Chrysler’s Bi-Polar History: Crashes 1 – 5

Corporations do exhibit human personality traits. Of the Big Three, Chrysler has always been the most unstable; one could say it has repeatedly shown symptoms of bi-polar syndrome. Chrysler’s biography is a nothing less than a roller coaster ride of giddy highs punctuated by disastrous crashes and self mutilation.

Chrysler’s birth and euphoric immediate success is unparalleled in automotive history. Walter P. Chrysler had a brilliant career in the early automobile business, turning several ailing manufacturers into successes. By 1919, he’d earned $10m ($130m in today’s money) from three year’s work transforming Buick into GM’s early powerhouse.

In 1924, while running Maxwell, Chrysler launched the first car bearing his name. The Chrysler sported a nigh-near perfect blend of advanced engineering and style. It was a home run that almost instantly catapulted Chrysler to number four out of a crowded field of 49 domestic manufacturers. The subsequent launches of low-price Plymouth (1928), upper-mid priced DeSoto (1929), and the purchase of mid-priced Dodge firmly established Chrysler as a charter member of the Big Three.

Chrysler’s first crisis came in 1934, with the failure of the advanced Airflow. The model adopted the latest aerodynamic principles. The company also repositioned the engine and body further forward on the frame (foreshadowing “cab-forward”), delivering major advances in comfort, quietness and handling. While similarly avant-garde vehicles found favor in Europe, the Airflow’s startlingly blunt “waterfall” front end styling was too radical for America’s more conservative taste.

The American car buyer’s wholesale rejection of the Airflow taught Chrysler (and GM and Ford) a painful lasting lesson: avoid the risks of extreme innovation. The fiasco helped shape Detroit’s enduring elevation of popular style over genuine innovation.

Chrysler revived, and made enormous profits during the WWII era. But the development of the critical all-new 1949 models was haunted by Chrysler’s lingering Airflow insecurities. Whereas GM and Ford confidently introduced longer and lower models designed to knock the socks off of exuberant post-was buyers, Chrysler President P. T. Keller insisted on tall, boxy and boring cars– specifically designed so that a man’s fedora wouldn’t be knocked off upon entering.

In that post-war buyer’s frenzy, Keller’s stolid tanks sold well enough– initially. By the early fifties, Americans were in the mood for more: horsepower, automatics, power steering and brakes, style and flash. Unlike Chevy and Ford, Plymouth offered none of those; the market punished it unmercifully. In 1954, Plymouth was kicked out of its long-established number three spot by Buick, and dropped to number five behind Pontiac. The mood pendulum had swung too far; it was due for an (over) correction.

Chrysler hired designer Virgil Exner to inject vitality into the company’s products. The 1955’s were an improvement. Bit it was the radical 1957’s that were set to be the great leap forward (“suddenly it’s 1960!”). But in the rush to revolutionize, the dramatically finned ‘57’s suffered from atrocious build quality. Water and dust leaks were notorious.  Upholstery split. Springs came up through seats. And the cars started rusting on the dealer lots.

The flashy new product sold, but word spread quickly. Plymouth’s 1958 sales plunged by no less than 41 percent. Despite a rep for engineering prowess, Chrysler would have to dodge a reputation for spotty build quality from then on, deserved or not.

Chrysler nursed itself to health once more, only to be deeply wounded by a staggeringly idiotic act of self-mutilation.

In 1960, Chrysler president William Newberg heard a rumor at a cocktail party that Chevrolet was working on a dramatically smaller 1962 model (the compact Chevy II). In a colossal blunder, Newburg assumed this downsizing rumor referred to the full-sized Chevrolets. Newberg immediately killed development of Chrysler’s best-selling full-size 1962 Plymouths and Dodges, and initiated a crash program for substantially smaller replacements.

In what some historians conspiracy theorists consider a calculated act of revenge for this folly, chief stylist Exner responded by creating bizarrely-styled 1962 Dodges and Plymouths. When these ugly, truncated “plucked chicken” cars were first shown to dealers at a convention, they created an uproar. Twenty dealers canceled their franchises on the spot. Plymouth crashed to ninth place, while GM picked up the pieces, swelling its market share to an all-time peak of 52 percent.

Newberg was shown the door. Exner, still recuperating from a heart attack, resigned in 1961, but not before he left a line of much more palatable ’63 models. Elwood Engel arrived from Ford to take the styling reins, and introduced the slab side look he brought from Lincoln.

Once again, Chrysler recuperated, quality was restored, and went on to enjoy a relatively long spell of good health. From the mid-sixties through 1974 the company thrived, in part thanks to its successful engineering performance image, and its stalwart compacts, Valiant and Dart. The disastrous introduction of their replacements, the Volare and Aspen, set the stage for the next crash. With a portfolio literally heavy with large rear wheel-drive cars, and lacking the foresight, will (and capital) to invest in new efficient compacts, Chrysler was flattened by the one-two punch of the energy crises.

By 1979, the Pentastar was back on the critical list, saved from bankruptcy by life-support in the form of a $1.5 billion bail-out package of government guaranteed loans.