Walter Percy Chrysler was a railroad man who was so intrigued with automotive technology that he bought, disassembled and reassembled a car before he learned to drive.
Chrysler started his railroad career as a sweeper in the Union Pacific roundhouse in Ellis, Kan. He became a machinist and held railroad jobs in several states.
He bought that not-for-driving automobile in 1908. It was a $5,000 Locomobile Phaeton, and he had to borrow $4,300 to swing it.
His first automotive job - in 1912 at age 37 - was as works manager for Buick in Flint, Mich.
He became president of Buick in 1916 and was a vice president of General Motors when he left in 1920, ostensibly because he had had his fill of GM President William Crapo Durant.
Walter Chrysler was financially independent and, according to a Chrysler Corp. biography, intended to retire even though he was only 45. But within a year, he was heading a rescue operation at Willys-Overland, and two years later, he was handling a similar assignment at Maxwell Motor Corp.
He built his first car - aptly named Chrysler - while running Maxwell, and he formed Chrysler Corp. on June 6, 1925, as the successor to Maxwell. In 1928 the company acquired Dodge Brothers and introduced DeSoto and Plymouth. By 1929, Chrysler was the third-largest automaker.
In 1934, Chrysler introduced the Chrysler Airflow and the DeSoto Airflow. They were radically styled for their time, and they flopped. The failure of the Airflow sent Chrysler into a conservative styling shell from which it did not emerge for two decades.
In 1935, Walter Chrysler turned over the presidency to Kaufman Thuma 'K.T.' Keller, who had been his protege at Buick. Keller joined the infant Chrysler Corp. on April 1, 1926. Walter Chrysler continued as chairman until his death on Aug. 18, 1940.
Keller was president until 1950 and was chairman from 1950-56. The corporation had no chairman from 1940-50.
From 1947-50, Chrysler built or bought 11 plants.
In 1946, it built a small number of Chrysler Town & Country two-door hardtops. Alas, Chrysler apparently didn't realize what it had wrought. It abandoned the hardtop. Buick, GM and the rest of the industry picked it up and ran with it, starting in 1949.
Chrysler engineers created the hemispheric combustion chamber V-8, the Hemi, in 1951. It was intended for luxury cars, but in the late 1960s, Chrysler introduced a high-powered sport version of the engine - the legendary 426 Hemi - with more than 400 horsepower. Richard Petty made the 426 famous in NASCAR racing. Other Chrysler developments in the 1950s included electric window lifts (1950), power steering (1951) and all-transistor radios (1955).
n 1960, production of the DeSoto car line ended. Also that year, Chrysler was tagged with the sobriquet that has dogged it ever since: the Crisis Corp. It grew out of a conflict-of-interest scandal that cost the company a president and led to an outsider chairman and the reign of the accountants.
William Newberg was elected president on April 28, 1960, and was ousted on June 30 because he had financial interests in Chrysler suppliers. Thirty-six high-level Chrysler executives were investigated, but none was found to be involved in similar activities. A divisional marketing director was the only other person discharged.
L.L. 'Tex' Colbert reassumed the presidency after Newberg left. Colbert was president from 1950-60 and became chairman in April 1960. He quit in July 1961 to be chairman of Chrysler Canada.
Lynn Townsend was the new president, and outside director George Love became chairman. Townsend had joined Chrysler in 1957 from Touche, Ross, Bailey & Smart, Chrysler's accounting firm. Love was chairman of Consolidation Coal Co. When Townsend succeeded Love as chairman in 1967, John Riccardo, another Touche, Ross alumnus, became president. Riccardo was chairman from 1975-79.
Chrysler Corp. set sales records in 1972 and 1973, but gasoline shortages, political uncertainty, high interest rates and severe inflation drove the company into a financial crisis in the mid-1970s.
he 'Iacocca Era' began at Chrysler in fall 1978. Lee Iacocca, fired by Henry Ford II as president of Ford Motor Co. a few months earlier, was hired by Riccardo. Iacocca became president of Chrysler on Nov. 2, 1978, and chairman on Sept. 20, 1979, when Riccardo resigned.
Iacocca cut costs, restructured management and recruited executives - many of them from Ford. But the financial problems grew, and Chrysler sought and received, in 1980, $1.5 billion in loan guarantees from the U.S. government.
Concessions from the UAW, white-collar employees, suppliers, lenders and creditors kept Chrysler afloat, but losses were staggering - $1.7 billion in 1980 and $476 million in 1981. The K cars arrived in 1982 and helped Chrysler back to profitability.
In August 1983, Iacocca paid off the loan guarantees seven years early.
The Dodge Car-avan and Plymouth Voyager went on sale in November 1983. The minivans did for Chrysler what the Model T did for Ford.
Profits set a record in 1984 and the good times continued until another financial crisis hit in the late 1980s. In a speech last fall, Chrysler President Robert Lutz said it was almost as bad as the crisis a decade earlier. Lutz said the 1989 crisis evolved in part because 'we'd sort of put our product development on auto pilot, which resulted in a string of bland, look-alike cars and trucks.'
Chrysler weathered that disaster with a string of successful product launches - the Neon, the LH sedans, redesigned minivans and Dodge Ram pickups and a collection of up-to-date mid-sized models.
The money rolled in, and Chrysler built up a reserve fund of $7.5 billion to see the company through the next auto industry downturn.
But that very reserve fund led to Chrysler's next crisis. Corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian coveted that cash. Kerkorian launched a takeover bid - with the help of Iacocca - in April 1995, but it was thwarted by Chrysler Chairman Robert Eaton.
Kerkorian tried again last fall, and, in February, he and Eaton buried the hatchet (not in each other). The raider, who is Chrysler's second-largest shareholder, won a seat on the board for his representative and other considerations. In return, he agreed to keep his mitts off the corporation for five years.
Another crisis ended, Chrysler can get back to making and selling cars and trucks.
That's what Walter P. had in mind when he started the wheels rolling 71 years ago.