On Wednesday, September 4th, 2002, member Rich Bozenius hosted a reunion for many of the St. Louis Chrysler Assembly Plant workers at his home in Missouri. Eighteen retired employees arrived, some with their own musclecars and street rods and we spent the day interviewing them and listening to their fascinating stories and memories of the time they worked there.
The men present at the reunion included: Kirby, who worked in metal and trim material from 1968-1999; Bob, who worked in trim and I.P. line (instrument panel) from 1967-1994; Roy, who worked in trim from 1965-1992; Melvin, who worked in the Briggs Plant before working at Chrysler in the paint shop, motor repair and salvage repair until 1978; James, who worked in every plant in Chrysler Corporation in his career from 1959 until 1982; John, who worked in the cushion room from 1959-1991; Gary, who worked in maintenance and body shop from 1964-2001; Thomas, who worked in the metal shop and trim from 1965-1994; Gary (#2), who worked in chassis from 1965-1991; Bill, who worked in trim from 1964-1992; Santiago, who worked in the body shop in the Los Angeles, California Plant from 1955-1971 when it closed and moved to the St. Louis Plant where he worked until he retired in 1995; Ron, who worked from 1969-2001; Clay, who was at St. Louis from 1968-1998; Ken, who worked from 1967-2000; Bob (#2), who worked from 1965-1993; Don* who worked in the metal shop and chassis from 1964-1994; Jerry, who worked in trim and Dave, who worked from 1968-1993.
From these men, we learned a lot of history about the plant, some of the procedures used to make our cars, heard some hilarious stories and were shocked at the amount of stuff that walked out the doors of the plant. In 1953, Chrysler bought the land for the St. Louis Assembly plant (actually located in Fenton). It took 4 years to build it. Chrysler gave the Evansville, IN Assembly Plant employees first choice to move to the new St. Louis Plant based on their seniority.
During the musclecar years, 60 cars per hour were being built at the St. Louis Plant. At that production rate, you can imagine how much time one man has to run the bead welding on the door sills on both sides of a car! They could have any number of Hemi cars on the line in one day, but they weren't supposed to have two high performance cars in a row. This slowed production considerably and the Trim Department was responsible for mixing up the models. More on that later.
Melvin told us a humorous story that took place when he worked in the repair shop. There were five guys working in repair at that time. "One day I got in an old Dart. Every time you turned on the turn signals or the 4-way flashers, ALL of the lights would dim and flash off and on real slow. I totally took apart that car, even gutting most of the interior, so I could get at all of the wiring and check it for shorts. I never did find anything wrong anywhere in the wiring and so I reassembled the entire car. I went home that day, leaving the Dart still sitting on the hoist hoping that someone on the next shift would fix it. When I came in the next day, the Dart was sitting exactly where I had left it still on my hoist.
There was this black guy working beside me, name of Charlie. He was an ex-air mechanic-worked on airplanes during WWII. I said, 'what's wrong with that thing?'. He said, 'Did you change the bulbs on the directional signals on the left side?' 'Why would I change the bulb?' He said, 'I got one bulb, got it in my tool box. The only one I've ever seen like it.' And Charlie had been there for years. He went on, 'I can put that in there and that bulb will do that to that system.' So I went and changed the bulbs. I don't remember what numbers they were but I changed both of them. Worked alright. So I told him, 'You look in that tool box and see if you still have that bulb.' He went and got it and he had it marked. I took mine and slammed it on the ground. He said, 'You should have kept that. If we get a hot shot repairman in here, I'll stick that in there and just confuse him!' And that bulb would make all of those lights go real dim, you had to look real close just to see the dome light and they'd all flash real slow. He said that was the only one [bulb] he'd seen since. It was a bad bulb-not configured right or had a short."
Melvin went on: "When we built these cars in Evansville, they got six coats of paint on them. They'd go through a prime and they'd spray it twice. They'd come out and go through the oven and heat it. Then they'd come out of the oven and your hoods and fenders and doors and deck lids were all sanded with a machine called a Jitterbug. It was a little machine that had two pads on it and they'd vibrate. And then they'd hand sand it all.
Then it would go through another spray booth and that's where it got the gray primer on it. That was painted twice again. It went down another line and went through the same thing, was practically hand sanded. Now they'd sand all the flat parts with that machine. then when it would come out of there, it would go through the enamel spray booth and it was sprayed twice then. And it was amazing to see those guys spray that-they'd open those door jambs and man, it was an art to watch those guys. And it was sprayed twice then and when it came out, if it was two-tone, they would tape it off. This was mostly women taping off-they'd tape it all and it would go through and they'd spray it again.
But if they damaged the hood or fender or something, and if they couldn't touch it up or spot it in, they'd take almost all of that paint off and redo the whole thing. Because if they just sprayed it again, it would crack like your red car over there. We then called that orange peel. I don't know what they call that now. It would start separating and look like an old river bank that had dried out. That's too much paint. That would be eight coats of paint-that's too much paint.
All the metal is dull silver and has a raw look when it comes in. They run that through bondrite which is a chemical that puts a tint on it and that piece of metal will then be gray. If they don't put that on, the primer and enamel, everything wouldn't stay on. When we got over here [St. Louis], they only got one coat of primer, one sealer and one coat of paint. Before that, it had six coats on it. Now it's got three.
And they came out with a machine that had a disk-they eliminated the old Jitterbug-and one man could do ten times more work with that. And they would sand it with a nylon sand paper and the longer you'd use that piece of paper, the better sanding job you could do. It would get where you could take the scratches out-you could almost use it like a buffer. But it took a lot to learn how to use it. You just set the disk on there-and give me one of those things and I'd just sling that disk right off that thing! Water ran through it."
Another of the guys joined in: "At the same time, they eliminated the Jitterbug, they got rid of 2/3 of the manpower. For one thing, that used to be a real unfriendly area as far as hazard. You had paint fumes, heat and this and that so they automated a lot of that."
Lead work was an important part of the assembly line back in the early days. Remember all of those big old Mopars with fins? The seams where the fins met the flat fenders is all leaded in. Our musclecars also have several leaded seams. Melvin told us: "There is lead on that RoadRunner down there. We used to have a lot of trouble with fins. Down in the saddle where the top came up and the fin started, they had to lead that in. They had to put a strip of lead in there. Then they put a glaze on it. Well, that filled those pores up. You know, lead's got pores in it.
Now that was an art doing that! Those guys would put that lead on a wooden paddle and they'd dip that in there and smooth it out and you'd be amazed how smooth they could get that saddle. Every saddle had lead in it. They'd smooth that out and put that glaze on, then they could paint it.
The lead hardened quick-almost instantly. The guys who sanded that lead had lead hoods to wear-when they would wear them. Most guys wouldn't wear them. A lot of those guys are gone now. See, lead poisoning-you don't only breathe it-it goes in your pores. You get that dust on you, and you don't even have to breath it.
Those old paint booths back in the 60's and 70's, you'd just walk in the booth and come out of there and you were just sticky. All that crap would just lay all over your arms. When you walked in the booth, everyone wore respirators and it was down-drafted. And when you'd walk in there, you'd see all those colors-there was blue, white, yellow, a different shade of blue over here."
One of the guys added some humor: "I should go get that marble that one of the guys made me off the thick layers of paint on those walls. A lot of people look at that and say, 'Where'd you get that marble made like that?' It's just the paint chips off the walls! Lead work was labor intensive and it was a labor-cost item. So they engineered a product to replace it. They started using putty-they used to call it Black Magic. I don't know what they call it now. When I retired, they'd started to use a seam sealer-it came in a tube and if they had a deep scratch, they'd go along with that and feather the edges out and sand it." Melvin added that they still leaded quite a bit when he left the plant.
Ron added some information about leading: "In the late 1970's they had a thing like a gas torch that they'd hang up along the line in the metal shop. When the car came by your station you'd take that and you'd squeeze the trigger and it would really put out the heat. They had a wooden paddle and kind of patted it [lead] down and I guess they could get it pretty close with just that wooden paddle. And they had big body files they could just shave that lead like it was cheese and get that really nice. Then they could sand it, or whatever. Some of those guys were so good, you couldn't hardly tell it was a seam. They had a tint they had to put on there first. That guy'd take a rag and just swipe it off."
Melvin added: "A lot of those guys were really skillful. I wasn't, but some of them were. When I first started-you guys won't remember this but I do-when the wheels came out with a pinstripe around that thing...that was hand-painted! They'd take a long camel brush and they'd spin that wheel and stripe it. And it looked good. They'd stripe that wheel in two places while it spun.
We had a big guy, we called him Smitty, he was an inspector. Just to show you how skillful some of those guys were, he would get on the inside of the car to check the interior and if something was wrong he was supposed to write that on the windshield. The repairman would get outside by the windshield to read that. And he [Smitty] would get in there and write that backwards on the inside of the window and those damned guys would come along and clean the window and they'd wipe and wipe on the outside and be a cussin' because it wouldn't come off-it was written on the inside!
You can look at any of these old cars here and I'm sure between the roof and the decklid that's all lead. When I first started there, we built the chassis and we had those cars on a little dolly-it had steel wheels. And when they'd come to the end of the line, they had what they called truckers and you had to turn it to put it on, none of that was automatic, and we'd have to move it around. Once in a while, one would get messed up, get turned up and hit the other one or they'd leave a door open and just crunch that thing. But you'd be amazed at some of those body guys. They wouldn't destroy that thing. They'd bring it out and of course they'd have to cut the sections out of it. I've even seen them bring one back in where they'd have them on commercial carriers and the top car fell down and just crushed that thing. And they'd bring it back and cut those parts off that thing and do an amazing job of repairing it. Most people would say they could tell if that car had been worked on, but with these guys, you couldn't tell.
The worst accident I ever saw was in the disk plant when they first started using a robot. I'd never seen a robot in my life. I went over one time and one of the guys took me over and showed me a car and said, "One of those damned robots ate a car!" And you oughta have seen that. It looked like it had been run over by a freight train! I guess they programmed it wrong. It was a two-door car coming down and it [robot] had been programmed for a four-door or a station wagon and that sucker just kept eating on that car and it was tore all to hell. You couldn't believe how it was tore up! They demolished that car-they cut that one up-couldn't fix it."
Gary, being a maintenance man for several decades, had some very interesting points to add to the conversation. "What about in '69 when that guy rolled that one outside the plant-that was a sixpack car! One guy had a sixpack. One guy had a Hemi and they were drag racing and couldn't stop and one hit the material rack by the fence. He got cut up real bad and they took him in the plant and wrapped him up somehow and put coveralls on him. He went and did his shift and at the end of the day, they snuck him back out of the plant. They never did find out it was him. They don't know who it was today! If you were a well-liked guy, they'd cover up for you.
In 1968, I had a '65 Coronet and tore the 4-speed out of it. I kind of asked around the plant and this one guy said, 'yeah.', so I met him in the car plant parking lot at quitting time and there it was in his truck-had the linkage and shifter on it and everything! It had gone out in a garbage truck."
To which Melvin added: "You'd be amazed at the stuff that came up disappearing. They'd take Hemi engines out on the railroad track. There were guys in there that had a lots of guts!"
James, the retired supervisor, told us about another pastime the employees had: "The guys would place matchboxes under the front wheels of the cars. Then they'd floor the car so hard that it would jump up and never touch the matchbox. They would bet money on it. They'd lose the bet if they broke the matchbox. This was done outside, most of the time with cars that were finished but a lot of times they did this with cars before they had seats in them. And then they'd be sitting on a stool in there and when they'd try to jump, they'd end up in the back of the car! Of course, this stuff was done and then I'd hear about it! There were no wrecks or I'd know who did that. Those guys made sure I didn't catch them doing stuff like that."
When asked about the order of the cars coming down the assembly line James told us: "You might have two or three [Hemi cars] in a row, might have two or three in an hour, and some days you might only get one for the whole day. It all depends on what they ordered-that's the way we got them. Trim was supposed to mix up the models of cars so we didn't have two in a row. Running two big high-performance Hemis or 440s, Sixpacks-running a couple of those in a row just tore the line up. You weren't set for manpower to run them like that.
And Trim, back then, they had a bank-sometimes they had 30-40 units-and I won't say that all of them were always ready to go because you had different stuff to do too, but they were supposed to never give us two of them in a row. Two wagons were never supposed to come in a row, that kind of thing."
"Because of the many assignments on the line, it took longer for those units so therefore you couldn't run them back-to-back and force everyone else off line. It didn't make any difference what came through Metal because Metal was supposed to ship everything back to Trim. They weren't supposed to ship all vinyl tops in a row because vinyl top s were put on in Paint."
Gary added: "They used to put vinyl tops on down by the I.P. line before they shipped that operation to the paint shop. Now they build instrument panels down there-they had a side line."
James went on: "It wasn't there too long because it caused a big problem because they had all that thinner and everyone was getting sick. They didn't have proper ventilation down there to do that and the thinners and the stink caused a problem. The body was already painted when it went to the vinyl top line. Our Paint Department here was upstairs.
Metal's storage bank holds 40-50 cars and Repair's bank holds 15-20, maybe a total of 60-70 cars from the end of Metal. It would fluctuate. If Trim or Paint had a breakdown, well, there's a car in the bodyshop that they can't build and visa versa. If Bodyshop had a line stoppage, that depleted-that's what the bank was for. So one department wouldn't shut another one down.
Now they straight shoot them. That means when they get on the line, they stay there until they get off no matter what happens. If the car's damaged, it stays bad until it gets off.
Every department used to have a bank, like the Chassis line #1-they had a car bank in the back and the Final line on chassis where your vinyl trim and seats got put in, you had a bank between those two lines. But the older Chassis line back years before that, that car got banked in Trim and it came down through Chassis just all on one line. But they put the second line in about 1968 or so, therefore Chassis had two lines."
Someone in the room observed: "They put that line in while we were on strike!"
Bob worked on the I.P. line for two years and did everything. He told us: "All instruments were shipped in. Nothing was stamped or made at St. Louis. The only parts that were worked on at all were set up for rework because they were built wrong, punched wrong or even a wiring harness coming in and there'd be a pigtail missing or a wrong connector, so all of these had to be reworked and repaired there. NOTHING was made in the assembly plant. All wiring harnesses and seat covers came in. The instrument panels were pre-drilled except for some accessories. Just like police cars on the Final line. You had all the extra stuff going on police cars, so all the brackets you had to drill and mount on the dash for siren buttons and all that."
James added: "We had fixtures for locating holes. It was all clamped on and then you drilled."
Bob continued: "Dash frames came painted. They were all boxed so they wouldn't get scratched."
James: "Just like door panels. When they started coming in the hard surface, they were all boxed."
Bob: "They came mostly by truck, but some by rail. A lot of it came out of Iowa."
James: "Some of those door panels sometimes-later on in the year, vendors wouldn't make them a certain color and the orders didn't match up with what we had. We sent them to the Paint shop to get them painted but that didn't work right."
Bob: "If a dash frame was scratched somewhere on the assembly line, it was touched up. There was a guy there who could touch it up. Most of those frames you see very little of them because they had padded dashes or whatever to cover."
James: "They used to say St. Louis was pretty centralized for freight. So let's say if you built a car in Detroit, shipped it to California, they don't pay all of that freight. If a car is built in St. Louis and shipped to California, that pays the same freight out there as it would if it came from Detroit or wherever the car comes from. All freight charges were based on Detroit. If all cars were built in Detroit, the total freight bill for each individual would have been higher. But let's say in some cases, you'd build a Dodge or Plymouth in Detroit-the same ones we're running here in St. Louis-but if those cars went to California they'd pay the same freight out there on those cars rather than the cars coming from Detroit. The freight was not higher-that's the way it was balanced. So the customer would save money.
Missouri became a pretty good automobile state, second to Detroit because it was so centrally located. You know how much time we lose because of bad roads? Snow on the roads? You guys claim you can't get in and sometimes only the supervisor comes in-they got no trouble but you guys can't make it!"
To this statement, someone in the room replied: "That's because supervisor's got better cars!"
Melvin remembered: "After WWII, you could go to the assembly plant and buy a car. You didn't even have to go to a dealer."
James: "You could do that until almost 1950. In 1946, '47 and '48, you could go right to the plant and you could save all the freight. I started with Ford in 1949, then went to Chrysler in 1959. When Chrysler moved in down here, about half of their supervisors were pulled in from GM and Ford.
There was a lot of supervisors at Briggs and Chrysler in Evansville that were very, very old. Some of them didn't want to move, some of them shouldn't have moved and some of them couldn't move after they got here! And when they hired a bunch of guys from GM and Ford, they got the younger guys. Hell, I was only 27 years old and I already had six years experience on the line and then I had two or better years experience in supervision."
Melvin: "When they went to build this plant here, '53 I believe is when Chrysler bought this site, I had just bought a different home and moved into it and they said, 'Well, we're building a plant over in St. Louis.' So they said there would be three to four years of building and I came over in the winter of 1959-60. Chrysler gave us a choice-they said, 'You guys in Evansville, we will buy your seniority or you can go to St. Louis.'
Well, I was just a kid, had ten years of seniority, so I asked my dad what should I do? He said, 'Well, I'm going to tell you. You can't eat that ten years of seniority you got and there's other places to live besides the city of Evansville.' I said, 'You're a great help!' It was the best move I ever made. I worked for Briggs Corporation when Chrysler went on a 13-day strike for the engine plant. I thought, 'Hell, I'll never work for them.' That's a hundred years away for me-I've got over 24 years and shooting for more!"
James: "When I went to work for the auto industry, the hourly wage was $1.65 per hour and that was a hell of a lot of money. I had worked around here in these small towns for 55¢ and 60¢ an hour and then I went down there for $1.65 an hour in 1949. I thought, man, I'll be rich in no time!"
Someone else in the room observed: "You're still working on it, aren't you?!"
Gary added: When I was hired, it was $2.16 per hour."
James: "Yeah, it came up real slow. Well, you get a dime or a contract change and you'd get the contract change every five years back then. When I left, it was about $21 per hour."
Melvin: "I get tickled when we talk about these new guys and working at other places and being retired, you know. They say, 'We had to pay this amount on our retirement.' I say: 'Hell, I didn't have to pay anything on my retirement.' And they say, "Well yeah, you did.' And I'd say no. We'd negotiate a contract and we'd ask for 35¢ and they say, 'Nah, we're not giving you 35¢. But we'll give you 25¢ and put 10¢ towards your pension. Now we sacrificed and paid for it that way. But as far as paying for it like a 401K or whatever, we'd never heard of that stuff, and that worked out just great.
James: "Back when we started, there was no such thing as retirement, there was no such thing as a 30-and-out, there was no such thing as any of that. And I forget what we actually went out on strike for the first time we went out on strike. I think it was 1950 or '51-I worked for Ford then. We walked for a long time out there. I think it was a contract change."
As the guys stated earlier, no metal panels or other parts were made at the St. Louis plant. All body panels and a lot of steel frames and brackets came from Montezuma Manufacturing in Montezuma, Iowa, which is still in the business of making automotive parts today. All seat cushions and upholstery came from another vendor. All suspension parts came from yet another vendor, etc. Gauges and switches were shipped in from various vendors and the dashes were assembled from those parts at the St. Louis plant with dash frames from the Iowa plant. This is what's called outsourcing-purchasing parts from various little shops across the country rather than making those parts yourself.
Bob told us the first time he ever heard of outsourcing was when one man ended up with a dash bracket that would not fit because it needed to be drilled. Being all UAW employees, drilling that bracket wasn't his job and he refused to do it. The bracket had come from a scab shop [non-union]. The head of their local at that time told him they could not drill the bracket. Of course, this caused lost time on the assembly line. The UAW, of course, wanted everything to be made by UAW employees. Chrysler promised their guys that they would quit outsourcing, but of course they didn't. Today outsourcing is common and accepted practice, and everyone agrees now that it does not hurt the auto workers.
James says: "As far as outsourcing, if there was a strike or an agreement that they're not going to outsource parts in, they just move it around and outsource from a different area. It's actually good business not to have everything in one pot. I don't think we, as automobile workers, were ever hurt by outsourcing. Outsourcing is something a lot of people don't understand. You're buying a part from somebody. This part that you're getting has 20, 30, or 40 other little parts in it. Then that contractor subcontracts that out and then that subcontractor gets behind and he subcontracts that out again, then you get these little off-the-wall shops a lot of times to make that stuff. After I retired, I started a welding business. My son bought us out here about 2 years ago this past July and we took on stuff for McDonald Douglas. A contractor got over-bogged, we're a non-union shop but we made these tools for McDonald Douglas. So this is how things go. It filters down to there's a guy that accepts a contract to do things and he already knows, well, I'm going to have to have that made here in this little machine shop-a little off-the-wall machine shop that might only have two or three guys, but it's a small part and a lot of times, they don't even know where that part will end up. Lots of little parts were made by tiny privately owned shops all over the country. The union can't control outsourcing because the union shop that they choose to make a part may end up subcontracting that job to another shop that will subcontract to yet another shop and so on."
Interestingly, Bob told us the first thing he ever saw at Chrysler that was a foreign-made was a Japanese tire!
Belvederes and Satellites were built at the St. Louis Plant for Richard Petty. This was from 1966 to 1968, before Richard went to Ford in 1969. We had heard a rumor that Petty had some station wagons built there also, so we asked James about this. He told us: "I was in charge of two or three of the cars that Richard had built. The cars were tagged for him in the metal shop. They were special because of the paint. They were complete, running, painted cars. I can't remember what engines were in them and we only put a front seat in. I don't remember any station wagons. If they made wagons, I didn't have anything to do with those.
There was no weather stripping or sealer on his cars. When those cars came down the line, I gave the orders to shut the water test booth off and one day someone came by and turned it on. The damned car shorted out everywhere!
I remember he had a special blue-it was his blue and we didn't build any other cars in that color. If I remember right, we just set in the instrument panel because the Petty's would just redo everything. It was just a front seat bolted to the floor and no carpets or anything.
His cars left the plant and they went over to the company car garage. That area was different than the car conditioning area. They went to the car conditioning area first and then to the company car garage. That's where the plant management kept their cars and the VIP's kept their cars in there.
When we built a whole bunch of St. Louis police cars, they sent a lieutenant in and I worked with that lieutenant on different things to do. Those cars also went to the company car garage-to the executive garage. That's where they put the county police stickers on, that's where all of that happened."
St. Louis police cars were built at the plant for all years through about 1971. Police cars were the only cars built that got throttle cables, which were used to increase the rpm of the idle speed so they could sit there for eight hours without their foot on the accelerator. One of the guys told us that he used to build ten wire harnesses a day for the cop cars. He would start with a standard stock number of harness for that model and then cut and add wires and add ends for the different accessories.
It was common practice at the St. Louis Plant to put the wrong speedometer pinion gear in taxi cabs, at the request of the engineers. "Officially" this practice didn't exist and no one was supposed to talk about it. The pinion gears were color coded and the one used in the taxi cabs would cause the odometer to record one mile for every true seven-tenths of a mile driven. Note that this was during the time taxis charged you by-the-mile! Interestingly, you won't find any B-bodies built at the St. Louis assembly plant for two months in 1971, because the workers were out on strike during that time.
Melvin shared this story, which lead to another interesting story about the Chrysler plant: "Several months ago, I went to this U-Gas-It station that I always try to patronize. I took two 5-gallon plastic cans in there to fill and put 6 gallons in each one of those cans. So I asked the gal, 'How the hell did I get 6 gallons in two 5-gallon cans?' She said, 'Well, they hold more than it says.' I said, 'That ain't what it says on the damned cans! It says U.S. 5 gallons." My wife wrote to the Weights and Measures and they said they'll go out and check. Well, they probably called and told them they were coming out there to check the pumps. I imagine they [the station attendant] went out and clicked them back then. They wrote a letter and told her everything was alright. Just this last week or two, I took one of the same 5-gallon cans over there and put in 6 gallons! They sell $50,000 worth of fuel-they're making a hell of a lot of money for nothing!
When they first built this Chrysler plant here, we used to dump the sewage in a lagoon. There was a guy we called Cowboy, we'd see him down there and say where you going. And he'd say, 'We're going fishing today.' I'd say, 'Yeah, what's that?' He'd say, 'We're going to take the boat out there in that lagoon.' He kept a little boat out there and he'd go around and stir all that crud up so it would meet regulations. They [health officials] would notify him that they were going to come out and inspect that so he'd stir that all up and they'd go all day long and drive around in that boat and stir it all up. They'd check it and say, 'It's ok. You can put it in the Meremac [River].' Yeah, old Cowboy would say, 'We're going for a boat ride today.' And all those damned federal laws were almost a joke."
Gary: "Did you hear about Shorty, the time he was out there cruising and the motor died? He was pulling on the rope, couldn't get it started, pulling on the rope and he stood up and the rope broke."
James: "He mixed it up, didn't he?! Swim harder, fella, swim!"
Gary: "Now they got a big waste treatment plant. They even designated money for it."
Ron was hired in 1969 to build wheel houses for the cars. In his early years at the plant, Chrysler wanted Ron to have some formal training so they offered, as a promotion, to pay for one year of classes. All of this was to Chrysler's advantage too, of course, because with all of their layoffs, these employees with numerous skills could be used in other areas of the plant. It took him four years to complete school though, because he could only take one class at a time. While working ten hour days at the plant, he drove 68 miles each way to work every day and took classes 2-3 days per week. He was a journeyman tinner and worked on duct work at the plant, sheetmetal fabrication, drafting, metallurgy, machine process (tool and die) and tech math-all while still working at the plant!
Ron told us they used mig welders as early as 1969. A-posts were brazed on the car and the excess metal was ground off by hand.
When it came to quality of sheetmetal, Ford got the pick of the litter because they paid the most, so they got the best quality material from the sheetmetal company. Chrysler was #3-not a good position in picking out their sheetmetal.
Kirby started at St. Louis in 1968 at the ripe old age of 18. He worked on the Trim line for two months, was laid off, then worked in the Bodyshop. He moved from the South Plant to the North Plant four different times due to layoffs. In 1969, Kirby built RoadRunners, Chargers and station wagons. Finally he worked in Material for 21 years. Parts came in by rail cars and trucks. Rail cars brought in engines, four to six engines per metal rack, stacked three high in the box car. They used fork lifts to unload the engines and axles from the box cars.
Kirby reports that they tried to stay at least five days ahead of production by their number of orders. The amount of inventory in the plant was referred to as "float". The "stock chaser's" job was to count the stock every day and when a part was down to five days float, a "shortage ticket" was written for that part. The ticket then went to the "dock people" to compare figures and determine where that part came from. Remember, this was all done in the days before computers. It was a lengthy and time-consuming process and that's why they had a five day float or grace period on parts.
The "line driver" is the guy who drove the racks of parts to the assembly line where it would be needed. The stock chaser had to know exactly where to get any needed part that couldn't be found by the line driver or the material handler. When Kirby was the stock chaser in 1975, he had 323 parts to count and keep track of!
Thirty years ago, an assembly line shut down cost about $1,000 per minute in lost wages and profit. Today it cost $5,000 per minute! So it is very, very important to keep the line running smoothly at all times. The line driver's machine now is ergonomically designed to pick up parts, saving the employee physical problems and saving Chrysler lots of comp time and money. The incidence of accidents is much lower and the injuries are less severe now that machines do much more of the lifting than in the old days, although there is still a lot of hard work in the assembly plant. Thirty years ago, the plant used power fork lifts. In the 1950s and prior to that, they used manual fork lifts. All of the improvements were made in the interest of increased production since man can only work so hard and so long. A machine works until it breaks, then you fix it and it's back to work. A man may be out for six months if he's hurt. We were told the company pretended that they cared about employees, but the bottom line is when they eliminated one man on the truck dock, it saved Chrysler $100,000 per year plus benefits. The foreman who made that job elimination suggestion received a $12,000 bonus!
Often Chrysler used DC-10 planes, which were extremely expensive, to fly in parts. Due to the hard work and strategic planning of the hourly employees, once in 1985 they were able to go 105 days without any air shipment of parts. Chrysler really praised the company management but gave no credit to the hourly people who made it possible. One area manager even received a $10,000 bonus and his boss received a $25,000 bonus for this achievement. What did the hourly employees get for it? The area manager offered to buy them sodas out of his pocket, took their picture and had it printed in the paper four months later.
We were told that getting hired at the assembly plant in the old days was as easy as walking in the door and wanting a job. Several of the retirees remember filling out basic paperwork and then being sent to the company doctor in the same day for a physical. The "physical" consisted of the doctor giving them a quick look-over and proclaiming that they looked ok to work. They were hired on the spot and put to work immediately without any formalities. Another statement that we heard from almost everyone that afternoon was that when consumer demand for Chrysler product cars was high, the assembly line had trouble keeping up with the demand and the quality went down because the workers couldn't do a good job. During those times when sales were up, Chrysler wasn't too particular about the quality of what went out the door. One of those high-demand times was during the introduction of the GTX's and RoadRunners. During the slow times when sales were down, Chrysler management preached quality to the workers.
Being the janitor in the assembly plant from 1964-2001, Gary had the advantage of being all over the plant and seeing the whole operation from a different vantage point including all of the various machines used over the years there. He told us about a machine that the "fender setters" used which was called the Green Monster. This was s huge machine, actually a fixture, about six feet wide, weighing about two tons, with approximately 20 clamps on it. It's purpose was to position body panels (specifically the whole front end of the car) so you could start the bolts and nuts in. The car was run into it, the clamps on the fixture would hold the front end together while spades would set the gaps between the fenders and the body. The worker would hit a button on the Green Monster and it would automatically tighten all the bolts and nuts. Line workers were instructed by the engineers to use spacers because the Monster didn't have the capability to compensate for the parts that weren't made with close enough tolerances.
There was only one Green Monster in the St. Louis Plant and if it broke, it was priority to have the tool makers fix it immediately. At the end of each model year, the fixtures were cut down from their hangers on the Green Monster and a new Monster had to be built for the new models.
The model changeover was very efficient in the plant. They could gut the whole plant in a week. During those times, Gary said he could see from one end of the plant to the other because everything was cut down from the ceiling hangers. The plant was usually all set up and running again within six weeks time. The longest time he remembers ever seeing the plant in down-time was 19 weeks. During changeover times, Gary did not lose his job since he was a janitor and there was all kinds of cleaning to be done.
J.S. Alberici was the outside contractor that installed the new model changeover equipment. All of this equipment came to the plant on trailer/tractor rigs.
Gary told us the primer pit was used until about 1980 at the plant. After metal welding, the order of body preparation is as follows:
The primer pit guys wore rags over their heads for protection. By the end of each week, primer overspray was 6" thick on the walls of the pit! The pit was cleaned once each week. The metal scrapers had to be greased so the paint wouldn't stick to them. It was a very hard job. The old paint then went into a gondola and was either shipped to the landfill or recycled. All cars got gray primer. It was sprayed on then because the dip tank was not installed at St. Louis until about 1980.
St.ripes were installed using a fiberglass fixture with suction cups. It was mounted to the car to show stripe location. This was done in the Final department, known as 9190.
VIN tags didn't appear until the car was in the Trim department. They were situated in order in wooden trays and brought down from the Broadcast Area which was then located overhead. In later years, the Broadcast Area was moved down to the floor.
The fender tags appeared in the body shop. They were stamped by a machine that ran across the blank tag like a typewriter, done very fast. The fender tags were located on the inner fender because that is the one part that every car had and were all the same basic construction to use as a reference point.
Gary also told us how those VIN stampings were made. There were two motor lines at the plant. When a car went through the motor line, as soon as the transmission was installed, it received VIN stampings. There were five sets of fixtures, there were numbers that went into each fixture and then it was clamped onto the engine. A pneumatic burp gun was then used to stamp the VIN into the metal. The engine was painted before the numbers were stamped, so the numbers were left in bare metal.
The confidential numbers that were stamped on various other parts of the car were stamped with a huge machine...so big you could hardly pull it down to make the stamping. The confidential numbers were painted over in the bodyshop. Gary remembers one humorous episode where a new hire was supposed to be putting the confidential numbers on the cars as they came by his station. A foreman saw him sitting there leisurely reading a magazine and went over to ask why he wasn't up working. The new hire answered that this was the "easiest job in the world" and didn't take much time so he was relaxing in-between cars. Wondering how he could be stamping each of those cars with different numbers and have that much free time, the foreman stood back and watched the new hire as the next car came down the line. He simply stood up and pulled the machine down and stamped the numbers on the car body-without ever changing the numbers! He had been stamping the same numbers on every car!
Broadcast sheet paper came to the plant pre-printed and folded in boxes. IBM teletype machines printed the various codes on broadcast sheets. The Broadcast Office at the front of the plant sent information about each car coordinated to small offices where there were machines located. Gary reports that there were 30 track (broadcast) machines in the plant. There were five small printing machines in Paint and Bodyshop alone. Part of his job was to empty the trash barrels of track sheets (which, incidentally are now recycled). Imagine how many of those much-sought-after broadcast sheets Gary sent to the landfill!
The long, skinny aluminum tag that you sometimes see affixed to the forward screw on the fender ID tag is an inspector's tag. It will have a punched hole through it to signify that an inspector has looked at that car. The bodyshop had the aluminum strips for the inspectors to punch. Sometimes you will also find a hole punched through the fender tag itself. This is also an inspector's punch.
Here's a good example of how things could really get screwed up in the factory. One day, an inspector went to the area where the radiator core supports were being built and told them he'd "bought off" four hours worth of cars. He stamped (punched) inspectors tags for all of them, which amounted to about 250 cars, and then went home to lunch. As luck would have it, the cars got out of sequence that day in the assembly plant and the bodies were wrong. His job was to insure that the bodies were drilled correctly for the chrome. All of these 250 cars, which were on dollys in the metal shop, had to be coordinated with the correct track sheets. This caused the assembly line to be shut down for an hour while they got the cars back in sequence. The inspector got fired for about a week and then was transferred to another department.
All of the guys agreed that learning each station was hell, but once you got used to your particular job, it was very easy and repetitive. One guy used to get so bored in-between cars that he would mig weld his initials in every floor pan! Robots were able to take over these jobs so easily because of the repetitiveness.
Until about 1976, there were a lot of cars that shipped out of the St. Louis assembly plant with "stolen" equipment upgrades. For example, one of the workers (unnamed here to protect him) ordered a 1968 383 4-speed GTX. He was working as a "floater" the day it was built, meaning he was moving from station to station relieving workers for lunch and breaks and so he was able to follow the car all through the plant as it was being built. For a $50 bill, he bribed the assembly line workers to pull his GTX off line and install Hemi brakes, clutch, pressure plate, carburetor and a Dana 3.91 instead of the correct equipment. Instead of having one weld down the frame, one long bead was applied to his GTX. It also received extra undercoating, even the insides of the doors were undercoated! As you'll read later, you could even have a different model's tail lights installed for a small bribe.
Jerry told us about a scary experience his ex-wife had with a brand new 1969 Coronet 500 he had bought for her. "Going through Washington, the car died on her. My brother-in-law went out there and it started right up and ran for a little bit and then died. He checked the fuel filter and checked everything else and got back by the gas tank, and the bar that went back between the frame that held the shocks in had actually come unwelded from the frame, bounced up and down and cut the fuel line in two. The frame had actually separated! We took it to the auto body shop and they put it in the alignment machine, pulled it all back together and re-welded it all up. This was due to defective welds or maybe even NO welds!"
When asked how something like this could have been overlooked at the assembly plant, he replied, "It's just like the door sill jobs I used to weld. Those welds were supposed to be one inch apart. If you got in the hole, sometimes you wouldn't get full welds in those sills. They didn't have any inspectors down in the pits to inspect that."
James, who worked in every plant in the Chrysler Corporation and ended up in the prestigious job of management (supervisor) was the only salaried worker at the reunion. He told us it was common practice to install double door sills on employee's cars to beef up the body structure. The double sills were actually only supposed to be standard procedure on Hemis and convertibles.
Clay, who worked in Paint, now races his max wedge car. His wife, Rosie also races a max wedge car. He told us about several incidences with the rolls test. This was the part of the assembly plant where they drive the car onto an area of the floor where there are rows of rollers. In the early years, the rolls was then lowered so that the car's floor was almost level with the building's floor. The car was run up to speed to test it's engine, transmission and brakes.
Clay told us: "I worked in the northeast end of the plant on the second story in Paint. As far as the jobs going down the line, back in those days the roll test was in the west end of the plant on the ground floor. When they fired up the Hemi cars for the first time, they'd backfire and you could hear them all the way up in the Paint department.
Back then, the cars didn't have seats in them when they went through rolls. They had little wooden homemade stools like a milk stool. Each guy would drive in and drive up on the rolls and there's been more than one car that hit the wall! The driver would fall over off that stool and lose control of the car and the car would keep going and hit the wall. Depends on how bad they were, they'd try to repair it. It's not like that today. They'd get sued if they pulled that off."
Several of the guys remembered the rolls mishaps. It wasn't uncommon for these high-torque cars to "walk" their way up out of the rolls area, which resulted in the stool tipping over and the driver falling to the floor of the car, at which time the car would be propelled at speed across the assembly plant! James told us the first car to ever jump off the rolls was a 340 Barracuda. (Incidentally, the very first Barracuda was built at the St. Louis Plant). The lightweight over-powered little Barracudas and Challengers were the cars most frequently walking up out of the rolls. The area in front of the rolls was mostly open however, once in a while, a big 440 car would come up out of the rolls and jump 40 feet and hit the wall!
James told us to prevent this from happening, first a 3" thick solid steel bar was installed that came up from underneath the rolls and grabbed the axle. Later they put in pipes that would come up through the floor to hold the bumper.
Clay continued: "I remember one car after I got out of the service in 1973. The car had already shipped to Castles and they were loading it on a boxcar auto rack-and we weren't responsible for this-but Castles was loading it on the top tier and it fell over on it's side on the ground. They came in and just cut the whole side off of it, put a whole side on and sold the car. They definitely would not get by with that in this day and age.
Another thing that happened once, there was a compact type of car that went through the plant and it was a 4-door on one side and a 2-door on the other side. Boy, I wish I had that car! It was done more or less as a joke but when it got to the Final line, the plant manager didn't think it was so funny.
When we got hired in 1968, four guards were fired for stealing Hemi motors....four guards and probably someone in management, too! It was in February 1968. There were even two supervisors who stole a complete Hemi car and raced it. No one has any idea what ever happened to that car. One way they used to get engines out was they had a railroad siding down in the Valley Fork out in the cornfield. Empty boxcars would be hauled out of the plant and put on this siding and they would put whatever they wanted inside these boxcars.
Another guy, back before I went into the service, was selling stereos. I grew up out in the country, so I was a country boy coming to town and I was amazed at what was going on in this place! I remember one gentleman that worked in the Cushion department and he had a custom-made overcoat that he could carry four stereos out at a time. Things like that-these guys were just crazy."
Asked how he got into racing the max wedge cars, Clay told us: "Well, a guy in 1964 in my hometown bought one of the last max wedge Plymouths built and nobody could beat him. I always wanted one but we could really afford it. Then we got the kids racing. Then I built one for them and I built her [Rosie] one. I've got a '63 and she's got a '64. I run 9.50's with mine and she runs 11's with hers. We run push button transmissions and brakes just like in the old days.
You were all talking about different vehicles and why you can't always go by the numbers and stuff like that....I don't remember what year it was, but it was a Charger. They made one that was Hawaiian Blue with a white vinyl top. They made all kinds of them because it was a special order for a tourist company in Hawaii. And I asked the superintendent, with the special color and everything, I'd like to have one but I'd like to have one that color. He said, 'No problem. We'll make you one that color.' And that's not a standard color, but you could get whatever you wanted. I believe they were '69s, they were built as 318 automatics on the floor, buckets and console. They might have been '70s because it was '69 when we were building them. But they were Hawaiian Blue with white vinyl tops and white interiors. These were special order, I forget how many of them we built. But the superintendent said, 'Hell, we'll build you one tomorrow. We got the paint, no big deal.'
There was one more car I did buy that they changed the tail lights on. I can't remember what it was now, but they put tail lights in it that didn't belong because I liked these better.
When sales were up, just about anything went out the gate. One time two superintendents had to buy their own plane tickets to go to Boulder, Colorado to pick up two cars and drive them home. They'd been shipped out of the plant and never been put together, they didn't have grilles, side mouldings, tail lights or anything in them. They had been torn down, painted and shipped right out the door! Never been put back together. If a car was damaged and needs to be repainted, Trim tears them down, Metal shop fixes them, Paint paints them, then they go back to Trim where they're rebuilt and put back together. Then they go to the AQ line where they're certified to be shipped to the gate. Well, these two by-passed the Trim hole and went right out the gate. They stamped them off. But they went to Castles, and Castles took them to Boulder, Colorado and they never had grilles, tail lights, nothing. They were repaired and painted and that was it. So those two superintendents had to drive them back because the dealer wouldn't accept them-at their [the superintendent's] own cost. When they went to fix them, they put the stamp on and twisted it so no one would ever know who bought them off and out the gate they went. But that was the difference between quality and numbers. As long as sales were up and the numbers were up, out the gate they went. But when the sales went down, they preached quality. I assume it's that way everywhere."
Incidentally, the guys told us the first time any winged cars were at the St. Louis Plant was early in 1969 when Chrysler brought a transport loaded with Daytonas and put them on display at the plant.
Don* worked in the Metal shop and Chassis until 1993. He told us about an incident that happened in the mid-1970s. "One of the Chrysler managers drove a car off of the assembly line and a tie rod fell off. Needless to say, he wasn't pleased. For the following two weeks, he required the assembly line workers to mark the tie rods with a dab of yellow paint crayon on the end of the cotter key and bolt to show that the cotter key was installed and had been spread open. So, if you see this yellow mark during your restoration, now you know what it's purpose is." Don told us they also used to put yellow paint marks on the rear end after inspection.
For the most part, the assembly line guys all laughed about those folks who try to duplicate all of the crayon and paint markings during restorations of their cars. We were told over and over that these markings had no significance to the car-they were nothing more than inspection marks put on by various departments on the assembly line. Some cars got the marks, some didn't-it was all randomly done depending on what problems they had with certain parts or areas of the assembly on any given day.
Don's job was to do lead grinding, mostly on the roof seams. He told us he once saw a car in a dealer show room that still had paddle marks in the lead on the lower B-body door sill. It obviously hadn't been finished off before the car was painted. No one at the dealership had noticed it, but the lead guy has an eye for these kind of details. He pointed it out to the dealership owner and the car was returned to the bodyshop for repair.
We've all heard about Chrysler pilot cars. Those were the cars that were constructed before each model year to serve as test vehicles. They were driven for many, many miles by Chrysler officials and then were sent to the assembly line to be disassembled and reassembled so the line workers were familiar with it. Afterwords, the pilot cars were all supposed to be destroyed. Of course, since these cars were going to Detroit to be driven all over the country by very important Chrysler people, they were built considerably better than the normal production cars the public was able to buy. Don showed us one example of this. There were six weld spots on a car when he worked at the plant. When a pilot car was built, it received many more welds. Also inside the door posts, the pilot cars had their welds nicely finished off before paint, where this area was generally overlooked on regular production car.
Interestingly, we were told that at least 1/3 of the production cars leaked in the water test. Most of the leaks were minor ones that could be fixed with a little dumdum. Almost all of the Mopar trunk lids leaked water from the assembly line, so it's not surprising that there are a million old musclecars out there that still have leaky trunks!
Another common problem they had on the assembly line was leaking at the front corner of the oil pan. Even though there is no pressure on the oil pan, they all seemed to leak. The fix was a little dumdum smeared across the oil pan seam on the outside. Dumdum was used for just about any leakage on the assembly line. The dumdum that was used on the body was always white and actually hardened with time. Engine dumdum was gray and always stayed soft.
Gary told us: "I've seen them dumdum brake hoses!"
James: "When I worked in Final Trim Repair, I went to the Metal shop and tore the vehicles down. They fixed the dents and whatever and they just take a scratchall and poke a hole in there and take that dent out and smear that white dumdum on there and shoot the paint, and away it goes.
Salvage/Repair is where they repaired anything that came in damaged or was damaged on the assembly line. Keeping the assembly line moving was of utmost importance then, so any damaged parts would simply be pulled off the line and sent to Salvage/Repair to be fixed. If it was a part that had come from Chrysler, they paid for the repairs. If it was a part that had come from a vendor, the cost of repair was billed to that vendor. If a car acquired a dent on the assembly line, the repair worker would simply poke a hole in where he could put the ding bar in and take the dent out. The ding bar was a case-hardened bar with a handle so you could twist it and move it around, and it had different tips. The tips were harder than the metal in the car. They'd run the ding bar all the way into the door or wherever to take out a dent or a ding."
Gary: "They put me in the Bodyshop. I learned all about that-you'd knock a hole anywhere you could get to it [the dent]-in the inner fender, the bottom of the door, just wherever you could get to it. Then you'd put that white dumdum on there and it would harden and stay there forever. You know, they didn't use any body filler. If it had a ding or raised up spot, they actually did real body work, they'd body file it and lead it. Talking about lead, I'd been a janitor for I don't know how many years, so they put me back into production, they had me upstairs in the repair booth and this one car came in, it had a big ding in the rocker. So they told me there's no place to get in there. You got to lead that in. So I took that tinting stuff and went across there with it, put that lead on there and it fell off! Put it back on there and it fell off. The regular body guy-he came over and said, 'You gotta do it like this'. He took that tinting stuff, and used that rag to wipe it on and put that lead on there and it stuck!"
Another of the guys shared this story: "I bought a Lil Red Express pickup from a dealership in Herman. Took it off the showroom and it squeaked so bad, they had to take the cab off and put all new bushings in it. I pulled into town one day and it was steaming. I pulled into the car wash, opened the hood and it has dumdum around the intake and it had been painted green. I don't know how long it was on there, but that gasket finally let go."
Gary: "They would do anything-dumdum was like duct tape, they used it for everything!"
Ever wonder why the paint on those alternator, power steering and other miscellaneous brackets always feels so heavy and thick? Well, we found out that there was a completely different procedure used to paint the various brackets. It was much less time-consuming to hang the brackets from racks and "flow coat" them, Flow coat paint is applied by large quantities of paint flowing over the parts from overhead valves. The paint runs over the brackets in thick coats and is allowed to dry. All bolts and brackets were painted black.
As you can imagine, this way of painting wasn't exactly efficient in terms of material used, and everything in the flow coat booth was covered with the excess paint. James told us: "A worker we called Porkchop fell down in the flow coat booth one day and couldn't get back up. It was so slick in there and whatever that thick paint touched, it would just soak through right away. Must have been quite a sight!"
Thomas told us: "I worked in the Metal shop on the gate line. They called it the jungle because you had welders and hoses and stuff hanging around all over. Every gun in there was bigger than I was and I had to jump to get a hold of some of them. I'd pull them down and shove them underneath the car so I could weld along there and then when you pulled them out, you turned loose of them because they'd go right back up to that ceiling!"
Gary: "If you had to weld all the way across the floor pan, you'd take it all the way through and then weld on the way back. Back then, the guy in the Bodyshop was a MAN! They got the biggest arms!"
Someone else added: "We were down in the door sill pit and back then, there were no fans in the plant. But there were two fans in that pit because they had to get all the smoke out from under there. That one job, I used three guns on it. I pulled one down and held it in there and welded the front of the cowl to the door shell on the box, then you got another one and went all the way down the sill to the rear quarters, then you turn that one loose and you got another one and you put it in there and turn it sideways and weld inside the wheelwells. They each had angled tips to get in each spot for each job."
Ron and Kirby both admitted and emphasized that most line workers had (and still have) an "anti-company attitude". Now visualize this: The first time they saw the inside of the St. Louis Plant's Metal shop, it appeared to them to be a dungeon. It was filled with thick, horrible smelling smoke. Visibility was almost zero. The manual and automatic welders emitted showers of sparks with each weld on the car body. It was so hot in the Metal shop that at the end of each day, workers often poured out nearly a cup of sweat from each of their boots!
Their union had to force Chrysler to allow more than one pair of gloves per man, per shift. It was no matter to the company that by lunchtime, their gloves were often burned through, ripped, oil soaked and inviting serious hand injuries. A couple of the guys remembered the horrible experience when one day a man, who was an outside vendor for Chrysler, was in the St. Louis plant looking at equipment and procedures. He was in an area that he should not have been allowed in. He mis-stepped and both of his legs were instantly cut off. The supervisors refused to shut down the line, even for this scene of horror. The injured man was quickly moved away from the machine that had just cut his legs off and the line workers were ordered back to work. They were told what happened to the man was none of their business. Thankfully, he did live.
Chrysler used to "control" line workers with "Disciplinary Lay-offs", called DLOs. There was a lot of that going on in the old days at the plant, but the union fought very hard to stop a lot of it, taking many years and many contracts to get it done.
What were the working conditions before the musclecar era? Ron and Kirby told us many times the old-timers told the new hires: 'You guys have it easy!'. Perhaps we should all remember the blood and sweat that built our cars!
Before the day was over, we heard another story about those Hemis walking out the door. Back then, empty parts bins were shipped back to the vendor to be reused. The workers responsible for loading the empty bins on the truck simply loaded Hemi engines in a couple of them. Then they'd load the Hemi bins in the next to the rear row on the truck and put empties on top of them. When the truck left the plant, it stopped at the guard station. The guards checked the bins at the very back of the load and it would look like a truckload of empties so the truck was on it's way.
Then the truck driver had a pre-determined stop somewhere not too far down the road where a vendor, who had already made a deal with the plant worker, unloaded those two Hemi bins with a forklift and sends the truck on it's way. It was common knowledge all over the plant that you could buy a brand new Hemi engine for $500 in those days!
Pistol grip shifters walked out the door by the hundreds, several times with the 4-speed tranny still attached! We heard about one guy who was so slick at the crime, he could hide a pistol grip shifter under his armpit just by the clever way he held his arm. He'd hike the thing up there in place and then borrow someone's lunch box to open and show the guard at the gate. By holding the lunch box out, he could keep his arms pulled tight against his sides to hold the shifter there in the folds of his shirt or jacket. Ironic, isn't it, that they checked the lunch boxes but never saw the engines and shifters going out the door?!
We also heard a comical drag racing story. Seems that one of the plant workers made off with a car from the plant and let his girlfriend race against a friend with it. She wrecked the car and came back with the story that it had "gotten caught in a crevice in the road." When the guys went out to rescue the car, that crevice turned out to be the ditch! The car was cut up, although they remembered the drivetrain being salvaged.
Another time, a Charger sat for months in the repair hole. The workers refused to fix it, because they could not get it to track straight. Management told them to fix it anyway and the car ended up going out the door with a steering problem.
We also had the 3/8 scale wind tunnel model on display, which Chrysler donated to the Winged Warriors/NBOA in the early 1980s. The assembly plant retirees enjoyed looking at it. A very big THANKS to our gracious host, Rich Bolzenius, and to all of the assembly plant retirees who came out to spend the day with us. We very much enjoyed it.
*Special note: We were saddened by the news that Don passed away after the reunion. Our sympathy goes out to his family. He will be missed.
This 1969 Charger belongs to Gene Lewis of Washington, MO. James showed us a very inconspicuous dent that was made at the assembly plant in the firewall of this car near the heater hoses. While not all St. Louis built cars have the firewall dent, it was not uncommon and was done to signify which shift the car was built. Gene's Charger 500 was built by the second shift.
Gary's 1974 Satellite. The previous owner could not get the car to run and sold it to Gary 6 years ago. Gary finally discovered that the Satellite had the seat-belt-interlock system which would keep the engine from starting if the seat belts were not fastened. One day, while under the hood looking around, he found a red button on the inner fender, pushed it, and the engine fired right up. The button was a reset for the interlock system! The Satellite was originally orange but had been repainted red at some time in it's life and when Gary bought it, it had been painted with black Rustoleum. It took him almost 2 years to strip the various layers off the car and he repainted it Lemontwist yellow and applied the RoadRunner stripes. It was originally a 400 automatic, but Gary wanted a little more power so he installed a 440.
Gary also owned a 1963 Coronet 440 with a 383 4-speed and two 1970 Challengers, among several other Mopars. The Coronet had the very rare optional 2X4bbl and T-10 Borg Warner transmission from the factory
These photos are of the original nosecone off of Sal Tovella's #8 USAC SuperBird race car-one of the very few original circle track nosecones left in the world. The car was raced from 1970 until about 1972 on many USAC medium sized paved tracks, mostly in the mid-west. This front end began life as a new stock SuperBird nose shell, fenders and valance panels. At the time, and at this level of racing, workmanship was not nearly as important as going faster than ever before, beating the Fords and the many other winged cars.
Sal Tovella was a large used car dealer near Chicago. His race car was independent of Chrysler factory support. The brown color is Cadillac Cinnamon Metallic. Look very carefully at the top leading edge of the nose to see "The Godfather" lettering in red. That is Sal's nickname. Underneath the nose, you can see lots of holes punched in the metal. This improved air flow and cooling through the nose. (Thanks to David Patik for all of the above information)
The original 1968-1970 Charger 3/8 scale wind tunnel model, which belongs to the Winged Warriors/NBOA club, made a special appearance at the reunion. This model was constructed by Chrysler NASCAR program engineers in 1967. It was originally built to test the wind characteristics of the new 1968 Charger. It was modified many times to test the aerodynamics of the 1969 Charger 500 forward grille area and fastback rear window; the 1969 Daytona nosecone (they tried several versions) and different wing ideas, and the 1970 Charger short track car. The wind tunnel model was tested at wind speeds of up to 250 mph. This model weighs about 250 pounds!
A lot of our musclecars were built at the St. Louis assembly plant during the performance years, so you can guess that there are at least a few humorous/horror stories that took place inside of those plant doors. The fellows sharing these stories will remain anonymous for obvious reasons!
One story I heard over and over again, from all areas of the plant-and everyone remembered it the same-had to do with a Hemi car not quite making it to the customer. When the cars came to the end of the assembly line, they were driven out the door of the South Plant, down a 1/4 mile alley (that had a chain link fence bordering it on the outside), and finally into a large parking lot to await loading onto a car transport and delivery to the dealership. These were all customer-ordered cars, meaning they all had a new owner patiently waiting for them somewhere. The designated car parkers were well known for doing a little "performance driving" with the Hemi cars on the way to the parking lot. One of the men summed it up like this: "Most of the Hemi cars were well-tested and a little broken-in by the time they were loaded onto the transport!"
One evening, a car parker drove a 1969 Hemi Charger out of the building and couldn't resist the temptation of a quick run down the 1/4 mile road behind the building. He lost control of the Charger and finally ended up wrapping it around a telephone pole in the parking lot! This story seems to be common knowledge around the plant, even today, and you get the definite impression that everyone knows who killed the Hemi Charger, but to this date no one has ever fessed up.
Another plant worker told us that most, if not all, of the performance cars were driven pretty aggressively. He states: "You have to remember, the workforce was probably made up of about half the people who were between 18 and 25 years of age. During breaks and at lunch, guys would search out these cars and go for a spin down the south wall of the plant. At that time, it was a straight shot from one end of the plant to the other, so some fairly high rates of speed were attained. On one occasion, a certain individual who worked in Trim lost control of the car he was driving and crashed it into the empty K-Frame racks which were stacked quite high near the west end of the office building that still exists today like it was back then. Needless to say, the car was totaled.
There were several accidents associated with the roll test area back then. The test area was at the west end of the plant prior to the seat installation area. So the people driving the car had little wooden stools to sit on [in the car] which, as you can imagine, were quite unstable. More than one person fell over backwards losing control of the vehicle!"
Another worker, who had been hired in 1967, told me that he drove a 440 4-speed car off the assembly line onto the 1/4 mile road. After a little performance exhibition, the plant foreman asked him if he liked his job. When he replied that yes, he did, he was informed that they didn't ever want to see him do that again.
Yet another fellow, who worked in the Trim department from 1964 until 1970, told me that he had once run one of the cars down that 1/4 mile alley at 127 mph. He told me he knew about two of the other workers who raced a RoadRunner against several of the other performance cars going to the parking lot. He also remembered that a Hemi car was once rolled into the chain link fence on the 1/4 mile road behind the building. He said anytime a car was crashed, you'd simply come back in the building and say nothing. No one would ever account to management for the wrecked cars!
One last humorous story from St. Louis. A couple of the plant workers shared a story with me about two foremen they knew who ripped off a Hemi car from the parking lot. They built it up a little and for many years raced it at St. Louis Gateway International! One of the guys is a big Max Wedge racer today. The other one now owns a Mopar salvage yard.
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