Walter P. Chrysler
Walter P. Chrysler and 1924 Chrysler
Photo: DaimlerChrysler

by Bill Vance

Most pioneers in the automotive industry were self-made men. They combined uncanny vision with an entrepreneurial spirit, and usually superior mechanical aptitude. Walter Percy Chrysler exemplified these traits by possessing both technical and managerial skills. Born near Ellis, Kansas, he worked at a variety of jobs before becoming a sweeper in a Union Pacific Railroad roundhouse.

With Union Pacific, Chrysler demonstrated his technical aptitudes, and rose to the position of plant manager for the American Locomotive Company in Pittsburgh, Pensylvania. Through his revitalization of that enterprise he became acquainted with James Storrow, a Boston banker and director of American Locomotive. Storrow was part of the banking syndicate that ran General Motors from 1910 to 1915 after GM founder Billy Durant was deposed.

Recognizing the need for strong organizational talent in General Motors, Storrow recommended that Buick president Charles Nash hire Walter Chrysler as Buick’s works manager. This was a distinct honour for Chrysler because Buick and Cadillac were GM’s most successful divisions, accounting for most of its profits during the “banker’s era.”

Chrysler took the job in 1911, and vindicated Storrow’s judgement by becoming president and general manager of Buick when Nash became GM president.

When Durant had been ousted from GM in 1910, the indefatigable entrepreneur contacted Louis Chevrolet, one of Durant’s successful Buick racing drivers, and asked him to design a car. Louis set to work and Billy organized the financing to launch the Chevrolet Motor Company.

Durant built the Chevrolet Motor Co. into an enterprise so successful that he used it to regain control of General Motors on Sept. 16, 1915. This was exactly seven years after he had first incorporated GM in 1908.

Walter Chrysler was now working for Billy Durant, and the two men didn’t agree. Chrysler was a practical, no-nonsense production man, whereas Durant was a high-flying, deal-maker who cared little for detail.

Walter Chrysler liked his job at Buick, and managed to contain himself for four years, but by 1919 he could take no more of Durant. When Chrysler slammed the door on the way out of General Motors, it was to have reverberations heard throughout the industry.

Chrysler’s reputation was well known. The Chase National Bank hired him, at the enormous fee of $1 million a year to take over the operation of the shaky Willys-Overland automobile company of Toledo, Ohio.

After two years Chrysler had Willys-Overland back on its feet. John North Willys managed to regain control, and Chrysler moved on. Again Chrysler was hired by the bankers as chairman of the reorganized Maxwell Motor Corp. which was experiencing financial difficulties. Like Willys-Overland, it needed strong leadership.

By this time the Willys plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was being auctioned off. While Chrysler was interested in the facility, he was more attracted to another offering, a Willys six-cylinder prototype car that Chrysler had admired when he was with the company. Although the car had never made it to production, Chrysler recognized its potential.

Unfortunately for Chrysler, his former boss Billy Durant, by now out of General Motors for the second and last time, was re- entering automobile manufacturing as Durant Motors, Inc. Durant outbid Chrysler for the Willys properties, including the design drawings for the prototype car.

Fortune now favoured Chrysler’s when it was revealed that Durant was interested in a much different type of vehicle, and had the Willys prototype substantially modified. This left Chrysler free to develop the original concept without infringing on another company’s property.

He engaged the brilliant consulting engineering team of Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton, and Carl Breer, original designers of the Willys prototype, to create a similar vehicle. Although made by Maxwell, it would be the first car to bear the Chrysler name. And true to Chrysler’s strong belief in engineering excellence, it had many advanced features.

In a period when low and medium priced cars’ compression ratios averaged 4.0:1, Chrysler boldly raised his to 4.7:1. This allowed his 3.3 litre side-valve six to develop 68 horsepower at a then high 3200 rpm. The engine also had aluminum pistons and full pressure lubrication. Underneath, it had four-wheel hydraulic brakes and a tubular front axle.

The advanced engineering, and a price of only $1,395, made the first Chrysler an immediate success. By December, 1924, the Chrysler’s 32,000 sales established a new industry first-year record.

Walter Chrysler was in control, and in 1925 he changed Maxwell into the Chrysler Corp. and forged ahead. In 1928 he performed the herculean feat of adding Dodge, DeSoto and the low priced Plymouth to his stable all in one year. The well engineered Plymouth soon rose to challenge Ford and Chevrolet, and helped establish Chrysler as one of the Big Three.

Chrysler gave up the presidency of the corporation in 1935, and died in 1940. He left a lasting legacy, and typified early successful automotive pioneers by being a shrewd, talented, self-made man who started from modest beginnings, and rose all the way to the top.

Connect with Autos.ca