My first real five days a week, long-term job was as a development engineer for Chrysler UK in the British midlands.
I studied engineering at university and when I was close to graduating I did the rounds of British businesses and got offers from several car manufacturers. Chrysler seemed interesting because it was somewhat in a state of chaos. The old family firm The Rootes Group (think Hillman Hunters) had recently been saved from bankruptcy by Chrysler in the US, a company soon to face its own financial crash test.
I worked on the suspension development of a car that never got a name, we just called it ‘C Car.’ I’d joined Chrysler shortly before ‘B Car’ was launched, which was known as the Hillman Avenger.
The most interesting thing about the job was that I got fired, kicked out, made redundant, let go, dumped. And I then started a much more interesting life. Chrysler concluded that C Car was never going to sell and decided to shut the project down, so all the engineers working on C Car were shown the door.
In fact C Car did go into production, but not in England. It was produced by Simca, the French car company that Chrysler also owned and was known as the Chrysler 180. Amazingly, I saw a Chrysler 180 in Havana, Cuba last week. Several years after it wasn’t launched in the UK it was in Australia as the Chrysler Centura. Every now and then I see a Centura still rumbling around. Clearly we made a good, solid car.
I was working with a bunch of interesting people there, all engineers, and of course we all had engineering as an interest in common. A number of people were racing cars and I went to a lot of car and motorcycle races. I’m still a bit of a petrol-head, occasionally take my Lotus to a racetrack to see how fast it goes. My next car will be an electric one.
I earned nearly £1050 a year. Remember, this was a long, long time ago! I spent it on living, eating, drinking, girlfriends and building my own sports car. It was a sort of fibreglass Mini Cooper S called a Mini Marcos, which I eventually brought out to Australia and ran for more than 20 years. When I sold it the buyer was a car collector in Japan so it was shipped off to Tokyo. I replaced it with a Ferrari.
We all need to start work at something and perhaps it’s a good thing to start with a job that turns out to be not the right one in some way.
After I left Chrysler, I packed up my flat, put all my stuff in storage with my parents and drove my homebuilt sports car down to Monte Carlo for the Monaco Grand Prix. Classic race in 1970 – Jochen Rindt overtook Jack Brabham at the last corner.
Then I came back to England, got a job running a go-kart track at a British beach resort for the summer. In October moved to London, started university again and a week later met the woman I’m still with today. Two years later, with my just-married wife Maureen, we set out to drive across Asia, through Afghanistan and ended up in Australia. New job, new life.
We all need to start work at something and perhaps it’s a good thing to start with a job that turns out to be not the right one in some way. Then you know to look for something different in the future. And I can still fix mechanical things and make things although cars these days are way too complicated.
Nowadays it seems like another lifetime that I was an engineer once upon a time.
Tony Wheeler went on to write the first Lonely Planet guidebooks and founded Lonely Planet. His latest book Dark Lands, details his travels to eight ‘dark’ countries.