Willem Weertman came from Dutch parents, but he forever revolutionized the American automotive industry thanks to his years with Chrysler, where he was the major creative force behind many of the engines we know and love today, including the Slant Six, the small block V-8 platforms, the B/RB series big blocks, the 2.2 liter four cylinder, the Viper Copperhead V10, and even the famed 426 Hemi. Willem graduated from Yale with an engineering degree in 1947 before joining the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. In 1949, he started work with Plymouth. In 1954, Weertman became the first engineer for the Plymouth Mound Road V-8 engine plant, which started producing A-engines in 1955. In December of that year, Weertman was promoted to the Engine Design Department of Chrysler's Central Engineering department and assigned a title of "Manager - Engine Design." In this capacity he worked on the Chrysler B/RB engine, and the Slant Six. After the success of these engines, Willem was promoted to Assistant Chief Engineer - Engine Design. He worked on the adaptation of the A-engine to a new lightweight casting which evolved into the LA engine (the 273, 318, 340 and 360 engines). Weertman famously also made the call when asked from Chrysler management what it would take to win races in NASCAR again and he suggested reviving the Hemi head and placing it on the existing B/RB style block. We all know how that turned out! Willem played a major role in the overhead valve straight-six engines made in Australia known as the "Hemi Six" which were originally destined for American pickups! These engines were designed primarily for performance and light weight and ended up powering virtually all of Australia's muscle Mopars.
Willem was promoted to Chief Engineer - Engine Design and Development; a position he held until retiring, officially, in 1988. During the eighties, he worked primarily on four cylinders, with a highly successful V-6 adaptation of the LA small block for the Dodge Dakota. After Willem's retirement he re remained active with Chrysler and on his own, producing a 400-page book covering every engine made by Chrysler from 1922 until the company was taken over in 1998, entitled, "Chrysler Engines 1922-1998." He went on to play a major role in the development of the Viper Copperhead V10 engine, as well as the iron V10 engines found in countless Dodge and Ram pickups.
There isn't a muscle car enthusiast alive who hasn't heard of Hurst Performance. At the heart of that iconic corporation's foundation are two men; Bill Campbell, and of course, the late George Hurst. George was from New York, but resettled in Pennsylvania in 1954 and became active in local drag racing. In the mid-fifties, he and his friend, Bill Campbell, started a garage in Abington, Pennsylvania, where they built aftermarket engine mounts for performance cars. Together, they developed and launched numerous products, including floor-mounted shift linkage for three-speed manual transmissions, and that proved to be the catalyst for creating an American legend. George Hurst first installed "the Hurst linkage" on his 1956 Chevy as a test-bed and made believers out of the entire world. George and Bill obtained a $20,000 loan, and established their own company, Hurst-Campbell, Inc., in 1959.
George Hurst and Bill Campbell's engineering talent was remarkable, but George's natural gift for concocting stunts and gimmicks to market their goods was even more incredible. Hurst sponsored drag racers, offered new cars as prizes for race winners who used Hurst products; he found and hired Linda Vaughn to be "Miss Hurst Golden Shifter," he brainstormed the Hurst Hemi Under Glass Barracudas and the Oldsmobile "Hairy Olds" exhibition drag car, and by the late sixties, the company had become synonymous with high performance thanks to the efforts of George and Bill Campbell, who worked tirelessly. For Chrysler enthusiasts, Hurst is forever remembered for having bolted together the '68 Hemi Super Stockers for Chrysler and working directly with Chrysler on numerous other performance projects, not the least of which resulted in the famed Pistol Grip shifter we all still love. Hurst pioneered the specialty performance muscle car with the Hurst/Olds, Hurst Pontiacs, and the Chrysler 300 Hurst, just to name a few. What many may not know is that George Hurst invented and patented the "Jaws of Life" device initially used at the Indy Motor Speedway to assist getting drivers out of crashed race cars, then he gave the patent away, free, so that emergency responders could have access to his invention, which is used all over the world today saving lives. Regrettably, George Hurst passed away in 1986, but we're honored to have his partner, Bill Campbell, with us to recount the early days of a true American institution.
Mary Ann Foss-Jackson is arguably one of the most paramount legendary women figures in the history of drag racing. In 1963, Mary Ann Foss decided to begin drag racing, having been raised around the sport with her father and there was this younger guy named Bill Jackson who raced with him. With her first ride being a black 1958 Pontiac which she drove with noteworthy success in the 1963 and 1964 seasons. That big Poncho was enough to get her talent recognized by Chrysler, who, in turn, made sure she got the keys to a brand-new 1965 Hemi Super Stock A990 Dodge for 1965, which she named "Go Hummer." And during the 1965 through 1967 seasons, Mary Ann Foss practically owned Super Stock in the middle of the United States. She and Bill Jackson struck up quite a good relationship during this time, and in 1968, Mary Ann became the recipient of one of the precious few 1968 Hemi Super Stock Darts, which became "Go Hummer II" and she continued her winning ways. She and Bill Jackson married in 1969, but that didn't stop her racing career, and literally, the amazing couple raised their kids at tracks around the nation and they continued to run dragsters until just a few years ago, with their home track being Norwalk, Ohio. While Mary Ann's career went on to focus on Chevy products later, she will forever be linked with the golden era of the sixties and her "Go Hummer" Dodges which catapulted her career to nationwide attention.
Gil Kirk and Jim Thompson will forever be linked with the history of Chrysler thanks to the iconic gold-leaf lettering of "The Rod Shop" appearing on a huge variety of Dodges through the better part of two decades. Kirk opened The Rod Shop in Columbus, Ohio not long after graduating from The Ohio State University, and became engulfed in the drag racing environment surrounding Columbus at that time. Early on, he teamed up with notable racer and lifelong ally Jim Thompson, who initially made a name for himself racing Corvettes, and by the mid-sixties they were sponsoring the famed Anglia Gasser of Bob Riffle, which, arguably, launched the locally famous shop into the national spotlight. This was followed in quick succession with their masterpiece A/Gas supercharged Barracuda funny car, which truly put them on a national stage, and then, partnering with Nationwise Auto Parts, which gave Kirk and Thompson the capital to field a national Nationwise-Rod Shop racing team of Dodges throughout the seventies that competed in everything from Stock to Pro Stock to Top Fuel and virtually every class in between. Their colorful Dodges became instantly recognizable everywhere they went and the Rod Shop brand performance parts were made available at parts stores across the country thanks to the partnership. Having partnered with virtually every major name in the sport at one time or another, literally, there was little in the sport of drag racing or performance Mopars that wasn't affected by Gil Kirk, Jim Thompson, and The Rod Shop.
It's hard to believe the Dodge Viper went on sale to the public in 1992, and since that time, it has been the poster child of the true American supercar. With Dodge announcing that production will cease with the 2017 models, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Viper, it's only fitting the car, as a whole, be honored for changing the landscape of modern American performance cars.
Designed by the legendary Tom Gale, we recall seeing the Viper prototype back in 1990, and were fortunate enough to get short rides in it at the Mopar Nationals that same year. It became the first (and only) pre-production car to ever pace the Indy 500 when Carroll Shelby drove a pair of them for the 1991 Indy 500, and when the first generation Vipers arrived at dealers in January, 1992, they were the fastest cars ever put into mass production in America. The second generation Vipers, starting in 1996, were even faster and made a coupe version available known as the GTS. The third generation came along in 2003, with more than five hundred horsepower, and once again was the fastest American-built car on the road; it continued in production until 2007. Generation four came in 2008, when horsepower increased north of six hundred, and those snakes remained in production until 2010, when Dodge shut down production and we thought we'd seen the last of our favorite exotic car. Surprising everyone, the Viper came back in 2013, bigger and badder than ever, but sadly, Fiat/Chrysler is insistent that the platform will be no more with the close of the 2017 model year. It's been a fun ride Viper, and we've no doubt, all of these cars will be hot collector's items for the rest of time.
The history of "Direct Connection," which most of us remember fondly, can be traced back to the fifties when exec Brian Schram was put in charge of marketing factory performance parts to race car drivers. That effort went through the Marine and Industrial Engine Division in the early sixties, and by 1968 became the Chrysler Performance Parts Division, then it evolved into a short-lived entity known as "Hustle Stuff," in 1969, but it was Schram himself who envisioned a much broader scope for the performance parts market, and inadvertently came up with the name. Schram was the go-to guy for Chrysler to sell parts to racers nationwide, and while street racing couldn't be condoned in any way, they knew where the bigger market for parts sales was located. At the Lynch Road Garage, Schram's living quarters, basically, he had assembled a team working to outsource these parts, and there became a slogan around Lynch Road, as early as the late sixties, "Call these guys if you want a direct connection to the company." And that's how the iconic name came into being and where it all started. In 1972, Direct Connection became its own entity within Chrysler's parts program, and it existed, unique in all of North American automotive history, as a parts source, research program, sponsor of racing teams, producer of seminars, and virtually everything else you can think of regarding going fast with a Chrysler product, until it was dissolved in 1987 and 1988 to become Mopar Performance. Without the multi-faceted all-out efforts of Direct Connection, there can be no doubt the Mopar hobby, as a whole, wouldn't be what it is today. Rarely has one group of people had such a monumental effect on an entire field of automotive history, but that can genuinely be said when it comes to Direct Connection and the impact it made on everyone who has any interest in Chrysler products. It was a unique and revolutionary concept, and without it, the Mopar brand would not be what it is today.