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

TWO-TIME CHAMPION

The Mercury Outboard Team started the 1956 NASCAR season with their existing 300s, trading them early in the calendar year for the 300B. At Daytona in February, Tim Flock drove one of Kiekhaefer’s 300Bs to a new record in the flying mile, with a two-way average of 139.549 mph (224.7 km/h). Vicki Wood then used the same car to set a women’s flying mile record with a two-way average of 136.081 (219.1 km/h). Flock also won the Daytona Beach Grand National race.

1956 Chrysler 300B rear 3q copyright 2012 Pat McLaughlin
The 1956 Chrysler 300B’s suspension was still stiff, but now had heavy-duty Oriflow shock absorbers rather than the unyielding export dampers of the 1955 car and adopted wider 6.00×15 wheels with new Goodyear Blue Streak tires. Race cars retained the narrower 5.50×15 wheels on the grounds that they kept the tires cooler at racing speeds. Another sign of the 300B’s burgeoning racing career was in axle ratios; the standard rear end was 3.36, but there were 12 options, from 3.08 to 6.17, allowing the racers to tailor the gearing to tracks of different lengths. A limited-slip differential, which would have been very useful, was not yet offered. (Photo © 2012 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

After winning two more races for Kiekhaefer, Flock quit the team in April and switched to Mercury, but the Mercury Outboard racers was still a force to be reckoned with in the NASCAR Grand National series, despite strong factory-supported competition from Ford and Chevrolet. Not all of Kiekhaefer’s victories were with the 300B — the big cars were now complemented by lighter Dodge D-500s and eventually by Fords — but Chrysler still finished the season with the manufacturers championship. Elzie “Buck” Baker, who had replaced Tim Flock on the Mercury Outboard roster, claimed the Grand National championship, although Flock beat out all three of Kiekhaefer’s entries in the first and only NASCAR Road America race that August.

Despite his victories, Kiekhaefer was growing increasingly disenchanted with stock car racing. He had clashed repeatedly with officials over rules issues and his cars were booed by the crowds following an accident in October involving Mercury Outboard drivers Herb Thomas and Speedy Thompson. At the end of the season, Kiekhaefer announced that he was pulling out of NASCAR competition. He nearly returned for 1957’s Road America, but NASCAR opted to discontinue the short-lived road racing series.

FORWARD TO FLIGHT SWEEP

The 1956 Chrysler 300B didn’t sell as well as the 300; the final tally was 1,102 cars, including 42 for export. Chrysler’s total sales also fell more than 30% from 1955’s record, to just over a million units.

How much the decline had to do with the product is debatable — sales were down across the board in 1956, as the entire industry nursed a hangover following the previous year’s highs. Lenders were now more wary about car loans and buyers who didn’t demand that new-car smell had their pick of late-model used cars taken in trade (or repossessed) over the previous three years. (Used car prices began to climb in early 1956 after years of declining values.)

However, Chrysler did surrender some of its recently regained market share, a more troubling sign. While Chrysler was now competitive in styling, performance, and features it did not have a commanding lead in any specific area and rivals were continuing to improve. One sore sport was price: A 1956 New Yorker, for example, approached the Cadillac Series 62 in price, but was closer to the much cheaper Buick Roadmaster in prestige. Dodge and Plymouth prices were closer to their direct rivals’, but the competition in the cheaper fields was fiercer than ever.

1956 and 1957 Chrysler 300B and 300C copyright 2007 Pat McLaughlin
The shape of things to come: a 1956 Chrysler 300B (foreground) and a 1959 Chrysler 300E. (Photo © 2007 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

Again, Chrysler was not resting on its laurels. The 1955 models had given Chrysler parity with its domestic rivals, but Colbert and Exner weren’t satisfied with that. They had their sights set on leadership, and 1957 would be the year Chrysler made its move. That, however, is a story for another time.

# # #

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

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Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000): 14-19; David G. Briant, “1956 Imperial…The Finest Expression of the Forward Look!” WPC News Vol. 29, No. 1 (September 1997): 7-14; Arch Brown, “Chrysler 300-C: ‘C’ Is for Chrysler,” Special Interest Autos #107 (September-October 1988), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: 20-27; Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); Racer Brown, “Road Testing America’s Hottest Stock,” Hot Rod Vol. 9, No. 9 (September 1956), reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio (Brooklands Road Test Books), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1992): 114-117, 135; Raphael Brunet, “History of the GS-1” [email to Bob Frumkin, n.d.], email to the author 4 December 2012; Bill Carroll, “Beautiful Brute Part 2,” Car and Driver Vol. 7, No. 3 (September 1961): 60-63; “Chrysler 300,” Car Life, 1955, reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio: 102-105; “Chrysler Announces America’s Most Different Car!” WPC News Vol. XIII, No. XI (July 1982): 4-17; “Chrysler Owners Still Saying Handling Is Best Feature,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 104, No. 4 (October 1955): 125-127, 304-308; “Chrysler 300: a step in the right direction,” Road & Track Vol. 6, No. 10 (June 1955), reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio: 6-7; Chrysler 300 Country, www.chrysler300country.com, accessed 21 December 2012; “Chrysler ‘300’ — Is it the 1955 Cunningham?” Auto Age July 1955, reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio: 9-12, 29; “Chrysler Unveils Dream Sports Car,” Popular Science Vol. 160, No. 2 (February 1952): 99-102; Floyd Clymer, “Clymer Tests the 1955 Chrysler New Yorker,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 104, No. 4 (October 1955): 124, 300-302; David R. 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Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1988): 24-25; Wilbur Shaw, “1954 Chrysler’s 235 Horsepower Makes It America’s Most Powerful Car,” Popular Science Vol. 163, No. 5 (November 1953): 99-105; Daniel Strohl, “Inimitable Imperial,” Hemmings Classic Car #61 (October 2009): 18–25; “The Car That ‘Swept the Field’ at Daytona … Chrysler 300,” advertisement [c. spring 1955], reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars, p. 13; “The Quarter-Billion Look,” LIFE Vol. 37, No. 20 (15 November 1954): 139-141; “The Story of Ghia & Chrysler,” Imperial Club, 10 January 2004, www.imperialclub.com, accessed 4 December 2012; “‘300’: Chrysler’s Muscle Car,” Car Classics October 1974, reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio: 92-101; Mike Trettin and Virgil Exner, Jr., “A Conversation with Virgil Exner, Jr.,” Imperial Club, 8 January 2003, www.imperialclub. org, accessed 30 November 2012; “21 Years of Chrysler Idea Cars,” Special-Interest Autos #13 (October-November 1972): 16-21; “Two New Systems of Pushbutton Driving,” Motor Life Vol. 5, No. 5 (December 1955): 14-15; Bob Wonders, “Iron Fist” [book review], 16 December 2008, www.seabreeze. com.au/ News, accessed 4 December 2012; and the Wikipedia entries for Tim Flock (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Flock, accessed 4 December 2012), Fonty Flock (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fonty_Flock, 21 December 2012), Carl Kiekhaefer (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Kiekhaefer, accessed 4 December 2012), and Kiekhaefer Mercury (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiekhaefer_Mercury, accessed 4 December 2012).

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 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.

      1. Paul Dietzel’s theory makes sense to me. Having maintained the first F-16C’s at Ramstein AB back in ’86, I can attest that not everything is ready for the show when the curtain goes up. Given this site’s thorough approach to auto history, we’re as likely to read it here as anywhere else. Short of interviewing engineering staff of the day, how to know?

        My $.02:

        My dad gave me my first car (in 1967), a 1955 DeSoto Fireflite, Powerflite shift on dash.

        My last Mopar was a 1964 Imperial I owned until 2004. Pushbutton shift.

        Though I was young and it was a long time ago, the dash shift seemed to be a relatively simple, elegant and reliable solution. On the DeSoto at least, tooling shouldn’t have involved much more than the driver’s side instrument panel and some bracing. To me, it seemed to be simpler than running linkage up the steering column. I’m led to believe that Chrysler could have easily come up with this in a pinch, as Paul suggests.

        The pushbutton shift, though it may have been cheaper to manufacture (I have no idea), involved more moving parts. In my 1964 Imperial, anything beyond the most minor maintenence to this unit requires removing much of the dashboard, a daunting task. I can also well imagine a production delay trying to get the buttons, springs, levers and detents to work reliably and predictabably in the push-button prototypes. Push-button shifting was uncharted waters. A simple lever on the dash was easy stuff to work out in a pinch.

        Pictures of the 1952 Imperial presidential parade car interior in Jay Leno’s show a column dash, lend some additional credence. The ’52 is a finished styling work, writing the “forward look” in stone. The dashboard was strictly functional, not at all styled. It’s not a show car, but a functioning, custom built, state coach.

        So anyhow, in my (former) Mopar mind, Paul Dietzel’s theory makes sense.

        On topic, back around ’93, in Arizona, a gentleman named Don Petty showed me a beautiful 1955 Chrysler 300, green exterior, tan leather seats, that he was selling for a reasonable price. Upon opening the driver’s door, I got a small start, and Petty got a chuckle out of it:

        N – R – D – 1 – 2

        Petty said this was THE FIRST TorqueFlite car, the test mule.

        Couldn’t buy it at the time. Sigh…

        1. It’s possible, sure. It’s admittedly very difficult to know for sure on certain details like that because even if you’re in a position to interview engineers and assembly line people about it, each individual may not know the whole story. (One thing I’ve found over the years is that rank-and-file workers will sometimes come up with their own explanations for decisions that take place beyond their purview, which aren’t always accurate.)

          The specific piece of Paul’s comment that I’m a little dubious about is really just the “last-minute” part, which may come down to the fact that auto industry lead times are longer than a casual observer would likely intuit. It’s certainly possible that all of these things are true: that Pilkey’s account is accurate, that the dash lever was designed first, and that the latter was substituted for the former because getting the buttons to work reliably was going to require more time. It comes down to when each design was conceived and the timeline for each, which isn’t really knowable without access to internal documents that even FCA probably no longer has.

          There’s no question that the pushbuttons were a gimmick, of course; they were an indulgently and probably relatively expensively futuristic touch for an era that was still very excited about the future.

  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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