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How the K-Car convertibles and Woody Wagons were made

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How the K-Car convertibles and Woody Wagons were made

by Burton Bouwkamp (reprinted by permission from Hemmings Motor News)

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I was Director of Body Engineering from 1979 to 1984 when we did the K car. The K car convertible and the "woody" Chrysler Town & Country convertible were Lee Iacocca's idea. He was a capable automotive executive and a great leader - but impatient! After he saw the "woody" convertible he wanted it now! More on that later.

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First - the cast of characters in the early 1980s:

  • Lee Iacocca - CEO. Needs no introduction. Referred to as LAI.
  • Hal Sperlich - President. An imaginative and talented product man, he came to Chrysler one year before Lee and was my boss when I was in charge of Chrysler's European Product Planning, European Styling (called "Design" now), and Chrysler's Engineering Offices in England, France and Spain.
  • Hank Carlini - LAI's special assignment man on product. Lee brought Hank to Chrysler from Ford - along with more than 25 others, such as Jerry Greenwald, Steve Miller, Paul Bergmoser, Dave Platt, Don DeLaRosa, etc.
  • Don DeLaRosa - VP of Design (Styling)
  • Dave Platt - VP of Purchasing
  • Dick Leasia - President of Creative Industries
  • Dick Rossio - Executive Engineer for Body Electrical

Hank Carlini arranged for Creative Industries to make a prototype "woody" K car convertible by reworking Chrysler station wagon wood trim parts. I don't know if this was Lee's idea or Hank's but Lee liked it and wanted it when he saw it.

Lee told Hal Sperlich to put it into production. Hal asked me what it would take. I don't remember the exact numbers but I determined that it would take more than $200,000 for tools (injection molding dies and assembly fixtures) and more than one year to design and tool the unique convertible parts.

Hal said my answer was unacceptable because Lee wants it now! Hal directed me to build production cars the same way that Creative Industries built the prototype. I said that was impractical because it would cost over $1,000 more per car. Hal said that Lee didn't ask how much it would cost - he said "do it."

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So, I asked Dick Leasia if he could rework and add station wagon moldings to K car convertibles on a production line at Creative Industries similar to the way he created the prototype Town & Country convertible. Dick said he could and he would start as soon as he cleared the necessary floor space and hired and trained the people to do it - but he said it would be expensive. I had a clear understanding of Lee's "I WANT IT NOW" message, and although it was not in my area of responsibility I told Dick Leasia to go ahead. The cost for this approach for adding the wood trim turned out to be around $1,100 per car.

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Styling was not happy with the aesthetic compromises needed to adapt the station wagon moldings to the convertible, but they decided not to object to Lee Iacocca, who had already approved the appearance. (You can see these compromises if you take a critical look at the body side moldings from a 3/4 front or 3/4 rear view of the car.)

Purchasing was unhappy because they wanted to send the job out for competitive bidding to several companies like Cars and Concepts, American Sun Roof, etc. However, Dave Platt decided not to approach Lee and be responsible for delaying the program, so he approved Creative Industries as a source and accepted their quote.

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So it was full speed ahead - and it was a successful program because we recovered the $1,100 cost in pricing and we sold additional cars because of the addition of the Town and Country convertible model. I don't recall the build volume but it was more than 1,000 the first year.

In my opinion, the previous "bean counter" Chrysler management would never have approved this program. The cost would have scared them. Lee had the instinct to know that it was the right thing to do.

Lee is also responsible for the first K car convertible, even though his Sales and Product Planning management did not want it. When Engineering (my department) did not have the wherewithal to engineer the K car convertible, Lee and Hal had it done at Cars and Concepts by converting two-door sedan models. K car convertible sales were so successful that Cars and Concept could not keep up with demand so my department redesigned it, to bring production in-house to the St. Louis Plant. In the redesign we added a glass backlight, quarter windows, and additional structure in the floor pan.

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The Town & Country convertible had the Electronic Voice Alert (EVA); it was not developed for this specific model, but it was made a standard Town & Country convertible feature to help justify the price we had to charge to recover conversion costs. The EVA feature was developed by my Body Electrical department and Chrysler's Huntsville, Alabama space engineers to demonstrate and publicize Chrysler's electronic capability.

... I told Dick Rossio (Executive Engineer of Body Electrical) that the voice alert was getting on my wife's and my nerves and I asked him how to turn it off. Dick said there was no way to cut a wire without making the car illegal for some of the Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. I told Dick to find a way. Consequently, after the first 10,000 cars were built with the EVA, a switch was added behind (forward of) the glove box so an agile owner - or a dealer mechanic - could turn it off.

Other contributions by Burton Bouwkamp:

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