The Chrysler brand has used many of its nine lives to date, but the longtime American brand, which has had many adopted and foreign parents, is still alive. For now.
The Chrysler brand is currently part of FCA US, which is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. FCA is a dual-headquartered company with the Fiat side of the business based in Turin, Italy, and the former Chrysler Corp. operations based in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Chrysler dates back to 1925, founded by Walter Chrysler, and it is still referred to as part of the Big Three or Detroit Three, referring to General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.
Chrysler has teetered many times on the edge of a financial cliff. It was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1970s and was saved by government loan guarantees worth $1.5 billion that bought time until the release of a surprising savior in secret development: the minivan.
In 1998, in a deal worth $36 billion, Chrysler was acquired by Daimler-Benz of Germany, and the so-called alliance or “merger of equals” was named DaimlerChrysler. It was not a good fit, as the two cultures never really merged—though Daimler-sourced platforms helped make vehicles like the Chrysler 300C, Dodge Charger and Challenger, and Jeep Grand Cherokee much better than their predecessors—and Daimler sold Chrysler in 2007 to Cerberus, a private equity firm in the U.S., for just $7.4 billion.
The financial crisis in 2008 proved devastating for Detroit automakers. Chrysler laid off thousands of white-collar workers, going so far as to unscrew lightbulbs in their empty offices and stopped plowing snow off the top deck of unused parking garages to save money.
Plant closures, shift eliminations, and model line rationalizations were all planned with the loss of thousands more blue-collar workers. Work on future products was mostly curtailed. The few remaining resources were diverted to development of the next-generation Chrysler 300 full-size sedan and the new Jeep Cherokee.
On April 30, 2009, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. General Motors filed for bankruptcy June 1, and while the government deemed GM too big to fail and had a reorganization plan for the company to exit bankruptcy, government officials were divided as to whether to use government money to save the smaller Chrysler.
In the end, government loans totaling more than $10 billion were provided, and when Chrysler exited bankruptcy, it had a patchwork of owners including the U.S. and Canadian governments, the United Auto Workers pension fund, and Fiat S.p.A. which agreed to supply some of its powertrains and other tech, and also share its CEO, Sergio Marchionne.
In the subsequent years, Fiat gradually acquired shares from the other stakeholders while paying down the government loans. By 2014, Fiat had acquired 100% of Chrysler, which became a full subsidiary of the Italian automaker. A new entity, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, was formed. The Chrysler subsidiary was renamed FCA US. Marchionne remained CEO of the cross-Atlantic empire with a long list of automotive brands, including Chrysler.
Ironically, Chrysler was not considered one of FCA’s core brands and did not get the same level of attention or resources as Jeep or Ram. Once a full-line car brand, Chrysler is now represented by just two models: The aging 300C, whose platform was designed more than a quarter-century ago, and the Pacifica minivan.
The future of the Chrysler brand remains uncertain with yet another parenting change in the works. In December 2019, FCA signed a memorandum of understanding with PSA (to which Chrysler Corporation offloaded its unprofitable European operations in 1979) for the two automakers to merge, with a tentative timetable of late 2020 or mid-2021 for the deal to close.
The still-to-be-named automaker will be the fourth largest in the world, and the expectation is some brands will go away. Chrysler could be one of them.