On the bitter, cold night of December 30th, 2012 – the day before New Year’s Eve – the staff at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum unceremoniously closed the building’s glass doors for the last time. The 60,000 square foot space, located in Auburn Hills, MI, was the only museum in America owned and operated by a car company. Now, less than two years after Italian automaker Fiat essentially bought Chrysler from the U.S. Treasury, it was to be shuttered permanently, to open again only for the rare corporate-sponsored event.
And it’s a crying shame, man.
The Walter P. Chrysler was a one-of-a-kind museum. A glittering shrine to all things Chrysler, its wonderfully skewed take on automotive history put the company in the driver’s seat and Boss Chrysler on a pedestal. Ford and GM? Bah, uninteresting footnotes – gimme more Chrysler! Call it unbalanced, but it’s probably true that Chrysler has never gotten enough credit for it’s crucial role in automotive history.
The Airflow’s radical grill.
Did you know, for example, that Chrysler was the first to introduce practical hydraulic brakes and power steering? As one Chrysler ad put it, the company’s Hyrdaglide power steering technology did “four-fifths of the work for you!” And when’s the last time you heard someone mention the Chrysler Airflow? The original model, built way back in 1934, was a rounded, streamlined wonder that made Ford’s Model A look like a buggy, forever changing the way cars were designed.
Or how about the Hemi, an engine with a compression ratio of 7:5:1 and 180 horsepower, or the “Forward Look” campaign that turned exaggerated tailfins and long, gleaming hoods into symbols of American prosperity? Yep, more Chrysler innovations. Like Harley Shaiken wrote in America his book America on Wheels: “[Y]ou needed larger engines just to carry the chrome.” And wasn’t the a blessed time?
The cars within the massive granite and glass exterior of the Walter P. Chrysler were a reflection of what Chrysler truly stood for: performance and luxury. There were no electric cars or “foo-foo” hybrid cars that ran old McDonald’s french fry grease and wheatgrass to be found, just endless examples of Detroit muscle, exquisite sculptures of all-American steel. When the American economy was booming, so was Chrysler. It was the best of times.
1948 Town & Country Convertible.
The 1955 Chrysler 300 Sport Coupe that was on display, with two four-barrel carburetors, had been powerful enough to win a NASCAR race with a few modifications. The wood body on the museum’s 1948 Town & Country Convertible once brought movie star glamour to the masses. Few cars captured the grand aspirations of the country’s “greatest generation” better than what Chrysler was churning out.
Only in the mid-1970s – after the infamous 1973 OPEC oil embargo had created widespread panic at American pumps – did Chrysler finally release a more fuel efficient “junior edition” car under its hallowed name, the Chrysler Cordoba. A surprising success, the Cordoba was a remarkable compromise, a Frankenstein combination of a Japanese economy car and an American muscle car. But somehow, it worked.
Yet, regrettably, it was too little, too late. By late 1979, a desperate Chrysler was knocking on President Jimmy Carter’s door with hat in hand, a few months after he’d said in a televised speech that “too many of us now … worship self-indulgence and consumption.” Still, to save up to an estimated 1 million American jobs, the federal government forked over a billion dollars in loans to Chrysler.
At the time, Chrysler was putting the finishing touches on the K-Car, a small, efficient car that would save the company from bankruptcy. It was the company’s only hope. Lee Iacocca, the enigmatic Chrysler chairman, later called it “the last train out of the station.” It had to sell, and remarkably it did, with millions of K-Cars rolling off dealership lots during the 1980s.
The first American convertible in years – hallelujah!
Back in the race again, what did Chrysler do to try and take the lead back? Why, the company invented the gas-guzzling soccer mom chariot otherwise known as the minivan, brought the convertible back to America with the 1986 Town & Country, and unveiled the sexy, supercharged Dodge Viper, all of which were proudly on display at the Walter P. Chrysler. That was what was in Chrysler’s genetic makeup, and luckily enough for the company the pentastars aligned for the new lineup – the 1990s would prove to be one of the most prosperous decades in American history. We could afford to indulge.
I mean – remember gas for a about a buck, or a stock market that only went up? Ah, yes. Chrysler’s sales hit all-time highs in the 1990s, and by the end of the decade, the company had enough spare cash lying around to open the aforementioned Walter P. Chrysler Museum in the shadow of the new Chrysler Headquarters and Technology Center.
The basement of the Walter P. Chrysler, affectionately called “Boss Chrysler’s Garage”, was perhaps the ultimate distillation of Chrysler. Full of Mopar racing parts, Road Runners, Dusters, Jeeps – it was as if the fever dreams of every Gear Head had combined into one glorious, awe-inspiring spectacle. You were even encouraged to take the car lift to the garage, a surprisingly Willy Wonka-like touch. Clearly, Chrysler was inspired.
Dick Branstner tuned this one.
Boss Chrysler’s Garage did have one out of place curio, though – the 1995 Dodge LaFemme, a failed pink car that pandered to women drivers. This was no drag racer. The adjoining poster I think summed up why it failed the best:
“A half-century after the LaFemme, marketers are still looking for ways to tap a growing market of female consumers.
‘Rightly or wrongly, women associate cars with positive images of masculinity and power,’ said Virginia Scharff, author of the book Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. ‘Given a choice between a LaFemme and a Barracuda, they’ll choose the barracuda.'”
And there you have it.
Now, many thought the devastating blow the financial crisis of 2007-2008 dealt the Big 3 was much-deserved. Chrysler, Ford, and GM – all had long ago embarked on unsustainable paths, we like to say from our armchairs, both financially and environmentally.
OK, fine. But you have to admit… what beautiful cars, what engineering! Look no further than the contents of the Walter P. Chrysler for proof. Next to the utilitarian, staid hunks most of us drive today, a car like the 1957 Imperial Southampton was a work of art, its “gunsight” tail lamps rivaling any modern sculpture.
Farewell circle of symbolic significance.