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.
THE CHRYSLER FORWARD LOOK
Chrysler’s 1955 models were not so much a new chapter as the first time all the pieces company chairman K.T. Keller and president L.L. “Tex” Colbert had been assembling over the past few years (described in our first installment) finally came together. There was the FirePower 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.
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.
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.
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 BIRTH OF THE 300
The Chrysler 300 was a very late addition to the 1955 lineup. In fact, the 300 was conceived around the time the rest of the 1955 cars were beginning pilot production.
The new model was the idea of Robert M. Rodger, previously part of Bill Drinkard’s engine development staff and more recently Chrysler Division’s chief engineer. Rodger had been heavily involved in the development of the FirePower 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.
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.
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).
THE CHRYSLER 300
A single prototype was assembled in October 1954, also serving as the design team’s model for determining the final placement of trim and badges; there had been no time for full-size clays or even scale models. Mechanically, the car was essentially a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe two-door hardtop with stiff “export” shock absorbers and heavy-duty springs, some 60% stiffer than the standard New Yorker’s. Brakes were the same as the Imperial’s, 12-inch (305 mm) Lockheed drums with a Kelsey-Hayes booster, while the tires were six-ply 8.00×15 Goodyear Super Cushion whitewalls.
Under the hood was a high-performance version of the 331 cu. in. (5,425 cc) FirePower V-8, in a state of tune very similar to that of Cunningham’s C-4R Le Mans cars, including a special intake manifold, a much hotter camshaft, solid lifters, and multiple carburetors, albeit two four-barrel Carter carburetors rather than the Cunningham’s four Zenith two-throats. The result was 300 gross horsepower (224 kW) at 5,200 rpm and 342 lb-ft (464 N-m) of torque at 3,200 rpm, numbers that hadn’t been seen on an American production engine since the supercharged Duesenberg Model SJ of the early 1930s. The engine was backed by a beefed-up PowerFlite automatic transmission, although a single car was later fitted with a three-speed manual transmission.
Quinn and Braden were uneasy about the prototype’s rakishly lowered (and very stiff) suspension and loping idle, but Quinn became much more enthusiastic once Rodger convinced him to drive the car. The new model was quickly approved and slated for introduction later in the 1955 model year. Production began in January.
To emphasize the fact that the new model was America’s most powerful production car, it would be called simply Chrysler 300. To avoid the logistical problems and production delays that would have resulted from trying to build the 300 on the same line as the New Yorker and Windsor, the 300 was built alongside the Imperial. Each completed car was road-tested before delivery.
The Chrysler 300 was announced on January 17 and went on sale in early February. List price was $4,055.25 FOB Detroit, which included power brakes and PowerFlite, but not a heater or power steering, both of which were extra-cost options. Air conditioning was theoretically unavailable, although at least three cars were so equipped. Even without air, a fully loaded 300 with wire wheels had an advertised delivered price of more than $5,000, a Cadillac price tag in those days.
That price tag bought one of the most muscular production cars of its era; the Chrysler 300 was 135 lb (61 kg) lighter than the already respectably quick New Yorker hardtop and boasted an additional 50 horsepower (37 kW). Admittedly, the highly tuned engine suffered a bit at lower engine speeds, which, combined with a two-speed automatic and 4,300 lb (1,950 kg) of curb weight, made the 300 a little sleepy below about 40 mph (65 km/h). Still, a 10-second 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time put the 300 in the upper echelon of contemporary American performance cars. A Thunderbird, Buick Century, or V8 Chevrolet could outmatch the 300 up to freeway speeds, but after that, the big Chrysler would leave most of those cars behind.
Despite its substantial bulk, the 300 handled well, its lower center of gravity and stiffer springs keeping body lean in check. The 300’s Achilles’ heel was its steering, which offered the same unhappy tradeoff as other Chrysler products: The non-power steering was frustratingly slow (5.5 turns lock-to-lock), while the optional Hydraguide power assist was quick but almost totally lacking in feel, hardly confidence-inspiring in the sort of driving the 300 otherwise encouraged. Other debits were the front bench seat, which lacked any lateral support (or seat belts, although these became optional late in the year) and had slippery leather upholstery, and the brakes, which were not up to the standard set by the engine.
While the Chrysler 300 was no sports car, it was one of the first big American cars that could be called a sports sedan with a straight face. It was not as nimble as an MGA or Triumph TR3, but in compensation, there was room for six and a cavernous trunk. Even ride quality was decent, if a little stiff-legged, a dividend of the 300’s ample sprung weight. If you didn’t mind the rough idle, the 300 was a comfortable, attractive, sure-footed plus-size touring car that could handily dust a variety of ostensibly sportier opponents.
RACING ON THE BEACH (AND ELSEWHERE)
The Chrysler 300 arrived just in time for the speed trials at the 1955 Daytona Speed Weeks. On the sand, the new car quickly demonstrated that it was as formidable as the specifications suggested. While the 300 didn’t excel in the standing-start trials, it finished one-two-three in the flying mile, with pilot Warren Koechling setting a new two-way record at 127.58 mph (205.4 km/h), followed by Brewster Shaw (who’d set the previous record in a 1954 New Yorker) and Vicki Wood. Stock car driver Tim Flock drove another 300 in the 160-mile (258-km) Daytona Beach Grand National, averaging more than 92 mph (148 km/h) to finish second, but he was belatedly declared the winner after the disqualification of first-place finisher Fireball Roberts’ Buick.
Technicality or not, Flock’s victory was the first NASCAR win for the indefatigable Carl Kiekhaefer. Although Kiekhaefer had sat out the 1954 Carrera Panamericana, his interest in racing had not abated. His drivers had won three 1954 AAA stock car races in New Yorker club coupes, and as soon as the 300 became available, he bought an early-production example and took it to Florida to look for drivers. He hired Flock in Daytona, subsequently adding to the ranks Frank Mundy, Buck Baker, Tony Bettenhausen, Norm Nelson, Speedy Thompson, and Flock’s older brother, Truman Fontello “Fonty” Flock.
Kiekhaefer was not an easy man to work for — he was a demanding workaholic, and employees or business partners had to be prepared for calls in the middle of the night — but the Mercury Outboard Team was the best-prepared and best-paid in stock car racing. While Kiekhaefer funded the Mercury Outboard cars himself, he also had no qualms about calling Chrysler engineers in Highland Park at all hours for technical support, which Chrysler, mindful of the potential publicity involved, was quick to provide.
The Mercury Outboard 300s were too big to be strong contenders in short-track events, but Kiekhaefer’s drivers were almost unstoppable in the NASCAR Grand National series, winning 23 races out of 39 starts. Eighteen of those victories went to Tim Flock, who won the driver’s championship by a commanding margin. Mercury Marine Chryslers also took 14 AAA stock car victories, 10 of them won by Frank Mundy, and Chrysler claimed the manufacturers championship for both series. The Kiekhaefer 300s would probably have been highly competitive in the Carrera Panamericana, but the Mexican road race was no more, canceled after the 1954 event.
Considering its price, hard-edged nature, and late introduction, it’s no surprise that the 1955 Chrysler 300 wasn’t a big seller for Chrysler — total production amounted to only 1,692 cars for the U.S. market, plus an additional 33 for export — but its publicity value was considerable. The 300’s competition and speed trial exploits were featured extensively in Chrysler advertising, perhaps the most visible symbol of how far the company had come over the past five years.
The more important signs, as far as Chrysler’s directors were concerned, were on the balance sheet, which was considerably cheerier than in 1954. Chrysler’s total volume nearly doubled to around 1.6 million units, a new record, and the company’s total market share improved to more than 17% — short of the 20% company officials had hoped for, but reassuring after the dismal 1954 model year.
While a greatly improved product line played no small part in that success, Chrysler’s 1955 revival must also be considered in the context of the industry as a whole. The 1955 model year broke sales records across the board: Total U.S. new car sales reached nearly 7.5 million, exceeding the industry’s most optimistic projections by more than 20%. However, much of that growth was due to aggressive promotions and easy credit, neither of which was sustainable. The default rate on new car loans was alarmingly high and the explosion in consumer credit led the Federal Reserve Board to raise the prime lending rate in an effort to stave off inflation. The outlook for the 1956 model year was less rosy.
Chrysler’s 1956 model debuted in October 1955, with a modest facelift Chrysler advertising copy dubbed “Powerstyle.” The touched-up look included the inevitable new grilles and bumpers, a new four-door hardtop body style, and the first flush of Virgil Exner’s latest stylistic fascination: “Flightswept” tailfins.
Cadillac, of course, had introduced tailfins back in 1948 and various fin-like projections had been sprouting up throughout the industry for years, but Exner’s interest stemmed from a Ghia design called the Gilda, developed by Giovanni Savonuzzi (designer of the Cistalia) and shown at the 1955 Turin show. The Gilda was not designed for or funded by Chrysler, but Exner and Cliff Voss arranged for Chrysler to create a three-eighths-scale model of the car, which was used for aerodynamic testing in Michigan. They subsequently found that the fins provided meaningful improvements in high-speed stability by moving the center of aerodynamic pressure farther aft. That fact was later picked up by Chrysler’s marketing department and became the subject of much mockery, but Exner maintained that it was true. (Whether that was really the main reason for adding them is another matter.)
The 1956 cars also introduced what would become another signature feature for Chrysler: pushbutton automatic transmission controls. Unlike the contemporary Packard system, which was electrically operated and rather troublesome, the Chrysler system was purely mechanical; engaging a button changed the effective length of the shift cable, just like moving a column- or console-mounted shift lever. According to stylist Harold Pilkey, then the head of the Plymouth studio, the pushbuttons were inspired by a chance encounter with a Ford fitted with what was presumably a prototype of the pushbutton shifting system later used in Mercurys and Edsels. However, the Chrysler system would be considerably longer-lived, surviving through 1964.
Most of Chrysler’s V8 engines were enlarged for 1956, including the Chrysler/Imperial FirePower, which was bored 0.125 inches (3.1 mm), bringing displacement to 354 cu. in. (5,787 cc). The compression ration increased to 9.0:1 and both intake and exhaust valves were enlarged, to 1.94 inches (49.2 mm) and 1.75 inches (44.5 mm) respectively. These changes added 30 gross horsepower (22 kW) and, more importantly, 40 lb-ft (54 N-m) of torque — useful given the greater weight of the facelifted bodies. Other changes included a switch from a 6-volt to a 12-volt electrical system and the adoption of Chrysler’s new “Center Plane” drum brakes, with dual leading shoes.
THE FIRST OF THE LETTER CARS
The 1956 edition of the 300 debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in January 1956. To distinguish the new model from the original, Chrysler appended the letter B to the designation, making the new car the 1956 Chrysler 300B.
Despite its name, the 1956 Chrysler 300B now had a good deal more than 300 gross horsepower: Applying the original 300’s hot solid-lifter cam and dual carburetors to the latest 354 cu. in. (5,787 cc) FirePower V8 yielded 340 gross horsepower (254 kW) and 385 lb-ft (522 N-m) of torque. The 300B engine was also fortified with heavy-duty bearings and a hardened crankshaft for greater durability at racing speeds.
Another competition-focused addition, arriving in mid-summer, was an even hotter engine with new heads and 10.0:1 compression, raising advertised output to 355 gross horsepower (265 kW) and 405 lb-ft (549 N-m) of torque. Much ballyhooed in later years as the first American production engine making 1 (gross) horsepower per cubic inch (61 hp/liter), the high-compression engine was introduced purely for the benefit of Kiekhaefer and company; few, if any, of these engines were installed in non-race cars.
Other changes to the 300B mirrored those of other Chryslers: new be-finned rear fenders and rear bumper, Center Plane brakes (no bigger than a New Yorker’s and inadequate for the much faster 300), and pushbutton shift controls. PowerFlite was once again standard, but for $70 extra, purists could now specify a heavy-duty clutch and the Dodge-supplied three-speed manual transmission nominally standard on the Windsor.
A considerably more useful alternative, added late in the model run, was Chrysler’s new three-speed automatic, the A-488 TorqueFlite. Based on patents licensed from inventor Howard W. Simpson, TorqueFlite had two planetary gearsets sharing a single sun gear, which made for a three-speed transmission only a little heavier than the two-speed PowerFlite. TorqueFlite’s 2.45 low ratio (combined with a torque converter with a 2.3:1 stall ratio) gave considerably better low-speed pickup than the two-speed transmission, while the 1.45 second provided a much-needed passing gear. TorqueFlite proved just as durable as PowerFlite, with a similar combination of positive response and smooth shifts.
The 1956 Chrysler 300B was about 150 lb (68 kg) heavier than the original 300, but the extra power and torque gave performance a shot in the arm. Low-speed acceleration remained a little soft, but cars with the standard engine and PowerFlite were now capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 9 seconds; the three-speed manual transmission trimmed an additional second from that figure. (The only road test we’ve found of a TorqueFlite-equipped car included no timed acceleration figures, but we suspect the three-speed automatic would split the difference between the PowerFlite and lighter stick-shift cars.) Top speed with the more sensible of the many available axle ratios was sufficient to preserve the 300B’s status as one of the fastest — if not the fastest — stock cars in America.
The 300B’s competition in that arena now included a number of other Chrysler products. The promotional value of the original 300 hadn’t been lost on the heads of the other divisions. Midway through the 1956 model year, each of Chrysler’s automotive brands received its own performance model. In December, before the Chrysler 300B debuted, Dodge introduced its entry, the D-500, initially a Royal Lancer with heavy-duty chassis and drivetrain components, oversize Center Plane brakes, and a 315 cu. in. (5,147 cc) Red Ram engine with 260 hp (194 kW). In January came the Plymouth Fury, with a 240 hp (179 kW) Canadian-built 303 cu. in. (4,957 cc) engine, heavy-duty suspension, and special trim, followed in February by the DeSoto Adventurer, a well-trimmed Fireflite Sportsman with a dual-carburetor 341 cu. in. (5,594 cc) “FireDome” Hemi and 320 hp (239 kW). While none of these cars was as powerful as the 300B, they were lighter and significantly cheaper than the Chrysler, whose base price had climbed to more than $4,300.
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.
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.
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.
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
Information on the 300, 300B, and the 1955 Forward Look (including the earlier Chrysler styling efforts of Virgil Exner, Sr.) came from: Robert Ackerson, Chrysler 300 ‘America’s Most Powerful Car’ (Godmanstone, England: Veloce Publishing Plc., 1996); Dennis Adler, “1953 Chrysler Ghia Special: An American/Italian Hybrid,” Car Collector October 1997, and “The Chrysler Ghias: The Story of Exner’s Chrysler Specials from 1953,” Car Exchange December 1982: 60-61; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1940s and 1950s Kaiser-Frazer Concept Cars,” HowStuffWorks.com, 14 November 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ 1940s-and-1950s- kaiser-frazer-concept-cars1.htm, 29 November 2012, and “1950s Chrysler Concept Cars,” HowStuffWorks.com, 13 November 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ 1950s-chrysler-concept-cars.htm, accessed 4 December 2012, “1955 NASCAR Grand National Season Recap,” HowStuffWorks.com, 30 July 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ auto-racing/ nascar/ season-recaps/ 1950s/ 1955-nascar.htm, accessed 4 December 2012, and “1956 NASCAR Grand National Season Recap,” HowStuffWorks.com, 31 July 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ auto-racing/ nascar/ season-recaps/ 1950s/ 1956-nascar.htm, accessed 4 December 2012; Jim Benjaminson, “Plymouth cars of 1955: A Complete Turnaround,” Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 11 February 2011; Terry Boyce, “Fury,” Special-Interest Autos #10 (April-May 1972), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. 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. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of Frank A. Bianchi,” Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, 24 May 1987, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/ Design/ Bianchi.htm, accessed 29 November 2012, and “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; “Custom Styling for Well-heeled Customers,” Motor Trend Vol. 8, No. 8 (August 1956), reprinted in Chrysler Imperial Gold Portfolio 1951-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2004): 40-42; Leo Donovan, “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 102, No. 6 (June 1954), p. 76, “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 105, No. 4 (April 1956): 85, “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 104, No. 2 (August 1956): 88;and “Parade of 1955 Cars,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 103, No. 2 (February 1955): 138-145; Virgil Exner, Jr., [Chrysler Special presentation], November 2012; Virgil M. Exner, Sr., “Styling and Aerodynamics,” Chrysler Corporation, 14 September 1957 [presentation to Society of Automotive Engineers, Detroit Section, SAE Greenbrier Meeting, White Sulphur Springs, WV.]; Ken Fermoyle, “Driver’s Report—Chrysler 300B,” Motor Life Vol. 5, No. 10 (May 1956), reprinted in Chrysler 300 1955-1970 Gold Portfolio, p. 111; Devon Francis, “Driving Detroit’s Most Powerful Car,” Popular Science Vol. 166, No. 4 (April 1955): 128-130, reprinted in ibid: 108-109, and “Top Horsepowers Go Still Higher,” Popular Science Vol. 165, No. 6 (December 1954): 135-140; “Ghia Chrysler,” Road & Track Vol. 2, No. 7 (February 1952): 18-19; Robert Frumkin, “Idea Cars Part I: The Early Years 1940-1954,” WPC News Vol. VI, No. XI (July 1975): 4-15; Allan Girdler, “Chrysler’s Alphabet from C to B to L — The 300 Lettercars,” Automobile Quarterly’s Great Cars & Grand Marques, ed. Beverly Rae Kimes (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly/Bonanza Books, 1979): 198-209; Jeffrey I. Godshall, “Imperial Parade Phaeton,” Special Interest Autos #38 (January-February 1977): 34-39, 60; Wesley S. 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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. 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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. 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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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14 CommentsAdd a Comment
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ?
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.
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 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…
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.
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.
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.