When I read about Chrysler's travails, I often wonder what my late father-in-law, Marvin Marschner, would think of it all.
My family was never a Chrysler fan club. My folks had one when I was a little boy -- one of those wonderful late 1950s models (not a 300, unfortunately) with the big fins, swooping roofline and that unforgettable push-button automatic transmission. But by the '60s we had moved on to a string of T-birds, and we never went back.
I own a Dodge Grand Caravan van, but that was an inheritance from Marvin, and a bittersweet violation of my life-long 'no vans' rule. It's reliable and comfortable but also the ugly duckling in a collection that includes a Jaguar, a GMC Sierra pick-up, a VW bug, a '36 Ford coupe and a Studebaker Golden Hawk.
Still, every time I drive the little van, I'm reminded of Marvin's enduring love for Chrysler. He had always been a car guy -- not surprising for someone who had grown up outside Detroit in the '20s and '30s. He was trained as a draftsman, so it was inevitable that Marvin would wind up going to work for the car industry. First it was General Motors, where he worked on dashboard design until the war came, when he switched to cockpits on B-24s until he was drafted.
Three years later he returned, picked up a degree in engineering at Michigan State with his GI Bill and went to work for Chrysler. To hear him talk, it wasn't just a job, but a calling. Chrysler didn't have the history of Ford or the sheer monolithic might of General Motors, but it always had the best design, especially in the drivetrain. Chrysler's Hemi engine -- when Marvin spoke of it, it wasn't in the muscle-car way, but as an engineer describing a triumphant work of technology. The bigger two may have had the better revenues and market share, Marvin said, but Chrysler had the better cars.
In the early 1960s, at the insistence of my mother-in-law, who wanted to escape the weather and the family ties of Michigan, Marvin reluctantly packed up the family and moved to California to take a job at Lockheed. I don't think he was ever really happy in a job again. And in the decades that followed, he always kept close watch on Chrysler's changing fortunes. He still owned Chrysler stock, cheered the company's turnaround under Lee Iaccoca (he even sent me a copy of his book) and continued to buy one Chrysler or Dodge after another.
Marvin died almost exactly a year ago. I remember him, near the end, shaking his head in dismay at Chrysler's growing troubles. But at least he was spared the catastrophe that has hit the company in the months since. Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep these days is a dead company walking, artificially respirated by the federal government at taxpayer expense. And its sole hope of reincarnation is to sell out to Italian carmaker Fiat.
Fiat! Now, I'm not going to indulge in all of the old Fix It Again, Tony stereotypes about Fiat cars. In fact, I've had friends over the years who loved their little X19s and 124 Spyders.
Moreover, I'm willing to forget Fiat's past failures in the U.S. market. Rather, I'm impressed that this historically Eurocentric builder of mostly utilitarian vehicles has shown the guts to make a run at international industry leadership -- even taking on mighty Toyota.