Building Chrysler, Part 1: How Walter P. made cars

Chrysler’s career shifted gears from trains to automobiles in 1911 when he received an invitation to meet with James J. Storrow, a Boston banker on the board of directors of ALCO, who was also one of the bankers that had taken over General Motors from founder William C. Durant.  He was also serving as President of GM at the time, and arranged for Chrysler to meet with Charles W. Nash, president of Buick Motor Company, who was looking for a skilled production chief.  He was quickly designated Buick new Works Manage, (in charge of plant production) at Buick’s Flint, MI headquarters.

Despite suffering a 50 percent pay cut (to just $6,000 annually), Chrysler jumped at the chance to prove himself in the emerging auto industry. The following year Nash was named President of GM, but also kept the same title at Buick – blocking Chrysler’s rise in the company.

Building Chrysler

Chrysler factory workers assemble 6-cylinder engines at the company’s very first plant in Highland Park, MI.

A talented engineer, Chrysler found many ways to reduce costs.  That talent would prove useful for the duration of his career.  Among his many cost-cutting strategies was putting an end to finishing automobile undercarriages with the same quality of finish that the body received.  Realizing his efforts were saving Buick tons of money, one day in 1915 he decided he deserved a raise.  So he marched in Nash’s office, demanding a $25,000 salary – and got it.

The following year Durant regained control of GM with the help of chemical industrialist Pierre du Pont. Eager to keep top talent, Durant offered Chrysler the then-unheard-of salary of $10,000 a month for three years (165,000 in today’s dollars), with a $500,000 bonus at the end of each year, or an equal amount of GM stock.

While the salary was incredible, he was unable to get along with Durant. So Chrysler decided to leave GM after his contract expired.  He was quickly recruited by various investment banks to, help bail out various ailing automakers, including Willys-Overland and Maxwell-Chalmers.  His cost-cutting skills were outstanding, but came too late save Willys.  However, he was able to stabilize Maxwell-Chalmers, and used the millions earned from selling his GM stock to begin engineering his own types of vehicles and re-brand Maxwell into the Chrysler Corporation by the time 1925 rolled around.

Building Chrysler

In June 1928 Chrysler acquired the Dodge Bros. Car Company and its main assembly plant and headquarters facility in Hamtramck, MI.

The very first pre-production “Chrysler” – a phaeton touring car – began rolling off the old Maxwell assembly line in Highland Park, MI in late 1924 as a 1925 model.  Highland Park was not only the site of the first Chrysler assembly line, it soon expanded and became the firm’s corporate headquarters, Chrysler brass would retain officers there until the corporate relocation to new headquarters and technology facilities in Auburn Hills, MI.  Construction there began in 1986, with the dedication held in October, 1991.

Within five years Chrysler would expand operations with the acquisition of the Dodge Brothers car company, and the addition of the Plymouth, DeSoto and Imperial nameplates, giving him a range of makes and models that would enable him to challenge GM, his former employer.

To make the cataloging of the various assembly plants easier to digest, they are being listed here in chronological order, with key information about the products assembled, and whether or not each is still in operation.

1920’s: Chrysler Launch and Expansion

Plant No. 1) Elements of Chrysler’s very first assembly plant located in Highland Park, MI, were built as early as 1910, when several early automakers, including the Grabowsky Motor Company, Brush Runabout Company, and Gray Motor Company established operations on the site. Those facilities were acquired by Maxwell in 1918, before Chrysler models first began rolling off the assembly line in 1925.  Status:  Out of operation.

Plant No. 2) Chrysler’s second plant was Maxwell’s original assembly line – the Jefferson Avenue Assembly plant, opened by Maxwell Motors in 1907. It was one of the primary assembly plants for Chrysler brands until was closed in 1990 to make way for a brand new assembly facility – Jefferson Avenue North, opened in 1991 near Grosse Point Park. It has been expanded twice to roughly 3 million sq. ft., and produces the Jeep Grand Cherokee. It uses the original site of the Hudson Motor Company location that was originally built during the 1940s as a storage lot for newly manufactured vehicles.

Cars were assembled at the site by first Hudson/Nash – then American Motors for some 47 years. Status:  Active. A plant was re-built on the site in 1993 to assemble the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but it will switch to the revived Jeep Grand Wagoneer model when it debuts in 2018.