Car People: Motor City's muscle man gets the job done

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Raised in Detroit, Michael Cairns now heads Ram truck line

When you have a global company, you’d think it would be easy to introduce a new product: simply pick one from another country and bring it over here.

It’s never that easy, but it’s all part of the job for Michael Cairns, vehicle line executive and head of engineering for Chrysler’s Ram truck division. The company recently announced it will sell the new ProMaster in Canada, a work van that’s known in Europe as the Fiat Ducato.

“I wish it were easy to just to bring it over and slap on a badge,” Cairns says. “The Ducato is designed for Europe, and we had to first look at regulations to bring it into the U.S. and Canada, because we have different crash test standards.

“Step two is the duty cycle, because North American roads are different. We don’t repair our roads as well, so we had to make upgrades for vertical inputs (potholes).

“Then we meet the customer’s needs. The European Ducato has tiny, shallow cupholders and, for North America, that wouldn’t work, so we designed the centre stack to get a mug of coffee into it.”

Cairns, 50, was appointed to his current position in 2009, where he’s responsible for all of the company’s current and future truck engineering. A mechanical engineer by trade, he has worked on almost every aspect of vehicles since he started with the company in 1985, including impact testing, chassis structures, electrical and electronics, and vehicle safety.

“I grew up in Metro Detroit, and my father worked for Chrysler,” Cairns says. “He brought home cool cars all the time and, growing up in Detroit, I had a lot of interest in autos. I was always mechanically inclined and I’d take stuff apart around the house. I took auto shop class in high school, and when I went to college, my Dad said, ‘You should go into engineering, it’s what you’re meant to do.’

“When I was 17, I bought a 1965 Ford Thunderbird. It was a really cool car in its day and I fixed it up. One of my buddies had a 1968 (Plymouth) Roadrunner and we rebuilt the engine on that, and it actually worked! Another buddy had a 1959 Willys Jeep, and one summer we put a Chevy 350 (5.7 L) engine in it. We’d go to Ipperwash on the sand dunes there, and that’s where I learned to off-road.”

He wanted to follow his father’s route into Chrysler, which he did once he graduated, but only after working a string of jobs to raise money during his college days. “I bartended, I sold cable TV door to door, I cleaned toilets in a church,” he says. “Anything to make a buck.”

As vehicle line executive, Cairns works with various directors who oversee the body, chassis and interior design teams. He’s focused primarily on the practical: determining what vehicles to produce, creating engineering specifications, benchmarking competitors, determining costs, and working with suppliers to ensure that parts can actually be produced from the designs they’ve been given.

The trucks also have to go through real-world testing, including cold-weather workouts in Thompson, Man., about 760 km north of Winnipeg — if the thermometer isn’t low enough in Chrysler’s usual test spot in Minnesota.

“We work across all the teams to bring the product together,” he says. “We’re responsible to bring the product through to launch and beyond.”

Although many people might think trucks would be a simple project, they can actually be more complex than cars, because of the wide range of buyers that Cairns needs to consider.

“We run a huge span of customers, from an entry-level truck that’s often bought by a company and driven by an employee, right to a Mega Cab diesel 4×4 Longhorn Dually, that runs in the $60,000 range, bought by a multi-millionaire who owns horse farms,” he says.

“The other thing is that they’re made to work, where our car side doesn’t have to worry. They do a bit of towing, but not the big, huge trailers that our trucks are expected to pull.”

It’s always a challenge to get the right vehicle to market, and Cairns says that’s his driving force.

“I have a passion for our products, and I love what I do, paying attention to the details and making sure I focus on the customer,” he says. “You can get caught up in your own career, but I never worried about that. I just make things happen.”

  • Car People: Motor City's muscle man gets the job done

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