Richard A. Samul: Chrysler test driver, mechanic, and collector
by Michael Dickens
While other kids dreamed of playing for the Detroit Tigers, Richard A. Samul (pronounced SAM-ul) dreamed of playing with cars. He found joy and excitement when cars ran smoothly, but was philosophical when they didn't. "Sometimes, all it takes is a pencil and paper to figure things out," Samul said during a 2011 telephone interview.
A native of Michigan, Samul lived about 45 miles northwest of Detroit. At age 61 (in 2011), the Polish Catholic Samul came from an automotive family -both of his grandfathers were Chrysler employees -and from 1972 to 2008, Samul was a test driver and an experimental dynamometric mechanic.
"Both of my grandfathers went to work for Walter P. Chrysler
after they emigrated from Poland to the United States in the 1920s. My (paternal) grandfather, Walter Samul worked on the Dodge Main
assembly line from about the late 1920s until he died in the 1950s. My (maternal) grandfather, Leonard Cichon, worked for Plymouth as an assembly line painter at Chrysler's Lynch Road Plant
and also at the Mound Road Plant
from about 1930 until he retired in the 1960s."
After working at a Gulf gas station on Detroit's Eight Mile Road, Samul leaped at an opportunity to go to work for Chrysler. Married, with two children, a steady job at Chrysler allowed Samul to earn a good living for his family. It also allowed him to start collecting cars in his spare time.
Automobiles were Samul's life-long occupation and they became his hobby, too. In retirement, his home grew to include two "barns" to go with a four-car garage attached to his house. It was plenty of room for Samul to store the collection of automobiles. He was comfortable in this environment, which includes space for repairing, rebuilding and maintaining his eclectic collection of cars. "I enjoy rebuilding and refurbishing cars in my spare time," Samul said. He also kept active as a member of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Retiree Group.
While cars were an everyday component of his life, Samul also enjoyed spending time with his children who are now grown -his son and three grandchildren live in California while his daughter lives in Colorado.
Ask him how many cars he currently owns -not always an easy thing for a car enthusiast to remember -and it left Samul scratching his head. Ask him how many cars he's owned in his lifetime and he replies "a couple dozen," including a rare 1965 Plymouth Sox & Martin AFX Sedan that was used in Super/Stock racing competition, and "increased tremendously" in value since Samul sold it.
Samul remembers very clearly the first car that he bought and the first "real" car he owned. There's a big difference, he said.
Ironically, the first car Samul bought was an import. "It was a 1959 SIMCA Aronde
," he said. The SIMCA
Aronde was a Chrysler import from France, which several car magazines rated as having a top speed of 81 mph. He loved his 4-door saloon despite it "being an ugly little thing that I blew out the (4-cylinder) engine on. I bought it for next to nothing."
The Aronde aside, the first "real" car Samul owned, he recalled, was a 1958 Pontiac Chieftain. It was one of the new car designs to come to Pontiac in the Post World War II years. The 1958 model "with the 4-barrel sound" had a 370 inch V8 engine. "It moved pretty good for a big car," Samul said. "I ran the heck out of it." Samul still has the car, purchased for $100 in 1965 when he was just 16.
One of his prized possessions -and the oldest in his collection -was a 1934 2-door Plymouth Rumble Seat Coupe
. It is a full-sized, full-featured car that was highlighted by a rounded classic style and a front window frame with a vented window. Another was a 1968 Plymouth Road Runner
, a successful low-cost muscle car that was designed and built to outpace the upscale and low volume GTX; it was the first new vehicle he ever owned. However, Samul may have been most attached to "Firebrewed," a 1965 Dodge Coronet A/FX
that he bought in the mid-1970s.
Working at Chrysler
Samul wore a lot of hats during his tenure with Chrysler Engineering. "I worked in a lot of lab areas," he recalled. With a little prompting, he proceeded to name all of the lab areas he worked in inside the Chrysler Road Test Garage: Starter, Ignition, Battery, Accessory, Power steering, Air-conditioning and Interior Lighting.
What were Samul's most interesting projects?
"The Tevan Electric Minivan
and the Patriot Project
were the most interesting jobs during my career. I can say that I was Chrysler's first electric vehicle dynamometer operator."
One project that Samul recalled with great fondness was the creation of the first prototype for an instrument pointer needle, used for denoting an automobile's speedometer, gas and oil levels. "I made a gauge needle by molding a hunk of plastic and painting it bright pink," Samul said. "It passed on the first test."
Another project Samul was intimately involved with was working on an electronic fuel metering program during the early days of transitioning from carburetor to electronic fueling. Part of this led to working on Frank Sinatra's car - in his own words:
In the late 1970s, I worked on Chrysler's first attempt [since 1958
] at electronic fuel metering, to replace the carburetor on engines. The project was started in a large tent, built at the north end of the Highland Park Engineering complex. This was the old outdoor styling department, a fenced-in area that had been used for publicity photos shoots in the past. Styling had moved to the new styling dome building, at the south end of the complex. Because this project was new technology -- and deemed a possible fire hazard -- initial testing took place outdoors.
The 1981-83 Chrysler Imperial
production run used the electronic fuel metering system
. This system was prone to magnetic fields generated by power lines along roadways, which caused the fuel system to go rich at partial throttle and affected drivability. Chrysler replaced the system with carburetors after many customer complaints (Frank Sinatra was one of the "customers" who was not pleased).
But it may be his work on the Chrysler Patriot
, the automaker's foray into developing a turbine-electric hybrid sports-prototype Formula One racing car with flywheel energy storage technology, that Samul remembered in greatest detail. See "Testing the Patriot."
As a test driver, Samul divided his time between banked ovals, such as the one at the Chelsea Proving Grounds
, and as a performance driver on the open highways of Michigan. The Chelsea Proving Grounds, using specially designed roads in a closed-off area around 60 miles west of Detroit, offered Samul an opportunity to test Chrysler automobiles for impact, emissions and fuel economy. Samul said he enjoyed his time there. "However, when stricter emissions came along, it wasn't as much fun," he said.
While Samul made a career out of working with Chrysler engineers, he was not one himself; but working with the design, development and testing of cars has given him a keen insight into what goes into the inner workings of an automobile engine. One of Samul's last interests was improving the design of the 426 Hemi aluminum cylinder heads.
He had an thoughtful perspective that comes from a career spent working with cars. While keeping his ideas close to the vest, he made one thought clear. "I'm interested in putting together a different approach than what's been done in the past," he said.
Samul commented that he would have loved to own a Chrysler turbine engine car
(recently featured in Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation
by Steve Lehto). However, he was content with driving his dependable red and silver 2003 Dodge Neon SRT4
, which carries what he referred to as a basic 4-cylinder engine (rated at 215 hp, and running 0-60 in under 6 seconds). It was his everyday car and one he drives with pride.
"It's nothing fancy," Samul said. "Just a steady and dependable car."
Good qualities, indeed.
Richard Samul died in April 2012. The announcement sent to friends read:
Richard "Rick" Samul, age 62, passed away unexpectedly on April 27, 2012 at his home of a heart attack, while working on one of his cars. Rick was born on September 18, 1949 in Hamtramck, Michigan to Joseph and Lillian Samul. On February 12, 1983 Rick married his loving wife Linda (Falberg) Samul in Franklin, Michigan.
Rick loved rebuilding hot rods and could fix anything. He will be missed by his family and friends.
Surviving Rick are; his devoted wife Linda Samul of Pinckney, daughter Tracy Samul of Denver Co. son, Scott (Sarah) Samul of Orange, CA., mother, Lillian Samul of Royal Oak, siblings, Tom (Connie) Samul, Ron (Kathleen) Samul , Dan (Donna) Samul, Mark (Ann) Samul, Linda Samul, Judy (Sen) Chau and Sandy (Andrew) Hessen.
The family will gather with friends on Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at 3 PM until the time of service at 5 PM at Borek Jennings Funeral Home, Hamburg Chapel. Please leave a Message of Comfort to Rick's family by calling 877-231-7900 or sign his guestbook at www.borekjennings.com
Linda Samul added: "I truly appreciate the calls and condolences.....I know how hard it is to call a person and talk to them about the loss of their loved one, but the words don't matter....The service I'm involved in preparing for Rick's final farewell will be about gathering, connecting, reflecting, and celebrating Rick's life, very comfortable and casual...."
Also see: Interviews
• Testing the Patriot
Chelsea Proving Grounds
• Chrysler Labs
• Samul's Firebrewed A/FX car
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