A tour of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, with docent Pete Hagenbuch

I like to start with our tour right here with the Chrysler Atlantic concept car, but we’ve loaned it to somebody, so you'll have to make do with the original Dodge Viper. Pretty much like the first production model. At one time, I was in seventh heaven. The Atlantic and the Cronos were among the first cars on the whirligig.

Dodge Viper prototype car at the Chrysler Museum

[Moving into the first floor “early Chrysler history” area]

What we have here is Walter P. Chrysler, his first occupation, as a railroad machinist and mechanic in general. I usually play this recording to tours. It was actually recorded by Walter Chrysler’s grandson.

Pete Hagenbuch

(The recording concluded with: “I went back to work with three young automotive wizards, Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer. I had always dreamed that one day a car would carry my name, and after years of hard work, we were proud to unveil the Chrysler Six. At the 1924 New York Auto Show, we parked the Six in the lobby of the Hotel Commodore. Though the Six wasn’t in the show, it stole it. With the success of that car, Chrysler Corporation was soon on its way.”)

What he didn’t say was that they couldn’t get the new Chrysler into the auto show, because the auto show only took cars which were in production, and they were in prototype phase.

Walter P Chrysler with his tools

The tool collection there, in the display case, is almost exactly as it sat outside his office in the penthouse of the Chrysler Building, until his death. Those are all his tools, and very accurately displayed. He was quite proud of them, and his book was called The Life of an American Workman.

1924 Chrysler Six - original prototype car

The Chrysler Six is right out here. This is a hand-built prototype. It’s never been out of the company. It had two main features they advertised a lot, four wheel hydraulic brakes and a five to one compression ratio, and that was huge when everybody else had a four to one, twenty five percent improvement. They benefited from the Englishman, Ricardo, and his work on L head chambers, and there’s a drawing over here that compares the two chambers.

inside the Chrysler Six

What they did mainly was to centralize the spark plug. In L-heads, for some unexplainable reason to me, the spark plug always sat right on top of the valves. I don’t know why, about as far out as possible, making it almost impossible not to have knock. Anyway, the Ricardo head really did the job.

This is everybody else’s L head, with a spark plug about as far away as it could get. Their revised chamber has the spark plug here, and squish area on this side. We found in our wedge chamber overhead valve engines, the squish is very important. It gives you lots of mechanical octane numbers. So, they were way ahead of their time.

combustion chamber

I don’t think Ricardo incorporated squish into his work, but they did. These three guys were something else. They could do just about anything, I think, except style a car, which we’ll see pretty soon.

Chrysler Six engine

chrysler six engine

In 1928, Walter P. bought the Dodge Brothers Company. Both brothers had died within six months of each other. The family didn’t want to be bothered with this huge business, so they put it on the market and Walter got it for, what I gather, for something like ten cents on the dollar. It was like David buying Goliath. And they kept the Dodge Brothers' Dodges in production for several years, through 1930 model year. 1931 was the first year for a Chrysler-designed Dodge.

But meanwhile, as if he didn’t have enough on his plate, he went into the lower price market with a four cylinder named Plymouth, and that is an example of the 1928 Plymouth… it’s probably the highest model that they offered, they weren't all as pretty as that one, with its pin striping.

1939 Plymouth car

That’s one that was done by our restoration folks down in the city. We [the Museum] are an independent, nonprofit function, not a part of Chrysler Corp. We have a big warehouse with over 200 cars and two bays for restorations, and they have a couple of cars in there all the time.

1939 Plymouth hood ornament
1939 Plymouth interior

I've said that the three engineers were geniuses.This was a beautiful restoration job on this original ’34 Airflow, interior still original. It was owned by a Canadian business man who drove it to work for years and years, and when he retired, the son not only inherited the business, he inherited the Chrysler. Well, the son took it to a restorer. I think it took a couple of years, but it’s probably as nice a restoration as I've ever seen. I’d say it’s equal to the Best in Show Mormon Meteor at Pebble Beach a couple of years ago.

The Mormon Meteor was pretty, though. The Airflow restorers couldn’t do anything about that, and, as they say, there is one thing you should never do with a car, that’s have it styled by your engineers, because that’s what you get. Well, I don’t know. Some people just thought the style was too advanced, I always thought it was too ugly.

In any case, Chrysler Corp., was going for number one, and just like it hit a brick wall; we’ve never been wholly healthful since. When the industry had a recession, we always had a depression. We used to joke that General Motors was so diversified, they could make cars and money.

1934 Chrysler Airflow car

Anyway, we got this from this gentleman in spring of 2000. We opened in October 1999. So, it’s been almost the entire time we’ve been here, sits in the place of honor, and its only changed once, and that’s when we had a special showing upstairs of the Chrysler brand. It came right back and this has always been the spot. It probably will be forever.

Oh, it has some features that I like to point out to people. It interests me, at least. First of all, the grille. Now, you may not like the design of it, but every one of those bars is put on by hand with screws in the back. Somebody want to count them?

Audience member: “Twenty-one.”

Chrysler Airflow

The windshield — you know, you couldn’t buy air conditioning back in 1934, so this had everything else. Both sides of the windshield cranked out, and if you'll notice, there’s no wind wing over there. That’s because it was optional. You could leave it up or roll it down with the window.

The seat locations was the biggest deal in the Airflow design. They moved the cab forward to get to the back seat off the rear axle, which greatly added to riding comfort. But when they did, with a big long straight 8 engine, there was nowhere to put the front axle, so they almost had to invent independent front suspension. It wasn’t pioneering, some of the expensive cars had it, some of them, but they did a pretty good job with it.

Aiflow dashboard

The car had an excellent ride, of course, it was partly due to the body's rigidity, because it was a unitized body, and when they went to planning the production line, they couldn’t figure out how to do it without the body drop, there’s no frame. So, what did they do? They made a tubular frame. Since the cars were already heavy, already very rigid, and they became heavier and more rigid. We have a film clip where Mr. Chrysler and his three engineers pushed an Airflow off a 50 foot high wall at a strip mine or something of the sort. It did a front full loop, landed right side up, then they reappeared, and opened all four doors and drove away. That was rigidity!

[Go to the next segment, as Pete introduces us to car, tank, and aircraft engines]

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