People – November 2006
Though he’s 60, Dick Dell never got over hot cars, particularly his first new one, a glacier-blue ’63 Falcon Sprint with four on the floor and a high-revving V-8 under the hood. Now he’s the driving force behind the Advanced Vehicle Research Center of North Carolina, an R&D center on 630 acres in Northampton County. It will, he says, put the state on the international automotive map.
Cars have come a long way since that Falcon, Dell says, through advances wrung out in places such as the research center, scheduled to open its first phase late next year. “Air coming out of the tailpipe of a new Toyota is cleaner than the ambient air of Los Angeles.”
Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he grew up in Baltimore, enlisted in the Air Force at 17 and served in Vietnam and elsewhere. He returned home in 1967 and took evening classes at Johns Hopkins University, then joined IBM in 1968 as a field engineer. After several transfers, he put down roots in Raleigh before leaving the company in 1989 to start Triangle Group International, a consulting business.
As a car buff, he cringed as the state lost bids to land Volkswagen, Mercedes and BMW in the ’80s and ’90s. In 2005, he approached the state Commerce Department with a plan. Three years later, legislators awarded $7.5 million to the nonprofit center, owned by the county, which provided the land, North Carolina’s Northeast, a 16-county economic-development organization, and Dell’s company.
The goal is to attract automobile and parts makers who will lease space to test their equipment. The center will consist of a 4.1-mile track to test ride and handling, a separate track for acceleration and braking, skid pads, research buildings and test equipment.
British sports-car maker Lotus Engineering will design the test track and open its own $1.5 million R&D center, which will employ more than 100. Simon Cobb, director of special projects for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Lotus USA, believes big automakers will follow. Test tracks in California, Arizona and elsewhere are being crowded by development, he says, and the Tar Heel center’s remote location will be an asset because companies want to test in secret.
As for Dell, Lotus’ participation is fitting. “I’m particularly attracted to British cars.” His Raleigh garage contains two 1950s Triumph sports cars, a 1954 MG, a 1954 Jaguar roadster and a 1974 Jensen-Healey. All British. And a glacier-blue Falcon Sprint. “I’ve still got it.