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Chrysler has faced numerous struggles all throughout its history, but it still somehow stands today. Since the 1930s, it has stood as one of the Big Three American automakers along with Ford and General Motors, and today it produces many popular vehicles under its Dodge, Ram, Jeep, and, of course, Chrysler brands, but it hasn't had an easy journey to reach that spot. Today, Chrylser, officially known as FCA USA LLC, is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) after its merger with Fiat in January of 2014. While deserving of the title as comeback king of the automotive world, Chrysler is no longer an independently owned company.
Chrysler arose from the ashes of the failing Maxwell-Chalmers Motor Company in 1925. Walter Chrysler had already established himself as having a sound mind for the automotive business. In 1912 he joined the Buick Motor Company as a production manger. Eventually, he became President of Buick and turned the brand into General Motors' leading money-maker. He then became GM's Vice President in charge of production. Due to disputes with GM head William Durant, Chrysler resigned from the company. Shortly after leaving GM in 1920, Chrysler was hired by the Willys-Overland Company (which would go on to manufacture the Jeep) to act as an executive Vice President, and became chairman of the board of the Maxwell-Chalmers Motor Company. Both companies were failing at the time, and Chrysler was able to help turn both of them around.
The Early Days
In 1925, Maxwell-Chalmers became the Chrysler Corporation. This began a period of rapid growth for Chrysler as a company with rapid developments in its cars. In 1924, Chrysler unveiled the Chrysler Six, which could reach 70 miles per hour—an impressive speed for the time. It also had four wheel hydraulic brakes and shock absorbers. The following year, a Chrysler Six was entered in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and finished but did not place. The next year, Chrysler moved from being the 27th largest American automaker to the fifth. By 1927, it was the fourth largest. In 1928, Chrysler cars took third and fourth place at Le Mans, and in 1929, the Chrysler Corporation took third place among American car manufacturers, earning its spot in the "Big Three." During this period of expansion, Chrysler also bought the Dodge Brothers Truck Company (which became the Dodge brand), and established the Plymouth and DeSoto brands.
Despite the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression, Chrysler remained strong throughout the 1930s. Already known as a brand that blended power and style, Chrysler released its first eight-cylinder cars in 1931. These were known as the Chrysler Eight and the Imperial 8. Since the company's inception, the Imperial had been one of its flagship models. The original Imperial, from 1926, was intended to compete with Lincolns and Cadillacs in the luxury car market, and came with a six-cylinder engine. In 1931, it was given an inline eight-cylinder engine that Chrysler guaranteed could bring the car to eighty miles per hour. Although it was intended for the luxury market, the Imperial found success on the track as well. Stock car driver Harry Hartz used the Imperial 8 to set a number of speed records at Daytona Beach.
In 1934, the Imperial would see another big improvement. It would be known as the Chrysler Imperial Airflow, later to become simply the Chrysler Airflow. The Airflow was the first American car to be designed with streamlining in mind. Chrysler designer Carl Breer became interested in how an automobile's shape might affect its movement through air, after watching either geese or military planes, depending on whose version of the story you read. Regardless of where the inspiration came from, Breer set about his work by testing more than 50 scale models in a wind tunnel. Breer discovered that the designs used at the time were so inefficient that cars would actually be more aerodynamic if turned backwards. In a publicity stunt, Chrysler rigged a car to be driven backwards through the streets of Detroit. With the aid of the wind tunnel, Breer was able to design the Airflow so that air, well, flowed around it rather than resisting the grille and windshield. To do so, Chrysler had to find a way to develop curved windshields, an industry first.
The Birth of Mopar and WWII
In 1937, Chrysler officially established its parts brand, Mopar, which is short for "motor parts." The Mopar brand first specialized in anti-freeze products, and later moved on to become the company's original equipment manufacturer. Today, many enthusiasts still refer to vehicles built by the Chrysler group as "Mopars."
In 1941, Chrysler introduced a station wagon known as the Town and Country. The Town and Country was built with a steel and wood body with some visible wood. Wood paneling became characteristic of the model for decades, even in the 1980s when the Town and Country name was applied to a minivan. The roof of the first Town and Country was all steel, taken from the Imperial 8. In the first two years of production, only about a thousand were manufactured. Production had to be halted during World War II and the company converted all its production to military purposes-building Dodge trucks, primarily, for the war effort. Willy's-Overland, no longer under Walter Chrysler's leadership, was commissioned to develop the Jeep for military use.
Just as Chrysler was able to weather the Great Depression, it bounced back quickly after the war. The company began producing pre-war models like the Town and Country again in 1946. In 1949, it released its first new models after the war, the Windsor and Saratoga, as well as new versions of the Imperial and Town and Country. The new Imperial featured four wheel disc-brakes, making it the first such car to market. Chrysler also became the first American company to offer power windows.
The Golden Age
Arguably Chrysler's biggest technological development was unveiled in 1951. This was its famed hemispherical cylinder head (Hemi) V8 engine. The Hemi was Chrysler's first V8, rather than straight 8, engine and featured hemispherical combustion chambers-hence the name. The hemispherical combustion chamber (actually first used in Jaguars), faced less heat loss and had a more complete and efficient combustion of fuels than flathead combustion chambers. This gave Chrysler's Hemi a previously unheard of 180 horsepower. The Hemi became an important engine in both stock car and drag racing history. Hemis were used in a number of winning cars in NASCAR. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, drag racer Don Garlits pushed Hemi-powered cars to a number of records: first 170 mph in 1958, then over 201 mph in 1964. The Hemi first saw major NASCAR success in 1954 when Lee Petty finished first in seven races and in the top five in another seventeen behind the wheel of a Chrysler.
Chrysler capitalized on this success with the introduction of the 300 "letter series" cars. These were built with NASCAR in mind. At the time, stock car racing involved actual stock cars - automobiles that could be bought at the dealership by the average driver. NASCAR required that cars be offered to the public to be entered into its races. The letter series was built for just this aim. After 1955's C-300, each year's model was designated with a different letter, starting with the 300B in 1956, up to the 300L in 1965. The letter "I" was skipped because it looked too much like the numeral "1." The letter series promised drivers at least 300 horsepower. In 1955 a NASCAR team owned by the Mercury Outboard Marine Company won 20 out of 40 races with Chrysler C-300s. The 1956 the 300B reached 355 horsepower, setting a several-year trend of the 300 series being the most powerful American-built car. It was also the first car rated at 1 horsepower per cubic inch of engine displacement. In addition to their performance power, the 300s were also outfitted for luxury. The 300B had an optional "Highway Hi-Fi" vinyl record player. The 300F featured swiveling seats, a technology that Chrysler would later reuse for its minivans.
During this time period, Chrysler introduced the Newport as an entry-level sedan. Where they had hoped the entry level model would appeal to more buyers, it ended up hurting Chrysler's image as a luxury brand. It was, however, used as the base for a new Town and Country station wagon.
The 1970s and the Purchase of AMC
Chrysler was able to regain some of its luxury status in the 1970s with the Chrysler Cordoba. The Cordoba was something of a risk for Chrysler, since it was the first Chrysler that was smaller than full-size. The company had previously declared that it would never build a small car. Other companies, though, were having success with small personal luxury models, like the Chevy Monte Carlo and the Pontiac Grand Prix, and so Chrysler decided to enter the personal luxury market. At the time, the Cordoba was known for its sleek appearance. Today it is best known for a series of ads featuring actor Ricardo Montalban listing the car's accoutrements including "rich Corinthian leather." Cordoba sales dropped off in 1978, when Chrysler introduced the even smaller LeBaron.
Smaller cars were something of a necessity for Chrysler in the 1970s. New environmental regulations and the 1973 oil crisis shifted demand to smaller, more efficient cars. This was bad news for a company that had specialized in big cars and big engines. The company was ill-suited to make the necessary changes. Seeing the need for new leadership, Chrysler hired Lee Iacocca, recently fired by Ford, to be the new CEO. Iacocca realized that the company couldn't survive without a large infusion of funds. He asked the United States Congress to guarantee Chrysler $1.5 billion in loans. Congress passed the bill, which was signed by Jimmy Carter in January of 1980. The US Military also purchased a large number of Dodge trucks, helping Chrysler to avoid bankruptcy. Chrysler paid the loans off in 1983, far ahead of schedule.
Iacocca also brought with him an idea that would lead to a great deal of Chrysler's future success. At Ford, he had wanted to develop minivans for the American market. Iacocca realized that many members of the Baby Boomer generation were starting their own families and there would consequentially be a boost in demand for family vehicles. A small passenger van might be the ideal vehicle to fill this niche. Henry Ford II had been opposed to the idea and this was one of the conflicts that reportedly led to Iacocca's dismissal from Ford. Iacocca put the plan into practice at Chrysler, leading to the development of the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, and the new Chrysler Town and Country. These were the first American minivans. Since they were built on a car rather than a truck platform, they could fit in a normal garage. Early models of the Town and Country featured wood trim as a tribute to the Town and Country station wagon, which was, in some ways, its predecessor as a family vehicle. To do this day, Chrysler dominates the market segment it created, making up over 40% of the US market for minivans.
With its newfound success, Chrysler was able to acquire the American Motor Company, which had previously acquired Willys-Overland. Finally, in 1987, the Jeep brand was under Chrysler ownership. Other AMC models continued on under the Eagle name. In 1988, Chrysler also made a short partnership with Mitsubishi to produce small cars under the Diamond Star Motors (DSM) brand. It had previously imported Mitsubishis and resold them under Dodge and Plymouth nameplates in an agreement with the Japanese company. Chrysler also briefly acquired Lamborghini, before selling it off in 1994.
Further Financial Troubles
Throughout the 1990s, Chrysler tried to continue to move in new directions in terms of its model line. In 1993, it released the mid-size Concorde, which featured a cab-forward design with the passenger compartment pushed forward compared to other cars. This afforded it more interior space than similarly sized cars. The Concorde made Car and Driver Magzine's "Ten Best" list in 1993 and 1994. The Concorde was followed by the LHS, which was based on a concept car, the Portofino, developed by Lamborghini under Chrysler ownership. The LHS was Chrysler's flagship vehicle during the 1990s. Chrysler released the 300M in 1998. Although it picked up where the letter series left off it terms of name, it had little in common with the older 300 models. Its engine was a V6, rated below 300 horsepower, and it utilized front-wheel drive rather than the rear-wheel drive used in the letter series. The 300M was designed to compete with import sedans like the BMW M5.
That same year, Chrysler entered into a partnership with Daimler-Benz, which the companies publicly called a "merger of equals," forming the Daimler Chrysler Autogroup. Many considered the merger to actually be a Daimler takeover of Chrysler. However, Chrysler was able to develop new models in concert with Mercedes-Benz. The Chrysler Crossfire was based on Mercedes' SLK-class, while a new Chrysler 300 shared parts with the E-Class. Despite the new ownership and shared development, Chrysler started to struggle again through this period.
The late 2000s saw a market crash and ensuing recession. The recession hit automakers particularly hard. In 2007, Daimler's stake in Chrysler was valued at $1.18 billion. By October of 2008, the book value of that stake was zero. There was brief discussion of a merger between GM and Chrysler but no such deal came to be. Once again, Chrysler had to seek financial help from the US Government. In 2009, Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, received a $4 billion loan from the U.S. Treasury Department, and formed an alliance with the Italian company Fiat. In 2011, Chrysler paid off its loans in full, several years ahead of schedule, much as it had in the 1980s.
In January of 2014 Fiat S.p.A purchased the remaining 42% of Chrysler, gaining full ownership over the company. Technically, all of its divisions (e.g. Dodge, Jeep, Ram) are still under the Chrysler name as they've always been, and Chrylser is still one of the "Big Three" in the US. Instead of Chrysler falling under Fiat ownership, in October of 2014, FCA was established as a holding company over both Fiat and Chrysler. Chrylser, also known as FCA US LLC, is one of the major focuses of FCA, and is now a main subsidiary. With several ups and downs in its history, Chrysler still carries on as a major car manufacturer, especially in the US.