[Editor’s Note: We’re happy to turn this week’s Hemmings In-Depth over to David Zatz, cofounder of Allpar.com, who explains the revolutionary process behind developing the Plymouth Valiant.]
In the 1950s, Chrysler developed cars using a functional structure. People specialized, so that one person might design nothing but axles. The chassis, body, electrical, and testing were all done in different groups. When the design was done, following Lee Iacocca’s words, it was “tossed over the wall” to Manufacturing, which had to figure out how to build it.
Then, in 1957-’58, Chrysler Corporation, quietly and almost certainly without fully recognizing what they were doing, created a platform team.
A platform team uses people reassigned from different functions, working together in a single product group — at the time, defined by a “platform,” or a package of dimensions and general configuration on which groups of cars were based.
How did that happen?
In late 1957, Chrysler’s senior managers had decided that the company needed a new compact car, issuing general goals and specifications. Normally, advance designs and layout would have been done by the advanced mechanical design department of Chassis Engineering; this time, they were done by Development – Design. The head of that department, Otto Winkelmann, had been brought in from Mercedes, and had worked with Alexander Griswold (“Gid”) Herreshoff, who in turn had been one of Chrysler pioneer Carl Breer’s key assistants.
The company did not have the room for the Valiant project in its Highland Park engineering center, so they leased a nearby building on Midland Avenue. Engineers were physically moved from the rest of their normal component specialized co-workers, ending up next to people from other groups. That brought more cross-fertilization of ideas and general cooperation; as Al Bosley (supervisor of the car’s general chassis design, and the source of some of the information in this article) said, “When we [chassis and body engineering] at Highland Park had been in separate buildings, communication between us had been tenuous and difficult… one five-minute discussion at Midland could have taken weeks in Central Engineering.”
A similar time-saver occurred when a materials engineer was brought into the building. Drawings usually had to be sent to Materials Engineering for materials specifications; now, the process could be down to days, and there could be feedback between the materials engineer and the other designers.
The program manager of the Valiant team, Bob Sinclair, according to Al Bosley, “moved major obstacles out of the way and got things that we needed but had little direct technical input.” He also handled all the reports and reviews with the top management and kept them “Out of our hair”
Al Bosley said it was “a high-tension, full-time process — from six or seven a.m. sometimes to six or eight o’clock at night… Saturday, we ran from eight to one. That was every week, so it was a fairly intense activity.” In short, the tight deadline and demands for a more compact and much lighter vehicle fostered a pressure-cooker environment, which, along with having a number of relatively new people and a separate building, made it something of a skunkworks operation.
The new car, named Valiant, won the first five places in the first-and-only NASCAR compact car race, made Chrysler relevant in Australia, Europe, Africa, and South America. It was a runaway hit; Chrysler sold 146,792 Valiants in their first year, easily beating the Plymouth Fury — and the company had to reassign Valiant to the Plymouth brand to avoid having their “popular” marque become irrelevant.
A Dodge version was brought out the very next year; and then the Barracuda came in 1964, and the popular Duster in 1970. Valiant broke 200,000 sales in 1963, and, with the Duster, reached a peak of around 475,000 in 1974 (alongside a quarter of a million Darts).
The “slant six” engine, tilted to fit in the little Valiant, retained its incline on other cars and trucks. The Valiant’s new brake and axle configurations, along with its modified torsion-bar designs, slowly spread to all of Chrysler’s other cars.
The Valiant platform team had been a major success, pushing out an innovative new car in a surprisingly short amount of time. Still, it would take the company decades to try the process again; not until after Chrysler acquired AMC, was the Platform Team organization adopted for every product line.
With the 1990s platform teams, which were largely based on AMC’s experience, people from different functions were still in those groups, but now their evaluations, raises, and next assignment came from their team supervisor; their primary work was done as part of a cross-functional, product-focused team.
Chrysler boasted that the platform teams bring better communication, and more give and take. They also said there was more innovation as people worked together, found new perspectives, and discovered small changes that could bring large benefits; and wrote that it speeds up development dramatically, because there’s less waiting for the next department to finish a task. According to the company’s releases and interviews with some engineers, there tended to be a greater spirit of cooperation and helping where one could.
That certainly was the case with the Valiant, and it’s hard to argue with the success of the LH cars, the midsize “cloud cars,” the 1994 Dodge Ram pickup, or even the flawed but still-loved Neon small cars. Platform teams were only dropped after the end of Chrysler Corporation, which was swallowed by Daimler-Benz in 1998.
François Castaing, the head of engineering who spearheaded Chrysler’s 1990s move to platform teams, said, “I know of many in engineering who, just three years ago, were conservative, anti-risk taking, and planning a future to eventually move out of Engineering into Product Planning or Finance. These were young people you would expect to be more aggressive. I see the same people today … they’re taking charge, taking risks. They want to stay in the business of engineering cars. They stand behind their decisions, no hiding…good or bad.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that some of the people from the Valiant rose through the ranks afterwards — some at other companies, such as Bob Sutton (GM), John Betti (Ford), and Gary Schwander (Mattel); and Russ Cooper, who retired as head of Chrysler’s body shops.
There are disadvantages to platform teams, too. Engineer Bob Sheaves, who has worked in functional and platform-team groups, wrote that platform teams used people in different roles at once — revising the current model, working on a new platform, doing supplier selection and verification, and component testing. “Let one thing go bad, and the whole process tumbles like the proverbial house of cards.”
Management of the team can make or break it; Chris Theodore related issues with the second-generation Neon team after its leader died unexpectedly and prematurely. While they eventually came out with the car, it was not what it should, or could, have been, and suffered in the market.
More people were required in the platform team method, company-wide, so it increased payroll expenses; and there was some reinvention of the wheel as different groups did things in different ways. For car buyers, it can be disconcerting to have different user interfaces in different cars, though this often ends up happening regardless. There was, at least, centralized control of suspension feel.
Another problem is that depth of expertise can be increased through specialization; over time, use of platform teams can prevent engineers from gaining more in-depth expertise. Al Bosley pointed out in 2017:
“If you look at GM, which has been relatively successful in engineering for the ‘Division Years’, they had platform teams (the product divisions), but they also kept an applied research group. They also had a central engineering staff, with separate departments, such as a powertrain team, an electronics team, a test team. The ones at Chrysler buried those in different platforms, so they ended up scattering the talent, which was better centralized.”
There may be more corporate-wide communication cost, though Al Bosley said the leaders claimed that the communication within engineering more efficient and that everyone understood the goals, mission and plan.
Perhaps the ideal is to use platform teams system-wide every few generations. One could argue for making a completely new generation of a product with a platform team, and to go back to functions for refreshes and facelifts. Even the teams’ champion at Chrysler, François Castaing, did not believe they could result in a regular cycle of revolutionary cars. In the late 1990s, he said:
“Bringing the platform concept on board was a leap forward because it brought us back into the mainstream of being competitive, but from now on we will focus on continual improvement. I don’t see another revolution around the corner. I see continuous evolution of what we have done, the way we’re operating.”
Regardless of the benefits or drawbacks of platform teams, it’s fascinating to see that Chrysler started with them not in the 1990s, but all the way back in 1957 — with the creation of the innovative, popular 1960 Valiant.