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One man's hard work created the Chrysler empire

SUNDAY DRIVER -

June 03, 2007|By JASON STEIN

The two-story home with the white siding and matching picket fence in sleepy Ellis, Kan., still stands, a monument to a man who's better known by his name than his face.

Tours are still given on weekdays and for four hours on Sundays. For a few dollars you can see the barn where the 18-year-old boy, first hired as a sweeper at the Kansas Pacific Railroad, made his own steam locomotive, and where the 22-year-old man left to make a fortune, one that was worth $37 billion to German automaker Mercedes-Benz less than 10 years ago. Today, the company that bears his name is treated like a cold piece of currency, recently sold to a private equity company. Unions fear for their jobs, shareholders fear for their stock and entire countries hold their breath ... and wait.

In all the turmoil it's easy to forget that Chrysler, the company, evolved from pure greatness and a spirit of one man that might never again be matched.

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Walter P. Chrysler valued ambition long before he even considered fame. Ironically, however, cars were never his passion.

From his days of forged and tempered steel, making his own tools in the back of the home on 102 West 10th St., to the afternoon he unceremoniously walked off the job at the Chicago Great Western railroad shop over a dispute with a foreman, Chrysler was as brash as business was serious. He was one of the few industrial leaders who refused college to eventually emerge from the ranks of labor.

And, all along, he had Ellis to thank.

Before his break-the-mold Airflow automobile and self-named New York skyscraper, Chrysler was hooked on hard work learned from a father who pounded nails and drove a locomotive. It was a pioneer spirit of the American frontier, then known as the American West, and a small-town work ethic that would mold an automotive giant.

Chrysler, himself, was a dreamer willing to take risks for the possibility of a distant and ill-defined future reward.

"I feel sorry for the person who can't get genuinely excited about his work," he once said.

"Not only will he never be satisfied, but he will never achieve anything worthwhile."

And Chrysler was all about achieving. That he would be known more for passenger cars than boxcars came more as an accident.

By 1908, the 32-year-old Chrysler was a machine apprentice well on his way up the corporate ladder in the railroad industry when he fell for his first car, a red-and-white luxury model called the Locomobile on display at the Chicago, Ill., National Automobile Show.

For $700, and a $4,300 loan, Chrysler left Chicago with the car and a dream. Evening after evening he'd tear apart the Locomobile in his garage, assembling and disassembling it, studying it and understanding its movements.

He was hooked, the realization growing that there was another great industry out there. "And he knew he wanted to get into it," Chrysler historian Eugene Weiss told a biographer in 1995.

By 1911, Chrysler had angrily left the railway - storming out after a supervisor was critical over a late train - and went to work for the embryonic Buick company, a division of General Motors. As a manager, Chrysler increased production to 550 cars a day from a paltry 45, and bounced from one success to another until he was eventually named president of Buick.

His vision was beginning to form. The early automobile makers had once been in the carriage business and viewed wood as the future of the automobile. With his railroad roots, Chrysler could only see iron and steel. But when he made arrangements for an outside company to produce frames for Buick, then found out the president of General Motors had already announced Buick would build a new frame plant in another location, Chrysler quit, walking away from a whopping $60,000 salary with $10 million in stock. It was 1920.

Five years later, he formed his own company. Four years after that, he was selling more cars than Ford.

The toolmaker-turned-railway foreman-turned-car-executive was rolling.

He had transformed the down-and-out Maxwell Motor Company into the Chrysler Corporation and, within three years, introduced two lines of cars - Plymouth and DeSoto - and purchased the Dodge Brothers Motor Company.

He was also beginning to show his flair. Chrysler was a man who loved glitzy musicals, flashy women and art deco style. And so it was that in 1934, 10 years after the first Chrysler was launched, he gambled on the very chic Chrysler Airflow (illustrated here), the first vehicle streamlined in design and the first American-produced car with a curved, single-piece windshield and an optional automatic overdrive transmission.

It was revolutionary for its time, changing the concept of other models for generations to come, even if it was Chrysler's biggest sales loafer.

"It was the tour de force of engineering," historian Weiss said. "It had power. It could sustain hours of high-speed driving. It defined the characteristics of the cars you drive today."

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