by Kelsey Wright • based on Carl Breer's autobiography and other sources
Owen Skelton, “Skelt” to his friends, was born in Edgerton, Ohio on February 9, 1886; he graduated from Ohio State University and went to work at the Pope-Toledo plant, which later became the Willys-Overland factory, from 1905 to 1907. Pope-Toledo was one of the most advanced cars of the time.
Skelton moved on to the Packard Motor Car Company in the design drafting department, and later became a transmission specialist. Because of this experience, he was invaluable to Fred Zeder when he joined Studebaker in 1914, for a wage of 58 cents an hour. Skelton's experience with rear axles, drives, and gear boxes was extremely helpful in designing Studebaker's new line in 1918.
While Breer and his team were working on fixing rear axle failures, Studebaker was facing financial troubles. More money was going out of Studebaker than was coming in. This called for a complete redesign of their cars.
Breer, as director of research and laboratories, Fred Zeder, the vice-president, and Owen R. Skelton, directing and handling design, accepted the challenge of redesigning the entire product; as they made improvements, Zeder toured the country visiting dealers "on an educational and selling campaign." (As a side note, the body styling and engineering division was located in Henry Ford's original factory building.)
Skelton worked on redesigning a simple and less costly axle; the transmission was conventional, with straight spur gears, three speeds and reverse. The entire assembly was located amidships on the chassis; two parallel channel frame members supported the engine forward and extended back to carry the transmission, which was solidly fastened with three straddling arms.
In 1919, Walter P. Chrysler was put in charge of Willys-Overland to turn the company around, at a staggering million-dollar salary. He lured the Studebaker engineering team to Willys-Overland, where they started working on a completely new car, up-to-date, sturdy, high-performing yet reliable. Walter Chrysler became their D’Artagnan; sometimes he led, sometimes he was pushed, but the Three Musketeers placed their money on the versatile turnaround artist.
In a series of events described in our biography of Fred Zeder (or, at greater length, in Tobe Couture’s remembrance and Carl Breer’s autobiography), the car was dropped, and the Three Musketeers, with 22 other engineers, ended up starting their own consulting firm in Newark, separating from any individual car firm — though not for long.
After a time, Chrysler’s interest seemed to dwindle, and Owen Skelton and Fred Zeder took it upon themselves to take him to lunch. Owen 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; and Chrysler agreed to use an opportunity at Maxwell-Chalmers, which was on the verge of ruin, to bring out the car, which they had been working on while consulting with other manufacturers. The three engineers and their organization settled into the old Chalmers complex in Highland Park, Michigan; Skelton took the title of executive engineer, which he held for the rest of his working life; and the team launched the 1924 Chrysler. [Full story]
When the Chrysler Institute of Engineering was formed in 1928, Skelton was listed as an educational administrator; he would remain involved with the Institute.
In 1929, Owen Skelton and his transmission specialists revealed the Multi-Range transmission, similar to the 4-speed Graham Paige and Stutz transmissions because of their "internal-external" gearsets. The Multi-Range transmission had four forward speeds and easier shifting. Although this transmission was faulty compared with the other Cadillac synchromesh transmissions of the time, the association they had with Warner Gear Co. led to further development a few years later.
The overdrive was offered as optional equipment on the 1934 Airflow.
Owen Skelton was named a director in 1937 and remained on the board until 1954; he retired from his engineering position in 1951, and died in 1969. The Walter P. Chrysler Museum wrote, “Skelton was the ‘inside man,’ who organized and coordinated the work of the other engineers to bring their designs to completion.”
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