Reprinted with permission from The Chrysler Canada Story, copyright © 2001 James Mays
Walter P. Chrysler was thrilled that the cars carrying his name were such a success. In 1924 his team included Joe Fields and Richard Grant, who were masters of the sales game. B.E. (Hutch) Hutchinson was financial advisor, and George Mason, later President of Nash-Kelvinator, was Walter’s production manager. Herbert Henderson was responsible for styling (or ornamentation, as it was known at the time).
The first Chrysler was built without any thought of compromise and priced the same as Buick, a car Walter knew like the back of his hand. Capable of hitting seventy miles per hour, the powerful engine was virtually ignored in conversation; the hot topic of the day was the sensational use of Lockheed four-wheel hydraulic brakes. Finally, people bragged, a domestically-built car could be stopped quickly and safely. Chrysler debuted in six handsome body styles, and three more were quickly added.
Maxwell was still sold in 1924, but in the low-priced field. Competing with Ford, which had 55% of the entire market, was daunting for any automaker. Even GM could only account for 17% of the industry total, and independent Dodge Brothers, which ranked third, was happy to take home 6% of US sales. In Canada, Dodge Brothers, still a competitor to Chrysler, moved to a larger home in Walkerville, Ontario.
The 1925 Chryslers and Maxwells were well received by the public. More than 100,000 sold in the United States and 7,857 units were sold in Canada. Both Maxwell and Chalmers had been building cars in Windsor, the former on Tecumseh Road and the latter on St. Luke Road, since 1916. Under Walter’s guidance, the two companies operated out of the Tecumseh Road facility.
Maxwell Motor Sales Corporation became the Chrysler Corporation on June 6th, 1925. Eleven days later, the Chrysler Corporation of Canada Limited was registered with its head office in Windsor, Ontario, replacing the Maxwell-Chrysler Motor Company of Canada Limited; it employed 181 people in its first year.
Maxwell was retired forever from Canadian roads in July 1925. The last unit to roll off the assembly line was decorated with flowers.
The first Windsor-made Chryslers were the Model 58, a four-cylinder car which had actually been last year’s Maxwell. The higher-priced six-cylinder Model 70 sold for more than $1,200. The following year the updated larger Chrysler was badged as the Finer 70.
In 1927, the company fielded even smaller Chryslers. The Model 50 rode on a 106-inch wheelbase and the larger 60 model had a 109-inch wheelbase. In January, the company inked a deal to lease the old Fisher Body plant in Walkerville. Having a separate body facility freed up valuable floor space in the Tecumseh Road factory for making chassis, and output increased significantly. Prices were cut on the technically-advanced cars by nearly $300 for the 1927 season.
Walter P. expanded his product line squarely into Cadillac country by offering the Imperial 80. The luxury marque took its 80 designation from its ability to top eighty miles per hour. Historians today identify Imperial as the original muscle car. The impressive flagship was imported to Canada for customers who wished to pay the imposing price.
Stateside, sales were up 57% over the previous year. Tentative talks were undertaken with Clarence Dillon, whose banking firm owned Dodge Brothers, after his plans to amalgamate Hudson, Packard, and the Briggs body works came to nothing.
In 1927, there were snazzier bodies and lots of fine-tuning to the product line’s mechanical components. Chrysler finally bested Dodge Brothers in the numbers game in the USA, but still lagged 80,000 units behind Buick. Sales increases were slowed to 19%. The automotive press speculated that the company’s fortunes were on the wane after its meteoric rise in the market. Chevrolet, Ford, Buick and Hudson were all ahead of Chrysler, but that was about to change.
What the company needed were several brands to sell, like GM. The Chrysler name meant something and it was difficult to sell an inexpensive four-cylinder model to folks who associated the Chrysler name with something more prestigious. The four-banger Chrysler (the reworked Maxwell) was dropped in May and reincarnated as Plymouth, a low-priced offering that would do battle with Chevrolet and Ford. Walter reportedly drove one of the first ones off the line, motored over to Henry Ford’s home for a visit, and left it behind as a gift, taking a cab home.
The DeSoto Motor Corporation of Canada was formed with much fanfare, and placed in separate offices on Edna Street in Windsor. The wholly-owned Chrysler subsidiary initially competed in the medium-priced field; in later years it would trade places on the corporate ladder with Dodge. Though they made their debut in 1928, both DeSoto and Plymouth were officially 1929 models. The longer sales year didn’t hurt a bit.
Dodge Brothers came up for sale again. Walter was keenly interested in acquiring the company because of the superb sales organization and the foundry which his company sorely needed. Clarence Dillon and his men bargained with the Chrysler team, sweating it out in a suite of rooms at the Ritz Hotel in New York City, for five days. Later, the two would admit that some of the dealings had theatrical overtones meant for public consumption.
When the deal was struck, Chrysler owned Dodge Brothers, Inc. and it cost not a penny. The whole affair was signed, sealed, and delivered through stock swaps. A full 90% of Dodge Brothers shareholders were in favour.
Dodge Brothers would compete nicely with Oldsmobile, and modern-day Plymouth fans noted that its vast facilities would provide production capacity for the low-cost brand. Newspapers had a field day, reporters wrote that “the minnow had swallowed the whale,” as indeed it had. Chrysler Corporation suddenly became the third largest manufacturer in the US, behind GM and Ford, and ahead of Hudson. The night the deal was struck, Walter had his men put up huge banners on the side of the Dodge Brothers plant. When the workers arrived for morning shift they learned that Dodge Brothers was now a division of the Chrysler Corporation.
Now Chrysler Canada offered a complete range of products. Operations on the home front were presided over by John Mansfield, who had been part of Maxwell-Chalmers, and was named First Vice-President of Chrysler Canada Limited when the company had been formed three years earlier. The Dodge Brothers (and the intertwined Graham Brothers truck makers) plant in Toronto was closed as quickly as was prudent, with production shifted to Windsor in 1929. Seventy acres of farmland had been bought on the south side of Tecumseh Road and immediately a passenger car assembly plant went up in what had been a cornfield. Plymouth, Dodge Brothers, DeSoto and Chrysler passenger cars all rolled out of the new plant.
To give the low-priced Plymouth its rightful niche, the four-cylinder Chrysler and Dodge Brothers models were dropped; the Plymouth was taken from the four-cylinder Chrysler, making the first Plymouths re-revised Maxwells. Plymouth’s price tag was $915.
DeSoto had originally been created to take on competitors Dodge Brothers, Oakland, Hudson and Studebaker. With Dodge Brothers in the Chrysler family, DeSoto was repositioned to compete with Oakland’s new companion car, the Pontiac.
The New York Stock Market crashed in October of 1929. The overheated economy had been fuelled by credit for far too long, and the shock waves of business failure would register around the world. Canadian automobile production was 263,000 units that year. It would tumble sharply, and Chrysler Canada would not be immune. When the 1930 model year was trumpeted in January, prices were slashed. Last year’s Plymouth was now available for only $775. Dodge Brothers division would manage to build 7,195 units for domestic consumption and ship another 221 units to far-flung parts of the British Empire. Dealerships were paired to help dealers survive the downturn; Plymouths and Chryslers would share showroom floors, as would Dodge Brothers and DeSotos.
This 1929 Imperial was purchased by Canadian inventor Charles Pogue; it was mistakenly reported as capable of 200 mpg.
The Great Depression ground on relentlessly. As the Canadian economy worsened, total car production plummeted to 83,000 units. To save what was left of the industry, the Canadian House of Commons raised duty on imported new cars to 30% for vehicles priced up to $2,100 and 40% for higher priced automobiles.
1931 Dodge Brothers production slipped to a mere 1,788 vehicles and only eight units were exported. Good news was scarce, but Chrysler officials were happy that Dodge Brothers trucks began to roll of the Windsor assembly lines that year. The rugged haulers were sold by Dodge Brothers-DeSoto dealers (similar trucks would later be sold at Plymouth dealers under the Fargo name). Chrysler-Plymouth showrooms were graced with truly sumptuous Canadian-made Imperials. Chrysler’s eight-cylinder models were finally available, designated by the letters CD. The Chrysler CJ 66 and CJ 70 models were one-year wonders, built for Canadians only.
As the Dirty Thirties wore on, losses grew greater. Statistics show that GM, Ford, and Chrysler lost an average of $103 on each car they built in Canada in 1932. Few people were writing cheques for automobiles. Little wonder, a full 25% of all Canadians desperately looked for work, any work, anywhere. A quarter of a million people were on the dole, struggling to survive day by day.
Irritated by the increased trade in used cars, in 1933 General Motors of Canada began to issue $30 cheques for each used vehicle that dealers destroyed. A worker’s income dropped to $247 a year, half of what it had been five years ago. The outlook was grim and it would get worse.
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:
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