I was born in 1956 to a strict German mother and romantic Italian father. Dad was a sharp automotive engineer who had worked for all of the Big Three then settled down with GM. My teens had me salivating over LT1 Corvettes, Z28 Camaros, and …. Corvairs (odd ducks, for sure). I owned (5) quirky Corvairs – cool cars to my atypical mind. I graduated as a mechanical engineer from Oakland University in 1984 and with my wife Kitty and a kid in the oven I started looking for “car guy” work. GM took a little too long measuring up yours truly. Conversely, Chrysler made an offer (3) days after our chat – an offer I couldn’t refuse. Lesson: when the door opens, you dive through it. The 1st (4) years at Chrysler were spent in the impact lab and in 1989 I witnessed the Viper show car slowly spinning on it’s turntable at the Detroit auto show. I stared for way too long and wanted “in”. Roy Sjoberg knew my Dad from his GM days and knew of me (probably from Dad’s rants w.r.t. CB). Holy Cow …. Roy took a chance on me and opened the door – I dove through it.
My 1st Viper assignment was on the frame. That worked out well so I was soon handed many more metal parts – roll bar reinforcement, windshield reinforcement, dash structure, and door hinges. The previous (4) years of experience wrecking things qualified me to barrier test a number of Vipers for government compliance to safety standards (ouch!). After the initial few Vipers rolled off the line in 1992, I quickly began critiquing my work and determined that I could do better so I submitted a proposal for a lighter, stiffer, more cost effective frame. Self-reflection and evaluation is a good thing. I was delighted and surprised when my management allowed this concept to move forward … becoming the ’96 frame. (Thanks Jean, Roy, and Pete).
After a break at the “big house” working on the 2000 Neon I returned to the fold and worked on the 8.3L V10 engine – intake and oil pan. Post Viper I worked on the 6.1L Hemi intake and exhaust and then the GEM neighborhood electric vehicle (by comparison – made a Corvair look like a beast). At career end I took a (6) month assignment in southern California working on future stuff …. pondering what’s next? I pondered a little too long one day staring at the ocean and decided to retire.
I punched out of the mother ship at the end of 2014 to hurried up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There are few fast cars there because there few good roads. Plan B – become a mountain biker because they do have world class trails. Mountain biking is a hoot. Don’t need 160 mph, just 8 mph down a sketchy single track. It’s all about the pucker factor, friends.
Success at Chrysler was due to hard work and enthusiasm but to a greater extent I must credit folks who mentored me.
We humans share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, 60% with the bananas they eat.
A Viper is an automobile we can be proud of. It makes us smile … to drive it, touch it, to just look at it. Yet there are no magic materials in the car. Its alloys, rubber compounds, plastics, and fabrics are well known – common to VWs, Yugos, Caddys, and Cudas, …. even Corvairs. Ponder the thought that maybe 1% separates the Viper from a Vega? In the case of the Viper, a rare confluence of dreams, intellect, hard work, momentum, and optimism converged at a place in time. I am an ordinary guy who did some extraordinary things because I was guided. My journey seems a little Forest Gumpish to me now.
Allow me to tip my hat to some folks who lifted me up.
- Encouraged us to enjoy the work. He said “when you stop having fun, it’s time to get out.
- Kicked my butt when I needed it – a lesson in “the boss is always the boss”
- A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. We stood on each other’s shoulders … a self-supporting human structure. For me to succeed I made sure my neighbor also succeeded.
- Do not fear failure. Mistakes were the most valuable of lessons. However, he made sure that our failures were delt with promptly so that iteration to success was ensured.
- Finally, he kept the “suits” at bay so we could be left alone to do the car.
- Presentation preparation – when scrubbing management presentations I was taught by Jim to get into the heads of my audience. It’s not about me, it’s about them.
- Dogs & Cats. I once confided in Jim for some marital advice. He said, “Dogs & Cats” …. Excuse me? He simply stated that I was a dog, she was a cat. No matter how much I wanted to hear it … that cat was not going to bark. Take away – know when to quit beating yourself up, take a different path, and become a better person.
- Fast Forward – if you look up the definition of forward momentum, you’ll find a picture of Pete. The most forward leaning, can-do individual I’ve come across.
- Your Gut – Confidence without results can be called arrogance. Not so with Pete – he was able to make the right call way before all the facts were known … his nose for sniffing out trouble is crazy sharp. He urged us to listen to our gut … if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck….., go!
- Data, data, data, …. more data – he held fast to the idea that you can never have enough data. Gather all that’s available, distill it down to make an intelligent decision, then discard the remainder.
None of it would have happened on time if Pete hadn’t pushed, pulled, cajoled, and encouraged us.
I entered the Viper story as a chassis guy and exited the stage as an engine guy. Charlie Brown gave me an invitation back then Dick Winkles schooled me in fluid flow. Dick can see air move – really, he can. He introduced me to CFD (computational fluid dynamics) which enabled me to develop the 8.3L intake and 6.1L exhaust headers. I found similarities when working on oil pans and lubrication, …. even electric flux in wires behaves similarly. Dick once told me when working on an intake manifold, “air likes (7) degrees. OK, I could run with that. Dick said it ….. money!
I spent many late evenings at the Chelsea Proving Grounds Impact Test facility with Ralph Molinaro putting Vipers into concrete barriers for safety compliance. After these tests Ralph and I would frequently find ourselves down the road at the Wolverine Bar discussing the results. Regardless of the outcome Ralph insisted that we drink to victory or to sorrow. Lesson: turn the page, learn something, move on, there’s always tomorrow.
People lucky enough to own a Viper hold something special … I hope they understand it’s more than a car.