Forrest Pitcock, seen here in a Chrysler press photo, was the engine wizard on the Golden
As we all know, Chrysler was a technology leader in terms of creating solid engine packages. To create engines that would withstand the severe duty requirements of drag racing, circle track competition, and street abuse meant replicating that environment in a laboratory. The data would be analyzed, small changes made, and the cycle would start again.
For Forrest Pitcock, who spent more than 30 years working for Chrysler, that dyno work would take on a different tone when he was assigned to the cell that tested the company's biggest, most powerful engines. Of course, that wasn't all; in his spare time, he piloted the Golden Commandos machines in 1963-'64. We had a chance to talk with Forrest, who now resides in Tennessee, about those days, and we thought our readers would enjoy his reminiscences of the golden supercar age.
Mopar Muscle: Well, Forrest, let's begin by talking about how you ended up working at Chrysler.
Forrest Pitcock: I was already into cars, if that's what you mean. My family moved to Detroit when I was young; we returned to Tennessee, but my dad needed work after World War II, and we moved back to Michigan for good. People were already driving their cars up and down Woodward Avenue on the weekends between the drive-in restaurants. I had a job on the assembly line at Ford, but my number came up and I joined the military on January 3, 1951. I went into the Air Force, doing equipment repair, and when I got out in December 1954, I went back to Ford. I did that, worked in some gas stations doing garage work, and a friend at church asked me one day if I was interested in working for Chrysler. As it turned out, he was the manager of employment; I filled out the paperwork and it went right through. I worked for Chrysler from December 14, 1955, until December 31, 1988.
MM: What did you do at first?
FP: I hired in as a dyno operator, which could mean certain things. Normally, when you start out, you begin in the Endurance Lab. This area was used to run engines 24/7, all the time, to see how they lasted. For testing production engines, tests were run on 10-hour intervals. The engine was set at a certain rpm level, with a certain load from the dyno, and the operator recorded the results. We would check the power level and record the engine oil and water temperatures. Fuel distribution was checked using a Cambridge analyzer. Every 10 hours, the rpm would be increased or decreased based on instructions from somebody in charge.
The best-remembered machine from the Golden Commandos team was this '65 altered-wheelbase
Once you proved yourself, you would be assigned to a dyno room where more specific work was done. As it ended up, before I was moved into a dyno room, I was laid off, but three months later, I was called back, came in, and they told me I was to report to room 48; this was all in Highland Park at Chrysler Engineering. At that time, I had no idea that room 48 would become the place where the performance dyno work was done.
MM: So you were there at the beginning of the performance age.
FP: The first big engine I remember doing was the 413; you have to remember, we were years ahead of the release of these engines, so this was in the late 1950s. I was involved with the B engine; I did the 350, the 361, and so on. Normally, we would be testing spark plugs, or lubricants, or whatever. Once the performance era began, we did hand-fabricated headers, cylinder heads, fuel injectors.
The early Hemi was done before my time, though I did some Hemi work in room 42 for a Pike's Peak car, since that room had a huge vacuum pump to allow us to simulate the altitude. I did some work on the 1950s-era optional fuel injection over in room 52. I also did some work on the chassis dyno; this was attached to a huge wind tunnel to simulate wind speed over the car. We could also change the air temperature in that room and run in very cold or very hot conditions.
MM: How did the Max Wedge program come about?
FP: Tom Hoover gets the credit for a lot of that stuff; he pushed a lot of that through and was promoted high enough in the company that they would listen to him. He was the one who got the ram induction program pushed through. He was an enthusiast; he owned a '57 Dodge with a 392 Hemi in it that he had built. Then, when the NASCAR thing began to grow, we started testing parts like long rams and things like that. Drag racing was always sort of the shirt-tails of the NASCAR stuff; we'd try to slip in our stuff between those tests. This was in late '62 and early '63.
Dyno room 48 was dedicated to the performance work. There were two kinds of dynos: The GE style was a motor generator that could absorb a load or drive the engine for friction, while the water-brake type was strictly a water-cooled generator, which was really for measuring top-end power with no friction of extra load on it.
MM: Were you part of the Golden Commandos from the start?
FP: No, and I'm not really sure how it all started. The Ramchargers were all engineers, and they had already been established, and a few guys wanted to build a Plymouth. Ronnie Householder might have still been in charge of the Lynch Road garage at that time, and he was instrumental in getting a few Plymouth cars and parts to the dealer for the club. I got involved in late 1963. Bill Shirey had been driving for the team, but he decided he could do better on his own, so we went to the track and all took a turn; I guess my Woodward Avenue experiences got me the job. Now, because of my work responsibilities, I couldn't be a full-time driver; I drove at the bigger events. My first race was a match race with the Bob Ford Galaxie up at a track called International Dragway Park. I won that with a 1963 Plymouth four-speed Max Wedge car. I also raced Arnie Beswick at Ubly once, but that was it for the match races I drove at.
Parts like the fabled injectors were all part of the dyno testing that Forrest Pitcock did
MM: Tell us a little more about the Commandos team and the people on it.
FP: There was Ray Colby. He was the first president of the club and worked as an engineer in Fuels and Lubricants; Ray developed the slick oils that Chrysler used in race cars. Chuck Hammer was a supervisor in the road test garage, and he was our go-between with the executives for money and cars and dealers; all of our cars came through Hamilton Motors near Detroit. That was how the factory gave them to us. John Dallifour was a transmission man; he worked in the trans lab and also became the permanent driver of the Golden Commandos race cars. I built and maintained the motors. For a while, we had Al Eckstrand, who had been a lawyer with the company, driving the car as well. Troy Simmons was another engineer; I'm not sure what his job was in the company. Then Ken Healey was my partner in the dyno cell. There were two dyno cells, 12 and 13, and we ran those cells together.
MM: How did the testing work, like for the Max Wedge engines?
FP: Robert "Bob" Lechner was the engineer during the Max Wedge testing, and he directed the tests. As far as I was involved, we only knew what they wanted us to know. I had no idea what they expected each day; they would give me a work order and we would do what it told us to. Now, once the testing on the 426 Hemi began, we were in locked rooms; only certain people could get in and we locked them up when we left.
Back to the Max Wedge, the ram manifolds were designed standing straight up and using fuel injectors to find the proper distribution. Pat Brady, who built our headers later, fabricated the first ram intakes, and we used a pump and jets and metering rods in gutted carbs. We would start the engines and adjust the fuel pressure to get the power we wanted; too much pressure would mean too much fuel. Then, once it was set, the engineers would plot the power and figure out what the engine needed.
The two cars in 1964 were the Max Wedge-turned-Hemi hardtop that won the Detroit "dollar a
As far as I remember, there was only one engine we used in the Max Wedge testing. There might have been a few running around in cars, but I had the only one on the dyno there. Those old dynos just couldn't hold that kind of power, and we ended up building new dyno rooms to handle the 600 horsepower the Hemis made; the water brake was the only kind of dyno that could take it. Once the car went into production, we might get an engine back to test it.
The first 426 engine we got from the engine room was sort of funny. Normally, the early castings were not so great, and the builder there would leak-test it. This engine made over 400 horses, and, on the very first pull, something in the jacket casting gave way; it had a 2-inch split behind the motor mount and began leaking. We looked it over, took a piece of sheetmetal, cut a rubber gasket, then tapped and screwed the plate in place. That block did most of the testing for the 426 Max Wedge.
MM: How were the engines set up?
FP: A lot of that would depend on whether it was a gross run or net run; net was with all accessories attached, and the gross was bare gross, no fan, no nothing, just the water pump. We would use an idler pulley in place of the alternator for that. When we first began testing an engine, we would do a cold, bare gross pull, and would put shims between the heads and intake to block the exhaust crossover. The one thing we always did was maintain 160-degree water temp and 180-degree oil temp.
Regardless, the Max Wedge was very short-lived as a race engine because of the Hemi; most of it was done on the 413, and that was later developed into the 440. Now, with the Hemi, we would change pistons, parts, whatever we had, right on the dyno. I was comfortable with doing that, but some of the other dyno operators were uptight about it, and we had to go through the union. Once it was OK'd, we'd do cam-phasing, valve jobs, head volumes, piston volumes, and right back up on the dyno it would go.
For the testing, we would run the basic engine to get the baseline; we recorded everything in the lab, which would give us a baseline to compare future runs and changes with. Then we would begin changing things based on the engineer's plans; we might do two or three cam-phasings in a day, and did a lot of work with fuel distribution. There is no vacuum at wide-open throttle, so you need to have a manifold that will provide good distribution. We did all those little dams and stuff inside the intake; an engineer would draw a sketch, we would add the dam, test it, and tell him the results. He would double-check it, listen to our suggestions, and we'd try something else. That big, open-plenum NASCAR Hemi intake, I spent hours and hours working on that thing. A lot of those bases had Helicoils in them so we wouldn't strip them out taking them apart so much.
Only the endurance lab ran all the time; the race dyno rooms were run on two shifts, and we had the same people running them all the time. The afternoon shift came in, and everyone had priorities depending upon the project they were working on. If one of the race room guys was missing, it was very hard to get that day's work done. A lot of the parts and engines were one-of-a-kind, and you had to be on top of it because if something went wrong, you wanted to find out. Luckily, most mechanical things would be caught in the engine room before they came to us. I eventually became the supervisor over the engine room.
I remember one day when I was working there, a couple of the big shots from the office came down and asked me if we could build an engine for them that night. What had happened was that one of the Hemi motors in the Miss Chrysler race boat had blown, and they needed another one by morning. So Walt Ulrich and I went over to Lynch Road, got a new block, a new crank, and a whole mess of parts-some that were already looking a little rough-and built that engine. We were loading it into a truck by the time they got there that morning, and it headed out to the Detroit River. The boat won that day, but I don't know if they used my motor for power or as a spare anchor; no one ever told me!
MM: What other race engines were you involved with on the dyno?
FP: The Summers Brothers had Keith Black build the four engines for their land-speed record attempt soon after the Hemi came out; Black built them one at a time, then sent them here where we broke them in and put Hilborn injectors on them. That car, called the Goldenrod, set the piston-driven record and it stood for many years.
MM: Ever run nitro on the dyno?
FP: Nitro? (laughs) We did unofficially! Mike Buckel, an engineer who was a member of the Ramchargers, was like a big kid sometimes, he was game for anything. We once flew down to Toledo at lunchtime to get a hamburger! So, after our "real" testing was done, we would play around with nitro and made some real big power with it. Couldn't do much, though, because under power, the engine would burn through 25 gallons of nitro in a few minutes. Mike was involved with building "tickler," or test, engines. We'd run the tests on them, and once we were done, everything would be torn down and inspected. I worked with all of those engineers as well.
MM: Let's go back to the Commandos again. You got to drive for them once in 1965 at Beeline Dragway in Phoenix.
FP: You have to remember, most of the dyno work on the Hemi was done on my dyno; that's why the Commandos and the Ramchargers were so close together in performance, we knew about things as soon as they did. We did the tests on the injector lengths and all that stuff, and I was fortunate to drive the car with the first set of injectors that went on. That was the mule altered-wheelbase car the factory had built to figure out how the 1965 FX cars would be built. One thing about that car was that it wasn't lightened; the cars everyone else got had been acid-dipped. This one was just a test car; we didn't care how fast it went as long as we had a baseline. Anyway, that car was sent out to Town & Country Chrysler Plymouth in Phoenix, and we went out a week early and did tire tests and painted and lettered the car in the dealership work bays. They let us work there at night. The other cars came in and they were real, real weak from the dip tank. I mean, when Sox would hit a gear, you could see the whole rear quarter-panel buckling. So, we took the cars back to the dealership and we'd put them up on 55-gallon drums to take the weight off of the quarter-panels, then put in this small box frame we designed. It was a lot of work.
MM: Did you drive after that?
FP: No, that was about the end of it. The truth was, I had been made supervisor over the motor room, and I just could not get away. Plus, I had a family to take care of. Tom Hoover had taken a lot of the performance work out of Engineering and moved it to the garage on Woodward Avenue, and a lot of things were also being done over at Lynch Road. Ron Mancini was a carb technician at Highland Park and was supervising the garage, which he ran with Hoover and Dick Maxwell. I went over there a few times to help with things they wanted done like changing bearings and stuff like that.
In 1970, a NASCAR guy named Harry Hyde wanted to know if we could build some engines for his cars, which Bobby Isaac drove. Paul Goldsmith and Ray Nichols still had their performance stuff down in Griffith, Indiana; this was before Petty Enterprises got that whole deal, so they would call Goldsmith. I'd go down there and pick up stuff like blocks and cranks and valves. Walt Aldrich and myself bought a building out in Royal Oak and started a little company called F&W Racing and built engines for Bobby Isaac and then put them on an airplane to Hyde's shop. One of them went into the Dodge Daytona that became one of the first cars to top 200 down in Talledega, and another one set some records out in Bonneville. The deal only lasted for 1970; we built engines for a year. We did two different kinds, qualifying engines and race engines. The qualifiers only had to run 200 miles; the race version had to go a whole 500.
MM: What else were you involved in before you left Chrysler?
FP: Well, I ran the only dyno testing that Chrysler had for diesels; after I left the motor room, we took the old turbine dyno shop, which was unused, and got it back into working order for the diesel program. A bunch of us went to Bosch injector school and we learned a whole bunch of stuff, but the program didn't last long. We had a 2.2 turbo diesel and a turbo Slant Six diesel, and both those performed very well. We just couldn't get any mileage out of them. I was still a supervisor and we were running whatever the dynos were capable of doing, endurance or whatever.
MM: What do you remember the most about working there?
FP: Doing the Hemi in the 1960s was the best time for me. It really gave me more opportunity than the average person. There are not a lot of people who can be involved in racing like I did and get paid for it. I was on salary, so I got to go out and race and never missed a paycheck.
MM: And racing...
FP: My biggest win was at the 1964 World Championship race at Detroit Dragway. The track owner, Gil Cohn, had this big $10,000 race that paid a dollar a foot to the Super Stock winner; it was a big deal there in Detroit. We had a '64 Plymouth that started as a Max Wedge car and we swapped a Hemi into it at midseason. It was a two-door hardtop; the factory-built Hemi cars were sedans. We had added some of the lightweight parts to it, but it was still legal, and we went to the track with a fresh engine that had never been started. I remember crawling underneath and I was still installing the converter bolts there at the race.
So we make a couple of runs and the race starts. We won $500 for our spot, and I raced and beat Fenner Tubbs to go to the final round. Now, Dyno's [Don Nicholson] Comet is there, and he is screaming, he's got me covered by 2/10; he beats Len Richter, and we're matched up for the finals, and the tree breaks. So Tiny, you know, the track's 400-pound starter, he gets out there with the flag. All that works on the tree is the two yellow staging lights and the green. He comes over and says, "You get staged, and I'm gonna yell 'one, two, three."'
We both go up, we stage, Tiny says, 'one, two, three,' and I'm gone, and Dyno just sits there. He's doesn't move. I cross the finish line, we pass fuel check, go over the scales, and we get that car loaded up. We got paid and left! There were a lot of people there that night, and we knew that Dyno had a lot of fans, but the guys in charge told them we won it fair and square.
MM: Thanks for the memories, Forrest.