(first posted 11/3/2017) When we look at old cars, each one tends to be something we consider on its own. Unless it is a Mustang or a Corvette, the cars near it are usually different years, makes or models and we take them all in without anything like the experience its first owner got when shopping for it when new. So today let’s try something different. Let’s use this pair of New Yorkers to look at what it might have been like to actually shop for a new Chrysler during its first big postwar transition.
Imagine yourself in January of 1949. You are a successful banker in a smaller midwestern city. You are a conservative fellow by nature, which is why your last car was a 1941 Chrysler. This is also how you have kept your car in fine fettle during the war years, taking it in for regular service (and Genuine Mo-Par parts) at your local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer. You know that if you don’t take care of what you have you’ll never have anything.
It hasn’t done much good to pine for a new car since the war ended. All the rest who didn’t take such good care of what they had were more desperate and were willing to pay the premium (you are too much of a gentleman to call it a bribe) to be placed high enough on the waiting list to get a car as they dribble into the dealership, sold before they are unloaded from the truck.
If you had been really insistent you could have strolled into the Lincoln-Mercury dealer to see Bill who sold the ’47 Lincoln to Arthur, a parishioner at your Presbyterian church. Lincolns, you see, could be had pretty much at will over the last year or two. But you also know that Arthur has always been a dedicated Ford man who seems unfazed by the need to shift his own gears. Besides, you keep your cars for a long time and you know all about that Zephyr that Arthur had to nurse through the war. What a mechanic’s dream that one turned out to be when the poorly designed V-12 sludged itself up to the point of needing a rebuild in ’44. So no thanks. The ’49 is supposed to be all new but you don’t need to be anyone’s test driver.
That awful seller’s market has cooled by now so you won’t get held up at gunpoint when you go in to buy. I suppose that you could go see the new Olds or Cadillac with their sparkly-new V8 engines and Hydra-Matic transmissions. But if you showed up at church in a Cadillac you would never hear the end of it. Ward O’Connell bought a Cadillac just to show everyone how much money he has and you’ll be damned if you are going to stoop to that kind of thing because you don’t need to impress anybody.
The Missus would probably prefer something with an automatic transmission, but you just aren’t sure about those new designs. The Buick straight eight is more familiar but with that Dynaflow it is awfully thirsty and not very fast if you really need to pull something heavy. You don’t really think you will buy a mahogany speedboat, but it’s nice to know your car could pull it if you ever did. And who really needs more than a Fluid Drive. All told, it seems best to stick to a tried and true Chrysler.
But you have a terrible dilemma: which one do you choose? Yes, you are doing well and would prefer another New Yorker sedan. You have reached that point in life where you don’t have to settle for six cylinders in your new car. Chrysler has been late with new 1949 models and has only just now introduced them. And even so, they are just starting to trickle into dealerships while the leftover ’48s (which Chrysler has cleverly called First Series 1949 cars) are still plentiful.
As far as you can tell, there is almost nothing that is really different between the old and new models in terms of the mechanical design. It is the same good old flathead 323.5 cid (5.3L) straight eight mated to the same semi-automatic transmission and Fluid Drive that has become second nature to you. What’s so hard about using a clutch to shift between forward and reverse gears? Nothing, that’s what. And unlike the Dynaflow, these cars have a “low” range that will pull down a small tree if you need to do something crazy like that (instead of just calling Al the handyman who is better at that sort of thing.) About the only real difference is that the new model has an extra four inches of wheelbase (131.5 inches now) – although it certainly doesn’t look like it.
You know that Chrysler has been building top quality cars for twenty-five years and that your New Yorker will lead the pack in resale value down the line when you are ready to replace it in another six or seven years (or maybe longer if that stuff you keep reading about in Korea gets out of hand.) And there is nothing more reassuring than knowing that Chrysler has the best engineers in the business who have built a lot of life into these new cars. Things like full flow oil filters are not often seen in other cars. No wonder Chrysler Corporation is number two of the Big Three.
But which do you choose: Old Faithful or the New Look? The old version is so comforting. After all, you have been used to seeing its basic shape since the ’42 model came out. And you know that they certainly have all of the kinks and bugs worked out of it. The boys on the line must be able to build these with blindfolds on. But you know that they don’t because they are put together so well.
However, as soon as you drive it off the lot you will have “last year’s model”. The same thing happened when you bought the ’41, but it wasn’t as bad because they shut down the lines so quickly in ’42 for the war. You don’t like the modern styling as well. The old car is so stately. It just looks like it belongs in the driveway of your brick colonial with the ivy growing up the walls. You are 53 years old and not quite sure that you are ready for all of these new ideas on how cars should look. Those damned Studebakers have been hard to get used to. But the kids seem to like them.
I don’t know, the new ’49 just seems to be missing something, and you can’t quite put your finger on it. It just looks kind of dull. Or maybe kind of like a really big Plymouth. But then you try to be positive. Didn’t you think that the ’42 Chrysler was not much of an improvement too? And you got used to that one soon enough, especially once the ’46 models started to be seen more. This is just what cars will look like in the future so it’s best to join the crowd, isn’t it? And at least you can still wear your hat unlike Ralph at the club who has taken to going bareheaded when he travels because that damned Buick hardtop kept knocking his homburg askew when he slides behind the wheel.
Both cars are plenty nice inside. You love the older model’s dash design, it makes the car look like a million bucks.
But the interior is one place where the new model kind of excites you. Still, you wonder why they had to eliminate the full horn ring and whether that padding on the dash will hold up.
The back seats are awfully nice in both of them. Of course for what they’re charging, they ought to be. Still, you can’t decide . . . do you like the new one? Without as many windows it seems a little dark inside.
Then there’s the older style. You’ve gotta admit that the old New Yorker looks just like a limo back there. It’s just you and the Mrs. now, so how the back doors are hinged aren’t really a big deal to you. Still, you wonder why everyone feels the need to mess with the way back doors on cars have opened for most of your life. More progress, I suppose. What’s next, we start electing Republicans? Although the idea might appeal to you, you know that’s not likely to happen. Those days are gone for good.
There are two cars on display right now. You really like that navy blue one. “This”, you think, “is what a banker should drive.” You wonder if the dealer might swap some whitewalls onto this one, but then you remember how nice it has been not to have to keep them clean during the years when they have been hard to get.
The light green doesn’t really appeal to you that much. And good golly, have you ever seen bigger taillights?
Maybe you would like the newer car better in another color. The darker ones look OK in the magazine ads you have seen. But then cars always look better in the magazine ads. Irv the salesman has said he has a maroon one on order but he can’t say when it will be in. But you are not going to let the color drive your decision. That’s exactly what would happen if the Mrs. were in charge of picking a car, so it’s a good thing that this is your job. After all, buying a car needs to be a rational decision, not an emotional one. Can you imagine what kind of colors they might paint cars if women got to do the buying? You don’t even want to think about it.
But then the old one sure looks good in that navy blue. This is why this decision is so hard.
Enough of this woolgathering – you have a decision to make and a check to write. So which will it be?
Your heart says that the navy job is the car for you.
But your head says that you really should choose the green one in the new style. I guess there’s nothing to be done but see what Irv can do for you on the price. Like you always say, everything comes down to dollars and sense.
Thanks to Tom Klockau for the pictures of the green ’49 New Yorker which he found and agreed to share with me shortly after I had come across the navy older model at a show in Noblesville, Indiana. That one may not actually be a first series ’49 but work with me here.