by Warren Steele
In my “time before the mast” at Chrysler Corporation, I was assigned to the Structures Laboratory as an engineer, working under the three Finks (John Fodermaier, Fred Finkenauer, and George Fenstermacher). This was quite an interesting time around Engineering.
One of my assignments involved a special, secret car called the Norseman. This was such a secret that almost no one was ever authorized to even get near the clay studio designing this car, to be made by Ghia of Italy.
Colorization is solely and roughly based on a later blue-green miniature, not on records or memories.
Surprisingly, one day I was assigned to test tensile strengths of a half dozen small diameter rods, used to holding down the Norseman’s roof, in place of the usual A-pillars. Dropping the A-pillars increased visibility and made a unique visual effect.
Off to the Laboratory Building, where I tested the rods using a Tinius Olsen tensile machine. The rod with the greatest strength was selected, and a half dozen were made at Walter Paddley’s machine shop and shipped over to Ghia.
Management and I were invited to the studio to see where these rods would function. That’s the last we heard about “our car” until the sinking of the Andréa Doria with the Chrysler Norseman show car on board.
More about the car
There are few photographs, and the colors are unknown; all the black and white images were taken just before it was sent to the United States. Few interior shots are known to exist, not surprisingly; had Ghia realized the risks involved in shipping it, perhaps they would have taken more care (and used color film) when photographing the car.
The car had hidden headlights, a wraparound windshield, and the cantilever roof, which eliminated the A-pillar and created a unique appearance. The PPG windshield was heat treated for crash resistance, while the unique roof included an aluminum insert and a huge backlight that could be moved into the roof. Another odd feature was dropping outer door handles in favor of push-button releases. Inside, there were power swivelling bucket seats, satin metal trim, and a writing desk that could be pulled out. The car even had seat belts, and lamps within individual consoles.
The engine was a simple, 235-horsepower 331 Hemi; the suspension was modified from the standard 1955 design, using front torsion bars and rear leaf springs, to match the 1957 cars it was supposed to share a stage with. Reflecting Virgil Exner’s belief in aerodynamics, which was not often fully reflected in his designs, there was an underbody aero cover.
It was penned around 1953, delegated to Bill Brownlie by Virgil Exner, whose ancestry provided the name. Deo Lewton reportedly designed most of the interior, other than the instrument panel. Designers sunk 50,000 man hours and around $200,000 into the car; it took well over a year for Ghia to build the one example. The scale model is likely still around, since it never left Michigan; Ghia worked from engineering drawings instead.
Jerry Garrett wrote an article (magazine unknown) describing the attempt to recover the Norseman and “a fortune” in artwork. John Moyer of Vineland, New Jersey, bought the salvage rights to the liner and started diving in the early 1990s; he recovered some sculptures, weighing up to a thousand pounds, but never found the car, stored in a crate in an unstable hold. The Norseman had been made by hand, with lead welds and little if any rustproofing; four decades in salt water would have rotted almost everything but the glass, some trim parts, and possibly the front roof supports, even had the car survived the sinking.
Since the car was hand-made, re-creating it from tooling was impossible — a second copy would have cost as much as the first. The closest the company came was authorizing models; Minichamps sold them in 1:18 and 1:43 scale.
See our main concept cars page. • See this 2011 Norseman article
Concept cars are often made so a car’s feel can be evaluated, problems can be foreseen, and reactions of the public can be judged. Some concepts test specific ideas, colors, controls, or materials — either subtle or out of proportion, to hide what’s being tested. Some are created to help designers think “out of the box.” The Challenger, Prowler, PT Cruiser, and Viper were all tested as production-based concepts dressed up to hide the production intent.
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