Monday, March 30, 2009

Chrysler: a legacy of problems

Back in the time of my youth, I spent several summers in my teens working for my father at his company, which was in commercial printing. It did everything from major advertising posters, to colorful boxes for toys – you name it; it printed it.
But the backbone of the firm’s financial existence, in Detroit, Mich., was the automobile industry and the biggest client was Chrysler Motors. The biggest annual job for his company was printing the hundreds of thousands of handbooks for each new car owner, found in each vehicle’s glove department. And while Chrysler was the three in the Big Three, and not nearly as big as Ford or General Motors, it was the lifeblood of that company – the blood that each worker in that plant – from printer to stockman to executive – depended upon.
Dad’s company was no different than thousands of businesses across southeastern Michigan and the Midwest. One was interlinked with another and one small crack in the chain was felt all the way down the line. It was true in the late 1960s and it is true today – except the chain is much smaller and the links break MUCH easier than back in the day.
Even then, Chrysler was always in “trouble.” There was always talk of it closing down, being gobbled up by either Ford or GM; going the way of American Motors and Studebaker (remember the Rambler and the Avanti?). Somehow, Chrysler always survived because it knew its place and knew its strengths – engineering. Chrysler ALWAYS was known for having the best BUILT, best engineered cars – only they were NOT the most popular and never the cheapest (unlike Chevrolets or Fords).
The major developments in a car’s engineering and handling were usually developed by Chrysler – the hemi engine came from Chrysler, advanced in transmissions came from Chrysler (I learned to drive on a Chrysler “3000” which had PUSH BUTTON automatic transmission, located on the dashboard). Its power cars – the Dodge Charger and Plymouth Roadrunner and GTX – were TRUE muscle cars, not “sports” cars like the Mustang, Corvette or Camaro. They represented POWER, not meant to entice women for sex.
Chrysler first introduced air conditioning and torsion-spring suspensions (instead of air suspensions) and the 1961 Plymouth Valiant was the first car ever to have an alternator. The minivan was a Chrysler concept introduced to the public, and suburbia, in the 1980s to help the company through one of its many criseses.
Most police fleets were outfitted with Plymouth Furys or Dodges because they ran like tanks and lasted forever. When Elwood Blues tells his brother, Jake, about the new Bluesmobile in the movie “The Blues Brothers,” (“It’s got a cop motor, a 440-cubic-inch plant. It’s got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters, so it’ll run good on regular gas ...”) he’s talking about a Chrysler (1974 Dodge Monaco) product.
But trouble has always followed Chrysler. Lee Iacocca had to save Chrysler in the 1980s from closure after the government passed a controversial bailout at the end of 1979. Eventually it survived but never thrived, like it did from 1936-49 when it was the second largest car company in America.
Chrysler has always thought gobbling up other failing companies would make it stronger; it assumed AMC, Jeep and others. It was sold to Daimler (Mercedes-Benz). But that German firm couldn’t keep it profitable before turning it over to Cerberus, which ran Chrysler into a zero worth company this past year.
Now the Obama Administration has essentially given Chrysler 30 days to either buddy-up with the Italian carmaker Fiat, or its curtains for Christine (which was a murderous red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury in Stephen King’s book and movie).
Just like that story, it was a beautiful car but eventually had to die. And some of us will shed a tear …

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