Chris Theodore

Born and raised in Detroit, cars were a passion for me from a very early age. I loved cars and anything associated with them.  My mom caught me jacking up dad’s 1951 Plymouth to change the tire when I was four or five years old.  My older cousin provided baby-sitting services by driving around parking lots, having me name the year, make and model of every car I saw.  Seeing my first soapbox derby instilled a love of racing. Back then, car dealers kept new model introductions secret by papering showroom windows, so my dad would take me to the factories in Detroit to get a sneak peek through the storage lot fences.  I collected car brochures and restyled the new models, read Rod & Custom, built slot cars and customized car models.

Perhaps a bit atypical for a kid from Detroit, I was more interested in sports cars and road racing, than muscle cars on Woodward Avenue, or dragsters down at Milan Raceway.  Consequently, I read Sports Car Graphic, Road & Track and everything written by Ken Purdy and others, glorifying great cars and drivers, present and past. My dad drove Plymouths, so I was a Mopar fan, and my mother took me on a tour of Chrysler’s Highland Park Engineering center.  It made a big impression me, and I requested more information from Chrysler to study the turbine cars for my science fair project.

Graduating from Henry Ford High School, I wanted to go to the General Motors Institute and intern at the Design studios, but Design Staff wasn’t sponsoring students that year.  Fortunately, I ended up studying engineering at the University of Michigan. I studied Internal combustion engines under Professor Bolt, and automotive engineering under Professor David E. Cole (son of former GM President Ed Cole).  One day, Professor Cole asked if we were interested in entering the intercollegiate Urban Vehicle Design Competition for our senior project.  You bet I was!  I skipped my other classes for a week and came back to class with blueprints for an urban car.  Working with a team of aspiring engineers and designers to design and build a complete car from the ground up spoiled me for life.

My Mechanical engineering Professor Lipson recommended me for an internship at Ford Heavy Truck, where I worked on their turbine truck, which lead to a permanent position upon graduation.  Four years later, the economy turned south, and I ended up taking a job at GM’s Detroit Diesel Division working in their advance group on their first 4-stoke diesel engine.  Great job, but I still wanted to design cars.  Chrysler was hiring, and I took a job in advance chassis, where I worked on the K-cars, the first minivan, and Chrysler/Calspan Research Safety Vehicle.  I proposed turbocharging the RSV Research Safety Vehicle for improved fuel economy, and received a DOE contract.

My turbocharging work lead to a phone call from a NY entrepreneur starting a turbocharging company, Legend Industries, with contracts from Fiat and DeLorean.  The chance to meet JZD and twin-turbocharge the DeLorean was too intriguing, and I jumped at the opportunity.  Naturally, we went broke after DeLorean’s drug deal.  Coming back to Detroit, I joined Cars & Concepts as VP of Engineering where we built the K-car and Mustang convertibles along with T-roofs for the Dodge Daytona and Mustang.

Opportunity knocked again, when a colleague introduced me to Francois Castaing, VP of Engineering at American Motors.  A charming and brilliant man who had worked on the turbocharged Renault F1 race cars. We hit it off immediately.  I was hired as Chief Engineer of Advance Packaging and Engineering on the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and was later promoted to Director of Engine Engineering, where we Introduced the fuel injected 4.0L Cherokee.  Fate intervened when Chrysler bought AMC and I ended up in charge of Jeep/Truck Powertrain, and my involvement with Viper began.  We began developing the Magnum V6 and V8 engines when Bob Lutz asked us to develop a V10 truck engine.  That’s where my involvement and love story with Viper began.

There are too many memorable Viper events to chronicle in detail, but here are a few I’ll never forget:

  • Meeting my boyhood hero, Carroll Shelby, for the first time to show him the V10 blueprints and proposing an aluminum version for the “sport” car, Lutz, Castaing, Gale and Shelby cooked up.
  • Seeing the Viper Concept for the first time behind the curtains at the design dome, just before the press introduction.It was love at first sight!
  • Riding with Dick Winkles in the first V10 powered prototype, VM02, at Sedona in the dark starlit night after Lutz teased the press with a drive-by.
  • Introducing the Viper GTS to the European press and getting the ride of my life with world champion Phil Hill around the Nürburgring!
  • Being with Team Viper at Le Mans where we won the first of three straight years!
  • Working with the team on the mid-engine Viper GTM Study that unfortunately didn’t get approved.

Sadly, I left Chrysler for Ford during the Mercedes take-over, but my involvement with Viper continued after I retired from Ford:

  • While at ASC, we engineered and supplied the 2006 SRT-10 Coupe components, as well as painted all the Viper body panels
  • During the brief period when Chrysler put Viper up for sale, I worked with a private equity company to put in an offer.Fortunately, the sale was cancelled, allowing Ralph Gilles to convince Sergio to bring Viper back
  • Testing the Gen V Viper for Car of the Year as a Motor Trend Judge

I still love owning and driving my black 1995 RT/10 with saddle interior.  I continue to marvel at the continuity of the Viper Spirit among the original team members and enthusiastic Viper owners.  The legacy continues!