Interviewed by Jessie Eustice in Summer 2009
Where did you grow up?
I was born on the west side of Cleveland, in Lakewood, Ohio - and early childhood there until we moved to where I presently live here in Mantua, Ohio, which is half way between Akron and Cleveland.
Were you involved in the little private car show that Bill Wetherolt described?
Mr. Tyjeski: Yes, I was, I did miss it last year due to spending some time in the Akron City hospital with congestive heart failure. Otherwise, I have attended it yes.
Are you okay now?
Mr. Tyjeski: I'm sucking air, and wasn’t in today’s newspaper, so I'm doing fine.
What can you tell me about your first car?
Well, first of all, I've been affiliated with Chrysler between automobile dealerships and Chrysler Corporation for fifty-five years. I started to work in the automobile industry when I was a senior in high school there, and that was from about 1954 until the present time. I pretty much had an affiliation with Chrysler…
My dad was an automobile dealer on the west side of Cleveland going back to the stone age with cars that you with cars that you probably don’t even recognize such as Graham, Willys, Nash, and Hudson Automobiles. In the mid ’50s he moved here and started a DeSoto-Plymouth dealership. I fell in love with the 1956 DeSotos. I presently own five of them.
My first car was a Dodge convertible, a 1952 Dodge convertible that was from the car dealership that I used while I was still in school. I've been a MoPar fan all my life.
Now of course Hudson and everything is now still part of MoPar as far as Chrysler is concerned. It’s been adopted along with the Jeep, etc. Willys was a dealership he had also back in those years. That’s going way back into the mid to late thirties and into the fourties. That was that era. In the ’50s, he was a Hudson dealer and in the mid fifties we moved to the area where I live now, as I said earlier. He opened up a DeSoto Plymouth automobile dealership. DeSoto of course is a Chrysler vehicle.
The Plymouth and the Dodge cars are one and the same cars built by two different factories with different grills and tail lights. And DeSoto and Chrysler was the same arrangement. They were the same body styles, and exactly the same cars with a difference of grills and tail lights. And all of my cars are DeSotos that I have. All five of them are 1956s.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the work that you did when you started working?
I started as a kid in school. I was working in my father’s automobile dealership as a porter or a car-wash; used car lot boy, cleaning up and washing used cars and things of that sort.
In later years I learned the automotive parts trade of Chrysler, and became a MoPar parts manager in the dealerships. There were rumors that DeSoto was going to be terminated, and taken away from Chrysler. (Which they did in 1961. The last DeSoto built was 1961 and the first DeSoto was built in 1929. So you can see that Desoto was built for a number of years.) I started to work in the dealership and I had a brother-in-law that was parts manager, and he trained me to be the parts man that I became for many years.
Tyjeski-Bamford was the name of the dealership that was in Ravenna, which was DeSoto Plymouth. In 1958 we terminated the dealership and I went to work for a competitive dealership up the street, still with the Mopar Chrysler Family, to a Chrysler Plymouth Imperial dealership called Zimmerman Motors, in Ravenna. I worked for them from 1958 through 1962 when I then was offered a position at Martin Motors Dodge, which is where I really met Bill Wetherholt. I met him there because he bought many cars from Martin Motors Dodge.
I then became a service and parts manager and worked there for about sixteen years as a service and parts manager in that dealership. Shortly after that in 1978 I believe it was, I was offered a position with Chrysler Motor Corporation, and I went to work for Chrysler in Solon, Ohio. They were the MoPar parts division of Chrysler Corporation, and I was employed there one year before the bottom fell out of the automobile industry with the recession that we had, and Lee Iacocca took over Chrysler Corporation, and I eventually got transferred over to Twinsburg Stamping Plant of Chrysler in Twinsburg, Ohio. That is where Bill Wetherholt also works.
We were co-workers there although in two different fields altogether. I was in non-production and he was in skilled trades, but we saw each other quite frequently and I knew him from the dealership level.
Did you drive a Hilo?
Yes. A forklift, we call them Hilos. I was a Hilo driver at Chrysler for many years. I had some other positions there too, but I retired in 2005 from Chrysler with 27 years of service with the corporation, as a Hilo driver.
That’s a pretty heavy piece of machinery, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s a pretty large 7 ton [Hilos are rated by what they can lift.]… what I drove basically were the blankers. I would handle big sheet stocks of steel that produced a thing such as what we call an aperture which is the whole side of the car. It was stamped out in one stamping, these humongous presses that they had there, with the dies. That was pretty much what I was doing, but also I was assigned to keeping various lines running and so it was varied different job assignments. There wasn’t just one particular job you were doing. You had a number of different jobs to fulfill as a driver.
Were you also a union member?
Yes I was, UAW Local 122. I was not a participant in any kind of positions of the union; I was strictly an employee with union coverage and union benefits. The union certainly was good to me over the years. I had a worker’s compensation injury, and they paid that with the benefits that we had without any complications. I have also had a series of heart issues and some health issues in general … benefits that we had as union represented were certainly beneficial and probably why I am still sucking air today, and doing good.
That makes me think about your father, who had a dealership starting in the 1930s.
Yes, my father was an immigrant from Poland, he came through Ellis Island, and he and his brothers came over and when he was sixteen years old, they opened up a restaurant in downtown Cleveland, on east 9th street, called “The White Eagle.” From there, he gravitated into the automobile business, starting with used cars, and eventually picked up some franchises, such as Graham, Willys, Nash, and Hudson. That dealership terminated in 1953 I believe, when he was selling Hudsons, and that’s when he came out to Ravenna in 1954 and opened up the Plymouth Desoto dealership with Chrysler where I spent most of my early beginnings.
Our whole family was automotive, I’d been born and raised around the automobile business all my life, and it’s … some families are really close and huggie huggie, lovey dovie, kissy type families, and ours was a business family, that if you didn’t do the job, well we’ll find someone that can do the job, and after 5:00 we were father son, brother sister, and etcetera, and then became maybe a little huggie lovey dovie family, but mainly it was a business oriented family.
I learned so much from my father. After he passed away there are so many things, you know the old saying “When I was 17 years old, I thought my dad was the dumbest thing in the world, and when I turned 21 I couldn’t believe how much he’d learned in that 4 years.” But I was never able to tell him that except at the grave site.
I think you know every single part in the MoPar line. Is that the proper way to say it? I don’t know.
No, I wouldn’t say that is accurate. Before I went to work for Chrysler Corporation when I worked in the dealership. I was a parts manager and I don’t need to say it egotistically but I knew my job and knew my job well and I knew how to read Chrysler parts books. I know how to identify parts and it was always a pleasure when a stranger walked in the parts counter door and said, “I know you don’t have this part, but I've been everywhere and nobody’s got it and I know you probably don’t either,” and then I’d look it up and maybe I was lucky enough that I did have the part and I made a friend and a customer, or if not, I said, “I'm sorry I don’t have it either, but I can have the part here for you by tomorrow or the day after, here, if you wish to have me order it for you.”
That’s how we built the businesses up in all of the dealerships I worked for, so it was service to the customers, offering Chrysler product, parts, and vehicles.
My employees were people that worked at the Chrysler dealerships. When I worked for Chrysler Corporation at Solon - at the parts division - that was a different phase altogether than from being a parts manager at a dealership. A parts manager at a dealership has to identify and look up a part and locate them for a customer; for the service department that was affiliated with me, to get the customer’s vehicle out on the road as quickly as possible.
Working in the Solon Parts Depot was a different situation completely; dealers that I used to work for would call in orders and order parts that people were trying to locate, and my job was to find those parts in the plants and gather them and put them in a package to be shipped to the dealer, all over the country. That was a far cry from dealing with the public. It was a different situation. You just had your job to do, and you just did your job. That was it.
So would you say that the economy affected the market for parts as time went on?
Back in the seventies when I was working at the Chrysler Parts Depot in Solon, we had a very severe recession, and Lee Iacocca, an icon in the automobile industry, came from Ford to Chrysler and took over the reigns of the complete corporation. I was a new kid on the block, and there was low seniority, and I got laid off. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been laid off.
Eventually I was transferred from Solon to the Twinsburg plant, which is where I retired from. The economy was still terrible, it was work-work two weeks, and get laid off for a month, and get called back for a couple of days, and then get laid off again. But finally in the eighties things took hold and Lee Iacocca turned the corporation around with the K-Car produced, and put Chrysler back on the map, which of course affected the parts department as well because in order to maintain cars you have to have parts available through the dealerships.
I understand that you collect cars and you have five DeSotos.
Yes, I have five 1956 DeSotos, and I just completed one that has been a 14 year project I have been working on. I showed it the other day for the very first time and it won Best-Of-Show award. In fact Bill was there too with his car. But I have five, they’re all ’56s, they are all DeSotos, they all look alike, but the one that I just described was a 1956 DeSoto Adventurer. It was a special made vehicle to compete with the Chrysler 300 that was a hot muscle car in the 50s era. This has a Hemi engine with the dual 4 barrel carburetors. A lot of “gingerbread” and muscle car stuff.
I also have a Pace Car convertible. It is one of 200 vehicles built to sell to the public from the Indianapolis 500 race in 1956. I am just starting that project. I will be the fifth one to have five of them totally done; white collar hobby, blue collar wages.
All of the 1956 DeSotos that I own have the Hemi engines in it. In 1955 they dropped the 6-cylinder engine, and 1955 through ’57 were all Hemi engines. All DeSotos that were produced in that time, and all of my cars, have Hemi engines; some with single four barrel carburetors and some with dual 4 barrel carburetors.
Why did they all have Hemis in them?
It was a new, Chrysler was the one that really invented the Hemi engine. They has a patent on it and they were very, very, very powerful engines. Back in the ’50s people were buying cars for one of two reasons: they looked pretty, and they had a good performing engine. DeSoto and Chrysler led the field in performance back in those years, which sold many many cars for Chrysler Corporation.
So that was even before the Chargers and all that started.
Exactly. I don’t want to really get you confused talking about Hemi engines, but the type of Hemi engines I have were the very first ones that were produced, and they are an enormous expensive engine to build. In the ’60s (’57 was the last year they built the Hemi for DeSoto, ’58 was the last year for Chrysler of the Hemi) Chrysler came out with a 426 Hemi, which was used in Plymouth, Dodge, Darts, and Valiants. They made that engine available and one engine was the same no matter what body it was in, it was just a 426 Hemi. The Hemis of my era, a Chrysler Hemi is different than a Desoto Hemi, and a DeSoto Hemi is different than a Dodge Hemi, and they were all different back in these years, but all very powerful engines and … were a plus for Chrysler Corporation … put Chrysler on the map; with the performance levels that the Hemi engine produced for racing and things of that sort.
Why were they all different?
Back in that era, there was a Plymouth division of Chrysler Corporation, there was a Dodge Division, there was a DeSoto Division, there was a Chrysler Division of Chrysler Corporation, and there was an Imperial Division of Chrysler Corporation. And it was like comparing Fords and Chevys, everyone had their own individual … we were our own worst enemies back in those years because we were fighting each other. Dodge was fighting with Plymouth, and DeSoto was competing with Chrysler, and Chrysler of course was the marquee so-to-speak. 1956 was the only year in the history of Chrysler Corporation that DeSotos outsold the flagship car, Chrysler. That was the start of their downfall. The car was priced much more reasonably than a Chrysler and looked exactly just like it. They were really the same cars. Just different grills and tail lights; interiors.
The Pace Car is one of the last ones I acquired. This Black and Gold Adventurer is the color combination on the one that I just described that I've been working on for 14 years. I just finished it up and took it to the car show and won Best-of-show with it the other night. They only built a limited amount of those Adventurers, 996 DeSoto Adventurers. I had, at one time here, three of them. One was a junked parts car, and one I just recently sold, because I decided I wasn’t going to live long enough, at 72 years old, to complete that one and the convertible.
The Convertible was a Pace Car, was of limited production also; they only built 200 of these to sell to the public. They really only made, of course, the one Pace Car Convertible for the actual race, which they gave to the winner of the race. But it increased Chrysler’s sales enormously when those two cars — the Adventurer and the Pace Car Convertible brought out in the exact same year as a matter of fact; because the DeSoto Adventurer was a Pace Car for the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, and that was a phenomenal advertisement, free advertising, so to speak. Then when they brought the convertible out for the Indianapolis 500 race, they elected to build 200 to sell to the public.
Do you have children that you will pass these cars on to? What are your plans for them?
They’re my toys, I guess, and my kids look at them and say “What did Dad buy that thing for?” you know, but this automobile business that was my livelihood, and became my life. As the kids were growing up I was a work-a-holic; I was involved strongly into the automobile business. I went from service manager and service and parts manager and then eventually to parts manager only in the dealership, and generally became a general manager, and the one car dealership I was working, it was kind of a way of life for me and my family really suffered through all those years because of my activity in the business. So I had four children from a previous marriage. We had two girls and two boys, and my one youngest son died here at 42 years old, just a few years ago.
None of the kids are really interested in the cars, and my wife, she likes her knitting and her crocheting that she is involved in and she likes to ride in the car once in awhile, but she’s kind of fearful to get behind the steering wheel. They are quite large cars and she, I think is afraid she is going to put a scratch on it or something … so really I don’t know what I am going to do except if I happen to pass on, they’re probably going to have to be sold at a sale or something of that sort. But I have had a number of people, who’ve wanted to buy a couple of cars, that have been approaching me, and I did sell one of them just recently.
I am sure there are many people interested, and I bet the Chrysler Museum wouldn’t mind either.
That museum is in financial problems as well as this relapse that we’ve had in the, not just the automobile industry, but in this country. We’re in trouble period. No matter what walk of life, so many people … I happen to be a MoPar fan, and have Chrysler imbedded into me, but so many people buy automobiles today and so many of the imports are being sold. They say “Well, my Toyota is built in the United States, it’s an American car.” But where is the money going, it’s not going to American Industry; it’s going back to Japan. And some day people are going to have to wake up to the fact that we’ve got to buy American no matter whether it’s a Van Heusen or a pair of Docker’s trousers. We’ve got to get back to buying American. Put our country back together here soon. We’re already in trouble now.
I just read an article in one of my recent publications of car stuff I have got here, one automotive worker affects nine other jobs; nine other people outside of the automotive industry. Maybe the guy that’s making the front bumper, might be a guy that’s making a plastic button to put on the dashboard, but when the auto industry falls on its face, everything goes down with it.
I love Chrysler Corporation, and Chrysler has been awfully good to me over the years. Between them and the UAW furnishing me with the benefits that Chrysler paid and I'm a car guy. I love the automobile business, but I'm specifically a MoPar Chrysler fan, because it’s been my life. I've been affiliated … I didn’t gravitate to buying the Willys cars that my dad used to sell, and I didn’t gravitate to buying Nash cars, and some of the other cars that he had because I'm a product of the ’50s and I grew up in the ’50s and Virgil Exner was Chrysler’s designer.
The 1956 was the first year of the gradual tailfin that they produced, was the first year of the 12 volt electrical system, the first year of the highway hi-fi record player. You have probably never even heard of a record player being in them but they did make them available as an option from Chrysler. We didn’t have compact disks, eight track players, or ipods back in those years but they did have a 16 2/3 highway hi-fi record player. A couple of my cars do have that.
Do you have any other cars, or parts or discoveries that you would like to talk about?
My whole life has been surrounded by the automobile business in one direction or another. I'm a pack-rat, I collect just about anything with Chrysler. Being a parts manager that I was, I am sitting here in my office and I am looking at a display of MoPar parts books from the 1930s up through the 1990s.
I'm still a parts man at heart. Its been a tool that I use, when I am looking for … because I know that a lot of the parts were interchangeable, from being in the business. And If I am looking for a particular part for my car and it’s no longer available, I can go to a later model catalog and see yes, it’s the same part, and it will fit, and I then start a pursuit looking for the part for a different year which is the same. So it’s been a real plus to me, but I collect a lot of memorabilia, everything Chrysler. I'm sitting here in my office looking at a … well, I can see my family when the bell rings on me saying:
“What has he got all this stuff for?”
(Laughing) but I love Chrysler, and I love the automobile business, it’s been damn good to me over the years. I've made a livelihood, and raised my family and I'm just heartsick over the present situation. If I have any influence myself from the automotive dealerships, because I've worked for my Dad and two other car dealerships, and I know what has to happen to make that wheel turn and be prosperous so they can exist, I’d like to help the dealerships. Here we are large corporations such as GM and Chrysler now phasing out automobile dealers one after the other, and I get a lump in my throat when I talk about seeing things like that happen. Because it just shouldn’t be happening in this country.
Do you think, was there a point at which, if we’d had another Lee Iacocca, instead of say Daimler, things could have been different?
People either love Lee Iacocca like I do, or they hate him. They say “There ain’t nobody worth that kind of money.”
Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler Corporation with the government loans he got back into the ’70s and into the ’80s and came out with a K-Car and the Reliant and the Aries, and saved Chrysler Corporation at that time. I have a couple of autobiography books (I'm not a real big book reader) I have his books that he’s written and he just made a statement in one of his books here that, said you know that he
“…had done a lot of things when he worked at Ford Motor Company.”
He is the one that mastered the Ford Mustang. He’s the one that brought that car out for Ford and that was a home run he hit with that car.
Then when he came with Chrysler, of course the K-Cars I mentioned were a success for him, but he said he’s done a lot of things in the automobile business and some of the things that happened he said he wished he could change back, but not very much. The one was when he hired Bob Eaton to take over Chrysler Corporation. That’s when they merged with DaimlerChrysler, and it became a German outfit… it was supposed to be a merger and it was a buy out right from the start. He said if he had to do that over as far as one mistake, he would never have turned it over to that man because he’s the one that sold Chrysler out.
This last election we had, if Lee Iacocca’s name would have been on the Presidential ballot, he certainly would have had my vote.
Why would Bob Eaton sell out Chrysler like that? Was he a money guy and not a car guy?
It was all over money. He lined his pockets well. It was set up to be a merger between Daimler and Chrysler, is what it was supposed to be, a joint venture just like what’s happening now with Fiat and Chrysler of today.
… but it was set up as a buy-out right from the start. When Daimler-Chrysler took over, it just wasn’t the same. I was still working at Chrysler at that time and it was not the same atmosphere as it had been in the past when we were working for the Germans we were …they ah, just a lot of tension among the employees and a lot of uncertainty as to what was going to happen and a lot of friction. I was a sad state for Chrysler because Chrysler at that time should have been buying out Daimler. We, at that time were stronger and had better looking cars (that’s an opinion of course) but Chrysler was in good strong shape at that time and it should have been the other way around; we, buying them out.
Are you saying that the arrangement with Fiat is different because it’s a merger?
The other was supposed to be a merger too, but I think that this is more of a merger here just to strengthen both companies and I hope that’s fact and not fiction.
We went over and dropped the bomb on the Japanese and blew them off the map and then went over and taught them how to rebuild and rebuilt their country for them and taught them trades and now we’re learning from the Japanese. They’re teaching us all over again what we taught them initially. That is to build a product and make it a good quality product and make it an affordable product … ah, you can read it in the paper every day. It’s not just hearsay it’s the bank situation is what got us into this, and its greed. Greed is what it’s all about there. I don’t know where we lost what America is all about.
What sells cars is appearance, styling, dependability, and fuel consumption and those are the things by today’s standards that people look at; and the auto industry got caught up still back in the muscle era like these cars that I got, that were real powerful. A lot of the automobiles got about 15 miles to the gallon on average…
This one that I just described to you, the Adventurer, I doubt it gets that with the 2 four barrels on it. And quality, quality back in the years of the cars like I presently own, the ’56s, they didn’t care how much of a gap there was between a door and a fender there. As long as the door opened and closed they were satisfied with it, back in that era, but it isn’t that way today and Chrysler made great, great strides. I saw that and witnessed that happening but then our assembly plant, they refused to use some of the parts we sent out, that we had stamped. Some of the sheet metal, they refused to use it because it wasn’t within tolerance where it was supposed to be and I was really grateful to see that kind of stuff happen because Chrysler built some good quality cars here in the recent years. We had a bad reputation for quality for a long time, but that was overcome here in recent years.
Did you get curious about the Hilo that you drove? I mean, did you take it apart and stuff?
Oh no! We had a complete garage. My job was just to make sure it was a safe piece of equipment to use when I got out it, to make sure everything was functional when I started the shift. I was to test the hydraulics of it to make sure it was safe, and walk around it and look for anything conspicuous, if anything was wrong with it, my job as a driver was to take it down to the garage, and tag it out and fix it and make it safe, and I would have to pick up another unit to drive. I always preferred using my own that I was accustomed to using. Just like driving your car or me driving mine, it’s the same thing, it’s not the feeling; the comfort with a strange piece of equipment.
Fortunately I didn’t have any of the safety issues on my job. Because it’s a dangerous job, carrying around 5-6 tons of steel around on the end of a couple of forks; most of the time you’re backing up, not driving forward with a Hilo. On occasion you had to drive forward, and you had the option of some employee walking out of an aisle, right in front of you that you can’t see. So it was a dangerous job, but fortunately it never happened to me. I have a good safety record.
It sounds like the Twinsburg Plant was a pretty dangerous place to work for a while.
Fortunately I have been in non-production, though I did work production. There are a number of different fields that you are considered to be in when you are an employee of the Stamping Plant at Twinsburg here. A non-production person would be one such as myself that drives a forklift, and inspectors that would be checking production of parts being produced to make sure they were high-quality. Then there were skilled-trades people such as Bill Wetherholt. He was in tool and die or die-maker, there. Production people that worked the assembly lines where:
“my job is to make half a dozen parts for a door,”
and from there they went on the other side of the plant to assembly where they were assembled, to build the doors. All I know is how to make my stuff and get it delivered over to where they needed it.
What do you think of what’s going on now? And if there is anything else that you want to share other than what you have already said?
I think I have pretty much voiced my opinion. I don’t like what is going on at all. I have found out in life there’s two things you can do: you can either change it or learn to accept it. And I don’t like the acceptance of what’s going on right at the moment with the whole world in general. Especially the United States here with the banking industry, but I know I have done my job over the years with Chrysler, and as a Union member.
Chrysler has been awful good to me, and it just tugs at my heart strings to see what’s happening with Chrysler because it was my life for 50 some years here that I've been affiliated with it, and I am still affiliated with it. I've been working on the old cars that I have got. I wished I had the answer to push the button and make things change, or even a suggestion. But I don’t have that, and I don’t think either does President Obama. I don’t know what the answer or the solution is but I know we’re up to our fannies in doo-doo right now, the whole country is, the 401(k) that I earned over the past fifty five years, that I thought I had plenty of money when I retired, looks like it’s about half of plenty of money now, with what’s been lost. And it’s not a very pleasant experience.
Also see: Bill Wetherholt: 40 years at Chrysler | Other interviews | Cars of the Month
Chrysler Heritage • History by Year • Chrysler People and Bios • Corporate Facts and History
All Mopar Car and Truck News