Chrysler Suicide Watch 29: The Early Attempts, Pt. 1

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
chrysler suicide watch 29 the early attempts pt 1

Suicidal tendencies can be pathological, inevitably recurring. Chrysler’s current self-destructive phase, as chronicled by TTAC, is hardly its first. From its very beginnings, the patient has suffered from 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, whilst running Maxwell, Chrysler launched his eponymous line. The cars sported a perfect blend of advanced engineering and style. It was a home run that catapulted Chrysler to number four out of a crowded field of 49 domestic manufacturers. The subsequent launches of low-price Plymouth and upper-mid priced DeSoto, 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. The radical 1957’s 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 ALL 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 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 cars were first shown to dealers at a convention, they created an uproar. Twenty dealers cancelled 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. Chrysler hastily restyled the ‘63’s, 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 performance image. But with a portfolio [literally] heavy with large rear wheel-drive cars, 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 taxpayer funded life-support in the form of a $1.5 billion bail-out package of government guaranteed loans.

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  • 86er 86er on Dec 30, 2007

    The botched 1962 redesign luckily didn't extend to the entire corporate line; Chrysler kept the 1961 look sans fins, and a rebadged Chrysler was rushed to Dodge dealers mid-year as the 880. The way for this was eased by the demise of DeSoto.

  • Fallout11 Fallout11 on Jan 04, 2008

    My mother still talks about grandpa's 1958 Desoto. Push button drive. Stylish. Innovative. Drove from Wisconsin to Georgia and back without a hiccup several times (pre-interstate era....a six day trip each way) with the whole family packed in.

  • Sayahh Is it 1974 or 1794? The article is inconsistent.
  • Laura I just buy a Hyndai Elantra SEL, and My car started to have issues with the AC dont work the air sometimes is really hot and later cold and also I heard a noice in the engine so I went to the dealer for the first service and explain what was hapenning to the AC they told me that the car was getting hot because the vent is not working I didnt know that the car was getting hot because it doesnt show nothing no sign no beep nothing I was surprise and also I notice that it needed engine oil, I think that something is wrong with this car because is a model 23 and I just got it on April only 5 months use. is this normal ? Also my daughter bought the same model and she went for a trip and the car also got hot and it didnt show up in the system she called them and they said to take the car to the dealer for a check up I think that if the cars are new they shouldnt be having this problems.
  • JamesGarfield What charging network does the Polestar use?
  • JamesGarfield Re: Getting away from union plantsAbout a dozen years or so ago, Caterpillar built a huge new engine plant, just down the road here in Seguin TX. Story has it, Caterpillar came to Seguin City council in advance, and told them their plans. Then they asked for no advanced publicity from Seguin, until announcement day. This new plant was gonna be a non-union replacement for a couple of union plants in IL and SC, and Cat didn't want to stir up union problems until the plan was set. They told Seguin, If you about blab this in advance, we'll walk. Well, Seguin kept quiet as instructed, and the plan went through, with all the usual expected tax abatements given.Plant construction began, but the Caterpillar name was conspicuously absent from anywhere on the site. Instead, the plant was described as being a collective of various contractors and suppliers for Caterpillar. Which in fact, it was. Then comes the day, with the big new plant fully operationa!, that Caterpillar comes in and announces, Hey, Yeah it's our plant, and the Caterpillar name boldly goes up on the front. All you contractor folks, welcome aboard, you're now Caterpillar employees. Then, Cat turns and announces they are closing those two union plants immediately, and will be transporting all the heavy manufacturing equipment to Seguin. None of the union workers, just the equipment. And today, the Caterpillar plant sits out there, humming away happily, making engines for the industry and good paying jobs for us. I'd call that a winner.
  • Stuki Moi What Subaru taketh away in costs, dealers will no doubt add right back in adjustments.... Fat chance Subaru will offer a sufficient supply of them.