Walter P. Chrysler was a native of Kansas, and cut his teeth on railroading. He was the son of an engineer on the Kansas and Pacific Railroad, and was always fascinated by machinery. As a young man, he built his own working railroad model, machining his own tools in the process. When he was 17, he signed on at the Union Pacific shops as an apprentice, for a nickel an hour. Mechanical engineering became young Walt Chrysler’s life, not his profession.
After he got his journeyman’s certificate, he took a job in the Rio Grande & Western roundhouse in Salt Lake City. He got married and began studying with the International Correspondence School. He steadily moved up through the industry.
After a bit of time, the superintendent of motive power of the whole Chicago & Great Western system was a new man named Chrysler. “W.P.” they called him. During his Great Western period Mr. Chrysler lived in Oelwein, Iowa. His mechanical curiosity was piqued by the new ‘horseless carriages’ he’d see traversing the town streets.
He went to the 1905 Chicago automobile show, where he saw a beautiful auto that he had to have. It was called a ‘Locomobile’. The price was $5,000 cash. Chrysler had only $700 in the bank, but that did not hold him back. He borrowed $4,300 and shipped it home. He spent months with his first car, tearing it down and reassembling it several times before he even learned to drive it! Chrysler decided that when the time was right, he would need to improve these things.
At 33, machinist/manager WP joined on with the American Locomotive Company, where he swiftly rose through the ranks. He was assigned to the position of Assistant Works Manager at the sprawling ALCO Pittsburgh plant, which he quickly transformed into a moneymaker. It was in this position that WP was first noticed by one of the directors of ALCO, James J. Storrow, who would soon the president of General Motors.
James Storrow, the president of GM, remembered the young Chrysler, and introduced him to Charlie Nash, then the president of Buick. After touring the Buick works, Nash could offer WP only $6000 a year, half of WP’s $12000 a year ALCO salary. Chrysler did not even hesitate! He immediately accepted the Buick position.
It was 1911, and Walter P. Chrysler was in the automobile business!
Over the next few years, WP built Buick into a power to be reckoned with, with Nash at the helm. In 1916, however, William Crapo Durant used the power of his upstart Chevrolet Company to leverage the presidency of General Motors. Nash would not be welcome under Durant, and Nash and Chrysler were a team.
Nash purchased another auto manufacturer, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and created the Nash Motors Company, which would later become American Motors. It was assumed that Chrysler would join him at the helm of this new company.
Durant had other ideas, however. He offered WP a salary of $10,000 a month, plus a yearly bonus of half-a-million dollars, in either GM stock or cash. Chrysler accepted, on the condition that he be allowed to run Buick with no interference from other GM companies. WP was now the president of Buick Motors, a job he would hold until 1919, when friction between Chrysler and Durant would come to a head. By 1919, WP had earned $ 10 million worth of GM stock, which he surrendered to GM for cash. Chrysler would eventually use this money to seed his own automobile company.
The only thing WP Chrysler lacked at this time was experience in automotive finance. In 1920, Willys-Overland found itself in financial trouble. John N. Willys had created Willys Corporation as a holding company and proceeded to acquire such firms as Wilson Foundry, Curtiss Aeroplane, Moline Plow, Electric Autolite, New Process Gear. Chase Securities Company had millions tied up in the Willys situation, and hired Walter Chrysler to get their money back.