Roots of Chrysler: Chalmers cars
The first Chrysler car, shown in January 1924, was originally to be sold as a Chalmers, according to some sources. Chrysler Corporation itself was created by buying the assets of Maxwell-Chalmers. What was this company whose name disappeared so quickly after the arrival of Walter P. Chrysler? How significant were they? It turns out that Chalmers was, indeed, significant in Chrysler’s history.
Chalmers Motor Corporation started out life in 1899 with the AutoTwo, funded by E.R. Thomas. In 1902, the company acquired the two-year-old Buffalo Automobile Company to create E.R. Thomas Motor Company, later transformed into Thomas-Detroit. Engineer Roy D. Chapin’s designs led to strong sales at first; but in 1908, with sales sliding, Hugh Chalmers bought E.R. Thomas’ interest in the company, and Thomas-Detroit became Chalmers-Detroit. Auto historian Curtis Redgap wrote, “Chalmers made decently assembled, well priced cars.”
Hugh Chalmers was the CEO of the highly regarded National Cash Register Company (NCR), which flourished until it was taken over in the 1990s. When Chalmers decided to quit the cash register business in favor of the automobile industry, he asked hot salesman Joseph E. Fields to go with him as a local distributor in Fargo, Fields's home town. With his local connections, Fields was able to convince many of his neighbors to buy a car from Chalmers, in the early days when it was still replacing the horse.
Chalmers soon brought Fields to work in Detroit as a member of the factory staff. Fields began traveling all over the country organizing dealerships for Chalmers — many of which would be inherited by Chrysler. Fields himself was Chrysler’s first head of sales, and reportedly he was instrumental in Chrysler’s ability to make a name for itself.
In 1907 or 1909, with strong sales, Chalmers built a large new plant on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. That plant would survive until 1991; its replacement builds Jeep Grand Cherokees. Chalmers’ headquarters was in Highland Park, Michigan, future home of Chrysler Corporation.
Chalmers lost two talented engineers in 1909 — Howard E. Coffin and Roy D. Chapin. Howard Coffin, chief engineer of Chalmers-Detroit, moved on to become vice president and chief engineer of the new Hudson Motor Car Company. (Hudson later joined with Nash to form AMC, which was purchased by Chrysler in the 1980s.)
Coffin would later lead a successful effort to have different automakers standardize material and design specifications and share their patents, spurring progress and cutting costs; Coffin also led the creation of the Liberty aircraft engine.
Roy D. Chapin likewise moved on to Hudson, and led the formation of the Essex Motors subsidiary, which made inexpensive enclosed sedans; he also served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce under Hoover. His son, Roy D. Chapin Jr., was chair and CEO of AMC, and led the acquisition of Kaiser Jeep in 1970.
The loss of the engineers was apparently due to a difference of opinion; Roy Chapin wanted to build a smaller model, and eventually got backing from J.L. Hudson, owner of Detroit's Hudson Department Stores. In 1909-10, Chalmers and his associates sold their interests in Hudson to Chapin and associates, and vice versa. The new Hudson Motor Car Company built their plant across the street from the Chalmers Motor Company plant, partly because of the convenient proximity of suppliers and the railroad.
The 1910 Chalmers line included the “30,” with a 115 inch wheelbase and $1,500 price tag, and the “40,” with leather seats, 122 inch wheelbase, room for seven, and price of $2,750, including gas tank, magneto, and lamps (gas powered). One ad proclaimed that the entire 1910 output was sold to dealers before a single car was delivered.
The cars were named roughly after their horsepower ratings. The prices were fairly hefty, especially compared with, say, the Brush, but Chalmers compared them with cars costing nearly twice as much in their ads (which did not have any technical information at all, being aimed “above that.”)
In 1916, with sales booming (and a new, 3400 rpm-capable model), Chalmers set up a Canadian branch factory in what was then Walkerville and what is now Windsor, Ontario. Maxwell opened a factory nearby shortly afterwards.
The Maxwell-Chalmers factory on Tecumseh Road at McDougall was converted to truck production in 1931, making Dodge, Graham, and Fargo trucks. This became “Plant 1,” and it remained in truck production until 1978; in 1980 it re-opened, until 1983, as the Imperial Quality Assurance Centre.
Chalmers’ large plant helped the company to sell a good number of cars at first, but as World War I loomed on the horizon, demand weakened. In 1917, with Maxwell production soaring and Chalmers production sagging, the companies agreed on a trade: Maxwell cars would be built in the Chalmers plant on Jefferson Avenue, and Chalmers cars would be sold through Maxwell dealers. Both would benefit from the deal, for the moment. Hugh Chalmers left to create Saxon Motors; ironically, Chrysler would end up with not just Chalmers itself, but Hudson and Saxon’s original Wyoming Avenue plant. Saxon had a short life, and was outlasted by Chalmers itself.
In 1920, the post-war recession, coupled with material shortages and rising prices, weakened many automakers, including Chalmers and Maxwell (Willys, also in trouble, hired a turnaround artist named Walter P. Chrysler). Maxwell had a debt of $32 million, with 26,000 unsold cars — around two thirds of total 1920 production. Part of the problem may have been a poor reputation Maxwell was getting, due to weak axles and poorly mounted gas tanks (late-1921 models had two straps on the gas tank, and two steel trusses on the rear axles.) In 1921, Maxwell had to end production in the Chalmers plant.
Finally, in 1921, Maxwell Motor Corporation was created in West Virginia, acquiring Maxwell Motor company and Newcastle Realty, Briscoe Manufacturing, and Maxwell Motor Company of Canada. In 1922, Maxwell Motor Corporation also acquired Chalmers Motor Corporation, $2 million — a sizeable sum at the time. Chalmers, at this point, was using Remy ignition with a 224 cubic inch six cylinder engine, with wheelbases of 117 and 122 inches and gear ratios of 4.75:1 and 5.18:1. For 1922, they launched their “new series,” and in 1923, their “improved” series; most specifications were the same as in 1920, other than the use of a Stromberg carburetor and a 5.12 gear ratio (1922) and 5.10 ratio with AutoLite ignition (1924).
Maxwell quickly ran into financial troubles and, in 1923, hired turnaround artist Walter P. Chrysler to fix matters. Chrysler brought in the “Three Musketeers” — Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton, and Carl Breer — setting them up at the Chalmers facility rather than the Maxwell engineering department. A team led by Carl Breer quickly developed an almost completely new four-wheel hydraulic brake system, using the 1924 Chalmers as a test-bed for the system. For a brief time, Chalmers and Chrysler lived side by side; at the New York Auto Show, Chrysler had several Chrysler Six models, along with the Maxwell exhibit, which included two Chalmers models. Shortly afterwards, though, Chalmers production ended completely.