I was hired at the Chrysler Proving Grounds in the mid-1970s because the government made them. Pretty much the only women who worked there back then were either secretaries or in food service. So there I was, on the receiving end of an Equal Employment Opportunity moment, and I took it. I was immediately bored being a test driver, once I figured out there’d be no room for advancement and no raises. For that, I had to be classified as a mechanic, and the only open mechanic position was in the Impact Lab, where they crashed cars into walls. None of the guys wanted to work there. Really? Really??
Unfortunately, the job required welding skill. The union steward at the time was my friend Bill Heeney, a mechanic on second shift who raced sprint cars on the weekend at Butler Speedway. He volunteered to teach me arc welding during our lunch break. Heeney gave me heavy leather gloves and a jacket to put on and then set the big welding helmet on my head. He put a welding stick in the arc welder’s metal grip and explained the three-axis motion I’d need to perform to create a weld.
“Now I’m going to make a weld while you hold my hand and feel what I’m doing.” He flicked the welding stick across the metal, like striking a match on a flint. A brilliant bolt of light burst from the stick’s end. “Owwww!” I shouted, my eyes fried from the light. “You need to close the flap over your eyes!” he said, horrified. I then proceeded to lay down a pretty decent weld.
The Impact Lab foreman, Don Schneider, was bemused by my earnest, girlish presence at his desk. With one question, he was about to send me back to test-driving purgatory.
“Can you weld?”
“Yes,” I lied. He almost fell out of his chair.
I started in the dummy room adjusting, dressing, and otherwise preparing dummies for crash tests. Rows of distinctively stinky rubber men, women, and children dressed in underwear and rubber shoes hung from racks by eyebolts in their skulls. These were not the high-tech dummies Ezra Dyer met recently at Honda R&D (Dyer Consequences, page 28) but more like the Mad Men of Dummies. We used a motorized chain fall to swing them into the wooden wheelchairs used to move them around the lab. It could be a creepy place to work, especially when you were the only one in the room. I was forever backing into the clutches of the rubber men, which felt exactly like having your ass grabbed. Piles of heads and torsos and buttocks heaped on carts were impossible to pass up for funny photos. Dummies smoking cigarettes and playing cards were another favorite subject.
I hit the jackpot when I rotated into the two-man teams that prepared the cars for the barrier collisions. In addition to welding, I was trained to use belt sanders, band saws, and other dangerous tools I shouldn’t have been allowed near. My forklift operator’s permit allowed me to position cars for the crashes and afterward run the forks through their windows, pick them up, and dump them in the boneyard, rolled on their sides so engineers could study the crush path on the structures.
I got to change out the massive wedges used to simulate different collisions — left angle, flat face, right angle — a horribly dangerous job that involved chaining the wedge to the forks and then slowly lifting it off the ground. There was always a briefly terrifying moment when the forklift’s rear wheels would lift in the air just before the wedge came off the ground.
Amazingly, I was never really hurt, other than the time my hair was sucked inside a drill motor (Vile Gossip, July 1989). There was also one bad report put in my file the day we conducted a barrier crash test in front of a group of visiting student engineers (all males). I had forklift duty, and I entered the giant crash facility with the students watching from a catwalk overhead. The fork towers were a bit higher than they should have been, and the corrugated-steel garage door was not quite fully raised. The top of the towers grabbed the bottom lip of the steel door and pulled it from its mooring, raining steel garage-door segments down on the forklift with me cowering inside the safety cage. It was the loudest noise I have ever heard in my life, this big pile of steel crashing and echoing inside that huge building. Once it stopped, there was utter silence. I leapt from the forklift and ran. I ran across the parking lot and I ran across the field to the lab and I didn’t stop running until I got to the foreman’s office and squeezed myself into the kneehole of his desk. I remained there, hidden from view, until the students finished touring the shop.
So. I eventually moved on to the truck department, but to this day I still think that, despite everything, there was nothing better than running a Chrysler Imperial into the wall at 30 mph.
For more Jean, go to JeanKnowsCars.com.