“Life Before, During and After Viper”
Team Viper Body Engineering Manager, Interior / Exterior
Gen I Roadster, Gen II GTS, GT2 Champion Edition
1989 – 1999
I was born in Trenton, Michigan in 1948 and moved to Wyandotte a few years later, where I attended Garfield Elementary, Lincoln Junior High, and Roosevelt High School, graduating in 1966. Even at a young age, I liked cars and airplanes and loved building 1:18 scale models of GM, Ford and Chrysler passenger vehicles while eagerly looking forward to the next year’s new models. I also loved building things especially with my erector set, but got tired of just building the standard pictured items and always liked to create my own designs; I guess that was a prelude to my lifelong tendency to do things different than the norm, and to push the design envelope.
NEED FOR SPEED
Going fast was another love, and even at a young age, I found myself at the end of the “crack-the-whip” line during the winter months on the local outdoor skating ponds. I had no problem going faster than I could skate by myself, even when flying off the frozen pond onto a snow bank. A few year later, I even tried my speed at jumping barrels on ice – I think I made it over twelve barrels.
I continued my love for speed by getting into bicycle racing and ice speed skating where I completed for many years on the Velodrome bike tracks, various road racing circuits, and at National Competitions for both ice and (eventually) inline speed skating. The competitive spirit has always run deep in my blood. At one point, I held numerous State of Michigan Ice Speed Skating records for several years. Even after all these years, I am still competing in National inline speed skating events, and have stood on National podiums almost every year for the past 15 years.
I also became fond of drag racing with my first car, a 1969 Z-28 Camaro (orange with black stripes). Many a weekend was spent racing up and down Telegraph and Dix Road with my car buddies, between the two famous turn-around spots, McDonald’s and the A & W, and at the local drag strip, Detroit Dragway. I didn’t compete as much as I would have liked, as work seemed to get in the way as I was saving for college.
I attended Henry Ford Community College for pre-engineering, while also taking classes at the University of Michigan, Dearborn campus. School, and working as a waiter at a local restaurant (to pay my own college expenses) took up most of my time, and many of my sporting activities had to be put on hold until after graduation. I always liked cars, was fascinated with airplanes, and loved deviating from the normal paths to success. My fascination with airplanes led me to a more specialized engineering discipline in college, called Aerospace Engineering. Not many colleges offered this curriculum, but the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor was one them (I found out several years ago, after attending the 100th anniversary celebration of the program, that Michigan was the first university-offered aeronautics program in the country). Still living at home and working on weekends – I drove back and forth to Ann Arbor, over 70 miles per day, which at times was very challenging when you had a hot Camaro and an 8 am class during those crazy Michigan winters. But, my motto had always been … do whatever it takes to get it done, and I did. I graduated in 1971 from the University of Michigan, with my Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering (BSAE), and was honored to be inducted into Tau Beta Pi, the National Engineering Honor Society.
Upon graduation, I was offered a scholarship to stay at Michigan where I would have pursued my Master’s degree (MSAE), in Rocket Design. At the same time, I found out about a new and prestigious fellowship program, created for NASA Langley engineers, to obtain their Masters and/or Doctorial (PhD) degrees through George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C. Only 12 students with their BSAE were chosen (one from each U.S. aerospace accredited university) to participate in this program, along with numerous NASA engineers, and I secured one of those coveted spot.
While at the NASA facility in Hampton, VA, my time was split 50/50 with classes and working on a major aircraft design project. This project involved a new flight optimization concept called a jet-flap system that could potentially allow landing a full size aircraft on top of buildings in large metropolitan cities. After completing this 2 year fellowship program, I received my MS degree from GWU/NASA Langley. I later discovered that I was the only student published in an official NASA technical document describing this enhanced lift concept. Of course, I have several copies of this publication! I was even told by my GWU advisor, that since I had far-exceeded the requirements for the mandatory master’s thesis with this project, I could easily obtain my PhD by only taking a few more classes and slightly expanding my already completed thesis. I was offered several aerospace positions throughout the country, as well as at NASA to stay in the industry, however, since I always loved cars and found that aero-engineers often had to relocate many times to follow the ever-changing aeronautical design industry – I decided to interview with Ford, GM and Chrysler.
STARTING MY CAREER AT CHRYSLER
In 1973, I accepted a position at Chrysler in the Ride/Handling group, part of the Steering and Suspension Development area. The nature of the job was working with different engineering groups where I did most of the driving & vehicle validations (I called it the fun group). I even worked on police car development and actually added an aero package to the police cars in Arizona. Just prior to Chrysler basically shutting down in 1974, I had transferred to the Bumper/Front End Design group – one of the few engineering groups still working due to the ever-changing government impact requirements. Although I was a fairly new hire when the shut-down occurred, I was one of the first engineers in the group to be called back because of my involvement in solving several design problems in such a way that everybody said they wouldn’t work, but they did, and some even saved money for the company. The group was responsible for turning styling clay designs into actual parts for all Chrysler passenger cars and trucks that satisfied the latest impact regulations. I stayed in that area for over 15 years, advancing from a project engineer, to a senior engineer, and eventually to a supervisor until another corporate organizational change occurred.
When Chrysler changed its corporate structure from (efficient) commodity groups to (inefficient) carline groups, similar to GM’s organization, many organizational changes occurred. I had been in line for the position of manager of the newly created Bumper/Ornamentation/Lighting group, however that did not materialize, as there ended up being too many current mangers in the new organization. I was assigned to work for a manager that thought carry-over designs were the norm, and that pushing the design envelopes were too much bother and not worth the trouble. I knew I needed to look for something different, and quickly.
I found out about the Viper project, with an opening for a Design and Development Manager, responsible for all interior and exterior systems and components. This sounded extremely challenging, so I applied and interviewed with the Chief Engineer, Roy Sjoberg, as well as Executive Engineer, Jean Mallebay-Vacquer. I got the job and immediately started working with Team Viper on the ‘92 roadster.
GEN I – RT/10 ROADSTER
There were numerous supplier and pre-production design issues (ones that always exist when creating a new vehicle) however, Viper was unique in many ways due to its vast deviations from normal vehicles, and at times, the issues seemed overwhelming. Some specifics were the aluminum V-10 engine, composite body panels, side exhaust, a full (super stiff) frame – all packaged into a convertible, by an outrageously small team with an enormous workload, in record time, and of course, with a minimum budget. An example of one of the major challenges with the original design, was the large one-piece hood possibly going through the windshield during the 30-mph government required crash test. We needed to find a way to allow the hood to fold while still being attached at both ends. Like most other challenges, that one was solved by Dan Pearlman (Sr. Engineer in my group) and myself. All of the previously mentioned design and development obstacles (and more) were overcome, and the result – as we all know – was the fantastic Viper RT/10 – a smashing success.
Towards the end of the ‘93 roadster build, and even though I never was a convertible-guy, I decided I had to have a Viper! After such intense involvement on the program and the overall love for the looks and performance of the vehicle, I placed my order for a 1993 RT/10. Of course, it had to be red, like the show car. Even now, I still never get tired of looking at the Gen 1 vipers, and never will. I was one of three Team Viper engineers to order a car, but was the only one to get one and it was at the very end of the ‘93 production build. At that time, the plant manager, Howard Lewis, said that only black cars were to be built, due to the lack of red parts being available. As I said before, … I do whatever it takes to get it done, and I found enough parts to build “one more red car” and then convinced the craft-people on the assemble line to build my Viper. I think it was the last ‘93 red RT/10 built, but not 100% sure. Even though Howard and I had become very good friends during the program, he was not too happy about my car being built, but eventually calmed down and we continued our excellent engineering / manufacturing relationship.
GEN II – 1996 GTS
When the decision to create a GTS coupe (the next version of the Viper) was gaining momentum, a GTS show-car needed to be created. During that time, I was assigned to work closely with the Design Office to try and keep them from becoming “overly creative,” which could lead to exceeding engineering and manufacturing feasibility requirements. Being part of a great team and having a fantastic working relationship with everyone in the design office, I feel this goal was totally met with the creation of the ‘96 GTS coupe.
GTS CHALLENGES & NEW TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES
From an engineering perspective, the ’96 GTS was another major challenge for Team Viper with essentially all new interior and exterior body components, compared to the RT/10. There were also new government and corporate requirements (airbags and other body group items) along with an enhanced re-design of the engine, frame, suspension, adding power windows/door locks, as well as a huge emphasis on reducing weight. The GTS even had adjustable pedals (the first in the industry, and patented by our group) which fit nicely into the goals of the Viper program, which was to incorporate new technologies. When this was announced at one of the Viper Owner Invitationals, I was booed when introducing this feature – I guess many car owners (the guys) were not too wild about their “shorter” spouses now being able to easily drive the vehicle.
Another major challenge was the required airbags, and they were the most powerful (hottest) airbags in the industry, due to the location of the driver to both the steering wheel and the windshield header location. Many hours of design and development were required to make these function as required. In fact, one interesting story was during the testing of the airbags, when the rear glass exploded out of the car during a deployment trial. The lab guys were not at all happy with the amount of glass that had to be pulled out of the test facility’s ceiling and walls when the glass shattered due to too much pressure inside the vehicle. This was resolved with air exhausters which were added in the rear compartment (a patented design that I was also involved with).
The coupe back-glass had its own interesting anomalies and concerns of how to attach it to the vehicle and keep the design clean-looking. I did not want to drill holes in the glass for the attachments (like that “other” sports car company), so I asked our Materials Engineering expert, the late Nippani Rao, if there was another way. Nippani developed, tested and proved-out an adhesive to do the job, and another Viper “new technology first” was achieved.
An interesting component on the GTS was the rear CHMSL (Center High Mounted Stop Light) which had to be different than the roadster CHMSL due to packaging requirements. The initial GTS design concept had the CHMSL light added along the top edge of the new rear spoiler. It looked like the LED-styled light bar was taken off the Cadillac, which in my opinion, did not satisfy the image of the Viper. Working with engineers at Auto North (makers of the Viper show-cars), they came up with a new idea called an illuminated Viper-logo CHMSL. The size, location, and lumen capability is government regulated, and we were able to package this feature into the rear spoiler of the GTS coupe. This new design almost didn’t make it into production because the design office did not want to even entertain reviewing this proposal. So as I said before … I will do whatever it takes to make it happen, especially when I thought it was the right direction for the GTS. I had a mock-up of the Viper-logo CHMSL added to an existing pre-production GTS coupe, and reviewed the proposal (via a full-size side & rear view rendering of the coupe) with Bob Lutz and other VPs during a coupe design review in Bob’s conference room. Bob loved the concept and asked if it could be mocked-up into a vehicle. Of course I said yes, we actually have one in a vehicle downstairs in the garage – and the rest is history. The Viper-logo CHMSL was patented for its unique design and LED bulb density (quantity per square inch).
All goals for the GTS were achieved (except maybe the budget), and occurred in an even shorter time frame than the roadster. Let’s not forget, that while working on the all-new GTS coupe, Team Viper also had to incorporate several significant updates to the Gen 2 roadster (in their “spare time”) similar to the new systems on the GTS coupe, such as drop glass windows, driver and passenger airbags, and numerous improved performance systems.
THE “WHITE WITH BLUE STRIPES” GTS VEHICLES
The ‘96 GTS exterior color scheme consisted of only one color configuration, which was blue with white stripes. Future color combinations were discussed, but not for the first year of production. Relative to my personal love of the Viper, I have always preferred a coupe to a roadster – so in addition to my red roadster, I decided that I had to have a coupe as well. I had the standard blue and white GTS ordered. I knew, however, that future Vipers would have new color options and some of the combinations had stripes that would use a metallic paint, requiring a different final paint procedure. The white stripes on the GTS were a solid color, non-metallic straight-shade paint, not requiring a protective clear coating. So, in true “Sandy fashion” … I volunteered my Viper that was on order to become the guinea pig for determining the best method of painting a vehicle with metallic stripes. And since I loved the white with blue stripe renderings that I had seen, I figured out how to make that happen.
This endeavor was possible because the blue metallic paint was already available as the upcoming standard GTS paint color, and the white paint was available, as it was used on one of the last Special Edition themed roadsters built just prior to the GTS launch. As you may recall, the ‘96 themed roadsters were the red with yellow wheels & badging (Ferrari theme), black with silver stripes & wheels (Harley Davison theme), and white with blue stripes & white wheels (the USA theme). Note, the stripes on the Harley and USA theme vehicles were not painted on the vehicles, but were a 3M tape that was applied after painting, and before the clear coat was applied.
There was initially only “one” white with blue stripes ’96 GTS vehicle to be built on the production line at Conner Avenue Assembly …. mine. To allow this special build to happen, several upper management executives had to concur to this one-off production vehicle. This started with Bob Lutz (Chrysler CEO) and followed through with another 5 or 6 other executives, but I finally got all the required signatures to get the necessary approval. I even had to promise to allow my Viper to be used for future PR and/or press events, if asked.
Before the start of the GTS production builds, Tom Gale (Chrysler’s VP of Design/Styling) and Francois Castaing (Chrysler’s VP of Engineering), who both had approved my vehicle build – requested that their vehicles (currently on order) also be painted white with blue stripes. This request was obviously satisfied, and there were three 1996 “white with blue stripe” Vipers officially built on the Conner Avenue assembly line. The white vehicles were the best kept secret at Viper during the GTS builds, with Paul Lekity responsible for getting the white/blue striped panels built, and painted with the best clear coating procedure.
I was proud to be an integral part of Team Viper from the early roadster through the creation of the GT2 Champion Edition and its launch. The GT2 was created to commemorate the race wins of the FIA GT2 Team & Driver series. This special build consisted of designing and creating special parts to produce only 100 white with blue stripe Vipers, but with aerodynamic additives such as the rear wing, front spoiler, side skirts, as well as five-point belts and new BBS wheels to parallel the winning race car look and performance.
LIFE AFTER TEAM VIPER
I left Team Viper following the launch of the GT2 commemorative program when the Prowler group was combined with the Viper group, and work was starting on the Gen 3 Viper program. My new job moved me back into the mainstream of corporate processes and was a real change to the hands-on Team Viper concept. I was part of the Body Engineering group for the PT Cruiser, which included numerous trips to Toluca, Mexico, where the PT was built. Following the PT Cruiser program, I was assigned as the MCM (Material Cost Management) Manager for all body-in-white applications. The MCM program was a great initiative to commonize parts and specifications for the differing components throughout all Chrysler car & truck lines to save money and manpower design hours. This was a great program for Chrysler, … until it wasn’t.
I retired from Chrysler in September of 2009 after 35+ years, but still remain very involved with Viper through the Motor City Viper Owners (MCVO) club and Team Viper reunions. My wife, Lori, and I still own both of our Vipers – the 1993 Gen I Red RT/10 and the 1996 Gen 2 “White with Blue Stripes” GTS; and we enjoy driving them whenever we can. To close my story of “life before, during and after Viper,” I can truly say it has been the best time of my life and automotive career. I met and married my wife (who I met at Conner Assembly prior to the launch of the GTS), was a key member of the best automotive program in history, worked with some amazing engineers, designers, mechanics and craftspeople (who I still consider as good friends), and I lived to talk about it!
I will always remember the look on the Viper owner’s faces when I was invited to visit the many Viper clubs around the country during the Gen I and II time frame, and talk about all-things Viper – sometimes they even made me feel like a “rock star” for helping create their beloved Vipers. It is such a great feeling to share my enthusiasm with others for being a part of such a special and historic project.
I will always relish saying to one and all …. “once a member of Team Viper, always a member of Team Viper.” And if we happen to run into one another at a Viper event, be assured I can probably come up with many more exciting stories regarding my time at Viper.