Walter Percy Chrysler, the founder of the American automotive corporation that bears his name, dies on this day in 1940 at his estate in Great Neck, New York, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 65 years old.
Born in 1875 in Kansas, Chrysler was the son of a locomotive engineer; he began working himself when he was 17, earning seven cents an hour as an apprentice in a railroad machine shop. He worked his way up quickly, becoming a plant manager for the American Locomotive Company by the time he was 33 years old. In the early years of the automobile, Chrysler became fascinated: At a 1905 automobile show in Chicago, he borrowed $5,000 to purchase his own car, taking it apart and putting it back together again before taking a single ride. In 1911, Chrysler accepted a job as a manager at the Buick Motor Company at half his former salary. Within five years, he rose to become the company’s president, and to make Buick into the strongest unit of William C. Durant’s General Motors (GM).
Durant and Chrysler clashed over policy, however, and Chrysler left GM in 1920 to work with the Willys-Overland Company and with Maxwell Motors Company. A car designed by Chrysler and featuring a high-compression engine sold $50 million worth in its first year replaced the existing Maxwell car. In 1925, he emerged as president of the Chrysler Corporation, consisting of the former Maxwell and Chalmers car companies. After acquiring Dodge in 1928 and introducing the Plymouth that same year, the Chrysler Corporation would go on to become one of the Big Three of American automakers, alongside Ford and GM.
Aside from automobiles, Chrysler was chiefly known for financing the 77-story Art Deco skyscraper in midtown Manhattan (at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street) that bears his name. To complete the distinctive ornamentation around the spire of the building, its architects used elements from Chrysler’s automobiles, including radiator caps, hubcaps and stainless steel that evoked the chrome shine on a car. When it was completed in 1930, the Chrysler building was the tallest building in the world and the first manmade structure to top 1,000 feet. Surpassed by the Empire State Building a year later, the building remains one of New York City’s most distinctive skyscrapers.