Forward Look: Chrysler’s Early Fifties Transformation, Part 2

By 1954, Chrysler was on the ropes, losing money and market share at an alarming rate. Behind the scenes, however, the company was preparing for the first stage of a phoenix-like transformation. In the second part of our story, we discuss the 1955-1956 Chrysler Forward Look models and the company’s new high-performance flagship: the ferocious and formidable Chrysler 300.

1955 Chrysler 300 grillebadge

THE CHRYSLER FORWARD LOOK

Chrysler’s 1955 models were not so much a new chapter as the first time all the pieces company chairman K.T. Keller and president L.L. “Tex” Colbert had been assembling over the past few years (described in our first installment) finally came together. There was the FirePower V8, now offering 250 gross horsepower (186 kW), along with V8s for DeSoto, Dodge, and Plymouth; there was the fully automatic PowerFlite transmission; there was a full range of power accessories and optional Airtemp air conditioning; and at long last, there was modern styling, courtesy of new styling director Virgil M. Exner, Sr.

1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe St. Regis front 3q
All 1955 Chrysler New Yorkers were Deluxe, since the Windsor’s newly standard Spitfire V8 made the previous “plain” New Yorker superfluous. The 1955 New Yorker Deluxe was 218.8 inches (5,556 mm) long and 79.1 inches (2,009 mm) wide on a 126-inch (3,200mm) wheelbase, with a curb weight of around 4,400 lb (1,990 kg). There were now two hardtop models in the series: the Newport and the St. Regis, distinguished mainly by side trim and color schemes. Note the parking lamps integrated into the front bumper; on Windsors, the parking lamps are separate, mounted between the bumper and the headlights. (author photo)

Chrysler’s advertising of this period described the 1955 styling as the “Forward Look” or the “100 Million Dollar Look,” although contemporary press reports put the total bill at more like $250 million. The new look was in no way radical — that would come later — but was considerably sleeker than what had gone before, eliminating at a stroke the dumpy proportions of Chrysler’s previous postwar cars. The 1955 Chrysler New Yorker, for example, was 3.4 inches (87 mm) longer and 2.4 inches (60 mm) wider than the ’54, with a 5-inch (127mm) longer hood.

The new Imperial, now marketed as a separate make, was naturally the flagship of the Forward Look, with its attractive dual eggcrate grilles providing the cleanest and arguably most attractive front end treatment of the bunch, but even Plymouths were considerably sharper-looking than before and were now a closer match in dimensions and proportions to Chevrolet and Ford.

The interiors were new, as well, with pendant-type pedals and an unusual dashboard-mounted shift lever for the PowerFlite transmission, which was now standard on Imperial and all Chryslers except the Windsor and commonly ordered on most of the cheaper makes. The wand-like dashboard lever, suggested by stylist Cliff Voss, was a novelty, but drew criticism as a potential collision-safety hazard and survived only one year.

1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe St. Regis rear 3q
The termination of the upper body color at the rear fender kick-up marks this 1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe hardtop as a St. Regis; Newports had a wider side spear with a contrasting color, offsetting the otherwise single-color lower body. Base price of the St. Regis was $3,690, a significant $250 more than the slightly bigger but less powerful Buick Roadmaster Riviera, perhaps the New Yorker’s most direct rival, and more than $800 more than a Windsor Deluxe hardtop. (author photo)

The 1955 model year offered two notable milestones in the engine department: the first-ever eight-cylinder Plymouth — two Dodge-supplied “Hy-Fire” V8s were now optional — and the first-ever Chrysler lineup without a six-cylinder engine. Since the debut of the FirePower, sales of the six had been shrinking steadily and it had been retained in the Windsor line mainly as a price leader. For 1955, the Windsor traded its old flathead six for a new 300 cu. in. (4,905 cc) OHV V8, reviving the departed Spitfire Eight name. The Spitfire was essentially a hybrid of the FirePower block and the cheaper “polyspherical” heads of the Dodge Red Ram engine, with only a single rocker shaft per bank. The smaller V8 made 188 hp (140 kW), up from 119 hp (89 kW) in the 1954 Windsor, which gave junior Chryslers parity with the 1955 Buick Special and Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight.

1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe St. Regis dashboard
Appropriately, given their much higher prices, 1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe hardtops were considerably plusher than the cheaper Windsor Deluxe, featuring full carpeting, leather upholstery, additional interior lighting, and a clock. Power windows were available, but not standard — this car doesn’t have them — nor was power steering. (author photo)

With 250 gross horsepower (186 kW), the senior Chryslers could give many rivals a run for their money in a straight line. Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated found that a New Yorker sedan could do the 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint in around 12 seconds and reach almost 115 mph (185 km/h), although he complained that low-end torque hadn’t noticeably improved since the introduction of the first FirePower V8 back in 1951. Windsors were not quite that fast, nor were most of Chrysler’s junior makes, but even they had excellent performance for the time. In early 1955, however, all of those cars would be overshadowed by the introduction of Chrysler’s most newsworthy new model: the 300.

THE BIRTH OF THE 300

The Chrysler 300 was a very late addition to the 1955 lineup. In fact, the 300 was conceived around the time the rest of the 1955 cars were beginning pilot production.

The new model was the idea of Robert M. Rodger, previously part of Bill Drinkard’s engine development staff and more recently Chrysler Division’s chief engineer. Rodger had been heavily involved in the development of the FirePower hemi engine and had taken a strong interest in Chrysler’s competition efforts; earlier that year, he had been in Indianapolis for a 24-hour endurance race and he had even gone to Mexico to observe at least one of outboard motor magnate Carl Kiekhaefer’s Carrera Panamericana runs.

It was not lost on Rodger or Chrysler general sales manager Bill Braden that most of the FirePower V8′s competition exploits had either been in quite-ordinary sedans and club coupes or in non-Chrysler products like the Cunningham Le Mans cars. Virgil Exner’s Ghia-built concept cars had whetted the public’s appetite for a sportier Chrysler that would be a more worthy showcase for what was, after all, one of America’s most powerful engines. Indeed, Chrysler had received a lot of mail over the past few years asking when the company would offer such a car to the public.

1955 Imperial sedan copyright 2007 alfone45
Starting in 1955, Chrysler’s luxurious Imperial was registered as a separate marque, although even many contemporary reviewers still reflexively described it as the “Chrysler Imperial,” perhaps reflecting the rather erratic way Chrysler had applied the name since 1926. The standard 1955 Imperial was 223 inches (5,664 mm) long on a 130-inch (3,302mm) wheelbase, weighing around 4,800 lb (2,175 kg) at the curb. The very rare Crown Imperial, offered either as an eight-passenger sedan or limousine, was 242.5 inches (6,160 mm) long on a 149.5-inch (3,797mm) wheelbase. Imperials had simpler side trim than New Yorkers, along with taller eggcrate grilles and unique bumpers. (Photo © 2007 Alfone45; released to the public domain by the photographer)

One enticing possibility was a forthcoming concept car from the Advanced studio: the Falcon, a DeSoto-powered, relatively compact sporty convertible, designed by stylist Maury Baldwin. Virgil Exner pushed hard for Chrysler to produce the Falcon, which would have been a worthy rival to the Corvette or the new ’55 Ford Thunderbird. Sadly, as Jim Zeder had previously told Motor Trend, the company was not enthusiastic about investing in low-volume specialty cars for the enthusiast market; Chrysler did not have the deep pockets of GM or even Ford.

However, as Rodger and Braden undoubtedly recognized, that didn’t rule out the possibility of a high-performance version of the standard Chrysler, sharing its body and much of its hardware with the rest of the line. The decision to market the Imperial as a distinct make may also have factored into their thinking; separating the Imperial from the rest of the Chrysler line left room for a new Chrysler flagship.

In August 1954, Rodger pitched this idea to Chrysler general manager Ed Quinn, who was cautiously receptive. Quinn’s main provisos were that the new model be ready for a mid-year introduction and that the project not require any significant tooling expenditure, since Chrysler had already spent most of its 1955 budget.

1955 Chrysler 300 front 3q copyright 1955 Chrysler Historical
The 1955 Chrysler 300 combined the Imperial’s grille and bumper guards with the simpler bumpers and separate parking lamps of the Windsor Deluxe, a combination that makes the New Yorker’s front end seem comparatively cluttered. The 300′s overall height was 59.1 inches (1,501 mm), about 1.8 inches (46 mm) lower than a New Yorker sedan. The lower ride height gave the 300 a more aggressive stance and a lower center of gravity, but reduced wheel travel, which, combined with the heavy-duty suspension, made for a very firm ride for an American car of this vintage. (Photo circa 1955, copyright © Chrysler Group LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

Rodger went immediately to Styling to talk to Exner and Cliff Voss, by then chief stylist of the Chrysler and Imperial studios. Exner and Voss required little convincing, and Voss called in his small staff to discuss their options. Voss and his team initially recommended new front and rear treatments with a new grille, but Quinn’s stipulation about tooling costs made that problematic, so Exner suggested they mix and match existing components to create a distinctive look.

The end result was a New Yorker shell with side trim and rear fenders from the Windsor and the grille and bumpers from the Imperial. In sharp contrast to the trends of the time, Exner asked for minimal brightwork and no two-tone paint jobs. (Although the sales department had insisted on offering two-tone combinations in the New Yorker and later the Windsor lines, Imperials were generally limited to more dignified monochromatic color schemes, possibly at Exner’s insistence.) Exner also suggested adding the chromed wire wheels then optional on other Chrysler products.

The new model’s hasty development meant that it went directly from drawings to full-size prototype, with no scale models or clays. Even the final placement of trim and the new checkered-flag badges (inspired by the emblems of Briggs Cunningham’s sports-racers, discussed in part 1) wasn’t determined until the prototype was ready; Voss, Rodger, and production executive Tom Poirier went over to the Jefferson Street factory and tried taping each piece in a different position until they found an aesthetically satisfying combination.

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  1. I attended the Auburn, Indiana show one year. A couple dozen Duesenbergs, a bunch of Cords and Auburns all parked around the town square.

    And what car do I remember most vividly from that day? A ’55 Forward Look 300 – cream color, driving around with the windows down and that big open hardtop roof looking so handsome. What a beautiful car.

    1. It is a very handsome car. From a practical standpoint, I could quibble about the lack of outside mirrors and backup lights, but I think it’s the best-looking of the 1955 Chryslers.

  2. Another great story on an interesting time in Chrysler Corporation’s history.

    The 1955 Chrysler 300 is the best-looking of the bunch, but all of the firm’s 1955 products are quite handsome. The “standard” 1955 Chryslers and DeSotos are, in my opinion, better-looking than that year’s Buicks and Oldsmobiles.

    The 1955 Dodge held its own with the 1955 Pontiac. The 1955 Dodges are much better-looking than that year’s Mercury, which looks like a Ford with too much chrome and glitter.

    I am surprised that the firm’s market share dipped so much for 1956. While that was a down year for everyone, the Chrysler Corporation cars were still quite handsome, and fully competitive in regards to features and build quality.

    I wonder if the problem was the relative weakness of Plymouth next to Chevrolet and Ford. Dodge and DeSoto were certainly competitive with Mercury, and Ford didn’t have a competitor to Chrysler (Edsel was supposed to solve that problem, if I recall correctly). But Plymouth never came close to matching Ford Division’s sales, and thus the Ford Motor Company easily outsold all of Chrysler Corporation.

    One minor quibble – the red car in the last photo is a 1959 300E, not a 1957 300C. The 1959 model had a different taillight and rear bumper design than the 1957 and 1958 300s. The 1959 Chryslers did use the same basic body as the 1957 models.

    1. Thanks for the photo correction. I didn’t look at it closely enough and the photo isn’t quite big enough to read the badges of the B.G. car.

      If I were to guess, Chrysler’s problem in ’56 was directly related to lenders putting the brakes on consumer credit after 1955′s high default rate. Chrysler — particularly the senior cars — was frequently more expensive than direct competitors, sometimes by a lot, so the reduced ability to spread out that extra cost over a longer-term loan may have been a bigger problem than for some cheaper rivals. Compare Buick and Chrysler prices and you’ll see what I mean.

  3. Wonderful article on one of my favorite subjects. The 1956 Chrysler line is one of my all-time favorites, with the 300B being perhaps the best looking of the lot. The dashboards of the 55-56 models were simply beautiful.

    As a teen, I was given a handful of brochures for the 300B and read it over and over. The car remains one of my primary lust objects.

    I thought I remembered hearing that there were starting to be quibbles about the build-quality of Chrysler’s bodies. Chrysler bought the Briggs Body Company (in 1954, IIRC, which left Packard in a bit of a lurch). I have heard arguments that Chrysler-built bodies were never of the quality of the Briggs-built units. I have always wondered also if the pushbutton transmission controls did not put off some buyers.

  4. The uncle I wrote about earlier had a ’55 New Yorker, royal blue body, baby blue top. A very handsome car which Popular Mechanic’s automobile writer called the best car in 1955.
    That year’s Plymouth would have out-sold the Ford of that year if people were able to distinguish quality. An uncle had a ’55 Plymouth; my father’s ’55 Ford was quite crude in comparison.

    I would love to park that St. Regis in front of my home. I cannot say that for any of the cars currently being manufactured.

    Lastly, thank your for another scholarly article.

  5. Sometimes the right constraints can make a car a classic. The imperial grill makes the 300 awesome! If they had used the 56 new Yorker grill I would only have had a passing interest in this car. That grill is about as boring as a Studebaker President.
    Another note. Does anyone else think the Volvo Amazon looks like a scaled down version of the 55-56 imperial? The grill and 4-door roofline look similar to me.

    1. In re: the Amazon, I had never thought of that, but you’re right. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not — I know the designers have said they were looking at American cars, including Kaisers, so it’s possible.

  6. I remember reading somewhere, one time, that the reason for the Dash mounted Auto Trans stalk on the ’55s was that they had hoped to have the pushbuttons ready for them but fell behind and the steering column was already firmed up for that year. So with the PB’s not ready and the column already locked in, the stalk on the dash was a last minute compromise.
    Anyone else ever hear that one ?

    1. Well, the logistics of production engineering being what they are, Chrysler would certainly have known before the ’55 cars went on sale that the dashboard lever would be replaced by the pushbuttons for ’56, so in that sense you could call the dashboard shift lever an interim design.

      The question is (assuming Hal Pilkey’s account about the pushbuttons being inspired by a Ford prototype somebody saw on the highway was true) exactly when Chrysler decided to do the pushbuttons. Unless that was before June 1953, I think the dashboard lever was conceived first.

      Even if the pushbuttons were conceived first (which is possible — I just don’t know), the idea that the dashboard lever was a hasty substitution doesn’t make a lot of sense. I would think that a metal dashboard would represent a bigger tooling investment than a steering column cover, and a dashboard shifter would require a new linkage, whereas the column shifter linkage could presumably be adapted from the ’54. So, that part seems like a stretch.

  7. These two articles on 1950′s Chryslers really brought back some memories. In 1952, my parents(OK, my dad) bought a New Yorker. It was two-tone green, that is, light green top with the body in aqua. I don’t recall the interior. I didn’t get to drive it as I was nine years old, but it was the first new car that my family had. In 1955, my dad bought another New Yorker. It was black and red, and therein lies a tale. The top was red and the body black, but the standard New Yorker had the side “spear” also in black. My dad put pressure on the dealer and got the spear done in red. Very sharp looking and possibly unique (?). The interior was in light blue fabric. I learned to drive in this car, and also the next car, which was a 1958 Imperial four-door hardtop. Now we were a two-car family,as my Mom had been sharing a Ford two-door hardtop with my aunt. Well, I beat the heck out of it,driving it like a sports car (!) and my dad switched to Lincolns for himself and Ford wagons for my mom.

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