Fred Zeder, Vice President in Charge of Engineering
One of the most well-known engineers in Chrysler’s history was Fred M. Zeder, who led the design of the sturdy, efficient six-cylinder engine that would stay with Chrysler from 1924 through 1961. Zeder was one of the creators of Durant’s Flint car and the original Chrysler, and led Chrysler Engineering from the company’s birth until 1951.
Fred Zeder was born in Bay City, Michigan on Mach 19, 1886. He started working at 11; he became a machinist’s apprentice at the Bay City Industrial Works, and rose to become a machinist for the Michigan Central Railroad while still in high school. Zeder worked his way through college as a dishwasher and "champion spud peeler."
After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1909, Zeder was selected to attend the apprenticeship course at Allis-Chalmers Company, where he met and became friends with Carl Breer.
After the course at Allis-Chalmers, Zeder went to work building a power plant in Detroit in 1910. He then ran the engineering laboratory of the Everett-Metzger-Flanders Company (E.M.F), in the center of Detroit's growing automotive community; in 1912, the Studebaker brothers (wagon builders) took over E.M.F. to build cars. They kept Fred Zeder on as a consulting engineer, promoting him to Studebaker Chief Engineer in 1914, at the age of 28.
Recognizing his engineering department’s weaknessess, Zeder brought in Owen Skelton and Carl Breer to form a team with a new engineering approach. Referred to as "The Three Musketeers" by their colleagues, they would form the nucleus of the Chrysler Corporation, with Joe Fields and, for an all-to-brief time, Walter P. Chrysler.
When Studebaker began facing financial troubles, Zeder decided to bring in Carl Breer and Owen Skelton to form a new engineering team. Fred Zeder was vice president in charge of engineering; Carl Breer was director of research and laboratories; and Owen R. Skelton directed design.
While Breer and his team were working on fixing rear axle failure, Studebaker was facing financial troubles. More money was going out of Studebaker than was coming in. This called for a complete redesign of the vehicle. Skelton worked on redesigning a simple and less costly axle and Zeder toured the country visiting dealers "on an educational and selling campaign."
In 1919, Chrysler invited the Studebaker engineering team to join him at Willys-Overland in Elizabeth, New Jersey, appointing Zeder chief engineer of Willys Corporation. Chrysler himself was bringing in an unheard-of million-dollar-a-year salary ($23,628,225 in 2011 dollars), his success as a turnaround artist both unquestioned and in need.
Fred Zeder and his team began fixing the problems in Willys’ new six-cylinder car, while working on a completely new one. Production of the new car stalled, however, and Chrysler resigned; on his advice, Zeder, Breer, and Skelton set themselves up as consultants in Newark, New Jersey with their entire engineering team.
The Elizabeth plant, complete with the new, unproduced car, went up for sale as John North Willys made a play to regain control. Chrysler tried for it, but was outbid by William C. Durant, the founder of General Motors, seeking a third try at dominating the industry. This was a blow for the ZSB team, as they hoped that Chrysler would get the plant; they did, however, work with Durant, who produced his Flint car using their engine and input. Had the economy allowed it, Durant — the force behind Chevrolet — may well have mounted yet another successful challenge to the conglomerate he had created and been expelled from.
In this interregnum between Willys and Maxwell/Chrysler, the team helped to create the stillborn Allyne-Zeder car; the Cleveland Tractor Company was to have been re-organized to build the car and a truck around Zeder's six-cylinder high-compression engine. The project included two sons of Celement Studebaker, Sr., the carmaker’s founder, as well as all Three Musketeers; but by summer 1922, the plan had been dropped.
Owen Skelton and Fred Zeder, meanwhile, called upon Walter P. Chrysler to rekindle his interest in cars. Over lunch, Skelton reminded him of the Chrysler car whose name had already been announced in lights above the Elizabeth Willys plant, before the money ran out. As Tobe Couture wrote:
During the early months of 1922, we did not see much of Mr. Chrysler. It seemed that he was no longer interested in our car and again went to Europe. After his return, one evening he was invited over to the Robert Treat Hotel by Messrs. Zeder, Skelton and Breer for dinner. After a pleasant visit he was anxious to return to New York with his car and chauffeur. Only after the most "persuasive" language by Mr. Zeder did he consent to drive with us to Elizabeth. It was well planned, for our whole organization was on the job and waiting. We showed Mr. Chrysler things he had never seen before and he did not get away until long after midnight. That night he showed his old determination. He wanted to see that car built with his name on it.
Shortly after, Chrysler agreed to take over Maxwell-Chalmers, which was on the verge of ruin. The three engineers and their organization settled into the old Chalmers complex in Highland Park, Michigan, and by 1923 had created the car that would become the 1924 Chrysler. [Full story of their work and the car itself.] In 1924, Zeder was put in charge of Maxwell’s engineering department.
While work on the Chrysler car progressed, Chrysler heard that Studebaker was looking for a car. Chrysler invited Studebaker executives to look at the new car, intending to sell it to them; a deal had already been reached when Chrysler told Fred Zeder of his plans. Zeder exploded, "Walter, if you sign that contract without my signature I'll call Carl Breer in Detroit and have every blueprint destroyed!" Tobe Couture agreed:
Just before Thanksgiving, 1923, Mr. Zeder, Mr. Skelton and I drove the first Chrysler Six Phaeton, equipped with four-wheel brakes, ... Then we went on to Newark where Mr. Skelton and I stayed and Mr. Zeder went on to New York to a meeting which Mr. Chrysler had called with the Studebaker organization, apparently to try to close a new deal for them to take over the Chrysler Corp. All it needed was Mr. Zeder's signature. Mr. Zeder absolutely refused to sign and said if the deal was made without his signature, he would call Carl Breer in Detroit and every blueprint would be destroyed. This is how close it came to there being no Chrysler Corporation.
This was one car Zeder was determined to see built as a Chrysler. Chrysler withdrew his offer to Studebaker, and released the car out of Maxwell; it was a major success, and the Maxwell name was eventually dropped. Fred Zeder was appointed vice president of engineering when Chrysler Motor Corporation was founded in 1925, became a company director in 1927, was was vice-chairman of the board from 1935 to 1951. In 1944, the University of Detroit gave Fred Zeder an honorary doctorate in engineering.
In 1928, Breer and Chrysler decided they needed to form a new student apprenticeship system for training new employees. This was the beginning of the Chrysler Institute of Engineering; Zeder was its first president, and Zeder, Skelton, and Breer were all listed as educational administrators and were involved in the institute for many years thereafter.
Fred M. Zeder remained in charge of Chrysler’s engineering from the corporation’s creation until his death in 1951. The Walter P. Chrysler Museum wrote, “He was a dynamic, forceful, enthusiastic and sincere man, with an outgoing, even occasionally flamboyant personality. A brilliant automotive engineer and natural-born salesman, Fred Zeder was the leader of the Zeder-Skelton-Breer triumvirate.”
The original Chrysler ribbon seal had two “thunderbolts” on it — reputed to actually be the letter “Z,” Walter P. Chrysler's tribute to Fred M. Zeder.
Fred Zeder died on February 24, 1951 in Miami Beach, Florida, where he had been preparing to attend a National Inventors Council Meeting.
The other Fred M. Zeder
Fred Zeder’s son, Fred Monroe Zeder II, had a distinguished career of his own. A fighter pilot in World War II, Zeder flew both P-40 and P-38 fighters, later retiring from the reserves with the rank of major. In 1941, he won a national hydroplane racing championship. He was also a Golden Gloves semifinalist. After the war, Zeder attained a degree from the University of California. In 1960, he created the Chrysler-Zeder sports car; a hundred were made in Italy.
From 1956 to 1975, Zeder was chairman and CEO of Hydrometals Corporation, a diversified manufacturing company; he turned the company around from near bankruptcy. He was chairman of the board of Paradise Cruise Corporation in Hawaii from 1978 until his death.
President Gerald Ford appointed Zeder to be the director of the Office of Territorial Affairs, and President Ronald Reagan appointed him to be the President’s personal representative for Micronesian status negotiations. He negotiated the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Republic of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, so that the island groups moved from U.N. trusteeship to become independent countries. President George H.W. Bush appointed him president and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).
Zeder also served as district director of the National Alliance of Businessmen, vice chairman of the Committee of Publicly Owned Companies, and a founding member of the World Business Council. He was a special advisor to the Fund for America’s Future from 1987 to 1988, a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Air Force Academy, and a trustee of the George H. W. Bush Library and decorated Knight of Malta. He died in 2004.