Chris Theodore: leader of the 1996-2000 minivan and 2000-05 Neon

chris theodoreChris Theodore was involved in several major projects in his time at Chrysler, including the original Dodge Viper, the Prowler, the second-generation Neon (taking over when the car was already far along), and the all-important second-generation (not counting the 1991 updates) minivans. In this part of the interview, he talks about each of these projects.

1996-2000 minivans

John Nemeth was the head of the minivan and carryover products team and when he chose to retire, they asked me to take over the minivan platform team. We launched twin airbags on the ’94 model, but the real job was to reinvent the minivan for the second generation. That was a great project and it was a lot of fun and we did reinvent the minivan.

Let’s backtrack to the formation of the platform teams. Lutz and Castaing wanted to recreate some of the success we’d had at Jeep-Truck. Castaing made the proposal, and John Miller, Craig Winn and I put together the proposal to create individual platform teams for Francois. He sold Lutz on the idea, and it was decided that the first platform team would be set up for the LH program. Glenn Gardner was selected as the head of the LH program. We tried to pick the best of the best from the combined organization to staff LH.

We set up that group at Featherstone Road. The second one out was the Neon platform team under Bob Marcel. Bob was a great Chrysler guy (worked on the Plymouth Superbird), and a great team was put together doing some very, very innovative things. The third platform team was minivan. Finally, Jeep and Truck were split into separate platform teams.

1997 plymouth voyager

Was minivan a platform by itself or?

No, the minivan platform team became a separate unit once the carryover products went out of production, like the Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim. Small Car was the first platform team to move into the Technical Center.

So I ended up being the General Manager of the minivan platform team. We had a great time. We had a great team of guys. We ran as a cross-functional team – that was the big thing and most people don’t understand. And I really liked the way we did it in minivan.

Were you able to go out and pull in the people you wanted for your team?

By that time the other platform teams had already been set up. So the Minivan team was made up of Chrysler and AMC people that hadn’t joined the other platforms. Still, it was still a very talented team.

The good thing is it was engineering-led but we had great planning, manufacturing, finance and purchasing people. On the team we had Dick Winter from Product Planning, Frank Sanders from Finance, Peter Rosenfeld from Purchasing, and Les Wolfe from Manufacturing. Tom Edison was the program manager, and they called themselves the “Fab Five” (after U of M’s basketball team). We really had a great time. We looked at customers. We visited customers. We videotaped customers at rest stops, truck stops and lumber yards.

minivan cutaway

Yeah, that was really new back then. That was never done before so much.

minivan sales 1996-2000That’s where we came up with all the ideas. From cup holders to tissue holders to rollout seats, to the fourth door, these were all things that we saw the customer needed, but didn’t volunteer, when asked.

It was a big program and it was a lot of fun. ... The minivan team was great and that was probably one of the high points in my career was doing the minivan.

The second generation minivan was pretty much a new sheet of paper. It wasn’t a carryover at all…

There wasn’t a carryover part in the van. Well, everything had to be, really needed to be new to take minivans to the next level. Defining the architecture so that sales and marketing could get everything it needed. We decided we wanted to go with the fourth door, but sales and marketing weren’t sure, so they wanted to have the fourth door as an option. I wanted it standard, but we had to design the architecture so that you could do both.

1998 dodge caravan minivan

Then we had the rollout seats, so we had to design the rollout seats – and Bob Feldmaier was part of the team – so that both short-wheelbase and long-wheelbase minivans could use the same seats.

It was an expensive program, and we were talking about building 700,000 units at the time. It was going to be built in three plants: Graz, Austria as well as Windsor and in St. Louis. It was a very complicated program.

A lot of technology was put into that vehicle; a lot of industry firsts. That was a great program, and a great team. We hit the market well, introduced a lot of innovations, and kept over 50% of the market.

The second generation did well, and Chrysler kept its disproportionate market share, despite increased competition. Chrysler, at the time, was an 11% market share company, so we did really, really well with the minivan. They were solid.

1997 chrysler town & country

Second generation Neon

2001 dodge neonWhen Bob Marcel retired, the second generation Neon was already in progress, so they asked me to take over the small car team. So I left minivan to run the small car platform team.

The styling for the second-generation Neon had already been set. They had some better models but for some reason, they chose the one they did, and the team had become - to be honest about it - kind of dysfunctional, without a leader.

There was a key individual who had passed away, the program manager on the original Neon — Alan Carlson. He was a great guy. It turns out he was the glue for the Neon team. When he passed away, at a very young age, the team became dysfunctional and got caught up in some group consultant type stuff. They used to sit around in a circle every morning and everybody talked about their personal problems before getting down to work.

“What should we do?”

No, first they’d clear their heads. “My cat died” and this and that. They tried to tell me how good this was and everything, and I put up with it for a while and finally said, “Hey...”

But the Neon was semi-cooked and while it was a good car, an improved car in many ways, it didn’t really set the world on fire either.

Follow-up questions asked via e-mail

2000 Dodge NeonWhen the second generation Neon first appeared, the standard manual transmission had aggressive gearing which increased noise and cut highway mileage, but maintained the original's acceleration times. This gearing was dropped after a year or two. It also kept the three-speed automatic at first, only later moving to the four-speed. Do you have any insights/comments into these decisions?

I'd forgotten about the manual gearing, but I seem to recall that we wanted to maintain the performance and fun, even though the car had gained weight. The 3-speed automatic was cost driven. Once we figured out how to fit the 4-speed into the PT - it was heavier and needed the 4 speed - we could then offer it in the Neon, which also needed it.

The lead stylist of the second-gen Neon said they'd restyled the Neon to match the current Intrepid, just as the first was (he said) styled to match the original Intrepid. Do you have any memories about how the styling was chosen, any arguments about evolving the original styling, etc.?

The styling was essentially set when I came on board. I didn't think it was adventuresome enough, but the decision had already been made. I had seen another clay model with a Ferrari-style front end with covered headlamps that I liked much better, and I think it would have done better in the marketplace

2003 neon car review center consoleMany drivers used the air conditioning all year because they always turned the fan knob in the "a/c" direction. I was surprised to find the same HVAC controls in the second generation -- a cost issue? A time issue? Or just not in the program guidelines for an update?

HVAC was carryover for low cost, including controls. It even kept the obsolete cable operation system. That being said, we were chartered to make the new Neon for the same cost as the original. We came in under $200 under budget, and spent the last two months spending the money to try and upgrade the interior, which was too cheap. I did learn later that the Neon cost $1,000 less to make than a Focus, but the second generation Neon was not our finest moment, and one of the vehicles that I wish I had a do-over.

Do you recall the program goals for the second generation Neon, versus the first generation?

Basically, fix first generation deficiencies, while maintaing cost; more suspension travel, better interior package, quieter, and fix the 2.0l engine (head gaskets).

1995 and 2002 Dodge NeonWhat do you think were the major shortcomings of the second generation Neon (or for that matter, un-addressed shortcomings of the first generation)?

Bland styling, loss of fun factor, too cost constrained, cheap interior, 3-speed automatic, and a new engine mount system that didn't isolate the engine like it should have. We rationalized that we had to make the Neon more mature. It was a better car than the original, but did not go far enough.

When Prowler was set up, was it already seen as a pilot for Plymouth's future look? Was the expertise in aluminum ever used elsewhere at Chrysler?

I think some of the stamping and hemming knowledge was used for aluminum hoods on a couple of other vehicles.

Where did the 1997 Plymouth Pronto concept car fit into the Plymouth/PT story?

I don't recall clearly, but the Pronto was a concept that Tom Gale loved, and as I recall, it may have been a precursor to the CCV vehicle.

1997 Plymouth Pronto concept car


Was there a PT inspired Breeze in the works?

I don't recall any sketches regarding a PT inspired Breeze. The only thing was the cross hatched grill texture which was copied from the PT before Plymouth was killed.

Finally — were all those rumors about a supercharged first-generation Neon "running around Auburn Hills" hot air, or were there really plans to do that?

As I recall, we were playing around with a supercharged PT, and some prototypes may have found their way into the Neon, or been used for mules.

Also see: Neon • Minivans

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