Walter Chrysler rode the rails to GM, then started his own company
Walter Percy Chrysler was born April 2, 1875, in Wamego, Kan., to a family whose German name was Greisler when it arrived in Canada. The family had moved to the American colonies in the 18th century.
Chrysler worked hard from the time he was a kid. He went door to door in Ellis, Kan., selling milk from the family cows, plus greeting cards and silverware that he ordered from catalogs.
Chrysler's father, Hank, left home at age 12 to be a drummer boy with the 12th Kansas Regiment in the Civil War. After the war, Hank became a locomotive engineer. Walter's older brother, Ed, was an apprentice machinist for the Union Pacific.
Walter wanted to join his father and brother, but Hank wanted at least one of his sons to go to college.
Walter wasn't interested. He had wanderlust. Leaving his machine-shop broom behind but taking along his beloved tuba (his childhood hobbies included baseball and music), Chrysler started riding the rails, stopping to work as a mechanic for several Western railroads, which recognized his talent for management and organization.
In 1901, Chrysler was roundhouse foreman, overseeing nearly 100 workers for the Denver & Rio Grand Western Railroad. That also was the year he married his hometown sweetheart, Della Forker.
Several moves later, Chrysler and his family were living in Oelwein, Iowa, where he was making $200 a week as superintendent of locomotive power for the Chicago Great Western line. That job took him to Chicago from time to time — and a visit there in 1908, during an early auto show, changed his life and got him hooked on the auto industry.
Though he had never driven a car, Chrysler was fascinated by them. "I saw this Locomobile touring car," he said of his first automobile. "It was painted ivory white, and the cushions and trim were red. ... On the running board, there was a handsome toolbox that my fingers itched to open."
He had to borrow more than $4,000 to buy the $5,000 car.
So Chrysler had a car — but didn't know how to drive it. He had it shipped home, then took it apart to understand how it worked. He put it back together — and it ran! And he learned how to drive.
From Pittsburgh to ... Buick
When the American Locomotive railcar plant in Pittsburgh was faltering, the company's president hired Chrysler as superintendent. He turned it into an efficient and profitable enterprise and drew the attention of James Storrow, a director of both American Locomotive and General Motors (and GM president in 1910-11).
Even though it meant a 50 percent pay cut to just $6,000 a year, Chrysler accepted an offer in 1911 to become manager of the Buick plant in Flint, Mich.
Chrysler boosted Buick production from 40 cars per day to 550 and helped Buick generate half of GM's income. Time magazine reported that Buick profits grew to $50 million a year.
Chrysler's salary also soared when Billy Durant returned to GM and made Chrysler president of Buick in 1916 and executive vice president of GM manufacturing — at a salary of $10,000 a month, plus $500,000 a year in GM stock.
Chrysler led Buick to its first 100,000-sales year — 118,540 cars and trucks in 1917. He repeated with 115,405 in 1919.
As GM stock increased in value, Chrysler became so wealthy that he retired when his contract with Buick expired in 1919 — even though he was only in his mid-40s. It has been reported that Durant paid Chrysler $10 million for his stock when Chrysler left GM.
A hefty bank account wasn't the only factor in Chrysler's retirement. He tired of the arbitrary decision-making of Durant, GM's president.
A short retirement
But Chrysler's retirement was short-lived. That same year, when faltering Willys-Overland owed its creditors more than $50 million, lead creditor Chase National Bank approached Chrysler about running the automaker.
He said he would — for a million bucks a year. Even Chrysler was surprised when his terms were accepted. He signed a two-year contract in 1919 and put the company back on track.
While working for Willys-Overland, which was based in New York, Chrysler was approached by yet another group of bankers overseeing yet another failing automaker, Maxwell-Chalmers. For a year, Chrysler held two jobs, executive vice president of Willys-Overland and chairman of Maxwell-Chalmers.
When his contract with Willys-Overland ended, Chrysler concentrated on Maxwell-Chalmers — which he re-established, first as Maxwell Motor and then as Chrysler Corp., in Highland Park, Mich.
Walter Chrysler built Chrysler cars, then in 1928 spent $170 million to buy Dodge from the estates of John and Horace Dodge. He also launched DeSoto and Plymouth and emerged as one of Detroit's Big 3.
After forming Chrysler Corp., Walter P. continued to live in New York. He commuted to Michigan several times a month but worked primarily in Manhattan in the Chrysler Building, the tallest building in the world when he had it built in 1930.
Though he had been a railroad man and owned a car company, Chrysler traveled between his home and New York office on his yacht. Chrysler and his family lived on 12 acres at Kings Point on Long Island Sound. Their 23-room estate later became the administration building for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
Chrysler was chairman and president of Chrysler Corp. until 1935 and continued as chairman until he died after a lengthy illness on Aug. 18, 1940.
You can reach Larry Edsall at firstname.lastname@example.org.