In the midst of the roaring twenties two giants strode confidently across the land. With many years behind them they had grown to great size and their influence was felt in many fields.
The General Motors Corporation had attained its stature by accumulating a stable of fine cars and subsidiary supply organizations, and Henry Ford's brilliant mass-production techniques raised the Ford Motor Company to great heights. It did not seem as though economic room existed for a third major corporation. The depression of 1921 started many independent automobile companies on the road to dissolution and the great collapse of 1929 signaled their eventual end.
Yet in 1924 a brand new car was exhibited in New York, the handsome Chrysler 70. The energetic Walter P. Chrysler had decided to challenge the giants, and, in so doing, became a giant himself.
Two pioneering cars were the basis of his corporation, Maxwell and Chalmers. But both cars were rapidly losing ground and Chrysler's bold decision to produce a newly designed machine saved the firm. The Chrysler 70 was extremely well-engineered with a seven-bearing crankshaft and one of the first users of high compression. Once the new car was launched Chrysler lost no time in expanding what was now named the Chrysler Corporation. Chalmers was dropped and the Maxwell was redesigned to become the Plymouth. In 1928 the De Soto heralded a new line, and, in the same year, the Dodge brothers joined the growing firm.
In 1931 Plymouth became a serious competitor in the small car class and seriously threatened Henry Ford's empire. It completely outclassed the Ford Model A by featuring hydraulic brakes, more graceful body lines, and a really smooth engine balanced on three rubber shock mounts-the famous "floating power."
The rapid rise of the Chrysler empire was mainly due to his insistence on quality and engineering progress. In the 1930's customers were more interested in the technical features of a car than in the amount of chrome or the color of the upholstery, and the substantial construction and reliable performance of the Chrysler cars was perhaps the main reason for their sales. By the end of the thirties the Chrysler Corporation had passed Ford and was in second place. The new industrial giant was solidly established.
One of the greatest American controversies over a car came in 1934 when the Airflow model appeared in both the Chrysler and De Soto lines. Aerodynamically it made sense with its curved nose and sloping rear, but it was far ahead of its time. The public was appalled at a car that differed so radically from the square-shaped machines that were the standard of the time. Airflow models sold poorly and were changed as rapidly as new body dies could be made, but they were a prophetic note. However the Chrysler Imperial sold well as a luxury car. Big, powerful, reliable, although certainly not a classic in design, it held its own with all the other expensive automobiles. Today, the modern Imperial ranks with Cadillac and Lincoln in style, appointments, and, of course, expense.
After World War II the Chrysler Corporation fell out of step with the industry for a time. They concentrated on engineering improvements, experimenting with torsion bar suspension, hemispherical combustion chambers, and efficient use of horsepower. During the same period Ford and General Motors began a style trend. Their cars became longer, wider, boxier, more be-chromed, and the tail-fin disease ran wild. The public forgot about performance and economy and bought cars for appearance. The conventionally styled Chrysler products were passed by and the corporation fell to a poor third place among the big three. Their styling department came to the rescue by adopting the most extravagantly designed tail-fins yet to be seen. Chrysler also followed the industry in gadgetry. A push-button automatic transmission removed the last vestiges of a gear shift lever, and numerous power devices completed the job of divorcing the driver from his car.
In 1960, as well as their many standard models and the luxurious Imperial, the Chrysler Corporation makes what may well be the fastest big car in America, the 300-F. This is a very advanced machine which develops about 400 horsepower. Acceleration is amazing and the powerful car can run continuously and effortlessly at high speeds in true European Gran Tourismo style. Automotive purists may carp about the size and style of the 300-F, but no one can deny the efficient performance. Scaled down and balanced the 300-F might make a fine competition car which could re-create the triumph of 1928 when two Chryslers endured the grueling 24 hour race at Le Mans and placed third and fourth.
It is now a long time since Walter P. Chrysler pushed his once small firm into the front ranks of the automobile industry. The Chrysler Corporation now stands equally with the other giants, and its recipe for growth seems to contain two major ingredients - fine quality and a long discerning look into the future.