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Charles O. Probst, SAE
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Charles O. Probst, SAE
A memorial by Richard Probst (Chuck’s son), November 12, 2000

My father died a week after sending the last changes for his Corvette Engine Management book to his editor. Nothing otherworldly about that: He didn’t want to have to keep thinking about the book while recovering from heart surgery. He was already planning his next book. But it won’t be written. Charles Probst died on September 28, 2000, at the age of 82.

Chuck Probst grew up surrounded by cars. His father, Karl Probst, was a consulting automotive engineer who regularly brought home pre-production cars. He would tell his sons, Chuck and older brother Jack, to take a car out and see how it handled. The boys interpreted that as an invitation to conduct destructive testing on the roughest streets of Toledo, Ohio. A few times they had to abandon a car where it broke and take the trolley home.

Chuck’s other boyhood passion was photography, and his first job out of college making films for automotive dealers combined these two interests. Then in 1940, he saw World War Two approaching and joined the Army Air Force, producing training films for pilots and bombardiers.

That same year, Chuck’s father also contributed to the war effort. Karl Probst was contracted to design a small military car for the Army. That car was the original Jeep.

Chuck loved to tell stories, and one of my favorites was how my grandfather designed the Jeep in his head. Bantam Automotive, nearly bankrupt, bid on the Jeep contract as a save-the-company strategy. The Army expected a modification of an existing car, and required delivery to the testing grounds in two months. Bantam called Karl and asked him to design a car from scratch.

Karl drove from Toledo to Butler, Pennsylvania. His route was not direct; he zigzagged across the state of Ohio, visiting the suppliers he would use for the vehicle. He picked up transmission blueprints in one city and spring specifications in another. And as he drove on those pre-Interstate roads, the Jeep came together in his mind.

When Karl arrived at Bantam in Butler, he sat at a drafting table for two days without sleep, capturing the plans that were in his head. Bantam’s team built the first Jeep in 49 days, just making the Army’s two-month deadline. The rest is history.

My father inherited that same ability to take a huge body of technical information, turn it over in his mind, and produce a clean, timeless exposition. Karl Probst did it with automotive blueprints; Chuck Probst did it with films and books.

Chuck continued his military service through the Korean conflict, retiring as a Colonel from the Air Force, having designed the training programs that touched hundreds of thousands of airmen.

Chuck started a small business writing and producing instructional and technical documentary films. Many contracts were with the Air Force and NASA, but his company also made films for dental students, spinning-mill workers, and on how to operate a high-speed pie-making machine. I was lucky enough to work for my father on some of these films, as an assistant cameraman, key grip, or designated pie-filling cleaner.

Chuck was proud of his ability to communicate the essence of a complicated topic.

For one film, a missile guidance engineer sent him a 30-page report on the problems of targeting an airplane in a squadron with half of the words underlined, saying the script must include these points. My father read the report, thought a bit, and then had his model builder create a rig of flashing lights, which he photographed by pulling the camera away from the rig, running the film backwards, and changing the camera speed during the shot. It lasted all of 15 seconds.

Chuck loved to tell how the engineer watched the scene and said, "Well, it seems no words were needed after all..."

One of my father’s NASA films intersected with Probst family history. The film was about the Lunar Rover, which newspapers called the "moon jeep." NASA had built a cratered lunarscape in a quarry near Detroit, to test the vehicle and train astronauts (when Neil Armstrong returned, he said that quarry was "the best moon on Earth"). Chuck’s film showed the moon jeep cresting craters and kicking up dirt although not quite as impressive as the rooster-tails the real Lunar Rover made on the moon.

As Chuck grew older, the long days of film production became physically demanding, and he began a new career, as an author of books on electronic fuel injection. You are holding one of these in your hands.

Chuck Probst was a wonderful father for David and me, and a great husband of 57 years to my mother Sally. But most people know him as you do, through his ability to explain something you care about in a way that makes it easy to understand.

Richard Probst
November 12, 2000