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Fun memories at Chrysler

A night with the Pettys

derek harling, 2011I stayed the night at the Petty home in December 1961 so always felt I had a connection with them. Happened like this:

I’d started at the Chrysler Institute of Engineering in August 1961, straight from college in England (sponsored by the Chrysler/Dodge truck plant in Kew, long before the Rootes deal came up).

In mid-December I was visiting Ronnie Householder over at the Plymouth Lynch Road garage to pick up a car destined for the Pure Oil Economy Trials at Daytona the following month. The idea was to put mileage on the cars to be driven down to Daytona before the competition, and someone thought it would be a good idea for this new Englishman “to see the country” by driving one of them.

Who should be in Householder’s office but Lee Petty; he was totally fascinated by my English accent and vice versa. Long story short: he said if you’re driving down near Level Cross, North Carolina, come and see us. So I did. I remember two things in particular – a most hospitable dinner with the family including Lee, his wife, Richard, and I presume Maurice (plus a very good night’s sleep), and a field full of old/bent race cars all painted Petty blue.

derek harling and dick jonesFinancial ups and downs

While I was at college in England, I was offered a job by Chrysler in Detroit starting at the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. Not only was the starting salary, even as a student, double the next-best offer I got from an English company, but I would also get my BTA (Been To America), which was quite important in those days. But this was early 1961, and guess what – Chrysler had one of its many financial crises, and the offer was withdrawn. Looked like I was destined to work at a chemical company (how boring), but at the last minute someone in Chrysler International found a way to resurrect the offer, and so I was set for four decades of immense fun.

The black and white pic shows me (right) being greeted by Dick Jones on my first day at the Chrysler Institute in 1961. Dick was the first graduate from Europe to join the CIE, I was the second a year later.

Did Chrysler do a lot of things on a shoestring in those days?

I was too young (or at least too new) to understand any politics or policy matters. I’m sure there were also official sponsorship programs of various types, but the ones I was associated with, the Ramchargers and Scott Harvey’s rallying, were simply super-enthusiastic employees who the company realized were worth supporting with a few dollars (few to them, lots to us).

Student at The Fat Man’s Club

Through tenuous family connections I got to know a senior finance exec of the corporation – senior enough to have a big office on mahogany row. He would occasionally invite me not only for a chat in his office, but also to have lunch in the executive dining room, otherwise known as the “Fat Man’s Club.” You can imagine the ribbing I got about that. Fun.

Ramcharged weekends

1963 Candymatic

I wasn’t really a drag race enthusiast but did become a member of the Ramchargers and now look back in amazement at our 1962/63 race weekends. On Friday lunch hour we’d rush over to Byron Nichols’ department to borrow a car and get a bumper hitch fitted. After work we’d hitch the race car and flat tow it overnight to somewhere in the eastern half of the continent. Check in at a motel, enjoy the pool for an hour or two, then off to a Saturday night event. Sleep! Sunday, off to another drag strip and another match race. Sunday night, drive home overnight, drop the race car, have a shower, and straight into work. Return the borrowed car on Monday lunch hour. Thanks to Dan Mancini’s negotiating ability, we always got enough appearance money to more than cover expenses. Fun to be young.

Simca 1000 across Canada

derek harling with simca mille in vancouverThe Shell 4000 Rally involved long distances day and night across Canadian mountains and prairie gumbo in spring, when the snow was melting and creating all kinds of impossible situations on un-surfaced roads.

In 1963, thanks to the suggestion of Scott Harvey, I ended up competing in a Simca 1000 courtesy of the Import/Export Division. We started in Vancouver and got as far as The Soo (Sault St. Marie) where it fell apart and died. We rented a “real” car to tow it home – or as my co-driver Dale Reeker remarked, “Just what the Simca needed – 200 hp up front instead of 20 hp behind the rear axle.” Fun.

Valiants in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally

valiants in the 1964 monte carlo rally

Looks production to me

scott harvey and gene hendersonScott Harvey had persuaded the company to run three Valiants in the January 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. Valiants only had the Slant Six engine in those days, but Scott had built a V8 version and shipped it over to England (I was working England by then).

We drove it into London to have lunch at the Steering Wheel Club with Dean Delamont, the motorsport secretary of the Royal Automobile Club. After a long lunch we walked outside to “inspect” the car; Scott opened the hood, Dean glanced inside and said, “Looks production to me.” Approved.

Monte Carlo or Bust

On the actual event three V8 Valiants were driven by Scott Harvey, Gene Henderson (a Detroit policeman), Trant Jarman (a Detroit driver, journalist, and general crazy man), Sam Croft-Pearson (a true English gentleman and well experienced in those sorts of events), and a Scandinavian pair called Esko Keinanen and Jurki Ahava.

I drove the service car; we only had the one to cover most of western Europe, so our event was probably more hectic than the other three experienced. The back seat was filled with spiked ice tires. Fun, in retrospect. But the Monte Carlo sun in January was wonderful.

trant jarman and sam croft-perason

Rosie’s Bar

Anyone who has read about the earlier days of the Monaco F1 race knows about Rosie’s Bar. All the drivers went there, not only to have a beer or ten and stick their signed pictures on the walls and ceiling, but also to be “mother-henned” by Rosie. We went there after the Monte Carlo Rally, and I went back 30 years later in 1994. Rosie was still there and so was our picture. Fun.

Free weekend racing

scott harvey

In 1965 I flew over from England for a Product Planning meeting, and bumped into Scott Harvey.

“What are you doing this weekend?”

“I'll be back in England by then, flying home Friday night.”

“No, you’re not — come racing with me — I’m taking the Barracuda to Meadowlands (just north of Chicago).” So now the crew total was two — Scott and me. He won his race, of course, and I flew home from O’Hare. Was back in my office at 8am Monday morning. Fun.

Tehran by night

paykan cars by iran khodroWas working with Chrysler South Africa by now, and in 1969 visited Chrysler Australia for a routine liaison meeting. Ended up changing my itinerary to visit Japan and started a project to import and assemble Colts in South Africa – the first such operation with the corporation. Then another change to visit Iran National in Tehran to discuss their [Hillman Arrow-based] Paykan pickup for South Africa.

But here’s the fun bit: flight arrived at 3 a.m. – that’s right, A.M. There was supposed to be a driver waiting for me, but I guess he thought having a car for the night was more fun than meeting someone at the airport. When the airport terminal started closing up for the night, I panicked a bit because nobody spoke English (or French or Afrikaans). Finally got a taxi to a hotel in the wrong end of town. Called the office at 9 a.m. – “Where are you, Mr. Harling?”

“At the ***** Hotel.”

“Stay there, do not leave your room. We’ll come and rescue you.”

Not fun. I was offered a job there in 1977, didn’t take it – the revolution happened in 1979. Would not have been fun.

I’ll never understand

I got assigned to the Rootes staff as we started buying their stock. One of the reasons I moved to International was that even though it was us (Chrysler) buying them (Rootes), from an everyday work relationship aspect, we Chrysler people were totally outnumbered by the Rootes staff and not very popular!

Got moved to Canada in 1977, somewhat sedate after my first 16 years but still fun. Maybe it’s my attitude to life. Canadian product is of course very similar to U.S. product, but there was still a lot of little things to be negotiated. When we still had unique Plymouth products I had to derive these with minimum investment and complexity – and try to do it without upsetting the various product teams in Detroit. My method to get results for Canada was to reach concensus early at a lower level and let it trickle up.

On one occasion, a Plymouth Caravelle was up for design approval. I always tried to be there for the pre-meeting with Hal Sperlich and then keep in the background at the actual approval meeting. On this occasion Hal looked at his agenda, then looked at me and said, “Some things I’ll never understand. Next item ...” We took that as approval. Fun.

Plymouth hood ornamentBy the way, many people don’t know where the name Caravelle comes from. One of the early, if not the original, Plymouth brand logos was a sailing ship — as used by the Plymouth Brethren - a caravelle, in fact. Variations, some quite stylized, continued through the years. When the unique Canadian product was being launched for the 1978 model year, there was a staff suggestion run for a suitable name and one smart young secretary, who was into sailing and knew the logo, suggested Caravelle - and Canada begat Caravelle.

1939 Plymouth hood ornament

Viper’s First Podium

The last thing I did before retirement was to coordinate the IMSA race at Mosport under Chrysler sponsorship - the name Chrysler Mosport 500 was my idea and no one challenged it.

viper trophy

Probably not many people know that the first podium the Viper ever achieved was at this 1996 race, followed, of course, by many more important wins in later years. I'd been on the Viper Team as Canadian rep almost from the beginning but working on this dual project, the race and the Viper entry, was a great way to finish my career. I retired two days later. Great, great fun.

viper trophy model maker

George Lacy, are you following me?

George and I kept bumping into each other over the decades. I first met him when I did my Institute plant assignment at the Windsor Assembly plant - George was Chief Engineer. Two years later, at the PPC meeting mentioned above, George was just in front of me — I tapped him on the shoulder — “What are you doing here, Derek?”

Eleven years later (1976), George had just been made Managing Director of Chrysler UK; I was in the executive suite at Chrysler South Africa one lunch time when the Managing Director's phone rang. Since his secretary was at lunch, I answered, “Walt McPherson's office, Derek Harling speaking.”

Slight pause — “Hi, Derek, George Lacy here calling from England — what are you doing there?”

“Well, er, George, what are you doing there?”

After he returned from England he worked for me in Canada for a few weeks until a more appropriate assignment was found for him in Detroit but we stayed in touch well into his retirement — a genuinely nice person.

Rootes

In the early days of the Rootes takeover, we had the first formal truck product planning meeting (would have been 1965). Ranking execs were Lord Rootes (Geoffrey) on their side and Jack Charipar on our side. After the meeting about a dozen of us went to dinner at The Bell in Aston Clinton, one of the finest eateries in the south of England at the time. We had lamb chops. After dinner one of my buddies said, “You’ll get on fine in Rootes, Derek”

“Why?”

“Only you and Lord Rootes picked up the lamb chops with your fingers to eat.” (Not generally considered normal in those days; etiquette demanded use of knife and fork for everything.) Fun.

Jsir reginald rootesack Charipar was a upwardly mobile young exec at the time – died young soon after this.

The Lord Rootes I knew, Geoffrey, was a second generation peer. His father (William, “Billy”) and uncle (Reginald) made the Rootes Group what it was, including a major war effort. Have you ever noticed that during the war, Winston Churchill was almost always seen in a Humber car? That wasn't an official car, it was Billy Rootes’ personal car and chauffeur. Like Sperlich, Churchill had a way of getting what he needed, or at least wanted.

Billy and Reginald were both knighted (made Sirs) for their war efforts. Later on, Billy was promoted to Baron Rootes of Ramsbury (their family home), presumably for his achievement as Chairman of Rootes in postwar export efforts (remember, Britain was basically bankrupt after the war) and agreeing to build the Linwood plant in Scotland, where there was enormous unemployment — you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. He died in 1964 just as the Chrysler negotiations were concluding.

Geoffrey was far more urbane, aristocratic — but a great businessman — somewhat aloof but gentlemanly, friendly, great when you got to know him. He died in 1992. His son is the third baron.

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