Fiat + Chrysler = ?
In the early years, Chrysler hired local farmers to test or repair cars on the night shift. Art Patstone, a retired Chrysler vehicle development and evaluation staffer, remembers hearing former Chrysler president Bob Lutz tell some engineering students that he liked to hire engineers raised on farms because they understood machinery.
The roads at the proving grounds simulate everything from California freeways to the winding roads of the Smoky Mountains, Patstone says. There are forty-seven miles of asphalt, thirty-six miles of concrete, and twelve miles of gravel, plus off-road trails.
"You can drive around and really get a feel for a car as if it were driven across the country," says Patstone.
Patstone, who now lives in Florida, also remembers helping with some of the first foreign-car tests at Chelsea. In 1969, Chrysler engineers at the proving grounds put the Toyota Corolla, the Opel Kadett, and the Volkswagen Beetle through their paces. "You have to understand where the market is," Patstone explains.
At its peak, the Proving Grounds employed about 1,000 people. But Chrysler, the smallest of Detroit's "Big Three," barely survived the oil-price shocks of the 1970s. In 1979, only a government bailout kept the company afloat.