Think of Chrysler history, and what comes to mind? Probably financial struggles and K-cars. But that wasn’t always Chrysler’s legacy. In the days before Fiat, Daimler, and Lee Iacocca, Chrysler was known as Detroit’s engineering powerhouse, a company that developed technical innovations that were copied quickly by its cross-town rivals. How did Chrysler earn that reputation—and how was it lost?
Chrysler History: Launching With the Industry’s Most Innovative Car
Chrysler established its tech-savvy reputation for innovation with its very first car. At the 1924 New York Auto Show, Walter P. Chrysler unveiled a new car that was regarded as a technological masterpiece. Its 3.3-liter straight-six engine had a then-unheard-of 4.7:1 compression ratio, and it produced 68 horsepower. (For comparison, Ford’s 1928 Model A had a 3.3-liter four-cylinder that produced only 40 hp.) The engine was loaded with innovative features, including pressure lubrication, an oil filter, and a carburetor air filter that doubled as a silencer.
But what made the Chrysler go was no less innovative than what made it stop: The 1924 Chrysler boasted four-wheel hydraulic brakes, this at a time when most cars only had mechanical brakes on two wheels. With its tubular axles and shock absorbers, the Chrysler could be driven at its top speed of 75 mph without soiling one’s jazz trousers.
Chrysler History: The Talent Behind the Innovations
The 1924 Chrysler was not Walter P. ‘s own work; he was a great businessman rather than a great engineer. Much of the development was done by Carl Breer, Owen Skelton, and Fred Zeder, a trio of engineers known as the Three Musketeers that Walter P. Chrysler brought onboard when he was hired to turn around Willys-Overland. Chrysler took over Maxwell in 1922, and the Three Musketeers followed. When Maxwell was reorganized into Chrysler Corp. in 1925, Zeder was named chief engineer.
Chrysler innovations continued at a rapid pace. In 1925, Zeder developed a vibration damper and rubber engine mounts to reduce vibration. In 1930, Chrysler was the first automaker to adapt the more efficient downdraft carburetor (as opposed to the common updraft carburetor) to a passenger car. In 1931, Skelton developed a new method of mounting the engine to the chassis that aligned its natural rocking axis with its center of gravity, further reducing vibration. The system was called “Floating Power,” and Chrysler advertised the daylights out of it.
Chrysler History: Before the Automatic, Chrysler Automated the Transmission
The 1934 Airflow, sold under the Chrysler and DeSoto brands, was a bit too futuristic for the market, but it did have one rather innovative feature, an automatic overdrive function. With the transmission in second or third gear, the driver could engage overdrive by momentarily lifting off of the accelerator pedal.
A further Chrysler transmission development was Fluid Drive, which replaced the flywheel with a hydraulic coupling (similar to a torque converter but without the torque-multiplying effect). Paired with a conventional manual transmission, it allowed the driver to stop the car and take off again without stepping on the clutch.
Fluid Drive could also be combined with a semi-automatic transmission. The semi-auto had Low and High ranges, each with two speeds. The driver could shift into High range, then start and stop the car without using the clutch. Lifting off of the accelerator at about 20 mph would allow the car to shift to its higher speed range, and flooring the accelerator forced a downshift. The clutch was only necessary for shifting to Low range (for better acceleration) or reverse.
Chrysler History: Key-Starts, Bonded Shoes, and Hemi Heads
World War II redirected much of Chrysler’s attention to the war effort, but by the late 1940s, the innovations were once again pouring out. In 1949, Chrysler introduced bonded brake linings, replacing the rivets that formerly attached linings to shoes and increasing brake life. The 1949 Chrysler was the first car you could start by turning the ignition key rather than pushing a separate button.
In 1951, Chrysler introduced an innovation it still banks on today: The hemispherical cylinder head. Hemi engines were able to extract more power and better fuel economy from the low-octane fuel then available.
Where Chrysler didn’t innovate, it often improved. Packard and Cadillac introduced air conditioning in 1940 and 1941, respectively, but Chrysler’s 1954 Airtemp system was a huge improvement. It was mechanically simpler, more efficient, cooled more quickly, and used outside air rather than recycling air from the cabin. Chrysler introduced the push-button transmission in 1956 and the torsion-bar suspension in 1957. Compared to conventional coil springs, torsion bars saved weight and allowed the steering linkage to be reconfigured for less kick-back.
Chrysler History: The Origins of Cruise Control and the End of Swivel Seats
Chrysler in 1958 introduced the first cruise-control system, called Auto Pilot, which was the brainchild of an independent inventor named Ralph Teetor. Auto Pilot had two modes; the driver would select a desired speed using a dash-mounted dial, and Auto Pilot would push back on the accelerator pedal once the car reached the selected speed. Pushing in the dial would cause Auto Pilot to hold the selected speed automatically.
Chrysler innovated the swiveling seat in 1959, which it later linked to the operation of the doors. Legend has it that a Chrysler executive and his wife were on their way to a society function one evening, and as it was a hot and sticky day in Detroit, the wife had hiked her skirt up above her knees to take advantage of the Airtemp air conditioning. When they arrived at the venue, the valet opened the door before the wife had time to re-arrange her dress. The seat automatically swiveled toward the assembled crowd, and swiveling seats were discontinued soon after.
Chrysler History: Alternators, Unit Bodies, and Turbines
Throughout the 1950s, most cars used DC generators, which were compact but could not produce much of a charge at low engine speeds. AC alternators were more efficient, and were often used on police cars and taxis, but they were also bulky and expensive. Chrysler developed the first practical automotive alternator, which it installed on the strange-looking 1960 Plymouth Valiant and on all Chrysler cars in ’61. Within a few years, alternators became the industry standard.
Chrysler’s first flirtation with unitized (or unibody) construction was the 1934 Airflow, and between 1960-61, all cars save the top-of-the-line Imperial adopted unibody construction. Though this wasn’t an industry first, Chrysler was the first large automaker to widely adopt the unibody, making its cars lighter and less prone to squeaks and rattles.
Chrysler’s best-known innovation of the Jet Age is the turbine engine project, a subject which deserves its own article (if not its own book—we highly recommend Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation by Steve Lehto). Chrysler actually produced its first gas-turbine car in 1954, and Between 1963-66, Chrysler embedded 50 turbine cars with 200 American families. The cars worked well, though fuel economy wasn’t great. Chrysler determined that gas-turbine engines were not well suited to passenger cars, though the company continued experimenting with them until 1979.
Chrysler History: Not All Innovations Were Successful …
Of course, some of Chrysler’s innovations missed the mark. In 1962, Dodge and Plymouth downsized their full-size models and stripped them of fins, chrome, and other 1950s adornment. De-chroming was a good thing, but downsizing came 15 years too early. Dodge and Plymouth developed new full-size cars for 1965, and the shrunken models were repackaged as intermediates.
Many of Chrysler’s later innovations went largely unnoticed. The 1971 Imperial had the industry’s first four-wheel antilock braking system, called SureBrake. (Lincoln’s Sure-Track antilock system was introduced in 1969, but it only worked on the rear brakes.) In 1972, Chrysler introduced electronic ignition for its performance V-8s, making it standard on all of its engines a year later. Electronic ignition replaced the distributor’s wear-prone mechanical breaker points (which opened and closed each time a spark plug was fired) with a magnetic sensor on the distributor shaft. The electronically triggered spark made cars easier to start, increased plug life, and eliminated yearly ignition tune-ups; Ford and GM adopted it soon after.
Chrysler History: End of the Innovation Era?
As the 1970s drew on, Chrysler found itself in deepening financial trouble. Innovation took a back seat, though there were still a few notable firsts. The 1978 Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizons were the first American cars to feature a transverse engine as well as a multi-function turn-signal stalk, which integrated wiper/washer and high-beam controls that were previously located on the dash and floor, respectively.
The 1981 K-Cars were not particularly inventive, but their transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive layout would soon be universally adopted. Unfortunately, development at Chrysler seemed to stagnate in the 1980s with an endless series of K-badged front-drivers, but Chrysler did introduce the first turbocharger with a water-cooled bearing housing, the first standard-fit driver’s airbag, and the first integrated child seat.
Chrysler would introduce more innovative cars in the 1990s, most notably the Neon, which introduced new standards of space and performance in compact cars, and the LH sedans with their space-efficient cab-forward architecture. By this time, Chrysler’s roller-coaster finances had become a better-known part of its legacy than its history of technical innovation—but this recap of some of the company’s technical highlights (and keep in mind, this is only a partial list) should remind you why Chrysler was once Detroit’s leading innovator.
Notable Chrysler Innovations
Though not always first, Chrysler was often the first major automaker to adopt new technologies, including:
- High-compression engine
- Four-wheel hydraulic brakes
- Downdraft carburetor
- Crankshaft vibration damper
- “Floating Power” engine mounts
- Automatic overdrive
- Key-start ignition switch
- Cruise control
- Swivel seats
- Four-wheel antilock brakes
- Hall Effect electronic distributor
- Integrated child seats