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Huntsville Electronics: Chrysler Car Stereos, Computers, Dashboards

by David Zatz and John Webster

See Part I: Huntsville's military and aerospace work

To support its work for the Air Force's rocket program, Chrysler built a large electronics plant in Huntsville, Alabama, where they designed telemetry systems, rockets, anti-tank weapons, and other military and aerospace projects.

As Saturn rocket development came to an end, though, Chrysler started to find other uses for their skilled engineers and advanced facilities.

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John L. Webster took this photo while helping set up the 1984 New Orleans World's Fair exhibit; the Dodge concept was a Shelby design. The "CLASS" demonstration was in the car and the black console on the right; Fair visitors could use the interactive console. The Navstar GPS satellite model hanging over the car was on loan from Rockwell.

Arthur Douyard had led the Apollo telemetry team before becoming the plant manager. Starting in 1968, Doyard led the transition to other fields, according to John Webster. "Art taught me MBWA ('Management By Walking Around,' popularized by In Search of Excellence). He was well known out on the factory floor where he got a daily first-hand feel for production efficiency."

The first contribution to the parent company was adapting the Saturn 1B rocket parts checking system to Chrysler's car factories (1968). Huntsville would rapidly develop several major lines of automotive products: emissions analyzers, dashboard components and displays (including the first mass-production trip computer), radios, and engine control computers. The division quickly became a prime strength of the corporation, shooting Chrysler ahead of the competition by 1971, when it debuted the industry's first electronic ignition - a major advance - and the first dispersive-type auto emissions analyzer.

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Engine controls

Huntsville delivered the industry's first in-house solid-state engine ignition module (and the first to be standard on some engines) for the 1972 model year. Electronic ignition quickly became a distinguishing feature on all Chrysler cars, domestic and European alike, years before GM's "High Energy Ignition."

Chrysler's electronic ignition made its cars more reliable, easing tune-ups and mis-fires by eliminating points and providing more power, more consistently, and timed more accurately, to the spark plugs. It would take nearly a decade for the rest of the industry to catch up - Volkswagen, for one, was still on points in 1979.

(Daniel Stern pointed out that Chrysler had sold Prestolite electronic ignition as an option for fleet buyers since 1966, and aftermarket versions had been available.)

Huntsville engineer John Lappington developed the first digital engine control computer. It used EEPROM technology to store the parameters for various engine models, so one basic computer design could handle all of the corporation's engines. The first on-board engine computers, these systems were advanced but it took some time for operational weaknesses to be worked out.

Launched in 1976 on the premium 400 and 440 engines, the "Lean Burn" system monitored engine speed, vacuum, water, ambient, and intake air temperature, and throttle position, sending the data to a small computer unit on the air filter housing. A pioneering version of what is now under the hood of nearly every contemporary car, Lean Burn was designed to avoid the driveability issues of manually leaned carburetors, while cutting emissions (to avoid catalytic converters) and gaining around one mile per gallon.


The 1984 Dodge Daytona's new multiple-port fuel injection system (also used by numerous other cars) was also engineered and built in Huntsville, reducing Chrysler's reliance on outside suppliers and imported parts.

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Radios and stereos

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In 1970, a group including John L. Webster and Frank Andrews delivered its first AM radio, a two-watt unit, for Chrysler Corporation cars, to Highland Park for testing. They had designed, developed, and produced the radio, and it was only the first step in increasingly sophisticated progression of communication equipment that would run through the MyGig stereos in 21st century Chrysler cars.

The next year, Huntsville began producing AM/FM automotive radios; starting in 1975, they moved up to four-speaker stereos with eight-track tape options. CB and tape deck options would be added later - as would CD players, much later. Even head units for the company's top of the line Infinity stereos would be built by Huntsville Electronics.

In the 1970s, working with National Semiconductor's Silicon Valley engineers, Huntsville engineers developed the world's first fully digital car radio, replacing the old mechanical push button tuner with integrated circuits.

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Electronically tuned "Quartz Lock" radios were made by Chrysler in Huntsville starting in 1982.

Racing and performance testing

The division also added to automotive performance. John Webster wrote:

Bill Wright and John Vaughan developed aerospace-based instrumentation for racing and production test cars in the 1980s. They had, while working at Chrysler Aerospace in Huntsville, developed on-board instrumentation for NASA space flights; borrowing sensors, brush recorders, accelerometers and other equipment from the laboratories there, Wright and others mounted them in an engineering car to collect data on racing cars.

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Bill Wright's team, originally housed in a Huntsville garage, started work on the racing program; then Chrysler asked some of the Huntsville employees on the race support team if they wanted transfers to the race group. A couple of them did, and they set up data acquisition for the car. They produced all the sensors and everything else they needed -- all on a very low budget.
Mopar Missile historian Stewart Pomeroy reported:

It involved a recorder of some kind, wire or tape, whatever. It weighed about 100 pounds and could monitor eight parameters of whatever was happening on the car and that was all it could do. They would run the car, bring it back, take the recording medium out and stick it in a reader, look at the data and see what was happening. That's as far as it went. In the aerotesting photographs you can see the components sitting in the back seat and in the trunk.

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Trip computers and dashboards

In 1976, Huntsville developed the first vacuum fluorescent display digital clock which was also certified as having Chronometer accuracy. The vacuum fluorescent displays, which would be used on nearly every car, were invaluable in the division's next advance.

In 1978, Huntsville debuted the world's first mass-produced integrated trip computer. Burton Bouwkamp wrote, "Huntsville Engineering (John Webster and Don Gero) proposed it and they made it happen!" Huntsville chief engineer John Webster wrote,

Chrysler Europe could not have incorporated the Electronic Trip
Computer into the C2 (Horizon) without the help of the engineers from Chrysler's
Electronic Division in Huntsville, Alabama. The components of the trip
computer are shown in this picture.

Thompson, the Huntsville trip computer design leader, couldn't find a
fuel flow meter that would accurately measure the low fuel flow at
engine idle; so Don Gero (a Huntsville engineer) who was, at that time,
based in Paris and serving as Liaison with the Chrysler France
engineers, recommended that Huntsville program the Trip Computer to
record a preset fuel flow rate (that Chrysler France engineers
provided) at engine speeds below 1,000 RPM. Above 1,000 RPM the fuel
flow meter was able to accurately measure the fuel flow rate.

The C2
engineers in France worked with visiting Huntsville engineers, Chuck
Thompson, Ken Miller and John Webster to establish how much fuel the
engine would be using at idle RPM. (Later - when the USA started using
the Trip Computer - the fuel flow meter supplier was able to develop an
improved version that was sensitive enough to record idle fuel flow.)

The Trip Computer was one of the first applications of the bluish
green vacuum fluorescent display technology to an automotive product.
There was considerable concern over the reliability of the lengthy
thermionic cathode filaments in these display devices and Huntsville
conducted an elaborate series of vibration and other environmental
tests to qualify vendors of this new technology for the automotive
environment. The Futaba Corporation of Japan won the purchase order and
delivered top quality vacuum fluorescent displays that were also used
in Huntsville-produced electronic digital clocks and automotive radios.
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During the mid-1980s, Chrysler's "Introl" Division, responsible for instrument clusters, was transferred from Ann Arbor and Scio to Huntsville and integrated into that operation. Chrysler's electronic instrument clusters, with digital readouts, were engineered and built in the Huntsville electronics plant. It had reminders for washer fluid, oil pressure, temperature, door-ajar, brake problems, and low voltage, with automatic checking for dead warning bulbs.

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Digital display graphics used blue-green vacuum-fluorescent tubes, with what may have been the first "square around the gear" PRNDL. A less popular option was the Electronic Voice Alert, developed and built in Huntsville (with the help of Texas Instruments) for the 1983 models; it used digitized voices, but was more than a simple voice playback device: it lowered the radio volume, sounded a tone, then delivered the message twice, with adjustable volume, while lighting up a warning lamp. (Burton Bouwkamp wrote, "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.")

Chrysler - Huntsville Electronics facilities

In 1977, a second, 225,000 square foot plant was built on Wynn Drive to support the growing need for automotive electronics.

In 1986, Chrysler announced that it would expand its Huntsville complex, creating the $65 million Chrysler Electronics City at 100 Electronics Boulevard to build electronic parts for automotive, commercial, and military uses. The company noted that automotive use of electronics was "practically nothing" in 1970, but $350 per car in 1986.

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In 1992, Huntsville Electronics was the site of Chrysler's first internal child care center.

In 1996, Chrysler Electronics was reported as having 2,292 employees and 24 different assembly lines, which used screen printers, various ovens, high-speed placement systems, wave solder machines, and board loaders; they developed final testers in-house. For 1996 they started working on QS9000 certification, a variant on ISO 9000 with modifications to match Chrysler's automotive quality standards.

PEI worked with Chrysler on development of the fully electric minivans.

In 1997, Chrysler reported that the main plant had 800,000 square feet of space, and both plants covered 144 acres of ground (in 2004, its size was reported at 849,000 square feet and 180 acres; the 1977 plant was listed as being 244,000 square feet). The plant then made radios, engine, transmission, 4x4, and body computers, and instrument clusters for Chryslers, on three shifts, making 49,000 units per day. Annual production was 11.1 million units, made by 2,804 employees earning a combined total of $106 million. 120,000 training hours were scheduled for 1998, and the company paid $6 million in taxes.

Chrysler was acquired by Daimler-Benz in 1998; in January 2002, DaimlerChrysler put up numerous parts of the company for sale, including Huntsville Electronics. It appeared that it would be purchased by Delphi, but in the end, Daimler favored a sale to fellow German company Siemens. At the time, its annual sales to Chrysler were estimated at $1 billion per year. Huntsville Electronics left Chrysler in February 2004.

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By 2010, the smaller plant at 103 Wynn Drive had been abandoned, its work moved to Mexico, with 700 workers laid off. The building, interestingly, had never been part of the deal, possibly due to Siemens not wanting to take responsibility for toxic contamination of the site. It ended up as part of "Old Carco," the remains of pre-bankruptcy Chrysler LLC; Calhoun Community College bought the Wynn Drive West building, which adjoins its Research Park campus, for $4.5 million, including a $2 million cleanup fee for a five-year cleanup; it's now been remodeled. The Wynn Drive East building is still empty.

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Ned Carl wrote, "The Electronics Boulevard complex was several buildings, and according to the security guard, had a day care facility. We saw a soccer field, basketball hoops, etc. on the east side. The main building had apparently been used by airport foreign security for a while, but it is empty again now, and posted against trespassers."

According to Ted Drude, Remington, the gun maker, announced that it would move into the plant on Wall-Triana Highway and Electronics Boulevard, in 2014.

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