Walter Percy Chrysler, the founder of the Chrysler Corporation, which for years was one of America’s Big Three automakers along with General Motors (GM) and Ford, is born on April 2, 1875, in Wamego, Kansas.
Chrysler, the son of a railroad engineer, worked his way up in the railroad industry--from sweeper to machinist to plant manager of American Locomotive Company--before making his mark on the auto industry. He rose from a plant manager to become the head of GM’s Buick division. In the early 1920s, he reorganized and saved the Willys-Overland Company, then went on to rescue the Maxwell-Chalmers Company, which in 1924 launched the Chrysler Six, a mid-priced car that would help earn the Chrysler brand a reputation for performance and advanced engineering. In 1925, Maxwell-Chalmers was renamed the Chrysler Corporation.
In 1928, under Walter Chrysler’s leadership, the company acquired the Dodge Brothers Company, thereby becoming the world’s third-largest automaker. Also that year, Chrysler launched the low-priced Plymouth line and the mid-priced DeSoto line. Additionally, Walter Chrysler bankrolled construction of the Chrysler Building in New York City, which began in 1928. When it was completed in 1930, the 77-story art-deco skyscraper was the world’s tallest building; it was surpassed by the Empire State Building the following year.
In January 1929, Walter Chrysler was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. By then, Chrysler had become a wealthy, powerful business mogul with a reputation for working hard and playing hard. He lived in a mansion, traveled the world and met with royalty. One of the few flops of Chrysler’s career was the 1934 Airflow, which experienced production problems and lost money. Chrysler retired as president of his namesake company in 1935 but kept his title of chairman and CEO. After suffering a stroke, he died on August 18, 1940, at the age of 65.
Between 1925 and 1940, Chrysler built 8 million cars and trucks and had 80,000 employees at its peak, according to “Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius” by Vincent Curcio. However, by the 1970s, financial problems brought the company to a near-collapse and it had to be rescued by a government bailout in 1979. In 1998, German automaker Daimler-Benz acquired Chrysler for $36 billion, to create DaimlerChrysler AG. In 2007, Daimler sold an 80 percent controlling interest in Chrysler to private-equity firm Cerberus for $7.4 billion. In April 2009, Chrysler, which along with the rest of the auto industry had been hard hit by the global economic crisis of 2008, filed for bankruptcy protection and announced it would enter a partnership with Italian automaker Fiat.