Commerce Cabinet Crisis VI: Roy D. Chapin

By August of 1932, I imagine that Herbert Hoover already knew that he was doomed to the dustbin of history. But still, he found himself facing the very situation that today faces Barack Obama — an economic crisis, and a vacancy at the Commerce Department. In his hour of need he reached outside the government, to an executive from the auto industry named Roy D. Chapin.

Chapin had a pretty interesting life in business. He worked for automotive pioneer Ransom E. Olds (namesake of the Oldsmobile) and then left to be one of the founders of Hudson Motor Company in 1909. Hudson was named after its primary financial backer, a Detroit department store mogul named James L. Hudson, but Chapin was their top car guy. Under his leadership Hudson, and its subsidiary Essex Motors, were responsible for a number of innovations including the first affordable mass-produced enclosed automobile. In one of the pioneering moves of the alliance between automakers and the highway lobby, Chapin joined forces with Henry B. Joy of Packard Motors to spearhead the drive for the construction of the Lincoln Highway. In 1932, Hudson left the private sector to go work in the Hoover administration, where he tried and failed in an effort to convince Henry Ford to bail out the Guardian Trust Company of Detroit. Guardian’s collapse led to the Michigan Bank Holiday which prefigured FDR’s nationwide bank holiday in 1933. Chapin’s tenure at Commerce was brief, since Hoover lost the election just a few months later, and after FDR’s inauguration he went back to work for Hudson. He died in 1936.


Hudson merged with Nash Kelvinator in 1954 to become American Motors which, in turn, was acquired by Chrysler in the 1980s. And now it seems that Chrysler will soon either be liquidated or else acquired by Fiat.