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Searching for "The Mysterious Mrs. Miller"

by Jim Benjaminson, 2004
First appeared in the Turlock Pioneer Magazine in California.

The first plymouth off the asslembly line.

Thursday, June 14, 1928. Detroit, Michigan. Motor Age magazine, a trade publication, ran yet another article speculating about the rumored new automobile that was to soon be placed on the market. Little was known about the car – except that it was to be named “Plymouth”. Who was behind it or what company would build it remained a mystery. Across town, a group of executives met in the boardrooms of what had been the Maxwell-Chalmers Corporation located in Highland Park – a small enclave totally surrounded by the greater Detroit area. At the head of the table sat Walter Percy Chrysler. Surrounding him were his engineering team of Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer (their names would always be given in that order), Joseph Fields and a cadre of others. THEY knew who was going to build this new car. In fact, production of the very first Plymouth was taking place at that very moment.

1928 Q Plymouth

1928 Q Plymouth owned by the Walter P. Chrysler Museum.
Photo by Jim Benjaminson Copyright ©1998

This new car would enter a special niche in the market place, designed from the start to compete in the low priced field with the likes of Henry Ford’s Model T and General Motors Chevrolet.

Just four years before, most people had never heard the name Chrysler. But to the “captains of industry” his name was well known – and highly respected. Walter Percy Chrysler had been born in Wamego, Kansas but moved as a very young boy to the town of Ellis, Kansas, where his father was an engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad. Always fascinated by things mechanical, the young Chrysler began working as a sweeper in the railroad shops. Eventually he worked his way up the ladder and had become, by 1908, the youngest superintendent of locomotive power while working for the Chicago Great Western Railroad. Based out of Oelwein, Iowa, the young Chrysler found himself making regular trips to Chicago. It was on one of those trips that he would find himself in attendance at the Chicago Automobile show. On display stood a handsome “Locomobile” touring car – resplendent in its white paint and crimson red leather upholstery. Time and again he returned to look at the car. It had a selling price of $5,000. Cash – no credit, no time payments. He had $700 in the bank back home.

He simply had to have that car. It took a lot of coaxing but he finally persuaded a banker friend, Ralph Van Vechten, to loan him the money. After completing the purchase, Chrysler had the car shipped on a railroad car to Oelwein – where he promptly put the car in the barn behind the house and tore it apart. He had bought the car not just to drive it – but to study and examine it. Time and again he took the car apart until finally after three long months, his family convinced him it was time to take it for a drive. There was just one problem – Walter Chrysler did not know how to drive an automobile. He did manage to get it out of the barn and around the neighborhood, finally getting it stuck in his neighbor’s garden! He hired a local man with a team of horses to pull the car out and put it back in the barn – then retired to his house, took a hot bath and went to bed by 6 p.m. exhausted by the days events……..unknown to anyone, Walter Chrysler had just made his first mark on the automobile industry.

Walter Chrysler didn’t keep the job in Oelwein much longer, moving to the American Locomotive Company plant in Pittsburgh. It was here he drew the attention of James J. Storrow, a director of ALCO and a former president of General Motors. Upon his arrival at ALCO, the company had been on the verge of collapse—but Chrysler soon turned the companies fortunes around. Storrow’s question to Chrysler was – if you were to move to Michigan, could you do the same thing for the Buick Division of General Motors. At half the pay you’re getting here at ALCO??

It was a challenge the young Chrysler couldn’t refuse. Upon his arrival he found a plant turning out just 45 cars per day…..within weeks, he had it churning out 200 cars a day. By 1912, he was President of the Buick division. But the biggest problem Chrysler had to deal with at Buick was William Durant – the founder of General Motors. Chrysler was a solid, down to earth financial man where Durant was a flamboyant, reckless stock speculator… all finally came to a head one day when Durant went over Chrysler’s head in a decision to build a new frame plant. Chrysler had enough and walked out. He had plenty of money and really didn’t need to work anymore. Or so he thought.

The Willys Corporation, makers of the Willys, Overland and Willys-Knight cars was floundering. Chrysler’s financial turnarounds of ALCO and Buick had not gone unnoticed in the industry—and soon a group of nervous bankers approached him. Could he work his magic on Willys? “Yes” was Chrysler’s reply – but the price would be stiff. One million dollars per year – with a two year contract. It was an amount unheard of at the time. Before that job was accomplished, another group of bankers approached Chrysler about rescuing the moribund Maxwell-Chalmers Corporation. This time, Chrysler saw his opportunity to enter the business, building a car that would carry HIS name on the radiator. Rather than cash, Chrysler would opt for stock in the company.

On June 6, 1924 Maxwell-Chalmers became the Chrysler Corporation. The last of the Maxwell cars were sold off, then the name was quietly discontinued in favor of a new car called the Chrysler. If there was one lesson learned at General Motors, it was that a manufacturer, to survive, had to offer the public a car in each price range. Alfred Sloan, the long time president of General Motors, is credited with the stair step pricing structure. The Chrysler line included a four cylinder car, a six cylinder car and at the top of the pricing rung, the majestic Imperial. Still, Chrysler knew he had to enter the low priced field and compete head to head with the likes of Ford and Chevrolet.

As he and his associates sat around the huge oak table in the Highland Park executive offices, they knew that dream had come true as the first four-cylinder Plymouth rolled off the assembly line just a few buildings away……….2,400 miles away, Mrs. Ethel L. Miller went about her business of running the St. Elmo hotel in the sleepy farming community of Turlock, California – neither one knowing yet that a strange set of circumstances had been set in motion that would bring the two of them together.

Ethel with her #1 Plymouth.
Ethel Miller with her #1 Plymouth as she prepared to leave for Chicago to pickup the One Millionth Plymouth at the Century of Progress Exhibition

Who was Ethel Miller, you might ask? And what connection did she have to Walter Chrysler and the Plymouth Division of Chrysler Corporation? I already knew the answer to the second part of that question when I embarked on a mission to answer the first part of that same question... ...


1 millionth Plymouth.
One millionth Plymouth coming off the line. Corporate Treasurer B E Hutchinson is behind the wheel.

As a “self-styled” automotive historian and writer, I had spent a great deal of research time in tracking down various people who had a historical connection to the Plymouth automobile. And, if I might brag just a little, I had been very successful—almost to the point of thinking my research capabilities were invincible. I had successfully found Sullivan Richardson, Arnold Whitaker and Kenneth C. Van Hee – the three man team that comprised the “Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition” of 1940-41, an expedition that revolved around driving a 1941 Plymouth sedan from Detroit, Michigan to Cape Horn, in South America – all to promote interest in building a highway that would stretch from the United States to the tip of South America. (And they would later extend that trip as far north as Nome, Alaska—with an eight-year hiatus in between trips.) I had tracked down and interviewed the reclusive Irma Darre Brandt, a spunky, very reclusive lady living in Norway – she had been the first Norwegian female driver to compete in the famed Monte Carlo Rally, driving a ’33 Plymouth sedan, which she still owned. I had visited, via telephone, with Ole Fahlin – one half of the aviation team of Fahlin & Swanson, who had built and flown an airplane of their own design that was powered by a Plymouth car engine. There had been meetings with George Stecher, who spent half his life working on the Chrysler Turbine Engine program; Wally Parks, founder of the National Hot Rod Association, who had built and driven a record setting Plymouth on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah back in 1957. I had even had some luck in getting information from an equally reclusive Channing Powell, who with his brother Hayward, built the lowest priced car sold in the United States in 1955—a car that was built on used 1941 Plymouth chassis powered by rebuilt engines.

How hard then, could it be to find Mrs. Ethel L. Miller of Turlock, California. Mrs. Miller’s claim to fame included owning the first Plymouth car ever built—then swapping it for the One Millionth Plymouth—and that car in turn for the Two Millionth Plymouth. My question began with “where was she when the Three Millionth Plymouth was built?” Little did I know when I set out to find “the rest of the story” – that it would take me thirteen years. I began to refer to her as the “Mysterious Mrs. Miller”. Yes, we found out what happened to her, but many questions still remain to be answered….and many of those answers will probably never be known!

Saturday, July 7, 1928 – Madison Square Garden, New York City. If any city knew how to throw a party – New York City was it. And today it had a gala event planned. Two days before, the new “mystery” Plymouth made its debut in the showrooms of Simons, Stewart and Foy…and tonight it would make its formal appearance before the public in the world famous Madison Square Garden. On stage to introduce the new car was “Amelia Earhart, first woman to fly the Atlantic, making her debut on the lecture platform in Plymouth’s behalf”. At least that’s what a 1955 Chrysler Corporate history book would have us believe.

#1, 1 and 2 millionth next to eachother.
#1, Million & 2 Million. Left to right, Harry G. Moock, Plymouth Sales Manager, Verne Orr, California Sales Manager and Mrs. Ethel Miller.

Miss Earhart, had indeed, been the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean – only as a passenger and not a pilot. With Wilbur Stultz at the controls and Louis Gordon as “mechanic”, Amelia’s sole job had been to take notes about the trip. Their plane, the “Friendship” flight had begun in Boston June 3rd but fog and bad weather had delayed completion of the flight until June 17-18th. When the trio arrived back home in New York, it was Amelia that was star of the show. (She would, of course, eventually become the first woman to pilot an airplane across the Atlantic – a feat she wouldn’t complete until 1932).

But Chrysler’s claims that she became the new Plymouth’s spokesperson are highly questionable. Despite “introducing” this new make of automobile, there is not a single piece of photographic or newspaper evidence to substantiate the claim. When the car made its debut at the Simons, Stewart & Foy dealership (Byron Foy just happened to be Walter Chrysler’s son-in-law), Miss Earhart and crew had not yet returned to New York City. They wouldn’t arrive until the next day, July 6 aboard the steamship “Roosevelt”. On Saturday, the 7th when the new Plymouth made its grand appearance in Madison Square Garden—the crew of the “Friendship” was being entertained elsewhere in the city. Monday, July 9th found the crew back in Boston, where their flight had originated – and it wasn’t until Wednesday, July 11th that the crew was honored at a luncheon at Madison Square Garden, a reception sponsored by the Chrysler Corporation. During the luncheon, the papers noted “Miss Earhart was presented with a blue roadster” – existing photos show Amelia with a Chrysler roadster, rather than with a Plymouth.

2,400 miles away, in Turlock, California, Ethel Miller probably followed the news of Miss Earhart’s adventures, as did the rest of the nation…still not realizing how her own path would soon cross with Walter Chrysler and the Plymouth Division of Chrysler Corporation. Or could it have been Amelia’s endorsement of the new Plymouth that prompted Ethel to buy one of her own???

Ethel Erdine Lorraine Davis was born in Indiana on February 25, 1884. Little is known of her early life except that she married a man named Miller (there is some speculation the name may have originally been spelled Muller but was eventually changed to Miller)– regardless of the spelling, it would appear it was a difficult marriage. They had three children, born between 1907 and 1913 and lived in Rushville, Indiana. As the marriage deteriorated, Ethel became increasingly concerned over the welfare of her children, so in 1918, at age 34, she packed up Mildred, Frank and Marguarette and headed west to Del Ray, California – a rather daring move for a woman in that day and age. She found a job in a bakery in Fresno. Her father William eventually followed her to California to help in the raising of the children. She moved to Turlock in 1933, where she managed the Hotel St. Elmo for about four years. Her family tells of her leaving her apartment door open, so late comers could wake her up when they needed a room.

How or when Ethel became a Plymouth owner is unclear. Had she bought the car new or used? The car she owned was a 1928 Model Q Deluxe Coupe – a fancy looking affair with a non-folding cloth top that made it look like a convertible, with landau bars and a rumble seat. Although the Plymouth was introduced in mid-year 1928, Chrysler Corporation intended it to be considered a 1929 model. In later years, the Corporation found it much easier to peg a “1928” year on all Model Q’s, although they had been sold new in both 1928 and 1929.

Sometime prior to August of 1934, Ethel took the car to the local Plymouth Agency – Stierlen & Tell, for service work. It was during this routine servicing that a startling discovery was made. Carl Tell was quoted in a November 10, 1964 Turlock Journal historical edition article, “while in the process of servicing the car, we noticed the serial number, called the factory in Detroit and they sent out a man to look at it. It had originally been sold in Fresno.” The factory rep confirmed that it was, indeed, the first Plymouth ever built.

From that point on, things began to snowball. Plymouth Division was fast approaching a milestone of building its one millionth car. Mystery surrounds how Ethel learned that Plymouth was going to build its one millionth car but according to the August 9, 1934 edition of The Detroit Free Press, Ethel had sent a telegram to Walter Chrysler, asking him “please reserve the millionth car for me”. The same issue of the paper featured a 3-column photo of Walter Chrysler at the wheel of the One Millionth Plymouth, waving to workers in the plant, as he drove the milestone car out of the factory.

The building of the One Millionth Plymouth in just six years of production had set an industry record. No company had ever built one million cars in as short a time period as had Plymouth. It had taken Henry Ford twelve years to build a million—and rival Chevrolet had taken nine years. But that was not the end of the story.

Ethel Miller was not in Detroit to see the building of her record setting car. There were stronger attractions in Turlock that kept her at home, as recorded by the Turlock Daily Journal, in its August 16th edition, under a banner reading “Turlock Woman One In A Million”. In brief, the article read “Mrs. Ethel Miller, manager of the St. Elmo hotel here, is one woman in a million. And if you doubt that statement, ask Walter P. Chrysler, automobile producer. Because Mrs. Miller, owner of the first Plymouth car built, has ordered the millionth vehicle which rolled off the assembly line a few days ago.

Walter P. Chrysler and 1 millionth Plymouth.
Walter P. Chrysler at the wheel of the One Millionth Plymouth - Lynch Road Assembly Plant, Detroit - August 8, 1934

Proof of the fact that Chrysler considers the Turlock woman as one in a million lies in the invitation to attend, as his guest, ceremonies to be held celebrating the construction of the millionth Chrysler Plymouth car. Mrs. Miller was asked by Chrysler to make the trip east by airplane and to be his guest during the celebration.

Not only was this a “one in a million” affair—it was a once in a lifetime opportunity…but Ethel turned down the invitation! As the Journal put it, the Tenth Annual Melon Festival proved to be the “brighter star”. Regardless, Ethel wired Chrysler “to be sure and reserve the millionth Plymouth.”

With much fan-fare, the One Millionth Plymouth was driven off the assembly line by Walter Chrysler, surrounded by other high ranking corporate executives. Then it was shipped for display to the Chrysler Pavilion at the “Century of Progress Exhibition” in Chicago – the great Chicago World’s Fair, where it would be viewed by thousands of fair goers.

It wouldn’t be until August 27th that the Turlock Daily Journal would report Ethel was preparing to leave for Chicago, driving her Plymouth, but not until the following Tuesday. Turlock city officials planned to mark the occasion with a “send off” from the city office “just before noon on Tuesday.” The paper indicated Ethel’s travel plans were to go directly to San Francisco, then to Sacramento, where plans were being made for a ceremony at the State Capitol Building…then off through Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City and St. Louis.

The Journal’s August 31st edition read “With a smiling woman at the wheel, a small coupe rolled out of Turlock Tuesday. Mrs. Ethel Miller, owner of the first Plymouth automobile ever built, had started her trek to the Century of Progress in Chicago at the wheel of the same car, built in 1928, to take delivery of the millionth. Before her departure, Mrs. Miller was honored by a gathering of city notables in front of the city offices to wish her a good journey. Mayor J. W. Guy, Chief of Police E. W. Gaddy, Roy M. Day, president of the Chamber of Commerce, Harry Villinger, secretary of the chamber, C. K. Sanders and newspaper men were among those present.”

Mayor Guy presented Ethel with a letter to Walter P. Chrysler, who was to make delivery of the new car in person. “My old Plymouth runs fine,” said Mrs. Miller, “but I thought it would be nice to have one owned, the first and the millionth to be built.”

Exactly when Ethel Miller arrived in Chicago is unknown….no publications have been found that give a date of the event. Several photos of her and the ’28 Plymouth coupe at the Century of Progress have been discovered…and it is known that the car was not presented to her by Walter Chrysler, but rather by J. B. Wagstaff, one of Chrysler’s top executives. Also present was world famous race car driver and Chrysler spokesman, Barney Oldfield. In one photo, Ethel, Barney and the 1st and One Millionth Plymouth’s are pictured together. In a later Plymouth dealer publication, Oldfield is pictured at the wheel of the ’28 Plymouth (which had been appropriately marked the “The First Plymouth” participating in a Chicago Tribune sponsored “brake safety check”. The first Plymouth (as have been all Plymouth’s), featured hydraulic brakes—something many cars of that era, such as Ford and Chevrolet, didn’t have. In another, smaller photo in the same publication, a woman her family has identified as Ethel, also appears driving the car in the “brake check safety lane”.

It wouldn’t be until October 6th that the Turlock Times made note of Ethel’s arrival back in town, under the headline “Turlock Woman Returns Home in Millionth Plymouth From Chicago”. According to the paper, Ethel said she was “glad to be home and still thrilled over the trip.” She revealed that Barney Oldfield had “figured prominently” in the presentation ceremony by driving the first Plymouth around the track and performing stunts with it in the sand pit where his “hell drivers” daily staged their shows (and where fair goers could actually ride around the Chrysler Pavilion race track in a car driven by one of Oldfield’s “Hell Drivers”!)

After taking delivery of the new car, a 1934 Model PE Deluxe Plymouth four door sedan, Ethel had traveled on to Detroit, visited Eastern and Southern states, the Grand Gorge and Grand Canyon as well as crossed both the Mojave Desert and Death Valley. “It was a perfectly wonderful trip,” Ethel was quoted by the paper, “and everyone was so nice, especially the Chrysler people in Chicago.”

There was one small fact that either Ethel did not report to the paper, or simply kept to herself….she had requested she be given first chance when the Two Millionth Plymouth came off the assembly line.

Ethel Meets Barney Oldfield.
Ethel Meets Barney Oldfield.

By now, the story of Ethel Miller was beginning to take on a life of its own. I simply had to find out what I could about her…..but where to start? My first thoughts turned to those people who would probably know something about her…each year Turlock is home to a large car show and swap meet….I wrote to the Modesto Area A’s Club, sponsors of the Turlock meet….but no one answered my inquiries. Showing the few photos I had of Ethel with the various Plymouth’s I asked everyone “how old do you think she is in these photos?” The answers ranged from the mid-twenties into the sixties! Given the dates of the various events, I established a “probability time line” -- if Ethel had been born in the 1880’s, she would be “X” number of years old in this photo – or if in the 1890’s, she would be THIS age. Then I decided to apply this “theory” to the Social Security Death Records, assuming she had probably already gone to her final resting place. Hampered by not knowing her age, or social security number, I bravely tackled that line of thinking….only to find 1,471 Ethel Miller’s listed, a list I could narrow down to 82 “possibles” in the state of California. And I had one other nagging possibility – what if she had re-married and was no longer Ethel MILLER?

Sunday, December 6, 1936 -- The Detroit Free Press
"Plymouth On Its Way to Third Million - car no. 2,000,000 is on Way West"

Read the headline. Once again, Ethel Miller was about to become the owner of yet another record breaking Plymouth. Under a 3-column photo of the Two Millionth Plymouth was the caption “A new production record for the automobile industry was established last week as the 2,000,000th Plymouth car rolled off the final assembly line only eight years after the first Plymouth was built.” The article accompanying the photo revealed “One California motorist obtained delivery of a new automobile in Detroit last week a full year sooner than expected. The motorist is Mrs. Nobel Ethel Miller of Turlock, Calif. She is now enroute back to the Pacific Coast in the 2,000,000th Plymouth car, for which she has had her order on file since 1934.

The order was placed at that time when she drove here in the first Plymouth ever built, and turned it in on car no. 1,000,000—just six years after the original Plymouth was produced.

Plymouth officials advised Mrs. Miller last month, when the 2,000,000th appeared on factory schedules for November. The California woman again drove across country and turned in her Plymouth No. 1,000,000 the same day the two-millionth car came off the assembly line. In brief ceremonies at the auto plant here, executives announced a new record had been set for the automotive industry.”

Although the event took place in late November 1936, the car was actually a 1937 Model P4 Deluxe four door sedan – a car that was “dark blue in color”, according to family recollections.

Two millionth Plymouth comes off assembly line.
Two millionth Plymouth comes off assembly line.

After all these years, what did I really know about Ethel Miller? She had owned three milestone Plymouths, her middle initial was “L”, she had managed the St. Elmo Hotel in Turlock (which had long ago burned down) and for a time in 1938 lived at the Vincent Apartments, which was now a parking lot... ...

I had the license plate numbers of the three cars she owned, but unless California DMV records still existed, they wouldn’t tell me much more that which cars Chrysler had considered to be # 1, # 1,000,000 and # 2,000,000. I still had one avenue to pursue, one for some reason that I kept putting off……what could the local newspapers tell me?

I finally ordered microfilm copies of the Turlock papers, scouring them for more information than I already had. If it wasn’t for the photos, I was beginning to think “Mrs. Ethel L. Miller” had never existed. I researched every Turlock paper from 1933 through the early part of 1937. I read every society column, every listing of officers in every service club---but there was no “Ethel Miller”. I ever scoured the local “police court” listings, all to no avail. “My” Mrs. Miller had by now become “The Mysterious Mrs. Miller”.

Oh yes – what about the lead of Mrs. NOBEL Ethel Miller? It, too, proved to be a false turn in the road... ... ...

June 2003 - Ethel Miller- Found at Last!

As various people continued to help in the search for the elusive Mrs. Miller, I got an e-mail “out of the blue” – it was from Ray Estrada, a reporter for the Turlock Journal. Mr. Estrada had seen one of my internet stories on Mrs. Miller and offered to help. It sounded like an intriguing story and could I send him more information, he asked…..I immediately fired off a three page reply, filled with the various bits of information I had managed to collect over the past 13 years. When Ray saw what I had, he was almost ready to give up, thinking the story was much too cold, with too little information to go on.

It took a little bit of urging but I told him I’d been on “wilder goose chases” with amazing results—and he agreed to run the story. It “hit the presses” on page C8 of the Saturday, June 21, 2003 edition. Filling nearly a full page, with two large photos – one of Ethel with Frank Stierlen prior to her departure for Chicago with Car No. One, the other of Walter Chrysler with the One Millionth Car in Detroit, the banner read “Plymouth Car Lovers Search For Turlock Woman”.

Surely if anyone in Turlock knew her or was related to her, this story should finally unlock the mysteries of Ethel Miller... well, almost...

Three days after the story appeared, Ray e-mailed me again with this message:

Delores Kirkes in Turlock says Ethel Miller was her husband’s grandmother…included in the message was the Kirkes’ phone number.

Laurel Doud, reference librarian with the Peninsula Library System in San Jose, who had been invaluable in the search, once asked me “how are you going to feel, once you’ve found her? Will there be relief….or will there be a let down?” As I picked up the telephone to make the call, I wasn’t sure what the answer was going to be…..there was still one more strange twist to the story. Roger and Delores Kirkes don’t get the Turlock Journal! It was a neighbor who saw the story and remarked to them “Isn’t that your Grandmother?”

I missed the Kirkes’ first phone call to me. Like many people I have researched in the past, they were more than a little amazed a stranger from out of nowhere had spent so much time and effort trying to locate someone they knew so well. But, as in the past, they were most gracious in sharing what little information they actually had on her. As I had suspected early in the search, Ethel had remarried – in fact, she had been married four times, twice to the same man. And as I had also suspected, Ethel had long since passed away.

Throughout all those years, she never left Turlock, where she died on December 15, 1967. Interred at Turlock Memorial Park, she had passed away almost half a year before I first become aware of her and her three milestone Plymouths. Despite my reading the society columns and not finding any reference to her, Ethel had been a member of the Turlock Woman’s Club, the Turlock Senior Citizens and the Eastern Star.

Ethel’s three children were also deceased so remaining family members know very little about her or her early life. Her youngest child, Marguarette “Maggie” met Neil Kirkes while they were living at the St. Elmo. They married and had three sons, Roger, Gary and Michael. In 1949 Neil started his own electrical business working out of a shed behind their home. His sons followed him in the business which today is operated by his grandsons.

To the family, she had not been “Ethel Miller” but “Ethel Winzler”, her last married name—but was affectionately known by all as “Grandma Winzler”.

Now that she had been located, I spent the better part of one night e-mailing all those many people who had helped in the search (and research). The e-mails were all titled the same -- “Ethel Miller – Found At Last!”

Miller with Turlock, CA Plymouth dealer Frank Stierlen and the two millionth Plymouth.
Miller with Turlock, CA Plymouth dealer Frank Stierlen
and the two millionth Plymouth.

Number Three Million - Not Quite!

And why didn’t she get the Three Millionth Plymouth when it was built in 1939? No one really knows for sure – except the family has heard tales that Chrysler Corporation was no longer interested in the California woman with the Milestone Plymouths. By 1939, Walter Chrysler was no longer taking an active part in management of the Corporation. He had “retired” from active corporate affairs in 1935 and was taken ill by 1938. Although he would live until 1940, the nameplate he had brought to market and nurtured through its early years, would be allowed to slowly “wither on the vine and die”.

Disgruntled with the Corporation’s rebuff, Ethel eventually moved on to other makes of cars—one of her last cars was a Pontiac.

The End of Plymouth

From its beginning, Plymouth had enjoyed amazing sales growth. By 1931, it had risen to be the third best selling automobile in the country. During 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, it was the only make of automobile in the United States to see an increase in sales, and for the next quarter of a century, it would be the third best selling automobile in the world. Plymouth’s voyage (its emblem had been the ship The Mayflower, which the Pilgrims first came to America in) came to end at 10:00 a.m. on June 28, 2001 when the last Plymouth, a silver Neon LX four door came off the Belvidere, Illinois assembly line. The very last Plymouth was sold to Darrell Davis, a retired Chrysler executive living in Florida who requested to purchase the LAST Plymouth when it was announced the marque was going to be discontinued. When the last Plymouth came off the line Automotive News, a modern day industry journal remarked that “Plymouth joins other retirees in Florida”.

The Plymouth Owners Club featured “the last Plymouth” in its September 2001 issue of “The Plymouth Bulletin” – before the mystery of Ethel Miller had been solved. In that story I wrote “Ethel Miller, you had the FIRST Plymouth. Where are you now? Somehow it seems only right that the last one should have been yours as well...”

What became of Ethel Miller’s 1928 Model Q “Number One” Plymouth has never been answered. Over the years, one single photo of the car continued to appear in Plymouth advertising or promotion pieces. Nor are the whereabouts of the 1934 “One Millionth” Plymouth or the 1937 “Two Millionth” Plymouth known. Today, DaimlerChrysler displays a car similar to the Number One Car in the Walter P. Chrysler Museum at Auburn Hills, Michigan. They are adamant the car is NOT the number one car – and a check of its serial number by this writer verified that fact. A long time, now retired Chrysler executive told me this particular car was acquired from a college student in the 1960’s. The car was restored some years ago in a burgundy and black paint scheme with tan canvas top.

Somehow, I can just picture Ethel L. Miller (Winzler) driving a car just that color combination. Always nattily attired in any photos of her, it would seemingly fit her personality. Her family has fond memories of “Grandma” Winzler….I wish I could have met her.