PART 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 ...

Walt Chrysler was ferociously busy fixing locomotives and entire railroads in the early years of the 20th century. His railroad career took him from Ellis, Kansas to Salt Lake, to "bleak and scary" Trinidad, Colorado to the Middle of Nowhere, Texas and on to a town in Iowa called Oelwein, which seemed plenty large to him with its 6,000 inhabitants. In Oelwein he took on heavy-duty responsibility as the Superintendent of Motive Power for the Chicago Great Western Railroad. Immersed in his work, with scarcely a moment to eat or sleep let alone think about topics other than the relentless and flawless operation of his railroads, Chrysler probably wasn't at a great vantage point to observe the tremendous changes taking place in transportation as a whole during these years. While he surely knew of their existence it's quite possible that he didn't see very many cars at all. Like the bicycles that preceded them, the early autos were exceedingly expensive machines and were not in widespread use until manufacturers started producing them cheaply some years later. They would have been scarce in towns like Trinidad, far from the nearest big city, and those that did happen to rumble down the Santa Fe Trail Main Street among the disgruntled coal miners no doubt engendered less than positive reactions, as they were still viewed as symbols of upper class frivolity.

In 1908, Chrysler traveled from Iowa to an auto show in Chicago and lingered there four days, drooling over a four-door Locomobile touring car, white with red interior. Chrysler's head-over-heels tumble for the auto came more than a decade after the automotive swoons of Henry Ford, Alexander Winton, Hiram Maxim and a few dozen other mechanical-minded individuals, many of whom were bicycle makers. Unlike Chrysler, these earlybirds fell in love with a vision that awaited realization, an idea. Chrysler was late but intense with his lust, which was directed at an actual shining machine, the manifestation of the dream, a thing. Ford and Maxim built 'quadricycles' that were as much bicycle as automobile. The Locomobile touring car, despite its chain drive, gave the appearance of a vehicle that had almost completely smothered its two-wheel heritage.

The Locomobile's price tag was problematic -- $5000 -- much more than Chrysler would make in a year working for the Chicago Great Western Railroad. He set out to borrow the sum anyway, and managed to do it. When he told his wife (the deliciously named Della Forker) -- who had been traveling all over the sticks having kids and living in these shotgun shacks in the middle of fields to support his railroad career -- that they were in debt for over a year's salary on an automobile of all things, she got a bit hot under the collar. She slammed the screen door on him. An automobile??! However, when a team of horses pulled the Locomobile into their yard, with Walt at the wheel, he watched his wife's eyes light up and his young daughter jump for joy. It was a critical moment of his life.

Della's reaction had nothing to do with a realization of the potential practical and utilitarian uses of the car or the convenience it might provide for their family life. Her reaction was like his own -- it was pure sex. It was about the sheer beauty and explosive power of the thing, the status and excitement. It was a primal attraction. "My wife was wild with enthusiasm then and wanted to take a ride immediately. But I put the car in the barn, and it stayed in there so long that she despaired of ever getting a ride. Sometimes she sat in it when I cranked up and let the engine run."

Chrysler had no idea how to drive it. He got to work right away taking it apart. Piece by piece he dismantled the Locomobile and laid it out on newspapers in the barn. He recorded the deconstruction with notes and sketches, then put it all back together. Three months he fiddled before finally driving out of the barn, engine purring.

There was an audience of neighbors gathered for the event. They had all been waiting impatiently these months along with his wife. Chrysler recalled that some were whooping and yelling and others were offering derisive commentary and laughter as he promptly lurched off course and buried the front wheels to the axle in a neighbor's garden.

 

TO BE CONTINUED...