sales side.

Due to Chrysler’s emphasis on engineering and the three musketeers’ exploration of any innovation or problem that came their way, the engineering ranks of the company grew rapidly; by 1928, there were no less than five hundred engineers at Chrysler, proportionately more than any of their competitors. However, when they took in experienced people from other companies, they had to take a year to train them in how Chrysler worked (scientifically); but new people had to be educated in practical applications.

The first solution was a student apprentice system. Carl Breer wrote that he then thought, “we should find the ideal man to handle and direct the men through their apprenticeship. It would be a full-time job...”

Breer talked to Walter Chrysler, who suggested talking to K.T. Keller, then the president of the company. Keller agreed to set it up, but they thought they should start with engineering and then move on to production, to avoid union conflicts while they refined the process. Inquiries were sent out and one particular candidate was recommended: John J. Caton, who had directed the automotive engineering department of the University of Detroit. Caton, a professor, had taken a sabbatical to get experience in Chrysler plants; Breer and Keller found him at the Dodge plant, a large wrench in his hand, doing inspection work.

They sent Caton to General Electric, Allis-Chalmers, and Westinghouse to get up to date experience in apprenticeship courses; company schools were not a new idea, by any means. Then, in spring 1931, an educational committee was created, including Carl Breer, James C. Zeder (Frederick’s younger brother), Harry T. Woolson, R.K. Lee, George McCain, A.C. Staley, and John J. Caton. They chose to devote four and a half hours per week to advanced engineering subjects with practical applications, including lecture and recitation periods. Executive training was also to be included, including economics, business, commercial and patent law, and language skills; engineers presided over some lectures, depending on their expertise.

J.J. CatonThe Chrysler Institute of Engineering developed from this early start — six years after the creation of Chrysler Corporation itself.

The first group consisted of 20 engineering graduates, approved by Mr. Caton; they were assigned to work in various laboratory divisions. An early mis-communication resulted in the rumor that college graduates were replacing the existing draftsmen; “it took years to live this down.” 

Junior engineers were rotated at various periods through the engineering departments (40 of them, in 1937), to be brought into contact with every component; and were invited to sit in on weekly executive engineering conferences to see what engineers did, and how they did it. “As time went on,” Breer wrote, “apprentices began teaching the practical men the things they wanted and needed, and the practical men in turn were teaching the college men the things they learned in the school of experience. Our drafting rooms were filled with men who came up the hard way ... Calculations were done primarily in long hand. Slide rules and logarithm tables were not considered tools of good craftsmanship. The college apprentices changed this.” 

Initially, accredited technical schools and colleges were contacted for applicants; personality, academic standing, and extracurricular activities were all considered, along with in-house tests. Only recent graduates were taken, with preference given to those with advanced degrees. Reciprocity agreements were made with (by 1937) four accredited colleges, as well, so that credits taken at the Institute would transfer to the University of Michigan and other schools.

Chrysler Institute of EngineeringIn September 1932, then, the Chrysler Graduate School of Engineering Research’s first class, chosen from 500 applicants, started out, in the midst of the Great Depression. (The school officially opened in 1931 but apparently did not have external students at that point.) The first classes were held in Building 301 in Highland Park.

At the same time, the need for an undergraduate school was also recognized; this school would cater to “practical men” who had never attained a high school education. At James C. Zeder’s behest, the committee met again, to set up plans for the applied side of a high school curriculum; departmental heads would be given preference, and they could select others to attend. Subjects included industrial chemistry, shop math, industrial physics, and language. Finding suitable teachers was a challenge met by recruiting from junior engineers who “liked this work for the experience involved.” Again, reciprocity was sought and achieved, this time with the Detroit public schools, which agreed to accept credits towards a high school diploma. The original plans called for 25 students, but by 1937 there were 40.

After two highly successful years, the schools were allowed to incorporate, as a step towards growth. On June 3, 1933, the two schools, now combined as the Chrysler Institute of Engineering, were granted a charter by the State of Michigan to confer degrees up to and including a doctorate in engineering. Fred Zeder was the first president, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer the first vice presidents (Breer was also chair of the board of education); John J. Caton was secretary-treasurer and Director. No tuition was charged, and books were provided at cost; but only Chrysler employees could participate, and more senior employees were given preference.

In 1933, the graduation exercises were held in the Engineering Building auditorium. Speakers included the treasurer of Chrysler Corporation, the dean of the University of Kentucky, and Wayne Circuit Court judge Joseph Moynihan. The climax of the event was Walter P. Chrysler conferring a doctorate of engineering on Frederick Zeder. 15 engineers received a master of mechanical engineering degree; 21 undergraduates received high school diplomas.

By the end of 1934, enrollment had exploded to 541 people, with a waiting list of another 500.

When the 1935 academic year opened, the Institute had found more classroom space in the various plants; and stenography and foreign language were added at Dodge’s request (foreign language for the Export Division), while public speaking classes were begun at the Plymouth and Jefferson Avenue plants. The Export Division, in Highland Park, provided rooms and teachers. By the end of 1935, there were 1,200 employees enrolled, with the most popular course being mechanical engineering (299 people). Students came from Dodge Main, Highland Park, Jefferson Avenue, Plymouth (Lynch Road), Windsor, and the DeSoto plant.

Chrysler Institute of Engineering

Harry T. WoolsonIn 1937, the Institute published its first internal magazine/yearbook, Exponent. It listed the educational administration as being Walter P. Chrysler, K.T. Keller, Fred M. Zeder, James Zeder, Carl Breer, Owen R. Skelton, Dr. James S. Thomas, John J. Caton, Harry T. Woolson, W.H. MacDuff, G.L. McCain, and A.C. Staley. The Institute expanded into its own building next to the Engineering department.

Harry T. Woolson succeeded John J. Caton as the leader of the Chrysler Institute of Engineering; Chrysler provided a “properly designed school building” on Oakland Avenue, next to Central Engineering, with class rooms and chemical labs.

Graduates did not have to work at Chrysler, and Chrysler did not have to hire them; but according to graduate and retiree Bruce Thomas, now working with Chrysler Historical, few if any graduates were turned down by Chrysler. One advantage of the job rotation — by the late 1940s, for three months at time, over the course of two years, at widely varying departments — was that students could figure out where they most wanted to work, and the engineering departments could decide which students they wanted most, resulting in far better career and hiring choices, respectively.

For many years, according to an internal history, “it was the only channel through which highly selected engineering graduates were regularly selected for the Corporation.” In 1958, 82 engineers gained Master of Engineering degrees from the Institute; 69 employee-students entered the two-year post-graduate program. The undergraduate program, held in the evening, had nearly 800 student-employees.

The original Chrysler Institute of Engineering closes and is replaced by a new version

The original iteration of the Chrysler Institute of Engineering ended, due to its high expense at a time when Chrysler was laying off engineers, in 1968. Until that time, all academic work was done at the Institute, which then granted a degree (Master of Automotive Engineering) at the end of the two year program.

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A newer, less costly version was instituted in 1968, which remains in place today. Starting then, students took only four months of academic work at the Institute, and were then sent on a released time basis to the University of Michigan graduate school in nearby Dearborn. When graduating, the University granted them an M.S. in Electrical or Mechanical Engineering. Students became salaried employees on enrolling, and were placed in quarterly assignments for the two years in engineering and design departments. On graduation, they were promoted to “a management classification.” Eventually, Oakland University, Wayne State, the University of Detroit – Mercy, and Lawrence Technological University were added, and sponsorship from Manufacturing was added to the original sponsorship by Vehicle Engineering.

Francois CastaingIn 1993, over 800 graduates and their guests gathered at the Chrysler Technology Center to celebrate six decades of excellence in automotive engineering education. A notable guest speaker was Lee Baker, a member of the charter class of 1933 and Director from 1947 to 1969.

Francois J. Castaing, who then headed engineering, said: “In many ways, the founding of the Institute also symbolized the 'passing of the torch' in the auto industry because by the early 1930s the pace of technology change had come so fast that the foundation of a formal engineering education had become essential for young engineers.” Castaing himself was given a Master of Engineering degree by then-Institute President Patricia A. Flaherty, Chrysler Manager of Equal Employment Planning.

Chrysler Institute of Engineering

At the time of the celebration in 1993, there were 51 participants, 18 sponsored by Manufacturing and 33 by Engineering, recruited from colleges across the country. In addition to the six four-month work assignments in Body Engineering, Powertrain Engineering, Proving Grounds or Vehicle Development, and a production plant, engineering candidates had two optional assignments, while manufacturing candidates worked in Manufacturing Engineering and Product and Quality Engineering.

The Chrysler Institute of Engineering was still technically a separate organization during the bankruptcy, and survived as one of the “good assets.” It is currently headquartered at the Chrysler headquarters at 1000 Chrysler Drive in Auburn Hills. A Chrysler notice (2011) illuminates the current system:

Program participants are given one fully paid study day per week in order to allow them to complete their Master’s degree while completing their CIE Manufacturing Trainee work assignments. As an added benefit, Chrysler pays tuition and fees. Each CIE Trainee is assigned to an Executive Sponsor who takes a personal interest in their success at Chrysler.

Some of the graduates

An early student was Ronald Todgham, who graduated in 1933; in the depths of the Great Depression the young man was hired as a full-time employee at Chrysler Canada. He was selected to be president of Chrysler Canada in 1957, not retiring until 1975 — and, beating all odds, doing so with a legacy of year after year of profits and expansion.

Chrysler InstituteBob Lee, who was promoted to Vice President and Head of Engine Powertrain and Electrified Propulsion Systems Engineering in 2011 (and was an original member of the Chrysler and Fiat joint executive council), joined the company as an engineer-in-training at the CIE in 1978. Christine L. Barman, who was appointed Vehicle Line Executive – E-Segment Vehicles in June 2009, joined Chrysler in 1994 through the CIE program.

Burton Bouwkamp, after graduating from Chrysler Institute with a Masters Degree in Automotive Engineering in 1951, was assigned to be the coordinating engineer on the development of the Dodge 241 cu. in. Red Ram hemi engine.

John DeLorean, who rescued both Pontiac and Chevrolet while at General Motors, and is largely credited with creating the Pontiac GTO and Firebird, graduated from the Chrysler Institute of Engineering in 1952 with a master’s degree, and immediately joined the engineering department; he was lured away by Packard less than a year later.

In June 1947, future leader of engine design Willem Weertman graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Engineering degree, and became a student at the prestigious Chrysler Institute of Engineering, where he took two years of coursework and rotating assignments. In one class, Willem and others designed a six-cylinder, L-head engine.

Engineer and future head of engine performance Pete Hagenbuch earned a BSME at West Virginia University, and in 1958, gained his MAE from the Chrysler Institute.

George M. Wallace spent 1953-54 as a student engineer in the Chrysler Institute of Engineering Graduate school; from 1955 until 1968, he was in the performance lab, analyzing performance of future models and concepts.

Subject (1934)Students
High school77
College prep and engineering80
Commerce and finance159
Higher math16
Mechanical drawing61
Body drafting and designing148

Bill Shope was his classmate; he worked under George Wallace, and was one of the original Ramchargers when they were in the planning stage for the club's first car, "The High & Mighty" C/A 1949 Plymouth. George “... developed the empirical relationship between quarter mile speed, vehicle weight, and horsepower which was universally used by the Ramchargers to both predict performance and to evaluate the competition.”

Ev Moeller graduated in 1939, and went on to develop aircraft engines; after the war, he moved to the automobile engine development team (in 1947) and joined the team that developed the early Hemi engines.

Bob Stuemke, an aerodynamics pioneer, was an engineering student from 1958-61, had a three-month assignment to an Engineering Improvements Committee, and discovered an experiment from 1934, where an Imperial sedan (with the inline eight and Red Head), with overdrive and slight modifications of the body to reduce air drag, was clocked at well above 114 mph — far above its normal top speed. This helped inspire him to do work which culminated in the 200-mph Dodge Charger Daytona.

Chrysler noted in 1993: “Robert Ziegenfelder, Chrysler Executive Engineer - Vehicle & Shop Services and Design Verification Operations, is a 1962 graduate; his daughter, Pamela Larson, Product Development Engineer-Body/Chassis Structure Design on Chrysler's Large Car Platform, is a 1992 graduate; and her husband, Trent Larson, CIE Engineer, is currently an Institute student.”

Scott Kunselman, who became Vice President—Body-on-Frame Product Team and Core Team Leader in 2007 joined Chrysler in 1985 as a member of the Chrysler Institute of Engineering.

A brief listing from Chrysler notes that graduates include many vice presidents and directors, “including [Plymouth head, SIMCA chief, and planning VP Harry] Chesebrough, [engineering vice president Alan J.] Loofbourrow, R. Anderson, [CEO William] Newberg, Butts, Osann, Bright, Vining, Bornhauser, Withrow, Gachwind, Moren, [Robert M.] Sinclair, Robertson, Heathcote, Rickert, Roush, and Sarotte.” Other graduates include Derek Harling.

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