Maxwell: First Builder of Chrysler Cars
Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company began life in 1904, in the former Mobile Steamer factory in Tarrytown, New York. The two people in the company name were John D. 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 convinced Briscoe to throw in with him instead of David Buick, and by 1905, 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 shaft drive instead of the era’s 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 (pictured) solved the problem. Construction began in early 1907, and production started, in August 1907, before the roof was finished.
In 1908, William C. Durant, who was busily forming General Motors, tried to convince the Briscoe brothers to bring their highly successful companies — Maxwell-Briscoe and Brush — into the fold. The talks collapsed, and Durant formed General Motors using Buick, but 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, proving that gigantism is not without its problems — though a large part of that was due to Durant’s own issues.)
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 (Alden Sampson was dropped at the end of the year, opening space at their plants), and New Castle was converted to parts production. Ford won its legal battle against the validity of the Selden patent in this year, rendering it useless and ending a steady stream of income — and making its inclusion in United States Motor unfortunate.
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, 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; Standard bought U.S. Motor’s assets, free of debt, along with those of Flanders Motor Company. This transaction took place 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 on paper.
The Maxwell 25, launched in summer 1913 as a 1914 model, would actually outlast Maxwell; it would eventually be greatly improved and relaunched as the “Good Maxwell,” then be renamed Chrysler Four, and end up as the first Plymouth in 1928.
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. Eventually, Maxwell would end up owning Chalmers.
The combination worked well at first, but 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 did, though, find 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, headed a team to design a new car, the soon-to-be Chrysler Model B. Meanwhile, they unveiled the 1924 Chalmers, with 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.
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...