James Sayen

As a child you would use your mother’s clothespins to attach baseball cards to the fender struts of your bicycle to make a motor sound as the cards rubbed against the turning spokes. I was always the kid that had to have the loudest bike. Eventually I used my bike to peddle a ninety customer Detroit News paper route. The day I turned sixteen I used the money saved from my paper route to purchase my first car, a 1953 Ford coupe. My high school years were great but I certainly couldn’t say that about my grades. I didn’t play sports (too small), wasn’t in the band, not on the student council or the newspaper staff. I was all about cars and girls. I drove my Ford all through high school. It had a modified flathead V8, lowered to the ground with large bubble skirts and 14-inch wheels. All the badging and locks were shaved and leaded including the door handles. It was painted iridescent plum. I recently attended a class reunion of eighty-year-olds from my class of 1959. Some had trouble remembering me, but they all remembered my car.

Not surprisingly following high school my parents wanted me to attend college. But I wanted a job to support my passion for cars. My dad was an accountant at Chrysler and was able to help me get into a Chrysler sponsored die making apprenticeship. It was a five-year program to be served at one of Chrysler’s stamping plants in the Detroit area. During these years I had many nice custom cars and motorcycles, married my high school sweetheart and we had our first child. I graduated my apprenticeship in 1964 and I received my journeyman’s card. I went to work as a tool and die maker for the Chrysler Corporation.

In May of 1964, I did something that would change my life significantly. I attended the time trials for the upcoming Indy 500 Memorial Day race. This was the year that the Ford Motor Company made their assault on the Indy 500 race with their new DOHC V8 engine. I believe they had seven cars entered. While in the garage area on Gasoline Alley I noticed men in the garages wearing clean white uniforms and hats with the Ford name embossed. I asked one of them the only question that seemed to matter. “How do you get a job like this?”

I was told that these men were Ford engineers. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant but I returned to Detroit to learn how to become one. I decided to enroll in the Engineering Department at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. My preceding five apprentice years were pretty much worked at full overtime seven days a week, so we were able to bank a lot of extra cash. I took a leave of absence from my job at Chrysler and attended college full time year-round. I renewed my leave each year and graduated in 1968 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

When I returned to Chrysler to start working as an Engineer, they suggested that with my die making background and my Engineering Degree I would be a good candidate to take advantage of their cooperative program with the University of Michigan to earn a master’s degree in engineering. The program would involve rotating through various engineering departments at Chrysler while attending classes at the U of M two days per week. I reluctantly agreed to do this. I completed the program in 1970 and as I approached my 30th birthday I was able at long last to take a permanent assignment as an Engineer. I took a position in the Advance Instrument Panel Design department working on the latest design of a push-push ash tray! This was obviously not what I had envisioned in 1964.

For the next 20 years I held a variety of positions within Chrysler Engineering. My instrument panel design knowledge led to my being involved in the initial years of passive restraint development, primarily air bags. Air bag programs were initiated and then cancelled several times during this period as the industry and government would struggle to agree on how and when this technology would be introduced to the public. In those periods when the air bag program was being delayed for one reason or another, I worked as a production body design supervisor. During the mid-eighties I managed one of the ten corporate business groups initiated by then Chrysler President Hal Sperlich. These groups involved cross discipline representation aimed at improved quality and reduced cost. They were intended to minimize and hopefully eliminate self-interest goals that tend to build walls between various departmental organizations.

My involvement with the Dodge Viper program started after the concept vehicle made its appearance at a Detroit auto show in 1989. The show car generated such a high level of public interest that Chrysler President Bob Lutz requested that a feasibility study team be formed to establish the possibility of turning the show car into a viable production sports car. I interviewed and was selected to participate by the man named to lead the feasibility study team, Roy Sjoberg.

The feasibility team was not to be organized with conventional line function responsibility. We did however separate into three sub-teams with team leaders named. Jim Royer led a small group looking into engine feasibility. Pete Gladysz led the chassis study team and I worked with a team to study body and structure feasibility. A little less than a year later the decision was made to proceed with a production design and the team was reorganized adding Vehicle Development and Program Management. I was named the Program Manager. As Program Manager I had responsibility for overall program awareness and guidance. In addition to financial and timing considerations, you were to track and report on vehicle development and design progress and interface with support activity including the design office, marketing, sales and advertising, manufacturing, etc. I was also responsible for preparing the agenda and presentation format for quarterly status reviews by what was known as the Technical Policy Committee headed by President Bob Lutz.

One of the last studies I was asked to initiate as a Team Viper member was to establish the cost implications of possibly one day offering the Viper for sale as a mid-engine sports car. Upon completion of the study, we had a meeting with President Lutz, et.al., with two full size mid-engine Viper mockups. Our presentation was well received but further consideration for a mid-engine Viper was not approved at that time. The study took approximately 90 days and I had six exceptional team members working with me. We were unable to advance the mid-engine concept but like most everything I experienced as a Team Viper member it was exciting and rewarding work.

The Dodge Viper was selected as the Indy 500 Pace Car on two occasions, 1992 and 1996. We had a pace car garage on Gasoline Alley. Standing at the garage entrance one day talking with the public and answering questions about the Viper, I was approached by a young man wearing a Don Garlits Museum cap who had only one question “How do you get a job like this?”