The man who started it all. Without the genius that Walter P. Chrysler possessed, as an engineer, as an entrepreneur, and as a marketing genius, Chrysler Corporation would never have existed. Walter began his career as a railroad man, then began working for Buick in 1911, and by 1919 he resigned as president of the company with just over ten million dollars in GM stock! He acquired controlling interest in the Maxwell Motor Car Company, then helped design his own car, the Chrysler, which made its debut in a hotel lobby in 1924. In 1925 the Chrysler was in production, and the rest, as they rightfully say, is history. His success was such that he launched two new car lines in 1928, Plymouth and DeSoto, and he bought Dodge Brothers that same year. He remained very active with his company until 1936, and regrettably died of a brain hemorrhage in 1940 at the age of sixty-five. From the Chrysler Building in New York to the company which still bears his name, Walter P. Chrysler was the model of the American dream. Born of humble means in Kansas in 1875, he became one of the world's greatest success stories.
Breer was one of Chrysler's "Three Musketeers" in the early years of Chrysler. Breer had built his first car, a steamer, in 1901. He joined Studebaker in 1916, which is where he joined forces with Owen Skelton and Fred Zeder, and they reformed Studebaker to make it a phenomenal automotive success. In 1920, he met Walter Chrysler and went to work for him in 1923, bringing Skelton and Zeder with him. Among Breer's many great achievements was his brilliant work designing the historic Chrysler Airflow of 1934, the car he has become synonymous with and which was ten years ahead of its time.
Keller began as an engineer at GM in 1911, where he first met Walter Chrysler at Buick. He left GM to join Chrysler, and by 1935, he'd left his engineering prowess behind for the corporate board rooms, becoming President of Chrysler in 1935. Under his leadership, Chrysler became the second largest producer of cars and trucks in the world. Keller brainstormed and came up with the "Detroit Arsenal' in 1940, which was the first-ever mass production facility for building tanks for the military, and he was instrumental in transforming the entire automotive industry into building airplanes and armaments during WWII. President Truman awarded him the "Medal of Merit" (at that time the highest civilian award one could attain) for his efforts. He resigned as Chairman of the Board at Chrysler in 1956 after having cemented the company's future with world-class engineers and the design genius of Virgil Exner. Keller was the man who took a car company and transformed it into a super-power.
Zeder was another of the "Three Musketeers" who came over from Studebaker, after having also been an engineer with Allis-Chalmers. One of the more brilliant mechanical engineers of his day, Zeder helped develop just about everything mechanical that Chrysler did from the 1920s through the 1940s, but his biggest achievement is probably being the father of the Chrysler flathead six engine that remained in production virtually unchanged from 1926 through 1960. He was the head of Chrysler Engineering from 1924 until he passed away in 1951. Most importantly, however, it was Zeder who reportedly talked Walter P. Chrysler into forming his own car company. They had designed what we now know as the first Chrysler in 1924, and Walter's original intentions were to sell the design to Studebaker! Zeder told him if he even considered it, they'd tear up all the engineering and design blueprints and Chrysler would be on his own! Without Fred Zeder, Chrysler probably never would've come into existence! He passed away in 1951.
If Breer, Zeder, and Skelton are to be the "Three Musketeers" who built the early days of Chrysler, then Joseph Fields must be remembered as the man who assured its success and got the fledgling company off the ground. A marketing genius, Fields began his automotive career with Huppmobile, then Chalmers, which became Maxwell-Chalmers when Walter Chrysler bought them, and that's when he became a vital part of the initial team. When Chrysler was denied an exhibition spot for his new car at the New York Auto Show in 1924, it was Fields who arranged to have the touring car displayed in the middle of the Commodore Hotel lobby (which was something of the host hotel for the show), which garnered it more attention and more orders than Walter would've gotten had he been at the show itself. Put in charge of sales, he sold 32,000 Chryslers in the remaining months of 1924 – then a sales record for a brand-new car. In 1925, he was named vice-president of Chrysler, and sales rose to 106,000 units, and by 1927, just three years after introduction, he was selling more than 200,000 cars each year. Chrysler named him head of the newly formed DeSoto line in 1928, but he returned to Chrysler as President of the company until 1934, when he stepped aside to concentrate on sales and marketing. His prowess in the darkest years of the Great Depression kept Chrysler firmly seated as the #2 or #3 automaker in the world, and sales flourished despite the worldwide depression. He remained on Chrysler's board of directors, largely concentrating on marketing, until his untimely death in 1951. Other men built the company, Joseph Fields made certain it succeeded.
One of "The Three Musketeers" for Chrysler, Skelton's automotive background came from Pope, Packard, then Studebaker, where he met Carl Breer and Fred Zeder. After they transformed Studebaker, following Breer's lead, they formed their own company, ZSB, which finally saw all three of them going to work for Walter Chrysler in 1923 and helping him design his first car. Skelton's mechanical engineering prowess was astonishing. Among his many achievements were the invention of four-wheel hydraulic brakes, and rubber motor mounts! He continued with Chrysler, becoming a member of the Board of Directors until he retired in 1954.
Huebner's impact on the muscle car hobby may be rather slight, but this Chrysler engineer's impact on the world, as a whole, is extraordinary. Huebner was the chief engineer for all of Chrysler's turbine-powered cars from 1956 through his retirement in 1975. He's widely considered the "father of the gas turbine engine." In addition to that, Huebner is credited with having invented the turboprop airplane engine, he designed airplane engines in WWII, and he was a huge part of Chrysler's rocket engine program with NASA in the late fifties and early sixties, working directly with Werner Von Braun. Every M1 Abrams tank out there is powered by an engine that's an outgrowth of Huebner's design, and were it not for his work, the aviation industry and the space program wouldn't be where it is today.
Elwood Engel will forever be known around the world as one of the foremost design artists of the 20th century. Fortunately for Chrysler, he entered their realm as the right man at just the right time. As the legendary Virgil Exner was leaving Chrysler in 1961, Elwood Engel came over from Ford, where he'd been since 1947. Engel's designs immediately showed themselves in the form of the early sixties' B-bodies and the Valiant and Dart lines, and it was Engel who assembled the design teams that literally developed all the muscle cars we know and love so dearly. While their designs are credited to many stylists, it was Engel who signed off and approved each and every one of them. Under his reign as chief of Chrysler's chief stylist, the company built perhaps its most legendary new cars. Engel retired in 1973 but stayed on with Chrysler one more year, until 1974. He passed away in 1986.
The actual Dodge Brothers, John and his younger brother, Horace, initially set up shop in Detroit to build bicycles, but by 1902 they'd found better pickings making transmissions for Oldsmobile. A year later, they retooled to build engines for a man named Henry Ford, which they did until 1913, building a huge plant in Hamtramck, Michigan – the original "Dodge Main" assembly plant. They began producing the Dodge Brothers cars, on their own, in 1914 and they were an overnight sensation. A huge contract with the military further ensured their success, and the Dodge touring car became almost as common of a sight as the Model T. They were, like Walter Chrysler, overnight millionaires and household names, but, their lives were cut tragically short. Both contracted influenza during the huge outbreak of 1918/1919, and John died in January, 1920 at the age of fifty-five. Horace died in December 1920, at the age of fifty-two. The family sold the company in 1925, it was mismanaged and went downhill until it was bought by Walter Chrysler in 1928, primarily because he wanted their truck market. He simplified the cars to go along with his new Plymouth and DeSoto lines, and "Dodge Brothers" simply became "Dodge." One can only wonder how far the brothers would've gone with their company if they hadn't been taken so early.
Paul Hafer is one of the few men on our formative years of Chrysler list who wasn't (technically) a Chrysler employee. Hafer ran a company called "Boyertown Body Works" which had long specialized in supplying wood bodies to various car companies, primarily for trucks and station wagon use. In 1939, he drew up plans for a sporty wooden body he designed for the Dodge chassis which he named "Town & Country." It was a mixture of stock steel and his company's exotic woodwork, and he said the name was derived because of that – part of the car looked like "town" and part of it looked like "country." Chrysler grabbed the idea and put it into production on Chrysler models in 1941 and 1942, but after the war, working with Chrysler's stylists, the iconic Town & Country convertibles were born thanks to Hafer's styling pencils and his company's exotic woodwork. Expensive and hard to maintain, the original T&C's only remained in production until 1950, but his "woodgrain" impact has remained with the entire automotive industry, not just Chrysler, ever since. Imitation woodgrain, and sometimes real wood (Li'l Red Express trucks among others) has appeared on all sorts of cars and trucks thanks to Hafer's wild imagination. Chrysler, more than anyone else, revived the theme time and again, and the name was revived on minivans all the way up to 2016.
Lee Iacocca was someone that needed no introduction in the realm of Chrysler hobbyists. Lee passed away July 2, 2019 at the age of ninety-four. Iacocca will long be remembered as the father of the Ford Mustang, and he did spend the majority of his automotive career with Ford, starting there in 1946 and staying through to 1978. He went from being the president of Ford Motor Corporation to becoming the man who literally saved Chrysler from extinction. Chrysler was in desperate condition when they hired Iacocca in 1978, he became the company's CEO in 1979, and with the company absolutely bankrupt, he persuaded the Treasury Department to front a $1.5 billion dollar loan to Chrysler, which became known as "The Chrysler Bailout" in 1980, which miraculously saved the company – literally. As much as we generally don't care for them today, he ushered in the K-cars, which sold like hotcakes, he turned the company on a dime and hired stylists and engineers from Ford and GM. Chrysler became the company that wrote the books on how to build minivans, he got Carroll Shelby involved in building performance cars again, and throughout his leadership, Chrysler went from being bankrupt to becoming a powerhouse success. The loan was paid back ahead of time, with interest, and Chrysler flourished under his hand. While he left Chrysler in 1992, the engineering and design teams he put together continued to give us amazing machines for the next twenty years.