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Chrysler: The Early Days

by Allen B. "Tobe" Couture - courtesy of the Plymouth Bulletin

This is the story of my early days in the auto industry. It is also the only true story of the early history of the Chrysler Corporation. I am going to start out with a statement which should impress everyone. If it had not been for Zeder, Skelton and Breer, and their continuous efforts and hardships, there wouldn't be a Chrysler Corporation. I believe you will agree with me after hearing the story.

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During World War I, I was employed by the Duesenburg Corporation, located in Elizabeth, N.J. I was in charge of testing Bugatti airplane engines and Duesenburg marine engines. The Bugatti was a 16 cylinder engine, 2 vertical rows of 8 cylinders, coupled together with a large gear box. This engine was the forerunner of the in-line 8 cylinder engine. Duesenburg built several of these for racing purposes. The marine engine was built with 4, 6, and 8 cylinders in-line, large displacement. This engine was used by U.S., Russian, and Italian governments for submarine chasers during World War I.

In the latter part of 1918, the Willys Corporation bought out the Duesenburg Corporation and I was held on. This company had no connection with Willys-Overland Corporation, except that Mr. John Willys was the organizer of this new company. At that time Willys-Overland was building a 4-cylinder low priced car. This car had a very unusual frame-suspension design. Mr. Willys thought a 6 cylinder of this design would make a desirable car. Two of these cars were built in Toledo, Ohio, and sent to Elizabeth to be used as demonstrators to bankers and other financial people. This job was turned over to me, so the next 60 days were spent demonstrating this suspension to the money men.

It gave a very good ride and an unusually good performance. This car was light and had plenty of displacement in the motor. The result was that the bankers threw in 15 million dollars to put up a new building. It was 5 stories high, 3500 feet long, and 460 feet wide, and was completed by April, 1919.

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In the meantime, a group of engineers were brought in to redesign the car for production. Six experimental cars were built. Road testing began, and after mileage accumulated, the frame began to fail in various places. Then the body began to show up failures, 80 we were just going around the ring. This went on all during 1919. Then, with more mileage, the engine began to show its weaknesses. In the meantime, tooling was going on and we were getting ready for production.

In September, 1919, Mr. Chrysler came into the organization. He had resigned from General Motors and Willys-Overland had hired him as a director and advisor at a salary of $1,000,000 a year. This was such a large figure, it was written up in the papers and many critics said no man was worth that much.

This was when I first met Mr. Chrysler and he immediately wanted a demonstration ride, so I arranged a trip to Schooley Mountain, Pennsylvania. At that time very few cars could get up this grade in high gear. Mr. Chrysler was very much impressed with the performance of the car.

At the top of the hill, everyone got out of the cars and admired the great performance. Mr. Chrysler came over to me and said, "Tobe, let's go down the hill once more." Halfway down the hill he said: "Pull off to the side of the road," which I did. Then he said: "Tobe, what do you really think of this car anyway?"

I replied: "Do you want to hear the truth, or do you want me to say the car is wonderful?"

He said: "It had better be the truth."

So I told him: "The sooner you scrap the whole program and start fresh with a new design, the sooner we will have a good car." This statement sure raised his temper and he really sailed into me. He said: "Tobe, do you realize we are all tooled up for production?" I said: "Yes, Sir, but you asked for the truth." He said: "Would you be willing to go back up the hill and make that statement to all the people up there?" When I said I would, he said: "All right, let's go back."

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Among the members of the Company who were there were Donald Dever, General Manager; Mr. Sergardi, Chief Engineer; Bill Cleary, Purchasing Manager, and others. After some discussion with these men Mr. Chrysler said "Let's go back home."

The next day he called a meeting of all members of the organization and asked each one what he thought of the car and every one said "fine" - "wonderful", even Mr. Sergardi the Chief Engineer. He seemed to be afraid to tell the truth and said "fine" too. Next it was my turn and I repeated what I had told Mr. Chrysler up on the hill- "the sooner we scrap the car the better off we will be." This was a real bomb and of course I was closely questioned. I told them I had all the reports and facts of all failures during testing. I was not very popular around there for quite some time, but in the next six months, several changes and experiments were conducted to try to work out something to save the design.

Photograph Portrait History
At this time, Messrs, Zeder, Skelton and Breer came into the picture. As I remember, it was July 1, 1920 and they brought about 15 men with them. They were formerly with Studebaker Corporation. Among them were Harry Woolson, O. H. Clark, P. J. Kent, Alfred Werdeboff, Newton Hadley, Mel Carpenter, A. W. Wright and William Mulhern (by the way, this was the first time I met them.) They immediately started an investigation of all the design and experimental work that had been done for the past one and a half years. Apparently Mr. Chrysler had told them about my statement to scrap the design. So the questions began to fly, but I stuck by my guns, and insisted we should start fresh. A lot of cutting and trying was carried on.

Finally, Zeder, Skelton and Breer had to agree with me and their report to Mr. Chrysler was the same as I originally made while driving on Schooley Mountain. Now Mr. Chrysler had to get this information to the bankers, so he called a meeting in his New York office and asked me to join them to give them the bad news. This was quite a jolt to all the members.

At that time, Mr. Zeder gave orders to design a complete new car. This had to be done on the quiet and using as many of the available tools as possible. Remember, the plant was completely tooled. So a drafting room was set up at the Beachwood Hotel at Summit, New Jersey.

This was really the beginning of the Chrysler 6. This was the 7 bearing, high compression engine with interchangeable bearings, the prototype of what we build today [written prior to 1960]. Since this development had gone on in secrecy, there was mum hesitancy in how best to approach Mr. Chrysler, as he had made no suggestions along this line. When we broke the news to him, he came to Summit with Mr. J. Hall, who was President of the Willys Corp. When he had gone over the design, not only did we sell the design to Mr. Chrysler, but he went to work on Mr. Hall and in turn the bankers.

From that time on, all went well for us. We not only went ahead with the engine, but designed and built a completely new automobile, light in weight, 70 m.p.h., smaller diameter tires, undisclosed wheel base with outstanding performance. The Production Department brought in the engine in record time - 90 days from the day the blue prints were handed to them. We received the finest cooperation from the heads of all departments.

In the spring of 1921, the first car was tested and 2 fine drivers turned in 900 miles a day over a course of mostly gravel roads, extending from the New Jersey coast over the Pennsylvania and Orange mountains. This car was tested for 30,000 miles, after which it was torn down and found to be in perfect condition. Mr. Chrysler had become thoroughly aroused and enthusiastic about this car. He was constantly sending his friends over to Elizabeth for demonstrations. Many of these were made on the floor of the factory building which was about half a mile long and speeds of 60 m.p.h. were possible. They were all amazed at the performance of this car. These men were largely key Buick and Cadillac dealers, influential, well placed in their respective home cities, and possessed of financial strength. Coupled with Mr. Chrysler's skill and ability, everything pointed to a deal whereby this group would take over the Willys plant in Elizabeth and build a car called the "Chrysler 6."

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During one buildup of Mr. Chrysler and his friends, it is my remembrance that although Mr. Chrysler would bring Mr. J. R. Harbeck (who was then Chairman of the Willys Corp.) into the picture, there was never any outward display of friendship and there appeared a degree of rivalry in the same undertaking. I believe Mr. Harbeck recognized the worth of the new car and its importance to the future of the Willys Corporation, and no doubt in his mind, he had hoped to out-maneuver Mr. Chrysler.

In the first 6 months of 1921 the seesaw game went on. A few days before the 4th of July, Mr. Chrysler called Messrs, Zeder, Skelton and Breer to his office on Vanderbilt Ave. and said: "Boys, it's all set. I am taking my family on a boat trip to Europe and when I come back we will start maneuvers to build this car at Elizabeth." Mr. Chrysler's group had made an offer for the Elizabeth property, which Mr. Chrysler had reason to believe would be accepted.

Time passed and nothing happened. The only word passed was that "Harbeck had blocked the sale," apparently figuring that Mr. Chrysler was putting over a fast deal. From that time on, Mr. Chrysler lost interest. Mr. Willys was never seen again around the Elizabeth plant, and seemingly tired of the whole deal, he suddenly (and to the surprise of Mr. Chrysler and ourselves) on Nov. 30, 1921, threw the Willys Corp. into receivership.

The receivers, two men from Trenton, N.J., were very fine to Messrs. Zeder, Skelton and Breer. It was then that the Zeder-Skelton-Breer Engineering Co. was incorporated in the state of New Jersey. We continued to operate as an engineering department, using the same engineering space and facilities at the Elizabeth plant. The rental was $100 month; we took outside jobs to pay the way for our organization of 25 people. We thought that this was a "large" group. However, at no time did we stop perfecting our "Chrysler 6."

During the early months of 1922, we did not see much of Mr. Chrysler. It seemed that he was no longer interested in our car and again went to Europe. After his return, one evening he was invited over to the Robert Treat Hotel by Messrs. Zeder, Skelton and Breer for dinner. After a pleasant visit he was anxious to return to New York with his car and chauffeur. Only after the most "persuasive" language by Mr. Zeder did he consent to drive with us to Elizabeth. It was well planned, for our whole organization was on the job and waiting. We showed Mr. Chrysler things he had never seen before and he did not get away until long after midnight. That night he showed his old determination. He wanted to see that car built with his name on it.

Since the receivers and Willys Corp. were preparing the property to be sold at auction on June 9, 1922, Mr. Chrysler quietly and under cover prepared to make a determined bid. As I recall, the receivers anticipated a minimum bid of $2,200,000 and Joseph P. Day, bidding for Mr. W. C. Durant, did not expect any spirited bidding. I was present at this sale, and was amazed at the bidding and disappointed that Mr. Chrysler did not win out. Mr. Durant's final bid was $5,525,000, which was $25,000 over Mr. Chrysler's last bid. Mr. Chrysler decided to quit and departed for Europe again.

This meant another defeat for us and was a period when the Zeder-Skelton-Breer Engineering Co. went through many hardships, but we did not get discouraged. Now, spending their own money to keep the organization together, the Zeder-Skelton-Breer Engineering Co. moved to 26 Mechanic Street, Newark, where we established ourselves in a loft on the fourth floor, formerly a furrier's shop. We had good light and heat that winter and also a good view of an old churchyard where many Hessians were buried. It was here we consolidated our gains and took on any jobs available. I was doing some work for Harry Miller, a Daniels car dealer in Newark, N.J.

Even though we had lost our original car to Mr. Durant, with all drawings and specifications, we again went to work on another car from the ground up. When he returned from Europe, Mr. Chrysler now found our shop an interesting place to visit, only a few minutes from New York by the Hudson and Manhattan tube train (currently known as the PATH line). He always had many ideas and we worked with him and planned how this car would be built.

At this time, Mr. Durant was tooling up to manufacture the "Flint" car which was very near the size car we had designed and built in Elizabeth. Several experimental cars were built, but their performance was not equal to our Elizabeth cars.

One Friday evening while having dinner at home, the phone rang and it was Mr. W. C. Durant. He wanted to know if I could come over to his N.Y. office the next day. I told him I could not come Saturday, as I was busy at Daniel Motors. He said: "What about Monday at 11 A.M.?" I had no idea what he wanted, but I agreed.

When I arrived at his office at 10:45, it was full of people. I gave my name at the desk and the receptionist said: "Come right in, he is waiting for you." He asked me if I could tune up our old car the way it had performed when I had given him a demonstration a year ago. What had happened was that the Flint engineers gave him a ride on Fort George Hill in N.Y. City, which was a famous hill for testing, with the Flint car versus the old Chrysler car, which would not go up the hill. He knew better, as he had been up the hill in the Chrysler one year ago.

Team Crew

We drove over to Long Island where the Flint car was to be built. He told the Flint engineers to give me the old Chrysler car and any help I needed to tune it up. (I don't think I was very welcome). While we were driving back to his New York office, he wanted to know if I could start on the car the next day. I told him I did not know as I was working for Zeder, Skelton, and Breer, and would have to get their permission. "Well," he said, "I'd like to talk to Fred Zeder, I have never met him." So I called Mr. Zeder at his home in South Orange, N.J. and introduced them over the phone. They talked for about an hour and I was given the job of tuning up the car. They also made a date for the following Thursday for the World Series game between the Yankees and Giants.

I went to work on the car and there wasn't really much wrong with it, except that we had 2 wheel brakes in those days and the linkage from the brake pedal to the brake drum was incorrect. So when you went over a bump with a full load, the brakes would apply, causing loss of performance. I corrected this and the performance was O.K., but I never told the Durant engineers what was wrong. It took them quite some time to equal the performance of the old "Chrysler 6."

In the meantime, Mr. Zeder and Mr. Durant went to the World Series, but I don't think they saw much of the game as they talked mostly business, with the result that Zeder, Skelton & Breer Engineering Co. was given the job of redesigning and developing the Flint engine. This gave us access to the old dynamometer laboratory at Elizabeth and a splendid opportunity to develop our own new engine.

On April 11, 1923, Mr. Chrysler was invited to come over to Elizabeth to see a version of our engine on the dynamometer test. He was so impressed with the smoothness and performance that he immediately gave orders to proceed with the final design as he was almost certain this car would be built in the Chalmers plant in Detroit. He made one stipulation: that five experimental cars would have to be running by September 1, 1923. This meant that the design, procurement of all material, and building of 5 experimental cars had to be accomplished in about 4½ months.

Hydraulic brakes

On June 6, 1923, the Zeder-Skelton-Breer Engineering Co. arrived in Detroit and took space on the 2nd Floor of Building 9 of the old Chalmers plant, now the Chrysler Jefferson plant. From then on, we made good progress and our first experimental cars were completed by Sept. 1. I drove the first car to New York and went to Mr. Chrysler's home at Great Neck, Long Island. From there we drove to the Long Island Speedway for a demonstration ride. We drove for quite some time and then we stopped at the side of the road to look over the car.

Mr. Chrysler said: ''Tobe, what do you think of it?"

I said: "Mr. Chrysler, do you want the truth?"I suppose he was remembering what I had told him on Schooley Mountain as he had a peculiar look on his face, but said "PLEASE."

I had to laugh, I said: "'This car is perfect, there's only one thing missing. It should have four wheel hydraulic brakes."

He said: "You are absolutely right, let's go home and call up Fred."

This he did and told Mr. Zeder and Mr. Breer he wanted four wheel brakes on the No. 1 production car. This was quite an order. As will be remembered, Chrysler was criticized by other car manufacturers for having hydraulic brakes. Since then, as is well known, every car running is equipped with four wheel hydraulic brakes. [Note: Carl Breer's book goes into detail on how these brakes were designed, largely within the Chrysler organization, with patents assigned to Lockheed.]

Maxwell nearly becomes part of Studebaker

This new car caused so much interest that Studebaker Corp. made a determined effort to buy a controlling interest in Maxwell. This had progressed so far that some of the Studebaker principals came to Detroit and were given a demonstration ride by me, although I didn't know who they were at that time. It happened that one afternoon Mr. Chrysler came down to the experimental room and asked how the cars were running. I said "fine." He asked if we had two cars we could demonstrate that night and I told him yes. He said: "All right, I'll be here at 8 o'clock, but don't say a word about this to anybody." At 8 sharp he arrived with 5 men. After about two hours driving all over the east side of Detroit, we came back to the plant and they left about 11 P.M. Mr. Chrysler again asked me not to tell anyone about the ride.

Well, I didn't have to tell anyone, as the guard at the gate told Mr. Zeder when he came in the next morning. He said: "We had a lot of company last night. Mr. Chrysler and five men, and Tobe took them for a ride in the new car."

Well, about 9 A.M., my office phone rang and it was Mr. Zeder's office saying he wanted to see me right away. I had no idea he knew about what went on the previous night, but I soon found out, as he asked me how things were going and I said "fine." Then he said: "You worked pretty late last night and I hear you had company."

Just then Mr. Chrysler walked into his office. Was I ever relieved! I said: "Mr. Chrysler, am I glad to see you!"

So Mr. Chrysler explained it to Mr. Zeder. Then he said: "Fred, the Studebaker people want to buy us out and you can name your own price." (Mr. Chrysler thought so much of Mr. Zeder and his organization that he felt this was a wonderful opportunity for them.) But Mr. Zeder absolutely refused to have any part of it.

Mr. Chrysler had told the Studebaker people he thought the deal would go through, so now he was in quite a predicament. The Maxwell stock had gone from around 6 to 18, and this would be a good out for the stockholders. So now he had to tell them of Mr. Zeder's refusal, but they would not give up - they really wanted the Chrysler car.

Just before Thanksgiving, 1923, Mr. Zeder, Mr. Skelton and I drove the first Chrysler Six Phaeton, equipped with four-wheel brakes, east over Ligonier Mountain, PA, and into Washington, D.C. Then we went on to Newark where Mr. Skelton and I stayed and Mr. Zeder went on to New York to a meeting which Mr. Chrysler had called with the Studebaker organization, apparently to try to close a new deal for them to take over the Chrysler Corp. All it needed was Mr. Zeder's signature. Mr. Zeder absolutely refused to sign and said if the deal was made without his signature, he would call Carl Breer in Detroit and every blueprint would be destroyed.

This is how close it came to there being no Chrysler Corporation. Cars were coming off the production line by December 20 and the week before Christmas, the "Chrysler 6" line of cars was shown at the Jefferson plant to leading bankers, material and parts suppliers, automobile dealers and many other leading personages. They were enthusiastically received.

I remember Jules Bache was there with Mr. Chrysler. I recall seeing Mr. Bache sitting many hours, jacknife in hand, whittling long shavings out of some soft pattern pine be had picked up. He become convinced of the potential prospects of the enterprise and he invested a large amount of money in the Company - next to Mr. Chrysler he became the largest stockholder in the Chrysler Corp.

Because there was no previous production record, Mr. Chrysler had been refused permission to show the Chrysler cars at the North American Automobile Show in New York. However, he arranged for our cars to be shown in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel in New York City at the same time the Auto Show was on (January, 1924), and they attracted tremendous crowds. [Note: this story appears to be incorrect].

During the first year of production, 33,000 cars were built. It was a record for first year production at that time and Chrysler production moved from last place to third place in the industry by 1928.

Now, I think you will agree with my statement that if it hadn't been for Zeder-Skelton and Breer, there would be no Chrysler Corporation.

As of May 1, 1975, I am the only living member of the original Zeder-Skelton-Breer Engineering Company, but I can never forget those early days - the hard times and the good, the trials and the triumphs; but most of all, the great bunch of men who worked together to make it all possible.

Allan B. Couture, one of Chrysler Corporation's dearest friends, died at the age of 95. Addressed as "Tobe" by many, including Walter P. Chrysler himself, Couture was the chief experimental engineer for the firm. Before his retirement in 1956, Mr. Couture was in charge of developing the Chrysler Proving Grounds near Chelsea, Michigan.

- Marv Raguse

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