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The Chrysler Story

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April is absolutely packed full of interesting automotive firsts and fun facts that deserve their share of attention, including the birth of the Gremlin, which we touched on last week, as well as the birth of Walter Chrysler, the death of Karl Benz, and the birth of one of the first motorized vehicles by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. It feels significant that Chrysler, Benz, Daimler, and Maybach all had major life moments within the first week of April, so perhaps there is some sort of Mercedes magic that fills the air at the start of spring.

This week, we’ll begin with the birth of Walter Chrysler on April 2, 1875. Just ten years before Benz and the Daimler/Maybach team would build and test their first automobiles, Chrysler was born in Wamego, Kansas. As a young man, he worked in railroad maintenance and as a railroad engineer, using his experience to earn a degree in mechanical engineering via correspondence from the earliest incarnation of the International Correspondence School in Scranton, PA. Chrysler worked for Alco - American Locomotive Company - where one of his superiors was so impressed with his engineering skills and his passion for automobiles that he introduced Chrysler to Buick president Charles W. Nash. Nash offered Chrysler a position as head of production at Buick’s Flint, Michigan headquarters. He was so successful at streamlining production and improving manufacturing techniques that when he considered moving on from Buick, William Durant, the head of GM, offered him an unheard-of salary of $10,000 a month ($230,000 a month in today’s money) with a $500,000 bonus at the end of each year along with complete control over all of Buick.

Chrysler stayed on for several years in this capacity, but he always had a great independent streak and felt somewhat stifled by Durant’s long-term vision for the futures of Buick and GM. He had started working at Buick for only $6,000 a year in 1911, and by the time he left in 1919, he was one of the richest men in America.

Chrysler was courted by Willys-Overland in the hopes of turning around their failing venture, and he demand an unprecedented salary of $1,000,000 a year - the highest salary paid to any American at the time. After two years and a failed attempt at buying out Willys, he left and bought a controlling share in Maxwell Motors, officially rebooting and rebranding the company with his own namesake. In Detroit, Michigan in 1925, Walter officially founded The Chrysler Corporation.

Chrysler has long been celebrated as the prototypical American Dream tale, beginning as an uneducated manual laborer, then putting himself through school and working his way up through corporations to become one of the wealthiest men in America and the entire the world in his day. Coincidentally, he was a great follower of Benz, Daimler, and Maybach in his youth, and roughly 50 years after his death, his corporation would merge with Daimler Benz to form the Daimler Chrysler with which we are all familiar today.

-Trey Fennell



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