Walter P. Chrysler founded The Chrysler Corporation in 1925, with an eye toward establishing an entity similar to General Motors.
While today, his name lives on as one of the world’s most famous auto brands, Walter Chrysler’s story as an industrialist actually started in the railroad industry.
Born in Kansas in 1875, Chrysler began working in his late teens as an apprentice in the railroad yard in Ellis, Kansas as a machinist and a railroad mechanic. Over the years, as his experience broadened, Walter P. worked in a number of different cities around the country. He ultimately progressed to become works manager of the American Locomotive Company’s (ALCO) manufacturing operation in Pittsburgh, Penn.
This became his entrée into the automotive industry.
One of the directors of ALCO was also an executive at General Motors. Recognizing Chrysler’s abilities, James J. Storrow recruited Walter P. to become Buick’s production chief in 1911. Chrysler’s automobile manufacturing innovations increased the profitability of the company significantly.
In 1916, Walter tried to leave GM, but William C. Durant, the founder and Chairman of GM, gave Chrysler the three-year deal of a lifetime to get him to stay. Durant’s offer of cash, bonuses, and stock options made Chrysler the highest paid executive in the auto industry. He also got free rein to run Buick automobiles as he saw fit—answering only to Durant.
When Chrysler cashed out in 1919, his stock options were worth $10,000,000 dollars, making him one of the richest men in America. Around that same time, the owners of the Willys-Overland Motor Company, trying to turn that company around, approached Chrysler for help. They agreed to pay him two million dollars a year over a two-year period. Bear in mind, we’re talking 1919 here—that was an almost unimaginable sum of money—when the average salary was $750 a year.
Chrysler got the idea to take over Willys and run it himself, but it didn’t work out. He left Willys in 1921 when his contract was up. Subsequently, he was approached to fix Maxwell-Chalmers as he had done at Willys. Instead, Chrysler made Maxwell the foundation of the Chrysler Corporation—launching the first Chrysler automobiles in 1924.
Employing six-cylinder engines, Chrysler cars’ hook was providing buyers a more advanced automobile at an affordable price. The 1924 Chrysler automobiles had air filters, oil filters, full pressure lubrication, and a high compression engine—all new innovations in 1924.
In 1925, W.P. Chrysler started Plymouth and DeSoto, then went on to buy Dodge in 1928. That same year, construction started on Chrysler’s headquarters—the Chrysler building in New York City. He actively ran the company until 1936, suffered a stroke in 1938, and died in 1940. In so doing, Walter P. Chrysler became one of the few figures in automotive history to start his own car company and hold on to it until his death.
A forward thinking company, the Chrysler Corporation is credited with the first application of four-wheel hydraulic brakes. It also came up with rubber engine mounts to make its cars run more smoothly. Additionally, the company pioneered the use of the ridged wheel lip to keep the tire in place should it deflate. Chrysler is also credited with building the first mass-produced automobile with an eye toward aerodynamics—the 1934 Chrysler Airflow. While the Airflow was so far ahead of its time, buyers couldn’t really get their brains around it, Chrysler was still seen as an innovative company.
These advanced ideas captured the imagination of the motoring public and pushed Chrysler into the number two sales position behind GM and ahead of Ford from 1936 to 1949. Other Chrysler firsts include unibody construction, the supplanting of generators with alternators, and the all-transistor car radio.
As his company’s brand count grew, Chrysler replicated GM’s strategy of aiming different brands at different segments of the market. Plymouth became the entry-level Chrysler brand. DeSoto targeted the medium priced segment—along with Dodge. The company offered trucks under the Dodge nameplate as well. The Chrysler automobile brand was the top model line, and within the Chrysler car's nameplate the flagship Imperial model was the ultimate offering. Imperial was spun off as its own separate brand in 1955, as the pinnacle product of the Chrysler Corporation.
Mopar (a combination of the words MOtor and PARts) was started in 1937 as a brand within the corporation, although the term had been coined in the 1920s. Valiant, Chrysler’s sixth brand, Valiant, was started in 1960. In order from lowest to highest price, the Chrysler Corporation’s brands from the 1940s to the 1970s were Valiant, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial. Valiant was eventually brought into Plymouth; DeSoto ultimately met its demise, as did Imperial and eventually Plymouth as well.
Also during the 1950’s, Chrysler Corporation was contracted to support the engineering of the Redstone missile, which ultimately evolved into the first stage of the Saturn rockets. These were used to break the Apollo spacecraft free of the earth’s gravitational pull—ultimately enabling the moon landings.
In the 1970’s, financial difficulties drove the company into bankruptcy. Chrysler Corporation was forced to seek financial assistance from the U.S. government. However, this development also spurred further innovation. To cut costs, the company developed a near-universal front-drive platform capable of supporting a broad range of models. It also revived the concept of the minivan, which became a huge success. The government loans were repaid seven years early.
The purchase of American Motors in 1987, brought the Jeep brand into the fold of Chrysler automobiles. In 1988, Chrysler “merged” with Daimler-Benz to become DaimlerChrysler—though it soon became quite evident Daimler had bought Chrysler. The wildly popular Chrysler 300C—based on an older Mercedes E Class platform—was a byproduct of that deal.
Daimler sold Chrysler in 2007 to the private equity firm Cerberus, although the company was once again on the slippery slope. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, Chrysler found itself petitioning Congress for another loan—this time side-by-side with GM. The Italian company Fiat came to the rescue and today Walter P. Chrysler’s company, under European ownership is known as Chrysler Group LLC. The company is comprised of the Chrysler, Dodge, Ram (trucks), SRT (high performance models), Mopar, and Jeep brands.