By Matt Wolfe
A genius of engineering and product development, Francois Castaing was an integral part of Chrysler’s success throughout the 1990’s. If not for Castaing, nameplates like Grand Cherokee and Viper may never have gotten off the drawing board. After serving as Technical Director for Renault Sport, Castaing came to the U.S. from France in 1980 to work at AMC in product development. He was deeply involved with projects like XJ Cherokee, and it was at AMC that Castaing began to develop a concept to expedite the vehicle engineering process.
Observing the delays, mistakes, confusion and “turf battles” that often arose from separate teams working on the same project, Castaing began to implement a “platform team” concept at AMC. Castaing’s basic idea was that designers, engineers, production experts, and marketing talent would all work together on a single platform from conception to production. AMC began applying Castaing’s method to develop several cars, including the first Grand Cherokee. However, Chrysler’s acquisition of AMC in 1987 meant that the Grand Cherokee would be produced under new management.
At the time it acquired AMC, Chrysler was in a product development slump. The initial success of the minivan had come and gone, the K-car platform had become so derivative that the numerous cars which were based on it could scarcely be told apart, and the company’s internal policies resulted in an environment where employees were averse to taking risks. The arrival of Castaing and other AMC staff brought the kind of fresh ideas and minds Chrysler needed to end its stagnate streak.
Recognizing the potential of Castaing’s methods, Chrysler President Bob Lutz supported the adoption of Castaing’s platform team approach at Chrysler. The results of this reorganization were impressive; Castaing’s realignment of Chrysler’s engineering department slashed production timelines by nearly a year. More importantly, his teams began to churn out some truly exciting products. Chrysler stole the 1989 North American International Auto Show when the Dodge Viper made its debut; the Grand Cherokee repeated this feat in 1992 when it made a smashing entrance into Cobo Hall by driving through a pane of glass; and the innovative “LH” platform cars finally replaced the ancient K-car in 1993.
At Casting’s induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2010, Dennis Pawley, former EVP of Manufacturing for Chrysler, said of Castaing “This guy is either the biggest out-of-the-box thinker and futuristic planner I’ve ever met or he’s just insane.” While Casting’s ideas may have seemed insane to some, one would truly have to be crazy to argue with the results.