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by David Zatz
1997 was a very good year for Chrysler Corporation. The reviewers were nearly unanimous in their praise for every new product — the new mid-sized cars, the little Neon, the minivans, and the trucks. The new 1997 Dodge Dakota, with mini-Ram styling, had been developed in-house, with a remarkably comfortable ride, and sales were satisfyingly high.
There were few storm clouds on the horizon; customer service was being addressed, and Chrysler enjoyed higher customer loyalty than average — and higher new-customer conquests. The sky was sunny and clear as Chrysler showed that an American company could still make profitable small cars — and beat the Europeans on their home turf, via the Viper, racing through Europe.
Chrysler had 121,000 employees around the world, with around 105,000 in the US and around 15,000 in Canada (in 2016, the company claimed 83,800 in the US). They were led by the “dream team,” including Bob Eaton and Bob Lutz, Tom Stallkamp (president), Gary Valade (CFO), Tom Gale (Product), James Holden (Sales and Marketing), Tom Sidlik (Procurement), F.J. Ewasyshyn (Advance Manufacturing Engineering), and John Herlitz (design).
Chrysler cleared $61 billion in revenues for 1997, with a net profit of $2.8 billion, following two prior good years.
Chrysler’s car market share in 1997 was down somewhat from 1996, at 8.9% (vs 9.7%), partly due to the introduction of the 1998 LH series late in the year — and sacrificing market share for profits with the Neon and midsize cars. Truck market share, at 21.7%, was down somewhat from 1996, but still above 1993-95.
The company sold 2,304,000 cars and trucks in 1997; only 20% of sales were outside the United States, and most of those went to Canada. There was room for growth.
The compact Neon sold as both a Dodge (121,854) and a Plymouth (86,798); the big LH sold as an Intrepid (118,537), Concorde (38,772), Vision (5,146), and, at the top, the LHS (30,189). Midsize “J-cars” sold as the Stratus (99,040), Cirrus (31,549), and Breeze (72,499). The Mitsubishi-sourced Sebring coupe ran to 35,365 units; the convertible, based on the Chrysler Cirrus, ran to 53,054. Finally, they sold 10,206 Eagle Talons (Mitsubishi-sourced), 1,458 Vipers, and 120 Prowlers in the U.S.
Minivans were flying off the shelf, with 285,736 Caravans joining 156,056 Voyagers and 76,653 Town & Countrys in driveways. The Ram was almost as popular, with 350,257 finding homes; and the Grand Cherokee beat most pre-Chrysler total Jeep sales on its own, with 260,875 trading hands. Cherokees were selling well (130,041), given their age, while Wranglers were doing well for a niche vehicle (just under 82,000).
The new Dakota was popular, with 132,000 sold — its second best year ever, and to be eclipsed by 1998. The SUV based on it, the 1998 Dodge Durango, was finding a following, despite being on the market for just three months, two of which had over 10,000 sales. Finally, the big B-vans were selling modestly, with over 56,000 of the vans and 17,372 wagons moving off the lots.
The Viper Roadster started production in January, but it seemed like all eyes were on the hot new Plymouth Prowler. This car was to be the new face of the brand; Tom Gale planned for a variant of the Neon, the PT Cruiser, and then a similarly styled minivan, to revitalize Plymouth.
Perhaps more significant, long term, was the launch of a completely redesigned Jeep Wrangler, which had skipped the 1996 model year. It was on its way to breaking out of its niche and becoming a major sales force; one reason was an adaptation of the Cherokee’s link-coil suspension for better on and off road performance. The new “TJ” Wrangler’s diagonal articulation was greater than that of the YJ — about 7 inches — about the same as the legendary Jeep CJ. Power was boosted, air conditioning became optional across the line, and creature comforts increased across the board. This generation solved the long-standing Jeep problem of people buying a CJ or Wrangler, and never coming back to get another Jeep again.
Chrysler also decided to focus solely on cars; it set up an IPO of its Dollar Thrifty car-rental group, and sold Pentastar Electronics, a military test equipment maker.
To focus on its core brands, Chrysler announced that it would drop the slow-selling Eagle brand at the end of the 1998 model year For much more, see “Fast Facts 1997.”
The Jeep Cherokee was extensively restyled for 1997, with new sheet metal, seats, door trim panels, and a new, electronic instrument panel; a tachometer and trip odometer became standard. Outside, buyers could tell the difference, thanks to a new grille and air dam, along with numerous other changes and additions. Front doors switched to a single pane of glass, and outside mirrors were enlarged, with optional power, heated mirrors. Buyers could get antilock brakes; the parking brake was moved; a single-touch-down driver’s power window was added; and a floor console became standard, with an optional overhead module.
The real focus on this Cherokee, despite improvements to comfort, were in reliability. Most of the Cherokee’s electrical connectors were upgraded, with bigger alternators and batteries; a new plastic gas tank (20 gallons) replaced the steel one, complete with a new fuel pump and lines. Manual transmissions used a new hydraulic clutch and pedal linkage. A standard electronic airbag replaced the old optional mechanical one.
The largest change was a switch to the CCD bus, eliminating many wires and separate electrical connections; the bus included the engine controller, gauges, airbags, compass, electric locks, and, with the Aisin Warner automatic, the transmission computer. The remote entry system was switched from infra-red to radio.
All engines were OBD II compliant, so owners and mechanics could easily diagnose problems; some cars had full-range misfire detection. Cummins diesels gained a new throttle control system that increased durability.
To address criticism that Chrysler’s new two-liter engines were harsh and noisy, the company replaced the stamped-steel oil pan with a thicker, cast aluminum pan that stiffened the lower engine block, and cut resonation of vibration from moving parts. On dual cam engines, a collar was added where the oil pan mounted to the block and transaxle.
The intake manifold on the 2.4 liter version was redesigned to lower rumble and cut induction noise, and the induction resonator was enlarged. A new spring-loaded timing belt tensioner on the 2.4 replaced the hydraulic unit, too.
The Eagle Vision got a power boost as the 214-hp 3.5 liter V6 became standard equipment; the LHS also had a standard 3.5. Ram Sport trucks with the 360 V8 got the sport-tuned exhaust system used on 1996 Indy 500 Rams; the sound was changed and back pressure was reduced, adding 15 horsepower and 5 lb-ft of torque.
New electrical connectors were used on all Jeeps and trucks to improve sealing and locking; spark plugs on these models were also replaced with extended-tip plugs, with a larger .04” gap for better idling. Finally, plastic fuel rails replaced metal ones on the Ram pickup, vans, and wagons with V8s.
The NV4500 manual transmission in the Ram pickup gained new blocker rings for each synchronizer, with carbon fiber material for durability; a new single-plane reverse mechanism easied shifting into reverse.
Automatic transmissions were updated with interactive cruise control (using speed and throttle position in computations), and the manual-override system, dubbed “AutoStick,” — which had come out in the 1996 cars — was expanded to the 2.5-liter Sebring ES and Convertible, 3.5-liter Intrepid ES, and Eagle Vision TSi. The 41TE and 42LE four-speed automatics were updated to go into Limp-In mode less often (cutting back on false alarms).
Minivans regained all wheel drive — based on the 1995 system, but with a lighter weight viscous coupling and aluminum torque tube.
All wheel drive minivans got four-wheel disc brakes, with “drum in hat” parking brakes. A new Teves Mark 20 four-wheel antilock brake system on minivans and Grand Cherokees had better diagnostic capabilities, and less pedal feedback. Town & Country got standard low-speed traction control (under 35 mph). Diesel Rams switched to a hydraulic power brake booster from the vacuum booster, using an accumulator for power assistance when the engine is off.
Rams were given electrocoat (E-coat) paint, replacing the wax coat used on some full-sized pickups.
The midsze cars got an electroluminescent display like that of the Sebring Convertible to reduce heat and power use. Various features were juggled around on the midsize cars and convertible. Diesel Rams went from an 81 amp to a 117 amp alternator.
J-bodies were quieted with a dense carpet, larger door weatherstrips, and four-times thicker door liners made of sound deadening material. A center armrest and storage console were added, with pullout dual cupholders, based on customer feedback. Gas-charged cylinders kept deck lids up on the J-bodies for 1997, a new feature.
Minivans got quieter too, with foam in body cavities to cut noise, a spiral design on the antenna, and a retuned a/c suction line. Other minivan updates were better air conditioning outlets, Sport and Rallye packages on both wheelbases, and a standard driver-side sliding door on more models.
Town & Country went to three trims: SX (short wheelbase), LX (long wheelbase), and LXi (long wheelbase luxury). Sebring Convertible’s center console was revised with deeper, more separated cupholders; a new leather-like shift boot was used.
The LHS’s “on-wiper” washer-fluid nozzles were replaced by hood-mounted units, which could be messier but would not freeze up as easily. The Viper Roadster gained adjustable foot pedals and a recirculation mode for the air conditioning.
Grand Cherokee got the new sound-barrier carpet, an insulator pad under the dashboard, a full body antichip coating made of epoxy polyester, redesigned rear seat heating ducts, and the ability to debug the automatic temperature control with the dealer systems.
Safety moves included automatically unlocking minivan doors and turning on interior lights when the airbag deployed, using a more theft-resistant steering column lock on Grand Cherokee and Rams, using rolling codes on remote lock transmitters, and adding a power lock inhibitor to Ram pickups so that one could not use the lock button on the key fob if the driver’s door was open.
Ram SLT pickups got a leather trim package with numerous interior upgrades; Ram Van and Wagons got a new side and rear door check system that let doors open 170 degrees (if a pin was removed) for easier loading; the Ram Van could get a Tradesman Upfitter package with a roof-mounted ladder rack, front/rear partition, and rubber cargo area mat; and Sebring, Avenger, and Talon got new front and rear fascias, a rear spoiler (optional on Talon), and new colors.
1997 was an incredible year for Chrysler, which seemed to be moving from success to success, with no end in sight. It was, though, the final year for a Chrysler Corporation annual report — in mid-1998, Chrysler was swallowed by Daimler-Benz, in a remarkably poorly thought out deal, which spelled the end of Chrysler’s independence.
This is a partial list. “Since” appears to be the length of time the person was an officer, not the time they spent at the company.
Chris P. Theodore joined the officers list on January 1, 1998, as the vice president of platform engineering.
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