(first posted 6/12/2012) In the late Forties and early Fifties, Chrysler was considered a luxurious, well-engineered, high powered (starting in ’51 with the Saratoga) line of cars but at the same time boring and staid. Starting in 1955, that all changed. Virgil Exner, late of Raymond Loewy & Associates and Studebaker, was out to make his mark in the automotive world. By all accounts he succeeded, with some of the most attractive Mopars in years.
In the late 1940s, Virgil had gotten himself into trouble with Loewy & Associates, where he was assisting with the styling of the all-new postwar Studebaker line. According to Richard Langworth’s excellent book Studebaker 1946-1966: The Classic Postwar Years, while designing the new 1947 Studebaker, Exner colluded with Studebaker staff, particularly chief engineer Roy Cole (who didn’t take kindly to Loewy and his consulting form, for various reasons), to come up with an alternate design. Though not drastically different from Loewy’s design, Studebaker executives chose the in-house design but kept Loewy involved, so as to use his name for sales cachet. Loewy was not pleased with his employee’s subterfuge, and old Virge was sent packing. In addition, Loewy had enough clout to make Studebaker uncomfortable enough not to hire Exner themselves, so he wound up at Chrysler in 1949.
The 1949 Chryslers were all-new, but remarkably stodgy and tall, designed for people who liked to wear hats while driving. Engineering was good, but the cars were plain vanilla next to other models like the Olds Rocket 88, Buick Roadmaster, and ’49 Ford and Mercury. The 1953-54 Big Three sales war resulted in a remarkable upset; Chrysler Corporation, who had been number two in sales after GM for years, suddenly found themselves behind Ford in third place. Clearly, something had to be done.
What was done was a remarkable transformation of all Chrysler automobiles, from entry-level Plymouth to the new Imperial, now its own marque and no longer a deluxe Chrysler. The “banker’s hot rod” 300 was also big news when it was introduced in February of ’55 as a mid-year model, tearing up the sand at Daytona and easily trouncing everything in sight.
This new styling direction was called the “Hundred Million Dollar Look”, as that is what cars allegedly cost Chrysler to put into production. It may have been worth it. Suddenly the once-dowdy Plymouth Savoys and Dodge Royals looked attractive to many new buyers, no longer something only your Aunt Gert and Uncle Fred in Sioux Falls would drive.
Even the Windsor Deluxe, the least-expensive Chrysler, was very attractive. In fact, as with many cars in the mid to late Fifties, the more basic versions were perhaps more elegant and pure than the increasingly bechromed, two- and three- tone models that appeared as you got into the fancier models.
While all ’55 Mopars looked great, Chryslers were particularly attractive, with suitably deluxe accommodations. Our featured model is a New Yorker Deluxe St. Regis, sporting an attractive red and white two-tone treatment inside and out. ’55 Chryslers (and their near-identical DeSoto brethren) also had a particularly attractive instrument panel, looking like something out of a Chris Craft Capri or Century Coronado speedboat.
Other than the rarefied 300 hardtop, the top of the line Chrysler was the New Yorker Deluxe, offered in four door sedan, two door hardtop, convertible and Town & Country wagon versions. The rarest 1955 Chrysler was the New Yorker Deluxe convertible, of which a mere 946 found homes. The two-door Windsor, New Yorker and 300 were the only pillarless models offered that year, though a four-door hardtop would appear for ’56.
You could get your NY Deluxe hardtop in two versions, the standard $3652 Newport, or the slightly fancier $3690 St. Regis, which wore (of course) additional chrome trim, providing a very unique two-tone pattern, as seen here. Chrysler buyers apparently preferred it to the plainer NYD hardtop, to the tune of 11,076 St. Regises vs. 5,777 ‘regular’ NYD hardtops.
All Chryslers had a V8, regardless of trim level, Windsors with a new 301 CID version with 188 hp and New Yorkers retaining the excellent 331.1 CID Hemi V8 with 250 hp. As befitting its name, the 300 got a souped-up 300 hp version of the 331 mill.
All in all, Chrysler had a good year in 1955, undoubtedly helped by the fresh, attractive styling and proven Hemi power on the upper-level versions. Chrysler actually was second place among high-end marques for 1955, though the company as a whole remained in third place, behind GM and Ford.
Our featured vehicle was spotted at the Sycamore Mall cruise-in, held the last Friday of the month between April and September in Iowa City. I met up with my Uncle Dave and despite the threatening weather, headed over to the show. It was only raining a little when we got there, but about five minutes after getting out of the car, it picked up, right on cue. We sought the shelter of the mall, and eventually the rain stopped and I was able to get more detailed shots of this car. It is actually frequently seen here, but that was in my pre-CC days, before I kept a camera in the car. There was a beautiful red and beige ’55 Bel Air next to it, but this Chrysler is a lot less frequently seen than the Tri-Chevys, long a car show staple.
As for Virgil, he would hit another home run with his “Forward Look” cars iof 1957. If it wasn’t for the rush to production and the resulting shoddy assembly quality and rust issues of those cars, perhaps Chrysler wouldn’t have abandoned the look for the bizarre styling of 1960-62 Mopars. For Virgil, time was running out.