Venerable Chrysler name passes into corporate history
For nearly 100 years, Chrysler reigned among Detroit's fabled automakers. It was heralded for big luxurious cars like the Airflow, a sleek experiment in aerodynamics; the Imperial, a cruise ship on wheels; and the Cordoba, with its advertised "fine Corinthian leather" seats (the material actually came from New Jersey).
Chrysler mattered so much to the automotive scene that it was revived multiple times, via the determination of its chairman Lee Iacocca, assistance from Congress and the support of several presidents. Its stable of Jeep sport utilities and Dodge trucks made it a legendary late-20th-century profit machine.
But last week, the Chrysler name officially disappeared in Detroit — at least, as a corporate title.
Chrysler's most recent owner, Italian-based Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, was acquired by France's Groupe PSA, best known as the parent of Peugeot. The enterprise, which encompasses 14 different brands, changed its name to the space-age sounding Stellantis, drawn from the Latin word "stello," meaning, "to brighten with stars." A new sign was unveiled without much fanfare at the former Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., little noticed except by local television cameras.
A dozen years ago, Chrysler was such a meaningful name that nobody would have suggested running the car company without it. Yes, the company has almost gone under repeatedly — but at least it would have been buried with its name. Today's car buyers aren't swayed by the legend of Iacocca or the storied history witnessed only by their grandparents. Nor does corporate heritage matter much to global companies whose owners are striving to compete in the arena of high-tech automobiles. Risk takers are willing to gamble on a 13-year-old company like Tesla because it offers something exciting and new, a link to the future, not the past. Need proof beyond Chrysler's vanishing name? Tesla stock sells for nearly $850 a share. Stellantis, a steal at $17, can only dream of such a figure. On its website, Stellantis declared it would be "at the forefront of a new era of sustainable mobility."
That contrasts sharply with the times, not long ago, when the car in the driveway was a message sent to the outside world about the people who lived inside the house. A General Motors car was a solid purchase, whether it was the Chevrolet that signified thriftiness or the Cadillac that projected prestige. After all, for much of its existence, you were buying from the world's biggest carmaker. Generations of people in the Detroit area have said they got a car "from Ford's" - not a grammatical error, just the way they noted that their car was built by the Ford family.
For its part, Chrysler has meant different things at different times. It has stood for both speed and styling. After the first of three federal bailouts in a 30-year span, buyers showed faith in its comeback. When it was back on its feet, people took a risk on innovative cars like the little PT Cruiser, which looked like a mash-up of an old-school jalopy and station wagon.
Now we have uncounted ways, thanks to technology and social media, to show who we are beyond sheet metal and fiberglass. We can concoct our images on Instagram, post our musings in a podcast, and debut songs on SoundCloud. In this stuck-at-home era, particularly, there's almost no one to impress with new wheels, unless it's the restaurant server who hands a bag of food through the rolled-down window.
Once it came under Fiat's wing, Chrysler was officially reduced to a single letter in the corporate name. Now it doesn't even rate that. If Chrysler was once considered valuable enough to keep its appellation alive, the French were unsentimental. That distressed Frank B. Rhodes, the great-grandson of company founder Walter P. Chrysler, who tried to stop the acquisition with a December lawsuit. "This merger will go sideways in the future," he declared, warning that other traditional American brands might vanish, too.
Like other car companies, Chrysler was a collection of divisions, including the flagship one named after the founder; Dodge, begun by the Dodge Brothers; and Jeep, which Chrysler acquired when it bought American Motors Corp. in 1987. (Another member of the group, Plymouth, went away 20 years ago.) Although the smallest of Detroit's Big Three in recent times, Chrysler actually was the No. 2 U.S. automaker during the Great Depression, behind General Motors. For decades, Chrysler's car and parts-making operations sprawled across the Detroit area, with other factories in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Canada and Mexico.
Through the years, G.M. toyed with the idea of acquiring Chrysler, discarding the concept when antitrust hurdles appeared too big to clear.
Chrysler, the nameplate, has been diminishing for years, however. Despite the pandemic, previous owner FCA sold about 1.8 million vehicles in 2020, but only a tenth of them were Chryslers. The lineup has shrunk to a single car, the Chrysler 300 sedan; two versions of the Pacifica, a crossover; and the Voyager minivan.
Although Stellantis says it is keeping the Chrysler brand name, nothing in the lineup is so vital to the marketplace that it would matter much if it vanished. Contrast that to Iacocca's determination to save the struggling car company in 1978, when he appeared before Congress seeking $1.5 billion in loan guarantees. Using the same salesmanship that he later deployed to tout K-cars, Iacocca insisted the company had a future, and said he would attack Chrysler's problems if Congress lent a hand. He had support from union leaders and politicians anxious to protect 140,000 jobs across the Midwest. "There is no question in my mind that if Chrysler goes bankrupt, it will seriously exacerbate this national recession," chimed in Detroit's then-mayor, Coleman A. Young.
Chrysler did bounce back, thanks to a growing lineup, and eventually fed Americans' obsessions with light trucks in the 1990s. Its sales and profits — it earned nearly $6 billion in 1998 — attracted a gold-medal suitor, Germany's Daimler-Benz, whose centerpiece was Mercedes. That year, they formed DaimlerChrysler, which was supposed to be a global auto powerhouse, with operations in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. But after a few years, Daimler decided it was better off focusing on Mercedes, no matter the money that Jeeps and pickups were generating. In 2007, it dumped the company on Cerberus, a hedge fund that had zero experience in running an automaker.
As the Great Recession hit, Chrysler was back before Congress the following year. Outgoing President George W. Bush arranged for temporary help. In 2009, President Barack Obama's administration put Chrysler through bankruptcy, and Fiat took charge.
Now, Chrysler has been absorbed by another global group even as the automotive world has moved on, trying to figure out what role it will play with the focus on climate change growing stronger and more nations threatening limits on gas-burning cars and trucks. GM and Ford are shifting to electrics, even though they are trying to sell as many pickups and SUVs as they can until the transition is complete. That's what Walter P. Chrysler's great-grandson argued Chrysler also could attempt, but shareholders approved the Stellantis deal anyway. In a sea of global competition, American pride no longer requires three companies. Two will do.
When the Germans bought Chrysler, the joke in Detroit was how to pronounce DaimlerChrysler. Was it DAME-ler, as the British said, or DIME-ler, the traditional European way? The punchline: The Chrysler is silent.
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