Going in Circles
With Fiat marrying Chrysler, what will happen to the Chelsea Proving Grounds?
by vickie Elmer
Published in July, 2009
Jerry Colone tested trucks at the Chrysler Proving Grounds for thirty-four years. Now, he says, the huge complex southwest of Chelsea is "like a ghost town."
Employment at the grounds has fallen from 700 five years ago to about 400 this spring. And now, with Italian automaker Fiat poised to take control of Chrysler as part of Chrysler's Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, it's unclear what will happen to the sprawling 3,850-acre facility.
With its ninety-five miles of test roads and its noise, emissions, and crash test labs, the Chelsea Proving Grounds is one of the best testing facilities in the auto industry. Today, car magazines and others, including auto suppliers, are still testing there. But in recent years Chrysler itself has been rolling out fewer models, cutting labor costs, and reeling financially, leaving the future of this valuable asset up for grabs.
"We need that facility," says Chrysler spokesman Nick Cappa. So does the area. The proving grounds is a major taxpayer in Washtenaw County. Its owner pays more than $1 million a year in property taxes on it.
After quietly buying up farms in Sylvan Township, Chrysler started building the proving grounds in the early 1950s. When it opened in 1954, top Indianapolis 500 drivers christened the 4.7-mile oval track. They hit speeds of 179 miles an hour on the long straightaways.
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,"
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.
Around 1980, Chrysler opened its test facilities to automotive journalists and other outsiders. Over the years, there have been tests of competitors' cars, motorcycles, and the bucket trucks used by electric utilities. Police cars are regularly tested there, too.
When oil prices came down, Chrysler's own vehicles revved back up with tests of such hits as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Dodge Viper. Several former employees have memories of riding in the ten- cylinder Viper around the oval, hitting speeds of 130 to 140 miles an hour. "We would go out and run the hell out of them," recalls Colone, the retired driver and mechanic.
He often worked seven-day weeks with lots of overtime. "It was fun all the time," he says, "a different job every day." He loved it so much he never once called in sick.
Frank Markus, technical director for Motor Trend, recalls the facility being so busy "there were times when you struggled to get in. I would have to wait around for hours" for a chance to test cars and trucks for the magazine.
Automobile and Car and Driver also test vehicles and take pictures of them at the proving grounds, paying around $200 an hour for the privilege. Chrysler won't confirm any of the outsiders that use the proving grounds, nor would it allow the Community Observer to visit. But Markus and others say they see a variety of vendors coming in to test cars and automotive components. Among them are Mitsubishi-which has a longstanding relationship with Chrysler-and automotive suppliers such as Kelsey-Hayes and Johnson Controls.
"They have state-of-the art tracks. It's perfect," says Don Sherman, technical editor for Automobile.
Chrysler uses the proving grounds for many purposes. "It runs the gamut from crash testing to mileage accumulation to safety performance," says Sherman, "every thing that's required of a modern car to suit government requirements and customer needs. It's a critical tool for any carmaker to have a facility like that."
The proving grounds also has an 11,000-square-foot wind tunnel to test aerodynamics, air conditioning, and wind noise, plus an impact test building where cars are slammed into barriers to see how well they protect their passengers.
Chrysler has two other test facilities-a very small loop road near its headquarters in Auburn Hills used for "casual evaluations" and a winter track in Arizona. But the Chelsea facility is so valued that some in Chrysler call it the "country club."
In recent years, many workers at the proving grounds have retired or taken buyouts. But the facility still retains a talented staff, auto journalists say. Among them are 265 workers represented by the United Auto Workers Local 1284, about eighty-five fewer than two years ago. The UAW's Jake Richardson does not expect more buyouts this year since "we're so low now as it is."
Recently, Chrysler has added some temporary workers at the proving grounds and brought in about eight UAW members, mainly technicians, from Huntsville, Alabama. They were guaranteed three years' work in Michigan, but many did not move their families here, according to Bob Pierce at the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce, who helped them get settled in town.
The main test oval was torn out and repaved in the summer of 2007-the same year Chrysler planted soybeans on the grounds and sold them to an Adrian processor for biofuels. Chrysler "gathered a lot of great data on alternative fuel use," says spokesman Cappa. The company has erected a test tower on the grounds to measure wind speeds in a joint venture with Washtenaw County that eventually may result in a wind farm on the property or nearby.
"Chrysler Proving Grounds is used to test almost everything attached to our products, which is why it's a vital facility," Cappa says. "We have not announced any changes for CPG." He adds that there is "nothing on the table" about selling it. In Chrysler's troubled world, that's as close as it gets to a vote of confidence.
Some veteran workers are hoping for better times with Fiat in the picture. The company will need a place to test its European cars to conform to U.S. standards-and that's likely to be the proving grounds.
"I'm very hopeful that Fiat will do some good things for us," says Hollis Bennett, who supervises two brake test labs and has worked for Chrysler for thirty-six years.
No matter what happens to the company that built it, though, the proving grounds will probably continue to launch more new cars in the years ahead. They just may not be made by Chrysler. Most observers feel that the facility is too important and too developed to disappear.
"There is a demand for test tracks," says Sherman. "I could imagine a day when Hyundai or Toyota or Nissan owns that facility. They could rent it back to Chrysler-what remains of Chrysler."
[Originally published in July, 2009.]
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