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Inside Chrysler: Corruption Topples the President

I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles. In some cases, the journals go back 50 years. - Curtis Redgap

by Curtis Redgap

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Late in November 1960, Dad received a bulky manila mailer from someone via the mail. It contained some sizzling stuff. Some of the items confirmed what had become a recent rumor in that Virgil Exner had suffered a terrible heart attack and was hovering near death. Speculation was rampant about who would succeed him as design chief. In the usual Chrysler manner, things went along with no one in charge!

Dad never shared the things in that package with me. I had to formulate new ways of subterfuge to get to look at some of the stuff in there. There were papers, memos, test results, and confidential interviews concerning the connections between company officers and suppliers. Big names were named. Dealers were investigated, classified, and defined. Suppliers' connections and pricing were nailed, cold. Testing of products revealed phenomenal failure rates. The Chrysler Board, for once, had not acted like they had been shot full of Novocain, but had conducted an investigation worthy of the FBI.

L.L. "Tex" Colbert had been promoted to Chairman of the Board, turning the Presidency of Chrysler over to William C. Newberg, on April 28, 1960. Some of the stuff that was in the manila mailer that Dad had received centered on Mr. Newberg.

The story has already been told, but in short: Somewhere on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, at a Detroit social function, Newberg overhead Chevrolet officials discussing the plans for the 1962 Chevy II. Newberg became convinced that General Motors was about to downsize the Chevrolet for 1962, and that Chrysler had to follow.

The next day, Newberg assembled the engineers and designers. He had not invested a penny to confirm what he had heard, which was not supported by any other rumors. Without any preamble, he decreed that Plymouth and Dodge had to downsize for the 1962 model year or look terrible next to Chevrolet.

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The 1962 cars that should have been, before they were shortened; these might have been better sellers.

The board members, apparently without questioning, dispensed hundreds of thousands of dollars to reinvent the 1962 models. Newberg had the power of chaos to ensure that no one underneath him understood how he got where he got with what he had. And why didn't someone ask what Ford was doing?

Those who could have raised a substantial challenge were sidelined; Virgil Exner was recuperating from a massive heart attack, and Colbert was battling charges about sweetheart deals with suppliers. Newberg was a rising star, and no one rose up to challenge him - for now.

For the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge cars, Mr. Newberg's shot could not be undone; the designs were already set in metal. Machine tools had already been built. Engineers had hell to pay to get the 119 inch wheelbase designs squeezed into 116 inches! What's more, there was no time to restyle the 1962s, only to downsize them. Exner's designs were a bit bizarre anyway, and having to squeeze them down to fit a smaller size just made the cars look even worse.

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Newberg also decreed that the Plymouth and Dodge had to share a common bodyshell with the Valiant and the inevitable Dodge version, the Lancer. It was an almost impossible job; it was already May 1960, and the introduction of the 1961 models was set for September 29, 1960. With all the attention focused on the crash program for the 1962 models, the bizarre renderings of the 1961 models went right on - in the absence of Virgil Exner.

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It had to blow up sooner or later. On June 30, 1960, just 64 days after assuming the Presidency, Newberg was forced to resign. Tex Colbert took over again as President. The charges and scandals were bitter, acrimonious, and threatened the very heart of the corporation. It was an extremely ugly period of time.

Embittered, Newberg mounted a campaign against Colbert, accusing him of also having inside supplier connections. The charges against Colbert were almost certainly false.

As a once infamous Nazi party official was quoted as saying, "tell a big lie, tell it often, and everyone will believe it." So, it was with Newberg. He kept after Colbert until he got him.

In July 1961, "Tex" Colbert resigned from Chrysler Corporation. Newberg had blamed Colbert for not doing enough to protect him from the board, but Colbert had gone above and beyond the call of duty for his successor. Newberg should have considered himself lucky to escape prison time, let alone being allowed to just resign his position without prejudice.

During the year, however, design theme after design theme kept rolling along with no one in charge to stop or change or halt or even care what the cars had become. No one was given authority to act in Virgil Exner's place when he was in the hospital. Chrysler had done its best to keep the news of Exner's total collapse a company secret, with the executives presumably thinking it would only lead to a feeling of instability. Man, if they only knew then what a lot of their own people thought!

Putting someone in charge of styling might have prevented the oddballs of 1961 and changed the course of the "S" cars, and the terrible carnage wrought by the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge styling.

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There were quite a few photographs of clays of the new car line. They were not oddballs, they were just plain mud fence ugly! You had to wonder, first, had Virgil Exner taken leave of his senses, and second, where were the people that approved these things?

The design department was going to hell in a hand basket. Virgil Exner's last total redesign had been on the 1960 models. Looking for anything to make Chrysler cars truly different, he went far out - too far out.

Now, when the final placements were to be made, Mr. Exner was not able to work at all; most of the designs went straight from the clays to metal. No one was put in charge in his absence.

When Lynn Townsend became President in 1961 he was horrified at the shrunken, truncated appearance of Plymouth and Dodge for 1962. It was too late to do anything about them, but perhaps the 1963 models, which were already 3/4 size clay renderings, could be changed.

Also see: Chrysler Corporation of 1961 (all divisions)Chrysler Corporation of 1962Plymouth Sport Fury and styling for 1961-1962

Other parts of this series

More by Curtis Redgap:

Chrysler HeritageHistory by YearChrysler People and BiosCorporate Facts and History

Chrysler 1904-2018

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