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No. 1442:
Walter Chrysler

Today, an odd glimpse of the texture of fame. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

chryslertop.jpgFrom 1928 to '31, New York's Chrysler Building was the world's tallest. Then the new Empire State Building surpassed it. Both were built in Art Deco style. But the plain-vanilla, never-used dirigible mooring-mast on the Empire State Building still pales beside the glorious spire on the Chrysler Building.

That spire was built at the insistence of someone you probably haven't heard of, even though you know his name. He was Walter Chrysler, and Stephen Fox tells his story. By 1907 the 32-year-old Chrysler was a talented mechanic working for the Union Pacific Railway.

That year he visited the National Automobile Show in Chicago and fell in love - with an automobile. It was a five-thousand-dollar luxury car called the Locomobile. He went into hock to buy it. Chrysler couldn't drive, but no matter. He put the car in his garage and set about taking it apart and putting it back together.

By 1911 he'd left the railway and gone to work for the embryonic Buick company. Fox tells how Chrysler bounced from one success to another until, as CEO of the Chrysler Corporation, he was selling more cars than Ford. The early automobile makers had once been in the carriage business. They were workers in wood. He had better instincts for mass-producing with metal.

But now we come back to that wild art deco tower on the Chrysler Building. Chrysler had flashy tastes. His wife tried to interest him in opera. But he loved glitzy musicals and he ran with Flo Ziegfeld. So it was that, in 1934, he gambled on the very glitzy Chrysler Airflow.

35airflow.jpgMost cars looked like somber boxes back then. The Airflow was streamlined - shaped a little like the later Volkswagen Beetle. Back then, I didn't know the term Airflow. We all called it by its advertising nickname, The Car of the Future. The Airflow broke ground in many ways. It was a well-engineered machine with a fine new suspension system. But I didn't find it especially pretty when I was a child, and I still think it was a visually unbalanced design. The rest of the American public felt the same way. They wouldn't buy the Airflow.

We used to play the game of counting Airflows when we took trips. We never saw many. But the cars that followed it copied and softened that design. Chrysler's Airflow did away with the old boxy shape, and it redefined car design just as surely as the spire on the Chrysler Building continues to define the New York skyline.

Chrysler never lost contact with metal. When he saw a stalled car on the road, he'd often stop, get out his tool box and give aid. Then he'd hand the surprised people his card and suggest, next time, maybe they should buy a Chrysler.

Today, I still know Henry Ford's hard face, but I have no lingering sense of this garrulous people-loving person. When I hear the word Chrysler I see, not a face, nor a particular automobile design. I see the glitzy building that still says Big Apple to me. And I catch a lingering glint of flashy chromium.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Fox, S., "I Like to Build Things." American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Vol. 15, No. 4, Summer 1999, pp. 20-30.