Curbside Classic: 1951 Chrysler New Yorker – The Legendary Hemi V8 Is Born

shot and posted at the CC Cohort by Jerome Solberg

HEMI.  Chrysler trademarked that name for good reasons, as it’s the only engine name that has become a genuine legend, a veritable automotive god. It all started here under the hood of this 51 Chrysler New Yorker.  The new FirePower V8 had 331 cubic inches and made all of 180 hp, which may seem modest from today’s vantage point, but it was 20 more horsepower than a ’51 Cadillac. And that was merely a starting point; by 1957 it was making 390 hp in the Chrysler 300; over a 100% increase in power in just six years.

Who could have imagined in 1951 that this engine would soon power the fastest dragsters, LeMans racers, untold hot rods, exotic French sport cars and so many others, whenever maximum horsepower was the brief.


Chrysler’s engineers knew that the postwar era would require more than their venerable flathead sixes and inline eights could muster, so a completely new engine was called for. As to their decision to use hemispherical combustion chambers, it’s not like they were new or exotic; this 1901 or 1902 Truscott marine engine featured them, and may well be the source of that design which inherently provided maximum breathing capabilities to the gasoline engine.

It was next used on this 1905 Premier racer, and then quickly found its way to Europe and soon came to power almost all successful race cars and most high performance/luxury cars. The inherent advantages of the hemi were obvious; it was its inherent disadvantages that kept it from mass-produced American cars. That was its complicated valve gear if overhead cams were not used, and the considerable extra costs if they were.

Overhead cams were a bridge too far for the early ’50s, so Chrysler went with dual rocker shafts on each head. This combined with the inherently large and heavy hemi heads is what would cause the relatively early departure of the original hemi after 1958. So yes, it was a relatively short but brilliant life, before it was reincarnated as the 426 “Elephant” hemi in 1964.

But in 1951, it was a sensation; the first mass-produced hemi head engine in America, although the actual use of the term “hemi” was barely to be seen. Like with so many things, it was a piece of technical jargon that the marketers didn’t think important, but the gearheads soon came to call it by that name. And of course, it stuck.

This conservatively-styled black New Yorker that Jerome found on the streets in the East Bay hardly conveys raw power and speed, although its aftermarket wheels does take the edge off a bit. The new Yorker and Imperial sat on a longer 131.5 inch wheelbase than the lower-priced Windsor, which still had the flathead Spitfire six under its shorter hood, resulting in a 125.5 inch wheelbase, even if the new V8 engine was actually shorter than the six.

But looks are of course more important, and the long engine compartment that once carried the Chrysler inline eight now had room to spare, requiring a long duct for the engine fan, just the the long-nose Monte Carlo would some twenty years later.


The dual exhausts undoubtedly emit a sonorous bass rumble at rest, rising to a forceful baritone when pushed some. It probably doesn’t get up into the alto range too much anymore, but a warmed over hemi hard at work is a musically-gifted beast with an exceptional range.

Leave it to Chrysler to take a different (read: more expensive) route from the more pragmatic and ultimately dominant wedge shape combustion chambers pioneered by GM on its seminal 1949 Cadillac and Oldsmobile V8s. They even came up with a lighter and cheaper “polyspheric” combustion chamber, but that didn’t amount to much, and by 1958-1959 Chrysler capitulated with the wedge combustion chamber B-Block engine. But the inherent advantages of the hemi could not be ignored for long…


Related CC reading:

Museum Classic/Automotive History: 1905 Premier – The First OHC Hemi Head Automobile Engine And The Search For The Hemi’s True Father

Vintage Sports Car Illustrated Review: 1957 Chrysler 300C – The Duesenberg SJ of the 1950s

Curbside Classic: 1956 Chrysler Windsor (and the Poly Engine) – The Semi-Hemi

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1966 Plymouth Satellite 426 Hemi – King Kong Arrives, In A Blue Three Piece Suit