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

SIDEBAR: PowerFlite and Other Engineering Milestones

The introduction of the FirePower V8 was only one of several notable Chrysler engineering milestones during this period. Two others, both introduced for 1951, were “Oriflow” tubular shock absorbers — much improved over Chrysler’s previous tube shocks and in an entirely different league from the lever-action hydraulics still used on contemporary GM cars — and “Hydraguide” full-time power steering. The latter, which applied its hydraulic pressure directly to the steering arms rather than the worm-and-roller steering gear, was a mixed blessing, allowing a much faster steering ratio than would otherwise have been practical for such heavy cars, but with an almost complete lack of feel.

Another novelty was disc brakes, introduced on the Crown Imperial in 1949 and later offered optionally on other Chrysler models. These brakes were not caliper discs in the modern idiom, but self-energizing AUSCO-Lambert units like those used on some farm tractors, using two internally expanding discs inside an aluminum housing within each wheel. The discs were effective — they offered considerably more effective lining area than Chrysler’s standard drums along with better cooling and lower pedal effort — but were very expensive and thus were rarely specified. They would be discontinued in 1955.

For 1951, Chrysler also introduced an improved version of its ubiquitous semiautomatic transmission, known as Fluid-Torque or (on Dodges) Gyro-Torque. Fluid-Torque was much like the previous Prestomatic (which remained available), but traded the fluid coupling for a four-element torque converter. The main effect of the converter was to render Low range almost superfluous; with a third-gear start in High, the torque converter’s added low-speed multiplication provided a net starting ratio of 3.77:1, roughly the same as Cadillac’s contemporary Hydra-Matic. With the converter, first gear was now almost too short for general use, providing a maximum starting ratio of 7.68:1.

Despite Keller’s fondness for the semiautomatic transmission, Chrysler eventually conceded that the presence of a clutch pedal, however infrequently used, was becoming a serious commercial obstacle. Since people generally used Fluid-Torque as a two-speed automatic anyway, the logical answer was to develop a two-speed fully automatic transmission: the A-323 PowerFlite, introduced on a very limited basis in June 1953 and offered more broadly for 1954.

PowerFlite was a straightforward two-speed automatic with a 1.72 low gear and a four-element torque converter whose dual stators provided a maximum stall ratio of 2.60:1 and a net starting ratio of 4.47:1. Chrysler considered using a lockup torque converter like Packard’s Ultramatic, but opted against it for cost reasons and in the interests of better midrange performance. PowerFlite also lacked a parking pawl, which was considered unnecessary since Chrysler’s parking brake was mounted on the transmission output shaft.

PowerFlite broke no new technical ground, but it was robust and well-engineered, offering smooth but positive shifts. The new transmission didn’t provide the same low-speed dig as a manually shifted Fluid-Torque — the comparative starting ratios make clear why — and lacked a kickdown gear for passing above about 55 mph (90 km/h), but was a considerably more marketable proposition than the semiautomatic. Chrysler would use PowerFlite through the 1961 model year.

VIRGIL EXNER AT THE WHEEL

Exner’s idea cars received a lot of press attention and generally favorable response, but it would take more than a few one-off show cars to change the public perception that Chrysler styling was DOA. Both Keller and Tex Colbert got an earful on that point from dealers across the country, and Keller eventually admitted to the press, with characteristic bluntness, that his decision to emphasize practicality over prettiness had been a mistake.

In the winter of 1951-52, Keller and Colbert assigned Exner to develop production designs for the DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial lines based on the parade phaetons, which had been well-received by senior management. Originally, Exner’s designs were intended (according to Ed Quinn, then vice president and general manager of Chrysler Division) for the 1956 model year. However, in early 1952, Keller invited Exner to review the design studies for the 1955 Plymouths, which at that point were conceived as facelifts of the soon-to-be-introduced 1953-1954 body shell. Exner looked at the designs and proclaimed them hopeless, unsalvageable. Keller and Colbert were taken aback, but after pondering Exner’s reaction for a few days, they decided to give him responsibility for developing an entire all-new ’55 line.

Virgil Exner, Sr., 1952, courtesy Virgil Exner, Jr.
Virgil Exner, Sr., circa 1952, with the original clay model of the Chrysler Special. (Photo courtesy Virgil Exner, Jr.)

Development of the Chrysler, Imperial, and DeSoto designs was reasonably straightforward: Full-size clays were presented to division managers in late November and immediately approved. Dodge and Plymouth were more troublesome; both designs were initially rejected by their respective division heads, even though the Plymouth had already received one new grille treatment during its development. The final ’55 Dodge and Plymouth designs were not approved until May 1953, six months after the senior makes.

By then, Exner had been promoted to director of design. Henry King was now given charge of Plymouth and Dodge, reporting to Exner, while Tom Bannister oversaw the DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial studios. The Imperial studio itself was now headed by Cliff Voss, who also took over the advanced studio. The styling department, previously known as Art & Colour, was renamed Chrysler Styling and its staff and resources were increased considerably.

CHRYSLER IN CRISIS

In October 1952, about a month before Exner’s 1955 Chrysler, DeSoto, and Imperial designs were approved, Chrysler introduced its redesigned 1953 models. All had stiffer frames and new bodies featuring lower rooflines, integral fenders, and one-piece windshields and backlights. The junior lines were longer than before and Plymouth abandoned its dual-wheelbase strategy to move closer to Chevrolet and Ford. The Chrysler line actually lost about 4 inches (101 mm) of overall length, a response to customer feedback.

Despite the all-new bodies, the new models still looked much the same as before, a warming over of designs that hadn’t been terribly inspiring in the first place. Moreover, while both Dodge and DeSoto now had V-8s of their own (DeSoto’s 276 cu. in. (4,524 cc) “FireDome” Hemi had debuted the previous year), they still lacked a fully automatic transmission; the two-speed PowerFlite (see sidebar) didn’t arrive until June 1953 and was not widely available until the 1954 model year.

1954 Plymouth Belvedere four-door sedan copyright 2009 Xocolatl PD modified by Aaron Severson
Even in top-level Belvedere trim, the 1954 Plymouth looks (and is) tall and stubby compared to contemporary Chevrolets and Fords: It’s nearly 7 inches (178 mm) shorter than a ’54 Chevrolet. With no more than 110 gross horsepower (82 kW), the Plymouth was also no match for the new OHV Ford V8, which offered 130 hp (97 kW). (Photo: “Plymouth Belvedere Wasen” © 2009 Xocolatl; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2013 by Aaron Severson)

Sales of the new models were initially decent, but by the summer of 1953, trouble was brewing. About four months before the 1953 models went on sale, the Federal Reserve Board had relaxed stringent wartime credit restrictions that had greatly limited car loans. As the Korean War wound down in 1953, federal production caps were lifted and the previous raw materials shortages began to ease, opening the door to greatly increased production. Ford and Chevrolet responded with an aggressive price and production war that raged well into 1954, doing considerable damage to smaller automakers with greater overhead, who could not afford to follow the lead of the Big Two.

The sales war had the greatest impact on Plymouth, which was doubly handicapped by its lack of even a semiautomatic transmission until the midyear introduction of the clumsy three-speed Hy-Drive (and eventually PowerFlite). However, the effects of the fierce competition also spilled over onto more expensive makes, in part by sharply reducing used car prices, consequence of the glut of trade-ins. Chrysler’s more expensive lines also faced steeper competition from their own class. Buick, for example, now had a V8 for its Super and Roadmaster lines, which undercut comparable Chrysler models in price; a V8-powered Super Riviera sedan was only $5 more than a six-cylinder Windsor Deluxe. Before long, Chrysler was forced to resort to offer substantial dealer incentives to keep up.

By the 1954 model year, the party was well and truly over. Chryslers and DeSotos had more power — the FirePower V8 was back in front of the horsepower race with up to 235 gross horsepower (175 kW) — and there was finally a real automatic transmission. However, both cars could boast only lightly facelifted styling against sleek, all-new Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac rivals. The best Chrysler could do was to dress up its dull wares with some dramatic uses of color. Plymouth, meanwhile, was being overrun. Even on a list-price basis, Plymouths were more expensive than comparable Fords or Chevrolets and aggressive discounting made the disparities even greater. Overall Chrysler sales simply cratered, dropping some 40% from 1953, and the company’s total market share dipped below 13%, its worst in years. Chrysler ended the year with a sizable net loss.

1954 Chrysler Windsor Deluxe front 3q copyright 2008 Jagvar PD modified by Aaron Severson
The 1954 model year was the last for Chrysler’s six-cylinder engine, which by then was offered only in the Windsor line. The venerable six had been stroked in 1952 to 265 cu. in. (4,334 cc), giving 119 gross horsepower (89 kW). Standard Chryslers were now 215.5 inches (5,474 mm) long (4.5 inches/114 mm) longer than in ’53 and all but a handful had PowerFlite. Although a Windsor Deluxe with PowerFlite was rather underpowered, particularly compared to its more powerful stablemates, the four-door model remained the best seller of the Chrysler line. (Photo: “54 Windsor 3” © 2008 Jagvar; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2013 by Aaron Severson)

Chrysler’s racing fortunes were mixed, as well. To address its power deficit relative to Lincoln, Chrysler introduced a special equipment package for competition-bound New Yorkers, including a heavy-duty suspension, stronger brakes, and a 235 hp (175 kW) engine. Few of these packages were installed — author Robert Ackerson estimates no more than 15 — but New Yorkers so equipped won both the 1953 and 1954 Daytona Beach Grand National races (the latter admittedly on a technicality), as well as a 24-hour endurance race at the Indianapolis Speedway in early 1954. A blueprinted New Yorker driven by Brewster Shaw also set a record in the flying mile at the Daytona Speed Trials in February 1954, with a two-way average of 117.06 mph (188.5 km/h). However, victory in the Carrera Panamericana remained elusive. None of Carl Kiekhaefer’s four 1953 entries was listed among the official finishers, although a non-Kiekhaefer Chrysler driven by Tommy Drisdale achieved fifth place in the large stock car class. Kiekhaefer did not return for 1954, but his Chrysler racing career was far from over.

Despite the generally dismal year, Chrysler was not standing still. The corporation was busily expanding its production capacity, financed in part by a $250 million loan from the Prudential insurance company, and adding new facilities like a modern test track in Chelsea, Michigan. Meanwhile, tooling was beginning on Exner’s all-new ’55 models, slated for a fall 1954 debut. We will talk about the results in our second installment.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank Raphael Brunet and Bob Frumkin for providing information on the GS-1 and S.T. Special; Pat McLaughlin, Mitch Prater, and Randy von Liski for the use of their photos; Danielle Szostak-Viers of the Chrysler Historical Collection (now FCA US LLC – Historical Services) for providing photos from Chrysler’s archives; and Virgil Exner, Jr., for his notes and corrections.


NOTES ON SOURCES

Information on the 300, 300B, and the 1955 Forward Look (including the earlier Chrysler styling efforts of Virgil Exner, Sr.) came from: Robert Ackerson, Chrysler 300 ‘America’s Most Powerful Car’ (Godmanstone, England: Veloce Publishing Plc., 1996); Dennis Adler, “1953 Chrysler Ghia Special: An American/Italian Hybrid,” Car Collector October 1997, and “The Chrysler Ghias: The Story of Exner’s Chrysler Specials from 1953,” Car Exchange December 1982: 60-61; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1940s and 1950s Kaiser-Frazer Concept Cars,” HowStuffWorks.com, 14 November 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ 1940s-and-1950s- kaiser-frazer-concept-cars1.htm, 29 November 2012, and “1950s Chrysler Concept Cars,” HowStuffWorks.com, 13 November 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ 1950s-chrysler-concept-cars.htm, accessed 4 December 2012, “1955 NASCAR Grand National Season Recap,” HowStuffWorks.com, 30 July 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ auto-racing/ nascar/ season-recaps/ 1950s/ 1955-nascar.htm, accessed 4 December 2012, and “1956 NASCAR Grand National Season Recap,” HowStuffWorks.com, 31 July 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ auto-racing/ nascar/ season-recaps/ 1950s/ 1956-nascar.htm, accessed 4 December 2012; Jim Benjaminson, “Plymouth cars of 1955: A Complete Turnaround,” Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 11 February 2011; Terry Boyce, “Fury,” Special-Interest Autos #10 (April-May 1972), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000): 14-19; David G. Briant, “1956 Imperial…The Finest Expression of the Forward Look!” WPC News Vol. 29, No. 1 (September 1997): 7-14; Arch Brown, “Chrysler 300-C: ‘C’ Is for Chrysler,” Special Interest Autos #107 (September-October 1988), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: 20-27; Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); Racer Brown, “Road Testing America’s Hottest Stock,” Hot Rod Vol. 9, No. 9 (September 1956), reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio (Brooklands Road Test Books), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1992): 114-117, 135; Raphael Brunet, “History of the GS-1” [email to Bob Frumkin, n.d.], email to the author 4 December 2012; Bill Carroll, “Beautiful Brute Part 2,” Car and Driver Vol. 7, No. 3 (September 1961): 60-63; “Chrysler 300,” Car Life, 1955, reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio: 102-105; “Chrysler Announces America’s Most Different Car!” WPC News Vol. XIII, No. XI (July 1982): 4-17; “Chrysler Owners Still Saying Handling Is Best Feature,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 104, No. 4 (October 1955): 125-127, 304-308; “Chrysler 300: a step in the right direction,” Road & Track Vol. 6, No. 10 (June 1955), reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio: 6-7; Chrysler 300 Country, www.chrysler300country.com, accessed 21 December 2012; “Chrysler ‘300’ — Is it the 1955 Cunningham?” Auto Age July 1955, reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio: 9-12, 29; “Chrysler Unveils Dream Sports Car,” Popular Science Vol. 160, No. 2 (February 1952): 99-102; Floyd Clymer, “Clymer Tests the 1955 Chrysler New Yorker,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 104, No. 4 (October 1955): 124, 300-302; David R. 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Langworth, The Complete History of Chrysler Corporation 1924-1985 (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1994); Matthew Litwin, “1950-1953 Cadillac Series 62,” Hemmings Classic Car #49 (October 2008): 74-79; Steve Magnante, “Early Hemi Spotter’s Guide,” Hot Rod Vol. 54, No. 10 (October 2001); “Man with a Pencil: Engineering Genius of the Modern Automatic Transmission,” Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 10 (October 1964): 82-85; Toshiko Nakayama, “Used Car Prices,” Prices: A Chartbook, 1953-62: Supplement (Bulletin No. 1351-1); United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1963: 8-12; Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac, 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1979); “180-Hp. 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Simpson, “Planetary Transmission for Self-Propelled Vehicle,” U.S. Patent No. 2,749,775, filed 27 December 1951, issued 12 June 1956, “Planetary Transmission for Self-Propelled Vehicle,” U.S. Patent No. 2,749,777, filed 15 December 1951, issued 12 June 1956, “Planetary Transmission for Self-Propelled Vehicle,” U.S. Patent No. 2,856,795, filed 12 November 1951, issued 21 October 1958, “Transmission,” U.S. Patent No. 2,518,825, filed 27 June 1946, issued 15 August 1950; Wilbur Shaw, “1953 Plymouth Smooths [sic] Rough Roads,” Popular Science Vol. 161, No. 6 (December 1952): 108-112, and “Wilbur Shaw Drives 1951 Plymouth,” Popular Science Vol. 158, No. 2 (February 1951): 98-102; “Specifications of the 1953 Cars,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 99, No. 2 (February 1953): 118-119; “State of Business: Step This Way, Please!” TIME Vol. 59, No. 20 (19 May 1952): 99; Rich Taylor, “The Rise and Fall of the V-8 Engine,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 154, No. 6 (December 1980): 75-79, 119-120; John G. Tennyson, “1954 Plymouth Belvedere Suburban: Inspiration for the Nomad?” Special Interest Autos #95 (September-October 1986), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths: 44-57; “The Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge-DeSoto Powerflite automatic transmission,” Allpar, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 8 December 2012; “The Legendary Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge Torqueflite automatic transmission,” Allpar, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 8 December 2012; “The Motor Continental Road Test No. 9C/51: The Chrysler Imperial,” The Motor 14 November 1951, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951-1975: 16–18; “The 1953 Cars,” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Vol. 7, No. 4 (April 1953): 22-25; “The 1954 Cars,” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Vol. 8, No. 4 (April 1954): 7-15; “The 1955 Cars,” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Vol. 9, No. 3 (March 1955): 24-31; Pat Tobin, “Half-Hour History of MoPar’s Fluid Drive,” Special Interest Autos #116 (April 1990): 40-45; Jeremy Walton, Escort Mk 1, 2 & 3: The Development & Competition History (Sparkford, England: Haynes Publishing Group, 1985); “‘Wheels‘ Drives a Power-Steered Car,” Wheels, August 1953, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951-1975: 19, 24; Wayne Whittaker, “Chrysler Family Debut,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 91, No. 4 (April 1949): 118-123, 270-272; Yesterday’s Tractor Co., 22-23 December 2011, ytforums .ytmag.com/ viewtopic.php?t=851934, accessed 3 December 2012; and the Wikipedia® entries for the Ausco-Lambert disc brake (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ausco_Lambert_disc_brake, 3 December 2012), the Carrera Panamericana (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrera_Panamericana, accessed 4 December 2012), and the French franc (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_franc, accessed 8 December 2012).

Some information on Briggs Cunningham came from “Former Westporter Briggs Swift Cunningham, Noted Racer, Dies,” Westport Now Friday 4 July 2003, www.westportnow.com, accessed 29 October 2012; Ken Gross, “1954 Cunningham C-3 Cabriolet: Born to Run,” Special Interest Autos #80 (April 1984): 12-21, 60; Geoffrey Healey, Healey, The Specials (London: Gentry Books, 1980); and the Wikipedia entries for the 1951-1955 24 Hours of Le Mans (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1951_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1952_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1953_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1954_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans, and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1955_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans, all accessed 4 December 2012).


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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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