One day in the mid-1990s, Tom Moore's research team at DaimlerChrysler AG gathered for a picnic.
His administrative assistant unloaded items from the back of her minivan, but then struggled to close the raised lift gate. The designers and engineers who created the van - most of them men - had never considered the difficulties shorter women and men would have reaching up to the gate.
``We all looked at each other and said that this was just nuts,'' he said.
And while the auto industry may not have considered it a problem in the past, it was something the researchers could solve.
Moore's team gathered to consider straps or grab bars to access the gate. In the end, they settled on electronics, devising a remote door opener.
``I had a lot of leverage to look at what was out there and what we needed to do - and to do it,'' said Moore, the former vice president of the team and of technical affairs for the Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler unit of DaimlerChrysler. ``Sometimes we just invented stuff.''
Those inventions and the curiosity behind them prompted the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Division to honor Moore with its Lifetime Leadership Award. He will receive the honor Nov. 10 in Livonia, Mich.
``Those of us who have had the opportunity to know him have witnessed his consistent positive influence, promotion of plastics and love of cars that have made him an icon in the auto industry,'' said Suzanne Cole, awards program chairwoman.
The division also will present its 2004 Executive Leadership award to Jim Padilla, chief operating officer of Ford Motor Co.
Moore's interest in innovations took him from a childhood in Texas to Michigan, where he worked first for Ford, then Chrysler starting in 1989.
Moore, who retired in 2003, has been active in some of plastics' high-profile development projects: the plastic-bodied Chrysler Concept Vehicle, or CCV ``world car''; the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicle's fuel-sipping sedan proposal; in-mold paint-replacement prospects; fuel cells; and carbon-fiber use.
Within the tech group, Moore spearheaded research into the prospect of injection molding the body for a low-cost car, a project that eventually brought machinery maker Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. and injection molder Decoma International Ltd. into the loop. Husky built and installed an 8,800-ton press at its Novi, Mich., technical center to produce bodies for study.
``Originally this was something that was intended for the Third World, but it kept evolving to the point that we wanted to see if it would make sense for the U.S. market,'' Moore said. `The simple truth is, though, that we needed to add more structural components, more air bags, and that added more weight.
``It all snowballed to the point where we were pretty much making a Neon. It just couldn't make a business case,'' he said in an interview at his home near Oxford.
Offshoots of the concept survived, with production of a thermoplastic hardtop for the Jeep Wrangler. Studies of ways to skip the paint line for the plastic-bodied car in the mold helped lead to the thermoformed and injection molded bumper fascias, with paint replacement going on to the Dodge Neon.
``There are major offshoots still going on,'' he noted.
Moore still is considering ways to access hydrogen to fuel power cells. He can speak at length about the prospect of siphoning off the gas from algae, essentially using pond scum as power. He even pictures growing the material in a series of plastic pipes stationed along freeways across the country.
His plastics studies have not stopped just because he is retired. Working from an office and workshop in his home - which taps into technological breakthroughs from geothermal heating and cooling systems to a high-definition home theater - Moore is continuing to tinker on projects that could add to the 30 patents he already holds.
He is updating a small, portable teleprompter he developed previously. He has developed a fiberglass hardtop for a Chrysler Sebring convertible, which he hopes to market as an aftermarket accessory. He built the mold up himself, using the top from a junked 2002 model of the car.
``It's the only time I've ever signed off on the styling in my career,'' Moore joked.
He also is working on a removable cab for lawn tractors, beginning with one he devised from half-inch-thick polycarbonate for his own John Deere after he was pelted with one too many stones while clearing snow from the private road near his home.
``It all starts,'' he said, ``with defining the necessity.''