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Walt McPherson, Chief Engineer of Chrysler Australia

Interviewed by Jessica Eustice in Summer 2009

How did you get involved with Chrysler Australia?

Australia had gotten involved in the 95% local content program [which gave substantial benefits to vehicles with mainly locally produced content], and they were putting in a new engine plant down there, and there was a local man by the name of Roy Rainsford. He was chief director of engineering at the time down there, and Roy became director of manufacturing down there. So they needed someone with car experience; a car background.

At the proving ground we'd started in that position, and were very vertically specialized in the proving ground; my background was fairly diversified so I was sort of a logical candidate to go down there and take over the job as chief engineer. So that's how I ended up in Australia.

So the plant in Australia was already there when you got there?

Oh yes, it had a long history in Australia. There'd been a plant down there for assembly of cars, for years. Just prior to my going there, they'd built a new plant at Tonsley Park, a very modern facility at the time. And that's when they started getting more and more involved in local content. The Tonsley Park plant was a huge investment in Australia, it cost $36 million to build and 50,000 vehicles were produced there.

Body builders, I think they were named Richards Company or something like that, had been the origin of Chrysler in Australia. They were in the state of South Australia and Holden had a body shop there in South Australia, but most of the Ford and Holden plants were located in the Melbourne area.

Do you know why the decision was made to switch to the AP Series?

Yes, it was an assembly operation at the time and Australia got into a rather ambitious program of 95% local content. This and being a right hand drive country dictated that we established a styling studio down there and an entirely standalone engineering department so that the car was planned, styled and built and done entirely in Australia, as were the Ford and General Motors cars at the time. It was completely unique; there was very little resemblance to any vehicles in the United States. The only parts that we brought in were strangely enough things like clips. Things of small value but very expensive to tool. So all the engines, the body, transmission, drive train, it was all local content in Australia.

It was for the Australian Market we did some export to Japan, relatively small, and also Australia became the source for those right hand drive cars that we exported to PAX to South Africa. I later became managing director of Chrysler South Africa incidentally.

One of the striking vehicles made was the Valiant Utility. Can you tell me how this came about, and how it was received?

The Utility, or we just call them Utes, they were great for abbreviations on the thing, in South Africa they call them Backis, and subsequently they [the Backis] became Nissan Pioneers here in the United States. They're very small pick-up-trucks, passenger car based utility vehicles. That's what they were called Utes. It was a very popular car in Australia, at the time that I was there.

Do you know why the new six cylinder engine wasn't sold in the US?

We didn't export those engines to the United States. Because it wouldn't be economical, simply put. The volume that, we wouldn't have had the capacity down there to furnish engines in that quantity to the United States. Subsequently most six cylinder engines in the United States toward the end of that period ended up being V-6s.

They had the slant six in the United States. We imported the slant six to Australia for awhile, but then when the local content program come in, and we had to develop a new engine, it didn't seem proper to tool an engine that was getting kind of long in the tooth. They had an engine they were considering building in the United States, and we ended up developing that and tooled that in Australia. One of the reasons I went down there was to develop the engine that was designed in the United States, and the final development when production was all done in Australia. A fellow by the name of Stacy was chief engineer at the time.

So were you designing the layout of the plant or were you designing machines or what?

I was a product designer. I was not involved in manufacturing. Now Chrysler Australia Ltd. had, under Roy Rainsford, their own group that they did all the plant and the tool design. We had our own tool shop and our own stamping plant, and that was all done by Australians.

Would you talk a little about some of the models, styling, and details that appealed to you during this period of the Valiant's evolution? (1962-1971)

I think the one that we were most proud of was the Charger. What we called the Charger in Australia. The Charger was a model of the Valiant. It was a two door, very sporty car, and it used the new 6 cylinder engine, and that engine had three two barrel Weber side draft carburetors in it, and produced an enormous amount of power. It was very much a going machine. And in 1971 it got the car of the year award down there.

Malcolm Holman, an Australian, worked with Bob Hubbach, an American who came to Australia, and with Australian Bryan Smyth on this "hush hush deal." They had to keep it secret from the industrial spies. They telexed Detroit for old Buick and Mercury badges, and put these badges on the cars so that they could hide in plain sight. They even painted the cars bright colors like yellow and red, and managed to keep this thing a secret.

To what other countries did Chrysler Australia export cars?

Well, we produced packs to South Africa, that's a right hand drive country, and we produced packs to New Zealand, there was a franchise holder down there, and assembler by the name of Todd Motors. They assembled the Chrysler products in New Zealand. So essentially the main production was to New Zealand and to South Africa.


If you could go back, would you have redesigned anything that you designed?

Well, of course. Everything has changed so very much. You know, we're talking, my goodness, 1978, that's 40, 35 years ago. 30 years ago. You certainly wouldn't produce the same car today that you did thirty years ago. You wouldn't wear a dress that was designed in 1978, would you?

Do you know why they chose to enlarge the Valiant?

Yes, because the trend at that time was that cars were getting bigger. As it were, as it did in the United States. We were following the same path of destruction as we did here in the United States: Bigger is better you know. And fuel was very inexpensive. Do you have any idea what cars sold for at that time? What a Valiant would cost you? Take a wild guess.


Lets say $5,000?

No, $4,000. That's your luxury car. U.S. sellers too. And the development bill for a car like that in Australia was somewhere around $20-$22 million. The Charger alone only cost about $2 million, to develop the Charger.

Oh, that's huge, that's huge. So was the Valiant profitable in Australia?

Yes it was, it was highly profitable. By Australian standards, I don't know what the volume would be now in those days, but I think we had 18% of the market down there.

What was the relationship between Tonsley Park and Highland Park in the early 1970s for example?

Well, Tonsley Park was manufacturing and the headquarters for Chrysler Australia at the time, and Highland Park was the headquarters for Chrysler Central Engineering, they gave us advice and but most of the engineering was done in Australia. Now the V-H [Valiant-Dart] car was originally styled in the United States but the Charger was styled in Australia. We had our own styling studio. And all model changes were done in Australia. A fellow by the name of Bryan Smyth was the head of styling at the time.


When did Chrysler Australia's relationship with Mitsubishi begin?

I'm going to have to guess now. But I was involved in that. It was in the early seventies - mid seventies. I in fact, along with two other people, along with Matt Zach and I can't remember the third person, we were the first three people to go to Japan, and get involved in the early discussions when Chrysler Corporation bought a financial interest in MMC, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.

That would have helped with design costs, right?

Well, yes. Because that's the time people were looking for, that's the beginning of the small car.

Did you have any communication with Mitsubishi?

Yes, I did, because we assembled Mitsubishi products there. The Galant and the Lancer. I went to Japan frequently.

Do you have a favorite model or a favorite engine that you'd like to talk about?

Well the one that we developed down there I think would be the one I'd like to talk about most.

Okay, well can you tell me about it?

About 45,000 cars were produced in Australia in that time. They got about 302 horsepower out of the six cylinder engine. That was the race version of the engine. Road racing was very popular in Australia. And the Charger was used in that, and was competing against V-8 s from Ford, and they were out-performing them.

It had these side Weber carburetors on the side of that thing. It was a very sophisticated engine.

I bet Ford did not like that.

No they didn't like that. There was a lot of competition needless to say.

Chrysler always had some pretty spectacular engineering from what I can tell.

I think so. Chrysler sort of built its reputation on engineering, with Chrysler himself being an engineer, and Zeider, Skelton, and Breer, the triumvirate, and then we had all of our Vice-Presidents in charge of engineering on the board of the corporation. It was a very engineering oriented company and that is what led to its early success.

I guess I'm prejudiced but I think part of the downfall of Chrysler is when the bean counters took over. And they cheapened the product and the engineering, they didn't give the development money, they didn't put money into change, they didn't put money into model change, they were greedy and skimmed the cream off the top and the product started to fail. And that ends up in poor quality and poor product and people. Advertising and marketing and all that stuff, well, if you've got the right product it'll sell. My whole history in the automobile business, every time we got a good car, they sold.

Look at the cars that are leaders, that are successes. It was the product that sold them you know, the modern Cadillacs, the Chrysler 300 today, the minivan, the Mustang, the Corvette, I'm just naming all different manufacturers, and the product that sold that car, not advertising and not gimmicks, it was the product. You buy what you like to see, and it'll sell.

I'm guessing it's not just what you like to see, but also how it runs, how it handles …

Oh that's what I mean, it's not just visual, it's the total sum … I don't mean styling. Styling is what gets you in the showroom.

Styling gets you into the showroom, but performance is what gets you out…

Yeah, but by performance I don't mean necessarily high speed performance, I mean ride, handling, quiet, the car's quiet, handles right, you feel comfortable in the car, you feel safe in the car, the seats are good, and everything is the right detail. If you look back on the cars that you owned and enjoyed, it was the little details that made you like that car.

That's right. And there was a time I had a Hyundai, and it was the handling that I didn't like.

Now there's a good case in point. Now Hyundai has recently evolved from a very poor car to a very good car right now, in my opinion.

Will you share with me your opinion of how Chrysler did in comparison to its competitors given its resources? Do you think they could have been one of the big two in time?

Worldwide you mean? (thinking) I think Chrysler did quite well relative to the others. It takes an enormous amount of resources, and Chrysler was not able to get the overseas backup that both Ford and General Motors did in their expansion, and when they finally recognized it to be the important, they kept getting associated with companies that were left after the biggest apples had already been picked off the tree.

Their expansion was into Chrysler Simca which became Chrysler France is an example. Simca was not a well known car at the time, and Rootes in England was one of the smaller groups. They had to get people that they could afford, that were available, and they didn't end up with really highly competitive companies. So they were working from behind all the time.

Incidentally I have a cute story about Rootes for you. Rootes Melbourne was a British company, remember, and Chrysler Australia bought them and it was known as Chrysler Rootes Melbourne plant. And in Australia you did not have a new model every year, so they had VC, VA, and VB, didn't call the '78 and '79 because you didn't have a new model every year, it was a letter designation. And they had VC and the next model was VE. We didn't have a VD model. Because someone says "to root" in Australia is intercourse and someone said, "I don't think we should introduce a model VD. I can see the headline right now: 'Chrysler Rootes Melbourne introduces VD into Australia.'"

So we went from VC to VE.

If you had a question to ask, what would you ask yourself?

I'll ask the question a lot of people asked me down there. I went down there supposedly for eighteen months and I stayed eight years. The best eight years I've ever had in my life. And it mainly centers around the Australian people.

Australia as a country isn't all that great, it's sort of a barren place, "I Love A Sunburnt Country" and all songs like that. The people were just absolutely magnificent, point number one, and having lived in Australia, South Africa, and then three very unpleasant years in Venezuela, as managing director of Chrysler to Venezuela, it's the only country in the world I know that really likes Americans, we are truly liked down there.

One of their national holidays is Coral Sea Day is when our navy in the big sea victory got the Japanese, and they give the people in the United States credit for saving the country, they were about ready to give up the northern part of Australia, feed that to the Japanese, and Macarthur says hell no, and built the road from Adelaide north all the way to Darwin. And we defended the country down there.

They're wonderful people, they've got a great sense of values, and so my question to me basically was well down there was having been there many years was a rather standard question on the meatloaf circuit with the different service club talks which we gave was "How do you like living in Australia?"

And I always amplified that when I started off by saying that I think Australia is exactly like the United States was 25 years ago. And then I'd see them straighten up the hairs standing up on the backs of their neck, and I'd say "now wait a minute, before you lynch me, let me explain that." I says "The United States, twenty five years ago, we'd park our car and didn't have to lock it. We didn't lock our house all the time. And life was very simple. We screwed it all up. Now there's lots of places in town I wouldn't go after dark, but there isn't any place in Australia I would be afraid to walk on the streets after dark." So I say, "That's what I mean Australia is like the United States twenty five years ago. Now don't screw it up." My understanding is they have.

Everybody does eventually I think.

Yeah, eventually, but it was a wonderful place to live, a great sense of values, everything was family oriented, sports were participant sports, not spectator sports, and it's a great place to raise a family.

It sounds nice. You were there eight years?

I was down there from 1967 to 1975.

Is there still a Chrysler Australia?

There is, yes, but they do not do any manufacturing there to the best of my knowledge.


Assembly only, and I'm not even sure of that, because Mitsubishi ended up taking over the Tonsley Park plant. [See our history of Chrysler Australia]

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