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Missiles and Aerospace: Chrysler Electronics in Huntsville, Alabama

Saturn I rocketDuring World War II, Chrysler gained the trust of the United States military by providing the full ingenuity of its engineers without any hint of profiteering. The company’s expertise in electronics and disciplined R&D, along with its CEO’s patriotism, brought it the most difficult contracts and assignments, which the company handled exceedingly well, bringing Chrysler to the forefront of NASA’s moon shots.

To support their aerospace and military work, Chrysler built a large electronics plant close to the Redstone Arsenal, for which the Redstone rockets were named. Far from Chrysler’s Highland Park headquarters, the Huntsville Electronics Division plant started up in 1952 as a technical service facility for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency.

On January 11, 1953, shortly after the plant opened, Chrysler was awarded a multi-million dollar contract to develop a secret Army guided missile. It was assembled in the Navy-owned Chrysler Jet Engine plant near Detroit, but the research and development was centered in the Huntsville Electronics facility.

Apollo instrument checker

Chrysler continued to work on rocketry and missiles for the Defense Department and, once it was created, for NASA, America’s space agency (the Marshall Space Center opened in the same city in 1960). Jim Clifford was Engineering Manager at Huntsville during the mid 1960s; John Call had that position in the 1970s, and John Webster held that job in the 1980s.

In 1962, Chrysler engineers at Huntsville Industrial Complex delivered an Apollo Telemetry Checkout Console to NASA, Houston just 56 days after the fixed price contract award.

Saturn rocket telemetry products

In 1965, Chrysler Huntsville delivered a Telemetry Checkout System to Grumman Aircraft for use in testing the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). In the same year, the plant was part of a corporation-wide expansion program, and was expanded by 176,000 square feet (to 800,000 square feet) to do more electronics manufacturing.

The Apollo Saturn 1B boosters were built at the Chrysler-operated Michoud Plant near New Orleans. Engineering teams at Huntsville led by Arleigh Trahern and later by Art Douyard supported the Apollo program in several ways. Frank Henley’s team initially supported the NASA Saturn Systems Breadboard facility and later formed a Military Systems business element, which would become the PEI plant at Huntsville. Douyard’s team continued to provide telemetry systems support to the Apollo program and, begining in 1968, grew into the automotive electronic product development team.

Saturn 1B
The white cylindrical section, which carries the telemetry equipment (much of which was built by Chrysler Huntsville), rode just atop the Saturn 1B booster. For details, see this NASA PDF file.

In 1969, Huntsville was producing 105mm shells and preparing for the production of TOW anti-tank missiles; between 1968 and 1970, the plant made over 6,000 TOW missiles for the Army. In 1970, Chrysler entered a joint development program for the Abrams tank (MBT-70), which was the basis for Germany’s Leopard Tank Program. In 1976, the prototype (XM-1) was chosen by the Army; and Huntsville designed and produced electronic assemblies and test equipment until the military division was sold to General Dynamics.

As the 1960s and Saturn rocket development came to an end, space operations at the Huntsville plant slowed, and Chrysler started to find other uses for their skilled engineers and advanced facilities. Under Arthur Douyard, the plant manager “in those early days as Huntsville was rejuvenating itself after losing the Saturn contract,” Doyard played a lead role in the transition to other fields, according to John Webster. “Art taught me MBWA (‘Management By Walking Around,’ popularized in In Search of Excellence). He was well known out on the factory floor where he got a daily first-hand feel for production efficiency.”

In 1971, Huntsville created a CCTV system that worked in both day and night for Defense, and a system for dealing with human waste, using a reusable flushing fluid; meant for sea vessels, this was also installed at Mount Rushmore’s visitor center. They also moved forward rapidly in automotive electronics, including emissions analyzers and radios. In 1977, a second, 225,000 square foot plant was built on Wynn Drive to support the growing need for automotive electronics.

Wynn Drive East Building

When it came time for the next generation of space vehicles, Chrysler was left out. Historian Dennis Jenkins wrote that Chrysler, working with Rocketdyne, had a “truly unique vehicle that was so far outside what NASA wanted, they were marginalized before they started.” Still, NASA funded Chrysler through the end of 1971 to study and develop their proposal, at the cost of around one million dollars. Jenkins wrote,

project servChrysler was in an unusual position in their contract with NASA Marshall in that they were essentially a level-of-effort contractor that simply did what the government told them (for instance, they did little development on the Saturn I/IB stages they built, but rather provided the manufacturing know-how and labor to build a government design — this was different than Boeing and North American that designed the stages they built). I suspect they negotiated a 10-11% profit (perhaps as much as 13%) on every dollar they spent (which was fairly typical for NASA; unlike DoD, which tends to be 3-4%).

Chrysler estimated that 445 total launches in ten years would cost around $1.3 billion (in constant 1970 dollars), with a cost per flight of $3 million. The accuracy of those estimates will never be known.

In 1983, Chrysler sold Chrysler Defense, Inc. to General Dynamics, for $239 million, partly to counteract a similarly-sized writedown in its Peugeot investment and create a profit for the year. In 1981, Chrysler had lost $476 million — despite $80 million in profit from the military unit.

The remainder of the military operations at Huntsville were renamed Military/Public Electronic Systems; in October 1983, the division built a “revolutionary” rail traffic control system for 110 miles of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s busiest route. It was the first computerized railroad operation in North America to provide traffic and electric power control from the same equipment.

electronics boulevard

In 1986, Chrysler announced that it would expand its Huntsville complex, creating the $65 million Chrysler Electronics City at 100 Electronics Boulevard to build electronic parts for automotive, commercial, and military uses. The company noted that automotive use of electronics was “practically nothing” in 1970, but $350 per car in 1986.

In 1988, the Military/Public Electronic Systems division was renamed to Pentastar Electronics, Inc (PEI). PEI began to set up systems for testing Chrysler’s cars and military systems alike, calling the product the Direct Electrical System Test Set (DSESTS). According to the PEI web site, as of 2012, this system is still the primary test and diagnostic system for Abrams and Bradley tranks, and the Marines’ LAV. In the late 1990s, PEI created the Sidecar embedded diagnostic system which is used in the Abrams tank; it put full diagnostics directly into the tank itself. PEI also worked with Chrysler on development of the fully electric minivans.

electronics boulevard building

Chrysler sold defense electronics unit Electrospace Systems, Inc., and its airborne systems unit Chrysler Technologies Airborne to Raytheon in June 1996. During the 1990s, according to DRS-TEM Technologies’ web site, “PEI was instrumental in helping the Army develop advanced capabilities in producing and transporting high performance energy management systems into the battlefield utilizing hybrid electric sources. This work is revolutionizing this field of Energy Management and supports the development and fielding of Directed Energy Weapon and Protection Systems that makes our forces more effective and is helping in transitioning our forces to a lighter, more lethal, and more mobile Army.”

Retired Huntsville Chief Engineer John L. Webster contributed a great deal to this page. He wrote, “I transfered to Huntsville from Detroit in 1957 on a temporary assignment to work for Bill Gudaitis at Chrysler’s Guidance and Control Service Center supporting the Redstone Missile program. I ended up spending 30 of my 31 years with Chrysler at Huntsville.

“My first assignment was managing the Systems Analysis and Data Reduction group. I was lucky enought to participate in the first American satellite project. The Explorer satellite was launched atop a Jupiter-C missile on January 31st, 1958. My crew and I stayed up all night doing the flight data reduction and delivered the analysis to ABMA the next morning. ... I took early retirement in December 1987.”

On January 10, 1997, the “historic military segment” of Chrysler in Huntsville was purchased by a group of private investors backing company managers; they named the new company PEI Electronics, Inc and kept its two buildings at 110 Wynn Drive, with 220,000 square feet of floor space. It had around 350 employees at the time; 1995 sales had been around $50 million, and encompassed all that remained of Chrysler’s once impressive aerospace and military businesses. Chrysler had tried to sell Pentastar Electronics in 1990, but could not get a good enough price to make it worthwhile.

The new company was almost immediately turned over; in October, 1998 it was acquired by Veritas Capital. Then, almost exactly five years later, the company was sold to Finmeccanica. PEI continues to build military diagnostic equipment and other leading-edge technologies as “DRS Test and Energy Management,” still operating from Wynn Drive.

The story continues with Huntsville Electronics’ automotive systems: computers, dashboards, stereos, and more ->

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