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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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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. 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