Chapin's gusto kept AMC going

True to his postcollegiate days as a test driver at Hudson Motor Car Co. and his lifelong love of the outdoors, Roy Chapin Jr. never backed down from the challenge of adventure.

He steered American Motors through turbulent times in the 1960s and 1970s, and he engineered the purchase of Jeep. His gusto kept the little automaker afloat.

Chapin died Aug. 5 of heart failure at his home in Nantucket, Mass. He was 85.

The purchase of Jeep was arguably the boldest move in the company's history.

As CEO of AMC from 1967 to 1977, Chapin guided the company through a decade marked by roller-coaster sales, twice bringing the company back from the verge of bankruptcy. As a member of the AMC board of directors, he helped negotiate Chrysler's purchase of AMC from Renault in 1987.

'Mr. Chapin was an unusual person,' said Iain Anderson, a retired executive vice president at Volkswagen, who was group and executive vice president and CFO at AMC from 1963 to 1978.

'In an industry full of a meritocracy of people scrambling to do well for themselves, Chapin was an interesting contrast: He was very gentlemanly, very refreshing, probably because of his family's automotive background,' Anderson said.

2nd-generation leader

Chapin started in the business in 1936 at Hudson, the company co-founded by his legendary father.

Roy Chapin Sr. put his stamp on automotive lore in 1901 when he drove one of the country's first 'high-volume' cars, the curved-dash Oldsmobile, from Detroit to the second annual National Automobile Show in New York. He started Hudson Motor Car Co. eight years later.

Chapin Jr. would carve out his own niche in automotive history in meeting the often-harrowing challenge of heading AMC. He relished the battles.

'We get more kicks out of battling with the problems' than we do (when times are good), Chapin told Forbes magazine in 1976. 'I've gotten used to it. I don't know any other way to live.'

It was Chapin's gutsy, risk-taking credo that led to one of AMC's defining moments: the acquisition of Kaiser Jeep Corp. for $75 million in 1970. Many people inside and outside AMC denounced Chapin for purchasing Kaiser Jeep, renamed Jeep Corp. after the deal.

'He was the primary proponent of the Jeep acquisition, the strongest voice for it,' Anderson said. 'It was very controversial at the time.

'But he was much more familiar with the international arena, and he was much more familiar with Jeep. In fact, his close relationship with (the Kaiser family) was a starting point for the discussion.'

Playing with the big boys

Jeep helped resurrect AMC in 1977 after many had pegged the only surviving American automaker other than the Big 3 for bankruptcy by 1980. After losing $27.5 million in 1975 and $46.3 million in 1976, AMC recorded an $8.3 million profit in 1977.

Chapin also led the charge among U.S. automakers in building smaller, more fuel-efficient cars during the fuel crisis years of the early 1970s. In 1973, AMC made $44 million, a victory for the scrappy company against its Big 3 competition.

As American interest in small cars fluctuated in the mid-to-late 1970s, and as the popularity of imports increased, it became difficult for AMC to compete.

But Chapin never stopped trying.

As he told Forbes in 1975: 'If you play with the big boys, you have to exercise a certain ingenuity, do things effectively without the infinite resources, comparatively speaking, that some companies have.

'Maybe it's part of the fun that this business plays for very high stakes.'

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