JOHN HERLITZ INTERVIEW
from Dana Waterman for the book Chrysler Concept Cars 1940-1970
I came to Chrysler on July 13, 1964. I came straight out of college at Pratt
Institute in Brooklyn, but my association with Chrysler goes back to when I was
about 13 and I started sending sketches to Chrysler, and they were nice enough to
send me back studio drawings and advice on where to go to school and what to do
to prepare for a career. Between my junior and senior year at Pratt, I took an
internship at General Motors, but you could just smell the politics in the place. I
had received so much help and mentoring from Chrysler, and we had always had
Chrysler products in the family, and the company was just coming out of a ditch at
that point. Simply put, I figured the opportunities were greater here. So, I signed
on with Dick Macadam in the Plymouth studio.
The first program I got to work on was the 67 Barracuda program. I did a proposal
- there were three different cuts that we were taking at that program: we had a
complete reskin of the Valiant, we had the fastback Valiant, the successor to the
64, and the proposal I worked on was a totally new design. The company went so
far as to investigate the purchase of a foreign manufacturer to build that design in
January, but financially, it just wasn't in the cards. So, it ended up with Dave
Cummins & Miltantonick interpreting the design over the Valiant underbody. We
made a fiberglass model of the original which we targeted for the Chicago Auto
Show, but McCormick Place burned down on the eve of the show! We did get to
use it though at the New York Auto Show where it debuted as the Barracuda
Formula SX concept car.
That was my first design; I got a lot of help from the studio and from the clay
modelers. I quickly learned to appreciate the value of the clay modelers, their
hands, and their eyes. If you can get them excited about the design to where they
really like it, they'll work their butts off to make it happen. Great modelers have an
ability to know what will work and what won't right at the onset.
The first major production car body that I had a large role in designing was the all-
new '70 Plymouth Barracuda. But, like any automotive design program, one
person doesn't do it all; it's really a team effort and although I'm credited with the
body design, Neil Walling did the front grille and lamp workout and Fred Schimmel
helped me immensely with the rear end design. The 'Cuda and its sister car, the
Dodge Challenger, were Chrysler's first "clean sheet" entries into the muscle car
segment. They were designed to take the entire passenger car engine lineup
including the ferocious 426 CID Hemi. A '70 or '71 Hemi equipped 'Cuda or Challenger
convertible can command a price upwards of $250,000 because they're so rare. It's amazing!
The next production design program that I had a major influence on was the '71
Satellite, Road Runner & GTX coupe program. I tried to get the surfaces to appear
to be molded out of one piece, so that there was no break between the fenders
and the hood, and the roof, and so on. Unfortunately, the muscle-car market went
sour, and it only ran two years. I still have one, a black one – it's in storage right
I did manage the development of one show car back in the '69 time frame, and it
was a Road Runner, a concept car or show car, that Arden Price was actually the
designer of. It started life as a four-seat convertible, but finally, we took it down
to a two-seat convertible. We shortened the wheelbase, but it was the original
body style, the 68-body style; we took the windshield down to six-inches in height.
That was the only concept car that I directly worked with. It was a bright yellow
model and it was shown in the New York Auto Show and the Chicago Auto Show;
I'm going to say it was about 1969.
Chrysler's show cars were rarely, if ever, built in-house; in my time, they were
primarily modified production cars like the Diamante - if Diran Yazejian identified
that one as a revised yellow jacket, he would know, because he was in the studio
at the time. The Diamante was pretty much developed in the Dodge studio. I
believe that car still exists, but I don't know who has it. It was used as a show
car; Bill Brownlie, I think, had a heavy hand sponsoring the project.
So we went to the outside shops; Synthetex was one of them, down in Romulus,
and ASC was another. The Rampage pickup was done by Hank Carlini, one of Lee
lacocca's associates. He did some other cars for us, the New Yorker that came off
the Volare four-door sedan. We called it the Fifth Avenue. Those are the kinds of
programs he got into.
Now Don De La Rossa had a tie-in with Metalcrafters, in Newport Beach. He had a
couple of study cars done out there, one of which looked like a little Mercedes
convertible but it was built directly on the mechanicals of the K-car. That was a
two-place car which kind of set the stage for what would be the Maserati TC
which came later on, but that kind of introduced the company to Metalcrafters.
From there on out, we almost virtually single-sourced everything to Metalcrafters
they did such a good job.
They were committed to growth and we provided them the technology to do those
concept cars; we introduced them to CATIA, got them up and running on CAD.
We would do the designs and just send the data to them along with an exterior
clay model and they would build the car. The interiors were 100% CATIA and
Alias data; no interior models. So, we've been in lockstep with them all the way
right up to this day; and, last year, we signed a contract with them to keep the
competition from doing any business with them. The only people who can go in
there now are Mitsubishi, potentially Hyundai, and, of course, Mercedes-Benz. The
company owns the contract, and it's in our best interests to keep it going. We
essentially have our own custom body and engineering shop.
What we were frightened to death of, when the new management took over at
Ford, was that they would just go in there and buy the place. They would have
bought all the technology we'd worked so hard for fifteen years to put in place.
But, fortunately, Metalcrafters liked us, they liked working with us, they trusted us,
had a good working relationship with us, so they were content to sign a contract
with us. When Ford saw what we did with Metalcrafters, they essentially did the
same thing with Special Projects, Incorporated, out in Plymouth. But, because of
the size of Ford Motor Company, they have the capability of sourcing around the
world. I think Ford of Europe still does work with Ghia. I think they bought them
while De La Rossa was still at Ford.
The actual designers of the concept cars deserve the credit and the modelers, too.
In one case, the Formula SX that I worked on, the real key modelers on that were
Al Germonprez and Jack Avoledo who are still with us. During the 70's, there was
very little, if anything, done in the way of show cars, as there was just no money
in the company to fund anything like that, so all concept car activities came to a
screeching halt. However, I believe Jeff Godshall was involved with the
Chrysler/GE electric car during the late '70's.
I think Colin Neale left Chrysler in about '76 and then who had Interiors? Good
question ... well, let's see - Tom Bingman had Interiors. After Tom retired, then I
took on Interiors. I wasn't unhappy; it was good learning experience. Macadam
had put me in interiors as a manager back in '76, I think it was and he said,
"There's never going to be another head of Design in this Design Office that
doesn't have experience in both Exterior and Interior," So, he said "choose your
poison, you can stay where you are and be limited in your career, or you can take
the jump into Interiors and expand your potential." My initial assignment under De
La Rossa after Roy Axe left in March of '81 was Exteriors, and Tom Gale had
Interiors. That would have been in October of 1981.
Hal Sperlich had told Don, "In the planning for Tom and John, make sure that you
rotate them at some time;" that statement was made six months after we'd been
on the job so Don goes and does it immediately. That's why I ended up running
Interiors for about four years, and Tom had Exteriors until he was promoted in '85.
He became Vice President at that time. Don retired and Tom was promoted and I
took over as Exterior design director, reporting to Tom. We also brought on Trevor
Creed at that time to take over Interiors. He came from Ford, born and bred in
Ford of Europe, and had come to the United States just a few years earlier. Now
they wanted to send him back to Ford of Europe, and he didn't want to go back to
the English culture, so he was available.
Trevor is a very progressive guy and a good thinker. He's not one for the pomp
and circumstance of old England. He came along great. We formed a culture in
the Design Office that he was very much a part of. So, when I made my
retirement announcement, Tom and I spent a lot of time talking about it and we
agreed unanimously that Trevor was the guy for the job.
Some time ago, Phil Gavie became Chief Engineer of Design Office; we had a heck
of a time getting him into that chair because he didn't have a degree. Phil was a
tremendously competent guy, really competent, and energetic too, but we had a
real slugfest with Human Resources getting him over the hump and into the chair.
I kept telling Phil, "This is a real battle," and he told me, "Well, you know, there's
another executive in the industry who doesn't have a degree either," and I said,
"Who's that?" and he said, "Alex Trotman!" so I used that.
I still live in disbelief that we were able to do all of this, the advances in design
practice, creating a complex like this tech center, because we were really
foundering at the time we put this building together. We had these state &
municipal bonds that were subsidizing the place; 18 percent bonds, I think they
were, but it worked, it absolutely worked. Then, we slimmed down, and moved to
the platform teams. The platform team organization just happened to fit the
building perfectly, although they did not figure in the planning of the building. We
know we wanted adjacencies, but we started the building layouts way back in '86,
three years before the platform team organization took place. That was really
Castaing's brainchild, the platform teams, and it worked extremely well. He did a
lot for the company especially early on. Under Bob Lutz, the Chrysler culture really
flourished through the late '90s and we became the industry role model for
efficiency, new ways of doing business and leading edge product design. As far as
our union with Mercedes goes, I think start-up problems were inevitable, but having
said that, I still believe that the vision is correct given the global automotive
circumstances. It's just going to take time and perseverance.
I think I probably will get into consulting of some sort in retirement; there's been a
number of approaches, conversations l've had with a number of people. It won't
be anything to compete with what Chrysler is doing, but there are a lot of things
that the supplier side of the industry needs to understand about design. And,
SEMA is a big deal now, about a $17 or $18 billion dollar a year industry, and it's
all cottage-industry automotive stuff. I don't think I particularly want to get back
into straight automotive design; I've done that, gotten that out of my system. But
as far as systematically protecting design intent, from the time it comes out of the
company, the OEM, and is lodged with the supplier to take it through and execute
it, that's where the ball sometimes gets dropped and it's because there's a lack of
design sensitivity in the supplier community. The supplier isn't supposed to change
the data, but they will sometimes. They'll change it because, "gee, it's easier to
do it this way, dontcha know," without necessarily coming back to the OEM and
telling them that's what they're doing. With the advent of computer data that
"wasn't" supposed to happen any more-and it was a big help-but they still do it
from time to time. Or, presented with math data, they'll just go with the data, and
they may not have the capability of understanding if there happens to be a flaw in
the data. They may not see it, because they're essentially folks that are not
attuned to design sensitivity. That's where I think I might be of help to them.
Outside suppliers now do a great deal of designing for us; they do all the seating
and a lot of the interior design features. Instrument panels and door trim panels we
still pretty much develop in-house. In that case, where we've got the design
responsibility, we'll bring their people in and they work right in the studio with us.
That's a way of getting around the problem of design intent getting lost once it
gets out of the company. There's a lot of efficiency in getting it done outside if
you can make it work. In the final analysis, that's the best way to do it. but, it
takes a lot of time to get it working right. In all fairness, many of the suppliers
have come to the party. They are building their own design staffs - any supplier
worth his salt who we'll do business with has to have his own design staff
capable design staff. One of the problems that some have is that they've got little
design pockets all over the place. And the problem is that there's no integration
between the pockets. Something I could probably help them with is to pull
together the design groups into a singular focus to manage their worldwide
enterprise, which is what many companies are all about these days. They'd be a
lot stronger if they could consolidate their design processes. I think. But there
always has to be this period of negotiation, the process of negotiation back and
forth between the OEM & the supplier and that dialogue has got to happen in order
to protect the aesthetic integrity of the vehicle.
We don't really have die models any more. We have the master math data and we
play that back into the milled clay model - any time there's a change – it's re-
milled. This gives us a chance for visual evaluation and then we have what we call
"light machines" to prove out the surface of the milled model. The light machine
looks like the section of an aircraft fuselage, with fluorescent tubes on the inside
surface, which puts reflection lines on the surface of the model. Diran Yazejian
invented it, the old perfectionist; And, what's fascinating - the shape correlates
directly to the math data which looks almost like a topographical map, and that's
exactly what the light machine lines look like. You have a hard copy of the math
data and you can hold that up and visually compare it with the light lines on the
model. You can look at the data lines and see if there's some sort of a deviation
from what you see on the model. We took the concept to Advance Manufacturing
and they were so taken with it that they have had all die shops construct them,
and every assembly plant has one, just to make sure the sheet metal isn't
wandering off standard. They have the hard copy math data and the light
machines right in the plants.
At design approval time, we've gotten to the point now that on the last-generation
Neon, the final buy-off was done on a photo-realistic image - rotating around a
large, full-size screen. This substitutes for the holographic image, until we can get
that far. It's like looking into a room where the car is being rotated
well. We try to keep backgrounds to a minimum to avoid distraction and visual
chatter on the surface of the vehicle. This really works; there was a case when we
were doing a rotational image of the Neon when Bob Eaton asked, "What happened
to the windsplit on the hood?" and we couldn't see it there so we went back to
the data and sure enough, the windsplit had been ironed out and we had to add it
back in, on centerline. That was the first time we did a Sr. Management body
surface approval without a model in the room.
Since 1987, which would have been the Portofino, we've done about 50 or 55
concept models. I think that's been a great thing to do. Each one has a different
story, a different strategy, a different slant - the Portofino was really the first look
at cab forward. It was spawned by the fact that Taurus had come out with aero-
styling in 1986 and on the fifth floor at Highland Park, they all went "har har" but
it took off, and it stayed up. Hal Sperlich got hold of Tom and me and said, "Look,
you fellows have got to do something to rewrite our program and tell us where
we've got to go." Wow! that doesn't happen very often! So we had this model,
the Portofino, done out in California and we said, "Why don't we just start there,
and we'll use that model and frame a story around the virtues of cab-forward
design. So we did that, and showed the car in Frankfurt in '87, and then at the
Detroit show in January and the response was so great that Tom and I just about
flipped. We were asked, "if we can do concept cars like that – why can't we do
production cars like that?" So with full management support, we were off and
Portofino was a Metalcrafters car - they had excellent modeling facilities there.
they had their own glass-bending facilities, their own stamping presses, they can
do slow-press stampings with Kirksite dies – they're fully facilitated, the best in the
world. Great engineering job. Neil Walling had charge of Pacifica at the time; Tom
Tremont was studio chief, reporting back to Neil who was in charge of Advance
Design operations. Much of our concept design work was done back in Highland
Park because Pacifica had such a small staff they could only handle one or two
cars per year. When resources were scarce, we would give out competitive
assignments to the different production design studios and to the advance studio
so that everybody got a chance to work on them – it was great for the designers,
that's really how the PT Cruiser was born. A young guy by the name of Brian
Nesbitt finally came up with an answer for Bob Lutz's quest for a '37 Ford – he
said, “We're not going to say that publicly, we'll say the role model's a '36
But that was a tough car to execute for production; it was easy to do the sketch of
the exterior and the interior but the real problem was the front-wheel drive. The
front-wheel drive pushes the nose of the car out and all the ancillary systems come
off the front of the engine so you couldn't get the classic long dash-to-axle
relationship. The wheels ended up being underneath the A-pillar and we had this
huge moose nose out in front. So I said to Lutz, “Look Bob, unless you can break
loose Engineering support from the Small-Car Platform Team to get in there and re-
engineer the engine box on this thing, I'm afraid we don't have a program - this is
a show-stopper." Well, we got the required help and they went at it and once they
solved the engine packaging, Brian Nesbitt came up with a formula for the body
shape that hit the 'bull's-eye'; the sheet metal on the Cruiser body is beautiful.
Strategically, in the long term, I think we have to get back some capability in rear-
wheel drive; all of the top-end cars in the world are rear-wheel drive. There's just
something about rear-wheel drive that people seem to like; it's both psychological
and physical owing to the more balanced weight distribution of rear drive cars,
there's less under-steer. I think we'll not step away from front-wheel drive in the
minivans & mainstream sedans where it is so important, but it's different for top-
When the market speaks, it's wise to respond.