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.