Chrysler Corp. has been on a financial roll since its death-rattle days from 1978 to 1981, when it lost a total of $3.5 billion.
Chrysler today is enjoying record profits. It is paying stockholder dividends for the first time in five years. Chrysler's share of the U.S. car market is increasing, and it is rehiring thousands of workers who were laid off during the last recession.
But Chrysler, whose 56 plants in the United States and Canada were shut down yesterday by two separate United Auto Workers union strikes, is still an endangered company, according to some domestic auto industry analysts.
Chrysler's continued vulnerability comes from relying on sales in the most competitive segment of the U.S. car market -- the small-car segment. The small-car market is being overrun by the Japanese and by all other foreign-car manufacturers who have the ability to ship cars to this country, analysts said.
Chrysler earned $2.4 billion in 1984, the biggest annual profit in its 60-year-history. The company had aftertax profits of $1.1 billion in the first six months of this year and, before the strike, was well on its way to turning in another $2 billion-plus annual performance, analysts said.
That is big money. But in an industry where one company can spend twice that much on developing, manufacturing and marketing a single new line of cars, Chrysler's profits are relatively small, according to industry analysts.
"Chrysler is doing well. But people seem to forget that those short-term profits make absolutely no difference in the long term," said Peter Van Hull, who directs automotive industry consulting activities for Chicago-based Arthur Andersen & Co.
"Chrysler's short-term success today could lead to a huge failure in the future if it makes the wrong long-term decisions" on items such as labor contracts, Van Hull said.
The difficulty rests in the nature of the competition facing Chrysler, said Van Hull and John Hammond, an auto industry analyst with Data Resources Inc. of Lexington, Mass.
"People tend to think that it's Chrysler versus GM and Ford, but that's not really the case," Hammond said. "GM and Ford are big full-line companies, which means they offer a wide range of cars. But Chrysler's sales come mainly from small cars, and that's the segment of the market targeted by the Japanese.
"It's not Chrysler versus GM and Ford. It's Chrysler versus Japan and everybody else," Hammond said.
GM and Ford, with their larger incomes, more varied products and overall better economies of scale, have more firepower than Chrysler in the global car wars, the analysts said. But, still, they noted, the nation's third-largest auto maker has to be given credit for savvy.
Chrysler has embarked upon an ambitious $11.5 billion program to improve plants, increase product quality, and to bring out a series of new cars over the next five years. Much of that activity is scheduled to occur between 1986 and 1988, when Chrysler plans to introduce a new vehicle line at the rate of one every six months.
The new products will include mid-size cars, designed to give Chrysler more flexibility in the auto marketplace and to increase profits per unit. A small pickup truck is also in the works.
That kind of aggressive strategy served Chrysler well over the last five years. The company reintroduced the convertible, captured the lead in the minivan market and introduced a series of small sports cars that have helped Chrysler gain 13.8 percent of the domestic car market -- up from 9.9 percent in 1979.
But, because of the increasingly intense competition from all countries for U.S. car buyers, all domestic auto makers will lose some market share by 1991, according to a report released this week by J. D. Power & Associates, a market research firm based in California.
GM's share conceivably could drop from 56.3 percent today to 44 percent in the best case, or to a worst-case low of 37.1 percent by 1991, according to the Power report. Ford could lose 2.6 percent of its market and Chrysler could drop 2.4 percent over the next six years, the Power report said.
Those assessments mean that all domestic auto makers will have to fight hard to keep their production costs low and their product quality high, analysts said. It will be an uphill battle.