The First Chrysler Cars: 1924
The first Chrysler was an advanced car, primarily the work of former Willys engineers Frederick Zeder, Owen Skelton, and Carl Breer. Tobe Couture, who followed them to Chrysler, wrote about their entry at Willys in July 1920, coming in with 15 other men from Studebaker:
Mr. Zeder gave orders to design a complete new car... using as many of the available tools as possible. Remember, the plant was completely tooled [for a different car that had been developed]. So a drafting room was set up at the Beachwood Hotel at Summit, New Jersey.
This was really the beginning of the Chrysler 6. This was the 7 bearing, high compression engine with interchangeable bearings, the prototype of what we build today [until the slant six]. ... We not only went ahead with the engine, but designed and built a completely new automobile, light in weight, 70 m.p.h., ...
Walter P. Chrysler proposed to buy the car, but the deal was blocked; then Willys put the company into receivership. W.C. Durant won a spirited bidding for the Elizabeth plant, including the new car. Couture continued:
It was then that the Zeder-Skelton-Breer Engineering Co. was incorporated in the state of New Jersey. We continued to operate as an engineering department, using the same engineering space and facilities at the Elizabeth plant. The rental was $100 month; we took outside jobs to pay the way for our organization of 25 people. We thought that this was a “large” group. However, at no time did we stop perfecting our “Chrysler 6.”
Even though we had lost our original car to Mr. Durant, with all drawings and specifications, we again went to work on another car from the ground up...
On April 11, 1923, Mr. Chrysler was invited to come over to Elizabeth to see a version of our engine on the dynamometer test. He was so impressed with the smoothness and performance that he immediately gave orders to proceed with the final design as he was almost certain this car would be built in the Chalmers plant in Detroit. He made one stipulation: that five experimental cars would have to be running by September 1, 1923. This meant that the design, procurement of all material, and building of 5 experimental cars had to be accomplished in about 4½ months.
In June 1923, Zeder, Skelton, Breer, and company settled into the second floor of Building Nine of the old Chambers plant on Jefferson Avenue, 11 miles from Maxwell’s engineering department and the eventual site of Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant. The first experimental cars were ready on September 1. Chrysler was satisfied, but Couture said the car should have four wheel hydraulic brakes (the norm of the day was two-wheel mechanical brakes); Chrysler agreed, and told Zeder and Breer to put four-wheel brakes onto the first production car. This was a serious engineering accomplishment, and hydraulic brakes are now used on every car. (Carl Breer’s book goes into detail on how these brakes were designed — at Chrysler — and why patents were assigned to Lockheed.)
|Net sales||$137 million||$163 million||$172 million||$315 million|
|Income reinvestmented||$15 million||$6 million||$10 million||$19 million|
|Net profit||$17 million||$15 million||$19 million||$31 million|
The original Chrysler engine — an inline six
The first Chrysler cars (dubbed the Chrysler Six) had a revolutionary new six-cylinder, high-compression engine with a seven-bearing crankshaft, carburetor air cleaner, and replaceable oil filter.
Chrysler was the first to use the replaceable oil filter, which had a sight feed in the early years before going to full-flow designs; it had been invented by an inventor named Sweetland. Likewise, the air cleaner was relatively new, a mechanical, rotating, self-cleaning dry cleaner made by the United Air Cleaner Company.
[The Chrysler] had two main features they advertised a lot, four wheel hydraulic brakes and a five to one compression ratio, and that was huge when everybody else had a four to one, twenty five percent improvement.
They benefited from the Englishman, Ricardo, and his work on L head chambers... What they did mainly was to centralize the spark plug. In L-heads, for some unexplainable reason to me, the spark plug [had] always sat right on top of the valves, I don’t know why, about as far out as possible, making it almost impossible not to have knock. Anyway, the Ricardo head really did the job.
[Everybody] else’s L head [had] a spark plug about as far away as it could get. We found in our wedge chamber overhead valve engines, the squish is very important. It gives you lots of mechanical octane numbers. So, they were way ahead of their time.
One secret to the engine was the thought that went into the combustion chamber, to reduce detonation. In Breer’s words:
... when the charge was fired, the rapid progression of the flame over the piston area... could be slowed by bringing as much area of the cylinder head down close as possible to the piston at the top of its stroke. Then we would rib the adjacent head surface to offer more cooling area, thus slowing the rapid flame travel, and thereby reducing detonation.
Carl Breer wrote that while they achieved the ability to run on the test stand at full power for 50 hours (around 3,000 rpm), with the throttle wide open, that “was only the foundation on which we continued to build.” They quickly adopted an experimental two-piece tappet from Wilcox-Rich of Saginow, which reduced scuffing of the cam and tappets.
They made numerous test heads, and the flat head worked best. The engine delivered “an authentic 68 hp” at 3000 rpm with the 50-55 octane fuel of the time, with a 4.7:1 compression ratio (the 1924 specifications called for 70 horsepower at 3,500 rpm, but from 1925 to 1927, it was listed at 68 @ 3,000. The Maxwell Four, by contrast, was rated at 28 horsepower @ 2,000 rpm. The Imperial, which used a 5” bore rather than the 4.75” bore, was rated at 92 hp @ 3,000, a substantial increase).
Other 1924 Chrysler features
The modern, attractive styling appears to have been done by Oliver Clark, one of the 18 people in the original team; he remained with Chrysler at least through 1933, when he was the company’s chief body engineer. Clark would create the Art & Colour Section in 1928.
Clark was also responsible for the Chrysler logo/seal, and said it was set up as a seal to represent quality (symbolizing state fair awards) and “to emphasize the integrity of the car's makers.”
The thunderbolts above and below the name are the stylized letter Z, a tribute to chief engineer Fred Zeder. The ribbon would be used in various forms through 1955, and again starting in 1995.
The cars also had four-wheel hydraulic brakes, which had been developed by the in-house engineers based on an unworkable design from the Lockheed brothers; the most important innovations were in the fluid, materials, and use of a spring action to push the pedal back (which reduced the feeling of sluggishness and prevented air from getting into the system). Carl Breer wrote, “There was practically nothing left of the Lockheed system beyond the idea of using hydraulic fluid in place of metal rods.” However, they gave Lockheed their patents in return for royalties, largely so competitors would also adopt hydraulic brakes — and not simply adopt FUD campaigns against the new Chrysler.
The brakes had two major differences from modern drums: they squeezed down onto the outer surface of the drum (rather than squeezing out onto the inner surface of the drum), and they were connected to the fluid reservoir via a hand valve. Internal brakes with an automatic master cylinder arrived in 1927.
Rather than using a plain radiator cap, Chrysler pioneered an ornamental cap, styled by Oliver Clark and shaped with the wings of Mercury to symbolize speed; not wanting to reduce the aesthetics of the cap with the normal built-in thermometer, the company put a temperature gauge onto the dashboard, one of the first to do so. (The wings were spaced to allow a gauge to be fit between them, though that turned out to be unnecessary. Clark himself said that he styled them after a Viking's cap to emphasize the “daring and exploratory” nature of the car.)
They also clustered all the gauges in one place, under a single contoured (to avoid reflections) sheet of glass. The choke was a large switch on the right side of the dashboard, within reach and easy to operate with gloves on.
Features like this had never been offered in a mediumpriced car before, and the 32,000 first-year record sales substantiated the tremendous appeal of the first Chrysler car. The main change for 1925 was a new vibration dampener, frictiondriven by a hub on the crankshaft, for smoother performance; in 1925 or 1926, the company leaped forward with rubber engine mountings and rubber spring shackles, which dramatically cut down on vibration passed to the passengers.
The car itself weighed 2,700 lb (touring model), and could come close to 75 miles per hour, quite good for the time. The new Chryslers were not especially large, with a wheelbase just short of 113 inches, but it had a high power-to-weight ratio; styling cleverly made it look like a larger car, with tires scaled down to match the smaller body (the 1924 Chrysler used 29 x 4.5 tires while most competitors used 31 x 4 tires; in 1925, with public acceptance assured, Chrysler switched to 30 x 5.7 tires, which must have improved cornering and braking considerably). The state of the art brakes were far easier to use than the mechanical brakes in most cars — and their superior equalization meant straighter stops.
Chrysler and Maxwell sold 137,666 cars in 1925, from the $895 Maxwell Four Touring to the $2065 Chrysler Six Sedan. In 1926, with the Maxwell Four gone, they sold 170,392 cars; there were now four Chrysler models, the 58, 60, 70, and bored-and-stroked Imperial 80, all named after their top speeds. The Chrysler 58 was essentially an improved Maxwell (which would later be sold as the Plymouth), and sold for $845; the most expensive car was now the Imperial seven-passenger limousine sedan at $3,595. The situation remained similar until 1928, when DeSoto, Dodge Brothers, Plymouth, and Graham Brothers were added.
For 1925, the price went up by $60, while the weight went down by 150 lb; the tires were bigger and the engine rated slightly differently but the model, Chrysler 70, was unchanged. After 1925, the wheelbase was listed as exactly 112 inches, though whether it was changed or simply rounded down is unclear. For 1927, the Chrysler 60 ran on a 109” wheelbase, barely longer than the Maxwell/Chrysler 50/Plymouth’s 106”, and weighed in at just 2,690 lb - while the 70 went up to 3,090 lb (these figures are for closed cars and are heavier than the 1924-25 figures); the 60 used a 54 horsepower version of the Chrysler Six, with a smaller bore and stroke (3 x 4.25).
Walter P. Chrysler’s story
In a 1924 interview, Walter P. Chrysler wrote about his requirements:
I built the Chrysler car because I have been convinced for years that the public has a definite idea of a real quality light car--one not extravagently large and heavy for one or two people, but adequately roomy for five; economical to own and to operate. And, above all, real quality from headlights to tail-light.
My conception of an ideal quality light car, is that of scores of thousands, whose requirements are practical, not visionary. For them, I saw a car with the power of a super-dreadnaught, but with the endurance and speed of a fleet scout cruiser. What these drivers want is, briefly, this —
- A perfectly balanced six-cylinder motor with top speed of over 70 miles an hour -- not because they want to drive at that rate, but to insure quick get-away, flashing pick-up, power to conquer any hill, and for the steady pull at low speeds
- A small-bore power plant; first for fine performance, and second for gasoline and oil economy.
- Simplicity and accessibility throughout
- Lots of room. I mean wide doors, deep comfortable seats, ample leg-room.
- Real comfort; long soft springs; extra size tires, deep over-stuffed cushions.
- Driving convenience and ease that will let a woman drive in comfort for long tances or through heavy traffic.
- Light weight, so that a single passenger doesn't feel he is paying to haul a private Pullman; yet without squeaks, rattles, or flimsiness.
- Wheelbase built to fit into an ordinary parking space and to insure quick and a well on rutted road or a cobble-stone street.
- Quality materials and workmanship to give long life and constantly good service, instead of a job built to a fit price.
- Beauty that speaks for itself, and good taste that is self-evident
- Complete modern equipment built into the car, not hung on it merely as an after-thought.
The plan has been growing in my mind for years and about four years ago, the car we now offer began to take definite shape. The first step was to get the best engineering force in the country. Fred M. Zeder, Owen R. Skelton, and Carl Breer were the group I wanted. They began with a clean slate, and designed from the ground up. There were none of the usual engineering handicaps — no existing machinery, tools, jigs and dies to be considered; no pre-determined plant capacity or manufacturing lay-out to fit to; no executive fads or whims to be satisfied. We have made no compromises. These engineers of ours have solved scientifically every vexing problem of the past. I placed just one condition on their work — that was, that they used the very best materials adaptable to the work to be done and the strain to be borne by every part.
To make our car truly ideal, I tell you emphatically that anything less than the finest would take years off the life of this car. You know that the best results--in looks, in performance, in economy, in durability--can't be obtained without the design, materials and workmanship.
The result was good enough that Studebaker made a serious offer to buy Maxwell, and Chrysler actually made a deal with them to sell it before being dissuaded by Frederick Zeder, who refused to sign — and said if a deal was made without his signature, he would call Carl Breer and have the blueprints destroyed.
The original Chrysler started production on December 20 as a six-cylinder in six body styles; the much-improved “good Maxwell” was still sold in four-cylinder form, though its name was dropped in favor of Chrysler in 1925. In 1928, the Plymouth Division was created, selling Chrysler's fours; and the Chrysler line became once more exclusively sixes until 1930, when Chrysler started selling an eight-cylinder car, along with its sixes. One sensational achievement was the sale of an eight cylinder at under $1,000 in 1933 (the least expensive was $895 F.O.B. Detroit); even the top line Imperial was just $1,275 in that year.
During the first year of production, 33,000 cars were built. It was a record for first year production at that time and Chrysler production moved from last place to third place in the industry by 1928.