ST. PETERSBURG — Her scrapbooks show, in perfectly preserved 8-by-10 photos, how highly Chrysler valued Lucille Milne, one of the first female mechanical engineers the company employed and, for a while, the most famous.
In one shot, the automaker's "most beautiful engineer" leans over the hood of a race car, screwdriver in hand, her blond hair swept back over a spotless lab coat, flashing a movie star's smile.
Other studio-shot glossies capture Mrs. Milne holding a clipboard and looking over a Chrysler engine; or caressing the hood of a Dodge La Femme ("the first car designed exclusively for her majesty, the American Woman!") like a game show model.
Mrs. Milne never wanted to become the auto industry's Grace Kelly, let alone its Vanna White. The only woman in a mechanical engineering class of 300 at Wayne State University in Detroit, she had graduated high in her class in 1951. She worked as a technical writer at Chrysler before vaulting into the national spotlight in 1953 and 1954, touring the country and appearing in national television commercials.
After a dizzying three years, Mrs. Milne abandoned the company for motherhood. She returned to engineering 22 years later in Saudi Arabia.
Mrs. Milne died May 21 of Alzheimer's disease. She was 84 and had been living in the Tampa Bay area since the early 1980s.
She joined Chrysler full time in 1953, when demand for mechanical engineers exceeded the supply.
As her star ascended in 1954, she talked about her hiring interview in a first-person article for Parade magazine: "The toughest part was convincing him to see me and then to give me the job. The rest of the work was nothing that any woman couldn't handle as easily as a man."
The company soon sent Mrs. Milne, who was then known by her maiden name of Lucille Pieti, to 17 cities for a "New Worlds in Motion" tour, where she promoted Chrysler's new line of cars and gave lectures at each stop.
Lecture topics included powder metallurgy, sound controls, super finish, frame construction, suspension system design and silicone plastics. She wrote the five- to 15-minute lectures herself, though advertisers edited them.
The media played up her looks as much as they praised her accomplishments. "Lucille in a bathing suit is an excellent advertisement for Chrysler's renowned body styling," Cars magazine gushed in a caption beside a swimsuit photo. "The lady's long on gray matter, too!"
In 1954, Chrysler sent Mrs. Milne to Hollywood, where she shot national television commercials for a Plymouth-sponsored show, That's My Boy. She played a glamorous engineer answering technical questions.
For 36 weeks, she stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards. She made 30-minute Chrysler infomercials with Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Groucho Marx.
"If you're an example of what's being turned out in Detroit, I'm going back working on the assembly line," Marx told her.
She laughed off the jokes and fended off skeptics, who sometimes appeared at her trade shows asking basic questions (like, "How does an engine work?") to try to trip her up.
That's My Boy lasted nine months, during which Mrs. Milne turned down numerous offers of studio screen tests. "I'm just the slide rule type," she said. "Without the micrometers and the calipers and the tools of my trade, I'd be a pretty lost girl."
Inside, she was ready to move on.
"My mom's real desire was to be a practicing engineer," said her daughter Jackie, 50. "They were using her more as a model or figurehead. That was ultimately why she left Chrysler."
Lucille Pieti was born in Detroit. She had planned a career as a nurse until a high school aptitude test pointed her toward engineering. She entered a demanding six-year program at Wayne State University, alternating semesters in school and working for Chrysler, where she encountered hazing from co-workers.
"They painted her multiple-spindle drill press all pink," said Jim Milne, her husband, 83. "They screwed her lunch pail to the workbench.
"She had a stiff back," he added. "Nobody's going to push that girl around, including me."
The family moved to Saudi Arabia. In 1977, Mrs. Milne returned to engineering with what is now Saudi Aramco, where she authored a yearly report estimating the available supply of crude oil and recommending whether production should be increased or reduced.
She and her husband retired to Florida in 1983, where she enjoyed boating, reading and playing Scrabble.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]