Chrysler’s Highland Park Headquarters, 1912-1992
Around 1910, the site that would eventually become Chrysler headquarters started to be developed with assembly plants for the Grabowsky Motor Company, Brush Runabout Company, and Gray Motor Company. These companies grew and died quickly, and Brush, among others, was brought into the fold of the United States Motor Car Company. United States Motor Company did not last long, and was essentially converted to Standard Motor Company on its bankruptcy (1912). Standard morphed back into its largest part, Maxwell Motor Company, and its Highland Park factory became the Brush-Maxwell plant in 1913. According to Bill Watson, the Brush headquarters became (through Maxwell) Chrysler headquarters.
This was just one part of the Highland Park complex, which also included Gray Motor Company (a United States Motor subsidiary) and would soon (1917) include the old Chalmers complex. In 1922, Maxwell and Chalmers were legally bound as the Maxwell-Chalmers Motor Company; Hugh Chalmers resigned. Later in the year, the Three Musketeers — Zeder, Breer, and Skelton — joined to start work on the original Chrysler car in the former Chalmers complex. [Full story of their work and the car itself.]
Maxwell Motors, after launching the revolutionary new Chrysler car, converted itself to Chrysler Corporation in 1925 (a new entity was created to buy the old one). Chrysler expanded the Maxwell site, eventually bringing it to over 150 acres, larger than Ford’s Model T plant. Conveniently, it sat next to the Grand Trunk Railroad (which Thomas Edison had famously printed and sold newspapers on), and was directly linked to the later Lynch Road, Dodge Main, and Huber Foundry plants. In 1928, though, with the purchase of Dodge Brothers, Chrysler acquired the massive Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck.
Even without Dodge Brothers, Chrysler would have found Highland Park restrictive; the plant was already old, since auto building technology had changed, and while the Plymouth and DeSoto were built in Highland Park, new plants were quickly built to allow for faster, higher production. (Fargo still launched in 1928 in Highland Park.)
The complex was used more and more for engineering and management operations, and less for producing cars and parts (the plant built, among other parts, the fluid coupling and torque converter for Fluid Drive).
In the early 1930s, Carl Breer, head of R&D, realized the importance of aerodynamics as cars passed 70 mph in top speed. One thing led to another, and a large wind tunnel was installed in the Highland Park research center, resulting in the tapered back and curved front of the 1934 Airflow.
In September 1932, then, the Chrysler Graduate School of Engineering Research’s first class, chosen from 500 applicants, started out, in the midst of the Great Depression. (The school officially opened in 1931 but apparently did not have external students at that point.) The first classes were held in Building 301 in Highland Park, but it later found larger digs in the Export Division’s building, also in Highland Park.
In 1940, new engineering labs were completed in the complex. During World War II, the facility played a role in creation of the atomic bomb, as Carl Heussner conducted experiments and verified his theory that, instead of using pure nickel, a uranium enrichment facility could simply electroplate nickel onto mere boiler plate. (The government would otherwise have needed two years’ nickel production for this one project.) The factory itself was used to build parts of the Helldiver aircraft, among other wartime materials.
Chrysler Corporation continued to expand, building a new hot room lab to test air conditioning within Highland Park. During the 1960s, two new buildings, designed by local architect Minoru Yamasaki (of World Trade Center fame), were created, together called the Walter P. Chrysler building or “Styling Center,” which included a boxy structure and the “Styling Dome.”
Richard Samul remembered, “In the late 1970s, I worked on Chrysler's first attempt [since 1958] at electronic fuel metering, to replace the carburetor on engines. The project was started in a large tent, built at the north end of the Highland Park Engineering complex. This was the old outdoor styling department, a fenced-in area that had been used for publicity photos shoots ... Because this project was new technology -- and deemed a possible fire hazard -- initial testing took place outdoors.”
The old road test garage was the first concrete poured-wall building in Michigan: a high tech building, with the poured concrete instead of brick and mortar, it actually set up a new process of building, with forms in concrete walls.
That was the Maxwell Plant, the production line. You could tell it’s pretty old, working in there. They had stalls in there for doing the car work, and a maintenance area on one end, with the advanced car build up in one small area. The road test garage was where all the vehicles were worked on.
... At the road test garage, you can be working on anything that needs to be repaired on the car. It could be the President’s car needs to be worked on. ... It was interesting there, it was a lot of history in that place.
It was interesting there, there was a lot of history in that place. I’m pretty sure it’s been torn down. There was a marker out front one time. I have no idea if that’s still there, but… history is history until it’s torn down, but there’s pictures of it in the garage area, and the whole entry way there when you pull in, the main gate. There’s a little archway there, a little building… there’s an arch going over there from building to building. They’re pretty much all torn down right now. There’s a new building on the site and there isn’t much else remaining that was there before. It’s kind of sad, but that’s progress, right?
There’s mostly vacant stores now. They even tore down the old Keller Building… the old building where the President would reside, all the headquarters, that’s all been torn down. There’s a lot of history, there.
That building was around for about 75 years at that point… so, what’s the life cycle of an engineering complex before it costs you more to have it then build a fresh one? So, I think the time was probably right to move on and come out here [to Auburn Hills and the CTC]. ...
They had three buildings doing powertrain testing. Powertrain testing is a big, big operation. I don’t know how many dynos they had at the time, they had 98 or whatever dynos, at one time. Even more than that, but a lot of them were older. Some were for advanced testing, some were still doing turbo testing. They had turbos running, some diesels, gas engine, advanced testing, cold testing.
In 1991, with the Chrysler Technical Center in Auburn Hills open after four years of construction and planning, Chrysler started to move people out of Highland Park. 5,000 people moved to the new $1 billion headquarters and engineering center in 1991; 4,500 more moved in 1992. The last building to close was Building 10, a dyno building.
The old headquarters, with no regard for history, was sold in 1996 to Stuart Frankel, who wanted to create a “light manufacturing and technology park” there, demolishing the old buildings completely and creating a new road system. By the year 2000, numerous companies had built there, including Ryder, Connolly Leather, Ameritech, and Johnson/Lear Automotive.
Bob Steele wrote:
Some time in 1985, I became aware of a decree to clean out old records and collections of “stuff” in our Highland Park Engineering Division. This extended to what we called the “catacombs” beneath the styling clay rooms at the WPC Building where old WWII and earlier engineering drawings were stored. These catacombs were the result of concrete pillars being positioned beneath studio floors in the Walter P. Chrysler Building where the rails for clay models were. These extended down to bedrock to assure good support and stability for extremely heavy clay model armatures above. ... Many old drawings, mostly before WWII, were at the far reaches of those dark and dismal areas; it was scary down there. ... I discovered a collection of old drawings extending back to the middle 1920s, these were created on starched linen (made from Flax) and drawn using India ink. [Read more and see a drawing]