Burke Brown: Platform teams and creating the LH cars

Burke Brown with Red RamLaunching the LH was really cool. That blew everybody’s socks off with the north-south front wheel drive.

There’s a truck at the Chelsea Proving Grounds, a handling course. It’s pretty level, there’s not much banking to it, so it’s like a road course: a lot of twisties and some pretty tight hairpin turns.

Francois was driving, I was riding, and we were talking about engines and the 3.5’s performance and that sort of thing. With Francois being a race driver, I knew he was going to pound on it, which is fine, but it was raining cats and dogs. The wipers were on full. I remember him looking over at me; he said, “Are you okay if I push it a little?” I said yes, sure.

Marc: In the rain? How hard can you push it?

I wondered how far you can really push this, and I found out how just far you could push it. I was just amazed. I could look over and see the speedometer, and we were running probably 20 miles an hour faster than I’d seen anybody drive on dry pavement on that course. It was just amazing what he was able to do. I remember we got back and he said, “That 3.5’s really good. I really like it.”

I really liked the fact he didn’t go off the course. But no, he was a great driver and his experience really showed.

Marc: He knew his powertrain stuff too.

That’s the neat part of having guys like that involved. He wanted front-wheel drive. There was a lot of talk about that car being all-wheel drive because the way the transmission was, with that chain at the back of the transmission, you could come right off the back and it wouldn’t have been that hard.

Marc: There’s cost involved, but that would’ve been a nice idea.

1993 intrepidYes, and we could to some extent have provided for it, but the market for all-wheel drive sedans just wasn’t there… so it never materialized.

Marc: The car handled well as it was, and with the front-wheel drive you had good traction in the snow or wet.

Yes, it did really well in the snow. We had a lot of load over the front axle. The other thing that architecture allowed was it wasn’t that hard to make rear-wheel drive out of it, and we did. There were cars in that timeframe that were rear-wheel drives. There were 360s [V8 engines], the 999 [transmission], the four-speed Torqueflite. It wasn’t what you would call an approved series program, but it was there. It was on people’s minds.

Marc: A “what if?”

Yes, if we get all the right market signals, maybe something like that could happen. I should talk a minute about the rest of the LH line though, the 300M. The Intrepid and Concord were nice, but the shorter 300M and the handling that that car could do with the 3.5…

chrylser 300m

castaingThe American Motors purchase happened in 1987, [and they brought in Francois Castaing, who started using platform teams]. You have some material on it from Francois, about his passion for the platform concept, which was good at the time because it took a chunk of preselected people, a cross-section of folk, and we did nothing but worry about that LH. It was very focused, and the nucleus of powertrain was still in Highland Park, so I had an office in both places because I was still the powertrain guy.

Almost every time you’re out with the press something really crazy happens. There’s a very famous press guy who was always doing crazy stuff, and we had four or five of them – this was out in Arizona and we’re on public roads, and we were doing say a 20-minute ride and there was a pre-determined place to stop and we’d rotate. People would go to different cars, because there was a mixture of Intrepids and Concords. I was in the 300M, and he got in the seat. We were talking about my responsibilities and so forth, and he said, “It would make quite a story if I blew this 3.5 up when I was driving it.”

And I thought howdy-doody to you. But a bit of a reputation there. So anyway, he takes off. All the other guys are still kind of getting buckled in, and he’s gone. He just held it to the floor, and those things would run, I don’t know, 130? Something like that I guess? I had to almost grab the ignition switch and say we need to stop here and wait for the other guys because this is the next trade spot, otherwise it’ll goof up the whole rotation and all the other guys getting to drive it and so forth. So I look at my watch. I think it was supposed to be a 20-minute run and I think we waited 12 minutes for the other guys to get there. He just ran it flat out at whatever it would do, 130…

Marc: What’s that do for a test drive? Nothing.

Nothing for him, other than… I was hoping that the article would say, “I drove this thing wide open, the powertrain guy was with me,” but not a word about it….

Marc: If it had blown up, he would’ve mentioned it.

height=374You think? Oh man, yeah. “The powertrain guy was with me and we scattered it all over the road.” But we sat there in front of it, sitting there idling. The temperature gauge was down. I kept nudging over looking at the temperature. It was a hot day, around 110°F.

Marc: For the testing I did on the 3.5 I ran it quite a bit, and I can say that, internally, we never blew up a 3.5,

Yes, I think to this day people really like the 3.5, although it’s getting old.

Marc: Yes, Dave has a M car.

We have a 300M. It turned the odometer a while ago.

Marc: They’re great cars. They’re very desirable, they did very well with it. I still like them myself.

I have a friend that has a couple of them, and he uses a certain Michelin tire that he really likes on it for not only the handling, but it’s better for road noise than most tires. He says exactly the same thing, every day he drives it back and forth to work and he drives quite a ways.

He says, “I can’t find anything that I want – I wish it had this, that or the other. It’s just exactly what I want, and it gets good economy.” He’s doing up in the high 20s with it. A lot of freeway…

chrysler 300M

Marc: They call that car the 5-meter car?

That was done purposely for European export. Most spaces in Europe are five meters or so, versus here in the States, they’re deeper. They’re 22 to 24 here feet, whereas in Europe they’re five meters. That’s why they had to shorten that back up, and they call it the 5-meter car and that’s what the M car was built for, both US and European sales. It did well I think.

That was a Tom Gale design too, a Tom Gale influence.

Marc: Heavily, that was a Tom Gale in the LH cars. He’s very proud of that car also, not only from the design standpoint but from an engineering standpoint. The car was very well received here.

Chrylser ConcordeTom Gale and Neil Walling and those guys… I remember a little story about the Concord, when we first started working on it we weren’t getting enough cooling air. So the guys took a saber saw and started opening up that grill until we got enough air through it to meet our goals. Then we dressed it up a little bit and showed it to Tom and the guys. We thought, “He’s going to say no way,” and he looked at it and said, “That kind of makes it. I like it.” It worked out really well.

Marc: Those guys were a lot more open to not only the design intent, but to what they needed to make the car mechanically correct also. If you had to modify some of the design features, you had to do it. It was a good working relationship between design and engineering.

Oh, absolutely. Yes, a car that wouldn’t cool is no good to anybody no matter how it looks.

Marc: Even back then, we were still recovering. That was a car that you needed to have go well to make Chrysler do well. That was another car that you put a lot of effort into, and you banked on good sales. I think we’re there again. People always say, well, times are tough. Well, this is my fifth time.

I remember some people would call the LH – “That means Last Hope.”

It’s amazing how cyclical the whole thing is…

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