(first posted 8/2/2013) U. S. automotive history is full of examples of horrible timing. Chrysler’s all new 1974 full sized cars that seemed so right during their gestation, debuted just in time for high gas prices and a nasty recession. Chrysler did it again in 1979, but worse. But the 1955 models were the opposite. The meeting of this car and the year 1955 would be one of the great pairings of machine and an era until the Mustang would do it even better a decade hence.
The 1953-54 period had been an unmitigated disaster at Chrysler. Although the cars were well engineered and well built, they were so conservative and old-fashioned that their market-appeal was leaking like a flattening tire. They were the cars that everyone said were what they wanted: practical, durable and roomy. But then as now, what people say they want is not what they actually buy. Sex sells, and in the early 1950s U.S. auto market, that statement was as true as ever.
K. T. Keller and much of the rest of the management had been around since the 1920s. Though Keller was nearing retirement, he was a sharp enough auto-man to know that Chrysler’s bet on conservative and practical 1949 models had been a big loser. The period between 1949 and 1955 is a really fascinating time in Chrysler history that has been well covered at AUWM (here). It was as though, bit by bit, the company was shaking off the torpor that followed the failure of the 1934 Chrysler Airflow and Walter Chrysler’s incapacity and death soon thereafter, and found the old Chrysler Mojo that had been so evident in the 1920s and 30s. The mechanical pieces started coming together with the FirePower hemi engine in 1951 and the PowerFlite automatic transmission that started to phase in at the end of the 1953 Imperials (CC here) and crept out further into the lineup for 1954.
For 1955, the cars finally got back some of the old Chrysler style as well. Walter Chrysler had appreciated that a car’s styling was an important part of its appeal, and was one of the few people in that engineering-centric company to hold that view. Unfortunately, that mindset seemed to have left the building when Walter Chrysler did. But Keller, to his credit, “got it” and hired Virgil Exner in 1949 to take charge of Chrysler’s Advanced Styling studio. Exner’s series of show cars (some of them found here and here) proved highly popular on the auto show circuit, which certainly paved the way for Exner to leapfrong around old-timer Henry King to take over leadership of styling on production cars. Exner may have dabbled around the edges of the 1953-54 models, but the 1955 line would be all Exner.
The ’55 Chrysler bears an unmistakable resemblance to Exner’s early 1950s show cars. This is a curvaceous, full-figured car. Although I personally have always thought that the ’56 was a better overall design (that made a nice transition to the radical 1957 models), this one comes closest to the Italian look at Exner favored early in his Chrysler career. Yes, the Forward Look was finally here. Chrysler Division went further, and claimed that the car had the One Hundred Million Dollar Look, which was supposedly the amount of money that Chrysler spent to design and build this car. That was real money then, and it paid for a real, first class car.
We don’t often see ’55 New Yorkers, even in pictures. The Imperial and especially the C-300 have sort of become the favorite children of the ’55 Chrysler line, and for good reason. However, it is fun to gaze on the trim on this car and wonder how many pounds of chrome plated potmetal we would have it if were all taken off of the car and thrown onto a scale. The plated pieces on this car probably outweigh me. But isn’t it absolutely delicious to gaze upon all of that grand, glorious, all-American C-H-R-O-M-E! Even the name badges appear to weigh over a pound apiece.
Was this the car that saved Chrysler? There have been several of those, actually, but this one was a very, very important car for the Chrysler Division. First, there would be no more Chrysler 6 – the Windsor would get a new, smaller V8 that used the block of the FirePower hemi but without the hemispherical combustion chambers (and their expensive dual-rocker shaft valvetrain). And, with the Imperial being spun off as its own separate Division, the New Yorker would be the Chrysler flagship going forward.
Oooh, you might say – this is not just a regular New Yorker, but a New Yorker DeLuxe. Sorry to burst your bubble, but every 1955 New Yorker was a DeLuxe. Don’t ask why.
The other oddity of the entire ’55 Chrysler line was the automatic transmission selector. With the pushbuttons not set to debut until the 1956 models, Chrysler was not about to design a steering column shift mechanism for only a single year. And besides, this was 1955 – no reason to shift gears like folks did in 1939. The “Fingertip Selector Lever” jutting out from the dash was a 1955-only feature that was a real oddity until it was picked up again by modern minivans.
1955 would be the last year for the FirePower engine in its original displacement of 331 cu. in. It was, however, now up to 250 horsepower (at 4,600 rpm) thanks to a four barrel carb and some other tricks. These engines were not known for their low end grunt so much as their ability to breathe and rev. This was no doubt one reason behind the 3:54 axle ratio that was mated with the two speed PowerFlite transmission. The performance minded groused about how the PowerFlite sapped some of the car’s performance, but very few people ordered the stick shift. Besides, help would soon be on the way with a larger 354 hemi in 1956 and the three speed TorqueFlite transmission (and yet another bump in engine displacement) a year later.
If there is a knock on these cars, it is that the Chrysler-built bodies seemed a step or so down in quality from the Briggs-built bodies of the earlier cars. Even though Chrysler bought Briggs Manufacturing, it would seem that the Briggs folks may have snuck off with the recipe for the secret sauce that had made Mopars of yore such sturdy cars. And Chrysler bodies would get much, much worse before they would start to get better again. I am not sure that Chrysler ever really built a first-class body on its own until maybe the 1996 minivan so many years later.
This car really resonates with me. From my earliest consciousness until 1967, my grandma drove a pink and white 1955 DeSoto Firedome sedan that she bought used after getting into an accident in her ’51 Kaiser. The DeSoto was not quite as decadent as this New Yorker, but was largely the same car. Until it went away after the starter gave out, I spent a lot of time playing in that DeSoto. I can still feel those door handles that required both of my small hands to operate and the shiny white paint on the metal dashboard. I wish I had known then that the car had a Hemi, because I could have gained a lot of street cred among my friends in the neighborhood. Everything about that car was big and thick and old fashioned to me, but it resolutely took Grandma everywhere she needed to go. Until one day it didn’t, and it was replaced by a 3 year old Pontiac Catalina. I am proud to say that I was in the DeSoto for its very last ride, and it remains one of my very favorite cars from my early childhood. Which is why I went into a swoon when I saw this one just last week parked outside of a restaurant.
When you think about it, there have been very few Chrysler-built cars through the years after WWII where everything came together – Sound engineering, features, styling and quality, all wrapped up into a package perfectly in step with the market. The ’55 Chrysler was one of those rare cars where it all came together into a complete package, proving that even the most wildly bipolar car company of them all could occasionally have a very, very good year.