A Change for Chrysler

Chrysler paid dearly for its obsession with sensibly sized cars. In 1954, its market share plummeted to the point that wags in Detroit began joking about the "Big Two-and-a-Half." This marked the beginning of a change for Chrysler.

The 1961 Valiant was part of a change for Chrysler toward smaller family cars.
The 1961 Valiant was part of a change for Chrysler
toward smaller family cars.

Not only had the public steadfastly rejected its "sensible-sized" 1953-1954 models, Chrysler executives were also keenly aware of the commercial failure of native small cars. Crosley, Henry J, Hudson Jet, and Aero-Willys had all come and gone, leaving the Rambler as the sole success story among domestic entries heading into the late 1950s. All of this left Chrysler planners and executives understandably gun-shy when it came to investing tooling dollars into a smaller automobile.

Still, aware that its chief crosstown competitors were seriously looking at smaller cars, and also aware that sales of imports were moving sharply upward, Chrysler in early 1957 set up an internal Special Corporate Car Committee. Its object was to establish the guiding concepts for the development of a smaller car.

Headed by Harry Chesebrough, then director of corporate volume planning, the committee included director of engineering Alan Loofbourrow and representatives from the styling, engineering, manufacturing, finance, legal, and public relations staffs.

Chrysler explored a wide variety of approaches to its new small car. In an SAE paper, Chrysler stated that "Numer­ous engine and car layouts were considered and discarded. Four, six, and eight-cylinder engines were studied -- inclined, flats, and vees -- air-cooled, and liquid-cooled."

Fortunately, the four-cylinder-engine option was rejected. Reintro­duced into American cars in 1961-1962 by the Pontiac Tempest and Chevrolet Chevy II, four-cylinder-engine production peaked in 1962, but virtually vanished by 1964.

One early thought was for a 100-inch-wheelbase vehicle with European styling, emphasizing economy over performance. The idea was to build this vehicle somewhere in Europe for sale in both Europe and the U.S. Chrysler explored buying an existing plant, building a new one, or even entering into some kind of licensing deal with an existing producer. After all, Austin of England had been successfully building the Nash-designed bite-size Metropolitan for AMC since 1954.

In autumn 1957, Chrysler officials toured Europe in quest of a potentially satisfactory arrangement, but found nothing suitable. Looking again at the needs of the American motorist, the company began moving away from a Euro­pean design approach.

For one thing, Chrysler was in the process of acquiring Ford's interest in French automaker Simca. Soon Simca cars would be appearing in domestic Chrysler showrooms, giving dealers a European small car to sell against General Motors' imported Vauxhall and Opel, and Ford's imported Taurus and English Ford.

Reasoning that its dealers didn't need -- and couldn't sell -- two European-type cars, the committee settled on an American-built automobile with a 106.5-inch wheelbase and a forward-mounted engine powering the rear wheels. While not radically different in the vein of GM's rear-engine Corvair, this layout, unlike the Corvair, would provide the most familiar and predictable feel and handling in the hands of American drivers.

With this redirection came a change in the basic overall philosophy regarding the new small car. It was not to be designed and marketed as a second or third car, but rather as a "prime-market" car, a six-passenger automobile that would be entirely suitable as a family's "prime" or only car.

Consequently, according to Chrysler, "deviations from larger car standards in seating dimensions, seating comfort, ease of entrance and exit, luggage carrying capacity, etc., were to be absolutely minimized. This meant that the Valiant had to be designed around its passengers and their luggage. ... Optimum use of every cubic inch inside the body was a fundamental ground rule."

To read more about the task force that worked on developing the Valiant, continue on to the next page.

For more information about cars, see: