Walter P Chrysler From Selling Milk Door to Door to the Chrysler Building

On this day in 1929, hard-charging automotive titan Walter P. Chrysler appears on the cover of Time magazine as it’s Man of the Year. Apprenticed on the Western railroads and educated through correspondence school, Chrysler had risen from humble Kansan farm boy to one of America’s leading wealthy industrialists.

Born to a Civil War veteran and his bride, Chrysler was an enterprising little shaver, trudging door-to-door in Ellis, Kansas, selling milk from the family cows, together with greeting cards and silverware he ordered from catalogs. College hopes for Chrysler were dashed by his wanderlust and yearning to follow his father and older brother onto the rails.

Leaving his machine-shop broom behind but taking along his beloved tuba (his childhood hobbies included baseball and music), Chrysler hit the rails, stopping to work as a mechanic for several Western railroads which recognized his talent for management and organization.

In 1901, Chrysler was a roundhouse foreman, overseeing nearly 100 workers for the Denver & Rio Grand Western Railroad, and sufficiently stable to marry his hometown sweetheart, Della Forker. By 1908 he was making $200 per week as superintendent of locomotive power for the Chicago Great Western line, when he caught sight of and purchased his first automobile.

In the thrall of the budding automotive industry, though it meant a 50 percent pay cut to just $6,000 a year, Chrysler accepted an offer in 1911 to become manager of the Buick plant in Flint, Mich. Chrysler swiftly boosted Buick production from 40 cars per day to 550 and helped Buick generate half of GM’s income; Buick profits grew to $50 million a year.

Chrysler’s salary also soared when Billy Durant returned to GM and made Chrysler president of Buick and executive vice president of GM manufacturing in 1916, at a shocking salary of $10,000 a month, plus $500,000 a year in GM stock. Chrysler led Buick to its first 100,000-sales year, some 118,540 units in 1917; he repeated with 115,405 in 1919.

As GM stock increased in value, Chrysler became so wealthy he retired when his contract with Buick expired in 1919, still in his mid-40s. It had been reported that Durant paid Chrysler $10 million for his stock when Chrysler left GM, but he would not remain idle for long.

In the early 1920s, Chrysler reorganized and saved the Willys-Overland company for a straight salary of $1 million per year. He then went on to rescue the Maxwell-Chalmers Company, which in 1924 launched the Chrysler Six, a mid-priced car that would help earn the Chrysler brand a reputation for performance and advanced engineering. In 1925, Maxwell-Chalmers was renamed the Chrysler Corporation. Between 1925 and 1940, Chrysler built 8 million cars and trucks and had 80,000 employees at its pre-war peak.

In 1928 Chrysler had acquired the Dodge Brothers Company, thereby becoming the world’s third-largest automaker. Also that year, Chrysler launched the low-priced Plymouth line and the mid-priced DeSoto brand. Additionally, Walter Chrysler had bankrolled construction of the Chrysler Building in New York City; when completed two years later in 1930, the 77-story art-deco skyscraper was the world’s tallest.

Chrysler turned 56 in the spring of 1936 and stepped down from day-to-day operations of the company; two years later, his beloved Della died at the age of 58 and Walter, devastated at the loss, suffered a stroke. His previously robust health never recovered, and he succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage in August 1940 at Forker House. He was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York.

And here, our rather lengthy lesson endeth.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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