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Chris Theodore: Fixing the Ultradrive and Building the Chrysler Tech Center (CTC)

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Chris Theodore: Fixing the Ultradrive and Building the Chrysler Tech Center (CTC)

interviewed by Marc Rozman, 2012

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What really happened with UltraDrive, well it's both sad and funny. During my first tour of duty at Chrysler I had two job interviews. One was with the Advanced Chassis Group and one was with the Advanced Transmission Group. They showed me this electronic transmission they were working on back in the 1970s and they really wanted me to work for them. I took a look at the car and there was an old Volare with a trunk full of electronics plus an umbilical cord to a huge computer on casters. They said, "This is the future. We're going to have an electronic transmission."

I took one look at that and said, "No, thanks." Well, Chrysler decided to bet its future on electronic transmission technology. It was the A604, and it was part of the powertrain group that I was now leading.

The bad thing is, you know, it was a great idea. It was clutch-to-clutch shifting. No under and over clutches, fewer parts, electronic control, but the prior VP of engineering, for whatever reason, had decided to bet the farm, and they put it into all the Chrysler models at once. Usually when you start out with new technology you want to get a little field experience. Make sure all the bugs are out and everything else is worked out.

Well… they let it loose in high volume production had no way back. These things started failing left and right, at very low mileage. Worse yet, the VP of Marketing had nothing new to talk about that year, so he named the transmission "Ultradrive", and advertised the hell out of it.

The coup de grace came when Consumer Reports took the minivan, which was the bread and butter for Chrysler, off of their recommended buy list because of Ultradrive. So Iacocca had a conniption. ... they were failing left and right - plus we're launching new engines and other stuff. We had a real disaster on our hands.

I remember when we were up in the boardroom in Highland Park with Iacocca and all the officers. Iacocca wanted to know what's going on with Ultradrive and we're telling him how we're trying to fix things and so on and so forth.

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Everybody's really quiet and I'm showing him all the data and what we're trying to fix. Iacocca says, "Look, I've got to go. I've got to take a leak. When I get back, I want one person in charge of this mess."

So he walked out and the room went silent and I'd already been thinking about it, how were we going to fix this mess? All of a sudden I see Lutz and Castaing standing outside the doorway of the boardroom and they motioned for me to come over and say, "Chris, will you volunteer to fix this thing?" I said okay.

I said, "Okay, but I've got to give up all my other responsibilities to focus on this." They agreed, so that's what we did, and when Iacocca returned, they told him that I would be the man in charge of Ultradrive. He nodded in agreement, but didn't look comforted.

The next morning I got a call from Iacocca's office to come and see him, which I really appreciated from Lee. I went to his office. He said, "Chris, I hope I didn't scare you with this."

It's a big task.

It's a big task. Let's split this up. He said, "you handle all the technical problems, and I want Ted Cunningham (VP of Sales) to take care of the customers.

Ted came up with a program. We called it "Call the Customers." If they had problems, we fixed their cars.

Ted did a great job on that. Meanwhile, everybody was looking for a smoking gun as to what was the matter with the UltraDrive.

There was no smoking gun. We had a good team of engineers, but there were just literally hundreds and hundreds of bugs. We just started banging away and banging away cutting them down and knocking them down one at a time. There were supplier issues, manufacturing issues and engineering issues, there were…

Right, the process, the design and the building.

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So we went to work- and we'd have to report back to Iacocca. I think we had to report once a week in the board room.

At first Iacocca was looking at me kind of cross-eyed not necessarily believing what I was telling him. I said look, this is what's going to happen next. I'd show him here's what warranty claims are going to be next month and here's what they're going to be the month after.

Won't be pretty, but…

And after data started doing what I said it was going to do - that if we take care of these four problems, this is going to happen - that I started to get some credibility with Lee.

Yeah, take care of whatever you can.

The data started to show that we were on our way down. It was a long haul, but slowly we worked our way out of it.

Building the CTC

You were involved in the Chrysler Technology Center. Was that driven more by platform too?

Well, Lee wanted to build that, and truth be told, because I've got to tell when I'm wrong and I'm right, truth be told we were in '87 right after Chrysler bought AMC. The stock market had just crashed, Chrysler was heading for its second brush with bankruptcy. Iacocca's off building the Taj Mahal, and I thought it was the damned dumbest thing to build that. But it was clear he had his mind made up and he was going ahead with it.

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We took a look at the plans, and it was funny, but not in a good way. We couldn't change the basic crucifix design, the crucifix. The floors were designed for pedestrians, but the second, third and fourth floors couldn't hold the weight of a car. There were no garage doors to get cars in and out at the ground floor level. Again, it was John Miller, myself and Dick Terrigian. We were charged with working on and planning the move to CTC. We had to finalize the plans and schedule the move-ins.

Well it's good that they brought you people in to look at it.

That's when we came up with the idea of using the crucifix, putting one platform team over the other, aligning body engineering over body engineering, etc. Setting up a team-centered core where each platform team could have finance, purchasing, manufacturing, planning and engineering all working together as a team -and, of course, making all the laboratories useable.

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We were very proud of the way that was arranged. We did have an influence on making it work and I think it's one of the best facilities in the world. The only bad part of the facility -the honest to God truth - is all the executives in Highland Park at the six story building. They got lonely down there and they got jealous. So they decided, Bob Eaton and company, that they had to move to CTC.

They built that stupid tower which undid, in a way, everything that we tried to set up regarding cooperation and team work. It sent the wrong signal. And thank God, Marchionne doesn't even go in that building. He's back where he should be - in the center of CTC - where all the functions should be working together as a team. So throw the damn tower away. I'm pretty proud of the rest of CTC.

I'm not sure who's up there, but there's somebody.

Hey, I have no idea who's up there.

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Maybe a viewing center, but I know he's on the fourth floor, I believe in the VP area.

It was interesting, Terrigian's secretary was the sister of [Dr. Jack] Kevorkian. And she used to disappear at times, and that's back when Kevorkian was doing his assisted suicides. My first boss at Chrysler was the one that I didn't mention, was the guy that was bludgeoned to death by his wife years later with a sledgehammer. Do you remember that one? Terry Ferrell was his name. Poor guy.

When you moved out to CTC, lots of people were still back at Highland Park, I went into your old office and in your closet was a rolled-up blueprint of the new complex. I still have that blueprint.

I'd like to see that sometime.

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Once we got to CTC, we actually had to have maps on the wall just so we could figure out where to go. But Highland Park was 75 years old, always in constant repair, so it was a good time to move on.

Well you know the original plans - that was the other thing. When we took a look at the original plans for CTC that had been done, they laid it out just like Highland Park only without the little alleys between the buildings. So it was the exact opposite. Everybody was in their own little cubby bin.

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We tore all that up because that was more of the bad old culture, each function in its own fiefdom... I remember when I first got to Chrysler, you had to go down to the other end of the complex to talk to powertrain, the guy in charge of powertrain. Transmissions were falling apart, and I had to go from one end of the complex to the other, just to talk to my manufacturing counterpart.

Design, Purchasing, the whole bit was everywhere … even when CTC was built, a lot of things that were put in initially were things that were missing in Highland Park. That was a priority.

There was a dyno building 10 [in Highland Park] was the last one that we closed down.

I moved out in '86 or '87. I was one of the first operators in powertrain testing, so once we moved into the first wing of powertrain, it was still under construction and I was moving plumbers and electricians around to get my stuff in there and do my tasks. It was fun.

Yeah. Who was the airflow guy? And I see him every once in a while. Who ran the flow bench?

There were several people. Tim Connolly?

Tim. That was my favorite spot was to go down…

We called Tim the Wind Wizard. He was an excellent airflow technician and did a lot for engine design, I used to do a lot of air box testing with him.

I had a lot of fun with him.

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Yes, quite a character but good guy. It was a task getting that place up and running, but it did well. People don't realize that construction went on, at least for powertrain, the area was not just move in and we're done. It was a three-phase build operation and what you needed first to get there then things were build additionally as far as performance testing and durability testing.

I remember well.

Yeah, it was a long process. It took maybe four or five years to get that.

It was one of the most expensive portions of the whole program.

Yeah, $700 million I think it was, just to have that facility built. It's still state-of-the-art, pretty much. Even GM came in and looked at it, and set the stage for their new operation at Tech Center for GM.

I still think it's one of the best facilities in the world.

Visit the CTC (virtually), with video

Chris Theodore, Chrysler engineer and car development leader

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