Maxwell: First Builder of Chrysler Cars
Chrysler Corporation began in 1925 — a year after the first Chrysler was produced... by Maxwell Motors. If one takes the logic that today’s Chrysler Group is 90 years old (1924-2014), despite the changes in ownership (Maxwell to Chrysler to Daimler to Cerberus to Fiat to FCA), one may also accept that Chrysler is merely an extension of Maxwell Motors.
Maxwell began in 1904 as the Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company, using the former Mobile Steamer factory in Tarrytown, New York. The founders were Jonathan (“John”) Dixon Maxwell, who had worked with Ransom Olds and other auto pioneers; and Benjamin Briscoe, who owned 97% of the Buick Motor Company and ran his own stamping plant. Maxwell attracted Briscoe away from David Buick, and within a year, Maxwell-Briscoe business was booming. They sold 542 cars in the first half of the year, due partly to technological innovations such as using a driveshaft instead of the then-normal chain drive.
In 1905 and 1906, Maxwell-Briscoe leased or built extra plants in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Chicago, but it was not enough. A new factory in New Castle, Delaware (pictured) solved the problem. Construction began in early 1907, and production started, in August 1907, before the roof was finished. 1905 also marked the Maxwell’s first “perfect score” (no repairs needed) on the Glidden Tour from New York to Jacksonville; it also won the “climb to the clouds” contest up Mount Washington, for cars under $2,000. Maxwell followed this up by winning the Deming Trophy on the Glidden Tour in 1906, the same year the company set a 3,000-mile nonstop speed record; and in 1907, a Maxwell travelled from New York to Boston running on denatured alcohol, taking three days to do so but finishing in perfect condition.
In 1908, William C. Durant, tried to convince the Briscoe brothers to bring their highly successful companies — Maxwell-Briscoe and Brush — into General Motors. The talks collapsed, though Durant made do with Buick; the Briscoes decided they would need to merge with some of their competitors. Two years later, they would do so, with severe consequences. (Durant later lost control of General Motors after nearly bankrupting the company, then regained control by merging it with his new car company — Chevrolet — then lost control again, and started yet another new automaker... using a car that had been developed for Walter Chrysler.)
In 1909, Maxwell-Briscoe was the third largest American automaker, with 9,400 sales per year, and $3 million profit since the company’s founding. To prove the mettle of their cars, Maxwell sponsored a historic national cross-country drive, the first such drive by a woman with a female mechanic (the drive was replicated in 2009).
In 1910, the Briscoe brothers emulated Durant’s work at GM, creating the United States Motor Company. It brought in not just Maxwell-Briscoe, but independents Brush, Dayton Motor Car Co., Courier Car Co., Columbia Motor Car, and Alden Sampson [read about those companies]. Only the Briscoe’s companies, Brush and Maxwell, were profitable, well-run, and contemporary. Still, Columbia Motor Car gave U.S. Motor the Selden patent, which covered the basic design of the motor car; this patent earned royalties from competitors, and was far more valuable than Columbia’s dated product line.
In 1911, car production was moved to underused U.S. Motor plants, and New Castle was converted to parts production. Ford won its legal battle against the validity of the Selden patent in this year, ending a steady stream of income.
On the brighter side, the Maxwell team made a clean sweep of the Glidden Tour — all three cars entered came through the New York to Jacksonville endurance run without a single penalty, with even the tires having most of their original air. The drivers got gold watches from the company. Another car, independent entered by Governor Hoke Smith, also came through with a perfect score. The cars ran in the $1,201 to $1,600 touring car class. Of note, Walter Flanders won in the $800 and under class for Studebaker.
Benjamin Briscoe left United States Motor in 1912, forming Briscoe Motor Company. In the same year, K.T. Keller left Maxwell-Briscoe to become the general superintendant of GM’s Northway Motors.
During 1912 and 1913, Maxwell Motor Company ended production of the Columbia, Brush, Stoddard, and Courier — Alden Sampson had already been cut — and sold the original plants in Tarrytown, Providence, and Hartford. They kept the former Stoddard factory in Dayton (now producing the Maxwell 35) and the New Castle plant (parts).
The U.S. Motor Company lasted for just about three years, and was then put into receivership. Walter Flanders, of EMF fame, created the Standard Motor Company as a shell, to buy U.S. Motor’s assets, free of debt, along with those of Flanders Motor Company, on December 31, 1912. One month later, Standard renamed itself to Maxwell Motor Company, to echo the name of its most popular car; Flanders chose not to keep his name on the building. Indeed, the Flanders Motor Company plant in Detroit was converted to make the Maxwell Six. The company was valued at $47 million when this was all over — giving Flanders and his backers a good profit, at least on paper.
The Maxwell 25, launched in summer 1913 as a 1914 model, would outlast Maxwell; in the 1920s it would be greatly improved and relaunched as the “Good Maxwell,” then be renamed Chrysler Four, and end up as the first Plymouth in 1928.
In late 1913, Walter Flander hired Ray Harroun, who had designed and driven the Marmon Wasp (which won the first Indianapolis 500), to build racing cars for Maxwell; these were almost completely unlike the production cars, built by a small team of mechanics. It took three months to make the first racing car, using a 445 cubic inch four-cylinder generating 140 horsepower at 2,400 rpm. One car driven by Billy Carlson finished the race in ninth place, beating Duesenbergs and Mercedes in the field of 30 cars. The other Maxwell, driven by Teddy Tetzlaff, only made 33 laps and ended up in 28th place. Barney Oldfield, later to campaign Chryslers, came fifth in a Stutz. (All top four cars were French, two Delages and two Peugeots.) Carlson ran again in 1915, finishing the race in 9th place; the other Maxwells did not finish due to engine problems, coming in 13th (Tom Orr) and 19th (Eddie Rickenbacker). Louis Chevrolet drove a Cornelian, but didn’t finish due to engine failure.
In 1916, the Forge and Hammer Shop was erected to house large steam-operated hammers, and New Castle became the largest automotive forge plant in the country. In 1917, with Maxwell production soaring and Chalmers production falling, a deal was worked out which let Maxwell build cars in the huge Chalmers plant on Jefferson Avenue, while Maxwell dealers would sell Chalmers cars.
The post-war recession of 1920 hit Maxwell hard; from being a high flier, Maxwell ended up with a debt of $32 million and 26,000 unsold cars out of 34,169 made in 1920. The company found time to start putting the emergency brake on the driveshaft, beginning a Maxwell, then Chrysler, tradition.
In 1921, Maxwell stopped building cars in the Chalmers plant; its cars’ weak axles and poorly mounted gas tanks were “patched” for the late-1921 model year with two straps on the gas tank and two steel trusses on the rear axles. Late in the year, the company asked retired turnaround artist Walter P. Chrysler to save the company, including (since Maxwell owned 90% of it) Chalmers. Chrysler agreed — for a hefty $100,000 a year plus stock options.
Before Chrysler could take action, the Maxwell Reorganization Committee was forced to put the company on the auction block. Faced with heavy bidding from William C. Durant, Studebaker, and others, the committee paid $10.8 million for Maxwell, creating a new Maxwell Motor Corporation. Walter P. Chrysler was elected chairman of the board. The new company quickly purchased Chalmers Motor Company, for $2 million.
Fred M. Zeder, Owen R. Skelton, and Carl Breer, the “Three Musketeers” who had met at Studebaker and moved to Willys, worked at two separate projects. First, they researched the quality problems of the current Maxwell cars, finding numerous issues and coming up with solutions. The result was the “Good Maxwell:” a vastly improved Maxwell 25. Even as they implemented changes on the production line, teams retrofitted already-built cars to bring them up to speed.
The major problem at Maxwell was endemic to the industry: the original blueprints were merely a starting point. If a problem was discovered, according to Carl Breer, the workman would bring the issue to a supervisor, a solution would be found and implemented, and production would continue — but the original specifications would not be changed. This policy was changed the day the ZSB team met Maxwell’s engineers; any change would be brought back to the engineers, agreed upon, and diagrammed (or the original blueprints changed) — with a record kept of all changes.
At the same time, the legendary trio of engineers headed a team to design a new car, the soon-to-be Chrysler Model B. Some of the new Chrysler’s innovations were used on the 1924 Chalmers, including its revolutionary new four-wheel hydraulic brakes — a test for the brakes on the new Chrysler. They had been offered to the company in unusable form, and Carl Breer and his team had made them practical, and almost unrecognizable from the original creation. While other companies had sold cars with four wheel hydraulic brakes, none had been mainstream cars, and none had as modern or effective a system.
The new Chrysler car was introduced to the public in 1924, during the New York Auto Show. Production of the Chalmers quickly ended. From 79,144 cars in 1924, the new Maxwell-Chrysler combine produced 132,343 cars in 1925.
After two years of stock acquisition by Walter Chrysler and Harry Bronner, the Chrysler Corporation was incorporated, taking over the Maxwell Motor Corporation. Walter P. Chrysler was president and chairman of the board. In May 1925, the last Maxwell was built — replaced a month later by the first Chrysler Four, essentially an updated Maxwell 25.
Follow Maxwell-Briscoe’s journey into Chrysler on the map below...