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Chrysler’s Burke Brown: Engine Tuning and Development

burke brownI started in ’71 at the proving grounds. I had graduated from Tri-State University in mechanical engineering. I interviewed for GM, Chrysler, and International Harvester, and wasn’t very impressed with the other guys for a few reasons.

GM didn’t even seem to know quite where they’d want to use me. I told them I wanted to go into powertrain engines, transmissions, that kind of thing. In my opinion, that should count for something. A guy walks in the door and says what I want to do, and they said, “Oh, we’ve got this great job in Body.” Not exactly what I came for.

Ford was better, but two or three of the jobs they showed me weren’t powertrain. One of them was radio reception, and I walked out of there thinking, “Why would you interview a mechanical engineer for radio reception?”

International was good. That was certainly blood and guts truck engine transmissions and stuff.

For Chrysler, I interviewed at Highland Park. There were some things there. And then talking to them, they said we’ve got some emission related things, engines and emissions at the proving ground. Gee, that’s pretty appealing.

I had time to actually stop by the proving grounds for a quick pass-by, met the HR guy, and it sounded like he had some good things. I was more interested than anything I’d heard so far, so I circled back and had another interview with the proving grounds a few days later. That was my clear choice.

In high school and growing up, my dad had actually worked at a Chrysler dealership in the shop and then started his own independent repair shop. I was always, as a kid, running around in the shop, I grew up with some greasy fingers. With his previous experience and getting to see a lot of different products that we were working on, the Chrysler engineering stood out, so being a part of that was very appealing to me.

I started out working on carburetor calibration and emissions because in ’71, that was a big deal. There was a lot of growth going on there, and the proving ground had the emission rolls, or most of them, and I liked working at the proving ground.

I was hardly there for more than a year and a half when I was asked if I would go to California, which had a new emission test. It was an end-of-assembly-line test, and they had set up a facility in California to do that. It was thought of, by Chrysler, as a quality audit test, and quality people were conducting the test. The Chrysler LA assembly plant had just closed, so they took some of the equipment and some of the mechanics from the plant to a new, smaller location. There was nobody from engineering there. So when a car didn’t pass, there was the question, “What do we do?”

A couple of guys had flown out and spent a week or two there and said it would really be nice to have somebody here all the time to answer questions and take care of things. I was dispatched out to check that out, and I was loving that. Living in California and part of the deal… Well, the first thing I did was grab the LA Times and started looking at the vintage cars. Whoa, look at all this stuff here!

burke brown

I almost bought a ’34 Dodge pickup before I actually had an apartment, but then I said maybe I should have a place to live first. So I got an apartment, then the next week I went looking for cars.

There was just so much to choose from in the early 1970s out there. I looked at ’55 to ‘56 Chrysler 300s. I actually looked at a really nice supercharged Studebaker Hawk. It was just almost too nice to pass up, but I really wanted it to be a Chrysler product so I just kept looking. It wasn’t long before I bought a ’33 Dodge rumble seat coupe.

I had my ’66 Charger, my daily driver that I had driven out [to LA], but about half the time I’d drive that ’33 to work because my apartment was only five to seven miles and it was easy. Hardly any day you couldn’t drive the ’33 Dodge to work out there. It was great.

I really enjoyed that, but career-wise it wasn’t going to go anywhere. They were offering me other things back here, so I came back in ’74 and did some assignments in Highland Park and some back in Chelsea, but it was emission-related or performance in some way. I got involved a lot with the EPA, interfaced with them as a technical liaison and so forth, and did that up through the ranks until the early 80s, I’m going to say ’82 to ‘83, something like that, then I went into advanced engine systems. I was the manager of that.

At that time, we were working on the upfront stuff for fuel injection and turbocharging and so forth, on the four cylinders mostly, with some of the performance and engine emission stuff on the 3.3, and that came out in 1990, after the turbos.

Burke Brown and Powertrain Development

Dave: How involved were you involved in the original development of the 3.3?

I was involved in the emissions and the combustion chamber kind of stuff. [As far as the size being 3.3,] I don’t remember that it was deliberate, though it sounds better. It was just looking at what the engine could make and the fuel economy and “how big do you want it?”

3.3 liter chrysler engine in lh large car

Marc: We had one person that was very good at determining engine need for a certain given vehicle, Tom Asmus [Senior Research Executive]. He could figure out if you told him you’ve got a certain car coming out – certain weight, certain car – he could formulate what you need to have for an engine for a given vehicle. The guy’s amazing.

Dave: So what was the first target vehicle for the 3.3 then? The van or…?

The minivan, yeah. Because when we went to V6s, the first V6 in a minivan was the Mitsubishi 3-Liter. Well, we partnered with them. They had that engine in production in their luxury car, it was tooled up. The 3.3 was meant to be a little step above. Then we ended up in the sevens there for a while. We had the 3.7, the 4.7, the 5.7. But again, I don’t think there was a [reason] – if you go back and ask the guys why was it a 383 instead of a 384 or whatever, I don’t think anybody [would have a strong reason]…

Back when it was with cubic inches, I would guess that there was maybe a little bit of effort not to fall right on top of somebody. Like Pontiac had a 317, so I don’t know if that was – a 318 or I don’t know. Back when the 318 came out, Ford had a 292 then the 312 [as well as a 302].

Marc: Think there were about three of those things, pretty poor drain back on those cars. You look at the drain back on a 302 Ford. you’ve got a small little hole for a drain back off the belly area. So a small hole. Once that little hole gets clogged up, next thing you know you’ve got four quarts of oil on the top and one in the pan.

Not a good combination.

Marc: I think we had a better grip on that, drainback-wise.

Well that drainback thing got much better with the LA engine. The original A engines didn’t have a very big drainback.

Marc: The 3.3 was both the north-south and east-west, so we had to – the east-west first?

Yes, the minivan first. The first time it went north-south was the LH, around two years later.

Marc: That was a good engine too though. It had some issues here and there, but it was good overall.

It lasted a long time.

Marc: Quite a few of them out there.

And the 3.8, which was just the same thing with a little longer strokes is all, it just went away just now.

Dave: The decision to make it multiple-point injection — 

Oh, make the 3.3 multipoint?

Dave: Right, and different from the Imperial 318 in 1982

Marc: The biggest thing with multipoint was probably the cost factor. Cost factor injectors and a different controller, and you’ve got to have a separate driver for each injector. If you do multipoint, it was cost driven at the time, wasn’t it?

Well yes, emissions and so forth, but I don’t remember that we considered anything but multipoint for the 3.3. That was the technology [of the time]. But one technology that’s been kind of an interesting debate over the years is whether to use mass airflow sensor or you do what we call speed-density, which was always basically you use a map sensor and other what I think of as much more reliable sensors than a mass airflow sensor and you get the job done. I remember that debate several times.

first 2.7 engine

Marc: Yes, new engineer hired in, he wants to use mass flow…

And it’s been years since I’ve looked at what’s out there for the industry. I remember discussions, if I remember right, Ford was always mass air and GM was pretty much split down the middle. You could add up all their different engines and it was like the guys that wore blue suits did this and the guys that wore green suits did that...

I don’t remember that we were quite separated, because it’s a luxury car or it’s this or that. But every time we looked at it we’d walk away and say you know, that’s just not as reliable, and there’s more than one kind of mass air sensor. There were two or three technologies, but nothing seemed to me as good as what we were doing, so we kept it.

Marc: We were able to calibrate properly and we’d get the job done and it worked and the cost factor was good. Just a wide chain to get, you know?

Well that Imperial system though, that’s a whole other story.

Marc: Almost didn’t make it, number one.

Well yes, it was probably a little…

Marc: Before its time?

Perhaps, that might be a way of saying it.

Marc: It’s the second try right? After the ’57…

’58. I think the ’58 was the Bendix Electrojector.

There’s a couple guys who claim to have those cars.

Marc: I’ve seen them. Not the first time it’s been around. But a lot of it’s technology-driven. Technology-driven plus even supplier-driven too as far as what the costs were and the components. Especially fuel injectors, as more became available cost came down. But I think we were able to grasp the calibration process pretty well. We kept improving what we were doing there and got pretty good at it.

Dave: Then there’s variable valve timing, which I think Chrysler was one of the last to leap onto.

Yeah, there were certainly others out there that went into the Hemi right after I left.

Marc: Just a matter of technology that when you grasp it… What’s the benefit for the customer? What do you gain for the cost you put into it? I think Chrysler was always pretty much customer-driven. Like Chrysler was always thinking about the customer.

We’ve always done a good job of that. Tried to anyway.

Marc: At least you want it to be customer-driven, right?


Marc: We always were pretty driven on that. I even tell people too, working on the calibration side, even depending on the engine program itself whether it be a V6 or 4, you always had different people involved with different programs. A lot of times, that program success was driven by the person in charge.

Like Burke here, he did an excellent job on what he did for LX. It always depends on either who’s in charge or who’s doing what, whether it be brake work or engine calibration and this stuff. There’s always this human factor, and I think we had a good group of guys that did the LX stuff.

Yes, I had a really great group with the LX. I often have wondered how long it would’ve taken us to figure out that MDS stuff without the team of development and NVH guys I had. We had a little help from the supplier but not a whole lot. They actually ended up writing an essay paper about it.

Marc: How much control do you have over that? I’ve always wondered myself, how much control do you have over selecting the people that are involved in your team? Are they given to you, or do you actually go out there…

No, you have some. It’s kind of a mixture. Some of the guys were already there and some were with me in the program in LH.

Marc: Yeah, every six years it kind of cycles through.

feather dusterThat whole thing as far as the intermingling of the economy and what’s going on in politics and everything else. Just the whole world situation implies back to what’s going on with what people will buy. Many times we’ve been through the oh, I care about fuel economy… well, my early days … I skipped a little chapter there, but I was involved in some fuel economy. Remember the Feather Duster? I was a big part of that doing the calibrations and getting the fuel economy, all the aluminum parts and getting the weight down.

Marc: The dashboard light?

Yeah, yeah. Well, there’s two versions of that. I mean, there was one that was just a manifold vacuum light that was just meant to give the customer a little indication not to push it so hard and save fuel.

Marc: We’re referring to a light that was on the dashboard that if you…

fuel pacerWell it was a turn signal, remember? It was out on the fender.

Marc: I remember one that was a separate light.

You’re thinking of the shift indicator light that told you when to shift on a manual.

Marc: I thought there might have been a separate light that would indicate if you were driving too hard. It was just a manifold sensor that was if you tipped in too hard, low vacuum, it would trip a light and tell you you’re driving too hard, back off.

Remember the little fender lights on top of the fender? The left one, that’s what would light up when you were too deep into the throttle. It was just a driving coach so to speak.

I don’t remember what year it was, but we worked with EPA and came up with this shift indicator light. That was probably more useful for EPA when they would do a real emission test. That was the fuel economy label test on the window, to get them to shift at optimum time. I used to get really annoyed that the EPA just had one speed that you always shifted at. I think it was 15 or 25, and if it was a four-speed it was 40. Well, if you’re on light acceleration, 15 doesn’t make much sense at all. If you’re heavy into the throttle then 15’s about right.

slant six

The test that they run for the fuel economy label has all kind of stuff in it. It’s got some light throttle and some heavier stuff. So we came up with this shift indicator light, from the engine controller. We mapped it out and programmed it so the light would do a little up arrow in the dash when now is a good time to shift for optimal fuel economy, and if you followed that you would get what EPA got on their test. If you want to drive it harder that’s fine, you can, but at least it was an indicator that we gave people. How many people followed it? I don’t know. We had pretty good feedback that oh, this is kind of nice.

We talked about the cyclical nature of the industry and the whole way that what’s going on in the world affects it. There was a time in the early 70s, the first oil embargo in the Sahara, when nobody wanted a 318 because with the Slant-6 you’d get better economy, and some of these fuel economy things we just talked about were nice enhancements on it.

Once the fuel supply got back in place or people got used to gas was a buck a gallon now, not $0.40 or $0.70 cents, and they neutralized themselves, then fuel economy wasn’t of great interest. Time after time I’d see these surveys that the marketing guys would go out and do, and they’d ask people what are the top ten things on your mind when you go in to buy a car? Almost always the first couple were something about the price of the car or how good a deal it was, the value, that sort of thing. Sometimes how the dealer would treat me and that sort of thing. Then would come stuff like reliability and be sure it’s safe.

Well when you talk about the top ten, there’s a lot of times fuel economy didn’t make the top ten, it was number 14 or something like that.

Personally, I always thought if people were more interested in that, then that’s the kind of product that we would build, but they weren’t interested. More than once, we said there’s just no interest in say a small engine in a vehicle.

Francois changed that. He was from the European culture, so his idea was getting a lot of power out of a small displacement engine that would naturally get you a little bit better fuel economy.

Marc: It would still rev high enough where you’d get power too.

Yeah, but then you have to worry about the low and mid-range stuff. The 3.5 had that big, long ram manifold on it with the two frontal bodies. That’s exactly what we were doing there. We were getting a nice, midrange torque out of it. Being a four-valve engine, if you revved it up it had good top-end and it was only 3.5 and it was making 200 and some horsepower, well, 214.

It was 215 cubic inch, and I remember saying if we hit 215, we can say one horsepower per cubic inch, but it didn’t quite make it. The later aluminum block engine did 250. I think it was 250 foot pounds and 250 horses.

That was in ’98. The aluminum engine was lighter which helped …

Well, then I shifted out of powertrain and went into whole vehicle, which at the time was called vehicle development.

Now, I’m working for a company that Jeff Zybert started. Chrysler is one of the things I’m doing, a little something here, and he and I have done some other projects together, too.

Willem Weertman and the Engines Book

Chrylser Engines 1922-1998 Willem WeertmanOne thing I chuckle at – I got Willem Weertman started on that whole [Chrysler Engines book] thing because the Walter P. Chrysler Club, back in ’97, was having their national meet here. Somebody approached me and said, “We need something to do in the evening when people are here. They’ve driven from out of town, but we want to do something at the hotel so people don’t have to go anywhere.” So I came up with the idea, “Why don’t we bring three, four or five retired guys in to talk about their expertise or whatever?”

So I brought the guy that ran the proving ground for several years, and I asked Bill [Willem Weertman] to talk about the Chrysler Hemi engines, the ’51 through like ’58, the Hemis and the polys, because there’s a lot of opportunity for confusion because people would expect that the Chrysler Hemi, the Desoto Hemi and the Dodge Hemi all had some commonality and so forth. They are all different engines, the bore centers are different, there’s literally no interchangeable parts. We always kid that the drain plug is one of the only interchangeable parts.

Marc: You just assume it’s all the same.

If you look at parts at a swap meet and say, “There’s some Hemi rocker arms,” it could be Dodge, Desoto or Chrysler. You’ve got to measure them because they’re each about a half inch different than the other one.

I always explain to people, if they would’ve had the technology, they could’ve really done an easy job. They could’ve taken the Chrysler engine, the design that came out in ’51, put it in a Xerox machine and punched 90% and you’d have a Desoto engine. And take the Chrysler and put it back in and punch 70% and you’d have the Dodge engine. That’s about it. Everything’s a little bit smaller, just scaled down.

They were built at three different plants. Chrysler got smart and got rid of all that complexity in ’58 when they created the Trenton Engine Plant and started building B engines and A engines there, but anyway, I asked Bill, “Can you spend a half hour just kind of explaining all that?” (I also asked Jack Smith to talk about the Road Runner story.) That turned into him doing a pamphlet of the material he presented that night, and both the guys have been asked and have done bigger and more detailed presentations since then.

I think it started at 7 and we were supposed to be out of there at 11, four hours for the meeting room at the hotel, and we got to 11 and we weren’t close to being done. I asked for a show of hands, “Anybody want to keep going?” One of the guys went off and started negotiating with the hotel, what will it cost us to keep this going until midnight? I think we ended up leaving at 1 am or something like that. Both those guys are just treasures of interesting stuff.

Related topics: Other interviews • ChargerChallenger300C • 3.5 Engines •  300M • LH Cars

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