The peaks and troughs of Chrysler | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

01st March 2024
Gary Axon

February 2024 was a busy month for the Stellantis automotive giant. During the month the colossus group revealed that it had set new records for net revenue and profits in 2023, although its adjusted profits and margins took a tumble below its forecast overall for last year, with its outlook for this year currently forecast as being ‘turbulent.’ Despite this, however, CEO Carlos Tavares reportedly earned around £31.5million plus a very generous bonus for 2023 and all of Stellantis’ global employees gained a welcome gratuity of around £3,500 in their pay packets.


During the month the international motoring group also made some changes to its UK management team, announced a healthy future for its Vauxhall Luton plant to produce a future family of electric light commercial vehicles, and a tie-in with the Chinese EV maker Leap Motors to build some of its models in an Italian Fiat plant. It revealed the welcome rejuvenation of the Lancia brand with its new electric Ypsilon and very late in the month, it revealed an abundance of new Fiat Panda concept cars, including ICE and EV-powered hatchbacks, plus SUV and pick-up derivatives, to preview the all-new Panda due later the year.

Possibly Stellantis’ biggest surprise during February though was the reveal of the Halcyon Concept Coupe - an appealing new concept car from its North American Chrysler brand. The Halcyon Coupe is the first all-new prototype for the Detroit marque for many years and is significant as not much activity has taken place at Chrysler since Stellantis acquired the Corporation as part of its Fiat deal a few years ago.

In the 1960s the Chrysler Corporation had to save itself by closing down its once-successful De Soto brand. In the 1970s it was forced to sell off its overseas operations in Europe and South America, with the ex-Rootes Group (Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam, etc.) in the UK and Simca in France and Spain, all being taken over by PSA Peugeot to form the revived but short-lived Talbot marque), with Chrysler’s Brazilian and Argentinian divisions being sold off to Volkswagen.


These respites were short lived and Chrysler was financially insecure again by the early 1980s. The charismatic ex-General Motors Lee Iacocca was hired as Chairman in the early '80s to try and turn Chrysler’s business around and pay off its weighty loans from the American Government that helped to keep it afloat in the later part of the 1970s.

Iacocca was successful in his mission, introducing the Chrysler Corporation’s vital turn-around K-Car model in 1981. The popularity of these helped to fund Chrysler’s next make-or-brake models, the pioneering Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager ‘Minivans’ – MPVs to us in Europe. These minivans were a huge and instant success, outselling any other vehicle in the USA in period. The Chrysler minivans had caught rivals Ford and GM napping and forced them to quickly develop minivans of their own, none of which ever quite matched the influential Chryslers.

With the Corporation finally returning to profit by the mid-'80s, Chrysler turned to creating and presenting a series of concept cars to help maintain public interest, intrigue and awareness, soon building itself a reputation as the automotive king of concept cars. In the decade between 1987 and 1998, between its various divisions (Chrysler, Dodge, Eagle, Jeep and Plymouth) the Chrysler Corporation presented more than 40 concept cars to show confidence in its future and showcase future models.


This inspired idea built on Chrysler’s long reputation for presenting concepts and future prototypes ‘image cars’ which dated back to the early 1940s (just behind GM’s first Y-Job prototype of 1939 but way ahead of Ford). In 1941 Chrysler revealed its first ‘dream car’ (as concept cars were called back then). The slab-sided Chrysler Thunderbolt ‘prototype’ was a two-seater roadster that resembled a dodgem car with covered wheels, etc., but it would have looked sensational back in 1941. The Thunderbolt was quickly followed by the more stylish Chrysler Imperial Newport Dual Cowl, a long and elegant open-top phaeton with twin cockpits and flowing lines that was used as a pace car for the Indianapolis 500.

Throughout the optimistic post-war 1950s, Chrysler’s then head of design (the flamboyant Vigil Exner) continued with a set of usually very elegant prototype image cars, built for the Corporation by Ghia in Italy. These included the beautiful Chrysler d’Elegance of 1953, a sleek coupe with lines that went on to influence the design of the strong-selling Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia. Throughout the 1950s Chrysler continued with more attractive image cars, usually constructed at Ghia and liberally sprinkled with the marque badges of its various brands; De Soto, Dodge, Imperial, and so on.


Chrysler’s most remarkable concept of the 1960s was its Turbine of 1962, a coupe so named after its gas turbine jet engine. Fifty examples of this revolutionary new technology that could run on any type of fuel were built for public trial. Though reliable, the Turbine engine proved to be too thirsty, however, so Chrysler had the 50 prototypes all returned and destroyed, the few remaining examples now being very collectable.

The 1970s proved to be a dry patch for Chrysler concepts, but once the Corporation had returned to profit, it more than made upper lost time during the 1980s. The Chrysler (Lamborghini) Portofino concept of 1986 was the first of a long run of outstanding Chrysler concept cars, a few of which are detailed below. This remarkable run of concept cars from the mid-1980s onwards led to a handful making production, such was the positive response to the original concepts when first shown publicly at auto shows and so on. The Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler are just a couple of examples of the importance and vision of Chrysler’s concept cars, as these unlikely sportscars made it through to production and were available to the general public via Chrysler’s showrooms to now create modern classics.


Chrysler’s design excellence under Lee Iaccoca and head of design Thomas Gale took the Corporation from being the weakling of the Detroit Big Three to a profitable success by the late 1980s. Its styling skills attracted Mercedes-Benz to talk about a possible merger in 1998, which eventually went ahead to create Daimler-Chrysler. Under the wide portfolio of other North American Chrysler Corporation brands during this creative period, here is just a small selection of other non-Chrysler-branded concepts shown during this prolific decade; for Dodge the iconic 1989 Viper RT/10, Tomahawk V10 motorcycle, 1999 Charger R/T 99, Sling Shot, Copperhead and 1998 ESX2 98, the Eagle Jazz 95, Jeep Ecco, 1997 Jeepster and 1993 Plymouth Prowler and 1999 Howler PickUp hot rod, plus mid-engined Pronto Spyder.

The Eagle and Plymouth brands have now gone, but fingers crossed that the just-revealed Halcyon Concept Coupe EV will showcase the future product direction that Chrysler will be taking with a cool, pure and simply styled unadorned electric coupe; a very pleasant surprise as for a welcome change, as the Halcyon is not a predictable boxy minivan, crossover or SUV. Trying to sell the oldest model range in America until very recently (its 2023 sales reached a reasonable 133,00 vehicles, though quite a reduction from its annual 600,000 US sales a decade earlier), the current Chrysler range consists of the Pacific, a low-roof minivan, plus the last few remaining stock of the 300C saloon which was finally withdrawn from production last December, after basically a 21-year production run.

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