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Touring the Chrysler Museum with a Chrysler veteran

Commentary by Pete Hagenbuch, retired head of Chrysler engine tuning

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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. At one time, I was in seventh heaven.


What we have here is Walter P. Chrysler, in his first occupation as a railroad machinist and mechanic. This recording was recorded by Walter Chrysler's grandson.

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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.

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The Chrysler Six is right out here. This is a hand-built prototype and 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.

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What they did mainly was to centralize the spark plug. In [prior] L-heads, for some unexplainable reason to me, the spark plug always sat right on top of the valves, which made it almost impossible not to have knock.

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 [Skelton, Zeder, and Breer], were way ahead of their time.

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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.

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In 1928, Walter P. bought the Dodge Brothers Company. It was like David buying Goliath; they kept the Dodge Brothers' Dodges in production for several years, so 1931 was the first year for a Chrysler-designed Dodge. 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.

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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.

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I've said that the three engineers [Skelton, Zeder, and Breer] 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. It's probably as nice a restoration as I've ever seen.

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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 that 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.

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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 has some features that I like to point out to people. First of all, the grille. Now, you may not like the design of it, but every one of those 21 bars is put on by hand with screws in the back.

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.

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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.

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The car had an excellent ride, 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, they made a tubular frame. Since the cars were already heavy and 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. It did a front full loop, landed right side up, then they reappeared, and opened all four doors and drove away. That was rigidity!

Here is one of our American Motors vehicles. Our original director was quite a museum man, and I think his work here is just fabulous, you almost get a feeling of three dimensions. The only thing that's been criticized about it is, the Jeep is too clean. It doesn't go with the stage.

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It's the same problem as one of the racing Vipers downstairs. [We brought it in] just the way it finished the Daytona 24 hours, filthy all over. The front end, all you saw was brown; it was just totally grit blasted. It won, by the way, first overall that year [2000]. But our porters just couldn't walk by without cleaning it somewhere, because it was so filthy. Eventually kind of ruined the whole thing.

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So, now Walter had Dodge, as well as the Plymouth and the Chrysler. So, he needed another brand, right? So here's the first DeSoto. Pretty… pretty… these little cars, then of course, again, the top of the line. I'm sure they weren't all that pretty.

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A lot of the ladies really go for this one.

Another one we picked up was Hudson, when we got American Motors. This is one of my favorite older models. I love that, red and gold and black. There's some crinkling in the paint on the hood, but I think you'd have to agree with me that, let's keep it this way as long as we can. It's so damn gorgeous in every other way, what's a little crinkle?

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Audience: What's with the white tires?

It's the natural rubber. Carbon black is what we use to make the tires black.

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The headlights on this are acetelyne. You bought a package of carbide bricks, or chunks or something, you put them in this tank and fill it up with water, then you use the little handle here on top to pump up the pressure. Then you lit the lights. The running lights were kerosene lanterns. They were really easy, just put a match in and if the wind isn't blowing, you just fire it up.

Oh, and of course you know what the seat back there was called? The mother-in-law seat.

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This beautiful thing is another one of our acquired ancestors, being a Rambler. A 1902 Rambler Runabout, tiller steering, gold pinstripes.

That's a 1915 Dodge Brothers, Dodge. Dodges were noted for reliability, long life, really good cars. They were not inspiring in performance, they were reliable. Everybody loved them.

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Take your own time and look at this [the corporate timeline]. If it was me, I could spend two hours just studying this thing. It doesn't work in too often. If I was in charge, I would be very tempted to remove that [the DaimlerChrysler logo]. I would love to see that gone.

ZSB [in ZSB Engineering, the highest company name in the display] stood for Zeder Skelton Breer. They had agreed to come to work for Chrysler. He wasn't ready yet, so they went into business. The first couple of things they did were to design a whole family of engines, one of which became the Chrysler Six.

Walter was working with Mr. Willys of Willys-Overland to get it back on the track, so to speak. He got it to where he thought it was all right, and then he left and joined his engineers to breathe some life into Maxwell-Chalmers, and he did this, and he eliminated Maxwell-Chalmers brands, and created Chrysler Corporation. There were a few legal moves there.

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So anyway, we'd better move on… you can't hurry past this one, can you?

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I love this thing. It is so damn ugly. They were all flathead sixes, and I don't think the Dodge Power Wagon ever got the old monster six, the 413. I've seen the torque curve on it. It kind of goes like this [gestures straight] and stops at 2000 rpm.

Next: airplane Hemi V16, 30-cylinder tank engine, and other engines

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