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

The U.S. auto industry has seen few transformations as dramatic as the one Chrysler underwent between 1949 and 1955. In 1949, Chrysler’s cars were sensible, conservative, and dull, with sleepy performance and stolid styling. Six years later, the corporation offered some of Detroit’s sleekest designs and strongest engines, culminating in the launch of America’s most powerful car, the 300.

In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we take a look at the 1949-1954 Chryslers, the Exner/Ghia idea cars, and the birth of the FirePower Hemi.

1952 Chrysler New Yorker hood ornament

BEFORE THE FIREPOWER

As with most automakers, the first cars Chrysler introduced after World War II were touched-up versions of the company’s prewar designs. Although some styling work had continued during the war, the buying public was so hungry for any new car with four wheels, an engine, and four new tires that Chrysler did not launch its first true postwar designs until the spring of 1949, the company’s 25th anniversary.

Bucking the trends of the time, Chrysler’s new models emphasized packaging efficiency over styling flair. Wheelbases were increased on most models, but overall length and width decreased significantly. Although overall height was reduced by as much as 2.3 inches (57 mm), slab sides, greater glass area, and altered proportions conspired to make the new cars look unfashionably tall and upright. Chrysler received much criticism for frumpy styling, but for customers more concerned with substance than flash, the new models had much to offer, including good visibility, easy entry and exit, and roomy interiors that belied the tidier exterior dimensions.

Under the hood, the vast majority — more than 95% — of Chrysler Corporation products had six-cylinder engines. The corporation introduced its first eights in the DeSoto and Dodge lines in 1930 and in senior Chryslers in January 1931, but sales were disappointing. The DeSoto eight was dropped in 1933, the Dodge eight in 1934, and neither Plymouth nor the truck lines ever offered more than six cylinders.

1941 Chrysler Royal engine
It would be fair to say Chrysler’s reputation was built on six-cylinder engines, which continued to comprise most of the company’s sales until the early 1950s. This is the 251 cu. in. (4,106 cc) Spitfire Six, seen here in a prewar Chrysler Royal. In 1941, this engine was advertised at 120 gross horsepower (90 kW) and 200 lb-ft (271 N-m) of torque. (author photo)

By 1949, Chrysler’s sole eight-cylinder engine was the Spitfire Eight, offered only in the senior Chrysler models. A direct descendant of the straight-eights introduced by Dodge and DeSoto in January 1930, the Spitfire Eight was a 324 cu. in. (5,302 cc) L-head engine with five main bearings and 7.25:1 compression, making a modest 135 gross horsepower (101 kW) and 270 lb-ft (366 N-m) of torque. Most Chrysler buyers opted for the cheaper Royal or Windsor, which had the 116 hp (87 kW), 251 cu. in. (4,106 cc) L-head Spitfire Six, in many respects a larger version of the sixes powering contemporary Plymouths, Dodges, and DeSotos.

In most 1949 Chryslers and a substantial number of DeSotos and Dodges, these engines were mated with Fluid Drive and Chrysler’s M-6 semiautomatic transmission, variously called Gyrol, Prestomatic, and Gyro-Matic. The M-6 was as close as Chrysler had yet come to an automatic transmission, a hydraulically operated four-speed gearbox that combined both a conventional friction clutch and a fluid coupling. The gear selector provided a choice of High and Low ranges, offering automatic shifting to and from third and fourth and first and second, respectively. Since the shift pattern didn’t make it easy to go through the gears (starting in Low and shifting manually to High would generally give you first, second, and fourth), many people simply left the transmission in High for most normal driving. The fluid coupling eliminated the need to declutch at idle, so the clutch pedal was needed only for shifting from High to Low range or into reverse.

1948 DeSoto Custom sedan Fluid Drive badge
Fluid Drive, first offered on Imperials in late 1938 and seen here on a postwar DeSoto sedan, is closely associated with Chrysler’s semiautomatic transmission, but they were actually separate options, albeit often ordered together. The semiautomatic transmission itself went through several iterations, the earliest of which, offered on 1940-1942 DeSotos and 1941-1942 six-cylinder Chryslers, were vacuum-controlled, rather than hydraulic. (author photo)

The semiautomatic transmission worked well enough, although it made for sedate performance, particularly if left in High range. Motor Trend noted that by manually shifting between Low and High, you could coax a six-cylinder Windsor to 60 mph (97 km/h) in under 20 seconds, acceptable but unimpressive for the time. Eight-cylinder cars were not much faster, since even the lightest eight-cylinder Saratogas were around 440 lb (200 kg) heavier than a comparable Windsor. No Chrysler was a match for the latest eight-cylinder Oldsmobiles or Cadillacs, with their powerful OHV V8 engines and fully automatic four-speed Hydra-Matic transmissions.

Chrysler products of this era were in no way exciting, but they were practical, soundly engineered, and had a reputation for durability. That was enough for many buyers in the brief interregnum between the postwar boom and the beginning of the Korean War: Sales were good in 1949 and even better for the mildly touched-up 1950 models. Despite a lengthy strike that shut down production for nearly four months in early 1950, Chrysler sold almost 1.4 million cars and trucks for the model year, one of the company’s best years.

THE REIGN OF K.T. KELLER

Despite those encouraging figures, it was hard not to notice that stubborn conservatism was fast becoming Chrysler’s defining trait. Two decades earlier, the company had often led the industry in engineering and, through the mid-thirties, had turned out some quite stylish products, as well. Now, Chrysler seemed to be lagging behind.

There were two primary reasons for the company’s reactionary streak. The first was the Airflow, an adventuresome engineering showcase that became a commercial debacle due to oddball looks and too-high prices. As we’ve previously discussed, many senior Chrysler executives had doubts about the Airflow from the start and its failure soured their appetite for innovation — stylistic or mechanical — for years afterward.

The second factor, even more significant than the first, was the influence of Chrysler’s president, Kaufman Thuma Keller.

1949 Chrysler New Yorker four-door front 3q copyright 2010 Rex Gray (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
The 1949 Chrysler in all its upright, boxy glory. A 1949 Chrysler New Yorker like this one is 210 inches (5,334 mm) long on a 131.5-inch (3,340mm) wheelbase and stands 66 inches (1,676 mm) tall; the 1946-1948 car was 214.3 inches (5,443 mm) and 68 inches (1,727 mm) tall on a shorter 127.5-inch (3,239mm) wheelbase. Although the New Yorker was 3.1 inches (78 mm) narrower than its predecessor, Chrysler boasted that rear seat width had actually increased 7 inches (178 mm). Note also the big doors, particularly in front. (Photo: “1949 Chrysler New Yorker 4d sdn – green – fvr” © 2010 Rex Gray; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

K.T. Keller was a longtime veteran of the auto business and before that the railroad industry. After stints at Hudson and Maxwell, he joined Buick, which is where he first met Walter P. Chrysler. In 1926, Chrysler lured Keller away from the vice presidency of Chevrolet to become the vice president of manufacturing for the new Chrysler Corporation. Less than two years later, Chrysler assigned Keller to run Dodge, which Chrysler had just acquired. Keller became president of Dodge in 1929 and six years later succeeded the ailing Walter Chrysler as president of the entire company. Keller ceded the presidency to L.L. (Tex) Colbert in November 1950, but remained chairman of the board until April 1956.

Keller was a big man with a blunt, no-nonsense demeanor. Former colleagues characterized him as a superbly talented production engineer and a determined autocrat with a penchant for micromanagement. He was open to others’ ideas to a point, but once his mind made up, he wasn’t easily swayed. Designers Ray Dietrich and Virgil Exner (of whom we’ll have more to say shortly) noted that Keller was not without a sense of humor and had a bemused appreciation for the few people brave enough or foolhardy enough to stand up to him — which admittedly didn’t happen very often. While Keller ran Chrysler, his word was law.

According to engineering executive Harry Chesebrough, later the head of Chrysler product planning, Keller had little liking for anything that smacked of unnecessary complexity. It was Keller, Chesebrough said, who decided that Chrysler didn’t need a fully automatic transmission, at least until the market forced the issue. Chrysler could certainly have developed such a transmission by the early fifties — the company had never stinted on engineering resources — but Keller preferred the semiautomatic unit, which was simpler and cheaper than Hydra-Matic and considerably more efficient than Dynaflow or Packard’s Ultramatic.

There were few areas of Chrysler’s operations in which Keller’s hand was not felt, least of all styling. Chrysler had its share of styling talent in those days, led from 1944 by Henry King, but it was Keller who dictated the boxy shapes of the 1949 models, based on a concept generally attributed not to King, but to Charles G. Walker, then the head of the clay modeling section. According to Chesebrough, determined resistance from the division heads had resulted in some last-minute revisions — the principal reason the ’49 cars didn’t debut until spring — but in the main, the new models looked the way Keller thought they should look.

1950 Plymouth P20 side
Save for size and trim details, most of Chrysler’s postwar designs had similar shapes: This is a 1950 Plymouth, although it differs in only minor details from the 1949. One curious aspect of the 1949-1952 Plymouths is that they were offered in two wheelbases, 111 and 118.5 inches (2,820 and 3,010 mm, respectively). The latter was longer than either Chevrolet or Ford, the former was shorter, although in either case, the Plymouth was shorter overall than either of the Big Two. (author photo)

We should emphasize that Keller was not necessarily resistant to swoopier or more sophisticated shapes. For example, he was very fond of the Chrysler Thunderbolt and Newport, a pair of sleek concept cars designed by Briggs Mfg. Co. in 1940-1941. However, Chrysler had always prioritized engineering over styling. Even discounting Keller’s personal involvement, stylists were subordinate to chief body engineer Oliver Hunt and through him to vice chairman Fred C. Zeder, one of Walter Chrysler’s original “Three Musketeers.” From an engineer’s perspective, simple, three-box shapes with bolt-on fenders and a minimum of complex curves were easier to manufacture and easier to repair — the sensible choice.

It’s also worth noting that Chrysler’s postwar designs were to some extent a response to dealer and customer feedback. Even in the forties, there were already grumblings that American cars were becoming too big, difficult to maneuver and hard to park. Chrysler’s 1949 models represented what many buyers said they wanted: spacious cars with modest exterior dimensions and, as Keller famously told students of Stanford University’s School of Business in 1948, enough room to wear a hat. Unfortunately, there is often some distance between what customers say they want and what they actually buy, particularly when the sensible choice is bland and dowdy. In 1949-1950, that was not yet a major commercial handicap, but it would cause Chrysler a great deal of trouble in a more competitive market.

1952 Chrysler New Yorker sedan side
This battered example is actually a 1952 Chrysler New Yorker, but the boxy shape had changed only in detail since 1949. (author photo)

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.]

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.

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.

# # #

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. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of Frank A. Bianchi,” Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, 24 May 1987, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/ Design/ Bianchi.htm, accessed 29 November 2012, and “The Reminiscences of Virgil Max Exner Jr.,” Automotive Design Oral History Project, 3 August 1989, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/ Exner_interview.htm, accessed 3 December 2012; “Custom Styling for Well-heeled Customers,” Motor Trend Vol. 8, No. 8 (August 1956), reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2004): 40-42; Leo Donovan, “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 102, No. 6 (June 1954), p. 76, “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 105, No. 4 (April 1956): 85, “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 104, No. 2 (August 1956): 88;and “Parade of 1955 Cars,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 103, No. 2 (February 1955): 138-145; Virgil Exner, Jr., [Chrysler Special presentation], November 2012; Virgil M. Exner, Sr., “Styling and Aerodynamics,” Chrysler Corporation, 14 September 1957 [presentation to Society of Automotive Engineers, Detroit Section, SAE Greenbrier Meeting, White Sulphur Springs, WV.]; Ken Fermoyle, “Driver’s Report—Chrysler 300B,” Motor Life Vol. 5, No. 10 (May 1956), reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio, p. 111; Devon Francis, “Driving Detroit’s Most Powerful Car,” Popular Science Vol. 166, No. 4 (April 1955): 128-130, reprinted in ibid: 108-109, and “Top Horsepowers Go Still Higher,” Popular Science Vol. 165, No. 6 (December 1954): 135-140; “Ghia Chrysler,” Road & Track Vol. 2, No. 7 (February 1952): 18-19; Robert Frumkin, “Idea Cars Part I: The Early Years 1940-1954,” WPC News Vol. VI, No. XI (July 1975): 4-15; Allan Girdler, “Chrysler’s Alphabet from C to B to L — The 300 Lettercars,” Automobile Quarterly’s Great Cars & Grand Marques, ed. Beverly Rae Kimes (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly/Bonanza Books, 1979): 198-209; Jeffrey I. Godshall, “Imperial Parade Phaeton,” Special Interest Autos #38 (January-February 1977): 34-39, 60; Wesley S. 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Additional historical information on Chrysler, the development of the FirePower V8 engine, and Chrysler’s rivals in this period came from “All-new bodies spark the 1953 Chrysler, DeSoto lines,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 98, No. 6 (December 1952): 108; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Joe Baugher, “Republic XP-47H Thunderbolt,” 5 July 1999, www.joebaugher.com/ usaf_fighters/ p47_8.html, accessed 10 December 2012; “Business: Too Many Cars?” TIME Vol. 63, No. 23 (7 June 1954): 106; Don Butler, “Chrysler: The Early Eights,” Cars & Parts October 1978, n.p.; Arch Brown, “Classic Chrysler: 1932 Custom Imperial,” Special Interest Autos #105 (May-June 1988), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002): 26-33, “1930 Dodge DD6: The First Dodge from Chrysler,” Special Interest Autos #76 (July-August 1983), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002): 4-11, “1935 Chrysler Airstream: Ray Dietrich to the Rescue,” Special Interest Autos #168 (November-December 1998), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers: 42-48, 57-59, Arch Brown, “Race/Luxury Car: 1954 Lincoln Capri,” Special Interest Autos #128 (March-April 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Lincolns: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002): 70-78, and “SIA comparisonReport: Battle of the Streamliners: Chrysler Airflow vs. Lincoln Zephyr,” Special Interest Autos #120 (November-December 1990), reprinted in ibid: 60-67; Arch Brown and Bud Juneau, “SIA comparisonReport: Upper Middle Class ‘Class’: 1948 Buick Roadmaster/1948 Chrysler New Yorker,” Special Interest Autos #167 (September-October 1998), reprinted in The Hemmings Books of Buicks: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001): 24-31; Ford R. Bryan, Henry’s Lieutenants (Chicago, IL: Wayne State University Press, 1993): 251-257; “Car Score Card for ’54,” Popular Science Vol. 165, No. 3 (September 1954): 152-153; “Chrysler Adopts New Disk Brake,” Popular Science Vol. 155, No. 5 (November 1949): 128; “Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds,” Allpar, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 3 December 2012; “Chryslers for 1953 are Lower, Longer and Shorter,” Popular Science Vol. 161, No. 5 (November 1952): 127; Floyd Clymer, “The Owners Report on the ’51 Chrysler,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 95, No. 9 (September 1951), p. 102-106, 260-266; David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of Virgil Max Exner Jr.,” Automotive Design Oral History Project, 3 August 1989, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/ Exner_interview.htm, accessed 3 December 2012; “Da Cruizer,” “The 1956-1961 Dodge D-500 cars and performance packages,” Allpar, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 27 December 2012; “Dodge Engines, 1914-1975,” The Hemmings Book of Dodges: 118-119; “driveReport: 1947 Champ: Coming or Going,” Special Interest Autos #19 (November-December 1973), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Studebakers: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000): 40-47; James M. Flammang and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Chrysler Chronicle: An Illustrated History of Chrysler – DeSoto – Dodge – Eagle – Imperial – Jeep – Plymouth (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1998); Devon Francis, “Chrysler Adds a Crash Pad, Keeps Detachable Fenders,” Popular Science Vol. 154, No. 4 (April 1949): 148-151; Ken Gross, “1950 Wayfarer Sportabout,” Special Interest Autos #34 (May-June 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges: 32-35; Devon Francis and Frank Rowsome, Jr., “Chrysler Lifts Hood on Most Powerful Car Engine,” Popular Science Vol. 158, No. 3 (March 1951): 134-138; Norman Frumkin, Recession Prevention Handbook: Eleven Case Studies, 1948-2007 (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2010); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Pete Hagenbuch, “The A311 Racing Hemi Program and Chrysler’s Indy Effort,” Allpar, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 3 December 2012; Tom Hand, “Tom Hand’s detailed guide to the Torqueflite automatic transmission,” Allpar, n.d. [originally published in 1983], www.allpar. com, accessed 8 December 2012; Maurice Hendry, “Half-Hour History of V-8 Engines: The Rise and Fall of an All-American Institution,” Special Interest Autos #24 (September-October 1974): 36-39; Bob Hovorka, “Blueprints: 1956 Dodge D-500,” Special Interest Autos #130 (July-August 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges, p. 69; The Jack Benny Program, Episode 628, 2 November 1947; Allen Hunt, “Horsepower from Detroit, Part IV: Cadillac, Oldsmobile and the horsepower race,” Car Life Vol. 9, No. 6 (July 1962): 26-31; Steve Jeffreys, Management and Managed: Fifty Years of Crisis at Chrysler (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986); James Jones, “The Key to Chrysler’s Return to Prosperity,” Ward’s Quarterly Winter 1965: 57-65; John F. Katz, “drive report: 1951 Chrysler Imperial: Low-Key High Performance,” Special Interest Autos #135, May 1993, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2004): 8-15, and “1956 Plymouth Belvedere: Good Gets Better,” Special Interest Autos #160 (July-August 1997), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002): 58-65; Michael Lamm, “Magnificent Turkey,” Special Interest Autos #16 (April-May 1973), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers: 34-41, and “Two Very Important Cars! 1948 & 1949 Cadillac Fastbacks,” Special Interest Autos #11 (June-July 1972): 10-17, 56; Richard M. 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. V-8 Engine for Big Chryslers,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 95, No. 3 (March 1951), p. 105; “Pre-war Chrysler Engines, 1924-1942,” The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers: 110-111; Curtis Redgap, “Insider’s History of Plymouth,” 2004, Allpar, www.allpar. com , accessed 12 December 2012, and “The Original Chrysler Hemi Engine,” Allpar, 2004, www.allpar. com, accessed 10 December 2012; “Road Testing Chrysler’s Power Flite,” Speed Age Vol. 5, No. 2 (November 1953): 58-61, reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2004): 20-23; Frank Rowsome, Jr., “You Can Break Away Faster with Detroit’s Newest Basket of Gears,” Popular Science Vol. 163, No. 3 (September 1953): 116-119, 260-262; Dennis Siamanitis, “Ford’s New Escort: Some Technical Tidbits,” Road & Track Vol. 31, No. 11 (July 1980): 77–80; Howard W. 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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