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Robert M. Sinclair: Horizon, Valiant leader; Chrysler engineering chief

An engineer at Chrysler for 37 years, Robert M. Sinclair led engineering of the original, groundbreaking Chrysler Valiant, launched as a 1960 model. The car was priced close to GM and Ford compacts, but easily outhandled and outran them, with apparently greater reliability. The Valiant was Chrysler’s main export for many years, and Chrysler’s car with the greatest market share by a good margin throughout its life. (In 1959, Sinclair himself reported on Valiant engineering and the reasons for their decisions.)

robert sinclair in 1984 at SAE meeting

Sinclair was Technical Director of Chrysler France in the mid-1960s. Burton Bouwkamp wrote, “That’s worthy of note because his engineers developed the FWD Simca 1100, which became the platform for the European C2 (1978) and C6 (1976) models. It was an outstanding platform for ride and handling but it was not used on the USA L Body [Omni/Horizon] because it was judged to be too expensive for a USA sub-compact car.”

Bouwkamp, who championed the Dodge Charger, also wrote:

I worked with Bob Sinclair for more than 25 years. In 1962, I succeeded him as Chief Engineer of Vehicle Planning in Chrysler's Engineering Division. (That was a big move for me because I moved from Manager level to Chief level.)

In my opinion Bob Sinclair was a technical genius. Several times I saw him single-handedly create a “white paper” proposal (problem analysis, solution and recommendation) that was done faster and better than if it had been done by a whole department. 

I was on assignment in Tokyo (1983 - 1987) when Bob was appointed Vice President of Engineering. I sent him a telex that said "Congratulations! I am glad that someone from the over the hill gang made it." (Bob was over 55 years of age and Chrysler didn't usually appoint VPs who were that old.) He said that this was his favorite congratulatory message.

Bob Sinclair with R.D. Engle, L.D. Gshwind, Caroll Shelby

Robert Sinclair was also the project manager responsible for bringing out the subcompact Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, which was created using engineers and stylists from the U.S., France, and Britain; he also worked on the Dodge Charger and Plymouth Turismo (TC3 and o24) versions of the L-bodied cars.

In 1983, Sinclair was Chrysler Director of Power Train Engineering; he led the creation of the “Peugeot” (SIMCA) 1.6 liter engine used in some Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon models (which launched in the US with a Volkswagen 1.7), as well as Europe’s C2 and C6.

By 1984 he was vice president of engineering for Chrysler Corporation. In 1985, he launched the Turbo III project which set in motion Chrysler’s first dual overhead cam and four-valve-per-cylinder engine, which produced 225 horsepower from a 2.2 liter engine. It also had distributorless ignition. (He also signed a contract with Lotus to develop a 2.5 liter, naturally aspirated 16-valve four, and a four wheel drive system for the Daytona; neither of these survived, due to budget constraints).

Bob Sinclair at SAE

Robert Sinclair retired on February 1, 1987, after 37 years at the company. Lee Iacocca wrote, “During Bob’s nearly four decades at Chrysler, he has made significant contributions to the turnaround and success of the company, contributions that will take the company well into the 1990s and beyond. His role in front-wheel-drive technology, turbocharging and unibody construction are among his many accomplishments during a distinguished career.”

In 1988, he wrote an article for Popular Mechanics in which he said that by 2005, the piston engine would remain, but companies would “deliver superb reliability, pleasint driving, and at a price that makes sense… an engine that starts instantly every morning at any temperature and any altitude.” He talked about reliability and “we have to get rid of leaks, with new gaskets. It is not romantic, but that is where the advances are.”

Sinclair noted that turbocharging would be refined, and adaptive suspensions would be coming, along with sport-vs-comfort switches, voice commands, and controls on or close to the steering wheel; he also thought round dial gauges would remain, in black and white, with red needles. His predictions were remarkably accurate, including the arrival of drive-by-wire (though he firmly objected to it).

Robert M. Sinclair died on January 13, 2012, at the age of 84. A graduate of the Chrysler Institute of Engineering, he was the father of three sons, and grandfather of six children. No services were planned, and relatives requested that memorial contributions be sent to the American Cancer Society.

(Thanks, Bob Lees, for the notice.)

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