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Interview with Bob Lees, Chrysler Engineer and High & Mighty II Leader

After two years service in the Army artillery (1953-55), I went to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. at night, mostly working during the day; it took me ten years to get through, and I decided to get out of town because I didn’t want to work for the government. I had been working in the defense industry and that was very up and down; they get a contract, hire like crazy, and if they don’t get another one when it’s finished, they let everybody go.

Bob Lees

I wanted to go work on something I enjoyed. I love cars, always have, so I sent out resumes to the automotives. Chrysler made me the best offer so I moved to Detroit. That was in 1965. I later got a Masters degree from Wayne State University, again going at night.

Marc: What location were you at?

The Parts Division Headquarters in Center Line, MI. At the time Chrysler was moving from having wholesalers handling their parts sales to their dealers to setting up their own distribution system by building regional parts depots.

Marc: It still exists today, right?

It does, I think they have cut back some on the number of warehouses out there because transportation has improved so much. So I helped them set up and plan the depots, determine how much space they needed and the process of how they picked parts, consolidated orders, and shipped them as well as going out to the depots and seeing well they where operating.

After a couple years at Parts, I indicated that I would like to get over to the engineering office where the products were designed. They had an industrial engineering office in engineering called the administrative methods office, and our job was to evaluate engineering and how it’s organized and how it’s processed and how you design cars and the methods you use and the equipment you use. We set up a manpower control system and to establish personnel needs and evaluate operating methods and organizations.

Marc: Was it based on product and product line?

Engineering back then in Highland Park was component engineering. You had a brake design department so it did brakes for all the cars. Engine design —these were all in house along with other chassis systems: body design groups which were broken down by size into A-body, B-body, C-body and advanced design groups.

RamchargersUpper level table, left to right: Mike Buckel, Tom Coddington, Gary Congdon, Jim Thornton (mic), John Wehrly, Bob Lees, Dave Rockwell .
Lower level table: Barns Daniels, Pete McNichol, Dick Burke.

I spent a couple years there and then went into competitive analysis where we would completely tear down competitors’ cars weighing their parts, measuring sheet metal gauges, analyzing their materials and construction. And we would estimate what it would cost us to build their design. What we were looking for were things that our competitors were doing that would decrease the cost of our car, made it lighter or improve it in other ways.

Marc: Probably identified who made the part also, was it made in house or was it a vendor supplied part?

Right, and I think you've been over to the competitive design area.

Marc: Yes, it’s a pretty cool area.

CEMAWe would section the body and mount on display boards all the different systems: here is their air conditioning system, here is the compressor, here are the bearings, seals, and hoses. You make a report on the car by each design area that you have examined. Then you bring the engineering people in and show them what the competitors are doing and ask “does this make sense to you guys and should you be going in this direction?”

When you design a car you have to have cost, weight and performance targets for the car. Our reports helped the finance people decide how much money we are going to put into sound insulation, how much for air conditioning, heating, ventilation, and that sort of thing.

That was a very interesting job. I was the supervisor of the chassis section.

Marc: You also had an area for weights and measures?

We would cost, weigh and tag every major component in the car. That would help establish cost and weight targets for different parts and systems in the car.

Marc: Not only for the vehicle but for shipping and parts transportation.

Bob: The data we generated had many valuable uses.

Marc: My dad came home one day with a sheet saying he had the opportunity to buy a 1970 ‘Cuda. The trick was that the car was all in parts and pieces. He had taken the car from production and torn the car down for weights and measures, to weigh all the parts out. Once that was done they weren't going to reassemble it, they had it all in boxes. So he purchased the vehicle disassembled. I said “Let’s do this, Dad, this is cool, I can get a car for myself!”

I thought that would be great but he wouldn’t go for it. I thought it would be great to get a brand new Barracuda at a fraction of the cost that I could assemble myself. But my dad wasn’t a car guy so he didn’t want to get into that. But I would have loved to have done that. ...

Was that tear down area in Center Line or Highland Park?

Highland Park.

Being in the cost area, I then got involved in an area they set up called manufacturing costs analysis. We would work with our suppliers and the engineering groups to try to get the piece costs of the individual components down.

Marc: There are so many areas at Chrysler; a lot of things that you don’t realize are there and the reason for them.

Working with our suppliers we'd ask what kind of cost ideas can you come up with? What are we doing that makes this part or system more expensive than it should be? Then working with the engineering areas to see if these are practical ideas.

Marc: When I started working at Chrysler, I saw things that I just never realized took place. You buy a car, you turn the key and go without realizing how much went into that simple process, that somebody had to figure out how to do it, a lab to test it to make sure it worked properly. If more people saw what went into a car they would have more appreciation for why it costs that much.

You work in an area like that; you realize how complex a car is. How interrelated all the parts are, how a change to one can influence many others.

It always amazed me that you had different people that did different things and yet it all came together as a total package at the end and it worked. Most of the time, at least.

You could see where issues came up also because things weren't done right because somebody didn’t talk to somebody and you get to the point production-wise where something wasn’t done properly, and they had to correct it after the fact. Hopefully that happens less these days with sharing of CATIA information but things are more complex that’s for sure. But you take it for granted; you just hop in your car and go where it might have taken 3 or 4 years to make all that happen. A lot goes into it.

Whether it be automotive or a plane or a building, somebody has to have the idea, then there’s the design and testing and parts, and metals, and less time in order to keep down the costs right?

Emphasis on cost, weight and reliability; after you get done, you have to make sure it’s going to last.

Marc: You want to be able to work the vehicle. You want to have confidence that the parts and components are going to work right.

Then I got into administration and became an Operations Manager for one of the major groups in engineering, Vehicle Development. Their jurisdiction included the proving grounds, the structures lab, the impact lab, and sound and vibration. As Operations Manager you assist the chief engineers and executive engineer in the administrative things like keeping track of the budget and of manpower. I did that in the late ’70s and early ’80s but they were going through a lot of cutbacks during that period. It wasn’t pleasant.

Marc Rozman and Bob Lees

We had meetings like a football draft, were you go out drafting people to play on your team but what we were doing was cutting back and trying to save the best people. So every month or two we would get an edict from the corporation that you have to cut X number of dollars and so much manpower.

You would meet with the other engineering areas and you would put names up on the board. You would say “Here’s a good guy but I can’t save him, do you guys want him? Do you have a guy that you can let go and pick this guy up?” We were trying to preserve our seed corn. We went through that for a year or two. I finally got tired of the stress. I said, “Get me back to the product. I'm tired of all this budget work and administrative work and laying people off.”

Marc: 1980 was pretty much a skeleton crew. At one point in time we were down to the bare minimum of what we needed to operate.

A funny thing, the defense company that I worked for before I came to Chrysler had hired a guy from Chrysler to handle their financial area. I told him that I'm going to Chrysler, I'm tired of this defense stuff, this up and down, hire and fire. He said, “Oh boy, you’re in for a treat. Chrysler is up and down, even worse than here.” I found that out.

Fortunately I went back to the product. I ended up with the fleet engineering group. And we did all the special stuff, taxicabs, police cars, and performance cars. We did some of the Shelby stuff. He had a performance center out in California that would do the modifications needed to the standard production vehicle, he figured out what he wanted to do with cars and then we worked with them and the assembly plant. He would decide to change the muffler so we would work with the plant to decide if we could build this car without that part. We would figure out how to configure the car to be shipped out to Shelby.

Marc: We actually did some of the Shelby testing in-house; he got credit for it, [but] we actually did some of the Shelby GLH 2.2L engine work. Some of the people weren't happy because we did some of the important testing but he got his name on the product. But that’s the way it works.

Yeah, he’s the brand.

Marc: Right, his name sells

Yeah, but he would set up the initial concept, though. He would say, “This is what you have to do to get this car moving,” he was good at that.

omni ghs

Marc: But we kind of knew how to do that though.

Yes, but who is going to listen to you, when Carroll Shelby sits down with Iacocca; you know they were buddies from Ford.

Dave: So you guys did that ten horsepower upgrade on the 2.2?

Marc: I remember the operator and the engineer doing a different cam and a different exhaust update. Basic stuff that everyone knows what to do, moving the camming and profile, a little more duration, and a different exhaust back pressure and you got 5-10 horsepower more, it’s a no brainer. I think Beth Borland was the engineer on that, a young girl but sharp. Her dad was a Chrysler employee. She actually did the testing on that Shelby 2.2, any version. Greg Hammer was the final operator [Ed Poplawski wrote that he ran Dyno #33 in Building 136] but Beth did the work with us. Yes, it happens. That’s fine, though, whatever sells cars, that’s what it comes down to. [Ed worked with Beth on the 2.5 liter - 4 valve head program (Maserati/Lotus) in dyno cell #31 years later.]

What I liked about the job was we would submit our police cars every year to the various tests that the police agencies run. Michigan State Police had a big testing program that they did on our proving grounds for part of it and the Michigan International Speedway’s road course for handling.

The California Highway Patrol had a test every year as well as the Los Angeles Police Department. So we would ship our latest car out there and then I would go out and witness the test and work with the police on it. This was in the ’80s when we still had rear wheel drive cars and we dominated police car and taxi fleets.

1988 dodge diplomat squad car

While I was out in California I would look in the newspapers for muscle cars. California cars are really nice to work on, they’re not rusted, the nuts come off when you put a wrench on them and you don’t skin your knuckles. And they were reasonably cost back then. I would usually find one and drive that back.

That started my car collection. Every year I’d go out and I’d try to find a car to bring back. I wouldn’t restore it right away, I’d just put it away and say one of these days I’ll get around do it. I’d say “I'm in the collection mode now, not in the restoration mode.” Driving them back was always an adventure, sometimes you had to work on them on the highway. Change a master cylinder on the curb; police coming by and saying what’s going on here?.

Marc: He looks smart but when it comes to certain things it's more emotion than anything.

Dave: But it worked out, didn’t it, you really could get muscle cars for practically nothing then.

I picked up a Little Red Express, my wife was out there with me. We had all our luggage sitting out in the bed of the pickup and of course it started to rain and we had to bring it all inside. We packed it all right in the middle of the cab between us, she couldn’t see me, I couldn’t see her, but we got back.

Marc: You still have that car today right?

Yes, just waiting to be fixed. The concept is you get all the cars first, and then you fix one up and sell it. Then you take that money … except you don’t figure on falling in love with them. People ask what your favorite is but they are like kids, you don’t have a favorite you love them all.

Marc: Bob has them stashed here and there and everywhere. I think I've only seen two of them.

Guys used to rent out a bay in the old Packard plant and then sell storage to people. I had a ’66 Plymouth Sport Fury convertible that I had driven back. I put in there, I went down to see it one day and the lock in the rear deck had been punched out which is an old inner city trick to get to a spare tire and sell it. It ruins the sheet metal. Some kids had broken in there, they had taken all the wheel covers off, and they were lying right beside the car. Evidently they were scared off. They wanted to get the wheels, not understanding that the wheel covers were worth more than the wheels or tire. I thought those kids will be back, they know the cars are in here. So I store my cars in individual garages now.

plymouth sport fury

Dave: We’ve heard a lot of stories about how the police cars were prepared and what differences there were. Are they all just stories?

There are a lot of special things that go into a police car. All the door locks and hinges are reinforced; if you put a perp in the back seat of a regular car he can kick that rear door open. You have to put reinforcements in the roof for the red bubble light that they are going to put on the top of the car. The seats are reinforced. The cars need heavy duty circuits, heavy duty alternator to run their radios and lights. Heavy duty cooling and high performance engines to handle sitting on the side of the road idling and when a speeder passes by, they have to respond and go.

The police are like greyhounds at a rabbit track, when they see somebody doing something wrong they have complete focus on them and they take off after them. They don’t care if they are jumping curbs, or going over ditches or through hedges, they want to catch that person. So you do a lot to reinforce the suspension. You do things to the engine to make it last longer, and handle high speed work.

Marc: I know on the engine side on the V-8’s they had better timing chains, they had double roller timing chains versus single roller. They had heavy duty rocker arms that were green and red versus a standard rocker arm, a little beefier rocker arm to handle the RPM and make them more durable. You had reinforced cranks and pistons.

You had silicone rubber hoses

Marc: That’s true, starting in the ’80s you had the high-grade silicone rubber hose versus a standard rubber hose and that was done for durability.

And to offset the effects of all the underhood heat. You have to understand that that went up when we went to catalytic converters.

We usually had two selections of engine, one for the city police work where they are looking more for economy than anything else. Then you had your pursuit work.

Dodge Monaco squad car

You know a police car is not going to catch a Ferrari, it’s not that fast. More than anything you want durability to be able to take the rough work, the rough roads and the pursuit work or sitting by the side of the highway with the lights and radio going, sitting and idling for hours, even in the heat in the desert, and everything else. That’s where the emphasis is.

There’s a lot of hot weather testing. And we would get Shelby out there and have him take the cars around the track to get his impression of whether we were doing things right with the suspension and how it was handling. He was pretty impressed with it actually.

Marc: When I started working at Chrysler I did the testing for the chassis rolls. We had a series of police cars that we had to test one time. Of course they are a lot different, they are more heavy duty. We had the same tests as the normal passenger cars. Once we got done with those cars we had to test them ourselves outside. We had a lot of fun with those cars out back, who can go the fastest. The cars were pretty tough, different shocks, different springs, the vinyl flooring and good high speed tires. Bigger rims, the 15 x 8 instead of 15 X 7, those cop car wheels. Those wheels had those slots in them for better cooling for the brakes, right?

Bob: Yes.

Marc: All special parts for police officers. They knew they had to have cooler brakes so they put slots in the wheels to add more cooling. That’s all done for that reason.

Like all good things it came to an end. Chrysler said we have a presentation we want you to give to our fleet dealers, and the presentation is that Chrysler is going to be all front-wheel drive within the next year or two. That wiped out all the fleet business, mostly the cabs and police.

Dave: To be fair, by then, nobody else bought those cars.

The cab drivers would buy the old rear wheel drive police cars. That’s why you see old beat up cabs going around with dual exhaust and a four barrel manifold.

So about that time they were doing early retirement so I decided to take early retirement in the end of 1988.


Marc: That was your first retirement right?

I took my wife and we went to Hawaii for a couple weeks. We came back and I went over to the export area with Bob Jones. Chrysler was expanding their sales overseas. They needed people to homologate cars.

When you want to sell a car in Dubai you got to meet their standards. Each country has their own safety standards; you have to prove your car meets all of their standards. Their standards are similar to ours but different. Unlike in the U.S.

When we test a car for the U.S. government - a crash test or emissions test, all you do is submit the data to the government; “We tested this vehicle and here is the data that proves we meet what you want.” They can always come back to you and say I'm going to double check you, send us the car and we are going to test the car. They have an EPA lab right here in Ann Arbor. We have a library out at the proving grounds of cars that were impacted, as far as you can see are smashed up cars. The government requires that you keep those cars for a certain period of time in case they want to inspect it or check that yeah, you did roll this car or you smashed it into a wall.

So then I spent 13 years doing that. What was nice about that I was getting two checks, my pension check and my contractor check. My father always told me that two checks are better than one. So I ended up spending 37 years at Chrysler and for the most part enjoyed it all. It is a great bunch of guys that work there. It is really a family.

I worked there at an interesting time, even what they were doing in the ‘60s and early ’70s when muscle cars were doing great. The funny thing is that I don’t think we understood what muscle cars were all about. But we were lucky in doing some of the right things. I remember when I was told that we were designing a car with a hole in the middle of the hood, an air filter is going to stick out through the top of the hole and you can see your engine vibrate. I'm thinking I wouldn’t pay for that, I don’t want to see that thing shake. Man was I wrong!

I worked with a lot of good guys. Some of the original Ramchargers, some of the guys that haven’t been publicized yet. There are a lot of good stories in there.

Scott Harvey, I think he is California now, I think he is still racing out on the salt flats. He was an engineer who started out racing on his own, he would do rally racing. That was big in the ‘60s and ’70s around here. They had a race called the POR, Press On Regardless, they would race on old logging trails in upper Michigan. Scott Harvey a very mild mannered engineer, he got in a car and he was a madman, all four wheels off the ground, screaming around corners and missing trees by inches. He got to the point where he owned that race, year after year. Europeans would come over and race against him and he’s out with all kinds of cobbled up Chrysler products that you would never think would be good with that kind of stuff. We saw one today, an old Aspen, a four-wheel drive Aspen that he built and raced. He just ran away with it.

The other thing that he did, Chrysler in the early ’70s was going to get into Trans Am racing. NASCAR was sponsoring Trans Am; he was the engineer on the project. We had entered a Barracuda and a Challenger. He was the Chrysler engineer. Of course it was underfunded and underdeveloped and never really met its potential but it was there.

Marc: If it weren't for the guys who put the effort into it like they did a lot of that stuff wouldn’t have happened. A lot of the guys had the attitude that helped with the job which made it better and different.

A lot of talented guys doing stuff on their own.

Marc: Pete Gladysz followed in his footsteps.

Pete got into racing. He was more the navigator and team manager, but he raced the L bodies. I went to one of the races here in mid-Ohio where Pete was racing, I had a little L body too, Pete said, “Stick around, we need some parts for the car. Your lease car is going to be the donor.”

dodge omni GLH-S

Marc: (Laughter) Fix it up later on, right? That’s true.

There are a lot of guys that just truly loved cars at Chrysler and did things on their own. The Ramcharger is a good example, they did things on their own that if they got caught doing it they would have been fired.

They put the Chrysler name on the track. They had a reputation of knowing how to make a Chrysler product go fast. Then the other thing that they did was share that information. They had tech sessions with any Chrysler owner who wanted come in. Even if you drove a Mustang you want to sit down and listen to what they were saying. In that way they developed a fleet of fast Chrysler car without buying all those cars and doing the work on them.

Marc: That even carried on to later when they started doing the tech clinics. They were doing it for racer to racer and then they decided to do it as a clinic, not only for the racers but for the public itself. If you bought that car off that lot you could do some tweaking on it so they were really open about sharing that information and parts and what you needed to have in order to make that car faster. That was cool.

You talked to Burt Bouwkamp, Product Planning Chief Engineer. He will tell you that the reason the old E body sells so well or is worth so much money now is because he failed; he failed to sell the number of new cars he promised Townsend (then president) we would sell if we designed those things.

Dave: I've sometimes wondered would Chrysler have been able to do as much as they did if they had sufficiently supported and funded everything.

No, the bureaucracy would have smothered it. There would have been too many people making decisions and accountants sitting there saying how much is this going to cost and when is it going to add to our bottom line? So these guys just went out and did it.

Marc: Even this concept car stuff is interesting but the question is how do you carry it over into the product line? You need the right people on the product side to say “hey, that’s pretty cool” and one guy willing to take a risk and try it.

There are some things that as you think back about the muscle car like the shaker hood and you think that doesn’t make too much sense. Or a black car with a black tape stripe down the side, who is dumb enough to do that. Who released black tape for a black car? And yet if you have one of those you have a gold mine. You can’t always read that kind of thing.

Dave: The E bodies are kind of the perfect example. Here is the car that they put official effort into, they were making the custom muscle car and Road Runner takes away all the sales.

You mentioned organizational lessons and philosophies, have you ever talked to Jack Smith and heard his Road Runner story? Because that is interesting, how are you going to get a cartoon character on the side of a car when the design vice president said nobody is going to put a cartoon on the side of my cars. He played some games there to get it done. He worked around the bureaucracy; it’s a lesson on how you get something done in a large organization.

road runner and shadow

He’s interesting too in that he ran the Mobil economy run, this was popular in the mid ‘50s. They would just get a bunch of cars from various manufacturers and they would compete on fuel economy. It was run by Mobil Oil.

Jack Smith ran it for Studebaker. Studebaker was winning all the time, Chrysler said I'm tired of losing to Studebaker, get this guy over here and have him run our Mobil economy people. They did that. A lot of our engineers were the drivers on those cars. He’s got a long story about how you optimize fuel economy.

Dave: That was mostly the drivers, right?

The drivers and tires, they would scuff up the tires good so most of the tread was gone and they would time lights so they would know how long this light is going to be yellow and how long it’s going to be red.

They had a AAA observer in each car. How you would try to coax them into going to sleep or something so that you could do things that weren't particularly kosher but would win. One of the things the Mobil economy run thing did was the way they rated cars, you can’t rate the fuel economy of a Chevrolet against a Cadillac, so they had a mile per gallon per weight category, they had a composite figure that they would calculate.

Dave: I remember thinking that was a little silly because weight and size are not the same. I had a ’77 Fury and for its size it wasn’t that heavy.

But Mobil wanted to be able to give awards and get everybody to participate so they structured these classes, here’s a weight class from this to this, then we will measure the fuel economy in each class. It was good promotional thing for Mobil. And the car companies fell into it, they liked to be able to advertise that we won our class in the Mobil economy run, even when gas was cheap. Fuel economy wasn’t important back then but it appealed to people.

I had some of the notable guys give a talk at the museum and I had Marc come over and videotape it. I've had several guys that I felt we had to get on tape, I had Dick Maxwell (Racing Manager) come and he talked about designing the Little Red Express, that was in a ’78 model. That’s when all the emissions standards getting to everybody and cars were lousy to drive. He and Tom Hoover (father of the 426 Hemi) got together and said let’s build the world’s last muscle car. They got their heads together and build the Little Red Express. And in ’78 it didn’t have a catalytic converter on it and the emissions standards for a truck were less restrictive than they were for a car and that ’78 Little Red Express could out drag a Corvette of the same year. That got a cover on Motor Trend.

dodge little red express truck

Marc: The fastest production vehicle that year was a truck.

That truck they also ran it in the Dakar race in Africa where they go across the desert. It came out very nicely, it set some good records. Mine is a ’79, it has a catalytic exhaust on it but I have a ’78 exhaust system out of the parts division so I can pick up some additional horsepower.

Marc: I've got a lead on a ’77 Warlock

I've always wanted one of those. Is that a 440?

Marc: It’s a 318 car.

Well you can fix that, you can put a 440 in it.

Marc: ... I had somebody check the registry, there are only 12 left in the country.

The Chrysler archives with the production numbers were in the building that burned down. There is a certain period of time for Chrysler that there are no official numbers because they were in the process of moving the archives and during that process one building caught fire. That’s why if you ask the museum for a certain period of time you can’t get those numbers, because they were all lost. There are registries now where you can register your car and that generates numbers.

Dave: That’s a good idea but that only tells you what is left.

A lot of these figures that you see are built on R.L. Polk numbers. Polk used to run figures and they would go through and calculate how many cars had air conditioning and so they would come up with a percentage, and a percentage for many were stick shifts and that sort of thing. A lot of numbers the guys generate now are just based on those percentages. When you go in and say how many cars like mine were built? They look and say does it have air conditioning, let’s see that was 20%. They come up with a number without really knowing for sure how many cars were built like that.

Second Bob Lees interview (2010)

chrysler transmission in tanksThere are certain aspects to Chrysler that I don’t think have been adequately covered. Now I don’t know whether it would be interesting to your readers or not.

Chrysler’s participation in the Second World War was phenomenal. Building tanks and the tank plant, they built the tank plant so fast that they couldn’t get a heating unit in there soon enough. They were building tanks with people with gloves on to keep their hands warm. They built that whole tank plant in less than a year and designed a tank at the same time. They pulled a steam locomotive in the plant to heat it, to keep it warm until they could get the heating system going.

What happened during the Second World War was that there was a dedication of pulling out all stops to get something done – everybody was going in the same direction. The things the automotive industry accomplished during that period, not just Chrysler but GM and Ford, were pretty phenomenal. Ford built an aircraft plant out here in Willow Run and they were building airplanes at the rate of on an hour which the aircraft industry said was impossible. Henry and his guys said “we’ll set up a production line and build them like that.”

One of the things that helped win the war during the Second World War was that we just outproduced our enemies. We build more tanks, more planes, more of everything. They weren't always superior to our enemies’ designs because they had been working on them for ten years and we just did everything at the last minute but we overwhelmed them with the quantity that we built and mobilized.

The other interesting aspect of Chrysler that I don’t think the museum looks at is the missile division and our contributions to space flight. NASA at one point offered us one of the space flight missiles to put on display in the museum. Bob Eaton said no, we are a car company, we are not interested in that. Quite a heritage there was, I mean we put men in space. And then there was the marine division but all those were separate stories in themselves.

Dave: It was a lot of work digging out enough on the marine division for an article. Figuring out what happened to it was interesting but time consuming.

Did you talk Fred Kaehler? I was going to line him up to give a talk at the museum to help educate the volunteers to give a little more background on what was accomplished there. He ran the division for a while and probably closer to the end so he could give you some insight as to what that was all about. And I see you have talked Pete Hagenbach.

chrysler boats logo

Dave: Pete has a lot of interesting stories but you rarely see his name in the magazines.

Yes, he was in there. There were a lot of people whose names you don’t see; you usually see the Vice President’s names.

I have often felt that if you put out a good product you don’t a lot of advertisement, you don’t need a lot of PR, it speaks for itself and then your customers do the advertising for you.

Dave: On the other hand, if you look at the Chrysler Pacifica, it seems when they don’t publicize something and they don’t have the big launch people don’t know it’s there because the market is so crowded.

Well, that’s true but that car some drawbacks too. I leased a couple of them for a while. Nice road car, marginal performance [first generation], and it only held six people. And no luggage space if you are using all six seats. They were comfortable but just having two people on each row is not a very efficient use of space. And it was too heavy.

Chrysler Pacifica

It had a very heavy rear axle; it had an independent rear suspension. That really was a Mercedes design rear suspension so it had a lot umph in it. But it made it handle nicely, it could take corners well, better than a beam rear axle that you get in a minivan. A minivan is not a sports car.

Chrysler had a design maybe 5 years ahead of that which was more reminiscent of some of the new crossover vehicles with kind of slanted rear roof and a decent curve to the rear quarter glass. It was a very advanced design. They hired a guy to come in and photograph the car, of course under a non-disclosure contract. But he immediately went out and sold pictures of it and that really killed the program.

But Chrysler had a better looking design than the Pacifica. Of course the Pacifica was an improvement over a minivan. The object there is that “We’re not a minivan; we’re not your parents’ car. Come buy us. We are nice.”

Dave: Right, we are a minivan but we are not a minivan.

We’ve got swing out rear doors. And I thought when you could have a power sliding door why would you want a swing out rear door? Well, we don’t want what our parents have.

I lease minivans every year, I don’t think you can get a better vehicle. It’s comfortable, has stow and go seats, and it gets decent gas mileage. It’ll get as good gas mileage as a PT Cruiser on the highway with automatic transmission. With a 3.8 engine. I can get about 25 mpg on flat ground in Ohio, with a medium load of luggage.

So with the PT you got a vehicle that’s half the size and gets the same gas mileage on the highway. I do a lot of traveling, that’s my focus so I'm not that concerned with city. PT Cruiser of course would get a lot better in the city than a minivan but I don’t do that much city driving.

Dave: Then there’s the ’09 4 liter which gets surprisingly good gas mileage now. I don’t know what they did to it between ’08 and ’09 and they’re not saying.

It’s probably gearing. I find in my ’08 minivan with a 3.8 that the initial throttle opening is too aggressive. When you first get it you find yourself stepping on the gas and the car kind of leaping at you. Then you learn to moderate your pressure on the gas pedal. I think they are just trying to make you have the feeling that “boy, I've got power here.” But you don’t need that feeling in a minivan.

burke brownYou have to be careful that your front wheels are not on that white stripe they put across the street when you launch or your wheels are going to spin. The launch is too aggressive.

I like the 4.0 engine. Burke Brown was the engineer on that engine. You know there are engineers that are just strictly engineers and then there are car engineers, guys that really love cars that live and die cars. They work on them when they are at home, and on weekends, they are different kind of guys. And there are quite a few of them at Chrysler. And Burke Brown was the guy that brought that engine alive, when it was a 3.5 of course and now it has migrated to a 4-liter.

That engine should have been in the minivans a long time ago. The marketing people were essentially holding it up from getting in there. It was in the design schedule to put the 3.5 engine in the minivan as a premium engine. The only trouble is that the upgraded engine was a 3.8 and they said how could you sell a 3.5 liter engine as a premium engine over a 3.8 liter?

Dave: Though they did it with the Pacifica.

Yeah. And of course they had fits with that too. That along with complaints of the lack of acceleration, that’s what pushed it up to a 4.0 liter engine.

Dave: It makes sense that in a minivan you want more torque at a lower speed than you can get out of the 3.5 which is great in the cars but not so in the minivan.

I like that 3.5. I would like to have a minivan with a 4.0 liter. But the problem is but the problem is that you have to get the premium package. You have to get $2,000 worth of electronics and GPS and a zillion speakers.

I was just reading the latest release on cars. It looks like they are doing a lot of pruning and shucking and things to enhance. Well, they don’t have anything new so they start enhancing what you have to make it more appealing. I was impressed; I thought there were some good moves there. It looks like they are trying to breathe a little life into the car lines and get some things in there that are going to appeal to the young people. I think it is all based on what Ford has been able to do with their electronics. They are finding their take on their electronic systems in the cars has been very high. I think it’s 70%. That’s where all the young people are. They like all this electronic gadgetry.

When you get out to the museum they have nice display there that gives you a good idea of the complexity of cars. It shows you a wiring harness from a car of the mid-sixties versus one from the late-nineties. They have the whole wiring harness there. You can see the complexity in the cars, it’s startling.

Dave: In 1999 you started putting it onto a bus, which was clever.

But it still ends up being lots of wires and lots of things that could go wrong. Well, they don’t go wrong if it is built right. You have to have electrical connectors that can’t be put together wrong, that won’t push out one of wires or something. Once you start getting a short or altering that circuit then the electricity starts going all kinds of crazy ways and doing all kinds of crazy things.

That was a big portion of the seventies, getting foolproof circuits and getting good quality in the electrical connections.

I look at some of the circuits and some of the connections now and they are even better, and more foolproof.

Once electronics got into the car things you got reliability. It opens up a wide world of what you can now versus the old mechanical systems. I don’t understand why we don’t have push button automatic transmissions now. I know that BMW was thinking about it for a while and they were making applications to the government. The government regulates your PRNDL, your park, neutral. You can’t start changing any of that without getting approval of the government because they want commonality everywhere in the instrument panel operating devices. So that when you go from one car to another you know that the light switch is to the left of the steering wheel. That wasn’t always the case. And that the sequence on the automatic transmission is standard. If you want to play with that the government has to approve it. BMW was thinking about doing that for a while.

Of course Chrysler had push button mechanical control of the automatic transmission in 1956.

Dave: Do you remember why that ended?

I think the main change was that the public wasn’t too happy with it. So we just went back to what everybody else had. But the transmission is all controlled by electronics now, so why do you need a mechanical lever to shift gears, it’s silly. You don’t control the throttle now with mechanical rods, it’s electronic, drive by wire.

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