Story and photos by Richard Truesdell
Two-and-a-half weeks ago, I learned that Dan Knott, Chrysler's senior vice president of purchasing and supplier quality, was taking a medical retirement. From past industry events over the years I developed a strong friendship with Dan. I also knew he was six years younger than me, so I suspected that his medical situation might be serious. I sent off a quick email to say hello, wish him the best and ask for him to contact me. Unfortunately, the message bounced back as his Chrysler email account was already closed. I took this to be an ominous sign.
This morning, I woke up to Automotive News’ “First Shift” program and learned of Dan's passing. I had tears in my eyes as I watched the program. Immediately I Googled his name and saw that there was an article on The Detroit News website and saw that some of my colleagues had already left condolence messages.
Over the last 15 years, as I have forged a career in automotive journalism, I had many opportunities to talk and interact with Dan at launch programs and at auto shows. While he will be best remembered by the industry as the Chrysler executive who rebuilt the company’s frayed relationships with its suppliers in the period immediately after its 2009 bankruptcy, I will remember Dan as a consummate car guy. And on this day when many of his friends lament on him leaving us all too soon, I appreciate the chance PUTC has offered me to share my remembrances.
Back in 2004, Dodge launched the Ram SRT10 in Austin (a monster vehicle that Dan had a big part in bringing to market), and as there were an odd number of journalists, I asked Dan to pair up with me on the morning ride-and-drive. (At manufacturer press events, usually two journalists drive together.) I knew that Dan started his career at American Motors, and as I have owned many “classic” Ramblers, Jeeps and AMCs over the years, the in-truck conversation shifted immediately to the passion we shared for AMC. We immediately missed a turn and spent much of the rest of the morning catching up with the main group.
What I learned from Dan at the time was that he was part of the small team at Jeep that put together the 1998 5.9L Limited version of the first-generation (ZJ) Jeep Grand Cherokee. This was a one-year-only model that stuffed the 245-horsepower Chrysler 360 V-8 between the Grand Cherokee's front wheel wells and was the precursor of all the hot rod SUVs and half-ton pickups that followed, including the last-generation Grand Cherokee SRT8. (Dan headed the SRT division at the time of the third-generation WK Grand Cherokee.) The 5.9L Limited Grand Cherokee was a legitimate 140 mph SUV that, while biased for on-road performance, still had the chops (and ground clearance) to go off-road. About 15,000 were built here in the U.S., with a few built in Graz, Austria, as well.
A year later, in 2005, Chrysler had an SRT program at Willow Springs International Raceway, and Dan was one of the presenters. A few months earlier I had done a road trip from London to Maranello, Italy, in a Ford GT and Dodge Viper and had scheduled a week with a Ford GT here in California for the same time period as the SRT event. My idea was to get shots of the Viper and Ford GT together at Willow Springs after the conclusion of the program.
The photo session worked out great as it was very overcast, and we got some dynamic shots. After we pulled into the pits, I saw Dan walking up to me, helmet in hand. He asked me if he could take out the Ford GT for a couple of laps. Not thinking much about it, I said sure “but bring it back to me in one piece,” which he did. But what I remember most from that day was Dan pulling into the pits and getting out of the Ford GT. He had a giant boyish grin that stretched from ear to ear. I asked him what he thought about the Ford GT, and he replied, “It's a fine piece of work. I tip my hat to Ford.”
That tells you a lot about Dan. What I think will be well-known in the days that follow, was how well respected and liked he was. He was passionate about everything automotive. If you look in the dictionary for the definition of “car guy,” you'll likely see Dan's picture there.
All I can say right now is that this world is a much poorer place for Dan's passing. But he left behind a great legacy, the respect of his peers, and those of us as journalists who knew him, and his personal stamp on some damn fine cars and trucks.
Goodbye, my friend.
Richard Truesdell is editorial director at Automotive Traveler magazine.