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Chris Theodore, Engineer and Minivan, Small Car, and Viper Platform Head

interviewed by Marc Rozman, 2012

Chris Theodore has been the CEO of Saleen and ASC, a vice president at Chrysler, and the director of powertrain engineering at AMC. While working at Chrysler's Advanced Group, he penned a minivan based on K-car components which might have spurred the first 1984 minivans. His work also included the second generation minivan, Neon, PT Cruiser, Prowler, and Viper; and, once he left the company, the Ford GT, 2005 Mustang, F-150, Fusion, Freestyle, and Five Hundred.

We're with Chris Theodore today at the Golling Fiat in Birmingham, Michigan. We're going to start by asking Chris about his history, and how you got to be a car guy.

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Well, I was born and raised in Detroit. You know, started loving cars at the age of four or five. My dad caught me jacking up - I think I was four or five years old at the time - I was jacking up his '51 Plymouth trying to change the tires, so I loved cars just from the beginning of time. I don't know why because my dad wasn't mechanically inclined. I was a Mopar fan. My dad had Plymouths, and then when I was young my mother took me on a tour of the Chrysler Highland Park Engineering facility.

I was just a young kid. I don't think I was ten yet. And they showed us all the engineering facilities. I was really impressed with their engineering. My dad used to take me to see the new models before they came out - back in those days the new model year started around September. We'd go down to Dodge Main and the other Chrysler plants and peak through the fences and see the new cars before they got to the showroom. So I was nuts about Chrysler products.

Back in the day, the other big thing was the Turbine car. I'd write letters to Chrysler and they would send me back all this engineering information on the Turbine cars. I've still got the booklets somewhere. I even did one of my Science Fair projects on the Chrysler Turbine car.

So I was always in love with Chrysler's engineering excellence, and I really had the bug. I used to re-style the cars in brochures, and make customized scale models. I mean, my first car was a '56 Plymouth that my dad ran into the ground, and I tried to get back running. I learned a lot about body work because that thing was a real rust bucket.

I convinced my mom to buy a '62 Plymouth which was a neat car and got my engineering degree at the University of Michigan specializing in automotive and mechanical engineering. In fact, I was the leader of the University of Michigan Urban Car Project and so we designed and built our own little urban car. It had a rotary engine, space frame, composite body, a drunk tester, and all sorts of high-tech stuff that was way ahead of its time.

Drunk tester?

Yeah, so that was a little a real tease - yeah, I really spoiled me. From then on, my goal was to design complete cars. That was in the early '70s. We finished the car in 1971 or '72.

So I wanted to be in the automobile business. I actually got a summer internship at Ford through one of my professors, and I ended up going to Ford Heavy Truck working on their turbine truck. Because I had a good internship there, I didn't interview with anyone else - even though I was interested in Chrysler. In those days, the economy would tank every four years and Ford would lay off based upon seniority. I actually got a summer internship at Ford through one of my professors, so I ended up going to Ford Heavy Truck first because I had a good internship there, and I didn't interview with anyone else even though I was interested in Chrysler.

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At Ford, the downturn used to be every four years and they'd lay off on seniority. I missed the layoff cut. Anybody with less than four years got cut. Those with four to five years, which was me, the guy said you either go on the drafting board or we consider you quit. And I said I'll quit when I want, so I went on the drafting board and actually did some first CAD work way back around 1974.

I ultimately went to Detroit Diesel for a year, I had a great time there doing research and designing a new diesel engine, but I really loved cars.

The first time I ended up at Chrysler was 1975, they were forming a new advanced engineering group. It was right after Chrysler's Thanksgiving Day massacre of 1974, when they laid the entire engineering staff off, and told them not to come back until the new year! Chrysler was just starting to hire back to replace the people they had lost.

It was a tough time then too, eh?

I was real excited that I went to work for Chrysler and Advanced Group, although many of my friends thought I was crazy going to work for a company on the verge of bankruptcy. Unfortunately, they didn't give us a whole lot of work to do. I had a boss who wasn't the most creative. He'd wait for the his bosses to tell him what to do. And we had some really, really bright engineers in the team, guys like Randy Edwards, Fred Windsor and Tom Hoskins. One day I got bored and decided to design a new vehicle - by that time Hal Sperlich had come over and we were working on the K car - so I went back on the drafting board and I started drawing up a minivan. And it was funny at the time.

The union came over after a while and said Chris - they loved me. They say you can't draft. I said can I do a tape drawing? They said yes. So, of course, I did a tape drawing of a minivan based on K-car components.

What drove you to do that? Just an idea you had?

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I thought there was a market for minivans. They had a thing back then at Chrysler, it was called Project 90s, Delphi Project 90s, and they plucked me out of the group at Chrysler, young engineers, and wanted us to predict the future. And one of my predictions was the minivan. I still have a copy of my predictions. Some came true, like the minivan, but others…

And so you know, I went back and I drew it all up on the K Car components and showed it to my boss and he didn't like it. The guy's name was Lefty, the boss' boss, the name was "Lefty" Carlstad. And showed it to the chief engineer of Dodge Truck at the time and he pulled a cigar out of his mouth and said "that's not a truck!" and he threw me out of his office.

So we went back and worked on some other stuff. About a year later, the chief body engineer, Leo Walsh, called me up and said Chris, remember that minivan you were doing? Yeah. Show it to me again. Now Hal Sperlich was asking about minivans because he had been trying to get one done at Ford.

Yeah, he was fresh to Chrysler.

It's not like I invented the minivan. So I was just an excited young kid. I went running down there and took the tape drawing with me, showed it to him, unrolled it. He looked at it and says "Oh yeah, I remember that. Thanks Chris," and rolled it up and didn't say anything.

About another year passed and then we started on the minivan program and I had meanwhile gotten bored so I jumped on the Chrysler/Calspan Research Safety Vehicle Program which was really neat. It was a small team of guys.

We basically built a safety car with Calspan for the government. It was based on a Simca body and my job was to design the chassis, put the Omni motor in it, and improve the aerodynamics. It was really neat. We developed the first air belts. Of course, Joan Claybrook, head of the NHTSA, demanded airbags, so it had an airbag on the driver side and an air belt on the passenger side. The RSV was capable of passing a 40mph barrier test.

Yeah, that was all fresh back then too.

Then the minivan program started up. Meanwhile, I didn't want to go back. I liked working on a small team. There were maybe a dozen of us working on the safety vehicle offsite, at a job shop called Creative Industries.

I didn't want to go back to the big company because I'd been bored there, so I convinced the government to let me turbocharge the safety vehicle to prove that it could get better fuel economy with turbocharging. I had my own little one-man contract with the Department of Energy through Chrysler and we got it turbocharged and achieved better performance and fuel economy.

But you were already working out of the Creative Industries office or facility?

I think by then I'd gone back to Highland Park. I was doing it back in the shops at Highland Park, and the guys were slipping me parts and doing work on the dynos and that was a lot of fun. Ultimately, I ended up going back to the Advanced Chassis group where I started, and we began working of the production version of the minivan.

I was having a good time, and I really loved my first tour of duty at Chrysler, but I'd gained a reputation in turbocharging and an entrepreneur, Fred Dellis, kept calling me. He wanted to start a turbocharging company in NY, called Legend Industries. I kept saying no, but he kept calling me up, and finally he said, "You've got to come out to New York and I'll show you around."

He wined me and dined me and made me an offer which I refused, but then my wife popped up and said something even higher and he topped that, so then I was kind of stuck.

The funny thing was the two clients he had, of all things, he had a contract with Fiat to turbocharge a Fiat Spider.

And then I helped close the deal to do a twin-turbo DeLorean with John DeLorean.

But you can then fast-forward to the outcome. Fiat withdrew from the North American market. We set up a new company, and a new dyno facility. We were the first independent company to certify a car with the EPA, but then DeLorean basically took us out with his drug deal, and we went bankrupt.

That thing happens a lot.

I moved back to Detroit, took the lowest paying job offer working for Cars and Concepts, but again I'm VP of engineering and I loved designing cars…

That's a good company too.

I had a lot of fun there, worked my butt off, but didn't make any money. At Cars and Concepts the policy - the owner was an entrepreneur - was that floor sweepers and vice presidents got the same raise, 15¢ an hour, and I was going broke. So that was the last straw when I showed them I couldn't make my bills, and the best they could do was 15 cents.

Yeah. Move on time.

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Then a friend from Ford, John Campagna, had gone over to American Motors and he wanted me to meet Francois Castaing. I said I don't want to go over to work for such a crappy company. He said no, you've got to meet this guy. So I did. I went to meet Francois and he's an amazing guy. We hit it off right away.

Next thing I knew, I was off to American Motors and I started out as chief engineer of advanced vehicle at American Motors. They then promoted me to director of powertrain. I had a lot of fun there doing the four liter Jeeps and all that stuff.

In-between Chrysler tried to get me back, to work on the de Tomaso. When I took one look at that program I said no way, I'm not working on that.

So you were there when the Renault Alliance came on board also? The Renault partnership?

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Yes. Actually, Renault already owned AMC, so Francois was there and the Alliance had already been launched. We worked on fixing the Renault for the American market, the 4- liter engine for the Jeep Cherokee, the Grand Cherokee, and we started working on the Eagle. And like I said, in the interim Chrysler called me back to work on the De Tomaso which I could tell was going to be a fiasco - because there were too many chefs in the kitchen.

We did do - by the way, back at the first tour of duty, I worked on a great show car with Ken Mack - sort of an underground program. It's still in the basement at Highland Park. It was going to be a de Tomaso 2-seat sports car - long before the one that we all know. I still love that show car. We built it from the ground up from an Omni chassis and put a turbocharged motor in it, yet it looked mid-engined. It's got a low dropdown beltline with gull wing windows. It was designed by Steve Bollinger [who styled the 1981 Imperial, and I believed worked on the original Ford GT40], a really neat looking car.

But that one got killed when Iacocca brought Don DeLaRossa over from Ford design. He didn't like it and killed that program, replacing it with the Dodge Daytona.

A lot happened right then when Iacocca came on board. A lot did change.

Well there was a lot of good but DeLaRossa was…

Yeah, he moved things out pretty fast, eh?

He changed things around. So I had a lot of fun at American Motors. Small team, and we did some really, really good stuff. Like I said, the four liter Jeep motor blew everybody's doors off and its design dates back to a 1956 Nash motor. Port fuel injected, and we got 200 horsepower out of it. Then Chrysler bought American Motors, so I'm back at Chrysler again.

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Circled around, eh?

Yes. When that happened they tried to merge the two cultures, and so I was in charge of Jeep and Truck Powertrain. The first thing we started on were the Magnum engines, since the old 318 and 360 were still carbureted, and hadn't been improved in ages.

So they put me in charge of all the powertrains for trucks and Jeeps. Then they wanted to integrate the two groups so they picked five guys from the Chrysler side and five guys from the AMC side, and moved me to Highland Park and some of the Chrysler Highland Park guys to the Plymouth Road facility. We were all kind of like fish out of water.

Fortunately I still had friends on the Chrysler side, but it was still a difficult transition - it's hard to mix cultures because Chrysler had become very proud of what it had accomplished… but after Black Friday, it was pretty clear that Chrysler would run it into trouble again. You know, when Iacocca got there during my first tenure, he saved Chrysler and did a great job. I think he was the second best orator I've ever heard - next to Ronald Reagan.

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Then the bureaucracy started to creep in and you could see they were getting ready to head south. Everything was becoming very bureaucratic. They always claimed they never had enough engineers. If you wanted a new radio they had to hire two engineers. It was…

A lot of the managers, were big on having a certain amount of people under them. It made them more important and made their position more stronger and if they had a big department there was more they could do.

So there were some culture clashes because what they really wanted to do was shake things up and start to get more efficient again. And American Motors, you know, 700 guys were designing…

Did a lot with a few people.

A few people.

So I ended up over in Highland Park. They put me in charge of all powertrain, and we were having a lot of fun. We did the 3.3 liter and the 3.8 liter and we had a few issues, we started on the 3.5l for LH, and just before the merger Chrysler was launching the Ultradrive transmission.

Stay tuned for Part II: fixing the UltraDrive

Chris Theodore, Chrysler engineer and car development leader

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