What would you do if you found one of the most influential designers in automotive history worked in your office delivering parts and documents from headquarters? Well, if you are Mike Lehti, you start asking questions.
Mike is an automotive designer. He has worked for GM, Chrysler and Ford. Mike has also designed some supercar projects, including the Porsche 911-based RUF CTR3 and the Aston Martin ONE-77, currently Mike is working for GM in Oshawa, Ontario (he’s a Canuck, they love American muscle cars too). In 1988, Mike was working as a CAD trainer in the Chrysler Canada Research and Development Center in Windsor, Ontario.
Windsor is often referred to as “North Detroit” by the locals; the only thing separating the two is about 150 yards of river. Each day, Chrysler’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI sent out deliveries of parts and documents. These deliveries were made by an older gentleman, “Ol’ Fred” as he was affectionately known..
During this time Mike was building a ’70 Road Runner. In those days there was no internet, research on restorations were done in the library. While Mike was reading a book called “HEMI, the History of the Chryser HEMI V8 Engine and HEMI-Powered Cars,” he learned the name of the original engineer who designed the original drawings for the hemispherical head, his name was Fred Shrimpton. Mike looked up and thought, “Could that be our ol’ Fred?”
Mike made a plan to wait for Fred to make his next delivery.
Finally Fred shows up with a pile of parts in his arms. Mike strolled up and struck up a conversation. Using his Road Runner project as the topic, Mike told Fred about the project. Fred’s eyes lit up and they talked about the particulars.
Then Mike grabbed the book and opens it up to the dog-eared page recanting the development of HEMI head. He asked, “Fred, is this you? Are you the guy in the book?” With a grin Fred replied, “Yeah, that’s me.”
Mike was floored. He just couldn’t believe that he was standing in the presence of greatness. You see Fred has worked for Chrysler for over 6 decades. He first applied at Chrysler in 1929. He started out working as a tracer, pretty low on the design totem pole. By the 1940s, Fred had worked his way up to the head of layout. It was Fred that created the original drawings of the HEMI head.
When the engineering department came up with idea to do a HEMI, they came to Fred. He told Mike “When Mel (Carpentier, Chrysler’s Chief Engineer of Engine Design) came up to me and said, ‘I want you to draw up a HEMI head,’ I said, ‘What the hell is a HEMI?’ Keep in mind, this was the 1940s, it was literally a new concept. Fred continued “I went to the Detroit library and searched out hemispherical combustion chambers, I found some stuff designed in France and just started from there.”
Fred and Mike remained in contact from then on. In his excitement, Mike told everyone in the office who the old man that brought them parts every day really was.
The crazy thing is that nobody knew. Here was the man that breathed life into the HEMI engine and they were oblivious.
Part of the reason for that was Fred himself. Ever modest, Fred just considered these things part of his job. Of course, he was proud to be a part of it, especially the HEMI’s contribution to top fuel drag racing, but he was a humble man, not one to toot his own horn.
Mike’s friendship was certainly valuable to Fred as well. Fred enjoyed sharing tales of muscle cars and drag racing from the past. Fred has given Mike a few HEMI mementos over the years, including some autographed books. Mike is thankful for having had the opportunity to build a relationship with one of the most influential engineers in muscle car history, one that would have happened if he hadn’t asked.