interviewed by Marc Rozman and David Zatz. First of three interviews in a series
The rear-wheel drive cars had gotten started quite a bit before the Mercedes stuff happened. But that really put a fire under that because of Dieter and his heritage of Mercedes, [which is] very much rear-wheel drive, and now our parts bin was twice as big, and we had a whole bunch of rear-wheel drive parts that would’ve cost us a lot more to get our hands on, with tooling and all that stuff. That put the rear-wheel drive stuff in high gear, because we had the 580 transmission. We had their rear end, which was a nice, lightweight, high-torque rear axle with independent suspension.
One thing that a lot of people said at the time and probably still think is that when we were doing that car, that we were just giving the old E-class stuff and that’s not true at all. They were doing the new E-class, which is called the 211, that was their code name for it. They launched that one year before we launched the LX. We basically were over there and call it tech sharing or synergy meetings or whatever, but we had a great time. I mean, you get a bunch of engineers sitting around and just talking about why did you do that? Because of this. Well what about that?
One particular time I remember, and this particular discussion was about engines, because they had done an aluminum block 3.5 and so had we. They did their own – it was a die cast block they did themselves, and we had used a company which by the way is part of Fiat. So I was walking the halls of Fiat before Sergio.
The only real difference is ours what we called semi-permanent mold, and we had cast in liners, casting in cast iron liners. So at least by our view we had the best of both worlds. We had a perfectly round iron bore, unlike a cast iron block, where the water jacket isn’t always the same thickness, so the water cooling for the cylinder isn’t as perfect as we could get it because everything was just the same.
So we had some real good tech sharing about why did you – because they were running right on the aluminum. They had no liners. But they were doing a process where they would treat the aluminum and harden it. They were etching away the soft stuff until just the hard part of the aluminum cell structure was there. I forget all the fancy details, but it was working for them, but it was a more expensive process than our kind of brute force way.
But ours was bulletproof. To this day, I’ve never heard anybody talk about an aluminum engine that’s had a liner come loose or leak or anything like that. Never. I mean, I’ve talked to guys with 3.5s with 150 to 200,000 miles on them and never had to take anything apart.
Anyway, we had technical discussions about things like that. I remember one day in particular we had been with all the casting guys and talked about all that stuff all day long. It was about 3:00, and they said would you like to do something for a couple hours then we’ll all go to dinner? And I said well, do you have a tear-down room where you tear engines down after they come off durability tests or whatever and look at the parts? Yeah, of course. Well let’s go get some parts.
Let’s see your used parts! And so we did. So we started looking at parts and pistons and cranks and everything. We were just two or three of us from Chrysler. They were talking about pistons. They called the piston expert and we talked about pistons for a while and we talked about valves and cams and whatever.
Pretty soon it got to be after 5 and they said oh, we’ve got to go to dinner. We said let’s finish talking about it. So they called and move the reservations back to 7. So we talked some more and they’re really getting into it. We’re telling them well here’s how we did the piston, and it turns out we both were using Mahle as the piston supplier, but there were some differences. Oh, really? You did that? That’s interesting. We did this. It just went on, and finally we looked at Rick. Oh my God, it’s 7:00. We better call and make the reservations 9.
Marc: [laughs] You’re getting hungry huh?
Well they would keep some little cookies around and some coffee, so they were pretty good about that. So I think we got there just before they closed, but we spent the whole – they enjoyed it as much as we did. You hear all these stories about the stuff. I just had a ball with those guys talking about… you know, talking shop kind of thing.
Marc: Yeah. Well those guys set the stage for what you need to do though for your job or task. Not only for them, because you’ve got to get that relationship you have going on. That’s going to help, you know?
That was back when I was still in powertrain. Then when it moved into vehicle stuff then we did the same thing with the vehicle development guys. And since they were ahead of on their launch of the new car, then they would invite us and we’d go over and we’d go on their two-day road trips around the neighborhood, you know, in the Autobahn in Germany and Austria development trips with the new – with this 211, the new E-class. So we’d get to participate in that and compare notes and stuff, because basically we modeled our suspension after that new 211 with a couple of things that we did differently. But the idea that we were just kind of given the old stuff, and that here you go, just take the old E-class and put your Dodge or Chrysler skin on it, that wasn’t it at all.
Marc: We’re hearing that now with the new Dart. We’re hearing that with the Dart as far as they’re just taking their platform and making it into a Dart.
Dave: That’s what it says in the press release. That’s what it said in the press release for the LX.
Marc: From Chrysler?
Dave: Yeah, that’s where the story comes from.
Marc: So how true that is? I know from working at Chrysler that’s not always the case. We’re not always taking their platform and pushing a fresh body on it. We do make our chassis and suspension work and brakes.
Exactly. I have often thought that if it wouldn’t have been for the Mercedes thing, we probably wouldn’t have had the 300, the rear-wheel drive cars. If they would’ve come they would’ve come a lot later and probably wouldn’t have hit that sweet spot in the market where people really grabbed onto it. And of course the styling and the high beltline and that gangster kind of look that some people called it. I mean, it was different. You either kind of loved it or hated it I guess.
Marc: That was the case at one time.
A lot of people will tell you that’s the way you have a winner. You don’t want a kind of middle of the road there where people are like eh, it’s okay. You don’t want that. You want some major portion of the people saying I’ve got to have one, and then the other third saying not for me. It’s okay. That’s what I’ve always been told.
Marc: [Years ago,] I was at an event where the concept 300 was on display at an event. I was with some GM people, and there was a gentleman looking at the car. I was leaving the show and there was a gentleman looking at the car pretty hot and heavy. I asked the guy, well how do you like the car? I didn’t tell him who I was. He said, I’m a designer for Cadillac, and if this car comes out in production we’re in trouble.
And which car was that?
Marc: This was the 300 concept car. And here’s a Cadillac designer telling me that he’s looking at this car and saying we’re in trouble if this comes out. Because people know that a concept car is a good indication of what may be coming down the road. He knew that from experience. I said I’d tell Ralph one of these days that’s what I heard, and the reality to that was it turned out to be a really nice car and it sold really well. It still is a nice car.
You say you love it or hate it, but to people that knew design, it was a good way to go at the time. It’s still around. We’re still basically seeing the design now, but refined. It looks great.
The back of the new one reminds me a lot of one of the options that we talked about on the original 300.
Marc: Oh really? The tail lights?
The lights at an angle. We stood them up a little bit more.
Marc: So if I had made the car…
Yeah, something like that.
Marc: A lot of design guys have been around for a while. They may have a certain idea early on and then they may have looked at do we do this design or that design? It doesn’t mean later on you can’t bring that design or idea into the concept later on, for a changeup later on. Do you want to change a headlamp or grille? Well, you didn’t do it the first time but you can’t do it four or five years later when you do a rehash on it… hey, we had it on the drawing board before and we kind of liked it. Let’s do it now. So it does happen, you know.
Dave: I’ve heard stories about the LX being delayed so that it could be redesigned from front-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive — that there was a design and that was dropped and replaced.
That story sounds like it would have been more like what was going on back about the time the 300M was out there. Could we make it a rear-wheel drive car? And like I said, we could have but we kind of weren’t ready for that yet marketwise or anything. So no. Once we got going on the car, it was pretty much what you saw. It was V6s and then Hemi.
Marc: Rear drive was always the intent.
It was always rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, and that was a little bit of a gift in a way because the E-class had the Magna Steyr all-wheel drive setup, they called it 4Matic. So the parts were kind of there. All we had to do was kind of call Magna and say hey, we want to buy some of those transfer cases too.
Marc: Make them fit.
Well, you didn’t have to because it fit right on the back of the 580. It was right there. I guess the word everybody uses is synergy, but the fact that it was already tooled up and there and the cost to put it in production by just modifying what we needed to was very, very advantageous for us. And later – actually in ’09, one of the last things I was involved in, we refined that all-wheel drive system a bunch. It was really slick now.
In fact, I’ve got a Dakota that’s going to turn into an all-wheel drive Charger here before too long and I was asking the dealer what they had because I was trying to decide if I wanted to just order something, or if they had half a dozen Hemi all-wheel drives I might just pick something they had. The particular salesperson I was dealing with said we can’t get enough of them. She said I’m always having the other dealers calling me, hey, would you trade a plain Jane for an all-wheel drive?
Marc: Is there a reason for a limited supply?
I don’t think so. I think in certain areas, and Michigan would be one, where the demand is – what I should’ve said is I want you to just freaking order a bunch for us so you’ve got some on hand. Especially now coming into the fall, this is kind of the time. My wife really liked the Magnum, so we had the string of Magnum all-wheel drives, Hemi all-wheel drives. Almost like a tank, unless the snow was just outrageously deep it would just go right on through.
Marc: It was not a big sacrifice to mileage either, was there?
No. It used to be a little over a mile per gallon on the old system. Right now the new system is almost nothing. The height of the car was an inch higher which some people could tell. I mean I couldn’t tell, but it didn’t bother most people.
Dave: It’s in the press releases, they talk about how the front-disconnecting axle means that there’s no real gas mileage penalty, although there is when they first came out with it, it was the same mileage as rear-wheel drive I recall and now it’s one mile per gallon difference city or highway. I guess that’s weight.
Well, a little bit of weight, yeah.
But the original system that came out in the ’05 model year, that had a different label on it and that was at least a mile per gallon below. We did the disconnect because the original system was always all-wheel drive. It’s never disconnected. So it’s always dragging all that parasitics for the front…
Marc: The front drive train?
And of course the weight you’re packing on. A little more weight, you can’t get around that. That’s always there.
Dave: How do you avoid wear issues with the disconnecting front axle?
Wear of… not much is turning so there’s not much to wear.
Dave: From the engagement and disengagement.
Oh. It’s a clutch. Warren makes it, the Warren hub people. It’s reliable. Plus you don’t always do it on the fly. You can do it when it’s stopped too. I forget all the details, but if you start the car when it’s cold it starts out in all-wheel drive until it kind of tests the system to see if you’ve got any slip which means it’s slippery pavement, because you can have obviously dry pavement in cold weather too. So if it sees slip. If it doesn’t [slip], then it lets you go back into rear-wheel drive until something goes wrong or something slips. That’s where that new system…
Marc: So the all-wheel drive’s available on the 300 and the Charger right now?
We didn’t do it on Challenger. And it’s available on V6 and Hemi.
Dave: Did you look at using ZF transmissions for the LH or LX?
We did before the Mercedes, but then we fell in love with that 580 because the low parasitics and it had a nice gear ratio spread at the time. It was pretty advantageous and we could have it, so it was kind of like there was not any big debate. Well we started to build them ourselves as you know in Indiana, and we got a few from Germany as well.
Marc: So you retired but you’re back working for Chrysler again.
Well, I’m working for a company that Jeff Zybert started. Chrysler is one of the things I’m doing a little something here, and he and I have redone some other stuff together too.
I have at least one more LX story I think you’d like. We had planned on MDS [multiple displacement system or cylinder shutoff] as a company, it had been there from the beginning of the Hemi. I’m sure you’ve heard that story. But as we were putting together all our plans and all the goals and objectives, I wanted the 300 LX lineup to have MDS.
The truck guys were supposed to do it too, and they were saying well, the customers aren’t really that interested in fuel economy, but the guy I worked for at the time was Larry Achram. He agreed and said you know, we really want to make that part of the LX. But Larry’s an MVH kind of guy, and he said boy that’s going to be really tough to make it really smooth and quiet on four and eight cylinder mode, and you’re doing it on a top-end luxury car. Kind of the worst possible, most demanding scenario.
So anyway it was part of the plan, and I remember distinctly that Wolfgang Bernhard said, when we introduced this car in the auto show which would be January 2004, because it was like a super-early ’05 model, he said, “We ought to hold back a couple of things so we really surprise everyone,” because they’d kind of seen the car. They sort of knew what it was going to look like or had a good idea.
The two things that got held back were the selling price and the fact that it had MDS on a Hemi. And it kind of wowed them with wow, that’s a real bargain, because they had done some clinics and people would look at the car and look inside. They were estimating… [laughs] That was good. But that became very painful for me to not talk about MDS because General Motors had been inviting the press out to the GM proving grounds and letting them drive development cars with what they called displacement on demand, DOD. Same technology just like they’d done on the Cadillacs years before. Not very well, but they’d done it, 4-6-8.
One particular press event that I was remember was kind of like a pre-event. It was at CTC, and Motor Trend specifically asked how are you guys handling fuel economy, are you going to do what GM had done? Well we had to say no, we’ve got other things we’re doing. We couldn’t say that we were.
That turned into an article that said I don’t think Chrysler is going to have very good fuel economy because they’re not doing DOD. I was really upset about that. But the PR guy said just cool off. Just wait until January at the auto show…
So we did it. We made it so it was you really couldn’t tell that four-cylinder versus eight-cylinder. The day of the press event I went up to the Motor Trend guy and I said now you know why I gave you such an evasive answer back four months ago or whatever that was? Oh yeah, I guess.
[Later, Burke Brown said that they had planned to do the four cars that eventually came out from the start — that the Dodge sedan was always planned, but for various reasons, they wanted to launch just the Magnum and 300/300C at first. He said that Challenger was not meant to replace Magnum, but that they planned to build both, in large batches, alternating between the wagons and the coupes. Various changes took place over time, though, and that plan was dropped, though the Magnum-like Chrysler 300 Touring was still made for export.]
But the fun part was when we were out in Palm Springs which was right after that, I think it was in January – later in January – we were driving cars on public roads, and some of the press guys said I drove that car all day long and I can’t tell it’s going in and out of four-cylinder mode. Are you sure it’s working? And I said I’m sure.
Because we had made the decision not to put anything on the instrument panel, at least not in the beginning. And the thinking was it would go in and out of four-cylinder mode a lot, depending on what you’re doing to the throttle, and if you’ve driven any of the later ones I think after ’08 maybe? ’07 or ’08, we put it in the display. But there was some concern that people would see if you put a green light or something it would be flashing on and off and they’d think that’s not what it’s supposed to be in, it’s not right, and take it back to the dealer and say I was driving down Main Street and the green light wasn’t on. Something’s wrong.
So we didn’t put any public display on it. But I had the instrumentation with me in the hotel room. So after I heard a couple of those comments I made an announcement after dinner. I said anybody that would like to go out and drive it with instrumentation on it, I’m here all night.
Marc: All the hands went up?
No, actually, not that many because it was an open bar. But the EPA and ARB [California Air Resources Board] were all over it. They were out driving them all the time. In fact, I had one of the early cars as my assigned car and one of the guys said EPA wants to drive another car, not just the test car but the official car.
Marc: The prepped car. We’ve never done it though…
Yeah. So I gave the guys the key to my car. I forget exactly the story but it didn’t come back for a few days. They said how well they wanted to drive the thing. They said I think one of them took it to Washington because they wanted to show some of the senators or something.
Marc: “I need another car.
I did. I got myself another car, and I honestly can’t even remember what happened to that car.
Marc: You never got it back?
Well yeah, I’m sure we got it back.
Marc: Chrysler did.
We got it back, but I didn’t. I switched to a different one. But if I had to think of all the stuff we did, I think having MDS and being able to pull it off a year and a half before GM ever did by the way and have it that flawless…
I kept watching the warranty and all the customer stuff and it was like nothing. Nobody was having any trouble with it or complaints about it should’ve worked and it didn’t or whatever. It just was such a big boost in fuel economy for no customer implications.
Some of the stuff you do for fuel economy is the things the customer can notice. I mean for example, you put real skinny little tires on it or something for example to get better rolling resistance, the customer’s going to notice that. Maybe it’s the right thing to do for a given car, but it’s something that’s totally transparent, the customer doesn’t know it’s there working for them that every day it’s shutting down four injectors and saving fuel. I think that’s really cool.
Dave: But they did put the programming onto that light. There seems to be a natural lag since that thing works in milliseconds, but how does the light relate to the actual MDS operation?
I think it’s pretty much what’s going on. I mean it may have a little bit of delay so the light doesn’t just flash on and back off. … I remember our ’08 Magnum, that had the reconfigurable display where it had the little bar that went back and forth, and I guess the trucks now they just bring the word ECO up I think. That’s probably what you’re thinking of. I’m pretty sure it’s exactly when it’s in four.
Marc: The computer knows when it’s on or off.
There’s plenty involved. The signals are there. You change the solenoids and the lifters respond instantly. That was kind of the neat part of seeing that thing all come together, all that stuff’s all got to be perfectly timed. The fuel’s got to go down at exactly the right time otherwise you can get in…
I remember the first development car that was not running on an engine controller, but running on PCs. The trunk was literally full of stuff to run the MDS because they had a ton of programmable stuff in there, as they were starting to develop their way through it. Then we developed the exhaust system stuff and made the system work.
That was a big fear. I think that might have been why GM had some trouble, is they were having trouble getting it quiet enough because all the things you want to do for an exhaust system in four-cylinder mode is not the same stuff you want to do in V8 mode. Then you still want it to be kind of throaty sounding a little bit. You don’t want it to sound like a vacuum cleaner when it’s in wide-open throttle either.
Marc: That’s why you held off on the MDS for the trucks a while, right? Because the trucks were a little more on the noisy side. With the trucks you could hear the rumble, whereas the cars you couldn’t. It was late a year or two there for those.
Dave: How did you deal with the exhaust? It couldn’t have been a baffle, it works too quickly.
No, it isn’t. In fact, we had some advice from the Mercedes guys, don’t try that, because they did try that and they couldn’t make them live. They would rust up and the corrosion and exhaust if you let them set and so forth.
I was pretty quick to agree with that because I lived through the variable-nozzle turbo, and that was an issue there too. But what we would do with that is every time you start it up, we’d swipe them back. You’d flip the nozzles back and forth a few times to kind of clean off any deposits that were built up.
Well, it all happened one night in Arizona. We were out at the Arizona proving ground when it was cold back here where we could do more stuff. But we used a combination of modeling, looking at tuning lengths and so forth. If I can call it the magic or whatever in the system is in those rear resonators – the length of tubes and so forth in there. In fact, we had a little demonstration car setup that we had the resonators were in their location but we had a pipe coming out of them past the back bumper maybe 15” and we drove that car one night about midnight and said holy cow. This is it. That was in the model. That was the tuning length that we needed. So we just needed to get that length all stuffed inside the can, which is what we ended up doing.
Marc: Because testing those, that always involves exhaust. People think about just doing better for calibration, but a lot of our work did involve exhaust – a lot of work.
We were always – we’d have something that would sound good and we’d want to know what the back pressure was.
Marc: Yeah. You always want to have the last amount of back pressure and yet still keep the car quiet in a fly-by test, and that was always a conflict at times with a new vehicle. It’s always a battle between the engine guys and the vehicle guys. We want the power but we want the quietness too, but there’s always how can we achieve both?
You’ve got the regulatory pass-by noise too. You’ve got to worry about that. And Europe is different. The setup’s different, so you’ve got to do it all over again.
Marc: Yeah, but we did a lot of exhaust testing on a lot of engines. You always start off with no exhaust at all and added as you went along as need be, but even then for dyno we never used exhaust. We always had a piping with a restrictor in the exhaust to simulate the back pressure needed for exhaust or for a vehicle, but we never had the aligned muffler or cap. There’s always been a plate in there. It made it sort of more emphasized. It would emulate the full exhaust for our calibration purposes. So a lot of exhaust work went on, and full vehicle and dyno in this stuff. It’s not overlooked at all, that’s for sure.
Well there was some engine mount stuff and some induction all played in to make it nice and quiet and transparent so you couldn’t tell it.
Well I think I’ve told most of the big stories I guess.
My retirement at the end of ’07 was not driven so much by what was going on here, but things my wife and I wanted to do and had never done. In fact, the very first thing we did right after my party in January which was here was drove a Hemi Magnum about 6700 miles. We went out to our daughter’s on the west coast and pretty much ran everywhere on the west coast with a total trip average of 26.4 mpg.
Marc: Not bad for a Magnum.
The one caveat is being retired I took advantage of not having to go 85 and get there. If the speed limit was 75, I went 80 and kind of ran the “five over” kind of thing. So I didn’t push it.
Dave: And that makes a huge difference, more in the minivans. Marc: And 70, you’d be surprised, even two miles an hour over…
And one of the goals we set for the system, for the MDS system, was I wanted to be able to – at least on level ground – be able to cruise at 80 on four-cylinder mode. Because I figured if we put a system out there that only works at say 60 or 65, everybody’s going to go 70 or 75. “I’m not getting good fuel economy! What the hell’s going on here?” Because the EPA test never goes over 70 and in fact it barely gets there.
I remember being at the Arizona proving grounds on the oval, and kind of driving real carefully but I edged it up to 92 one night in four-cylinder mode. No major winds, kind of all the right conditions. But I think in general most cars on level ground will do great around 80 to 85.
Marc: You don’t realize it either, if you do tip into it at all, it’s in eight-cylinder mode. It’s there, you don’t feel it.
No, you don’t know it and usually if you go up a little bit of a grade or whatever then that’s over… so if you look at the accumulated time over a whole trip, we have cars out on test strips. I remember one guy went out to like Pennsylvania, which is pretty hilly. He still came back with like 90-something percent of the trip was running in four-cylinder mode because once you get over the hill, you go down or it levels out. So you really do get a lot of four-cylinder on-time.
Note: some parts of this interview have been re-ordered for easier reading.
Other Burke Brown interview sections: Burke and engines • LH cars • Burke’s cars
Related topics: Chrysler 300C • Dodge Magnum • Dodge Challenger • Dodge Charger
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