Chrysler: what drove him to greatness

“We thank Thee, O God, for all the goodness and courage which have passed from the life of thy servant, Walter Perry Chrysler, into the lives of others, and have left the world richer for his presence,” said Reverend Underwood on August 20, 1940. Forty-nine honorary pallbearers carried the huge bronze casket to the waiting black Chrysler Imperial hearse for the ride to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, NY.

In “Chrysler: The Life and Times of An Automotive Genius” (OxfordUniversity Press, hardcover, 690 pages, 50 black and whitephotographs, $35) Vincent Curcio creates a testament to one of theleaders of the automobile industry and to the man himself in time forChrysler Corporation’s 75th anniversary.

Curcio divides his book into three parts: The Early Years,describing Chrysler’s boyhood and rise as a machinist and manager inthe railroad industry; The Automobile and The Assembly Line,delineating early automobile history and the development of massproduction; and The Greatness, the assembly of Chrysler Corp. Thebook is richly fueled with anecdotes and provides a trunkful ofdelightful details and vignettes of vintage automobile men.

Chrysler was born in Kansas in 1875, the son of a locomotiveengineer on the Union Pacific railroad and an iron-willed mother whodidn’t hesitate to use hairbrush persuasion. While selling milk forhis mother he learned to keep a small account book. Later, when hebecame “a manufacturer he would keep small but precisely detailedcost books in his jacket pocket,” says Curcio, to be always aware ofcosts.

After high school Chrysler became a machinist for Union Pacific ashe was interested in the “mysteries of the locomotive.” He once madea depth gauge, which enabled a plug to be fitted efficiently thefirst time. From this he learned the lessons of standardization ofmachines and labor that would prove useful in the automobileindustry. Chrysler also learned how to set valves, critical for thepulling power of a locomotive, and once fixed a blown-out backcylinder in an emergency situation, winning accolades from hisboss.

At the age of 32 he became a superintendent of motive power, theyoungest man to reach that position in U. S. railroad history. Oneman said, “Chrysler was a jack of all trades. What made him differentwas that he was also a master of them.” His last job in thelocomotive industry was in 1912 as works manager for the AmericanLocomotive Company.

In 1912 Buick Motor needed an experienced machinery man. Chryslerhad been interested in automobiles ever since buying a Locomobile in1908, disassembling and assembling it more than 40 times. He visitedthe Buick factory, saw a hundred opportunities for improvement andwas hired as works manager.

Chrysler was successful at Buick and became its president in 1916with a salary of $500,000 per year. He had turned Buick into thethird largest auto company. In 1920, the ailing Willys-Overland Co.offered Chrysler $1 million a year. A year later, Chrysler was askedto rescue the Maxwell-Chalmers Co.

The first Chrysler car was made in 1923, a truly engineered car,and in 1925, the Maxwell Co. was transformed into the Chrysler Corp.In 1928, Dodge Brothers was acquired, enabling Chrysler Corp. to gofrom assembling cars to manufacturing them, making Chrysler the thirdlargest automobile company in the world. That year also marked theintroduction of the highly-successful Plymouth, and Chrysler’sannouncement that he would build the Art Deco-styled ChryslerBuilding in New York City.

In 1934 the Chrysler Airflow was produced. It was the firstmass-produced car that was streamlined and felt modern to ride.Unfortunately, people were not ready for the design. One personthought it had “rhinocerine ungainliness.” It became known as thebiggest failure in American automobile history until the Edsel arrived.

After Buick in 1920, Chrysler moved with his wife and threechildren from Flint, Mich., to King’s Port on Long Island Sound. Helived in a French Renaissance-style mansion with 23 rooms on 12 acresof lawns and gardens. His yacht, the Frolic, was moored at water’sedge. He had the aura of Jay Gatsby. Chrysler retired in 1935 and in1938 had a stroke.

Curcio’s Michener-sized book is written comfortably, like cocktailparty chat and never exhausts the reader. He might have included toomany extraneous details, however, such as train robber Tom Ketchum’shead being torn off when he was hung, and the apocryphal story thatanti-semitic Henry Ford had a stroke upon viewing the horror of theopening of concentration camps.

“Chrysler” is a tribute to the man and his industry.

Alex Moore, formerly a book packager for independent presses,is the Review Editor of ForeWord Magazine, a Traverse City-basedjournal that reviews books from independent and university pressesfor booksellers and acquisition librarians across the county.BIZNEWS