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Friday, May 1, 2009

Re-engineering Chrysler

If you were involved in industry in recent decades, you would hear the term "Chrysler engineering" used to designate a standard of excellence. As an employee in corporations and later a business reporter, I heard the term used often to designate design and engineering that was not necessarily sexy, but durable and reliable. The fleet manager at a newspaper I worked for insisted on buying Chrysler products for the staff cars and delivery vehicles because they were easier and cheaper to maintain and keep in good repair. I was assigned a Plymouth station wagon which ran and ran and ran.

Engineers I worked with and knew socially often made reference to Chrysler engineering as a standard of quality. An engineer I worked with on some civic projects was an engineer for the Corps of Engineers when I knew him, but had been a lead engineer for General Motors. He often asked if we should be "thinking like Chrysler engineers" as we approached problems. Out of loyalty to his former employer and because it had a sexier design, he drove a Cadillac that we called The Queen Mary, but he openly endorsed Chrysler engineering as something to aspire to.

When muscle cars and and showy design dominated the auto market, Chrysler fell on hard times, although it also had some successes. Lee Iacocca as head of the company asked for a government bailout loan, and paid it back in a few years. In reshaping the company, Iacocca revamped an inventory and dealership structure that needed some shaking up, but he relied largely on the reputation of Chrysler engineering to get the company back in the profit columns.

It was at that point that Chrysler engineering began to lose some luster. The company came out with a series of what it called K-cars and smaller, fuel-efficient four-cylinder cars that met the market needs of the times in the late 70s and 80s. They were cars that were okay, but had short life-spans. In five years time they wore down and did not retain much value.

Chrysler's biggest success has been the mini van. For families and the American way of life, they were a brilliant product. I had three of the Chrysler company versions. But they also showed evidence of the slippage in Chrysler engineering. The transmission on a Dodge Caravan went out suddenly during the rush hour on I-80 outside of Davenport, Iowa, in an experience that my children still recall with horror. The hordes of semis thundering by while we floundered to the side of the Interstate scared the bejesus out them. The engine of that van also went out one morning here in South Dakota when it was 40-below and the oil-sending unit malfunctioned. However, that was more a weather problem than an engineering one.

I traded it in on a Chrysler Town and Country which was a fine car. Except that when I traded it in, it was on its third transmission. And it had many repairs to the heating and cooling sytem while we had it. It was replaced with a Ford Windstar which was a gasoline glutton, was in the repair shop, I think, more than it was in my garage, and it held absolutely no value. It was replaced with a Toyota.

That is an anecdotal account of how a person who refused to buy anything but American cars came to own Japanese cars. It was the engineering. Because we were a two-job family, we needed two cars. My personal cars were Jeeps. When my last Jeep was over 12 years old and the family service manager was not giving it a good prognosis, he showed me a Honda CRV that had just come in on trade. I bought it. Now at 12 years of age and 170,000 miles it still runs like it did the day I bought it, and so far all it has needed is regular maintenance. Even Lee Iacocca admires Honda engineering, and his assessment might well indicate a direction for Chrysler to take as it tries to reform itself.

There are general problems in the American automobile industry that have contributed to its downturn. One of them was the standardizing of brands. At one time Chrysler's brands of Plymouth, Dodge, and Chrysler gave consumers distinctive choices. With product standardization, the only difference between Plymouth and Dodge cars was the nameplate. When the redundancy got silly enough, the Plymouth brand was dropped. General Motors experienced the same redundancy with Oldsmobile and now with Pontiac. Ford is struggling with the Mercury brand. As the individual companies came under the huge corporate umbrellas, they lost the trademark qualities that made them successful in the first place. Cost accounting displaced engineering as the guiding principles in designing and assembling cars. American buyers found more choices in the foreign competition.

Car companies became like television networks. When a show is a hit, the networks try to duplicate and spin off from it rather than explore new shows. That's what happened with car companies when they focused on SUVs and minivans while the Japanese competition made smaller, fuel-efficient cars that recognized the rising cost of gasoline and the need to shift away from petroleum-fueled transportation.

Chrysler's merger with Daimler Benz was never a happy marriage. It merely provided more evidence of the failings and inefficiencies of corporate bureaucracies.

We can only hope that Chrysler and Fiat are more compatible partners. And that Chrysler can revive its engineering tradition.

1 comment:

Douglas said...


My Dad and uncles on that side of the family were all Chrysler corp vehicle fans. Still herding around a 1941 or so Plymouth well into the 1950's. As a kid all I heard from they were comments on "Chrysler engineering".

I kind of think TV advertising gave corporate executives the idea they could sell any piece of crap if they squandered enough money on advertising.

Too may highly paid executives do not guarantee good engineering, but can sure add a lot to the cost of each vehicle.

I don't think many people assume that a vehicle must be really, really good because a bunch of corporate executives are making more in one year than are several hundred South Dakotans in total.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States