A respectable union

At an age when I hate change if came as a shock to find that letters from Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart are now headed "DaimlerChrysler". Not that the vintage Chryslers weren't good cars. Walter P Chrysler was such a capable entrepreneur that, having acquired Maxwell-Chalmers in 1923 he then absorbed the Dodge Company and by 1928 was the third largest American producer behind General Motors and Ford. In England the fine Chrysler depot was in Mordake, near Kew Gardens.

Starting with a sound four-cylinder with hydraulic four-wheel brakes on a tubular front axle, he was soon into sixes and later four-speed gearboxes. Chrysler models were numbered to imply their top speeds and "72" caused quite a stir here, although it could not out perform a 30/98 or a Bentley. But it was quite a car, although I thought its scalloped bonnet impertinent, as this had been the hallmark of our Vauxhalls since the great Prince Henry and 30/98. At the 1924 Olympia Show the 3596cc six-cylinder Chrysler 23-75 saloon at £585 was well-liked, but it was the 4740cc 29-95 Roadster which struck the sporting note. It was well-endowed with useful items at £965 and saloon and tourer versions were available.

Moreover, at a time when American cars were not prominent in racing here, these Chrysler roadsters competed at Le Mans in 1928. It was a 4.9 Stutz that came second to the winning Bentley but the Chryslers driven by Stoffel/Rossignel and the Ghica pair, were third and fourth. Bentley had it sewn up in 1929, with the first four places, again chased by a Stutz, but Chryslers were sixth and seventh. The '72' roadster gained more acclaim when Eldridge and Kaye Don broke Boillot's Peugeot class 24-hour record at Mondhery in 1929, the car standard except fora bigger sump and a huge extra fuel tank in the dickey. It used its own headlamps after dark, had the hood up and the bonnet sealed and averaged over 72M mph. Chryslers were also second and third in the 1929 Spa 24 hours.

So the Chrysler 72 became a car to respect. Second places were again taken in the 1928 Caserata sportscar race and the 1932 Swedish Winter GP, and at Brooklands Malcolm Campbell raced a tourer, followed by two impressively streamlined Chryslers which gave a lap speed of nearly 100mph. Chrysler was soon flirting with the luxury car market with cars like the Crown Imperial limousine. In 1934 there was the eight-cylinder "Airflow", but it was a flop perhaps because it was not truly streamlined, just having a curved frontal grill, recessed headlamps, spatted back wheels, and occupants and luggage within its wheelbase.

All this was before my time, but I recall long wartime runs in Eric Vereker's Airflow, a useful load carrier for his task on decoy factory sites. When another car pulled out in front of it Eric drove off the road and continued behind a row of telegraph poles and their guy wires for quite a way, before regaining the road at scarcely diminished pace, and without saying a word. We spent that night in a brothel, but only because it was the only accommodation open. It was deserted, the ladies presumably out at work, but we elected to remain dressed, on top of the eiderdowns...

After the War I drove the Chrysler Valiants, when the USA was into 'compact' cars, as Chrysler is with the 2-litre Neon today. In 1968 the Valiant exhausted its battery while I was at a late-night club meeting in Kent, but John Sprinzel took me to Rootes' London depot, fortunately still open, where I had left the Mini-Minor. Put right, this Valiant had a notably smooth automatic gearbox but used too much petrol and oil. It was 1963 before the improved Valiant V200 came for appraisal. It had the same excellent Chrysler Torqueflite transmission, with button overdrive, light but low-geared steering and a neat instrument panel, but was too expensive. The Ford Falcon compact was a rival, which we could not resist photographing by an 'Unsuitable for large vehicles' sign near Oulton Park. By 1971 Chrysler UK lent me the very acceptable Type 180, with 1.8-litre ohc light alloy engine. Finally the 1976 Chrysler Alpine S, which I drove for over 3000 miles in a few days with minor troubles but much respect. Now the makers of what I think of as the world's best engineered cars have merged with Chrysler. The Walter Chrysler Museum in Michigan was opened recently by DaimlerChrysler AG, with 75 vehicles on show.