Forward Looking: Chrysler’s Early Fifties Transformation, Part 1

THE ARRIVAL OF VIRGIL EXNER

K.T. Keller was not oblivious to the widespread criticism of Chrysler styling, nor was he unconcerned. In the short term, the problem was not that a lack of design pizzazz was hurting sales — it wasn’t, at least not yet — but that it might send a dangerous message to Chrysler’s investors and potential investors, suggesting that the company itself was becoming moribund.

Only six months after introducing some of the industry’s most conservatively styled cars, Keller took the unusual step of hiring the man responsible for one of Detroit’s most radical recent designs: Virgil M. Exner, Sr., designer of the 1947 Studebaker.

Virgil Exner was originally from Michigan, but he began his career as an advertising artist for a firm in South Bend, Indiana that did work for Studebaker. In 1934, he joined GM’s Art & Colour department, eventually becoming head of the Pontiac studio. In 1938, he was lured away to join Raymond Loewy Associates, which had just landed a major contract with Studebaker.

In 1944, Studebaker chief engineer Roy Cole and chairman Harold Vance persuaded Exner to create his own design for the first postwar Studebaker, without Loewy’s knowledge or authorization. As soon as Loewy found out, Exner was fired and went to work for Studebaker directly. The design he created debuted in the spring of 1946 as the ’47 Studebaker, immediately drawing both acclaim and mockery for its futuristic, slab-sided styling and the dramatic wraparound rear glass of the two-door Starlight coupe, a frequent subject of mirth for popular comedians like Jack Benny.

1947 Studebaker Commander Regal DeLuxe three-passenger coupe side view © 2008 T442163 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
In business coupe form, the 1947 Studebaker’s styling is more subdued than on the controversial Starlight coupe, but either way, it was an advanced design for the time. The Studebaker’s long tail was designed to accommodate a rear engine, something that was seriously considered during the car’s development, but not adopted; the production car had a conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout. (Photo: “08-OL 051721” © 2008 T442163; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Exner remained a Studebaker employee for about four and a half years, but in 1949, Cole, about to retire, suggested that Exner look elsewhere. That summer, Exner accepted an offer from K.T. Keller to become the director of Chrysler’s new advanced styling studio.

In that capacity, Exner initially had no direct involvement with Chrysler’s production cars. His task was to develop drivable concept cars along the lines of the Newport and Thunderbolt: not starry-eyed dream machines like GM’s later Motorama show cars (although Chrysler would eventually build its share of those), but idea cars whose themes could inspire future production models.

1941 Chrysler Newport phaeton front 3q © 2009 Rex Gray (CC BY 2.0 Generic) modified by Aaron Severson
One of the models for Virgil Exner’s early work in the Chrysler advanced studio was the original 1940 Chrysler Newport, a dual-cowl phaeton designed by Ralph Roberts of Briggs and built by LeBaron (by then owned by Briggs) through 1941. Chrysler ordered six of these cars (along with six of the Thunderbolt retractable hardtop, designed by Briggs’ Alex Tremulis) for promotional use; one paced the 1941 Indianapolis 500. The Newport was undoubtedly the inspiration for Exner and Cliff Voss’ 1952 Parade Phaetons, which in turn became the basis for the 1955 Chryslers and Imperials. (Photo: “1941 Chrysler LeBaron Newport – fvr” © 2009 Rex Gray; modified 2012 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

Exner’s new role was an interesting study in compromise. Given his previous experience, it was arguably a step down, but it gave him a level of autonomy that no other Chrysler stylist enjoyed. The fact that his designs were not intended for production (although Keller wanted them to be production-feasible) would also help defuse the inevitable resistance from Engineering and make it possible for Exner to explore new ideas without being immediately shot down. More importantly, Exner’s concept cars would help to show Chrysler’s critics that the company still had blood in its veins.

CARROZZERIA GHIA

Although Exner would hire his own staff, including Maury Baldwin, Henry Peterson, Ted Pietsch, and former Kaiser-Frazer stylist Cliff Voss, they would also have support from overseas: the craftsmen of Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin.

Shortly after the end of the war, Vittorio Valletta, president of the Italian automaker Fiat, had engaged Chrysler to advise Fiat on modern manufacturing techniques; there was even some (ultimately abortive) discussion of shared production. During those talks, C.B. Thomas, president of Chrysler Export, had become acquainted with Fiat sales manager Luigi Gajal de la Chenaye, who remarked that northern Italy had an abundance of talented coachbuilders for whom work was sadly lacking; the devastated Italian economy in no position to absorb many expensive coachbuilt cars. In 1950, at Gajal’s suggestion, Thomas decided to approach Carrozzeria Farina and Carrozzeria Ghia, providing each with a new Chrysler chassis and specifications for custom bodywork, which would be shipped back to Detroit for evaluation.

Ghia, founded in 1915 as Carrozzeria Ghia & Gariglio, had recently come through a difficult transitional period. The Ghia works in Turin had been decimated by an Allied air raid in 1943 and the founder, Giacinto Ghia, had died early the following year. Control of the company subsequently passed to designer Felice Mario Boano, who in 1948 hired Luigi Segre as managing director, allowing Boano to focus on design work.

Boano took the Chrysler project very seriously — the prospect of an entrée to the big American automakers was undoubtedly enticing — and asked Thomas for permission to deviate from the specified design. The result was the XX-500, a four-door sedan riding a long-wheelbase Plymouth P23 platform, with bodywork inspired by an award-winning design Boano had created a year or so earlier for the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500.

1954 Chrysler Ghia GS-1 Ghia badge
The emblem of Carrozzeria Ghia, seen on a 1954 Chrysler Ghia GS-1. (author photo)

Virgil Exner, who evaluated the Italian submissions, was not particularly inspired by the styling of the XX-500, but that had never really been the point. The object of the exercise was to see what sort of quality and workmanship the Italian design houses were capable of producing and how much it might cost. In these areas, Ghia’s entry scored highly, actually somewhat better than Pinin Farina’s.

Segre and Boano subsequently came to Detroit to meet with Keller and Exner. Paul Farago, owner of a local sports car shop (and a talented engineer in his own right), was enlisted as an interpreter. A deal was soon struck and the Plymouth XX-500 was exhibited at the Chicago Auto Show later that year.

With some exceptions, Chrysler would make little use of Ghia’s styling talents. Most of the cars Ghia built for Chrysler were designed either in the advanced studio or occasionally at Exner’s home in Birmingham, Michigan. Three-eighths-scale plaster models were then shipped to Turin to be translated into full-size cars. However, Ghia was capable of building complete one-off cars for a fraction of what it have would cost to construct the same car in Chrysler’s own prototype shop, even factoring in the transatlantic shipping costs. Ghia would eventually build more than two dozen idea cars for Chrysler.

CHRYSLER’S HEMI V8

While Exner and his small staff were designing Chrysler’s first postwar concept cars, the company’s Engine Development & Testing lab, headed since 1943 by William E. Drinkard and Mel Carpentier, was working on Chrysler’s first postwar engine.

During World War II, Chrysler developed V8, V12, and V16 engine designs for the Army, although none got past the prototype stage and work on a new production engine didn’t begin in earnest until the war was over. Although Chrysler had explored a variety of exotic alternatives back in the late thirties, Drinkard, Carpentier, and their staff ultimately followed what was fast becoming standard practice: a short-stroke, overhead valve V8, which offered better breathing, lower piston speeds, and the potential for higher compression ratios than existing long-stroke L-head engines. Chrysler departed from the orthodox in only one major respect: the use of hemispherical combustion chambers.

Chrysler XIV-2220 engine
One of Chrysler’s first V-type engines was the XIV-2220, an inverted, water-cooled V16 developed for the Army Air Forces during World War II. The engine didn’t actually fly until July 1945, when prototypes were mounted in a pair of Republic P-47D Thunderbolts (re-designated XP-47H for this duty), and was abandoned because the rapid development of jet engines threatened to make the V16 obsolete before it entered service. (Public domain U.S. Army Air Forces photo circa 1943, from the 2220 file of the National Archives; resized and changed file formats 2013 by Aaron Severson)

As its name implies, a hemispherical combustion chamber is as close to spherical in shape as possible, with cross-flow valves set at very large included angles. Such a layout offers several significant advantages for spark-fired engines: The hemispherical shape minimizes combustion chamber surface area, reducing heat loss through the chamber walls, while the valve placement allows larger valves and improves airflow into and out of the chamber. Better thermal and volumetric efficiency improve power and reduce fuel consumption. In principle, hemispherical combustion chambers also allow a centrally located spark plug, reducing flame travel (the distance from the spark plug electrode to the richest part of the mixture) and thus decreasing the risk of detonation. However, in practice — particularly with cam-in-block engines — central spark plug placement is often sacrificed for better valve placement.

Against these advantages are levied some serious drawbacks. Hemispherical combustion chambers make an engine’s cylinder heads significantly bulkier and heavier, in part because the heads must be wider and/or taller to accommodate the widely splayed valves. The valve positions also make the valvegear more complicated, typically requiring either multiple camshafts or a convoluted array of pushrods, rocker shafts, and rocker arms. Those factors make engines with hemispherical combustion chambers significantly costlier than many alternative OHV designs — enough to limit the layout’s popularity to pricier makes (like Alfa Romeo, Duesenberg, and Stutz) or applications that put a high priority on specific output. Hemispherical combustion chambers had been used for some race cars since before World War I and had been commonplace for aircraft engines since around 1918.

1958 Alfa Romeo Giulietta engine
One of the leading proponents of hemispherical combustion chambers was Alfa Romeo, which first adopted the layout (with dual overhead camshafts) around 1923. This is the 79 cu. in. (1,290 cc) DOHC four in a late-fifties Alfa Giulietta Spider, an all-aluminum engine making up to 103 gross horsepower (77 kW) in Veloce tune, along with an assortment of inspiring noises. (author photo)

The association with racing and aviation did no particular favors for the hemispherical combustion chamber’s reputation among American automotive engineers. When Chrysler started looking seriously at the layout in the mid-forties, the conventional wisdom was that hemispherical combustion chambers were poorly suited to everyday driving, with a rough idle and high octane requirements. As Chrysler engineers determined after experimenting with different head designs in 1946, neither assumption was entirely valid: The hemispherical chamber was actually less prone to detonation on low-octane fuel than many other combustion chamber designs and the rough idle of racing or aviation engines with this layout had more to do with their being tuned for maximum power than with the intrinsic characteristics of the design.

Nonetheless, when Drinkard and Carpentier’s boss, research chief James C. Zeder (the younger brother of Fred Zeder), formally presented the Hemi to the board of directors, even his brother was prepared to dismiss the idea out of hand. However, K.T. Keller thought it sounded promising and, as usual, when Keller spoke, other senior executives quickly fell in line.

CHRYSLER FIREPOWER HEMI

One of the major headaches of developing the new engine — which would be Chrysler’s first production V8 — was the valvegear. For testing purposes, the engine lab staff created a Hemi head for the existing Chrysler six, using dual overhead camshafts for valve actuation in the manner of contemporary Alfa Romeos or the forthcoming Jaguar XK engine. While the DOHC layout provided fine performance, the cost of the extra camshaft and its associated drive system was deemed prohibitive. We assume there were also maintenance issues to consider; contemporary OHC engines typically required regular and often laborious adjustment. (Hydraulic valve lash adjusters for OHC engines were still some years in the future.)

Chrysler eventually decided to stick with a conventional block-mounted camshaft actuating the valves via pushrods and rocker arms. This, too, had its costs: The position of the valves required two rocker shafts and two distinct sets of rocker arms for each cylinder head. However, this arrangement didn’t require complex cam drive gear and allowed the use of hydraulic lifters to simplify maintenance.

1951 Chrysler FirePower Hemi cutaway copyright 1951 Chrysler Historical
A cutaway diagram of the Chrysler FirePower engine shows off its hemispherical combustion chambers, widely splayed valves (included angle is 58.5 degrees), and complex valvegear. (Image circa 1951, copyright © FCA US LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

In other respects, the new engine had many general similarities to Cadillac’s new OHV V8, which was introduced for the 1949 model year. Like all Cadillac V8s since the early twenties, the Chrysler engine had a 90-degree bank angle and a split-plane crankshaft for even firing intervals. Like the Cadillac OHV engine, the Chrysler V8 even adopted “slipper” pistons with portions of the skirt cut away to enable the piston to fit between the crankshaft counterweights, allowing a shorter, stiffer cylinder block. Both engines shared a 7.5:1 compression ratio — a concession to the modest octane ratings of contemporary pump gasoline — and even had the same bore and stroke dimensions: 3 13/16 and 3 5/8 inches (96.8 and 92.1 mm) respectively. Where the two engines parted ways was in cylinder heads and valvegear. The Chrysler engine’s intake and exhaust valves were larger than the Cadillac’s — 1.81-inch (46mm) intakes and 1.50-inch (38.1mm) exhausts compared to Cadillac’s 1.75-inch (44.5mm) and 1.44-inch (36.5mm) diameters — and had dual conical valve springs to resist valve float. With a dry weight of 729 lb (331 kg) complete, the Chrysler V8 was 117 lb (53 kg) heavier than the Cadillac, due mostly to the bulkier cylinder heads. (The weight of the Cadillac engine is sometimes quoted at 699 lb/317 kg, but that is with flywheel and clutch housing.)

1951 Chrysler FirePower Hemi illustration copyright 1951 Chrysler Historical
The Chrysler FirePower engine was wider but lower and almost a foot (11.25 inches/286 mm) shorter than the L-head Spitfire Eight, weighing about 37 lb (17 kg) less. Despite the new V8’s power, Chrysler claimed the FirePower was 10% more fuel efficient than the straight-eight — still on regular gasoline — although fuel economy inevitably eroded as horsepower increased. (Image circa 1951, copyright © FCA US LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

The new V8, which Chrysler dubbed FirePower, debuted in February 1951, about two years after Cadillac’s OHV V8 and 20 years after the first eight-cylinder Chryslers. In its initial form, with a two-throat Carter WCD-8305 carburetor, the 331 cu. in. (5,425 cc) FirePower was advertised at 180 gross horsepower (134 kW) and 312 lb-ft (423 N-m) of torque. Torque output was almost the same as the Cadillac engine, whose displacement was identical, but the Chrysler engine boasted an additional 20 gross horsepower (15 kW). The difference was probably even greater than that, since the FirePower’s output was measured with accessories installed, rather than with a completely stripped engine; Speed Age magazine later estimated the actual gross output at 187 hp (139 kW). Either way, the FirePower was one of the most powerful regular production engines in the world, although with the horsepower race that ensued, Chrysler would have to fight to retain that title.

[Author’s note: As many readers are probably aware, Chrysler eventually registered the term “HEMI” as a trademark. Today, it is a registered trademark of FCA US LLC.]

31 Comments

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  1. I have been waiting for new Ate Up With Motor since last semester!

    Also, Mr. Severson, I cited some things I found in one of your Packard articles for my term paper. The paper was on the fall of Studebaker-Packard and the events leading to ERISA. I needed some supporting information on Studebaker’s purchase of Packard, so I started here and worked out to other documents. Thanks for providing a great jumping off point.

    Of course, everything was properly cited in the Chicago Manual of style approved way. Credit was given where credit was due!

    Keep up the good work!

    1. In regards to the term paper, that’s just fine. I would also invite anyone who has automotive history research questions to contact me (the contact form is the easiest way). Of course, I can’t guarantee that I’ll know the answer!

  2. Glad to (finally) see another article in your series. My comment – the picture of the 1950 Plymouth and 1952 Chrysler both appear to be “lowered” to my eyes. I compared them with photos in several books about 50s cars and it looks that way to me.

    1. They do seem to ride a little low, although given the condition of both cars, I suspect that they’ve settled on heavily worn, 50-year-old springs and shocks rather than that there’s been a deliberate attempt to lower them. It’s certainly possible, of course — the ’52 seems to be sitting on its haunches, so at some point, somebody may have been aspiring to the tail-dragger look — but it doesn’t appear that either car has gotten any mechanical attention in many years.

  3. Another wonderful article, worth the wait. Thanks Aaron.

    I had an uncle who bought a new New Yorker every year from the late 40s through 1955. In November of ’52 we were driving in his ’52 New Yorker to northern Michigan for our annual deer hunting trip. There were five of us in the New Yorker. At one point during the journey, a ’52 Cadillac Coupe de Ville started to pass us. My uncle, who was quite volatile, was not going to allow that, so he floored the New Yorker. From the back seat, 8 years old me watched the speedometer eventually reach 110 where it stopped as the Cadillac passed us. My uncle went berserk. Now, after 60 years, a question only you, Aaron, may be able to answer. Why did the New Yorker lose? Was it the superior aero-dynamics of the Cadillac? Was it weight? (our payload was probably about 400 pounds greater) Was it the Cadillac’s hydramatic transmission? Or a combination of all?

    1. That is a good question. An indicated top speed of 110 mph for the New Yorker sounds about right (if we accept that period speedometers were not exactly precise). However, I wouldn’t expect the Coupe de Ville to be significantly faster than that, discounting the minor variations between individual cars and states of tune.

      The Hydra-Matic might give the Cadillac an edge at lower speeds — say, in the 40-70 range — by making fuller use of all four gears, something Fluid-Torque didn’t really offer, but all out, I don’t know that their efficiency was that different.

      Top speed has a lot more to do with aerodynamics than with weight. I’d think that at those speeds, additional load would be more likely to increase the time it took to reach top speed than to significantly affect that terminal velocity. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the Coupe de Ville had an edge in aerodynamics. I don’t have frontal area figures for either car, but I would assume the New Yorker’s would be greater.

      The wildcard, of course, is that the Cadillac might have been modified in some way. Obviously, at this remove, we’ll never know, but it wouldn’t have been terribly difficult to add an aftermarket intake manifold and two, three, or four carburetors, just to give people fits on the highway in exactly the way you experienced.

    2. I also wonder if rear end gearing could have been different. With the 4 speed HydraMatic with its very low first gear, the Cadillac could probably get by with taller gearing in the differential, giving it an advantage at high speed.

      1. The standard axle ratio on the Cadillac was 3.36 and I believe the Chrysler was the same. However, Cadillac also catalogued a 3.07 axle in ’52, so that would be a possibility.

        I should note that the Fluid-Torque transmission also had a rather short first gear. The geared ratio in first was 3.28 and the torque converter gave 2.34:1 at stall, which gives you a maximum breakaway ratio of 7.68:1! This is why most people just started in High. Third gear was 1.61, so breakaway in High was up to 3.77:1 — perfectly adequate unless you were hauling a trailer up a hill or trying to pull a stump.

        1. Only AUWM can quote exact numbers when conversing about a race in 1952 between a Chrysler and a Cadillac. My hat is off to you, Aaron. You really know your subject.

  4. Thanks. This is another great historical article.

    I hope in the future you consider writing a historical piece about Honda. Sochiro was constantly pushing engineering forward. Hell, look at the air-cooled four-cylinder in the Honda 1300. Not necessarily a company with great styling but wonderful engineering.

    Not to be too Japan-centric, but a similar article about early Japanese Kei cars would be interesting as well.

    1. Funny you should mention that, as I’ve been seriously considering doing either the early S600/S800 or the Honda CRX.

  5. Aaron, another excellent article on a fascinating period of Chrysler history. Most forget that from around 1929 or so, Chrysler had been No. 2 of the “Big 3.” Ford was the perennial No. 3 due to its lack of any significant footprint outside the low priced field. Only at the end of this era (I believe 1953) did Chrysler slip below Ford, a realignment that would become permanent.

  6. A possible answer to Zipster’s question is that Cadillac gained 30 hp in ’52 to advertised 190 vs 180 in the Chrysler hemi. I think this was due to the addition of a 4 barrel carb in the Caddy vs 2 barrel in the MOPAR. This superior carburetion could have made all the difference in high rpm top end performance.

    1. That is true, although I wouldn’t expect the real-world difference to be quite so dramatic. Still, add to that the extra load and perhaps a sharper state of tune … hmm.

  7. This is a fascinating article on a critical point in Chrysler’s history. Today it’s hard to believe that, for many years, Chrysler had nailed down second place behind GM.

    I’ve read that there were problems with the 1953 Dodges and Plymouths regarding a decline in build quality and obvious cost-cutting. Dealers complained that the 1953 Plymouths, in particular, were cheapened compared to the 1949-52 models, which had been very well built. Contemporary road tests of both Dodges and Plymouths mentioned sloppier build quality.

    Given that this had been a Chrysler strength, one wonders why the corporation let this happen.

    1. I don’t know specifically, but looking at the figures suggests a possibility. Chrysler in general had suffered — even before the price war — because its prices were higher than direct rivals. A 1952 Dodge Coronet sedan, for example, was about $60 more than a Pontiac Chieftain Eight DeLuxe despite the Coronet’s six-cylinder engine, while a 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook Belvedere hardtop cost over $200 more than a Chevrolet Bel Air.

      List prices of the ’53 Dodge and Plymouth were cut noticeably; a ’53 Belvedere hardtop was down more than $150. A ’53 Dodge Coronet Eight cost less than a ’52 Coronet, despite the addition of the Red Ram engine — the Diplomat hardtop, for instance, was more than $240 cheaper. Since material and labor were definitely not cheaper, those savings had to come from somewhere.

  8. The photo of the black 1950 Plymouth coupe smacked me right in the face: it’s unquestionably, line for line, proportion for proportion, the inspiration for the celebrated 1953-62 Mercedes Pontons.

  9. Thanks to the several thoughful replies, I now have some insight into why the Cadillac beat the Chrysler. Following the loss, my uncle determined to buy a Lincoln, which because of the Mexican road race was purportedly the fastest American car then available. However, the Lincoln dealers would not give him what he thought was a fair trade-in and instead he bought a ’53 New Yorker.

    In another vein, when Harry and Bess Truman made their surprise trip from Kansas City to Washington D.C. in 1954, Harry drove his ’54 New Yorker. Imagine any president since then doing his own, unescorted drive across the country.

  10. I wonder whether Ford’s legendary internal dysfunctions played a bigger role in its fall to No. 3 than full market coverage. If you believe that a Sloan-style brand hierarchy is the key to success, note that between 1952 and 1955 Ford still had significant gaps relative Chrysler yet it edged ahead.

    That may partly have reflected Chrysler’s product weaknesses, particularly in 1953-54, but Ford’s win-at-all-costs price war was arguably even more important. Here is where economies of scale proved to be a crucial plus for Ford and a minus for Chrysler.

  11. [quote=Administrator]Funny you should mention that, as I’ve been seriously considering doing either the early S600/S800 or the Honda CRX. [/quote]
    Aaron, I’d be really interested in seeing an article on the S600/800.

    I owned a 1967 S600 (bought with 10,050 miles in early ’68), and used it as my daily commute in Vancouver for 18 years (albeit with several engine and differential rebuilds).

    Unlike the few S600s that were brought from Japan by US servicemen, here in Canada these cars were imported in some numbers, and were normal left-hand drive. I still have the excellent and very thorough service manual as a keepsake!

    I loved that car! With 9500 RPM redline and roller bearing crank with 4 constant velocity carbs and twin cams, and a pair of enclosed rear chain drives it was, well…. “interesting”!

  12. Well, since Chrysler built its market share by carving out chunks of a bunch of different market segments — whereas Ford was heavily dependent on the strength of the Ford brand — I wouldn’t say that the Chrysler approach was wrong.

    I would split the blame for the 1953-54 crisis between cost/price and product weakness. Plymouth, for example, didn’t offer a V-8, was less powerful than a six-cylinder Chevrolet, and didn’t have PowerFlite until late in the ’54 model year, but actually cost more — even on a strict list price basis — than a V-8 Ford.

    I think Chrysler could have partially mitigated the crisis if they’d developed an automatic transmission earlier: The lack of it was problematic for Plymouth and a serious handicap for the senior divisions. I think Keller really underestimated how significant automatic would be as a selling point (or non-selling point, as the case may be).

  13. I’ve read that another reason Keller resisted the trend to fully automatic transmissions is that he believed cars should have a clutch for better “driver control.”

    It’s also interesting to read the comments of owners in the Popular Mechanics “Owners Report” series. About 10 percent of 1954 New Yorker Deluxe owners voiced unhappiness with the styling.

    Plymouth suffered even more in the styling department. Even today, a 1953-54 Plymouth looks very dull and dowdy parked next to its primary competitors, the 1953-54 Chevrolet and Ford.

    1. The former sounds like something the press office came up with, honestly. People did make that statement from time to time, but it’s not like Fluid-Matic and Fluid-Torque gave you that much driver control. Chrysler had done such a thorough job of making the clutch [i]almost[/i] unnecessary that its continued presence was much more of an vexation than a benefit to the driver. Now, if the M-5/M-6 transmissions had given you the ability to go through the gears manually, that might have been a different story, but the shift mechanism was clearly not designed with that in mind.

      I think Harry Cheseborough’s explanation seems more on target. A lot of engineers (including some at GM) were dismayed by the complexity of Hydra-Matic, and not without reason: The original Hydra-Matic weighed almost twice as much as a three-speed manual transmission, had three planetary gearsets, and needed eight shifts (bands and clutches) for four forward speeds. The main alternative was the Dynaflow/Powerglide/Ultramatic torque converter transmission, which was simpler but dreadfully inefficient. It’s not hard to see how somebody like Keller would have looked at all of that in 1948-1949 and said, “Who needs it?”

      Considered in those terms, the semiautomatic transmission wasn’t a terrible compromise, particularly the Fluid-Torque version, which was a lot less sleepy than the earlier fluid coupling units. The problem was that the buying public were less concerned with mechanical elegance or efficiency than they were in just not having to shift gears or use a clutch. (Considering the state of contemporary manual transmissions, that isn’t hard to understand…)

  14. I have to admit that I let out a chuckle when I read that, in the 1940s, Fiat went to Chrysler for advice on modern manufacturing techniques, and possible shared production.

    At that time, who’d have ever thought that Fiat would eventually [i][b]own[/b][/i] Chrysler?

  15. Regarding the Semiautomatic Transmission , I recall my dad’s 1948 Dodge Coupe , I’m pretty sure the transmission had 2 RANGES , ‘Town’ and ‘Highway’. With the gear lever in the upper position , (‘Town’) the car would pull off in first , and when the foot was lifted from the gas , would shift into third . Flooring the pedal would kick down to first at a low enough speed .
    With the lever in the lower (‘Highway’)position , the car would move off in second and lifting the foot after around 20 m.p.h. would shift you into fourth , with a kickdown available below 20 m.p.h. The clutch pedal was only needed for shifting between ranges or for initially putting the car in gear or in reverse.
    I remember it being a nice car , comfortable and very reliable , though no match for the later V8’s..

    1. There were several variations of the semiautomatic transmission, so your memory may well be correct.

  16. Aaron, In the description of the hemi, you repeat the myth that the spark plug was in an advantageous place in the center of the chamber. While this was true of some early engines with domed chambers, it is not true of the Chrysler hemis. Chrysler had realized that the important advantage of the design was not the chamber shape or spark plug location, it was the larger valve diameters the angled valves allowed. Look at sectioned engine in this story. The cylinder showing on the right is sectioned through the valves stems. Note there is no room for the spark plug between the valves. The cylinder showing on the left section goes through the spark plug with no valves showing. The spark plug is at the very forward edge of the chamber. Spark in that location was adequate for early hemis, but today’s hemi has two plugs per cylinder, one fore and one aft of the valves.

    1. A fair point, although of course the modern HEMI doesn’t have hemispherical combustion chambers — more of a modified pentroof.

      1. I revised the applicable text in a hopefully more useful way. (Since it’s five o’clock in the morning, I will have to check back later to make sure it’s coherent…)

  17. Bonjour,
    Je suis en France et je possède une Chrysler windsor deluxe sedan C62 1954, 6 cylindres. Pouvez-vous me dire si la powerflite de Chrysler impérial 331HEMI 1954 peut aller sur ma voiture ? Merci !
    Cordialement.

    1. I’m not able to advise on repairing cars or on parts substitutions. I suspect the answer is yes, but I don’t know what changes may be necessary to fit a PowerFlite to a car that originally had a manual gearbox. I would suggest you consult a U.S. transmission expert who is more familiar with the intricacies of the early PowerFlite transmission. You might also try the forums at Allpar.com — there may be others who have tried a similar substitution.

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