Mopar taxis, 1935-2003

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Chrysler’s Highland Park Headquarters, 1910-1992

by David Zatz, with substantial
input from Charles K. Hyde

For most of its life, Chrysler Corporation was headquartered in a sprawling complex of buildings in Highland Park, Michigan. This is its story.

Highland Park overview

The Highland Park complex started out with the building of the large Maxwell Motors plant and the Gray Motor Company factory in 1909. Around 1910, the Grabowsky Power Wagon Company and Brush Runabout Company also built in the area. Brush and Maxwell were joined with smaller automakers to form the United States Motor Car Company; after that venture failed and was taken over, Brush’s headquarters became Maxwell’s headquarters. (The Grabowsky building was sold in 1912 to Budd Manufacturing.) Another part of US Motor was Alden-Sampson, which had a plant near Maxwell’s; some of the 1909 building, later Chrysler Building 108, was still standing in 1997.

Building 135

The Maxwell plant, built in 1909, was the principle Maxwell plant from 1913 until 1925, when Maxwell was purchased by a shell company and turned into Chrysler; along the way it had been the fourth largest American automaker and then nearly went bankrupt.

The primary architect of most of the early buildings was Albert Kahn.

This was just one part of the Highland Park complex, which also included the old Chalmers complex from 1917. In 1922, the Three Musketeers — Zeder, Breer, and Skelton —  joined to start work on the original Chrysler car there [Full story of their work and the car itself.]

matheny Chrysler expanded the Maxwell site, eventually bringing it to over 150 acres, larger than Ford’s Model T plant. It sat next to the Grand Trunk Railroad (which Thomas Edison had printed and sold newspapers on), and was directly linked to the later Lynch Road, Dodge Main, and Huber Foundry plants. Of note, around half the Gray Motor Compny building (used for years as a machine shop) survived to 1997, along with the Maxwell plant.

Even without the 1928 purchase of 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.) In 1929, Plymouth moved to its own plant on Lynch Road, and then DeSoto moved to Jefferson Avenue.

back of building 135 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). A four-story engineering building on Oakland Avenue was put up in 1928, and went to five, then six stories by 1935 (it was demolished in the 1990s). A 1928 research building lasted longer (#138).

The K.T. Keller building — then just called the General Storage Building — was put up in 1928. It, too, was enlarged along the way.

Chrysler Institute of Engineering

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.

In 1948, the former Brush Runabout Company factory was demolished and replaced. A series of new buildings were put up during the 1940s, including the 1942 Chrysler Institute of Engineering, two engineering buildings, and a medical facility.

In 1963, the company considered moving some or all of engineering to Troy, Michigan; instead, they stopped making parts in Highland Park and dedicated the complex to administration and engineering. The city of Highland Park sweetened the deal, by clearing 40 more acres of land for the company (the cost to Chrysler was $1.2 million). The city, county, and Chrysler widened Oakland Avenue in the late 1960s, building a bridge over the Davison Expressway; in 1968, the state built an interchange between I-75 and Davison.

Chrysler Corporation continued to expand, building a new hot room lab to test air conditioning within Highland Park. From 1968-71, 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 the “Styling Dome.”

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.”

Through the decades, Highland Park also housed the turbine research group — which came close on more than one occasion to releasing an actual turbine car, and did release the M1 turbine-powered tank.

Marc Rozman said in 2011,

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.

building helldiver parts

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.

precision forming laboratory

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, the Chrysler Technical Center in Auburn Hills opened after five years of construction and nine years of planning. 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.

By that time, the official address of the Highland Park complex was 12000 Chrysler Drive. It was off the Chrysler Freeway (I-75) and Davison Freeway (Route 8), with Brush Street one block away to commemorate a once-popular brand that had been part of Maxwell Motors.

Originally, the company was going to move people working in other towns into Highland Park; they did pay Highland Park $14 million over eight years to offset tax revenues, in return for a tax waiver on their land in Auburn Hills. Then, in late 1992, the company decided to move management to Auburn Hills as well. In late 1993, Chrysler paid the city of Highland Park $90 million, including $60 million to clean and clear the site.

Four buildings were demolished in the early 1990s: the famed Chrysler Institute of Engineering (built in 1942), the Medical and Personnnel Building (built in 1946), and the Engineering Storage and Engineering Body Design buildings (both from 1948). Chrysler continued to remove buildings.

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, Magna Seating, Connolly Leather, Ameritech, and Johnson/Lear Automotive. As of March 2015, Google still had the “Daimler Chrysler-General Offices” there. Chrysler Drive may have been renamed “Oakland Park Boulevard” or “Chrysler Service Drive.”

testing labs

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]

Also see running the test dynos in Highland Park Building 135

dyno room

test cell

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Mopar taxis, 1935-2003 The reliable 3.5 V6 1997 Plymouth Pronto