Forward Looking: 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 grille badge


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 V-8, now offering 250 gross horsepower (186 kW), along with V-8s 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 V-8 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 for the ’55 redesign 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; the Newport 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” V-8s were now optional — and the first-ever Chrysler lineup without a six-cylinder engine. Since the debut of the FirePower engine, 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 301 cu. in. (4,905 cc) OHV V-8, 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 V-8 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. Critics like Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated complained that horsepower had increased more than torque — in four years, the engine had picked up 70 horsepower (52 kW), but gross torque output had only climbed from 312 lb-ft (423 N-m) @ 2,000 rpm to 340 lb-ft (461 N-m) @ 2,800 rpm — so you had to wind the engine out to take advantage of its potential. If you did that, though, a 1955 New Yorker was among the fastest cars in America, capable of almost 115 mph (185 km/h). 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 Chrysler 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 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.

1955 Imperial sedan copyright 2007 alfone45 (PD)
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: “Imp55rsf” © 2007 alfone45; released into the public domain by the photographer, resized 2013 by Aaron Severson)

One enticing possibility was a forthcoming concept car from the Advanced studio: the Falcon, a relatively compact DeSoto-powered 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 Ford Thunderbird. Sadly, 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, Chrysler general manager Ed Quinn authorized Rodger to prepare such a model, although Quinn warned that there was no money left for any significant tooling expenditure.

1955 Chrysler 300 front 3q copyright 1955 FCA US LLC – Historical Services
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. (Image: “1955 Chry 300 rt frnt” circa 1955, copyright © FCA US LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

Exner and Cliff Voss, by then the chief stylist of the Chrysler and Imperial studios, were naturally excited about the idea and immediately began discussing possible options. The budget wouldn’t permit any significant sheet metal changes or even a new grille, but Exner suggested they instead try mixing and matching existing components. The end result was a New Yorker shell with side trim and rear fenders from the Windsor, the grille and bumpers from the Imperial, and the chromed wire wheels optional on other Chrysler products.

Rather than adding more brightwork, as was customary for fancier models, Exner suggested they keep the use of chrome to a minimum, which was not only cheaper, but also made the performance model the cleanest-looking of the 1955 Chrysler line. The limited trim also discouraged two-tone paint, something of which Exner wasn’t especially fond. (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.) One new touch were the checkered-flag badges, inspired by the emblems worn by Briggs Cunningham’s sport-racers (discussed in Part 1).


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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.

  8. Magnificent motors, particularly the 300. I don’t quite agree on it being the handsomest of all the 1955s (that accolade goes to the Windsor in my opinion), but that gloriously stark eggcrate grille is a sight to behold. I’m very glad it was carried on in the 2005 Chrysler 300 (of which we in the UK only received the 300C model); one last hint of the glories of Chrysler’s past.

    One thing that I think people often forget is that unlike a comparable European sports car (e.g. a Jag XK140), a 300 was a practical daily driver (fuel economy not being a huge concern); you could still fit a decent amount of luggage in its commodious boot, and the back seat, while not offering much legroom, could accommodate three passengers. Sure, your XK140 would probably out-accelerate the 300; but the 300 would carry you along in comfort for hour after hour.

    It’s my current ambition to own one of the rare 5.7L Hemi-equipped 300Cs that made it to Britain, before the EV and the green lobby stills their mighty pistons forever. Not least because, for my money, the 300C is the last real Chrysler. Everything since then is just a Fiat.

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