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Chris Theodore: The fall and rise of Chrysler, and other topics

interviewed by Marc Rozman, 2012

Why did you leave Chrysler?

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I didn't want to, I loved it there. Between 1989 and 1995 or '96, I call those the Camelot years. It was wonderful. That was one of the greatest times in my career.

Lutz was a strong leader. He had swallowed his pride when Eaton was announced - you know the story about how Iacocca hired Eaton to spite Lutz. Lutz worked hard to show that "the two Bobs" were a team, but Eaton was insecure and ultimately pushed Lutz aside, and made him vice-chairman.

That's when the wheels first started to come off the wagon at Chrysler. Things started to go south because some of the EVPs started fighting to position themselves for the Presidency. Lutz had managed to get everyone to work together, but with him relegated to an advisory role, the teamwork went away. Lutz was the leader, then the teamwork went away.

Then the Germans came, and quite frankly I was hopeful. I enjoyed working with the German engineers and I made a lot of good friends. However, I could see from the beginning that Schrempp was a crook and a liar. Oh, he was a bad man. He was really a bad man.

Finally we had this big management meeting at Seville, Spain and it became clear that this was not going to be a "merger of equals." Ford had been calling and I'd been turning them away, but as much as I hated to do it it was time to reconsider. Others had been telling me, "Chris, you've got to go." I knew secretly that Shamel Rushwin was going to leave for Ford - we had become blood brothers on the minivan team. Imaging that, and engineer and manufacturing guy actually liking each other - unheard of! We are the closest of friends to this day.

Shamel said, "You know, I worked for Volkswagen. You don't want to work for the Germans!"

I said "No, no, no, I'm not moving," but then, after the Seville thing, I realized that he was right - so both Shamel and I left for Ford the same day, March 1st, 1999. Of course the mid-engine Viper became the Ford GT and it all worked out in the end.

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I do miss those Chrysler days. Like I said, those were the Camelot years. A lot of great teams - the teamwork was special - everybody working together.

I see that coming back at Chrysler now. I really do. My high potential guys back then are now running the place. I think Marchionne's done a wonderful job of recognizing the young talent. He's plucked out the race horses, let them loose, and is riding them hard.

The expectations are high. They're working 24/7, but I remember giving Scott Kunselman his first promotion and now he's in charge of engineering. Dan Knott was one of my high potential guys and he's now running purchasing [Dan recently retired for medical reasons], and Mark Chernoby is now running Advanced [Chernoby was promoted after the interview], and Ralph Gilles is doing an exceptional job with Design.

Good to see them doing well.

It feels a lot like - at least from the outside - the Camelot years. I'm really proud of what the guys are doing: Great Products!

I'll tell you, when we were doing the Motor Trend Car of the Year judging I found the new Chrysler 300 to be a fabulous automobile. It almost won Motor Trend Car of the Year. It's really good, the new V6, especially with the eight speed automatic. And the new Jeeps are great. The guys are doing great stuff, with more to come. They should be proud.

AMC, Chrysler, and Ford

So what didn't I answer? I see a question about cultures and the methods of the companies.

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The cultures at various companies are really different. AMC turned out to be a great culture - even though I didn't think it was going to - it was a lot of fun. It was a prototype for platform teams because it was all about pulling together to survive. This scrappy little company was trying to reinvent itself. People had a lot of responsibility and they had to deliver. Teamwork was imperative. You couldn't be fighting with each other.

Chrysler, when we got the platform teams rolling with everyone working together under Lutz and Castaing, was like Camelot. Ford, honestly, when I got there I didn't realize that the political infighting was still around - I knew from my first tour of duty at Ford that it was very political…

What I didn't know until I got there - you know I was hired by Jack Nasser - the back-biting and fighting and lack of teamwork was awful, to tell you the truth.

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I made some great friends at Ford. I'm grateful for some of the stuff that I learned, and proud of some of the things I accomplished - but with a little teamwork, we could have done so much more. I'm really happy with what Mullally's done with it because that culture has changed again. I mean, at times it was really miserable. Officers spent more time killing each other than trying to kill the competition.

Yeah, that's why sometimes that fresh blood, they may be outside people that have the automotive background, but just having that right direction and right leadership.

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I was afraid, that they'd try to kill Mullally too, when he joined Ford, but Bill Ford stayed strong. There were people trying to kill Jack Nasser when I was there. Bill stayed strong with Mullally, and won't let people go around him. Mullally is an engineer and a bright, bright guy with a great, positive attitude. He had good recognition of who the bad players were, who the good players were, and he doesn't tolerate backbiting - there are still people sitting on the fence, but Alan doesn't tolerate much. It's great to see what Ford has done. I'm proud of doing things like the Ford GT and the Mustang, We had some successes, there's no question.

Do you own a GT?

Oh, I've got a Viper, got a Prowler, got a Ford GT. My favorite car is the Ford GT, then second favorite is the Viper. They're exact opposites. The Viper as we all know, the original Viper is rude and crude. It's a car that you're doing 70 miles an hour and you think you're doing 90. It's got these grease ball tires and scares the hell out of you. And it's a thrill to drive.

The Ford GT on the other hand, you think you're doing 70 miles an hour and you look down and you're doing 120. Man, I was really pleased. By the way, there wouldn't have been a Ford GT if there hadn't been a Prowler because a lot of things we learned from the aluminum and Prowler, what to do and what not to do, really transferred over.

You brought that with you, as far as what you learned there?

No, we had a great team of researchers as well, but I did insist on several things, and the aluminum frame was one. The aluminum body was another.

Was that program in place when you got there?

No, my second week at Ford I was on a plane to Sweden to close the deal to buy Volvo with the executive team at Ford, and that's when I brought up the idea of doing a modern GT40.

Just out of the blue, eh?

Just out of the blue, and they were drinking wine.

You still had that thought with the Viper.

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Yeah, they all got excited about it and by the time the plane got to Sweden, they were a little too lubricated, so they all said let's do it. To my chagrin, the project was given actually to a friend of mine, the VP of Research, Neal Ressler - we became close friends. It started out as a little skunkworks project.

It didn't go anywhere for a couple years. Never could get the business piece going. It wasn't until Bill Ford took over and they said we've got to show there's something new going on at Ford.

Meanwhile, Jay Mays and I decided to do the show car. We just went ahead and put it in the Detroit Auto show to see if we could get some traction. When they needed something to show there's life after Jack Nasser, they asked what should we do? Should we do either the '49 concept car or the Ford GT? I said let's do the Ford GT and that's how the program got started. We set up a small team off-site, picked the best of the best, and turned them loose.

Usually works well. I talked to one guy, and he had told me he couldn't decide what color to buy. I think there were six colors or seven colors available? He couldn't decide what color to buy so he bought one of each.

He bought seven or eight of them. He bought one of each color, bought one to drive. The one of each color all went in hermetically sealed bags. I met the guy. He was an interesting character.

Mentors: Francois Castaing, Bob Lutz, and others

Who might have been your mentor or maybe gave you some advice that always stuck with you and helped you along?

I had a lot of good mentors along the way, but the best and the one who had the biggest influence on me was Francois Casting. He had a neat way of taking people, turning them loose, challenging them, not micromanaging.

We hit it off the first time we met and I really loved working for him- I learned more from Francois than anybody else. Lutz would probably be number two on the list. You know Lutz was a great leader and he had a great way of making people work together. His storytelling techniques were really important-most people don't understand -how he used those stories to get people to see the vision and work towards that vision. He has a subtle way of influencing people.

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I always had people helping me - my friends were always older - I respected their wisdom. At Cars and Concepts there was a guy by the name of Bob Hennessy. He had been chief engineer on the '58 Ford Thunderbird, but he had also designed every convertible top for Ford Motor Company - from the 50s all the way up to the '65 Mustang.

Bob was a mentor, and another one was a guy by the name of Trant Jarman. Trant was the exact opposite of Bob Hennessy, he was a racecar builder at heart. He taught me to simplify things. Don't get complicated in your thoughts. And then I had another at Detroit Diesel - he was a cranky, old hydraulics test engineer. Vince Versage was one of my best friends. I learned a lot from him.

A little wisdom there?

Yeah. But I think the most I got, honestly, was at Chrysler and American Motors with Castaing and Lutz. I really enjoyed working with them.

He was in my cell one time - we had done the early 3.5 work and he was down one time for some presentation work. All the guys left and he stuck around. He told me of all things, he missed the dyno stuff. Hearing the engines run, just the RPM and the feel and the vibration, he really missed that. I gave him an open visitation. If you want a place to come down and hide, you're more than welcome to come by and hide. You could tell he had a definite love for it.

You've got to remember he was part of the team that revolutionized Formula 1 when they did the turbocharged engines. Everybody laughed until Renault blew away the competition.

He always has this positive attitude, this way and he'd wink and he'd smile and he'd motivate you. I remember my performance review with him once. He said, "Hey, we've got to have a performance review."

I said "Oh, let's go to lunch." So we go down to the cafeteria in the CTC and we're sitting at the table there. I said, "Well, we're supposed to do our performance review."

He says, "Chris, do you know what you do right?" I said yeah. "Do you know what you do wrong?" I said yeah. He says, "Do more of the right and less of the wrong." That was the entire performance review.

There were times when he'd bring you in and he'd say, "Here's a piece of advice I've learned from somebody else. Don't fall into this hole."

I remember each platform team, the first time they'd run a prototype into the wall, it would never do exactly what the CIE modeling predicted. First was the LH and damn, they had to go back and redesign. Second was the Neon, and third out was the minivan. Francois said look, the other guys have failed on this. You better get involved, and I did. I said, "We're doing this different and we're doing that different and we're not going to make the same mistake." Sure enough, the minivan went into the wall; same result. Just a little bit better.

You know, the idea is transferring the learning and not being too proud to learn from others.

I mean, pride's an awful thing. It can creep in and actually mess things up. Keeping a little humility's a good thing. Keeping a lot of humility's a good thing.

Mercedes and the CTC

When the Germans came in they were pretty impressed with the operation at CTC.

Oh yeah, they were blown. I remember the head of engineering. I got along great with the German engineers. We had our first meetings and the head of engineering at the time was a manufacturing guy, Helmut Petri. Wonderful man. And when we started talking about the merger I even went to him because we'd became close very quickly. I remember meeting him in Frankfurt, at the auto show, and I sat down and said, "Look, we can work together. I'm more than willing to work for you." Because we didn't know what the organization was going to look like.

"I'll work for you. I'll show you how we work quick and fast. I'll show you" - we were far ahead of them in CAE and CAD. "And you give me access to all the technology you're working on." They had some fantastic - they spent a lot of money on research. "And we'll apply it, and we'll show you how to get there quickly with it."

He said, "Chris, this is great, I love it, but we can't do this."

I said, "What?"

He said, "You don't understand. The people here believe the three-pointed star can never be tarnished by Chrysler."

So that's when I knew. That was a signal.

We were building the first PT Cruiser prototype - just to show you how different things were - and Helmut was visiting Auburn Hills for "synergy" meetings.

Everything I proposed - because there were huge potential synergies for platform sharing - could approved. Both sides were at fault. They didn't want to work with each other, just play in their own pond.

I was with Helmut, and got a call that the first PT Cruiser prototype was just coming off the end of the line in the pilot shop.

I said, "Helmut, let's go down to the pilot shop. I'll show you our first PT Cruiser prototype."

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I went down with him and there it was, just being finished off. I said, "Here it is."

Helmut asks, "This is your first prototype?" I said yeah.

"How many did you build before this?"




He was impressed?

He said, "Our first prototypes are crap! I've got to bring all my people here to see how you do it."

While in Germany, Helmut showed me all the technology they were working on… Webber, who's head of research now, and I were very close friends and we'd share stories about Eaton and Schrempp. But I knew that that culture at the top was shark bait. It was really awful.

A lot of their thinking was that they were always - say better, smarter than us at the times?

The troops that I knew did know that they made mistakes. They admitted to me that the A-class vehicle architecture was wrong, but there's a thing about their mentality that you can't publicly admit when you make a mistake. Tom Stallkamp said Smart was dumb, and probably lost his job over it. The A-class was losing money. We showed them that the A-class, if we shared powertrains, could save them literally over $1,000 a vehicle, and they knew what they were doing was wrong. They had that laid over four-cylinder, ostensibly for safety, but they couldn't admit that it was ineffectual.

You could not put a Chrysler engine in a Mercedes car, that's for sure.

Now the third generation A-class and B-class are coming in a year or two. They've gone through two generations of crap cars and they're finally getting rid of the same sandwich floor construction, and quietly admitting that the whole thing was a…

I always had a theory about Mercedes people. They'd always say quality was always rated really high on the Mercedes. I always had a theory that if you bought a Mercedes, would you really critique it that badly and give it a bad rating if you were a Mercedes buyer?

Oh, they've had their quality problems.

Yeah, but as a buyer or a customer would you really be honest in your…

That's rationalizing.

Yeah, as I said, my personal theory.

That's rationalization. Customer get pissed off if you pay 60 grand and the car doesn't work…

I always wondered about that. I can remember some of the German staff coming in and looking at the powertrain operations. I heard some good and bad there, the we can fix you and what's wrong with our stuff?

There was some arrogance, no question.

I got along well. If you knew your stuff, they'd respect you - they showed me all of their technology and I understood it, and I showed them some of our technology. They even had me make a presentation to their engineering staff. There was mutual respect, but you had to earn it to overcome the sense of superiority.

They think differently, but I got along well with them. But I'm glad I left. From what I hear, it was a dismal time. I liked Dieter when he came to Auburn Hills, and told me that he was upset that I had left. On the other hand, Wolfgang [Bernhard] appeared to be a self-confident, arrogant jack-[I should have my mouth washed out with soap for using such terms]. It shows. He drove those guys into the ground - every car he did was a piece of crap.

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He came up with a program for material costs analysis.

Yeah, I remember that. I mean I rented one of the last PT Cruisers and I cried because they stripped everything out of the car. They stripped out every piece of insulation. They took a decent car, and you should be making it better every year, but instead ruined it.

The minivan was the same way. Like I mentioned before, the '93 minivan was an excellent vehicle, and we went and sold that and bought a 2002 and I was really disappointed. It was totally stripped down.

They just kept stripping stuff out.

I think a lot of the result of it, keeping cost down and stripping things out and not putting money back into your product.

That was a shame.

It was a sad time.

And then you had Cerberus - they didn't do anything. So that was awful.

You try to recover and people don't realize what it takes to get that product back to where it should be. It just doesn't happen overnight. It takes time, people, money to have that happen.

I'm happy. I'm happy where Chrysler's at now.

I never realized the Fiat operation would be involved in that, but still what's happening has been positive so far.

It's been good. I just hope they can keep it up - They've covered the first two hurdles that I was worried about: cash flow, and the talent required to execute new products.

The last hurdle is going to be technology. Fiat's got technology, but can they keep up with it? You know, we had very little research at Chrysler and Fiat… they've got the MultiAir and they've got some technology but you wonder if they can keep it up - the economy in Europe is starting to sink, so the next thing to worry about is keeping up technologically? I know the Chrysler guys can design good cars. The question is: do they have the resources to keep up with the technology.

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People always talked about how Mercedes was going to bring in the technology and quality and Fiat was going to bring in the technology and quality, but we had a lot of that here or available for Chrysler. It was always maybe certain things had happened that may have stopped it from going all the way, you know - we could do it, it's just a matter of having the support.

We caught on the fly. We might not have done the research, but if we saw the trend we could make quick decisions. American Motors was the first to go to multipoint fuel injection. And a lot of things were like that at Chrysler. Like I said, on the minivan we introduced a lot of new technology. Things like pulse width fan control modules… you know, there were a lot of good things. But we weren't heavy on research. You know, John McElroy has been talking about how Audi and some of the others are going to do automated driving- I heard on the radio the other day about how they're developing cars that are going to follow each other and drive themselves.

I drove the first autonomous system at Mercedes-Benz back in 1998. It was pretty crude. They called it "Stop and Go." There were two cameras up in the rearview mirror, along with radar, electric steering and control of the throttle and brakes. You'd get behind another car, it would stop and your car would stop; it would accelerate, and your car would accelerate; change lanes and it would follow that car. They were working on the technology back then, and it's just coming out now.

Well, it was not good at the time, I'm telling you. The steering was like this [gestures]. Jerky.

But things do progress as far as the technology for computer stuff and for cameras and all that stuff is always improving. There's always a time and place for it cost-wise.

That's my only worry. It's not that big a thing because like 80% of the technology is with the suppliers and that's where we had a big advantage at Chrysler is we worked better with the suppliers, so they were bringing their technology to us first.

Best to you. You're retired right now aren't you?

I'm consulting and working on my Uni-Chassis invention with Carroll Shelby, along with a few other inventions. I'm also teaching a few masters level courses at U of D.

Chris Theodore, Chrysler engineer and car development leader

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