TCS Daily

GM! Buy Chrysler? Give Me a Minute

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 7, 2007 12:00 AM

Both automobile and business writers have been abuzz lately about Daimler-Chrysler wanting to dump the American part of its "merger of equals" - Chrysler Division. But wait, who's that pushing its way up to the dumpster? General Motors?

General Motors!

Even to imagine such a thing - ailing GM embracing ailing Chrysler - seemed a stretch at first, but the more people have analyzed it, the more interesting the idea becomes. (For a really fascinating take on GM-Chrysler read the always provocative, informative and entertaining Autoextremist, Peter M. DeLorenzo here (

But set aside all the intricate corporate, labor, industrial and fiduciary dynamics of this thing for a moment and let's delve into American automotive history to truly grasp what a strange melding of cultures a GM-Chrysler liaison would be.

To do that you have to go back to those "dear dead days" of automotive brand loyalty, American-style, as it flourished in the middle of the 20th century. You do remember brand loyalty, don't you?

I'm old enough to remember it well - the time when families tended to be GM, Ford or Chrysler families. They bought their cars from one of these brands and that was that. My family, for instance, happened to be a "Mopar" (the moniker of Chrysler's auto parts division) family. Chryslers, Plymouths, an occasional Dodge and two DeSotos were to be seen parked around our old house in Rector, Pa., over the years.

When the new models were about to come out in the fall, Big Three loyalists headed for the "show rooms" of their favorite brands for the ritual "tire kicking" and brochure gathering. Of course we would also check out the competition. I can remember, as a kid looking, sometimes with envy, at some of the GM cars, especially the Buicks and Cadillacs, but I always ended up feeling that it would not be right to stray from the Chrysler reservation lest some unseen bond would be broken, some mysterious understanding of loyalty between our family and the company that had built our robin's egg blue Windsor four-door sedan. Indeed, I had friends who were from Ford families and the bonds were just as strong between themselves and what Ford advertised as "the Ford family of fine cars."

Oh sure, there were still some Studebaker people, Hudson people, Packard and Nash and even Kaiser people rattling around in the back of the picture, but they were relatively rare and perceived as a little odd, and soon those brands were gone. Everything man wanted in an automobile, from low price utility (Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth) to envied luxury (Cadillac, Lincoln, Imperial) could be found within the compass of the "Big Three."

Each of the Big Three had a certain aura, a certain culture about it. These corporate identities had emerged out of the chaos of the first three decades of the "auto game" as thousands of different brands of American cars furiously elbowed each other for public attention. Who now remembers the Biddle, the DeKalb, Farmac, Pilliod, Ogren, Kleiber, Modoc, Touraine, Detroiter, Great Southern, Leach-Builtwell, Stanwood, or Economy-Vogue cars or the companies that built them? But the Big Three had survived as the fittest. They had soldiered through a fearful sorting out in the marketplace that broke many men, burned up many fortunes and filled up many junkyards.

Yet, of the three, Chrysler was, and always would be, the oddball, the outsider, the latecomer. Ford had been incorporated in 1903 by the crusty, brilliant Henry Ford. General Motors came into being in 1908, the ambitious creation of the super salesman William Crapo "Billy" Durant. It wasn't until 1925 that a big, tough, engaging Kansan with a correspondence school degree in mechanical engineering and a background in the railroad business formed Chrysler Corp. out of the faltering Maxwell-Chalmers automobile company.

Walter Percy Chrysler had linked up with three superb engineers - Fred Zeder, Carl Breer and Owen Skelton - to introduce a car on the cutting edge of automotive technology. The car which bore Chrysler's name had a high compression six-cylinder engine, four-wheel hydraulic brakes (way ahead of their time), full pressure lubrication and a then innovative replaceable cartridge type oil filter. It was one of the first cars to "group" all the dashboard instruments behind a glass oval in front of the driver. It was sturdy, fast, reliable, attractive and priced right - about $1500 - good money in the late '20s, but fair for so much car.

The Chrysler sold well. Very well. Walter Chrysler made money. And in 1928, he spent it in a big way to scramble up to the heights then held by Ford and General Motors. He introduced two lower priced cars, the Plymouth and the DeSoto, to compete with Ford and Chevrolet. He bought the Dodge Brothers automobile company - the maker that had coined the word "dependable" to describe its solid, well-made cars - to give him a broader stake in the middle of the market.

In one fell swoop Chrysler had made his company a major player in the auto game. As if to trumpet his arrival in 1930, he built a magnificent skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan that still bears his name.

If Ford was the company that had put America on the road with its legendary Model T, and GM was becoming the pace setter in automotive styling and variety, Chrysler became known for its solid and often innovative engineering. Its cars were not always style leaders, but they were reliable, hardy performers.

Ford was the car of the common man and the favorite of farmers - all of this rooted in the huge success of Henry Ford's versatile Model T. But Henry had an eye for the high end, too, buying prestigious Lincoln in 1922 and bringing it into the Ford fold. The Mercury, Ford's effort to bridge the mid-price range, would not come until 1939, at the urging of Henry's son Edsel.

General Motors, of course, was all over the marketplace. It had Chevrolet for the common man, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles for common men who were becoming uncommonly comfortable and "moving up" in the world. Then there was Buick, "the doctor's car," the solid car of the professional man, a gleaming bridge from upper-middle to upper class. And at the top was Cadillac, "The Standard of the World," the iconic definition of success and luxury.

Chrysler would massage its range of models during the 1930s, beginning with its own "common" car, the Plymouth. It covered the middle ground of the market with sturdy Dodges and "almost-a-Chrysler" DeSotos. The Chrysler itself had models ranging from the middle up to high-priced and sumptuously appointed New Yorkers and Imperials. From the beginning, Chrysler, with his "Three Musketeers" - Zeder, Breer and Skelton - sold car buyers on engineering and technology.

But once, in the very teeth of the Great Depression, Chrysler tied engineering, technology and styling in one very advanced package. This was the Chrysler Airflow, introduced in 1934, an amazing car that turned out to be too far ahead of its time.

We covered the development of the Airflow here at TCS some time ago (Ahead of the Curve, Nov. 24, 2003). It has been hailed as "the first modern car," and compared to the still rather boxy cars of its day, it was a revelation. The first car tested in a wind tunnel (something commonly done today), the Airflow had a modified teardrop shape. Its rounded fenders, relatively short hood and art deco "waterfall" grill engendered a terrific buzz at the auto shows. And powered by one of Chrysler's superb straight 8s, the car quickly set 72 American speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

But in the end, delays in retooling for production, a slur campaign about the car's safety engendered by rivals (mostly GM), and a public not quite ready to look too different when it spent hard-earned Depression dollars on a car dampened Airflow sales.

The Airflow was not the disaster it is often painted to be. Chrysler survived the middle '30s fairly well, but the company did not realize the sales it had hoped for with the Airflow. (Now, surviving Airflows are prized pieces of automotive history.) The real legacy of the Airflow was that it crippled Chrysler's auto styling for almost two decades. The company became very conservative and unwilling to gamble on anything too far out in its sheetmetal.

In the years just before and after World War II, whatever may have been the differences between the Big Three's brands, Chrysler's cars were more different in an odd, difficult-to-define way. As styling (led by GM's legendary Harley Earl) became an ever greater selling point from the late 1930s on, Chrysler's cars ranged from the frumpy to the sometimes oddly appealing, with an occasional brilliant flourish like the wood-sided 1946-48 Town & Country convertible. But they were always solidly engineered despite their timid styling.

That all changed in the 1950s, when Chrysler suddenly burst forth with its "Fire Power" hemi V-8 in 1951 and its "forward look" cars of 1955. These crisp and colorful cars were trumped in '56 and '57 with "Flight Sweep" styling, bringing on a fin-fendered, chrome-bedazzled mania across the industry. (See When America Became Finland, TCS, Feb. 2, 2004, here.)

For the past half century Chrysler has always seemed to be playing catch-up to GM and Ford. In the process it has sometimes wowed motorheads (with the Chrysler 300s, both the first and the present generation) and sometimes recalibrated the market (it defined the "minivan" and started that revolution).

But often it has been the sick child of Detroit - bailed out with infamous federal loan guarantees, keeping its head above water with noisy but rugged slant-6-engined Dodge Darts and Plymouth Valiants, and populating the streets with square little K-car "econoboxes." Its image came to smack so much of sagging vinyl cladding, peeling plastic chrome and yawning crevices between body panels that when it came up with a brilliant car of good build quality, like the PT Cruiser, the feat was met with expressions of surprise by the motoring press.

I left the Mopar reservation a long time ago, tired of indifferent build quality, too much orange peel in the paint jobs and the fact that Chrysler-built cars always seemed prone to a signature "tinniness." They tended to skimp on insulation and transmit too much road noise. I went up the classic GM ladder, owning (happily) an Oldsmobile, then a Buick, then Cadillacs. But I left GM, too, for Acura then Lexus as quality issues proliferated in GM and, sadly, all American cars.

The fact is the American automotive landscape has changed so much that the "cultures" of the Big Three have become blurred. All three car companies seem to have lost their institutional memories. They now seem staffed largely with engineers and executives with little sense of what GM, Ford or Chrysler were and, therefore, little sense of what they should be to compete with the Japanese, Koreans and Germans. Thus, things like the Pontiac Aztec happen.

Thus, come to think of it, there isn't much heritage or culture left to clash between GM and Chrysler. So why shouldn't GM pluck the popular Jeep from the Chrysler tree to complement the Hummer line? Well, maybe that won't happen. The German business daily Handelsblatt reports that Daimler-Benz may want to keep Jeep and sell off the rest of Chrysler Group.

It is perhaps significant that the most attractive part of Chrysler for suitors is Jeep, a make Chrysler itself acquired (from American Motors) years ago. Would GM be interested enough in the Dodge truck line, or Chrysler's minivan know-how (GM never did get its minivans right) to still go ahead with a deal?

As I ponder all the permutations of such an acquisition by GM, it occurs to me that there just might be a sort of full circle aspect to all this. I had forgotten just how Walter Chrysler made the jump from railroads to motor cars. It was with General Motors. Walter Chrysler, a production genius, "saved" Buick during a time of fiscal and managerial crisis, becoming its President in 1912. He left GM in 1920 and it was the millions he made from GM stock awards that enabled him to live comfortably until he got restless, began rescuing several other auto companies and finally formed his own.

Chrysler had little compunction about moving things around and clearing out inefficient performers when he steered Buick through rough times, rescued Willys-Overland, straightened out Maxwell-Chalmers, and finally guided his own company through the depression, leaving it very healthy when he died in 1940.

So maybe Walter Percy Chrysler would understand and approve of whatever housekeeping GM decided to do with the vestiges of the corporation bearing his name. He would understand it's all part of the auto game.


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