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Burke Brown, LX Car Leader: Creating the 300C, Magnum, Charger, and Challenger

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Burke Brown, LX Car Leader:
Creating the 300C, Magnum, Charger, and Challenger

interviewed by Marc Rozman and David Zatz

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Dave: I've heard stories about the LX being delayed to make it rear wheel drive after the Mercedes deal, that there was a design that was replaced.

That story sounds like it would have been more like what was going on back about the time the 300M was out there. Could we make it a rear-wheel drive car? We could have, but we weren't ready for that yet marketwise or anything. So no; once we got going on the car, it was pretty much what you saw. It was V6s and then Hemi.

Rear-wheel drive cars had gotten started before the Mercedes deal [in 1998; the 300M appeared in 1999], but that really put a fire under them, because Mercedes, is very much rear-wheel drive. Now our parts bin was twice as big, and we had a whole bunch of rear-wheel drive parts that would've cost us a lot more to get our hands on, with tooling and all that. We had the 580 transmission and their rear end, which was a nice, lightweight, high-torque rear axle for an independent suspension.

It was always rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, and that was a little bit of a gift in a way because the E-class had the Magna Steyr all-wheel drive setup, which they called 4Matic, so the parts were there. All we had to do was call Magna and say hey, we want to buy some of those transfer cases too. They fit right on the back of the 580 [transmission].

The word everybody uses is synergy; the cost to put it in production by just modifying what we needed to was very, very advantageous for us. And later, in 2009, one of the last things I was involved in, we refined that all-wheel drive system a bunch. It was really slick now.

In fact, I've got a Dakota that's going to turn into an all-wheel drive Charger here before too long, and I was asking the dealer what they had because I was trying to decide if I wanted to order something, or just pick something they had already, if they had half a dozen Hemi all-wheel drives. The salesperson I was dealing with said, "We can't get enough of them. I'm always having the other dealers calling me, hey, would you trade a plain Jane for an all-wheel drive?"

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In certain areas, and Michigan would be one, where the demand is, I should've said, "I want you to order a bunch for us, so you've got some on hand." My wife really liked the Magnum, so we had the string of Magnum all-wheel drives, Hemi all-wheel drives. Almost like a tank, unless the snow was just outrageously deep it would just go right on through.

Marc: It was not a big sacrifice to mileage either, was there?

No. It used to be a little over a mile per gallon on the old system. Right now the new system is almost nothing. The height of the car was an inch higher, which some people could tell. I couldn't tell, and it didn't bother most people.

The system that came out in the '05 model year was at least a mile per gallon below rear wheel drive. We did the front axle disconnect because the original system was always all-wheel drive, never disconnected, so it's always dragging the front drivetrain and you have parasitic losses. Of course the weight you're packing on, you can't get around that. That's always there.

The Warren hub people make the [front axle disconnect] clutch, and it's reliable. Plus you don't always do it on the fly; if you start the car when it's cold, it starts out in all-wheel drive until it tests the system to see if you've got any slip, which means it's slippery pavement, because you can have dry pavement in cold weather, too. If it doesn't slip, it lets you go back into rear-wheel drive until something slips.

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Sharing with Mercedes and the myth of the "old E Class"

At the time, and probably still, a lot of people think is that we were just given the old E-class stuff, and that's not true at all. They were doing the new E-class, code named the 211, and they launched that one year before we launched the LX. They would invite us and we'd go over and we'd go on their two-day road trips around the neighborhood, you know, in the Autobahn in Germany and Austria development trips, with the new E-class. We'd participate in that and compare notes, because we basically modeled our suspension after that new 211 with a couple of things that we did differently.

The idea that we were just kind of given the old stuff, and that here you go, just take the old E-class and put your Dodge or Chrysler skin on it, that wasn't it at all.

On being asked if they looked at using ZF transmissions for the LH or LX: "We did before the Mercedes link, but then we fell in love with that 580 because the low parasitics and it had a nice gear ratio spread at the time. It was pretty advantageous and we could have it, so there was not any big debate. Well we started to build them ourselves in Indiana, and we got a few from Germany as well."

We were over there, and call it tech sharing or synergy meetings or whatever, but we had a great time. I mean, you get a bunch of engineers sitting around and just talking about, "Why did you do that? Because of this. Well what about that?" One time I remember a discussion about engines, because they had done an aluminum block 3.5 and so had we. They did their own - it was a die cast block they did themselves, and we had used a company which by the way is part of Fiat. So I was walking the halls of Fiat before Sergio.

The only real difference is ours what we called semi-permanent mold, and we had cast-in iron liners. By our view, we had the best of both worlds. We had a perfectly round iron bore, unlike a cast iron block, where the water jacket isn't always the same thickness, so the water cooling for the cylinder isn't as perfect as we could get it because everything was just the same.

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So we had some real good tech sharing about why did you - because they were running right on the aluminum. They had no liners, but they would treat the aluminum and harden it. I forget all the fancy details, but it was a more expensive process than our kind of brute force way.

But ours was bulletproof. To this day, I've never heard anybody talk about an aluminum engine that's had a liner come loose or leak or anything like that. Never. I mean, I've talked to guys with 3.5s with 200,000 miles on them and never had to take anything apart.

I remember one day we had been with all the casting guys and talked about all that stuff all day long. It was about 3:00, and they said, "Would you like to do something for a couple hours then we'll all go to dinner?"

I said "Well, do you have a tear-down room where you tear engines down after they come off durability tests or whatever and look at the parts?" "Yeah, of course."

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"Well, let's go get some parts." And so we started looking at parts and pistons and cranks and everything. We were just two or three of us from Chrysler. They were talking about pistons. They called the piston expert and we talked about pistons for a while and we talked about valves and cams and whatever.

Pretty soon it got to be after 5 and they said, "Oh, we've got to go to dinner." We said, "Let's finish talking about it." So they called and move the reservations back to 7. So we talked some more and they're really getting into it. We're telling them well here's how we did the piston, and it turns out we both were using Mahle as the piston supplier, but there were some differences. Oh, really? You did that? That's interesting. We did this. It just went on, and finally we looked at Rick. "Oh my God, it's 7:00. We better call and change the reservations to 9:00."

Marc: [laughs] You're getting hungry huh?

Well they would keep some little cookies around and some coffee, so they were pretty good about that. So I think we got there just before they closed, but we spent the whole - they enjoyed it as much as we did. You hear all these stories about the stuff. I just had a ball with those guys talking about… you know, talking shop kind of thing.

Marc: Well, those guys set the stage for what you needed to do, not only for them, because you've got to get that relationship you have going on.

That was back when I was still in powertrain. Then when it moved into vehicle stuff then we did the same thing with the vehicle development guys.

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I have often thought that if it wouldn't have been for the Mercedes thing, we probably wouldn't have had the 300, the rear-wheel drive cars. If they would've come, they would've come a lot later, and probably wouldn't have hit that sweet spot in the market where people really grabbed onto it, and of course the styling, with the high beltline and that gangster look, as some people called it. It was different. You either kind of loved it or hated it.

A lot of people will tell you that's the way you have a winner. You don't want a kind of middle of the road there where people say, "Oh, it's okay." You don't want that. You want some major portion of the people saying, "I've got to have one," and then the other third saying "Not for me." That's what I've always been told.

Marc: [Years ago,] I was at an event where the concept 300 was on display at an event. I was with some GM people, and there was a gentleman looking at the car. I was leaving the show and there was a gentleman looking at the car pretty hot and heavy. I asked the guy, "Well how do you like the car?" I didn't tell him who I was. He said, "I'm a designer for Cadillac, and if this car comes out in production we're in trouble." People know that a concept car is a good indication of what may be coming down the road. It turned out to be a really nice car and it sold really well. It still is a nice car.

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You say you love it or hate it, but to people that knew design, it was a good way to go at the time. It's still around. We're still basically seeing the design now, but refined. It looks great.

The back of the new one reminds me a lot of one of the options that we talked about on the original 300, the lights at an angle. We stood them up a little bit more.

Marc: Design guys may have a certain idea early on, and then they may have looked at "do we do this design or that design?" It doesn't mean that later on, you can't bring that original design or idea in. Do you want to change a headlamp or grille? Well, you didn't do it that way the first time, but you can do it four or five years later when you do a rehash on it… "hey, we had it on the drawing board before and we kind of liked it. Let's do it now."

[Later, Burke Brown said that they had planned to do the four cars that eventually came out from the start - that the Dodge sedan was always planned, but for various reasons, they wanted to launch just the Magnum and 300/300C at first. He said that Challenger was not meant to replace Magnum, but that they planned to build both, in large batches, alternating between the wagons and the coupes. That plan was dropped, though the Magnum-like Chrysler 300 Touring was still made for export.]

Note: Parts of this interview have been re-ordered for easier reading.

Related topics: Chrysler 300CDodge MagnumDodge ChallengerDodge Charger

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