Recently, a Chrysler employee posted part of an internal brochure, and it reminded me of the time when Chrysler came back with a vengeance. This was not the first time, as most readers know; the company has had an absurd number of comebacks under charismatic leaders—under Walter Flanders, Walter Chrysler, Lee Iacocca, Bob Lutz, and arguably Sergio Marchionne. The only uncharismatic leader to lead a Chrysler comeback, Lynn Townsend, was nevertheless in the same tradition.
The 1990s comeback was unusual in that it was intended to be a cultural change as well as a product change. The company therefore established a new, clearly stated, simple purpose, as well as core values and beliefs (in five groups, one for each side of the pentastar: customer focus, inspired people, continuous improvement, financial success, and reputation).
The first inkling most people had of the 1990s Chrysler comeback was a huge spread in the New York Times, revealing the LH cars. The company’s stock quickly shot up to five times is pre-story value, showing that market analysts had been phoning it in for quite some time. The LH cars were revolutionary in the American large-car market, providing interior spaces unseen at Chrysler in decades with good cornering and reasonably swift acceleration provided by a 3.3 liter V6 and a new, technosavvy 3.5 liter variant.
The next up was the 1994 Dodge Ram pickup, with unique big-rig styling that has since been closely copied by Ford and Toyota; with its unique, customer-centric interior and high capacities, the new Ram was the most comfortable pickup available, and Dodge’s truck market share quickly tripled. Then the 1995 Dodge/Plymouth Neon arrived, the first American compact car to make an actual profit in years; Toyota bought several to figure out how they could outpower, outcorner, outbrake, and out-space pretty much every compact car on the market, all at once, and at low cost. Neons dominated their class in stock car racing for years; their engine provided 132 hp and 129 lb-ft of torque at a time when Civics topped out, only in the priciest model, at 125 hp and 100 lb-ft, and when two-digit horsepower was the norm.
Next came the cloud cars, critically acclaimed as the best midsize sedans on the market; and a new convertible based on them. Chrysler earned $61 billion in 1996 with a $3.5 billion net profit. A brand new Dakota and Wrangler followed for 1997, along with the Viper Roadster and Plymouth Prowler. The company closed its final full year of independence, 1997, with a $2.8 billion net profit and $61 billion in revenue.
The only thing that could stop Chrysler was a highly improbable sale to, say, a large German conglomerate with a relatively small car business; and that is what ended the winning streak, with the merger taking place in 1998, and the winning streak ending two years later. But that’s a story for another time.
David Zatz started what was to become the world’s biggest, most comprehensive Mopar site in 1994 as he pursued a career in organizational research and change. After a chemo-induced three-year break from Web sites, during which he wrote three car books covering Vipers, minivans, and Jeeps, he returned with some friends to create StellPower.com, which is intended to end up as an enduring partnership. Contact him at (973) 925-6058.