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More than most manufacturers, Chrysler has faced a long and winding corporate road. Admired for classic models in the early 1930s, Chrysler introduced the Airflow for 1934. A unique avant-garde design, the Airflow was well ahead of its time, and qualified as a strikeout for the company.
Applauded for strong engineering in the postwar years, Chrysler was responsible for a lot of the excitement that made up the "muscle car" era. Why? Because its engineers developed the "Hemi" V-8. Later, financial strife threatened to destroy the company, while acquisitions and mergers altered its character. Along the way, Chrysler scored a bulls-eye with the first minivan, and helped keep convertibles alive with its LeBaron and Sebring. Chrysler has proved to be a survivor.
Walter P. Chrysler gave his name to the new company in 1924, but four other men were instrumental: Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton, Carl Breer, and B.E. Hutchinson. A six-cylinder 70 series was the first product to reach customers. In 1926, a four-cylinder Chrysler 58 debuted. A $2,645 Imperial joined the lineup in 1926, earning publicity by pacing the Indianapolis 500 race.
In 1929, Chrysler added DeSoto and Plymouth brands, and soon acquired Dodge. DeSoto would expire in the early 1960s, while Plymouth lasted until 2000. Chrysler's Airflow doesn't look so peculiar now, but in its day that was one daring design, resembling nothing else on the road. In 1935, Chrysler issued a conventional Airstream model, which helped keep the company alive as it recovered from the Airflow debacle.
While several luxury automakers turned to automatic transmissions during the 1940s, Chrysler followed a different path, developing a semi-automatic unit. Built with four speeds, it used "tip-toe" shift. In both Low and High ranges, the driver had to let up on the gas to move into the next gear.
During the 1940s, Chrysler offered a series of wood-trimmed Town & Country models. Then, after years of inline six- and eight-cylinder engines, an overhead-valve Firepower V-8 debuted. Featuring hemispherical combustion chambers, the Hemi V-8 achieved its greatest recognition beneath the hood of the 1955 Chrysler 300-first of the letter-series 300s to come over the next decade. All Chrysler products got a new look that year.
Virgil Exner's second-generation "Forward Look" appeared in 1957. Turning futuristic, in 1962, Chrysler announced plans for 50 turbine-powered cars to be tested by selected ordinary motorists.
Publicity of another sort came in 1975, via the dulcet Latin tones of actor Ricardo Montalban, describing the new Cordoba personal-luxury coupe's "Corinthian leather" upholstery in TV commercials. Chrysler Corporation came close to fading away around 1980, while under the stewardship of Lee Iacocca, but survived with the aid of government-backed loans.
Midway through 1982, Chrysler's LeBaron became the first American-built convertible from a major manufacturer since 1976. Based on Chrysler's K-car design, the convertible also was offered with Dodge badging.
A new body style, the minivan, arrived for 1984. Minivans were called Town & Country at Chrysler dealerships, Caravan with a Dodge badge, and Voyager under the Plymouth brand. In 1993, Chrysler launched a new full-size sedan series called the Concorde, along with New Yorker and LHS offshoots. Concorde was closely related to the Dodge Intrepid.
Chrysler revived the old 300 model designation in 1999, with a new 300M sedan. A different 300 followed in 2005, including a 300C edition with a modernized Hemi V-8. Chrysler's Plymouth division introduced the Prowler roadster, designed to look like a street rod from the 1950s. After Plymouth disappeared as a separate brand, final Prowlers were released as Chrysler models.
Another retro turn came in 2001 with the launch of the PT Cruiser, resembling a scaled-down version of a generic, early panel truck. Sales started out strong, then declined steadily until the Cruiser was dropped after a decade.
From 2004-08, while Chrysler was partnered with Mercedes-Benz (renamed DaimlerChrysler), it issued a two-passenger Crossfire coupe and convertible with engineering from the German company. What helped keep the corporation afloat all along was the Jeep, acquired in 1987 when Chrysler bought the ailing American Motors Corporation.
As Chrysler emerged from bailout and bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, eventually being acquired by Fiat, company executives knew that a different approach was needed. Even though initial offerings differed little from their predecessors, a renewed recognition of the quality issues that had been troublesome for many years has given Chrysler LLC another opportunity to survive and prosper.