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

CHRYSLER SARATOGA

Much like Oldsmobile a few years earlier, Chrysler initially offered the FirePower only on its most expensive series, the long-wheelbase New Yorker, Imperial, and Crown Imperial. Although the lightest of these weighed in the neighborhood of 4,400 lb (2,000 kg) with a full tank of fuel, performance was quite good for the time: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit under 15 seconds for New Yorkers, a little longer for the heavier Imperials.

1952 Chrysler New Yorker sedan rear 3q
This 1952 Chrysler New Yorker’s exhaust pipes and the V-shaped crests on the nose and tail signal the presence of the FirePower V8 engine. Note the three-piece backlight, which Chrysler called “CLEARBAC.” This was dropped for 1953 in favor of a more modern-looking one-piece backlight. (author photo)

When the 1951 model year began, it appeared that Chrysler had discontinued the Saratoga, the division’s least-expensive eight-cylinder series, due to poor sales. Introduced in 1946 to bridge the gap between the cheapest six-cylinder Chrysler Windsor and the big eight-cylinder New Yorker, the Saratoga had never been a big seller, probably because it wasn’t much cheaper than the better-trimmed New Yorker whose chassis and engine it shared.

In July 1951, however, the Saratoga returned, now on the shorter (insofar as one can call 125.5 inches/3,188 mm short), lighter Windsor chassis, but sharing the bigger car’s FirePower V8. This, of course, was the same formula as the very popular Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight, albeit at a much higher price. A four-door Saratoga was about $700 more than a four-door Oldsmobile Super Eight-Eight sedan, albeit still a useful $350-odd cheaper than a comparable New Yorker. More importantly, the Saratoga was about 200 lb (91 kg) lighter than a New Yorker, which made for very lively performance.

With its lower price and lower weight, the V8 Saratoga was of immediate interest to racers. Late that year, a number of Chryslers competed in the 1951 Carrera Panamericana, the second of the grueling Mexican road races. One of those cars, a modified 1951 Chrysler Saratoga driven by Tony Bettenhausen and sponsored by Wisconsin outboard motor magnate Carl Kiekhaefer (manufacturer of the popular Mercury outboard engine), was clocked at speeds of nearly 140 mph (225 km/h), but brake problems ultimately consigned it to 16th place. Another Chrysler, a stock Saratoga driven by Bill Sterling, managed an impressive third place overall, not far behind a pair of well-driven Ferraris.

1951 Chrysler Saratoga club coupe rear 3q copyright 1951 Chrysler Historical
A 1951 Chrysler Saratoga, the lightest and cheapest ’51 model to offer the new FirePower engine. Through 1950, the use of the bulky Spitfire Eight forced the eight-cylinder Saratoga to share the same 131.5-inch (3,340mm) wheelbase as the New Yorker and non-Crown Imperials, making the Saratoga 6 inches (152 mm) longer than all six-cylinder Windsors except the rare eight-passenger models. For 1951, the Saratoga switched to the Windsor chassis, although New Yorkers (which also used the V8 engine) retained the longer wheelbase through 1952. For 1953, Chrysler transferred the New Yorker name to what had been the short-wheelbase Saratoga while a new New Yorker Deluxe series approximated the previous New Yorker’s trim level on the shorter, 125.5-inch (3,188mm) wheelbase. (Image circa 1951, copyright © FCA US LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

Kiekhaefer would try again in 1952, entering the 1951 car, now driven by Regie McFee, and a 1953 New Yorker, driven by C.D. Evans. McFee managed fifth place in the new Standard Stock class, but was no match for Bill Stroppe’s well-prepared 1953 Lincoln Capris, whose latest 317 cu. in. (5,204 cc) OHV V8s trumped the FirePower with 205 gross horsepower (153 kW). Stroppe’s Lincolns took first, second, and third, while fourth place went to Bob Korf in another Lincoln — sponsored, ironically, by Kiekhaefer, who had apparently decided to hedge his bets.

The Saratoga was not the Chrysler line’s top seller, perhaps because it cost about $400 more than the previous straight-eight model and was within $30 of the fancier (if less powerful) long-wheelbase Buick Roadmaster Riviera sedan. However, the arrival of the FirePower dramatically increased the popularity of Chrysler’s eight-cylinder models. The percentage of Chrysler-branded cars with six-cylinder engines fell from 76.4% in 1950 to about 50% in 1951-1952.

CUNNINGHAM FIREPOWER

Shortly after the introduction of the FirePower, Chrysler received an inquiry from wealthy sportsman Briggs S. Cunningham, Jr., about purchasing V8 engines for Cunningham’s new sports-racers.

The previous year, Cunningham, driver Phil Walters, and mechanic Bill Frick (designer of the Cadillac-engined Fordillac) had run two modified Cadillacs at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, achieving respectable 10th- and 11th-place finishes. Later in the year, Cunningham and his associates had started a company in West Palm Beach, Florida, with the intention of developing their own Cadillac-powered sports car. However, like Donald Healey months earlier, Cunningham soon discovered that Cadillac had no engines to spare and began looking around for alternatives.

1953 Cunningham C-3 coupe badge © 2010 Pat McLaughlin
Although Briggs Cunningham had gone to Le Mans in 1950 with Cadillacs — a mostly stock Coupe de Ville and a bizarre-looking aerodynamic special dubbed “Le Monstre” — his ambition was to win Le Mans in a car bearing his own name, which he nearly did several times between 1951 and 1954. The checkered-flag emblem inspired the badges of the later Chrysler 300. (Photo © 2010 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

Cunningham found Chrysler much more receptive than Cadillac had been, offering not only attractively discounted engines and parts, but also substantial technical assistance. Chrysler engineers had already been experimenting with significantly hotter versions of the FirePower; Cunningham was offering an opportunity to see how those modifications would perform under fire — not to mention the potential publicity of a “powered by Chrysler” Le Mans victory.

For the 1951 race, Cunningham prepared three aluminum-bodied C-2 roadsters with Chrysler power, Cadillac manual transmissions, and De Dion rear axles. The C-2’s well-tuned FirePower engine had 8.6:1 compression, four carburetors, lighter pistons, and other modifications, yielding up to 270 hp (201 kW). Unfortunately, with a curb weight of around 3,200 lb (1,455 kg), the C-2 was also quite heavy for a racer. The Cunninghams were fast, hitting 152 mph (245 km/h) on the Mulsanne Straight, but problems with low-octane French gasoline meant that only one of the cars finished the race, winning the 5.0- to 8.0-liter (305 to 488 cu. in.) sports class. Following Le Mans, C-2s also won at Elkhart Lake and the Watkins Glen Grand Prix.

1953 Cunningham C-3 coupe engine © 2010 Pat McLaughlin
The Cunningham C-3’s Chrysler FirePower engine was generally quoted at 235 hp (175 kW) in standard form, comparable to stock ’54 New Yorker Deluxe models, but you could order most of the same equipment used by the competition cars, which had 330 hp (246 kW) or more. (Photo © 2010 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

Cunningham’s next Le Mans effort involved three new cars: a fastback coupe and a pair of roadsters, all dubbed C-4R. The C-4Rs were powered by highly tuned FirePower engines based on one Chrysler had developed for Virgil Exner’s K-310 show car, with low-restriction exhaust manifolds, bigger ports and valves, a hotter solid-lifter camshaft, and a dual-log intake manifold sporting four Zenith two-throat carburetors. Two of the C-4Rs were DNF due to mechanical problems, but Cunningham and co-driver William Spear drove one of the roadsters to a second victory in the 8.0-liter sports class, finishing just behind a Nash-Healey in fourth place overall.

In 1953, Cunningham returned to Le Mans with two C-4Rs and a new C-5R coupe, driven by Phil Walters and John Fitch. The C-5R came in third overall, behind two C-type Jaguars, while Cunningham and Bill Spear again took the 8.0-liter sports class in one of the C-4Rs, coming in seventh overall. It was a similar story in 1954: William Spear and Sherwood Johnston were third overall in one of the C-4Rs, while Cunningham and John Gordon Bennett managed fifth.

Cunningham also offered a street car, the Cunningham C-3, created mainly to satisfy the stipulation of the Le Mans officiating body, Auto Club de l’Ouest, that the company build at least a small number of production cars. The C-3 was available in either coupe or convertible form, both styled by Turin’s Giovanni Michelotti (later noted for his work with Triumph). Both had a more mildly tuned version of the FirePower, initially with 220 hp (164 kW), later raised to 235 hp (175 kW).

1953 Cunningham C-3 coupe front 3q © 2010 Pat McLaughlin
All but the first Cunningham C-3 coupe rode a 107-inch (2,718mm) wheelbase, 2 inches (51 mm) longer than the cabriolet version’s, and had tiny rear seats. Curb weight was in the vicinity of 3,000 lb (1,360 kg), a bit lighter for coupes. C-3s substituted Chrysler live axles for the racers’ De Dion setup, albeit with coil springs and trailing arms, rather than the stock Chrysler semi-elliptical springs. The standard transmission was a Cadillac three-speed manual, but most C-3s had Chrysler Fluid-Torque semiautomatic transmissions. (Photo © 2010 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

The Cunningham C-3 was very expensive. List price for the convertible was originally announced at $8,000, raised to more than $11,400 by the time the cars were actually available and an eye-watering $13,500-odd by 1954. A full array of competition equipment could add another $3,000 to the tally, definitely an exotic-car price tag in those days. Production was quite limited; Auto Club de l’Ouest demanded that there be at least 25 street cars, but Cunningham later told writer Ken Gross that the actual total was about 20 and the production minimum was satisfied with some creative reassignment of serial numbers.

The last of the racing Cunninghams was the C-6R, begun in 1954 but not raced until the following year, owing mainly to delays in obtaining much-needed disc brakes from Dunlop. By that time, a new 3.0-liter (183 cu. in.) displacement limit forced Cunningham to abandon the FirePower in favor of a 180 cu. in. (2,942 cc) Offenhauser engine. The car did not finish the race, due to the accident that killed Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh. Afterward, Cunningham dissolved the company, which was quickly becoming too expensive even for him. (He would continue to compete with other marques and in other arenas; his yacht Columbia won the America’s Cup in 1958.)

In mid-1952, Chrysler engineers used the Cunningham engines as a starting point for an even hotter version of the FirePower, intended for the Indianapolis 500. Four of these engines were built, eventually yielding 404 hp (301 kW) with 12.0:1 compression and Hillborn-Travers fuel injection. Tests of the hopped-up FirePower were promising, but the project was stymied by race officials’ imposition of a new 4.5-liter (275 cu. in.) displacement limit for the 1953 race. Reducing the FirePower’s stroke to 3.0 inches (76.2 mm) allowed the Chrysler engines to meet the new displacement limit, but sacrificed too much torque, making the engine uncompetitive. The project was finally abandoned, although the engines were later used by Firestone for tire testing.

CHRYSLER-GHIAS AND PARADE PHAETONS

Aside from its racing potential, the Chrysler FirePower engine provided a suitable power source for Virgil Exner’s concept cars, the first of which, the Chrysler K-310, was completed in late 1951.

The K-310 was a five-passenger coupe with long-hood/short-deck proportions and sculpted lines, quite alien to Chrysler’s contemporary production cars. Although Ghia’s normal practice was to use hand-beaten aluminum body panels, the K-310 (like most subsequent Chrysler idea cars) was bodied in steel, at Exner’s insistence; Exner wanted to emphasize that the K-310 was a real car, not an auto show confection. The K-310 rode a more-or-less stock Saratoga chassis, but was over a foot (324 mm) longer and 6 inches (159 mm) lower than a Saratoga club coupe, featuring unitized construction, AUSCO-Lambert disc brakes (borrowed from Chrysler’s contemporary Crown Imperial), and 17-inch wire wheels. The K-310 introduced a number of design elements that would be recurring themes in Exner’s subsequent Chrysler work, including an eggcrate grille, flared rear fenders, freestanding “gunsight” taillights,” and, most controversially, a cosmetic Continental-style spare tire cover on the rear deck.

1951 Chrysler K-310 idea car copyright 1951 Chrysler Historical
The Chrysler K-310 was 220.5 inches (5,600 mm) long on a 125.5-inch (3,188mm) wheelbase, 59 inches (1,499 mm) high, and 76 inches (1,930 mm) wide. The “310” in the name indicated a 310 hp (231 kW) version of the FirePower V8, with four carburetors and various performance modifications, but while Chrysler engineers had indeed built such an engine (which became the basis of the V8s supplied to Briggs Cunningham), only a mockup was ever installed in the K-310. The car which was eventually fitted with a stock FirePower engine and Fluid-Torque semiautomatic transmission. (Image circa 1951, copyright © FCA US LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

K.T. Keller was very fond of the K-310 and Chrysler gave serious thought to putting the car into limited production, something many observers assumed was the purpose all along. However, according to Exner, the idea was abandoned for logistical reasons. The likely volume didn’t justify converting one of the company’s U.S. assembly lines and the cost of building the cars at Ghia or another European coachbuilder would have made the project a money-losing proposition even with a $7,000+ retail price. As a result, there was only ever one K-310, which made many appearances on the auto show circuit, completed a morale-building tour of Chrysler dealerships, and spent several years as personal transportation for Jim Zeder. It was followed in early 1952 by a single C-200 ragtop, essentially a convertible version of the K-310 with a wider body and two-tone paint.

Later that year came the “S.S.” (Styling Special) hardtop, more commonly called the Chrysler Special. The original scale model of the Special was designed in Exner’s basement in Birmingham at the personal request of export boss C.B. Thomas. However, after Thomas showed the model to K.T. Keller, Keller authorized Ghia to build the car on a shortened version of the new short-wheelbase New Yorker chassis. The Special rode a 119-inch (3,023mm) wheelbase and was 6.5 inches (165 mm) shorter and 4 inches (102 mm) lower than the K-310, with a semi-fastback roofline, no exterior trunk access, and squared-off fenders, an idea suggested by Virgil Exner, Jr., Exner’s son, then a teenager. The car debuted at the Paris Salon in October 1952.

1954 Chrysler Ghia GS-1 front 3q
The Thomas Special and GS-1 were Ghia’s own variations on Exner’s original theme, although the resemblance to the Exner-designed cars is strong and obvious. Both the Special and the GS-1 were 204 inches (5,182 mm) long on a standard 125.5-inch (3,188mm) New Yorker wheelbase, standing 57.5 inches (1,460 mm) high and 75.3 inches (1,911 mm) wide — enormous by European standards. The engine is a stock FirePower V8; the first Special had a Fluid-Torque semiautomatic transmission, but the subsequent cars (including the GS-1 and S.T. Special) had the new PowerFlite automatic. (author photo)

The success of the Special led Thomas and Charles Ladouche, the head of Société France Motors, Chrysler’s European importer, to commission a new variation of the design as a traffic builder for France Motors showrooms. The revised design, created by Ghia with Exner’s approval, used a standard New Yorker chassis and had a new notchback roofline, an exterior decklid, and 15-inch wire wheels. Despite its longer wheelbase, the notchback car was 10 inches (254 mm) shorter than the original Special.

Unlike the K-310 and C-200, the Special was offered in series production, albeit in very limited numbers. The first notchback car went to Thomas himself and the rest were sold by France Motors or Ghia itself, mostly in Europe. In the fall 1953, Ghia created a third variation of the design, the GS-1, which was previewed at the Paris Salon that October and subsequently offered for sale by France Motors. The GS-1 was followed in the fall of 1954 by a fourth and final iteration, the S.T. Special, a handful of which were sold through 1955.

Although the GS-1 and S.T. Special were probably somewhat less expensive to build than the original Special, these were nonetheless extremely expensive cars, with prices equivalent to around U.S.$10,000 (perhaps 3.5 million francs at the contemporary exchange rate); the 5.4-liter FirePower engine was also too big and thirsty for all but the wealthiest European customers. Chrysler authorized Ghia to build up to 400 cars, but it’s very unlikely that the actual total came anywhere close to that figure. Raphael Brunet, who owns an S.T. Special and has done an exhaustive study of chassis numbers, believes there were no more than 40 in all, 18 of which were Chrysler Specials, the rest GS-1s and S.T. Specials.

1954 Chrysler Ghia GS-1 rear 3q
Like the Chrysler K-310 and C-200, both the Thomas Special and the GS-1 had stock FirePower engines, but traded the earlier Fluid-Torque semiautomatic for the new PowerFlite two-speed automatic. Bumpers and some other components were borrowed from stock New Yorkers. (author photo)

Ghia’s next Exner-designed idea cars were the 1953 D’Elegance (primarily the work of Cliff Voss and, as we’ve previously discussed, later the basis for the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia) and the 1954 DeSoto Adventurer. The Adventurer, a low-slung and relatively compact 2+2 — 189.8 inches (4,820 mm) long on a 111-inch (2,819mm) wheelbase — was Exner’s personal favorite of the cars; he used it as personal transportation for several years afterward.

The most important of Exner’s early concept cars were not built by Ghia at all. In 1951, K.T. Keller asked Exner to develop a new dual-cowl parade phaeton, undoubtedly inspired by the 1941 Newport and two Derham-bodied parade cars Chrysler had built in 1939 and 1940 for the New York World’s Fair. The new phaeton, designed by Cliff Voss at Exner’s direction, was based on a stretched Crown Imperial limousine chassis, borrowing its grille and bumpers from the 1951 Imperial, but the styling was otherwise all-new, applying many of the themes of the K-310 on a considerably larger scale. In its original form, the new phaeton was a whopping 241.8 inches (6,140 mm) on a 147.5-inch (3,747mm) wheelbase, so long that the full-size clay barely fit in the modeling room.

Three of these cars were built, one for New York, one for Detroit, and a third for Los Angeles, each distinguished by a unique color scheme. They were used for parades and special events in various cities, carrying dignitaries ranging from Richard Nixon to Haillie Selassie and remaining in regular use into the early 1960s. All three cars survive today.

1952 Chrysler Parade Phaeton copyright 1952 Chrysler Historical
One of the 1952 Imperial parade phaetons in its original form. In mid-1955, Chrysler commissioned Detroit’s Creative Industries to update the three cars with the grilles and front and rear clips of the 1956 Crown Imperial, as well as updated engines. A sign of the close relationship between the phaetons and the ’55-’56 production Chryslers and Imperials is that the new pieces fit the older phaeton bodies with only a little fiddling. (Image circa 1952, copyright © FCA US LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

Despite their high-profile service, the parade phaetons would be largely forgotten today except for one crucial detail: They would become the basis for Exner’s first production Chrysler designs.

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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