Sitting at his desk in the old engineering building at Chrysler’s Highland Park Campus, Francois Castaing looked at the old tool-box in front of him and began to reminisce. The toolbox had once belonged to Walter P. Chrysler, founder of the venerable company Castaing had recently joined. The founder had made them himself while an apprentice with the railroad before joining the auto industry. Castaing had called his mother excitedly to tell her about the toolbox and what it signified. “Il a du être un “manuel” comme toi.” (“He must have been drawn to manual work, like you.”) she exclaimed.
Out of Mrs. Castaing’s eight children, Francois had always been the manually gifted one, the builder of things while her other children had taken after their academic father, more drawn to the world of liberal arts. Mrs. Castaing encouraged her son towards an engineering degree and before he had taken his final exam, French racing legend Amédée Gordini hired him along with some of his classmates to design his next racecar.
(Photo: Renault Alpine A442B Sportscar Prototype winning Le Mans in 1978.)
When Gordini sold most of his company to Renault at the end of 1968, Castaing and his team were instrumental in winning France’s most legendary endurance race at Le Mans for the company in 1978. Using the same pioneering turbo technology they would simultaneously go after the F1 crown, the pinnacle of motorsport. Here however the road to success was bumpier.
(Photo: The groundbreaking Turbo V6 Engine in the RS 01 and the Renault Sport Team with thier Teapot and Francois Castaing on the far left.)
The Renault RS 01, their first attempt, was soon nicknamed the “Yellow Teapot”. Reduced to 1.5 liters from the 2.0 liter displacement version used at Le Mans, the engine had a tendency to burst into flames mid-race and the predominantly British competition reveled in watching the Frenchmen fail. At the beginning of the 1979 season Castaing and his team of musketeers won their first pole position at the Kayalami Racing Circuit in South Africa where the turbo cars were unaffected by the altitude and by mid-season the evolution of the RS 01 the RS 10 finally scored its first victory in Dijon, capital of all things mustard, in front of a home crowd.
(Photo: Francois Casting looking on hoping the Teapot doesn't blow again.)
Castaing would see his “Yellow Teapot” triumph and Renault's top brass had spotted his managerial talent and sent him to tend to their investment in the “Sick Man of the US Car Industry”, the American Motors Corporation.
(Photo: Jean-Pierre Jabouille Winning while René Arnoux smirks at Jiles Villeneuve who had just beaten him to second place at the end of one of the most epic battles in F1 History.)
The product of the 1954 merger of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company, AMC had from the beginning been the odd man out in a Detroit dominated by GM, Ford and Chrysler. By producing smaller economy cars while the Big Three were fighting a muscle car war, CEO George W. Romney had managed to keep them in the running. By 1970 however the chronic lack of investment capital for R+D had put them into a vicious spiral of rehashing the same basic designs all based on the early 60’s Rambler American. To diversify the company, the Kaiser-Jeep Corporation (formerly Willys-Overland) was purchased from Kaiser Industries that year.
(Photo: CEO George W. Romney)
As gas prices rose throughout the 1970’s the oft ridiculed but relatively successful AMC Pacer was a rare bright spot in the car portfolio but by 1978 Jeep was single handedly keeping the concern afloat with profits of $36.7 million against $65 million worth of losses from the AMC non-Jeep product. Finally in 1979 with a pathetic market share of 1.83%, banks unwilling to offer more largess and the Federal Government deeming it “small enough to fail”, AMC found an unlikely foreign suitor in the form of French government-owned Renault.
(Photos: Renault Alliance Sedan and Encore Hatchback.)
At first the rebadging of Renault 8 and 9 models as the Alliance and Encore worked as a stopgap as gas prices skyrocketed but Castaing was well aware that it would once again be up to Jeep to provide the necessary profits for a new product portfolio. To accomplish this a replacement for the long in the tooth Cherokee (SJ) two-door SUV’s would be crucial and so under the watchful eye of the legendary Richard A. Teague a few sketches were drawn up based on the old platform but with a decidedly European flavor and still with only two doors.
When word came through the Detroit grapevine that Chevy had a two door compact SUV of their own in the works, Castaing had an epiphany. Not only would Jeep give the customer the choice of two or four doors when GM could only manage two but it would be built using unitary construction. The concept pioneered by Lancia in 1928 but relatively rare in the US was unheard-of in the SUV and light truck market. Combined with Roy Lunn’s Quadra Link suspension and an economical 2.5 liter four cylinder dreamt up by Castaing himself, the new Cherokee XJ was a revelation. But with gas prices waning by the time the car was launched, it was clear that a more substantial engine was needed. Unfortunately the corporate 4.2 liter inline six didn’t fit into the tight engine bay designed for an inline four so General Motors provided their ancient pushrod V6 which provided only slightly more power but at least the marketing folk could say they had a V6 too.
It was only in 1987 that the little Jeep reached its full potential when Castaing and his engineers finally had a new engine they could squeeze into it. The AMC 4 liter inline six was a beast making 173 hp, far more than most V8’s of the day. The engine’s impressive power combined with the Cherokee’s 3,350 curb weight, a full 1,164 lbs. less than its leviathan predecessor, allowed it to put up near sports-car acceleration numbers on the road while beating all comers off it. Motor Trend captured a 1997 190 hp. model sprinting from 0-60 in 8.2 seconds - lightning quick for an SUV even in the early 90’s. I can still remember trying my best to get my mother to by one in 1990, but my efforts were to no avail as she went on to get a Toyota 4 runner V6 instead. (Photo: Jeep Cherokee XJ Limited-Around 1987 with the new venerable High Output 4.0 in-line six. A similar one appears prominently in the movie Ronin but as a stick shift with the old 2.5 liter in-line four.)
Despite the success of the Cherokee XJ, the rest of AMC remained a basket case. The rebadged Renault’s were languishing in dealer lots and as usual Jeep was the only profit center. Meanwhile Eagle, AMC’s attempt at a crossover was turned into a separate brand and supplemented with a mildly reworked Renault 21 called the Premier - all to no avail. Then on the evening of November 17th AMC’s hopes of recovery were shattered by terrorist bullets.
(Photo: George Besse in front of a design drawing of the Renault 21 launched during his tenure.)
Georges Besse had become CEO of Renault in 1985 and from the beginning had been a champion for AMC. Within Renault’s board, most believed it to be a useless money pit, especially the newly built Brampton, Ontario plant in Canada. Besse however foresaw the success of the Cherokee XJ and the explosive growth of the SUV segment it so revolutionized and stuck to his guns. Within twenty months of his tenure AMC was making a profit again but the majority of the board remained unconvinced. Then Renault’s fortunes at home turned. Loosing its spot as Europe’s number one automaker was followed by plant closures and thousands of angry French workers were up in arms. “Merde Alors.” The layoffs at home made Besse’s position more and more untenable. How could a government owned company like Renault continue to pour money into an investment in the United States when thousands of French workers were being let go at home?
(Photo: Street in Paris named in Besse's honor.)
On the evening of November 17 1986, as he exited his chauffeur driven limousine, Besse was struck by four bullets from two assassins, members of the far - left Action Directe terrorist group. President Francois Mitterrand, on an official visit in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso at the time, issued a statement saying: "France has lost a No. 1 in Georges Besse. This confirms once more that all our forces must unite against terrorism, without failing and without compromise." But his brave words were too late for AMC. Barely four months later on March 9 1987 Chrysler announced it had agreed to acquire the ailing company for $1.5 billion, a price that included “Le Manuel” himself.
In 1980 moving to America had been an easy decision. From the beginning Francois Castaing had been impressed by American hospitality. When his family had moved into their new home in Bloomfield Hills they had awoken to the next-door neighbor plowing snow from their driveway – an act of generosity and neighborly sentiment unheard-of in Paris. AMC too had been receptive to his innovations and advice and the company had ultimately been turned into an asset Chrysler wanted to own. But now as he sat in despair looking at that old toolbox he had described so excitedly to his mother only a short while before, his enthusiasm for the American adventure that had started less than seven years ago was all but gone.
From the moment he had begun to implement the same innovations that had made AMC so nimble, Chrysler’s old-guard had balked and now they were out for blood, making his family’s life miserable and doing everything in their power to make him fail. He began to contemplate quitting but by then his daughters were totally acclimatized to the US and had no desire to return to France. Two had been born in America. After one more glance at the founder’s toolbox he was almost crying out of frustration and finally picked up the receiver to call his boss legendary “Maximum” Bob Lutz, one of the men who had invited him to join Chrysler in the first place.
“I really, can’t put up with this anymore.” he said.
“Every word I say, every process I try to change, all I get is flack and push back. I’m seriously close to quitting and most of all, I can’t stand the sight of this old toolbox anymore.”
(Photo: "Maximum" Bob Lutz smoking a celebratory cigar after minimizing an Opel Kadett)
It took a lot to shock Bob Lutz but watching his friend, an engineer he respected immensely come so unglued was certainly up there on the list. Furthermore, much of the value of AMC to Chrysler lay between Francois Castaing’s ears. To a large extent it was Castaing’s Product Cycle Management practices that had made AMC such a promising acquisition in the first place. Bob Lutz’s advice was straight and to the point;
“Francois, take tomorrow off and spend some time with your family. Get some perspective. They only resist so much because your innovations are winning and many of the old guard, wed to the old way of doing things, feel threatened by your success.”
“Le Manuel” would return from the days of contemplation with a plan to win the old guard over bit by bit through long lunches, diplomacy and kindness. His Product Cycle Management practices and vehicle specific development teams would produce a resurgence that would turn Chrysler into the most profitable car manufacturer in the world in the late 1990’s.
(Photo: Chrysler LHS. Francois Castaing's master stroke)
The LH sedans dubbed Chrysler’s “Last Hope” by the press would become the envy of the industry and the Jeep Grand Cherokee would take the magic formula created by the Cherokee XJ to new heights.
(Photo: 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 - The Grandfather of the SRT and Trackhawk)
Castaing would stick around through the tumultuous merger with Daimler Benz in 1998 but as the two corporate cultures clashed and the “Chrysler Way” that had been so successful lost out to the “Swabian Way” he took a less central role as technical advisor to Bob Eaton and finally retirement in 2000.
(Photo: Michigan Science Center.)