Originally Published November 11, 2018
I wrote about Chrysler’s near death experience in the late 70s and miraculous recovery under Lee Iaccoca, and we all lived through their near death experience in 2009, and now for another one of Mopar’s crises. This one is from the Eisenhower Era.
We’ll start with yet another crisis they had. In the early 50s, while Ford and GM pushed the design envelope with ever lower and longer cars, Chrysler stuck stubbornly to the tall, stodgy designs of old. In the words of Chrysler President K.T. Keller “We build cars to sit in, not to pee over”. While Keller would be absolved 60 years later by the SUV boom, Americans at the time wanted to drive toilets, and Chrysler paid the price in sales, quickly losing the 2nd place position to Ford.
Chrysler headhunted Virgil Exner from Studebaker to become their new head of design. And immediately he worked to bring their models up to date stylingwise.
The man was a genius. His new “forward look” was handsome, clean, and modern. The company’s design was pulled straight into the 50s. But Exner was looking further.
Exner really pushed the envelope for 1957 for Plymouth, Dodge, Desoto, Chrysler, and Imperial. With imposing front ends and tall fins, they looked great, it was the apex of the Forward Look. The Plymouths were advertised with the famous slogan “Suddenly, It’s 1960”. Sadly, the cars were built like they were meant to be produced in 1960. There were a horrifying number of quality issues. From allpar:
“The 1957 cars started to rust within several months of being built — all models, Plymouth to Chrysler. They leaked water on both sides of the windshield posts. Torsion bars broke, leaving cars looking like fallen over Towers of Pisa. Upholstery split, seams tore, seat springs popped through, paint flaked off in huge chunks, hubcaps wouldn’t stay on, rear view mirrors vibrated, door handles broke with ease, locks froze easily, and interior appliances fell off.”
This was a nightmare. And things got worse in 1958 as the Eisenhower Recession severely damaged the market for new cars. Chrysler lost $40 million that year. Chrysler resolved the quality issues but sadly styling issues arrived.
The 1960 Plymouth Valiant was a foreshadowing of the poor styling that Mopar would produce for the next 2 years with an odd greenhouse and weird creases on the fenders. This was not one of Exner’s best efforts
In Fall 1956, Exner, a chain smoker like everyone in those days, had a heart attack. He had to spend several months recuperating and in that time delegate design of the 1961 models to underlings. The results were just awful. Sales continued to be poor and the company was forced to kill the DeSoto brand just 1 month into the 1961 model year.
There’s a probably-not-true story about the 1962 models. Chrysler President William Newberg supposedly overheard Chevrolet Head Ed Cole at a Garden Party saying that there would be a “smaller Chevy” (the Nova) for 1962, but since the Corvair was already out, that must’ve meant that the big Chevrolets were going to be shrunk. Then ostensibly, Newberg ordered a downsizing for 1962. There are many gaping holes in that tale (namely that if Ed Cole had been blabbing about corporate secrets at social events, he’d have been very fired), but whatever inspired the downsizing (most likely cost cutting) the results were not good. Exner explicitly warned against this shrinking, correctly predicting they would be “ugly”. Chrysler’s incompetence would be GM’s gain. They managed to take a whopping 52% of the US car market in 1962, their highest ever.
Exner drew up the 1963 models before getting fired. The results were very eye pleasing and returned Chrysler to health. The “Forward Look Crisis” was over. And this period from 1957 to 1962 as well as the one from 1976 to 1981, 1990-1993, and from 2007 to 2011 shows Chrysler’s remarkable ability to get into trouble and then recover.