Saturday, January 28, 2017

Eugene Gochenour's Memoirs: Working at Chrysler's Road Test Lab & Installing a HEMI for Petty

Dad's first job at Chrysler was in Road Testing. His initial pay was low and he took a temp job--working on race cars! No wonder he loved 'muscle cars' and was proud of the HEMI engine in his RAM-1500.
Gene Gochenour
"On many days two mechanics would work together. One of the mechanics was named Herman Jacobs. Herman was old. he had worked for the Oakland Car Company when he was young. As old as he was, he was a very hard worker. He would work all day without taking lunch or other breaks, then leave about an hour before everyone else. Herman was the Police Chief for the town of Frazer, and when he left he went to work there. I don't know when he slept! Whenever we finished a job and took [the car] for a road test he always insisted on paying for the coffee because he said he had an expense account. Herman retired soon after. He had worked for the company for fifty-two years!

Another mechanic I worked with was John DiV***. Whenever we were on a job, John would work for a few minutes then say he would be back in a few minutes and leave. I would continue working. In a while he would come back and work a few minutes and leave again. This went on all day long and he spent more time gone than working. I later found out he was selling numbers, gambling tickets. I soon decided working with John was like working alone. Even though this always went on, I never heard a foreman complain.

Working at the Road Test Garage was an African American floor sweeper. His name was Sam. His job was to keep the floor clean of oil, grease, and water and other spills. Sam and I often talked and he was a fairly well educated man. He told me he had always sold the numbers because he knew he would never earn much money on the job because of his color. He said the money he made on the side had put his son through college and that he was a doctor.

No one ever approached me at work to sell me a number for gambling, and I never did buy one.

Ed Kasky was a very large Polish mechanic who worked in the Engine Buildup Room. He was pretty old when I started working at Road Test but was an expert at anything to do with engines. One day I was given a work-sheet and Ed and I were given the job of installing a Chrysler six cylinder engine into an American Motors car. This meant making special engine mounts, exhaust system, and other adaptations. It took a while but when it was completed it made a good submission. I don't know if Chrysler sold them the engine, but everyone liked it.

One day the foreman asked if any of us would be interested in assembling some race cars at a private conversion company as an after work job. The job paid ten dollars an hour, and about four of us said we would.

So every day for a week, after our day job, we would work at a shop in Birmingham until ten o'clock at night. When Saturday came we felt like zombies. We were all worn out. These cars had a big Hemi engine and plastic body parts. They were on a tight schedule, and Saturday they had to ship the cars to California, even though they were not completed. Richard Petty thanked us for the work we had done. After we left that Saturday we went to a bar and had a drink to celebrate the end of the job. I had to pay because the others had no money on them! The place where we had worked on the race cars normally converted large cars like Cadillac into hearses and ambulances.

At Road Test every day was a new experience. Sometimes we would spend all day auditing new cars as they came from the factory. If we found anything wrong we were to fix it. At other times we would go to a competitor's dealer and pick up one of their new cars, bring it back to the garage, and completely strip every part from it. The parts were measured, weighted, and cost evaluated, then displayed for anyone to check out. We were always picking up competitive vehicles for comparison and to find any new ideas or features they had.

Many of our own [Chrysler] cars were stripped of their parts and stored to be put back on later. Experimental parts were installed and tested, then later the original parts were reinstalled and the car was taken to a lot where it was sold as a used vehicle.

If we installed a new engine in a vehicle we had to drive it at least a hundred miles to break it in, so we would usually drive to Port Huron.

One day another mechanic and I were asked to go to where a retired executive's car had broken down, take him home, and wait for a dealer to come and pick up the car. When we got there the other mechanic took about fifty pounds of meat and groceries from his trunk and took the man home leaving me with the car until the tow truck came. When it came I went to the dealer and I waited until my buddy came, and then we went back to work. This guy had some pull even after he retired!

When I went to work for Chrysler I started at the lowest pay for a mechanic, and after a few months of work I thought I had proved my worth and went to my foreman and asked him to see if I could get a raise. His name was Pete and he and another foreman named Al Ferrari went to the department manager and tried to get me a raise, but he would not give a raise to anyone. but a few days later they told me of an opening at the Air Conditioning Lab.

I went there and talked with them and got transferred there. This put my pay to $113 a week. On top of that they were working overtime, so I was finally drawing a decent pay."

*****
Herman Jacobs was indeed a Frazer, MI chief of police. In the 1950s he was asked to patrol the village after his days working at Chrysler. Later he was promoted to Constable and then Chief of Police overseeing six officers and two patrol vehicles.
*****
Richard Petty's Plymouth with a Hemi engine won the 1964 Daytona 500. Sadly, the Hemi engine was boycotted by NASCAR and in 1965 his Barracuda with a HEMI crashed and killed a child, leading to a lawsuit against Petty and Chrysler. Read about the HEMI and Petty at