Walker Manufacturing Company History

Address:
111 Pfingsten Road
Deerfield, Illinois 60015
U.S.A.

Telephone: (847) 940-6013
Fax: (847) 267-8363

Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Tenneco Automotive
Incorporated: 1888 as Economy Spring Company
Employees: 11,500
Sales: $1.5 billion (1995)
SICs: 3714 Motor Vehicle Parts & Accessories

Company Perspectives:

"The people of Walker are dedicated to being the global leader in our industry. We are committed to delighting our customers by exceeding their expectations through a quality process emphasizing continuous improvement. Employee involvement is our way of life. We are a team. We treat each other with trust and respect, and conduct our business in an ethical manner at all times."

Company History:

Celebrating more than a century of quality workmanship, Walker Manufacturing Company is the world's leading producer of original and aftermarket automotive exhaust systems. From horse-drawn carriages and Ford's Model T to Jaguar XJ6s and Ford Explorers, Walker's technology and success has matched the ongoing development of a society wholly dependent on motorized vehicles. The company operates three North American distribution centers, engineering facilities in the United States, Australia, Germany, and Japan, and 29 manufacturing operations around the globe (eight in the United States and 21 outside). By 1996 Walker's aftermarket exhaust components were utilized in an estimated 95 percent of all cars and trucks on the road, while its original exhaust parts equipped seven of the 10 best-selling passenger cars and nine of the top-selling light trucks sold nationwide.

From Farm to Auto Accessories, 1888 through the 1930s

In 1885 engineers Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were independently building internal combustion engines in Germany. Some believe Siegfried Narkus constructed a four-wheeled motorized vehicle as early as 1875. Regardless, the late 1880s found many like-minded inventors perfecting "horseless" carriages--while a seemingly unrelated business, the Economy Spring Company, began operating in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1888. Although there was no discernible connection between these events, their futures were inescapably linked.

At Economy Spring, four employees were occupied making springs for horse-drawn farm wagons and by year's end brought in $12,000 in sales. When the company introduced a new product--a harrow attachment for plows (for breaking up dirt, rooting up weeds, or covering seeds)--it proved so popular Economy Spring hired an additional 36 workers to keep up with demand. On the automotive front, Rudolf Diesel patented his internal combustion engine, Krebs designed the Panhard (a gasoline or petrol-powered auto), and Benz tested his four-wheeled motor car in Germany in 1894. In the United States, while Economy Spring's 40 workers continued to produce farm implements, the nation slipped into financial panic that lasted for four years. Untouched by the crisis, Economy Spring was generating revenue of over $75,000 annually.

After the turn of the century, demand for motorized automobiles grew worldwide. Economy Spring, meanwhile, was still thriving as a non-automotive company. When Henry Ford formed the Ford Motor Company with $100,000 in 1903 the workers at Economy Spring had no idea another crucial link in the company's evolution was put in place. Five years later, in 1908, as General Motors was formed and Ford sold its first Model T (15 million were later sold), William A. Walker, along with his twin sons, Willard and Warren, gained controlling interest in Economy Spring and were determined to make the growing company into what they called a "Walker Operation."

In 1912 Willard Walker met John Dwight of the Mitchell Motor Company on a Chicago-bound train. Before reaching the Windy City the two agreed that Walker's company would design and produce a "tire saver" to hold stored automobiles up off their slight tires during the winter when few were driven because of snow and ice. The "tire saver," which later became better known as a "jack," was Economy Spring's entry into the burgeoning automobile industry. Within four years the Walkers' jack factory employed 400 workers, and the company's name was officially changed from Economy Spring to Walker Manufacturing.

During the next decade, Henry Ford had revolutionized production by using an assembly line and sold his 10-millionth car, the United States entered and won the First World War, and Walker Manufacturing flourished selling jacks. In 1929 the company bought Ajax Auto Parts and became one of the nation's largest jack manufacturers. Yet suddenly Walker, like the rest of the country, was thrown into the Depression. To keep the company alive, Walker diversified into other automobile accessories, including a "silencer" to reduce back-pressure and bring exhaust noise to a minimum. To help design the new product, Walker hired an engineer named Earl Gunn away from the Nash Motor Company.

Previous silencers were thin tin contraptions barely worth their weight, but Walker and Gunn built one with a louvered or ventilated tube that churned exhaust fumes in one direction within the silencer. This effectively lowered back-pressure on the engine and muffled the auto's noise--earning the name "muffler." The louvered muffler was more than an industry first--for it not only put Walker Manufacturing in the forefront of exhaust system engineering, but was just the first of many innovations to come.

By 1931 world car production had reached 36 million, a virtually unlimited source of income for Walker. The following year, amidst rampant unemployment (13.7 million in the United States), Walker patented its technological marvel, the louvered muffler, and set out to equip the nation's many vehicles with them.

Mufflers Become a Way of Life, 1940s through the 1960s

The early 1940s brought World War II, gasoline rationing, and freezes on wages, salaries, and pricing--and a first for Walker with the debut of the company's stainless steel muffler. After the War, price controls were lifted, and Walker Manufacturing continued to modify and improve its automobile exhaust systems. The company's next breakthrough came in 1953 with the introduction of the first aluminized steel muffler, at a time when the United States accounted for a mere six percent of the world's population yet owned 60 percent of the world's automobiles.

Walker's success in making cars run smoother and better not only gave the company its mainstay, but helped automakers sell their wares to an increasingly four-wheel-bound society. After the aluminized steel muffler came further muffler tinkering, this time an innovation called "Individual Tuning" which added specially designed sound chambers to the company's original mufflers. The technology that led to Individual Tuning soon evolved into "Precision" tuning for vehicles with higher compression, larger engines, and automatic transmissions.

The dawn of the 1960s found Americans and the rest of the world concerned about pollution, especially exhaust emissions from cars and trucks. The company initiated work on emission-control devices in conjunction with the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board and in 1962 came out with crankcase parts, the forefather of catalytic converters. The following year Walker produced catalytic reactor systems for new vehicles and in 1964 perfected the devices while coming out with another industry first--the chambered pipe. Chambered pipes--pipes connecting the manifold to the exhaust outlet that were filled with small tuning cells at different intervals--greatly enhanced acoustical performance.

By 1966 U.S. passenger car registrations reached 78 million, along with 16 million trucks and buses. Walker's mechanical wizardry was a part of millions of vehicles and had attracted the attention of Tenneco Inc. A worldwide conglomerate primarily known for its gasoline stations throughout the United States, Tenneco acquired Walker in 1967. With Tenneco's backing and extensive resources, Walker's future seemed assured, and the company continued to place further emphasis on acoustical engineering and its relationship to automobile exhaust systems. To this end, Walker opened a new research facility in Grass Lake, Michigan, with state-of-the-art equipment and testing grounds.

Catalytic Converters and Beyond, 1970s and 1980s

In the late 1970s Walker's continued concern for pollution control led to the design of a reasonably priced catalytic converter to fit all car models. Parent company Tenneco made a move at this time to purchase Monroe Auto Equipment (ride control systems) as a complimentary business to Walker. The two were paired and spun off as Tenneco Automotive in 1977, and shortly thereafter Walker established a formal working relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This partnership helped produce the first universal catalytic converter in 1978, especially useful when emissions standards became more restrictive at the end of the decade.

In 1984 the company introduced the Walker Advantage muffler with Absorbite, and this product brought the Walker name firmly into the limelight. After trademarking its latest technology, Walker's design teams produced another breakthrough in 1987 with the debut of the DynoMax Performance Exhaust line. In 1988 Walker celebrated 100 years of business, marking its dominance of the design, engineering, production, and sales of automobile exhaust systems including catalytic converters, mufflers, tubular manifolds, pipes and entire stainless steel exhaust systems.

Onward and Upward, the 1990s

The early 1990s brought headway in Walker's design of an electronic muffler. In 1991 the company joined forces with NCTI (Noise Cancellation Technologies Inc.) to develop and produce electronic mufflers using NCTI's "anti-noise" sound waves. Twenty percent smaller than their predecessors, the electronic mufflers encouraged the formation of anti-noise sound waves to cancel out about 80 percent of the overall noise while simultaneously increasing fuel efficiency (up to six percent in the city). By the end of the year Walker's sales balanced out as 65 percent in aftermarket parts and accessories and 35 percent new products installation.

The company closed 1992 with sales of over $850 million and nearly 6,100 employees worldwide. Over the next few years Walker continued its worldwide expansion and experienced its share of triumphs and setbacks. One example of the latter came in 1994 when the company's plant in Hebron, Ohio, the largest of its 11 North American plants, was forced to close after Ford took its tailpipe and muffler needs in-house. On the upside, in 1994 Walker acquired Products for Power Inc. and Germany's Gillet Group (the Continent's largest exhaust system manufacturer and aftermarket supplier) and bought Perfection Automotive Products Corp. of Livonia, Michigan, and Spain's Manufacturas Fonos S.L. in 1995. Walker also began a 60,000-square-foot addition to its Litchfield, Michigan, plant in response to a higher volume of business from Honda and General Motors.

With international operations already established in Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Mexico, and South Africa, at the end of the summer of 1996, Walker was poised to conquer the South American automotive industry. South America's runaway inflation had reached its lowest point in 40 years, and new car and light truck sales were booming, when Walker took over Argentina's Minuzzi, headquartered in Buenos Aires, and renamed it Walker Argentina. Minuzzi's extensive exhaust operations, the second largest in the country, serviced several high profile customers including General Motors, Mercedes, and Volkswagen. Then Walker moved into sibling Monroe's facility in Mogi Mirim, Brazil, to manufacture and supply catalytic converters and exhaust systems for Volkswagen. Both South American operations, Walker Exhaust Systems do Brasil and Walker Argentina, joined the growing replacement market with plans to forge a combined 200 percent growth spurt by the year 2000.

Another boon came in the fall of 1996 when Walker's long relationship with Ford Motor Company took another upswing in the form of an exclusive contract to manufacture stainless steel exhaust pipes and mufflers for the auto giant. Ford also figured in Walker's international sales dominance, as Walker Australia, once in danger of losing its grip on the country's exhaust systems production, had come back with a vengeance to handle all exhaust systems manufacturing for Toyota and Mitsubishi, and a majority of Nissan's and Ford's as well. Another new agreement named Walker as the exhaust systems supplier for a new Saturn sedan, scheduled for introduction in 1999.

Additionally in 1996, Walker acquired the heavy duty truck exhaust operations of Stemco Inc. (a division of Coltec Industries) and entered into a joint venture with China's Jinzhou Automotive to gain a firmer hold of the Asian market. Walker's extensive international operations--including technical centers linked by a state-of-the-art computer system--now consisted of four facilities in the United Kingdom; three each in France and Germany; two in Australia; and one each in Argentina, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, and Sweden.

For the award-winning $1.5-billion exhaust systems manufacturer, the future seemed bright. Walker had conquered the auto exhaust systems market; one in every four mufflers sold worldwide was a Walker product. As the 21st century neared, the company continued to research acoustical performance, corrosion testing, and a host of other product line improvements to maintain its dominance.

Principal Divisions:AB-Starla Werken (Sweden); Dalian Walker Gillet Muffler Co. Ltd.; ETS R. Bellanger S.A. (France); Finnwalker OY (Finland); Harmo Industries Ltd. (U.K.); Lydex A/S (Denmark); Tenneco-Walker Ltd. (U.K.); Walker Argentina; Walker Australia Pty, Ltd.; Walker Deutschland GmbH (Germany); Walker Exhaust Systems do Brasil.

Further Reading:

  • "Ford Selects Walker for Exhaust," American Metal Market, September 23, 1996, p. 4.
  • "On the Road to a Quieter Engine," Construction Equipment, September 15, 1991, p. 10.
  • "Tenneco Automotive Launches Major Expansion in South America," PR Newswire, August 20, 1996.
  • "Tenneco Unit in Argentina (Walker Manufacturing Acquires Minuzzi)," New York Times, August 21, 1996, p. D2.
  • Vasilash, Gary S., "Lessons from a Leader," Production, January 1993, pp. 32-40.
  • "Walker...100 Years of Leadership," Walker Manufacturing Company, 1989.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 19. St. James Press, 1998.