Torture conducted in Sun City

Vehicles, not humans, felt the wrath

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Take a drive along West Santa Fe Drive in Sun City just north of Grand Avenue between 99th and 103rd avenues and check out the building that houses Fix Auto/Collision.

That is the occupant today. After a rezoning from agriculture to light industry in 1965 at the request of Del Webb Development Co. officials, that lot was sold to Chrysler for an “Engineering Test Center” — dubbed the “Torture Chamber.”

Each year Chrysler housed 6-8 new cars in Sun City on Santa Fe Drive where employees stripped off factory equipped parts and replaced them with experimental parts for road tests, including desert driving, engine cooling tests and multiple trips up and down the hills of Jerome performing countless brake tests. When vehicles recorded 50,000 miles, the experimental parts were shipped to Detroit for analysis, the original parts were put back in place, and the cars went to used car lots at Chrysler dealers. In many instances, employees at the testing station never learned if the parts passed the tests or were placed in general use. 

Chrysler officials were secretive regarding the testing station to keep residents from mistakenly bringing their Chrysler products to the Santa Fe Drive site for repairs. A local newspaper was granted a rare interview with the test site manager in 1971 after five years of experimentation.

The manager was eager to share that all those Jerome hill tests proved conclusively that disc brakes were a good idea. He also noted that tire testing convinced him that two-ply tires were as good as four-ply tires, particularly with the glass belted tires then in use. The manager noted that 1971 testing of unleaded gasoline in the Sun City test cars produced highly satisfactory results.

Chrysler, like all car companies, was eyeing the new air quality standards to go into effect in 1975 and the requirement that all new cars come equipped with a catalytic converter to better scrub emissions. The converters were not compatible with lead additives in gasoline.

During that 1971 interview, the reporter was given a tour of the test facility and was shown the 5,000 car parts that were being tested in the heat of the Arizona sun. The parts were exposed on racks that filled every available square inch of the parking lot. Additional racks had to be installed on the building’s roof to accommodate sun testing of a myriad of paint samples, leather products, vinyl coverings, automobile glass, parts made from rubber, etc. Some failed miserably. Others were tested for as long as two years in the “Torture Chamber.”

Ultimately, all were boxed and shipped to the main testing lab in Detroit, only to be replaced with a host of new parts and materials constantly being developed by engineers at Chrysler’s development laboratories.

Unfortunately, the story ends there. The Del Webb Sun Cities Museum, 10801 W. Oakmont Drive, Sun City has no further information regarding other successes at the test site before its quiet closure.

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