Commentary

It’s been said those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. And when it comes to Chrysler LLC, Chrysler Group, DaimlerChrysler, Chrysler Corp. and all its other incarnations, the mistakes are repeated again and again.

Not only by the auto maker’s executives, but by the politicians, dealers, suppliers and the media that cover all the machinations.

During the good times, everyone overestimates the auto maker’s ability to maintain what looks like unstoppable forward momentum. Just ask former Daimler-Benz Chairman Juergen Schrempp. He courted and then married Chrysler in 1998. It didn’t work out.

But everyone guesses wrong during the bad times, as well. Ask any of the legions of doomsayers who wrote Chrysler off in the early 1980s or early 1990s. Whether predicting its future or recalling its history, when it comes to Chrysler, everyone seems to get it wrong.

One of my favorites is the revival of the quaint myth that Lee Iacocca worked for only $1 during 1979-1980, when he was looking for help from the U.S. government.

It’s true Iacocca took only $1 his first year as chairman beginning in 1979, when his salary called for $360,000. But most insiders were aware that during the same period, he collected $1.5 million from Chrysler to offset what he would have received from Ford if he had not taken the new job.

In 1991, Ward’s editors were so tired of writing and re-writing Chrysler obituaries and revival stories from the government bailout, to the spectacular recovery two years later; to the huge profits in the mid-1980s; and to the reckless spending of the late 1980s; to the bankruptcy rumors and the failed merger talks with Fiat, we wrote a cover story in May 1991 titled: “Absolutely the Last Can Chrysler Survive? Cover Story.”

The following year Chrysler introduced its LH cars. The joke was the designation stood for “last hope.” But the sleek family sedans were a big success, and were followed by more audacious, innovative and hugely profitable products, such as the Dodge Ram pickup and Durango SUV. The cute Neon and numerous Jeep models also raked in profits.

This renaissance was fueled by a new low-cost product-development process Chrysler created. In what seemed like a heartbeat, the auto maker once again was the golden boy of Detroit, with phenomenal profits and a soaring stock price. Then came another slump, followed by more cool products, such as the PT Cruiser and the Chrysler 300.

So here we are. There’s another possible merger with Fiat, Chrysler is camped out on death’s doorstep and the big question is raised again.

I look at some of the interesting products Fiat could bring to the U.S., and they remind me of the beguiling little Neon. I marvel at the engineering that went into the new Hemi V-8 and know Chrysler has extremely talented people working in powertrain. I am enchanted by the gorgeous lines of the Chrysler 200C concept car, much like I was when I caught my first glimpse of the Chrysler LH cars so many years ago.

My crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s, but I do have a great rear-view mirror. The mirror tells me that I have embarrassed myself too many times in the past 30 years agreeing with the pack.

Can Chrysler survive? Yes, it can and will. But don’t expect another cover story.

dwinter@wardsauto.com