Reprinted with permission from The Chrysler Canada Story, copyright © 2001 James Mays
When E. C. Row retired as head of Chrysler Canada in 1957, the industry was abuzz with rumours about his possible replacement. Who would run the Canadian subsidiary? Would head office finally appoint a Canadian? Finally, the news was announced that the new president would indeed be a native son, Ronald (Ron) Walter Todgham, born in Toronto in 1910.
Todgham’s family had moved from Ontario’s capital city to Windsor when he was small. While attending high school, he landed a job at Chrysler — in the mailroom. One of his part-time responsibilities was to act as chauffeur for John Mansfield, Chrysler Canada’s first president. The two got to know each other.
One day, Mansfield asked his young driver what he was intended to do when he completed high school. Todgham replied that he would work for Chrysler. Mansfield objected strongly, admonishing his driver to go to university, and making the young man promise to do so.
That conversation inspired Todgham to enroll in the University of Michigan; he graudated in 1931 with a degree in Business Administration, and two years later he graduated from the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. Todgham had honoured his promise to Mansfield and, in the depths of the Great Depression, the young man was hired as a full-time employee at Chrysler Canada.
Lawrence Monkhouse, the portrait photographer, wrote: “During this photo shoot, PR Director Robert Young insisted of directing until Todgham said, ‘Shut up, Bob, and let Larry do his thing’).”
He worked for the company until 1938, when he moved to nearby Chatham, Ontario the New World home of Walter Chrysler’s great-grandparents — and started running a dealership. During the next fifteen years, Todgham was immensely successful, but in 1953, he accepted a new challenge. Todgham sold his Canadian dealership and moved to the United States, taking two years to rebuild a down-and-out Dodge and Plymouth dealership in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Canada was calling, though, and Todgham returned to Windsor in May 1955 to take up new duties as a Vice-President.
E.C. Row was still reigning over some of Chrysler Canada’s best years. The new 1957 cars were an absolute styling delight, but dogged with serious quality problems, mostly due to a rush to production and by putting style over function.
Production for the 1957 calendar year was 69,421 units, down sharply from 92,119 vehicles in 1956. It could have been worse; in the United States, 1957 sales boomed, exposing many more customers to the problematic cars.
Many buyers would never return to Chrysler.
Todgham became seasoned by handling a number of different assignments for a little more than a year, while spiraling up the corporate ladder. He was elected president of Chrysler Canada in 1957, just fourteen months after his return.
He had his work cut out for him from the first day he sat at the president’s desk in Chrysler Centre. Production was in deep trouble. Output had fallen by almost a third from 1957 to a low of 44,131 units for 1958 as consumers shied away from the beautiful but now disreputable cars. Advertising promoted upgrades in quality (and, indeed, the 1958s were much improved), but production slid. (Sales were somewhat higher than production during these years, as convertibles, some station wagons, and the luxurious Imperial line were imported from the States.)
A sharp business recession in 1959 didn’t help. Chrysler Canada economized as always by sharing instrument panels, upholstery, and trim between lines. This was the last year that the junior Dodge line would wear the Plymouth body shell.
A confident Todgham looked beyond the storm and bet the farm, ordering production lines refitted for the new Unibody cars and readying the engine plant for the modern Slant-six engine. Despite massive capital expenditures, Chrysler Canada made a modest pre-tax profit of $394,000 in 1959.
With tiny sales, partly due to Canada’s small mid-price market (Canadians tended to buy full-sized strippers or go all the way with a fully loaded, top-of-the-line car), Todgham pulled the plug on DeSoto at the end of the 1960 sales season. Americans would not have DeSoto for much longer.
Meanwhile, as the DeSoto tools and dies left the factory floor, Windsor geared up for an all new car — the timely and compact Valiant. Production was up to 50,336 units for 1960, Valiant’s first year, but dipped to 46,726 vehicles the following year.
The dealer body was reorganized to reflect a new reality. Dodge-DeSoto dealers became Dodge-Chrysler dealers. Both they and Plymouth-Chrysler dealers got the new compact brand, Valiant, to sell. Todgham established regional zone offices and parts depots to supply, train, and support dealers more effectively; he also moved the national parts depot from Windsor to Rexdale, a Toronto suburb.
The main Windsor assembly plant grew by another 200,000 square feet. Reflecting the growing nature of Chrysler, the company name was changed to Chrysler Corporation of Canada in 1963. Windsor began building ragtops for the domestic market.
Chrysler Canada pioneered the Five-Year/50,000 mile warranty in 1963 but didn’t promote it nearly as effectively as Rambler (who immediately copied the planmost Canadians surveyed thought that Chrysler had stolen the comprehensive warranty idea from American Motors Canada Limited). Still, Chrysler Canada’s production figures improved greatly for 1963: 86,805 units, up nearly a third from the 1962 calendar year 50,560 vehicle tally.
Todgham began to shop for parts suppliers, to guarantee a steady source; and when Todgham shopped, he shopped big. In 1964, the company acquired L. A. Young Spring & Wire Limited and the Walker Metal Products foundry in Windsor; Canadian Automotive Trim in Ajax, Ontario; and the former Alcan Aluminum foundry in Etobicoke, Ontario (renamed “Etobicoke Casting” and still active in 2013). Those purchases would prove prudent as Canadians regained confidence in Chrysler and sent production soaring to new heights; 104,734 sets of taillights scooted out the factory doors.
In 1965, a new wide-sweeping bilateral trade agreement, dubbed the Auto Pact, allowed Canadian and American automakers to ship vehicles across each other’s borders, free of tax and duties. Having helped to negotiate the Auto Pact deal, Todgham understood its implications. Still, Chrysler Canada employees went on strike in January; the strike dragged on through February. Importing American-built cars during the strike turned out to be a publicity nightmare, but once the strike was over, it was a banner year for Chrysler Canada and the Canadian industry as a whole; a milestone was reached in 1965 as the 12-millionth Canadian vehicle rolled off the lines.
The factories in Windsor were quickly integrated into Chrysler’s North American industrial strategy. The mix of models running down the assembly lines in Windsor was slashed, but production increased. Valiant Barracudas, Plymouth Belvederes, Dodge Coronet and Charger, and Imperials were imported, while Dodge Darts (not built or sold in Canada previously) were assembled and exported. Building fewer models translated into a 35% higher rate of productivity. In the first two years of Auto Pact, Chrysler Canada exported nearly 60% of all the Canadian vehicles delivered to the US market.
Chrysler brands continued to grow in popularity at home. In 1966 the Windsor plant underwent another major expansion; this time, 500,000 square feet of space was added to the car and truck plants. Pentastar production rose a dramatic 10% that year to total 134,680 sales. Chryco’s products took a full 21.8% of the domestic market. Two years later, an environmentally friendly $3 million waste treatment plant was dedicated.
Full sized Plymouth and Dodge production was phased out at Windsor in 1969, in favor of the plant in Newark, Delaware; Chrysler Canada would continue to build compact Plymouth Valiants and Dodge Darts. When it was time to add to the mix, in 1971, Windsor was assigned the intermediate Plymouth Satellite.
Manufacturing chief Dick Dauch may have been at fault for the American quality gap; Curtis Redgap wrote that engineers predicted 11 defects per car on the R-bodies, and there was little action until Lee Iacocca saw the report and made quality a priority. — Editor.
The company’s products fell out of favour with consumers in the United States in the early 1970s. Chryslers were big and fuelish, and many were poorly made. Buyers wanted smaller, lighter, more economical, trouble-free vehicles. Japanese automakers were building and selling them but Chrysler’s responses, including bringing over their French and British small cars, did not work until the debut of the Horizon and Omni. Some responses were on target — Cordoba was a big success, as was Plymouth Valiant Brougham — but the company was still hurting from its decision to invest heavily in full-size cars (arriving in 1974) rather than new compacts. The disastrous quality of the 1976 Volare and Aspen, which replaced the reputable Valiant and Dart, brought back memories of the 1957 product line, and had much the same result: they slammed sales and cost millions to repair.
Fewer sales meant less money in the corporate coffers to design new products and update older ones. Stale products on showroom floors translated into larger losses at the end of the fiscal year. The slide was not pretty.
The downward trend south of the border was not evident here at home; in 1972 Chrysler Canada garnered a respectable 24.7% of domestic sales and added a total of $41 million to the corporation’s earnings. It would be the company’s best year ever. Windsor went on to break a manufacturing record when employees built nearly 300,000 vehicles in 1973.
Still, most of the product was large and thirsty. The OPEC oil embargo during the winter of 1973-74 sent the company reeling, as customers sought lower-profit (and often imported) small cars, even as the runup in oil prices and lack of growth worsened the situation by reducing customers’ ability to buy. Thousands of unsold cars sat in fields around the Windsor plants, rusting away and costing the company millions of dollars.
Officials finally sat up and took notice. There would be a smaller Chrysler. Windsor was chosen to be home to the new, downsized luxury Chrysler Cordoba and the upscale Dodge Charger SE (both based on the existing Plymouth/Dodge B-bodies); the Cordoba had reportedly been designed as a Plymouth, but product planners felt a smaller Cordoba would sell better, and at a higher price, than a higher-trim Plymouth.
Canada got the nod for production, possibly because head office knew full well that Canadian-built cars were higher quality than those built in American plants. It was no secret that folks working in upper management positions in the US routinely ordered Canadian-made vehicles for personal use.
Introduced as a 1975 model, Cordoba was the right car at the right time. The sumptuously appointed intermediate saved Chrysler’s corporate bacon. Without Cordoba, there might not have been a Chrysler Corporation for Lee Iacocca to salvage; with relatively low development costs, since it was based on the existing B bodies, Cordoba made nearly 150,000 high-margin sales in its first model year, passing 160,000 in its second and third years.
Todgham was widely praised by the press as being a superb manager. Acquiring the hot-selling Cordoba meant a healthy economy for Windsor, southern Ontario, and indeed, the entire country. Todgham was most modest in response to the medias’ accolades. His skills lay in his ability to grasp situations quickly. He had worked his way to the top from the mailroom, with a fifteen-year time out as a highly successful dealer. The many people he met along the way gave him a solid understanding of human nature and a positively uncanny knack for good timing within the automobile industry.
One of Todgham’s last official acts as head of Chrysler Canada was to break ground for the light-truck assembly plant, despite a number of dark and idle Chrysler factories in the US. The Canadian subsidiary was still running round the clock, and the future looked secure. He stepped down from office on September 30, 1975, having reached retirement age, and underwent cardiac surgery a month later. Todgham never recovered from the operation, and died on Boxing Day.
His legacy was a ledger always written in the best of black ink. Year after year, the financial statements for Chrysler Canada were on the plus side. Nineteen years of wise expansion and profit told the story. Ron Todgham, one of our nation’s great manufacturing heroes, was laid to rest in 1975. Chrysler Corporation was on the brink of slipping away into automotive history, too — but a surprising turnaround would make Chrysler profitable and relevant once again.
James C. Mays’ writing can also be seen on the OldCarsCanada site. Also see: Chrysler Canada summary • Canada at Valiant.org • Fargo Trucks
James Mays’ full book, The Chrysler Canada Story:
Chrysler Heritage • History by Year • Chrysler People and Bios • Corporate Facts and History
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