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When was Chrysler really created? (Electric cars aren’t new for Chrysler!)

Chrysler Corporation was created in 1925, but when was Chrysler really started, not as a legal fiction, but as an entity, regardless of name?

family tree

Walter P. Chrysler might have revolutionized Maxwell Motors, but Maxwell existed before he arrived; indeed, the first Chrysler cars were not made by Chrysler Motors, but by Maxwell, in 1924. If one can argue that the Chrysler Corporation of the 1980s and the Chrysler Group of the 2010s are the same basic entity, despite a bankruptcy and the transfer of “Old Carco’s” assets to the new Chrysler Group, LLC, then one can argue with perhaps more conviction that Maxwell-Chalmers of 1924, producer of Chrysler cars, was the same company as Chrysler Corporation of 1925, since all of Maxwell-Chalmers’ assets were transferred to the new Chrysler Corporation.

1917 Chalmers
This restored Chalmers Model 9, with a 30 hp four-cylinder engine, was sold for $57,750 by RM Auctions in 2012.

Maxwell-Chalmers itself was a new legal entity, created just a few years earlier from the merger of Maxwell Motor Corporation with Chalmers Motor Company; and before that, Maxwell had been (for nearly a month) Standard Motor. Standard Motor itself was created to acquire the assets of the bankrupt United States Motor Corporation, which lasted from 1910 to 1912 — having been created from Maxwell and numerous other automakers to counter General Motors.

If legal fictions and transfers of assets are ignored, and a body of people, technologies, cultures, and facilities are considered, Chrysler stands rooted in 1894 — before Fiat or Ford were created. A more adept group of marketers would have celebrated Chrysler’s one hundredth birthday in 1994, and their 110th in 2004.

It is, though, more appropriate to date Chrysler via its main line — through Maxwell Motor Corporation. After all, the first Chrysler, the 1924 Model B, was sold by Maxwell. That puts the starting date at 1904 — just ten years later — putting Chrysler’s hundredth birthday at 2004. In two years (from 2012), Chrysler can make a very valid claim to having been around, under different names, for 110 years.

Chrysler’s electric car roots: Electrobat and the Electric Vehicle Company

In the late 1800s and even the early 1900s, the world had not yet standarized on internal combustion. The first car, invented and built in France, had been steam powered, and steamers were still roaming the streets, but many thought they were a thing of the past, given the new sensation made popular by Thomas Edison: electricity, delivered to your home without the need for a lightning storm. While others had invented ways to generate electricity from burning hydrocarbons, Thomas Edison had invented the practical indoor electric lamp, and then revolutionized electrical generation with highly efficient (for the time) dynamos, parallel circuits, fuses, and all the infrastructure needed to bring electricity into businesses and homes without batteries.

chrysler family treeElectricity was the wave of the future. Telegraphs had brought the nation a fast communications network even before the Civil War; generations were fascinated by the battery operated miracle machines. With Edison’s power plants, electric lighting and fans were sweeping the nation. Even Henry Ford was convinced, for a time, that electric cars were the future — though Edison’s own electric car design ended up in mass transit instead of personal use.

The first root of the Chrysler Corporation was not a gasoline powered car or a bicycle; it was the Electrobat, built in Philadelphia.

The first Electrobat was built in 1894, by Henry G. Morris and Pedro G. Salom. After testing the design, they built (and presumably sold) four Electrobats in 1895, founding, a year later, the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company, which made electric cabs. The new company was apparently successful, but in 1897, Electric Boat’s Isaac Rice bought it and made it part of his Electric Vehicle Company in Elizabethport, New Jersey. He later added Riker Electric Motor Company of Brooklyn, founded in 1896 by A.L. Ricker.

Not long afterwards, Electric Vehicle Company and Columbia Automobile merged. Columbia had begun with Pope Manufacturing, whose Columbia Electric was sold in the U.K. (City & Suburban Cars) and France (l’Ectromotion). Perhaps more importantly, in 1900, Pope introduced the Columbia gas car: a revolutionary design, it had two major industry firsts, an engine up front (instead of under the driver), and a left-side steering wheel that replaced the tiller. The new company spent a brief time as Columbia & Electric Vehicle Company, before changing its name back to Electric Vehicle Company.

In 1901, the Electric Vehicle Company acquired the infamous Selden patent (voided in 1911), which covered any practically motor vehicle; they joined with nine other car manufacturers to form the Licensed Automobile Manfuacturers in 1903.

1904 Overland runabout

The 1907 Columbia was one of the first regular production hybrid-electric cars: a four cylinder gasoline engine drove a generator, which provided power to electric motors on the rear wheels, with no clutch or transmission. It did not sell well, but the basic system ended up becoming the standard for diesel locomotives.

(According to Hemmings, hybrids before Columbia’s included a surprisingly modern Rambler, which replaced the flywheel and starter with a motor/generator; the first were created separately in 1898 by Patton (Chicago) and Pieper (Belgium). With the U.S. Heating and Lighting Company’s starter/motor system, when the engine kicked in at around 5 mph, the motor would switch to being a generator.)

1904: numerous new roots and the start of Maxwell

1906 Stoddard-Dayton

Three new, independent firms created in 1904 were to have a part in the future Chrysler Corporation. These were:

  • Alden Sampson Manufacturing, which built the chassis and running gear for Consolidated Motor; Sampson soon took over the company and built a five ton Sampson truck
  • Stoddard Manufacturing, which made the high-end Stoddard-Dayton car and would, in 1909, produce the low-priced Courier; and
  • Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company, which started production of their Maxwell-Briscoe car a year later, using a shaft drive instead of the usual chain drive.

1909 maxwell cars

Stoddard-Dayton deserves an extra mention because, in 1911, 1913, and 1914, they provided the pace cars for the Indy 500 races (1912 was Stutz’s only year); a Stoddard-Dayton was the very first pace car used in the Indy 500.

The story of Maxwell-Briscoe, so important to the later Chrysler Corporation, started in 1894, the first year of the Electrobat. At that time, John D. Maxwell helped Elwood Haynes to build the first Haynes car; Maxwell later moved on to work with Ransom Olds and other auto pioneers.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Briscoe, who made metal stampings including Buick fenders, gained a 97% interest in the Buick Motor Company in repayment of a $3,500 loan to David Dunbar Buick, around 1903. Maxwell met up with Briscoe and persuaded him to split with Buick, which he did, and join Maxwell instead; Buick himself sold his plant to James Whiting. Maxwell and Briscoe did quite well; their company, Maxwell-Briscoe, made a $3 million profit within five years. By 1909 they were the #3 American seller, with 9,400 sales.

brush car

Another firm, Brush Runabout Company, was created in 1906 by the former chief engineer of Cadillac. Brush’s headquarters in Highland Park would eventually become Chrysler’s headquarters.

In 1909, Electric Vehicle was once again renamed Columbia Motors; and, not to be outdone by the new General Motors, Benjamin Briscoe created the United States Motor Company (in 1912). The U.S. Motor Company included Maxwell-Briscoe, Brush, Dayton Motor Car Co., Courier Car Co., Columbia Motor Car, and Alden Sampson.

columbia electric car

Alanson P. Brush’s car, launched in 1907, light enough to use a single-cylinder (6-10 hp) engine, was the first production car to use coil springs and shock absorbers. Brush cars finished the 2,636-mile Glidden Tour and climbed Pikes Peak. The cheap, tough Brush was very popular in its time.

The U.S. Motor Company lasted for three years; then, due to the overexpansion, Briscoe lost control of the company, and it went into receivership. Standard Motor Company, incorporated on December 31, 1912, purchased the property and assets of the United States Motor Company, as well as the Flanders Motor Company (by land contract purchase). Everything was free of debt except for real estate mortgages.

On January 25, 1913, Standard Motor Company changed its name to match its most popular car, becoming the Maxwell Motor Company, with assets listed at $46.7 million. Walter E. Flanders headed the Detroit-based company; Maxwell and Briscoe were absent from the list of officers and directors.

1913 stoddard-dayton

The new Maxwell Motor Company quickly ended production of the Columbia, Brush, Stoddard, and Courier (Sampson had been shut down in 1910), selling plants in Providence, Hartford, and Tarrytown. Just three plants were kept; the former Stoddard factory in Dayton produced the Maxwell 35, the Detroit plant made the Maxwell Six, and the Newcastle plant.

Maxwell Motor Company continued on for eight years; then Maxwell Motor Corporation was created in West Virginia, on May 7, 1921, acquiring Maxwell Motor company and Chalmers Motor Corporation (some time later) as well as Newcastle Realty, Briscoe Manufacturing, and Maxwell Motor Company of Canada. (On November 29, 1921, Briscoe Motor Corporation was succeeded by Earl Motors, Inc.).

The combined outfit ran into financial troubles and hired turnaround artist Walter P. Chrysler to fix matters. After having engineers resolve key issues on the Maxwell cars and launching a brand new car sold under his own name, Chrysler formed his eponymous corporation, Chrysler Corporation, and acquired Maxwell Motor corporation. Later, he dropped the Maxwell and Chalmers names in favor of new brands, Plymouth and Fargo — though he could have simply chosen from Brush, Dayton, Alden-Sampson, Columbia, Riker, Briscoe, Detroit, Thomas, and Sampson.

Maxwell cars on tour

The American Motors (AMC) roots

Meanwhile — 

The AMC branch started with Thomas B. Jeffery, whose first automobile was completed in 1897, creator of the Rambler line; he started mass producing cars using the assembly line in 1902, after Ransom Olds, but before Henry Ford. This was the oldest part of the AMC branch, as Jefferys was taken over by a man named Nash, who renamed the company in his own name.

Nash Quad

The other part of the later AMC — Hudson Motors — was founded due to Hugh Chalmers’ takeover of the foundering Thomas-Detroit, creating Chalmers-Detroit (which would eventually joint with Maxwell; the threads would eventually all come together.) Since Chalmers-Detroit did not have the money to produce another car, engineers Roy D. Chapin and Jackson left the company to start a new one; capital came from J.L. Hudson, of department-store fame, and also Jackson’s wife’s uncle. Hugh Chalmers and other Chalmers people invested in Hudson; eventually the groups went their separate ways, and the Chalmers and Hudson groups swapped shares and cash to split. The E.R. Thomas Company (where Thomas gained the money to create Thomas-Detroit) continued to build cars, separately; Thomas sold his interest in the company bearing his name in 1910, to a bank, and the company closed its doors in 1914.

The Jeep roots

While Jeffery created a very early 4x4, Jeep’s corporate roots start with the creation of Willys-Overland. This company started as Overland in 1902; crack salesman John North Willys contracted for a year’s production, and in 1907, when he didn’t get the cars he’d been selling, he visited the plant and found a dying company. Willys invested in the plant, getting the production lines moving again, and then bought the Pope plant in Toledo, up for sale due to the 1907 recession. Overland officially became Willys-Overland in 1908. Stearn, Marion, Edwards, and Pope Motors (Toledo) would be acquired by Willys-Overland over the next decade.

edwards-knight

A highly successful company for some time, the highly variable economy of the times nearly brought Willys-Overland down; another economic downturn in 1919 killed auto sales, just as John Willys had invested heavily in the company. Investors demanded that a turnaround artist, one Walter P. Chrysler, be put on the staff. That story has been told many times...

After the war, Kaiser Motors was started to take advantage of the post-war car boom. As sales fell lower and lower, with the end in clear sight, an unprofitable Kaiser took over the still-profitable Willys-Overland in 1953; that provided Kaiser with international sales and a niche with far less competition, and Kaiser cars disappeared shortly afterwards. Kiaser Motors became Kaiser Industries, a holding company, while Willys Motors survived until 1963, when it became Kaiser Jeep Corporation. Kaiser Jeep was purchased by AMC in 1970.

JackRatchett has worked on an updated family tree, based on a banyan tree (chronology isn't to scale):

family tree

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