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April 23, 2009, 7:43 pm
Chrysler Brand May Become Another Orphan

SANTEE, Calif. — “Who would’ve ever thought I could take a Chrysler to an ‘orphan’ car meet?” said Jim Jensen, a vintage Chrysler restorer here. “They built some of the greatest cars ever made. Who would’ve believed they could foul a great thing up so bad that they’d run the company out of business?”

Mr. Jensen restored my 1957 Chrysler Saratoga coupe, a glorious example of the “Forward Look” styling of Virgil Exner, the company’s chief designer. The car was Gauguin Red with a white roof, powered by a Hemi V-8.

Mr. Jensen and I actually had this conversation almost 10 years ago, just as the restoration was finishing up. He drove my Chrysler to the Monday Night Car Club meet in nearby Lakeside, Calif. I showed up in a new, black Plymouth Prowler. The two cars tied for Best of Show honors. It seemed like an affirmation of Chrysler’s styling and engineering greatness, old and new.

But Mr. Jensen was in a dour mood over Chrysler’s chances for survival, even then. The company had just been “merged” into Daimler-Benz. Chrysler’s value at the time of the transaction had been estimated at about $36 billion.

“You watch, this is the end,” he said. “If not the end, at least the beginning of the end. They’ll never come back from this.”

Mr. Jensen was so disgusted, and so certain Daimler’s attraction to Chrysler would be fatal that he liquidated his restoration business, including the largest pile of original Hemi V-8 engines from the 1950s I’d ever seen, and moved away. I checked in with him two years ago when Daimler was getting ready to dispose of most of its interest in Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity restructuring specialist, for about $7 billion.

“See, there’s nothing left,” Mr. Jensen said. “These Wall Street boys are buying air. The Germans have stripped Chrysler of everything of value.”

Time seems to have proven him right.

I’ve had plenty of opportunity to consider over the last few months what it will be like when my big, bodacious Chrysler, which still runs as beautifully as it looks, truly becomes an “orphan.” That’s the name given to the collectible relics of car companies that have gone out of business – marques like Studebaker, Willys, Packard, Hudson, Plymouth and, most recently, Oldsmobile. Owners like to meet and commiserate over pet peeves, like the business practices of American auto manufacturers gone bust.

Chrysler’s induction into this club may come as soon as next week.

Last fall, General Motors thought of merging with Chrysler. But it was only to acquire Chrysler’s few remaining marketable assets, like its minivans, trucks and Hemi engines. The company, after being gutted, would probably have been shut down and the Chrysler nameplate discontinued, industry analysts told me.

Now, it seems Fiat of Italy is likely to gobble up a good portion of what is left of Chrysler. The smart money says Fiat will wait until Chrysler is forced into bankruptcy so it can pick up the parts it wants, or perhaps all of it, for cents on the dollar. Whether the Chrysler brand survives in that case is uncertain at best.

If this is the end, my Chrysler will be buffed and polished to a new-car’s sheen at the next orphan car show. I will try to park it, as it probably was in a dealer’s showroom 52 years ago, right between an Imperial and a DeSoto.

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Chrysler Brand May Become Another Orphan - Wheels Blog -
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