DEARBORN, MI —Motor Co. makes no bones about the status of Bill Turck's employment. He's just along for the ride.
The 79-year-old engineer — who still logs 40-hour weeks after 50 years of service to the No. 2 automaker — was lured back to work 12 years ago. That's when he first tried to retire.
“And I've been talked out of it two other times,” says the silver-haired suspension guru whose career highlights span programs from '55 Thunderbird to '02 Explorer.
Why doeshang on to Bill Turck? In the parlance of today's cutthroat competition for career advancement, he has carved a niche for himself.
“What he's better at is doing the difficult, complex suspensions,” says Manfred Rumpel, chassis systems manager of Ford's New Vehicle Concepts Dept. “He is always inventing something that's better than what we had before.”
Need proof? How about three patents? (A fourth is pending.)
His resume features contributions to such storied programs as Comet, Mustang and Torino. And currently he's involved in suspension development for Ford's next generation of sport/utility vehicles.
A practitioner of pre-chip design methods, Mr. Turck uses the tube only for calculations. He does all his drawings by hand, armed with tack-sharp pencils and color-coordinated pens — red is jounce, green is rebound and black is design.
Of his prowess, Mr. Turck says with genuine modesty: “I'm not developing technology. I'm just designing hardware.”
His proudest achievement?
“I've had the privilege of being asked to do things that had been proven couldn't be done,” he says.
Like the time in 1954 when Ford figured it could save 50 cents per vehicle if more frames could be stacked on railroad flatcars. Then the idea was abruptly declared impossible.
Undaunted, Mr. Turck took some prints home and cooked up a solution on his kitchen table. Without reducing the component's height, which was not an option, he designed a notched upper arm bracket that enabled more efficient stacking.
“I brought it in and gave it to my supervisor in the drafting room. I said, ‘If you want to save 50 cents a car, here's the ball and I'll let you carry it.’ He carried it, but he also gave me the credit. … Got a very nice salary boost out of that.”
One of the most significant innovations Mr. Turck has witnessed also involved the year 1954. That's when ball joints were a breakthrough, paving the way for engineers to address the pesky connection between braking and dive.
Ball joints also were the inspiration for Mr. Turck's first patent — a seal that eliminates the need for regular lubrication.
Not surprisingly, his idea of the perfect suspension would dominate the driving experience.
“I still like the old boulevard ride,” he says. “Like now in the Lincoln Town Car which, to me, is like sitting on the sofa. That's what I like in a car. All I can get out of the showrooms now are cars where I can feel a dime if I drive over it.”
Starting in the late 1970s or early 1980s, he recalls, the public's ride preference moved from relaxed to responsive.
“They want something that will go faster than the speed limit, can maneuver on exits without leaning. But if it doesn't lean, that means it's being resisted by a big stabilizer bar or shock absorbers. … And that adds harshness.”
The new Explorer, with its vastly improved car-like ride, could be considered a victory for Mr. Turck. While Mr. Rumpel holds the patent on Explorer's independent rear suspension system, its front suspension architecture — short- and long-arm (SLA) and coil-over spring — is undeniably Turck-ish.
What does the future hold for him? He wants to spend as much time as possible with Lura, his wife of 59 years.
But he has no plans to quit his day job.
The Voice of Experience
If you're an automaker — and you're lucky — there's a Bill Turck in your future.
Experienced engineers “represent a tremendous resource of corporate memory,” says Peter Frise, program leader of Auto21, Canada's Windsor, Ontario-based center of automotive excellence.
DaimlerChrysler Canada only recently bid farewell to a retiree in his late 80s. Like Mr. Turck, he kept working because his skills were in demand.
But this also suggests the industry needs more mentoring, says Mr. Frise. “Engineering is a team sport,” he says. “You can't learn it all out of a book.”
Ford Motor Co. has such a program and Mr. Turck participates, says Manfred Rumpel, his supervisor.
“A lot of people just go to him and talk to him and get advice,” Mr. Rumpel says. “He's a very important part in our group.”
And to preserve “corporate memory,” Ford mandated just this year that engineers will no longer move from program to program. Instead, they will remain with a vehicle for several generations.