I was born in 1940, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, home of Yuengling beer.
I grew up in historic Bordentown, New Jersey. It was established as Farnsworth’s Landing in 1682 by Quakers.
I graduated from high school in 1957. Earlier, I was impressed by the Chrysler 300 that I saw roaring around in a movie. My friends and I enjoyed watching the races at the clay tracks in the area. Before it was paved and enlarged, the Trenton, N. J. track at the state fairgrounds was a clay track. Some of the Indy drivers raced their sprint cars there. At that time, the sprint cars had the same engine as the Indianapolis 500 cars. The rich teams had a special car for Indy. The other teams just used different wheels and tires to race there.
Around 1954 I saw a supercharged Corvette racing against Jaguar XK120’s and other then current sports cars at that fairgrounds track. Even though it was a clay track and not a road course, they raced them there.
At the time, the legal driving age in New Jersey was 18 years old, 17 with a driver training course. I was younger than most of my classmates. When I did drive, I borrowed my father’s 1953 Chevrolet. I had a work intensive, junky Harley 45 motorcycle. Luckily, I only fell off it once.
When Chevy got a V-8 and new body style in 1955, it was a big deal. I thought the grille resembled what Ferraris had at the time. For some reason, I was really interested in sports car racing. I followed Formula One the best way that I could at the time which was in Road and Track magazine. And Car Craft magazine had things like Devin sports cars. I really liked the 1953 Studebaker two door hardtop. It stood out with its low , aerodynamic front end with bottom air feed to the radiator.
My first two years in college were in Mechanical Engineering at Rutgers University. The summer after that I accompanied my older brother on a vacation trip to visit relatives in the Detroit area. I decided to look for a job there. One of my uncles shuttled me around to the car companies to interview for a job. Even though I only had two years of Engineering school, Chrysler offered me a job as a Body Engineer in Advance Body Design. My main duty was to estimate the weight of sheet metal parts from the drawings. I loved getting to see what cars were going to look like three years ahead of time.
Our office was one floor under the styling studios. Virgil Exner was the head of Design. He usually drove Imperials which he parked in his assigned spot next to our building. They had outrageous, unaerodynamic styling. They handled better and were faster than contemporary Cadillacs. I heard tales about how fast he drove to the Chelsea Proving Grounds for meetings. I now have a 1962 Imperial two door hardtop. My license plate is Virgil X.
I needed a car to get to work. I bought a 1954 Austin-Healey 100. It was not ideal for commuting in the wintertime. It was great fun to drive. It had excellent steering and brakes feedback so that I could modulate them at the skid point. It’s poor quality gave me lots of mechanical experience.
In early 1961 the auto industry hit one of its massive downturns. Chrysler had a big layoff, and I was part of it. There were no available jobs in Detroit. I took some time off and restored my Austin-Healey. After that I resumed my engineering studies at Wayne State University.
When I graduated, I got the job that I wanted at Chrysler, Front Suspension Design Engineer. I developed new computer programs and used existing ones to simulate front suspension geometries. I also did stress analysis of suspension components. Some of this was for Chrysler’s racing groups. This is when I met Ralph Youngdale, an excellent designer, and Larry Rathgeb. I also interacted with some of the original Ramchargers, like Jim Thornton. My boss, Al Bosley, assigned me the job of working with a designer to do the layout for the first “funny car” for JIm. This was an altered wheelbase race car. We moved the front wheels ten inches forward, and the rear wheels fifteen inches forward. We also had to design new front frame rails as part of the package. An interesting way to get better weight distribution.
In 1965 I moved to Rear Suspension Design which included shock absorber and tire design, release and coordination. Chrysler designed a station wagon with a two way tailgate. It could open up and down and also sideways. It added 150 pounds of weight at the rear bumper. Not ideal for handling. I have a US patent for an “S” shaped rear leaf spring to improve the handling. General Motors had a station wagon with a “clam shell” tailgate that split horizontally. The glass went into the roof, and the lower part disappeared under the floor. Same deal, lots of weight way at the back. Their vehicle actually got into production using my “S” shaped springs a model year before ours. Our patent office let them use my patent in exchange for one of theirs that we wanted.
And again I did suspension design work for the race groups, including NASCAR racing, drag racing and the Trans Am teams for 1970.
When I moved to Rear Suspension Design, Chrysler hired Joel Dembinsky as my replacement in Front Suspension Design. He was younger than me, had boundless energy and was a great welder. We became good friends. I helped him build a sports racing car. It was a very highly modified Corvair with big rear tires. People called it the “flying mattress”. We raced it ln SCCA races at the same tracks. He drove it in one class, and I drove it in the next class. It had the weight distribution of a hammer. It handled the same way.
We did other projects together. Like installing a modern V-8 in his stock looking 1937 Dodge. He came up with a very clever offset steering column to clear the engine. I made cardboard templates for a new sheet metal transmission tunnel. He did a great job of welding that thin sheet metal together.
Another project was installing a Chrysler 440 and a hemi torqueflite in my 1963 Avanti. Obviously, there were clearance issues. I did not want to cut any hood scoops, so we moved the engine back 6 inches. I also used a fancy welding cable to move the battery from the left front to behind the right rear wheel. These changes improved the weight distribution to the rear by 4%. I calculated that moving the battery made more difference than moving the engine. Lessons in packaging and weight distribution.
When we started the Viper project, one of the first things I did was ask Frank “Sparky” Vanwulfen our Electrical man to put the battery in the trunk. He said Ok without a big argument. I suspected that I would have to take some guff for the extra expense later on. It never happened because, as things progressed, the room for it up front disappeared. I was also one of the men on our team that fought to get the engine set back for better weight distribution. I knew I needed it to get the car to handle really
well. As a result, Gen I roadsters are slightly tail heavy. Also, they have strange windshield wipers. Because the back of the engine is so far back, there is no room for the traditional link from the motor on the right to the pivot for the right hand wiper. The Viper has two wiper motors. They are synchronized with a funky wiping motion with larger blades.
In 1972. I took a job in the Stamping and Assembly Division. I was a chassis liaison engineer in Product Engineering. I worked with all the plants. My boss was Herman Mozer, one of the original members of the Ramchargers drag racing team. He won the S/SA championship at the NHRA Nationals in 1963 while driving for the Ramchargers. I investigated assembly plant problems, determined the cause, and contacted the appropriate design, tooling, or quality area and pursued the necessary changes. I also coordinated and assisted the scheduling and implementation of product changes in the plants. This involved contact work with Central Engineering, Purchasing, suppliers and the department responsible for production parts supply to the plants. We did not have the new, clean and quiet plants like today. They were running at full capacity, always running out of parts. There were shootings and robberies and drugs in the plants. I considered it to be combat duty.
I was at our Belvedere Assembly Plant for the initial launch of our first., completely new front wheel drive vehicles, the Omni/Horizon. There were many significant problems. I remember one week of ten hour days at the plant, and then twelve and thirteen hours on the weekend. Another engineer and I were running an operation to check about 4,000 completed vehicles for a dangerous steering gear defect. We found three.
In 1978, I returned to Suspension Engineering. Initially, I was the supervisor of 3 engineers and 6 designers for rear suspensions. We successfully engineered the rear suspension of our K-cars, the Plymouth Reliant/Dodge Aries. Similar to Chevrolet’s X-car, it was 23% lighter, had less high strength steel, and ten fewer parts. To expedite tooling, we were among the first to transmit computer data to a supplier instead of sending them drawings.
Later, I was the Design and Development Supervisor for Front Suspension components, including suspension crossmembers. My group of 7 engineers and 13 designers successfully designed and developed the front suspension and engine/suspension crossmember for the original mini-van. Ca Ching goes the cash register. I consider this one of the most important projects that I ever worked on. It certainly contributed to the financial success of the Chrysler Corporation. For the mini-van, we added a very clever welded in reinforcement to the Omni/Horizon lower control arm. That saved a lot of money.
Don Jankowski probably doesn’t remember, but he came to me at that time and asked if we had any stronger suspension parts for the Omni that he and Pete Gladysz were rally racing. I told my men to give him a set of our test parts.
In 1984, I became a Vehicle Program Planner in PROGRAM MANAGEMENT. I managed projects like an all new interior, air bag steering wheel, and fuel injection engine for the 1990 Omni.
During this time, I acquired a 1962 Series II Lotus Elite. It had a lot of problems that I had to sort out. I started taking it to autocrosses and open track days. It is a very unique vehicle. It has a fiberglass unit body.
In 1988, I became a Senior Program Planner in POWERTRAIN PLANNING & STRATEGY. I planned advance projects for engines and transmissions. I coordinated and presented information for decision
on issues such as 3-valve vs. 4-valve engines, and the V-10 truck engine project. I also analyzed manufacturing capacity utilization vs. projected product sales requirements.
With upgrades like dual Weber carburetors and better brakes and springs, I started Vintage racing my Lotus Elite.
In 1989, I heard about the Viper Project. Mopar had many successes in drag racing and stock car racing with our iconic Hemi engine. We also raced “pony” cars in Trans Am. It always irked me that we did not have a sports car like Chevrolet’s Corvette or Ford’s Cobra. Finally, we were going to do a “Cobra for the nineties”. I wanted to be a part of it.
People advised me that it was a risky, dead end job. I went for an interview with Roy Sjoberg. Careerwise, it was a big step backward to become a Design Engineer again. However, I had a part in creating one of the most iconic sports cars of all time. It was supposed to go, stop, turn and look good. I made a big contribution to two of the four. I used to tell Roy that was why I was one of his most important team members. He didn’t buy it.
I helped recruit men like Ralph Youngdale and Larry Rathgeb for the Viper Team. I was not satisfied with the performance of some of the designers that were assigned to me. Ralph had played a significant part in implementing computers into the design process at Chrysler. After a long career, he had retired to northern California. He spent some time mining gold and having bears sleep in his yard. I saw an opportunity to get him for the Viper Team. It made a big difference. Later on, he established his own business with several people working for him. They did a lot of design business for the Viper Team under contract.
For the Viper, we had to use the tire sizes on the show car. No car at the time, and few today, had tires that wild. They were very wide. Even today, the rears are wider than most supercars.
My problem was what kind of suspension was needed to get them to work right. If the tires were riding on their corners, you may as well have a bicycle tire. It takes a unique suspension to keep them square to the road in conditions when it counts. I had a discussion with my friend Larry Rathgeb, father of the winged Mopar NASCAR stock cars. He gave me the answer. He said, “You have to find out for yourself”. This led to “Felicity”, the mule car, the first physical vehicle done by the Viper Team. I had to convince our boss, Roy Sjoberg, to allocate a good chunk of his slim budget for this project. Somehow he believed me, and gave his OK.
“Felicity” was a Gen III Corvette built by Roush for us with a hopped up engine and a Muncie “rock cruncher” transmission to try and simulate the performance of a V10 Viper. Three radically different suspensions could be installed as well as different kinds of brakes.
We used it to determine the suspension geometry for VM01, our first protype that looked like a Viper. VM01 is white, has no opening doors, a bolt on hood, a plastic windshield, and a hopped up Mopar V8 engine.
A Viper suspension has unique performance. Under braking, it does not nose dive, and the back doesn’t rise up. Under acceleration, it does not squat, and under cornering it keeps the tires square to the road. Very difficult to achieve, and all due to what we learned with “Felicity”. And all because Larry told me that I had to find out for myself. Great advice!
The name “Felicity” means “happiness”. One of my fond Viper memories happened at our Arizona Proving Grounds. Ray Schilling and I were helping Neil Hannemann to do suspension and brakes testing with “Felicity” and VM01. Late in the day, Neil suggested some fun. We took turns being the starter and drag racers on a long, closed straightaway. We went ½ mile instead of ¼ mile, and we hit top end.
I think that “Felicity” was more important for another reason. It was the first time our team was able to show physical progress at our quarterly reviews with Iacocca, Lutz, Francois Castaing, Tom Gale and Carroll Shelby. In a hurry, as usual, our team spiffed it up so that it could be displayed on a hoist so that they could see the suspension and the big Boyd Coddington aluminum wheels. Prior to this, all we could show them was our progress on a bunch of drawings. I think it gave the team more credibility.
In an early position paper that I prepared for a quarterly review, I stated that my strategy for brakes was to use the largest rotors that would fit inside our unusually large (for the time) 17” wheels. For the calipers we would make a business decision based on price and performance. The calipers ended up being an easy decision because Brembo made us a great deal. They wanted to get into the US market, and they were working in conjunction with Kelsey-Hayes. The Viper was the first US production vehicle to use Brembo brakes.
Francois did not agree. He wanted to raid the corporate parts bin for our brakes. At the time, the FWD Dodge Daytona had an optional brake system that was excellent. It had a brake lining that was developed when Pete Gladys and other team members were racing and rallying the Daytona.
Fortunately, we had “Felicity” available for testing. And we also had the Porsche 928 on loan from Goodyear. It was my baseline target car for brakes. Inspired by Paul Frere’s 60 to 0 repeat brake test and the Cobra’s 0 to 100 to zero performance, I cooked up a test. It was a series of 100 to 0 stops.
Brad Dodson did the instrumentation, and Neil Hannemann did the driving at the Chelsea Proving Ground. I was also there. I can’t remember if there was anyone else with us. The Porsche clicked off the stops with barely a rise in pedal pressure. “Felicity” was equipped with a system of corporate parts. As I remember, it was Dodge Dakota rotors and the Daytona performance linings. Neil pulled in after a few stops, probably four. He told us that he could not maintain the specified deceleration rate. While he was talking to us, the front brakes literally caught on fire. We excitedly told Neil to go back out and blow out the fire.
Neil sent a letter to Francois with a brief synopsis of our results. Francois was not satisfied. I got together with Brad, and we put together a full report complete with all the graphs from the instrumentation. After that, we got the brake system that we wanted.
Another significant feature of the Viper that contributes to its excellent handling is its extremely stiff chassis frame. When it was released, the Gen I Viper had the stiffest frame of any production roadster in the world. There is no “cowl shake”. Craig Belmonte did an excellent job to achieve this. I encouraged him to look at some of the Lotus frame engineering. I believe that he received some development advice after consulting with them. At the time, they were doing special engine projects for Chrysler. I knew that the Lotus Elan, the model after my Elite, had a steel frame down the center of the vehicle. It was like a big transmission tunnel that went all the way back to the independent rear suspension. The big transmission tunnel on the Viper is a significant part of the frame structure.
I had concerns about the high speed stability of the Gen I Viper. We were not allowed to change the styling. Especially not to add any wings.
The Gen I Dodge Viper was the first production vehicle to be aligned like a race car. A process and equipment were developed to do the “bump steer” just like is done for race cars to enhance their high speed handling performance.
All cars have four wheel steering. The wheels steer by themselves when the suspension moves up and down. This can happen when the car bounces or when the body leans in a curve. The suspension designer’s task is to make sure that the wheels don’t steer too much, and that they steer in the proper direction to promote stability during suspension movement. For the Viper this was very important because it was going to have a very high top speed capability.
John Grey, our advance manufacturing engineer, come to me and said “I have some ideas to do a better alignment on the Viper. We will have new equipment, and I want to pull the Viper suspension up and down several inches to shake out friction and hysteresis before we set it.” I replied “you can’t do that! The Viper has a heavy duty suspension, and that would require a lot of force. You will break things.” He said “The Viper has a strong frame, and I can get some big air cylinders to pull it down.” “OK, then I want to do the “bump steer” I told him. I wanted to measure the front and rear suspension alignment in three positions. First, at normal ride height, then with the car pulled down 2 inches, and then with the car raised up 2 inches. “I can’t do that! Oh yes you can” it went back and forth. We both laughed. “OK, he finally said, Let me see what I can do.” And the rest is history. A good man. Someone who communicates and works with you as a team.
The Gen II coupe started out to be a heavier vehicle. It had a roof, glass side windows, and a heavy glass hatch.
Our team did a weight reduction program to enhance the performance.
The engine group modified the cooling system, exhaust system and basic block structure to lighten the engine.
I did an all new Aluminum suspension for the Gen II cars.
These changes significantly changed the weight distribution rearward. Normally, lighter rate springs are used at the back to balance the handling. Amazingly, our guys discovered the opposite. Our giant back tires actually worked better for cornering with more weight on them. The coupes have stiffer rate rear springs, and the ride quality is improved. It is not as “choppy” as a Gen I.
I retired in early 1997.