Consider them the original odd couple.
Walter Chrysler ate country-fried steak with French fried potatoes. Henry Ford ate soybean biscuits. Walter Chrysler built the Chrysler Building in mid-town Manhattan. Henry Ford built Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Chrysler liked the Ziegfeld Follies. Ford liked a good square dance.
Despite their differences, Walter and Henry had cars in common.
Sometimes Henry would hop in a Ford and drive sixty miles an hour to visit his soybeans in Macon, Michigan. Sometimes Walter would hop in a Plymouth and drive sixty miles an hour to visit Henry Ford.
We don’t know when Walter first went to see Henry. Myth says that Walter grabbed a 1929 Plymouth off the line, then drove it to the Ford plant for Henry to see. It’s one of those giant-killer fairy tales that appeals to every MoPar enthusiast.
Ford supposedly looked at the new car and warned, “Walter, you’ll go broke trying to get in the low price market. We and Chevrolet have that market sewed up, and as sure as you try to step in, we’ll stop you.”
The story is as unlikely as Henry ever referring to himself and Chevrolet as “we.” The $655 Plymouth didn’t compete with $450 Ford.
No, Walter would show Henry a Plymouth later.
The October issue of Fortune magazine noted that during the first seven months of 1931, Chevrolet out-produced Ford, 427,489 Chevys verses 401,150 Fords. Even more interesting to the magazine, Plymouth, now with Floating Power and Free Wheeling, outsold both Chevrolet and Ford during July in Wayne County, Michigan.
The City of Detroit, importantly, is in Wayne County.
The magazine worried over Henry Ford. “[I]nstead of making radical improvements on the fundamental Model A design,” Fortune noticed, “[Ford] again proceeded to shave the price, just as if Model A were going to stand stationary as long as Model T had stood. . . And with what result?”
“Gone is the old autocracy of Henry Ford,” Fortune declared.
When Fortune said that Walter drove a Floating Power Plymouth over to Henry’s place for a friendly visit, was it a drive to rescue Ford? Walter left his Plymouth factory just before lunchtime one day in June 1931. The public hadn’t even seen the new Plymouth yet.
If Carl Breer’s memory is correct, Chrysler bought along his engineering “Three Musketeers,” Breer, Skelton, and Zeder.
Breer said in his memoir, “Mr. Ford gave us a most cordial welcome. He personally showed us around the building where the engineering divisions were arranged in an open area fashion.”
During the visit, the Chrysler guys explained their scientific approach to car design: extreme condition dynamometer testing for engines, flow testing for carburetors, and economy tests in the lab as well as on the road. Walter described his new Plymouth line to Henry, and eagerly explained to Henry how Floating Power worked. Ford didn’t share Walter’s enthusiasm.
The group talked shop over lunch in Ford’s Rotunda round-table dining room. Ford’s disinterest in Floating Power bewildered the Chrysler team as much as Ford’s dessert did.
It bears noting at this point that The Detroit Free Press had stated on its editorial page as recently as 1929, “Even the thought of carrot pie gives a person a yellow, bilious outlook on life.”
After a few bites, Fred Zeder, presumably trying not to gag, asked, “Mr. Ford, what does this pie consist of?”
“That’s carrot pie, Fred. Do you like it?” Before Zeder said another word, Ford turned to Chrysler, “Walter, bring Mr. Zeder another piece of carrot pie!”
Henry’s carrot pie became a running joke at Chrysler engineering.
Their ordeal by food done, Ford took Chrysler through Thomas Edison’s laboratory, which Ford had moved from Menlo Park, New Jersey to Greenfield Village. Ford showed Chrysler the evolution of the light bulb, the spot where Edison napped, and the heating boiler Edison himself had lit. Ford said he’d arranged for Edison’s fire to burn forever.
Ford showed Chrysler Ford Motor’s modern electrical laboratory, where auto generators and ignition systems underwent testing. The auto giants then said good-bye to eachother.
Perhaps Chrysler had hoped to license Floating Power to Ford as he had to Andre Citroen. Fortune said Walter left the new Plymouth with Henry, and took a taxi home. That may be a gossipy embellishment. Breer didn’t mention the gift, and no such Plymouth has been found in Henry’s collection of industrial memories.
Less than a year after the carrot pie meeting, Walter had another hot, new Plymouth on the market. Sometime before lunch one day in March, the Detroit Times spotted Walter in a ’32 Plymouth speeding towards Dearborn.
Columnist Arthur Brisbane remarked about the trip, “Henry Ford, in Chrysler’s opinion, is to automobiles what Mohammed is to Mohammedanism. And Chrysler drives out with his engineers to Dearborn to show his new car to Ford and ask: ‘What do you think of it?’ As a devout Arab might journey down to Mecca. . .”
Brisbane reported that Chrysler took two engineers that trip, not three. Perhaps Zeder had had enough carrot pie.
Ironically, Ford debuted his first V8 in 1932. The engine came with a host of teething problems, including engine noise, vibration, and blocks cracking. If only Henry had listened to Walter.