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When was Chrysler really created? (Electric cars aren't new for Chrysler!)

by David Zatz

Chrysler Corporation was created in 1925, but when did Chrysler really get started?

Walter P. Chrysler created his namesake company out of Maxwell Motors, but Maxwell existed before he arrived. The first Chrysler cars were made by Maxwell, not by Chrysler, in 1924. Not until those cars had proven successful did the name on the factories change.

Fiat Chrysler and Chrysler Group materials date Chrysler back to 1925, when Maxwell-Chalmers' assets were moved to a new shell company. But if you can argue that the Chrysler Group acquired by Daimler and spit out to Cerberus is the same as that 1925 company - that despite a bankruptcy and the transfer of "Old Carco's" assets to the new Chrysler Group, LLC, they are the same company - then it's pretty clear that Maxwell-Chalmers, producer of Chrysler cars in 1924, was also the same company. It was the same people, making the same products.

This restored Chalmers Model 9, with a 30 hp four-cylinder engine, was sold for $57,750 by RM Auctions in 2012.

Maxwell-Chalmers was created just a few years before Walter P. Chrysler showed up, the result of Maxwell Motor Corporation's merging with Chalmers Motor Company. Before that, Maxwell had been (for nearly a month) Standard Motor.

Where did Standard Motor come from? It was created to acquire the assets of the bankrupt United States Motor Corporation, which lasted from 1910 to 1912 - having been created from the "original" Maxwell and numerous other automakers to counter General Motors.

If legal fictions are ignored, and a body of people, technologies, cultures, and facilities are considered, Chrysler stands rooted in 1894 - before Fiat or Ford were created. A more adept group of marketers would have celebrated Chrysler's one hundredth birthday in 1994 (when Chrysler Corporation was still independent), and their 120th in 2014.

It is perhaps most appropriate to date Chrysler through the Maxwell Motor Corporation. The first Chrysler, the 1924 Model B, was sold by Maxwell-Chalmers, led by Walter P. Chrysler. That puts the starting date at 1904 - just ten years later - putting Chrysler's hundredth birthday at 2004. In 2012, Chrysler could make a very valid claim to having been around, under different names, for 110 years.

Chrysler's electric car roots: Electrobat and the Electric Vehicle Company

Thanks to Bill Watson
for some of the early historyIn the late 1800s and even the early 1900s, the world had not yet chosen internal combustion. The first car, invented and built in France, had been steam powered; and steamers were still roaming the streets. Many poo-pooed steamers, given the Thomas Edison's new generators and distribution systems: electricity, delivered to (or generated in) your home. Even Henry Ford believed, for a time, that electric cars were the future - though Edison's own electric car design ended up in mass transit instead of personal use, and his batteries, designed for cars, ended up being used for trains and emergency signs (to this day). Amidst the hype over Tesla, people forget that Edison championed the electric car, created the first parallel circuits and fuses, developed the first efficient generators, and all the other bits needed to bring electricity to people without batteries.

Thus, the oldest root of the Chrysler Corporation was not a gasoline powered car or a bicycle; it was the Electrobat, built in Philadelphia by Henry G. Morris and Pedro G. Salom.

After testing the design, they built four Electrobats in 1895, founding, a year later, the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company to make electric cabs. In 1897, Electric Boat's Isaac Rice bought their Electric Carriage & Wagon, and made it part of his Electric Vehicle Company in Elizabethport, New Jersey. He later added Riker Electric Motor Company of Brooklyn, founded in 1896 by A.L. Ricker.

The next merge was with Columbia Automobile, an offshoot of Pope Manufacturing's Columbia Electric (sold in the U.K. as City & Suburban Cars, and in France as l'Ectromotion).

In 1900, Pope introduced the Columbia gas car: a revolutionary design, it had two major industry firsts, an engine up front (instead of under the driver), and a left-side steering wheel instead of the usual tiller. The new company spent a brief time as Columbia & Electric Vehicle Company, before changing its name back to Electric Vehicle Company. It was under that name that, in 1901, they acquired the infamous Selden patent (voided in 1911), which covered all motor vehicles; they joined with nine other car manufacturers to form the Licensed Automobile Manfuacturers in 1903.

The 1907 Columbia was one of the first regular production hybrid-electric cars: a four cylinder gasoline engine drove a generator, which provided power to electric motors on the rear wheels. It did not sell well, but the basic system ended up becoming the standard for diesel locomotives.

(According to Hemmings, hybrids before Columbia's included a surprisingly modern Rambler, which replaced the flywheel and starter with a motor/generator; the first two were created in 1898 by Patton (Chicago) and Pieper (Belgium). With the U.S. Heating and Lighting Company's starter/motor system, when the engine kicked in at around 5 mph, the motor would switch to being a generator.)
1904: numerous new roots and the start of Maxwell

Three new, independent firms created in 1904 were to have a part in the future Chrysler Corporation. These were:

  • Alden Sampson Manufacturing, which built the chassis and running gear for Consolidated Motor; Sampson soon took over the company and built a five ton Sampson truck
  • Stoddard Manufacturing, which made the high-end Stoddard-Dayton car and would, in 1909, produce the low-priced Courier; and
  • Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company, which started production of their Maxwell-Briscoe car a year later, using a shaft drive instead of the usual chain drive.

Stoddard-Dayton deserves an extra mention because, in 1911, 1913, and 1914, they provided the pace cars for the Indy 500 races (1912 was Stutz's only year); a Stoddard-Dayton was the very first pace car used in the Indy 500.

The story of Maxwell-Briscoe, so important to the later Chrysler Corporation, started in 1894, when John D. Maxwell helped Elwood Haynes to build the first Haynes car. Maxwell later moved on to work with Ransom Olds and other auto pioneers.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Briscoe, who made metal stampings, gained a 97% interest in the Buick Motor Company as repayment for a $3,500 loan to David Dunbar Buick. Maxwell met up with Briscoe and persuaded him to split with Buick, which he did, and join Maxwell instead (Buick sold his plant to James Whiting).

Maxwell and Briscoe did quite well; their company, Maxwell-Briscoe, made a $3 million profit within five years. By 1909 they were the #3 American seller, with 9,400 sales.

Another firm, Brush Runabout Company, was created in 1906 by the former chief engineer of Cadillac. Brush's headquarters in Highland Park would eventually become Chrysler's headquarters.

In 1909, Electric Vehicle was once again renamed Columbia Motors; and, not to be outdone by the new General Motors, Benjamin Briscoe created the United States Motor Company (in 1912). The U.S. Motor Company included Maxwell-Briscoe, Brush, Dayton Motor Car Co., Courier Car Co., Columbia Motor Car, and Alden Sampson.

Alanson P. Brush's car, launched in 1907, light enough to use a single-cylinder (6-10 hp) engine, was the first production car to use coil springs and shock absorbers. Brush cars finished the 2,636-mile Glidden Tour and climbed Pikes Peak. The cheap, tough Brush was very popular in its time.

The U.S. Motor Company lasted for three years; then, due to the overexpansion, Briscoe the company went into receivership.

Standard Motor Company, incorporated on December 31, 1912 for that purpose, purchased the property and assets of the United States Motor Company, as well as the Flanders Motor Company (by land contract purchase). Everything was free of debt, except for real estate mortgages.

On January 25, 1913, Standard Motor Company changed its name to match its most popular car, becoming the Maxwell Motor Company, with assets listed at $46.7 million. Walter E. Flanders headed the Detroit-based company; Maxwell and Briscoe were no longer involved.

The new Maxwell Motor Company quickly stopped making the Columbia, Brush, Stoddard, and Courier (Sampson had been shut down in 1910), selling plants in Providence, Hartford, and Tarrytown. They kept the former Stoddard factory in Dayton (Maxwell 35), the Detroit plant (Maxwell Six), and the Newcastle plant.

Maxwell Motor Company continued on for eight years; then Maxwell Motor Corporation was created in West Virginia, on May 7, 1921, acquiring Maxwell Motor company and Chalmers Motor Corporation (some time later) as well as Newcastle Realty, Briscoe Manufacturing, and Maxwell Motor Company of Canada. (On November 29, 1921, Briscoe Motor Corporation was succeeded by Earl Motors, Inc.).

The combined outfit ran into financial troubles and hired turnaround artist Walter P. Chrysler at a massive salary, considered by some to be larcenous; but Chrysler had retired, and needed much encouragement to come back to the industry.

Chrysler brought along engineers he had worked with before, who resolved key issues on the Maxwell cars and launched a brand new car sold under his own name. Then, for accounting or legal reasons, he formed his eponymous corporation, Chrysler Corporation, and acquired Maxwell Motor Corporation.

Eventually, Chrysler dropped the Maxwell and Chalmers names in favor of new brands, Plymouth and Fargo - though he could have simply chosen from Brush, Dayton, Alden-Sampson, Columbia, Riker, Briscoe, Detroit, Thomas, and Sampson.

The American Motors (AMC) roots

Meanwhile -

The AMC branch started with Thomas B. Jeffery, whose first automobile was completed in 1897, creator of the Rambler line; he started mass producing cars using the assembly line in 1902, after Ransom Olds, but before Henry Ford. This was the oldest part of the AMC branch, as Jefferys was taken over by a man named Nash, who renamed the company in his own name.

The other part of the later AMC - Hudson Motors - was founded due to Hugh Chalmers' takeover of the foundering Thomas-Detroit, creating Chalmers-Detroit (which would eventually joint with Maxwell.)

Since Chalmers-Detroit did not have the money to produce another car, engineers Roy D. Chapin and Jackson left the company to start a new one; capital came from J.L. Hudson, of department-store fame, and also Jackson's wife's uncle. The key Chalmers people invested in Hudson; eventually the groups went their separate ways, and the Chalmers and Hudson groups split up. The E.R. Thomas Company (where Thomas gained the money to create Thomas-Detroit) continued to build cars, separately; Thomas sold his interest in the company to a bank (in 1910), and the company closed its doors in 1914.

The Jeep roots

While Jeffery created a very early 4x4, Jeep's corporate roots start with the creation of Willys-Overland. This company started as Overland in 1902; crack salesman John North Willys contracted for a year's production, and in 1907, when he didn't get the cars he'd been selling, he visited the plant and found a dying company. Willys invested in the plant, getting the production lines moving again, and then bought the Pope plant in Toledo, up for sale due to the 1907 recession. Overland officially became Willys-Overland in 1908. Stearn, Marion, Edwards, and Pope Motors (Toledo) would be acquired by Willys-Overland over the next decade.

A highly successful company for some time, the highly variable economy of the times nearly brought Willys-Overland down; another economic downturn in 1919 killed auto sales, just as John Willys had invested heavily in the company. Investors demanded that a turnaround artist, one Walter P. Chrysler, be put on the staff. That story has been told many times...

JackRatchett created this updated family banyan tree (chronology isn't to scale)

After the war, Kaiser Motors was started to take advantage of the post-war car boom. As sales fell lower and lower, with the end in clear sight, an unprofitable Kaiser took over the still-profitable Willys-Overland in 1953; that provided Kaiser with international sales and a niche with far less competition, and Kaiser cars disappeared shortly afterwards. Kiaser Motors became Kaiser Industries, a holding company, while Willys Motors survived until 1963, when it became Kaiser Jeep Corporation. Kaiser Jeep was purchased by AMC in 1970.

Chrysler 1904-2018

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