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

The U.S. auto industry has seen few transformations as dramatic as the one Chrysler underwent between 1949 and 1955. In 1949, Chrysler’s cars were sensible, conservative, and dull, with sleepy performance and stolid styling. Six years later, the corporation offered some of Detroit’s sleekest designs and strongest engines, culminating in the launch of America’s most powerful car, the Chrysler 300. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we take a look at the 1949-1954 Chryslers, the Exner/Ghia idea cars, and the birth of the FirePower Hemi.

1952 Chrysler New Yorker hood ornament


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), the 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 had ever offered more than six cylinders.

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

By 1949, Chrysler’s sole eight-cylinder engine was the Spitfire Eight, offered only in the senior Chrysler models. A direct descendant of the straight-eights introduced by Dodge and DeSoto in January 1930, the Spitfire Eight was a 324 cu. in. (5,302 cc) L-head engine with five main bearings and 7.25:1 compression, making 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 or first and second, respectively. Since the shift pattern didn’t make it easy to go through the gears (starting in Low and shifting manually to High would generally give you first, second, and fourth), many people simply left the transmission in High for most normal driving. The fluid coupling eliminated the need to declutch at idle, so the clutch pedal was needed only for shifting from High to Low range or into reverse.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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  1. Glad to (finally) see another article in your series. My comment – the picture of the 1950 Plymouth and 1952 Chrysler both appear to be “lowered” to my eyes. I compared them with photos in several books about 50s cars and it looks that way to me.

    1. They do seem to ride a little low, although given the condition of both cars, I suspect that they’ve settled on heavily worn, 50-year-old springs and shocks rather than that there’s been a deliberate attempt to lower them. It’s certainly possible, of course — the ’52 seems to be sitting on its haunches, so at some point, somebody may have been aspiring to the tail-dragger look — but it doesn’t appear that either car has gotten any mechanical attention in many years.

  2. Another wonderful article, worth the wait. Thanks Aaron.

    I had an uncle who bought a new New Yorker every year from the late 40s through 1955. In November of ’52 we were driving in his ’52 New Yorker to northern Michigan for our annual deer hunting trip. There were five of us in the New Yorker. At one point during the journey, a ’52 Cadillac Coupe de Ville started to pass us. My uncle, who was quite volatile, was not going to allow that, so he floored the New Yorker. From the back seat, 8 years old me watched the speedometer eventually reach 110 where it stopped as the Cadillac passed us. My uncle went berserk. Now, after 60 years, a question only you, Aaron, may be able to answer. Why did the New Yorker lose? Was it the superior aero-dynamics of the Cadillac? Was it weight? (our payload was probably about 400 pounds greater) Was it the Cadillac’s hydramatic transmission? Or a combination of all?

    1. That is a good question. An indicated top speed of 110 mph for the New Yorker sounds about right (if we accept that period speedometers were not exactly precise). However, I wouldn’t expect the Coupe de Ville to be significantly faster than that, discounting the minor variations between individual cars and states of tune.

      The Hydra-Matic might give the Cadillac an edge at lower speeds — say, in the 40-70 range — by making fuller use of all four gears, something Fluid-Torque didn’t really offer, but all out, I don’t know that their efficiency was that different.

      Top speed has a lot more to do with aerodynamics than with weight. I’d think that at those speeds, additional load would be more likely to increase the time it took to reach top speed than to significantly affect that terminal velocity. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the Coupe de Ville had an edge in aerodynamics. I don’t have frontal area figures for either car, but I would assume the New Yorker’s would be greater.

      The wildcard, of course, is that the Cadillac might have been modified in some way. Obviously, at this remove, we’ll never know, but it wouldn’t have been terribly difficult to add an aftermarket intake manifold and two, three, or four carburetors, just to give people fits on the highway in exactly the way you experienced.

    2. I also wonder if rear end gearing could have been different. With the 4 speed HydraMatic with its very low first gear, the Cadillac could probably get by with taller gearing in the differential, giving it an advantage at high speed.

      1. The standard axle ratio on the Cadillac was 3.36 and I believe the Chrysler was the same. However, Cadillac also catalogued a 3.07 axle in ’52, so that would be a possibility.

        I should note that the Fluid-Torque transmission also had a rather short first gear. The geared ratio in first was 3.28 and the torque converter gave 2.34:1 at stall, which gives you a maximum breakaway ratio of 7.68:1! This is why most people just started in High. Third gear was 1.61, so breakaway in High was up to 3.77:1 — perfectly adequate unless you were hauling a trailer up a hill or trying to pull a stump.

        1. Only AUWM can quote exact numbers when conversing about a race in 1952 between a Chrysler and a Cadillac. My hat is off to you, Aaron. You really know your subject.

  3. Thanks. This is another great historical article.

    I hope in the future you consider writing a historical piece about Honda. Sochiro was constantly pushing engineering forward. Hell, look at the air-cooled four-cylinder in the Honda 1300. Not necessarily a company with great styling but wonderful engineering.

    Not to be too Japan-centric, but a similar article about early Japanese Kei cars would be interesting as well.

    1. Funny you should mention that, as I’ve been seriously considering doing either the early S600/S800 or the Honda CRX.

  4. Aaron, another excellent article on a fascinating period of Chrysler history. Most forget that from around 1929 or so, Chrysler had been No. 2 of the “Big 3.” Ford was the perennial No. 3 due to its lack of any significant footprint outside the low priced field. Only at the end of this era (I believe 1953) did Chrysler slip below Ford, a realignment that would become permanent.

  5. A possible answer to Zipster’s question is that Cadillac gained 30 hp in ’52 to advertised 190 vs 180 in the Chrysler hemi. I think this was due to the addition of a 4 barrel carb in the Caddy vs 2 barrel in the MOPAR. This superior carburetion could have made all the difference in high rpm top end performance.

    1. That is true, although I wouldn’t expect the real-world difference to be quite so dramatic. Still, add to that the extra load and perhaps a sharper state of tune … hmm.

  6. This is a fascinating article on a critical point in Chrysler’s history. Today it’s hard to believe that, for many years, Chrysler had nailed down second place behind GM.

    I’ve read that there were problems with the 1953 Dodges and Plymouths regarding a decline in build quality and obvious cost-cutting. Dealers complained that the 1953 Plymouths, in particular, were cheapened compared to the 1949-52 models, which had been very well built. Contemporary road tests of both Dodges and Plymouths mentioned sloppier build quality.

    Given that this had been a Chrysler strength, one wonders why the corporation let this happen.

    1. I don’t know specifically, but looking at the figures suggests a possibility. Chrysler in general had suffered — even before the price war — because its prices were higher than direct rivals. A 1952 Dodge Coronet sedan, for example, was about $60 more than a Pontiac Chieftain Eight DeLuxe despite the Coronet’s six-cylinder engine, while a 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook Belvedere hardtop cost over $200 more than a Chevrolet Bel Air.

      List prices of the ’53 Dodge and Plymouth were cut noticeably; a ’53 Belvedere hardtop was down more than $150. A ’53 Dodge Coronet Eight cost less than a ’52 Coronet, despite the addition of the Red Ram engine — the Diplomat hardtop, for instance, was more than $240 cheaper. Since material and labor were definitely not cheaper, those savings had to come from somewhere.

  7. The photo of the black 1950 Plymouth coupe smacked me right in the face: it’s unquestionably, line for line, proportion for proportion, the inspiration for the celebrated 1953-62 Mercedes Pontons.

  8. Thanks to the several thoughful replies, I now have some insight into why the Cadillac beat the Chrysler. Following the loss, my uncle determined to buy a Lincoln, which because of the Mexican road race was purportedly the fastest American car then available. However, the Lincoln dealers would not give him what he thought was a fair trade-in and instead he bought a ’53 New Yorker.

    In another vein, when Harry and Bess Truman made their surprise trip from Kansas City to Washington D.C. in 1954, Harry drove his ’54 New Yorker. Imagine any president since then doing his own, unescorted drive across the country.

  9. I wonder whether Ford’s legendary internal dysfunctions played a bigger role in its fall to No. 3 than full market coverage. If you believe that a Sloan-style brand hierarchy is the key to success, note that between 1952 and 1955 Ford still had significant gaps relative Chrysler yet it edged ahead.

    That may partly have reflected Chrysler’s product weaknesses, particularly in 1953-54, but Ford’s win-at-all-costs price war was arguably even more important. Here is where economies of scale proved to be a crucial plus for Ford and a minus for Chrysler.

  10. [quote=Administrator]Funny you should mention that, as I’ve been seriously considering doing either the early S600/S800 or the Honda CRX. [/quote]
    Aaron, I’d be really interested in seeing an article on the S600/800.

    I owned a 1967 S600 (bought with 10,050 miles in early ’68), and used it as my daily commute in Vancouver for 18 years (albeit with several engine and differential rebuilds).

    Unlike the few S600s that were brought from Japan by US servicemen, here in Canada these cars were imported in some numbers, and were normal left-hand drive. I still have the excellent and very thorough service manual as a keepsake!

    I loved that car! With 9500 RPM redline and roller bearing crank with 4 constant velocity carbs and twin cams, and a pair of enclosed rear chain drives it was, well…. “interesting”!

  11. Well, since Chrysler built its market share by carving out chunks of a bunch of different market segments — whereas Ford was heavily dependent on the strength of the Ford brand — I wouldn’t say that the Chrysler approach was wrong.

    I would split the blame for the 1953-54 crisis between cost/price and product weakness. Plymouth, for example, didn’t offer a V-8, was less powerful than a six-cylinder Chevrolet, and didn’t have PowerFlite until late in the ’54 model year, but actually cost more — even on a strict list price basis — than a V-8 Ford.

    I think Chrysler could have partially mitigated the crisis if they’d developed an automatic transmission earlier: The lack of it was problematic for Plymouth and a serious handicap for the senior divisions. I think Keller really underestimated how significant automatic would be as a selling point (or non-selling point, as the case may be).

  12. I’ve read that another reason Keller resisted the trend to fully automatic transmissions is that he believed cars should have a clutch for better “driver control.”

    It’s also interesting to read the comments of owners in the Popular Mechanics “Owners Report” series. About 10 percent of 1954 New Yorker Deluxe owners voiced unhappiness with the styling.

    Plymouth suffered even more in the styling department. Even today, a 1953-54 Plymouth looks very dull and dowdy parked next to its primary competitors, the 1953-54 Chevrolet and Ford.

    1. The former sounds like something the press office came up with, honestly. People did make that statement from time to time, but it’s not like Fluid-Matic and Fluid-Torque gave you that much driver control. Chrysler had done such a thorough job of making the clutch [i]almost[/i] unnecessary that its continued presence was much more of an vexation than a benefit to the driver. Now, if the M-5/M-6 transmissions had given you the ability to go through the gears manually, that might have been a different story, but the shift mechanism was clearly not designed with that in mind.

      I think Harry Cheseborough’s explanation seems more on target. A lot of engineers (including some at GM) were dismayed by the complexity of Hydra-Matic, and not without reason: The original Hydra-Matic weighed almost twice as much as a three-speed manual transmission, had three planetary gearsets, and needed eight shifts (bands and clutches) for four forward speeds. The main alternative was the Dynaflow/Powerglide/Ultramatic torque converter transmission, which was simpler but dreadfully inefficient. It’s not hard to see how somebody like Keller would have looked at all of that in 1948-1949 and said, “Who needs it?”

      Considered in those terms, the semiautomatic transmission wasn’t a terrible compromise, particularly the Fluid-Torque version, which was a lot less sleepy than the earlier fluid coupling units. The problem was that the buying public were less concerned with mechanical elegance or efficiency than they were in just not having to shift gears or use a clutch. (Considering the state of contemporary manual transmissions, that isn’t hard to understand…)

  13. I have to admit that I let out a chuckle when I read that, in the 1940s, Fiat went to Chrysler for advice on modern manufacturing techniques, and possible shared production.

    At that time, who’d have ever thought that Fiat would eventually [i][b]own[/b][/i] Chrysler?

  14. Regarding the Semiautomatic Transmission , I recall my dad’s 1948 Dodge Coupe , I’m pretty sure the transmission had 2 RANGES , ‘Town’ and ‘Highway’. With the gear lever in the upper position , (‘Town’) the car would pull off in first , and when the foot was lifted from the gas , would shift into third . Flooring the pedal would kick down to first at a low enough speed .
    With the lever in the lower (‘Highway’)position , the car would move off in second and lifting the foot after around 20 m.p.h. would shift you into fourth , with a kickdown available below 20 m.p.h. The clutch pedal was only needed for shifting between ranges or for initially putting the car in gear or in reverse.
    I remember it being a nice car , comfortable and very reliable , though no match for the later V8’s..

    1. There were several variations of the semiautomatic transmission, so your memory may well be correct.

  15. Aaron, In the description of the hemi, you repeat the myth that the spark plug was in an advantageous place in the center of the chamber. While this was true of some early engines with domed chambers, it is not true of the Chrysler hemis. Chrysler had realized that the important advantage of the design was not the chamber shape or spark plug location, it was the larger valve diameters the angled valves allowed. Look at sectioned engine in this story. The cylinder showing on the right is sectioned through the valves stems. Note there is no room for the spark plug between the valves. The cylinder showing on the left section goes through the spark plug with no valves showing. The spark plug is at the very forward edge of the chamber. Spark in that location was adequate for early hemis, but today’s hemi has two plugs per cylinder, one fore and one aft of the valves.

    1. A fair point, although of course the modern HEMI doesn’t have hemispherical combustion chambers — more of a modified pentroof.

      1. I revised the applicable text in a hopefully more useful way. (Since it’s five o’clock in the morning, I will have to check back later to make sure it’s coherent…)

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