Walter Percy Chrysler

The American manufacturer Walter Percy Chrysler (1875-1940) was a self-trained engineer who formed one of the three major automobile companies in the United States.

The son of a Union Pacific Railroad engineer, Walter Chrysler was fascinated by machinery at an early age. He turned down a chance to go to college to become an apprentice in the Union Pacific shops at Ellis, Kans. Hard-working, intelligent, and determined to master every aspect of his craft, Chrysler then worked as a machinist in a series of railroad shops throughout the Midwest. Moving into positions of greater responsibility, he emerged in 1910 as superintendent of motive power for the Chicago Great Western Railroad. As an official in the mechanical branch of railroading, Chrysler knew he had little chance of moving into the top echelons of the corporate structure, and so in 1910 he took a position as works manager of the American Locomotive Company in Pittsburgh, beginning at a salary of $8,000 per year.

At this time General Motors Corporation, formed by William C. Durant in 1908, was in financial difficulties. In order to avoid bankruptcy for the $60-million group of plants manufacturing both automobiles and components, a syndicate of bankers holding GM securities forced Durant out in 1910 and made Charles W. Nash, a self-trained engineer, president. Aware of Chrysler's efficient management of American Locomotive, Nash in 1912 persuaded Chrysler to become works manager of Buick at a cut in salary from $12,000 to $6,000.

Increased Production at Buick

Production methods at Buick were inefficient and expensive because cars were still being made by slow, hand-work methods traditional in the manufacture of expensive carriages. Chrysler immediately reorganized the Buick shops into efficient units centered on construction by machinery and introduced the production-line method of automobile building inaugurated by Henry Ford. The results were impressive. The output of cars rose from 45 to 200 per day. At the same time Buick was chiefly responsible for a rise in GM's profits from $7 million to $28 million between 1913 and 1916.

Through skillful financial manipulations, Durant returned to the presidency of GM in 1916 and appointed Chrysler president of Buick at a salary of $500,000 per year, payable largely in stock. During the next 4 years production surged ahead, and Buick continued to provide most of the profits for GM. But Chrysler found Durant's interference in Buick's affairs increasingly irritating. He disapproved strongly of Durant's wholesale purchase of new plants for GM, some of them of marginal value to the combination, financially unstable, and difficult to integrate into GM's operations. Finally, in 1920 Chrysler resigned, intending to retire on his considerable savings. But in 1922, at the behest of a banking syndicate, he took on the job of salvaging the Willys-Overland Company from bankruptcy at a salary of $1 million per year.

An important part of the recovery program was the designing of a high-performance car in the $1,500 range which would compete with luxury cars selling for $5,000 and up. Shortly after the start of the Willys-Overland undertaking, Chrysler accepted responsibility for a similar reorganization of the Maxwell Motor Company. Through the efforts of three capable engineers the new Chrysler car was completed at the Maxwell plant in 1924 and exhibited in New York.

Birth of Chrysler Corporation

Public enthusiasm for his new car enabled Chrysler to raise the funds to get it into mass production, and in 1925 the Maxwell Company was rechartered as the Chrysler Corporation. Because of increasing demand for the car, Chrysler purchased the Dodge Brothers Manufacturing Company in 1928. Capitalized at approximately $432 million, Chrysler Corporation was the second-largest automobile producer in the nation.

During the Depression, Chrysler followed a policy of rigorous reduction of debt and improvements on the line of cars—Chrysler, DeSoto, and Plymouth. Thus by 1937, when demand surged back, the company was in a secure position.

A bluff, abrupt man, Chrysler nevertheless had a warm, outgoing personality which enabled him to make and keep friends even in times of disagreement. His success was due primarily to his ability to rationalize production, cut costs to the bone, and constantly improve his product. Moreover, he showed a remarkable ability to grow with his job. During his automotive years he became as adept at managing the financial and marketing ends of his business as in the actual production of automobiles. He retired in 1935 and died 5 years later.

Further Reading on Walter Percy Chrysler

The most detailed information on Chrysler is in his autobiography, written with Boyden Sparkes, Life of an American Workman (1938). Chrysler describes his managerial methods in B. C. Forbes and O. D. Foster, Automotive Giants of America: Men Who Are Making Our Motor Industry (1926). Thomas C. Cochran gives an excellent account of Chrysler's business career in John A. Garraty, ed., The Unforgettable Americans (1960). Chrysler's years at Buick and the history of the Chrysler Corporation receive good coverage in two volumes by John B. Rae, American Automobile Manufacturers: The First Forty Years (1959) and The American Automobile: A Brief History (1965).