Chrysler, 75 Years of Automotive Distinction
Walter P. Chrysler put his first new car on a train home, took it apart and put it back together before ever driving it. His purpose was to learn everything about an automobile that had gone before, and use that knowledge to create what was to come. The lesson learned ultimately resulted in the 1924 Chrysler Six — one of the most advanced and exciting cars of its day.
Walter P. Chrysler’s dynamism and uncompromising insistence on building the best car possible established the Chrysler brand’s reputation for industry leadership. Those principles remain as central to the creation of today’s Chrysler cars as to the very first one.
To celebrate the Chrysler brand’s 75th anniversary, this booklet tells the story of how those principles led to some of the greatest automobiles of all time, and illustrates why Chrysler has long been synonymous with engineering excellence, technological innovation and advanced design.
The influence of the Chrysler brand’s past upon its future manifests itself in every new Chrysler product. The latest example of Chrysler engineering, innovation and design excellence is the new Chrysler PT Cruiser, which is sure to define a whole new vehicle segment.
For the Chrysler brand, 75 years of history is the model for an unlimited future. Please join us in celebrating this remarkable history, and in looking forward to an even more remarkable future.
1925 – 1933
An Upstart Soars
After the Chrysler’s explosion onto the automotive scene, other makes scrambled to catch up. To stay ahead, Chrysler incrementally broadened the model line to four separate series in following years. Imperial emerged as a top-level luxury/performance car, gaining a distinct look and a larger displacement engine with still greater performance. In 1928, two years after pacing the Indy 500, Imperial got its own engine with up to 112 horsepower and a 136-inch wheelbase.
Chrysler accelerated its reputation for technical innovation with a constant flow of advances and improvements. Engines benefited from a friction-driven vibration damper, crankcase ventilation, downdraft carburetion and increased power due to displacement increases and optional “Red Head” higher-compression cylinder heads. Chassis improvements included upgraded brakes, lower-profile wheels, more efficient U-joints, hydraulic shock absorbers and smoother, more accurate steering gear. Floating Power engine mounts, adjustable seats, an optional automatic clutch, and even stronger Steelweld bodies proved that Chrysler’s engineers were as dedicated to their passengers as to their products.
Even as DePalma and other racers further displayed the brand’s superior speed and handling by winning stock car competitions and driving stunts across the country, Walter P. was eager to pit his cars against the most exotic machinery in the world. Teams of specially prepared Chryslers went to France to run the Le Mans endurance race. After a respectable debut in the 1925 24-hour classic, a pair of 1928 Chryslers finished third and fourth behind a famed “Blower” Bentley and a Stutz Bearcat. It was a stunning testament to the Chrysler’s all-around performance and stamina.
Even as the Depression descended, the Chrysler never missed a beat; and in 1931 it even managed to set hearts racing. Since their introduction, Chryslers had been considered quite striking — low slung, well-proportioned and tastefully styled. But jaws dropped when the 1931s appeared. Gracefully athletic — especially the long, lithe Imperial — Chryslers might, for the first time, have been accused of looking faster than they went, except that beneath their tapered bonnets were a new series of powerful, silky straight-8 engines that matched their looks.
The Depression forced many auto manufacturers out of business, but thanks to Walter P. Chrysler’s diversification (he had bought the “dependable” Dodge Brothers company and launched the lower-priced Plymouth and DeSoto lines) in the good years, and the company’s quick economizing, Chrysler as a corporation weathered the storm. Indeed, with its solid-gold reputation for engineering and its unerring beauty, the Chrysler automobile seemed not just poised for a better future, but far ahead of the present state of car design.
1934 – 1942
The Airflow and Its Aftermath
Walter P. Chrysler encouraged the Three Musketeers to think beyond the Chrysler of the ’30s, and few would argue that Carl Breer’s imagination worked even beyond that. In 1927, he had begun to study aerodynamics, and came to recognize that a teardrop profile not only lowered wind resistance, boosting economy and performance, it allowed the use of an all-steel “safety cage” for unprecedented passenger protection. His thesis proved itself in wind-tunnel testing and lent itself to such a host of other major improvements that the opportunity to create the mythical “car of tomorrow” seemed at hand.
The Chrysler Airflow appeared in 1934 as a pure expression of engineering vision. Unfortunately, it struck much of the public as an eyesore. The Airflow was a superior automobile — lively and efficient, comfortable and safe, spacious and packed with thoughtful conveniences. But the form that made these advances possible flew too squarely in the face of convention.
As it had at the onset of the Depression, Chrysler management reacted quickly and brought out the more conventional Airstream models the following year. They sold well, and incorporated some of the Airflow’s technical innovations such as automatic overdrive and simplified starting.
While the rest of the automotive world soon emulated Airflow-esque streamlining, Chrysler reverted to a cautious blandness for nearly two decades, relying more than ever on engineering to sell cars. Its innovative Fluid Drive hydraulic clutch coupled with Vacamatic semi-automatic gear selection eliminated 95% of shifting. The Superfinish microprecision machining process was invisible to the customer, but added durability and efficiency to the major mechanical components. Safety advances included eliminating protruding interior fittings, seatback safety padding, and the Safety Rim wheel, which kept the tire on the wheel in the event of a blow-out.
If Chrysler stylists demurred in the Airflow’s wake to design a beautiful car, they at least found a way to make homeliness handsome. The Town & Country quickly caught the public’s eye as the first high quality “estate” wagon — comfortable, well-made and handsome to boot. Every Chrysler body style was due to get the Town & Country “look” before the war interrupted.
Two LeBaron show cars showed that artistry still existed in the Chrysler styling studio. The Imperial-based Newport was a modern, flowing revival of the luxurious dual-cowl phaetons. The Thunderbolt, penned by Alex Tremulis, pointed powerfully toward the future. Its low, envelope-style body negated the separate fenders that had marked automobiles since their development from the horse-drawn carriage days.
In 1935, Walter P. Chrysler withdrew from the daily activity of his burgeoning empire. Unfortunately, years of hard work did not guarantee a long, happy retirement. In 1938, the same year his beloved wife died, he himself became ill, dying two years later, in 1940, at 65. Chrysler was undoubtedly one of those businessmen who knew that his success was most accurately measured by how his business functioned without him, and he died proud of the cars that bore his name.
When World War II was declared, Chrysler Corporation was second behind General Motors in sales, had solidly established its reputation for engineering innovation and quality, and was showing a renewed flair for style. But the onslaught of World War II meant that Chrysler, like other manufacturers, had to divert its efforts. Chrysler Corporation as a whole geared up to make a gigantic contribution to the war effort as a producer of tanks, trucks, airplanes and other vital materiel.
1946 – 1954
Staid, Solid, & Something Special Under the Hood
Like all manufacturers, Chrysler had little more than warmed-over ’42s to offer when the war was finally over. But that was enough for a car-hungry public. The pre-war Thunderbolt had seemed to imply that something special might come from Chrysler. But as competitors rolled out sleek new designs, Chrysler continued with its pre-war look. Still, it was a seller’s market, and every Chrysler sold just about as soon as it got to the dealer’s lot.
One happy consequence of Chrysler’s styling freeze was that the pre-war plans to extend the Town & Country partially survived. The station wagon was dropped, but mahogany-trimmed Chrysler convertibles and two-door sedans became country club icons. Innovations continued in the form of many industry firsts such as the padded dashboard, Hydraguide power-assisted steering, vented radiator cap, Airtemp air conditioning, and even four-wheel disc brakes. Best of all was the fully automatic PowerFlite transmission. Still, from 1946 to 1948, Chryslers didn’t even receive a face-lift, and hardly anyone noticed the major restyle in 1949. With past generation styling and engines, Chrysler’s reputation for dynamism and forward thinking seemed to be slipping. The company that in 1934 moved too quickly ahead now seemed barely able to keep up.
That changed, literally, in 1951. The Chrysler FirePower engine — quickly dubbed the Hemi for its hemispherically shaped combustion chambers — knocked all the other modern V-8 engines back on their flywheels. With 20% more power than the same-displacement Cadillac mill, the Hemi represented a great leap forward in production powerplant design. Like Walter P.’s original high-compression six, it was expensive to build and somewhat exotic, but it was sturdy, tractable and eager.
Chrysler was suddenly once again the name to beat at the racetrack. Chrysler FirePower engines found their way quickly between the frame rails of gentleman-racer sport-specials like the Allard. Lee Petty took the 1954 NASCAR championship in a Chrysler. Most impressively, Chrysler returned to Le Mans in Briggs Cunningham’s specials. Running against race-bred Jaguars, Ferraris, Aston Martins and Mercedes, Cunningham racers placed fourth in 1952, third and seventh in 1953, and third and fifth in 1954.
1955 – 1959
The Forward Look
Twenty years after the Airflow experience dropped Chrysler styling into idle, design chief Virgil Exner threw it back into high gear. Called the Hundred Million Dollar Look in the company’s advertisements, Exner’s styling gave an unmistakable impression of movement even when the cars were standing still.
To add icing to the cake, the Hemi’s power was boosted across the lineup to an unheard-of 300 horsepower in the new Chrysler 300 for 1955. Dubbed the Beautiful Brute for its mixture of refinement and muscle, the 300 regathered the great virtues that Chrysler had been founded upon: performance, roadability, styling and innovation. It immediately became the car to beat in stock car races, dominating the NASCAR circuit and shattering performance records. Chrysler chose to mark this milestone car’s year-by-year evolution as the famous Letter Series.
The public had barely caught its breath when the ’57s came out. Practically flying with fins and quad headlights, the new cars were dramatically lower and handled better, thanks to the Torsion-Aire suspension system, which exchanged bulky coil springs for more compact torsion bars. Auto Pilot cruise control, integrated power door locks, curved side glass and the push-button TorqueFlite transmission were also significant innovations. There was eve n an electronically fuel injected 390-horsepower Hemi offered in the 1958 300D.
Exner also developed a series of advanced concept cars. One of the most famous was never seen outside of the Ghia studios where it was built. The Norseman went down with the Andrea Doria ocean liner in 1956 while on its way to Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan for safety testing. The handsome fastback incorporated an array of safety innovations, particularly its super-strong cantilever roof construction, which protected occupants in case of a rollover, and allowed for a dramatic “true” wraparound windshield without A-pillars. It also incorporated early versions of some of the technical innovations that would find their way into later-production Chryslers.
Chrysler had once again pushed the auto industry into the future with a stunning combination of engineering, innovation and styling that evoked the founder’s ideals. But in pushing beyond the mainstream, Chrysler found itself out on a limb. Cost pressures, the 1958 recession, and shrinking margins and sales meant that Chrysler had to slow down. First to go was the vaunted but expensive-to-build Hemi, which gave way to the still powerful, lighter Golden Lion wedge-head engine.
1960 – 1972
Restyled for Refinement
A famous ad for the 1957 Forward Look cars chimed, “Suddenly it’s 1960”; and suddenly it was — if not necessarily the 1960 that Chrysler stylists had expected. Chrysler entered the decade all fins when fins suddenly were out. What was odd was that the styling didn’t change even though every Chrysler except Imperial underwent a radical reengineering to Unibody construction. This major advance resulted in bodies with greater structural integrity than the traditional body-on-frame method. Chrysler took the lead in building vehicles this way, and the results included improved handling and over-the-road stability.
Sixties style differed markedly from that of the ’50s, with Elwood Engel succeeding Virgil Exner as chief stylist for the Chrysler brand. The first evidence of the change were the finless tails of the 1962 Chryslers. The all-new 1963 models progressed further in this direction, with a clean, wedge-like profile. A 300 model paced the 1963 Indy 500. The formerly flamboyant Imperials got a dignified new look in ’64.
Durability, long one of the Chrysler brand’s major assets, had begun to be called into question with the second-generation Forward Look models. Stepping up to the challenge, Chrysler offered an unprecedented five-year/50,000 mile powertrain warranty meant to rebuild its reputation as an engineering powerhouse. It had been a long time since any auto manufacturer made such a confident promise of quality; it seemed almost to issue from Walter P. Chrysler himself.
Innovations early in the decade included the introduction of the AC alternator for more efficient battery charging and adequate voltage for electrical equipment. Ram induction manifolds forced more air and fuel into the 413 cubic-inch wedge — making it good for 405 horsepower in the 1960 300F.
The most stunning accomplishment was the building of 50 experimental Chrysler Turbine cars for public evaluation. Chrysler engineers had been studying turbine power since 1954 in their continuing search for more efficient propulsion, stemming back to the very first Chrysler Six. The 1963 Turbine cars were handsome coupes that drove with a silent smoothness. Over three years, some 200 Chrysler customers got to spend several months with one of the cars for a thorough real-world evaluation. The results showed that, while the drivers loved the smoothness and styling, the turbine was just too thirsty and sluggish on acceleration. Nevertheless, it was a valuable exploration of alternative power sources.
The 1965 Chrysler 300L marked the end of the original Beautiful Brute. Several years earlier, a non-letter 300 had been introduced, and despite being less brawny under the hood, it sold well, especially when extended to the four-door hardtop body style. In 1970, Hurst Performance Products and Chrysler collaborated on the 300H (for “Hurst”), but it was little more than a special trim and paint package.
Throughout the 1960s, cleanly styled, well-appointed and responsive Chryslers and Imperials successfully challenged Cadillac and Lincoln in the sales and prestige race, continuing into the 1970s. The new decade brought several important innovations. Most notably, 1971 Imperials and 1972 Chryslers could be equipped with Sure-Brake antilock brakes. Nearly two decades ahead of its time, the system, though well-engineered, sold poorly and was discontinued. Electronic ignition was added across the line in 1972, improving engine efficiency.
Engine capacity had been increased to 440 cubic inches for 1967, more in preparation for coming emissions regulations than for the need for a “new” engine. That increase, along with the more massive fuselage-styled 1969 models, indicated Chrysler’s philosophy as it headed into an uncharted era: make it bigger.
1973 – 1982
Economic Turmoil Dictates New Strategies
The Chrysler brand was enjoying one of its best years ever until the Oil Producing Export Countries (OPEC) oil embargo hit in October 1973. In the same boat as many other makes, Chrysler had only big cars to offer. The fuel crunch combined with government mandates on safety and smog equipment and rulings against “gross” power ratings to deny Chrysler some of its historical strengths. Impact-absorbing bumpers made their debut on all domestically produced automobiles, though Chryslers wore them better than most. Performance, the enduring Chrysler hallmark, seemed dead, with no amount of engineering able to overcome the forces arrayed against it. By 1974, the all-new bigger Chryslers languished on dealer lots as economy-conscious buyers embraced compacts and imports.
In 1975, Chrysler responded with a dramatically styled all-new entry in the rapidly growing midsize personal luxury segment. The handsome Cordoba was the smallest Chrysler in decades (in fact, only 2.5 inches longer than the 1924 B-70) and outsold nearly all competitors. As the fuel crisis eased, Chrysler sales recovered thanks largely to the Cordoba and the new midsize, even smaller LeBaron. Both models proved that the Chrysler brand could still deliver a high standard of luxury in a more efficiently sized car.
Chrysler engineers, like most in the industry, were forced to devote themselves almost solely to emissions and fuel efficiency improvements to meet ever more restrictive federal standards. One important Chrysler advance of this time was the Electronic Lean Burn System, one of the first examples of engine computerization in the service of greater efficiency.
The auto industry as a whole emerged bruised from a decade that started with the fuel crisis and ended with a devastating recession. In that time, Chrysler had effectively downsized its lineup, learning valuable lessons in weight savings and other efficiencies.
1983 – 1992
Survival Wears a Badge
Despite the new array of smaller models, Chrysler sales were affected by the deep recession of the early ’80s. The only answer was further downsizing to the K-car chassis, which, though compact, was extremely well engineered. Chrysler engineers successfully “plushed” the K-car’s ride and interior, and stylists gave it a tasteful look. More than anything, the new-generation “little” LeBaron was offered in a wide array of models, including the first domestic production convertible since the Cadillac Eldorado’s apocalyptic demise. The tony Town & Country station wagon’s popularity led to the famous nameplate and woodgrain trim being applied to the convertible. And an audacious K-car-based stretch limousine version heralded that Chrysler would take on a new automotive era with surprising daring. The public seemed to appreciate Chrysler’s newfound spunk, and as the recession eased, sales climbed again.
Invigorated, the Chrysler brand surged into a market it had never before addressed. The sporty, low-slung Chrysler Laser drew a new, younger generation of buyers to the brand. It was offered with an advanced turbocharger design, including an industry-first water-cooled housing that extended the system’s longevity and reliability. Later, Chrysler would further advance turbocharger technology with a variable-nozzle design.
With the K-car platform as its basis, LeBaron GTS pushed into the growing Euro-style sport sedan segment. The two-door LeBaron was radically redesigned for 1987, with the drop-top version becoming the first Chrysler in decades to be designed from the ground up as a convertible. A sporty roadster called the TC had a Maserati-modified powertrain. Even the venerable New Yorker “went K” on a lengthened platform, leaving the top-line rear-wheel drive chassis to carry on as the renamed Fifth Avenue. Still available with a V-8, the Fifth Avenue appealed to a die-hard market of traditional Chrysler customers who would take the biggest one they could get. The Fifth Avenue would soldier on little changed through 1989 as one of Chrysler’s biggest and most profitable sellers.
In 1990, Chrysler attached the venerable Town & Country name to a luxurious version of the minivan that had opened a huge new market segment. With a larger engine, electronic four-speed automatic transmission and posh interior appointments, the high-end family hauler eked out a new niche that seemed ephemeral at first, but soon became very profitable. It included the important safety innovations that cast Chrysler Corporation minivans as “family safe,” such as a standard air bag and integrated child-restraint system.
But as a new decade turned, other brands introduced more modern products. Internally, a much-needed product revolution was underway, as glimpsed in the Portofino concept car that served as the precursor to the company’s all-new sedans. More hints that Chrysler had something up its sleeve came out in the increasing number of striking concept cars that were hitting the auto show circuit with increasing frequency. The Chrysler 300 concept car of 1991 struck a special note, and the 1992 Cirrus concept car seemed to indicate that the future was not very far off. These exciting “dream cars” were largely the inspiration of Thomas C. Gale and the Chrysler Pacifica design studio, which had been formed to give Chrysler’s designers some freedom from the corporate culture in Detroit. Gale’s insistence that every concept car be driveable helped to maintain the goal that these designers’ dreams would become road-going reality.
1993 – 1999
Reports of Chrysler’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
With the debut of the cab-forward Concorde in 1993, Chrysler once again exploded to the forefront of the automotive world by changing the essential architecture of the contemporary automobile. The handsome sedan was a bold statement that Chrysler was prepared to lead the auto industry into the future and hadn’t just been teasing the world with its dramatic concepts of the last several years. The Concorde’s steeply raked windshield was pushed out over the hood, and the wheels stood near the car’s corners. With cab-forward, Chrysler designers had created a modern synthesis of both the early Forward Look’s aggressive movement and the Airflow’s spacious interior.
The Concorde bowed to wide acclaim and strong sales. The following year’s Chrysler LHS, with its sublimely shaped roofline evoking classic Jaguar and Bugatti themes, won even wider admiration. Suddenly, Chrysler became the brand to watch, a leap ahead of its traditional competitors. Town & Country had also established a healthy niche market, giving Chrysler an unusually broad range that attracted a wide variety of customers who generally liked what they saw.
The Chrysler Cirrus for 1995 so closely resembled the futuristic concept car of the same name from a few years earlier that it became clear that Chrysler had found a way to create cars in a way that no one else could touch. The words “You can’t do that” seemed to have vanished from the Chrysler lexicon in the face of daring curves and proportions flawlessly executed on production cars.
Beneath the new designs were new engines, new transmissions, complete new architectures — all developed through an entirely new process. A Chrysler car was now the shared responsibility of a Platform Team, which could exchange ideas for the benefit of the whole project. Platform teams revived the spirit of synergistic cooperation that Walter P. Chrysler so admired in his Three Musketeers — Breer, Skelton and Zeder.
The result has been an unending stream of innovative new products, each one better than the last. The all-new Town & Country for 1996 proved that minivans could be stylish and as luxurious as a fine car, while the Chrysler Sebring Coupe and Convertible reopened a long ignored market for sporty cars with a back seat.
Incredibly, the 1998 Chrysler Concorde made the original look like the box it came in. While all new and incorporating a series of impressive engines, the Concorde continued a heritage theme pioneered by the 1994-1997 LHS, most notably in its dramatic, Ferrari-like grille. Heritage became more than a flirtation with the introduction of the 1999 Chrysler 300M, which continues the spirit of the legendary 300 Letter Series cars in a thoroughly modern interpretation that redefines the contemporary sport sedan paradigm. Introduced along with the 300M, the 1999 Chrysler LHS features an interior filled with tasteful, evocative features like white dial gauges and even an analog clock.
In 1999, its 75th year, Chrysler unveiled the segment-busting 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser. Loaded with innovations, and designed with a “modern classic” look, PT Cruiser again demonstrates Chrysler’s dedication to creating vehicles that take inspiration from the past and redefine the future. The spirit of experimentation leading to revolution is deeply etched in Chrysler’s history, and the new Chrysler PT Cruiser proves that this spirit is as vibrant as ever.
As the Chrysler brand begins its second 75 years, its products echo the manifestation of Walter P. Chrysler’s dream — vehicles that are the standard of their class in performance, design, innovation and engineering.