Dennis Pawley triggered a minor stir at Chrysler Corp. a few years ago when he boasted that if he and a handful of other executives were to die together in a plane crash or other calamity "I think the son of a bitch would dissolve."

An executive vice president with top responsibility for manufacturing at the time, Mr. Pawley's unpublished short list included Chairman Robert J. Eaton, then-President Robert A. Lutz, Vice president-Engineering Francois Castaing, Design VP Thomas C. Gale and Purchasing VP Thomas T. Stallkamp.

Although numerous other high-ranking Chrysler officials played key roles in Chrysler's resurgence and stunning success during the 1990s, this hardy "Gang of Six" gets most of the credit. Mr. Pawley's off-the-cuff remarks probably contained an element of truth, at least as he saw it, but you don't say such things without offending those down the pecking order.

Moreover, the chances of such a disaster happening clearly would have been remote. No corporation takes chances by putting its core leaders - as a group - in jeopardy.

Those were heady days for Chrysler, a time to thump one's chest. Thus, Mr. Pawley's hyperbole might have been excused as the exhilarating outburst of a pivotal player on a team of proven winners.

That team, however, no longer exists. Following the Chrysler/Daimler-Benz AG merger finalized last November, Mr. Pawley himself took early retirement in January and is now a consultant based in Las Vegas. Although he remains a technical advisor to Mr. Eaton, Mr. Castaing left full-time employment early last year. Mr. Lutz retired last July and is now chairman of Exide Corp., Chrysler's chief battery supplier.

That leaves Mssrs. Eaton, Stallkamp and Gale still on board in what is now DaimlerChrysler AG. As part of the merger agreement, Mr. Eaton was named co-chairman along with Juergen Schrempp, formerly DB chairman. Mr. Eaton says he'll remain for three years, then retire, at which time Mr. Schrempp presumably will take full charge. Some suspect he already has.

Mr. Stallkamp, meantime, remains as DC president and Mr. Gale as executive v.p. of Design and Product Strategy. There are no strong hints that either plans to exit, but if they were so inclined the list of suitors - General Motors Corp. notable among them - would be a long one. Mr. Stallkamp is a purchasing genius whose supplier-relations innovations have repeatedly produced win-win results. Mr. Gale, whose son is a GM designer, has been the guiding force behind Chrysler's stunning styling triumphs.

If either man did depart, however, that almost certainly would trigger additional defections, leaving Mr. Eaton as the sole survivor among Mr. Pawley's original six who took Chrysler to the heights and made it indeed an attractive partner for Daimler-Benz.

But that would come at a steep price: During the merger-transition period, Mr. Schrempp needs them and likely wouldn't surrender them without a fight. Both, of course, are close confidantes of Mr. Eaton. On the other hand, each man picked up millions in the merger deal, making cash perhaps less important than other considerations.

What's becoming increasingly clear is that not everyone at Chrysler is as dedicated to the merged company, basically controlled by the Daimler side, as they were to the old one. You hear talk of the wear and tear of commuting between Michigan and Stuttgart; concerns about future salaries, stock options and bonuses as DC attempts to rationalize remuneration between salaried employees on both sides of the Atlantic (the Americans generally make much more than their German counterparts, which can be tricky when a German boss makes less than his American subordinate); and the fact that most of the power is shifting to the Daimler side. Synergy, it seems, goes only so far.

That makes Chrysler ripe for picking, and just since February four other execs have departed. Stephen J. Harris resigned as senior vice president of public affairs, taking over as v.p.-public affairs at GM; Shamel T. Rushwin, senior v.p. responsible for international manufacturing and minivan assembly operations, left to join Ford Motor Co. as v.p.-advanced manufacturing; and Chris P. Theodore, senior v.p.-platform engineering, also moves to Ford as v.p.-large and luxury vehicle center. Senior V.P. Rex Franson also retired after Chrysler Financial Corp. was merged into DC's Stuttgart-based financial arm.

There's a tad of irony in the departures of Mssrs. Rushwin and Theodore: Former Ford President and retired Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca raided Ford repeatedly in the late '70s and early '80s as he struggled to keep the No.3 automaker afloat.

Are more defections likely? If not, it won't be for lack of trying by competitors. "I get batches of '800' numbers (from headhunters) on my voicemail almost every day," an upper-level Chrysler source, who says he plans to stay, quietly confides. "I don't even answer them anymore." Mr. Eaton says during a recent radio interview he expects more departures because he can see from his Auburn Hills office window "all the recruiters circling the building."

But with rumors of salaried cutbacks and changes in pensions and pay scales spinning daily at the "old" Chrysler, it wouldn't be surprising if others are tempted to pick up the phone. After all, it costs nothing to dial an 800 number.