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Roy Sjoberg: Creating the Viper

Roy Sjoberg with Dodge Viper prototype

The first thing, when I got Don, he said, “Okay, Sjoberg, you’ve got to stop driving a K-car. You need a Maxi-Van with only a driver’s seat.”

I said, “What? I don’t need a Maxi.”

He said, “You need a Maxi-Van, because I will drive it, and with gold balls on the windshield, I go through Security without ever being checked.”

So, if you were missing stuff, it all ended up over at Jeep Truck in the Viper team center, and that’s how we got our drills. We had all kinds of tools, and we ended up using the old freezer from Food Fair, and we stored all the performance stuff in the freezer. Nobody ever went back there; In fact, I think the first time Ray Schilling opened the freezer, there was a Nash Metropolitan and a World War II Jeep in it. I think they’re over at the museum now.

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The original investment was $50 million. Actually, it started out at $49.9 million, because Steve Miller called me up and said, “You can’t be at $50 million. That rounds off to $100 million in a billion-dollar company, and you’ll have everyone checking on you. It’s going to be 49.9 million, and that’s zero on the books.”

So we didn’t have program management coming down on us. We didn’t have the auditors. I asked, “How long can I get away with this? Because I think it’s going to cost somewhere around 58 or 59 million dollars.”

He said “The day you spend that dollar over 49.9 million, call me.”

We’re trying to keep all the investment down, and Styling’s doing the side-marker lamp. We took a look at it, and someone said, “You know, that’d cost about $125,000 for both of them.” For two or three thousand cars a year.

Mike looked at it and said, “Hell, I think I’ve seen something like that at Murray’s Automotive.” He went home that night, came back the next day, and brought one in – it cost $2.10 or some such – and stuck it in the clay. Neil Walling walked by and said, “I like that change.”

Forming the Viper team

When Liddy and I started, we asked, “How are we going to find performance people?” This was 1985 – we didn’t have it computer-based. You couldn’t punch in and say “I want race addicts.” You had to hunt around for them. So Liddy and I came up with the idea of having a volunteer meeting in the Chrysler styling studio, and ask for volunteers.

Liddy and I were sitting there and wondering, is anyone going to show up? Over 200 did, and that’s how we found the initial group.

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The point is to benchmark; know where you’re going with the vehicle; know your customer. The best American example really was the Viper. The guys loved the cars. The suppliers loved it, and we looked for people in the supplier community that loved racing or loved cars – performance cars.

We went to Prince out in Holland, now Johnson Controls, and they said “Well, we’ve got your team selected for the interior,” and I said “Not interested in those people. May I walk around your facility?” So I did.

I saw a race helmet, “I want that guy.” Went around, saw motorcycle racing pictures, “I want that person.” We got three people that were really into performance and they understood, when we talked about it, they understood what they had to do.

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Niche vehicle team formation, boy, is that essential — getting your team together and getting them to talk to each other. When we went to Jeep Truck, we were in an old warehouse in the back of the building; because you had to walk a mile to get there, you didn’t get bothered by a lot of people. [From there,] continuity of the organization was key.

We were in one big room. I wanted only one big room, no offices. We put desks around and everybody was facing the wall.

One day I came in and Lidia said “You notice what happened today?”

I said, “No.”

She said “The last desk turned around.” It was good.

We had a Viper bell, we would ring the bell, and then once in a while to get attention I had a practice hand grenade; I’d roll the grenade down and everybody knew something was wrong. By the way, I’ve given that grenade to the chief of police two blocks from the police station, and I had to disarm it in front of them.

Develop niche processes

I thought Jim Royer on the engine really did a great job. He wanted to do it by high-speed CNC machining. We ended up doing the engine and the chassis componentry out at a little company in Michigan.

The other thing that I told everybody on the team is, “Let’s do chicken tests” — in this case, full testing of unique duty cycles, based on customer usage.

I gave everybody a book on Kelly Johnson at Lockheed; Herbie has his book to this day. Lockheed would develop a jet engine and ready to go in production, but there’s a criteria based on the New York jet that went down in the river. Part of the test of the jet engine is you had to ingest birds.

Well, they didn’t do this test until they were darn near in production. These are not live birds; they are fryers, and they’re not frozen like the Brits tried one time. But they threw a couple of chickens in, and it blew the engine. The whole project was dead.

The ultimate chicken test [of the new engineering system] was the Viper, and on December 8, Bob Lutz and Ken Nowak and Swietlik and some others were there. We took Lutz for a ride so he would see what we thought of it. And the only real mistake we made was that everybody looked at it and said “Damn, you’re done.”

Well, it didn’t have doors and it didn’t have a hood and it had a V8 engine at that time, that we kind of pumped up. But it showed the principle.

That’s the Viper engine line. If you have a chance to tour the Viper plant, I think it’s worth doing. It’s neat to talk with the guys. The crash persons really like what they’re doing and we had five of them originally on the Viper team as a cross-functional deal and that works well.


niche marketing

I think the big thing we did with Viper was, we created a love affair. The customers – I had more fun going around every time we’d go to Arizona or California or Florida or wherever talking to the Viper clubs. These are people that just love their vehicle. I’ve never had a customer come up and say “You built a piece of something.”

On top of that, they’d bring their Dodge trucks. They love Chrysler. It was a benchmark for New Mack and then, really, Connor, to get a facility that people would enjoy going to.

When we were in production, I think we made more money on the knick-knack store than we made on the car because everybody came out and typically they’d spend a couple hundred dollars. That’s the area there, you know, celebrating success and signing various parts.

We also continued the celebration. That’s the team, we’d get together in November in the moose preserve and tell lies and show videos and then we’d try to get together in the summer up at our place. But comradery is really important and fun. So the lessons we learned is benchmark – that’s essential, and control your interfaces.

The lessons we learned

Don’t re-invent the wheel — benchmark!

Control your interfaces. I always use the Annie Oakley analogy about the gun loaded and the gun isn’t loaded. Bang. Well, I didn’t know the gun was loaded. Bang. I didn’t know the gun was loaded. The problem with Annie Oakley is she never shot herself. I’ve never seen anyone shoot themselves in the foot. But man, can they kill people around them. Normally it’s because “Well, I didn’t think it mattered.” But when you’re in a room together as a group they’d hear things.

I think one day Bo was near Craig Belmonte and Bo had the chassis, Belmonte had the structure, and I can’t remember which one was saying something over the phone, but the other said, “[Censored], I can’t do that.” So communication is really important.

Use an international, low-volume supplier base.

Identify action items based on a program timing matrix / critical path analysis: that was just knowing what your suppliers are doing. Go visit them. Go visit them at weird hours. I was there at 1:00 a.m. one time. If they know you care, then they’ll do something.

Otherwise, I think the best example of that was BorgWarner; we lost Getrag as a transmission supplier, and I knew that BorgWarner was designing and building a six-speed transmission, but they thought General Motors wouldn’t allow us to use it. Finally, the chairman of BorgWarner said “Well, what is it you want?”

I said, “I want your transmission. If I don’t use your parts, I only use what BorgWarner machines, and we have our own casting, is that okay?”

He said “Why not?” So that’s how we got the transmission and then John Denado did a good job of finding the guys that knew about racing because we needed a transmission to take the torque.

We loved that engine. We called it the BFM, Big Freakin’ Motor. And Winkles and Zemus and Siltherteen, if you remember Highland Park, we did a lot of running around with it. There are a lot of those stories of how each of you did networking and we had fun and damn, we got paid.

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