Saturday, January 21, 2017

Eugene Gochenour's Memoirs: 1963: Test Driving Chrysler Cars

Dad's memoir recalls his early days working at Chrysler in Highland Park. Here he talks about test driving new and modified cars, including the protoype Barracuda with a V-8 engine.
Dad and Mom around 1969. Yes, I had an Avocado green piano!
 My sister Alice and her husband Ken came to visit us during the summer and while they were there we got to talking about an interview I just had at Chrysler. I had previously been hired, but that job fell through because one of their existing workers was transferred to that lab. This time I was quite discouraged, though, because while they said they would hire me the starting salary was only $98 a week. But Joyce and Alice and Ken talked me into going back and accepting the job

So once again I told Harvel that I was quitting and went to work for Chrysler at their Road Test Garage. They pay was so small I would not even look at it. To make more money I got a part time job at a nearby Shell station as a mechanic where I worked evenings and Saturdays.

Road Test Garage* was in a very old building that was originally used by the Oakland Car Company at the beginning of the [20th] century. I enjoyed working there because all the cars were new, and before we worked on the, they had to be washed, and then road tested after we worked on them. No more rusty cars! When we took them for a road test would usually stop for a coffee break and on paydays we were allowed to take a care to cash our checks at the bank.

There were about seventy-five mechanics that worked at the garage, and there were two shifts. i worked the day shift. Some of the mechanics worked on boats at a marina on the Saint Clair River at Algonac, some worked at the proving ground at Chelsea, and many worked at Highland Park where I worked. Probably the total number of mechanics at that time was about 500.

The work was interesting because I never knew what I would be working on from one day to another. One day I had a job on a Chrysler turbine car and when I finished I got to road test it. Chrysler had made 250 of them as test vehicles. Before I took it out on the road I was told to turn it off if the temperature exceeded 1500 degrees. It was a strange car to drive and it got a lot of attention.

To me, the traffic at Detroit was quite intimidating. I had not worked there very long when they gave me a brand new car that had just came from the factory, and a map of the city of Detroit, and told me to drive the 22 mile course marked on it. The object of the drive was to put 50,000 miles on the vehicle as fast as they could. I drove the car all day in the city, then another driver would drive to Chelsea, drive it on the high speed track, then back to the garage so I could drive it the next day.

The first day I took the vehicle I had white knuckles from watching the cabs, buses, and other vehicles, and watching for the streets marked on the map. But after a few days it got to be old stuff, and I became at ease driving [in Detroit].

There were five other drivers with different model cars driving the same course, and most of them knew the city very well. Sometimes we would play follow the leader, and the leader would drive through back alleys and trucking lots, trying to lose us. Sometimes he would and we would find each other going in different directions, or coming from cross streets from which we could not follow. When we became too dispersed we would give up and go back on course.

Second Street was a rough area and prostitutes walked the streets and some of them would even call from the windows of their houses as you passed by. Some of the drivers would stop to talk with them and as the gal was to get into the car, drive off. They thought that was fun.

Every day we would go to Palmer Park where we would eat our lunch at a picnic table, feed the ducks, and take a walk.
Vintage postcard of Palmer Park in Detroit, MI
One payday I decided to cash my check at a bank on Grand River Street. All our cars had a device in the trunk that wrote on a paper disc to show that the car was in motion, so I hoped to just pop into the bank, cash my check, and get back on the route.

Well the line I was in had a lady in front of me, and in front of her was a man talking to the cashier. The man left, then the cashier left, and a man came from the rear of the ban and asked us to move to another line. In a few minutes a policeman came in and then I found out that the bank had been robbed by the man in the line ahead of us. The detective asked if I had seen anything, and I never saw a thing. I wanted to get back to the car because I was worried that the disc record would show I was not driving, and I was hoping the car had not been stolen. I turned the record in at the end of the day and nothing was said the following day, so I had gotten away with it.

It was summer and one of the cars I was given was a convertible and I put the top down and it was great! Each day we were given instructions to run the air conditioner, or the wipers, in an attempt to simulate real life use. If anything went wrong with the vechicle we were to report and repair it. This went on for a month, then we went back to work at Road Test. After a month of driving city traffic I was no longer intimidated.

One day I was given a work order and it said to install a special instrumented and modified automatic transmission into a new car that I was provided with. I was to remove the right front bucket seat, the floor mat, and cut a large hole in the floor board so that the transmission could be looked at. The transmission had a window of Plexiglas at the torque tube so its inside could be viewed. When I was done with the job two engineers and I took the car for a test drive. While I was driving each engineer would get on his knees and look at the window in the transmission. They were trying to find out when and how much oil was going to the real seal. After each of them looked we changed places and I looked. That job went pretty well.

Another job I was provided with a new Barracuda and asked to install a V-8 engine in it. It was the first V-8 engine ever put in that model car. When I was done with the job a different pair of engineers and I took the car on the road to test drive it.

We drove it down Second Avenue in Detroit. It was running along just fine until the driver kicked it into passing gear. When he did this, the car jumped, kicked, and shuddered. We stopped the car, opened the hood, and looked inside. The wiring harness was all burned up. What they had not thought of was that when the accelerator was depressed all the way, the rod in the engine compartment contacted the starter relay, which burned out the wiring harness.

Luckily we could still drive the car back to the garage where I repaired it.

* According to Marc Rozman the Road Test garage "was the first concrete poured-wall building in Michigan a high tech building" with forms in concrete walls.