THE CHRYSLER CHRONICLES PART 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7


Just south of downtown Denver, along Broadway Boulevard, one finds rows of stately old buildings with unusually large windows on the ground floor. These are the car dealerships of a bygone era. The meat has been sucked out, leaving the shells. One structure with an ornate white facade is flanked with the names "Franklin" and "Studebaker" inscribed in stone. The building is now occupied by a furniture retailer. Down the street a clean building of red brick still promises: "Willys-Overland. Fine Motor Cars." The words may as well be cave paintings. Today the Willys-Overland building contains an MRI machine for hire. Invalids is the new plastics.



John North Willys made a fortune wholesaling bicycles from a shop in Elmira, New York. Then, in 1906, he had a thought: "...undoubtedly, more people would want to have themselves propelled about the country than to do the propelling themselves on a bicycle. So I got two auto agencies." [Cursio, Chrysler, p. 263]

Willys contracted with a little factory called Overland, which was then building fewer than fifty cars per year, to produce 500 vehicles for him. Overland failed to deliver the order. The company went bust and Willys stepped up to save the operation and his hefty down payment. The partial or complete resurrection of failed auto companies is a common theme in this story, you'll find. After signing its new lease on life Willys-Overland had great success for a while, ramping production from hundreds per year to thousands, tens of thousands and then over one-hundred-forty thousand. In 1916 Willys-Overland was second only to Ford in sales.

Walter Chrysler seemed to feel that Willys' meteoric success in the auto business rested on a simple ability to produce and deliver autos during a time of economic boom and increasing demand. "Right after the war all automobile companies had experienced a boom market," he wrote in his autobiography, published in 1937. "If you could deliver automobiles you could sell them. For a little while this demand had helped some companies to overcome the abrupt cancellation of Government contracts. ... Then what had appeared to be a flourishing boom ended in a depression, the post-war collapse."

Willys and his creditors found themselves overextended, to put it mildly, when their boom turned to bust. As new Willys-Overland cars sat idle behind the big windows of the downtown dealerships, huge new factories were being built and bankers were on the hook for about 50 million in loans to the sinking company. Desperate, they turned to Walter Chrysler, who had entered a restless retirement after his departure from Durant's GM. After his stint at Buick, Chrysler was known as the country's star turnaround artist.

John Willys did not possess a deep engineering knowledge of the products he was selling, unlike Chrysler, Ford, the Dodge Brothers and so many others, and Chrysler expressed negative thoughts about the quality of the bike salesman's machines. Quality would have to be improved if the company is going to survive, he wrote. "Whereas John Willys seemed to feel that the company's problems could be met with a couple of new gadgets or a new coat of paint."

Chrysler was reluctant to take the challenge of overhauling Willys-Overland, feeling it might be too far gone. If it goes it could take me down with it, he thought. His solution to this dilemma was to demand a salary of one million dollars per year over two years and complete control of the operation, which he received. One of Chrysler's first acts as the extravagantly well-paid fixer of Willys-Overland was to travel to John Willys' ornate office, light up an expensive cigar out of Willys' custom humidor, and announce to him that he was cutting his salary by half. Chrysler was a long way from sweeping the roundhouse.