Commentary

The 9-year marriage is over. All that’s left is for the lawyers to finish up the paperwork and revisionists to start spinning tales about where it all went wrong.

Lee Iacocca recently lamented Daimler “screwed Chrysler royally,” driving the most profitable car company in the world off a cliff in less than 10 years.

Chrysler did indeed look great in 1998. Not only was it flush with cash, it was being run by a managerial dream team that included “car guy” Bob Lutz; design virtuoso Tom Gale; the most innovative purchasing chief in Detroit history, Tom Stallkamp; public relations maestro Steve Harris; plus a half-dozen other gifted, high-level managers.

But the chief executive overseeing this immense pile of talent – hand-picked by Iacocca – was the unremarkable former General Motors executive Bob Eaton, who will be remembered for selling Chrysler and little else.

Had Iacocca put Lutz, who he did not like, in charge in 1993 instead of Eaton, it could have been a far more positive story. But instead of being on an upward climb in 1998 as Iacocca claims, the auto maker already was running out of steam.

Chrysler’s big margins were coming almost exclusively from the then-booming, light-truck market. Gas was cheap, and there were only a few competitors for its minivans, pickups and SUVs.

Without strong leadership at the very top, Chrysler’s fortunes dimmed quickly when competition from Asian and European auto makers intensified.

As distasteful as the Juergen Schrempp-led acquisition of Chrysler may have been to some, the management team of Dieter Zetsche and Wolfgang Bernhard in 2000 brought a new level of discipline and creativity to an auto maker that had devolved into blindly chasing short-term profits in light trucks.

The marriage may be over, but some wonderful progeny are left. The Chrysler 300 remains one of the best sedans to come out of Detroit in recent history. The Mercedes driveline parts and other German bits help make it so.

The Chrysler ME Four Twelve never got much past the concept phase, but it reminded engineers and designers they can build a car that will match the most glorious supercars in the world, if given the chance.

Daimler’s diesel technology, added to Chrysler’s potential sales volume, still could prove pivotal in the push for alternative fuels in the U.S.

And highly regarded CEO Tom LaSorda, the son of a labor leader, has risen to the top and is left in charge to lead the most crucial labor negotiations in a generation.

Yeah, it was worth it.

Now the legacy of new owner Cerberus Capital Management begins. It is named after a vicious 3-headed dog that in Greek mythology guards the underworld.

That’s a hood ornament with attitude if ever there was one.

dwinter@wardsauto.com