Chrysler 1953-1954: moving forward, looking backward
Previous articles reported that after a very strong postwar run, Chrysler lost second place to a resurgent Ford Motor Company in 1949 and remained in third through 1952, due in part to the UAW strike in early 1950 and Korean war restrictions on production during 1951-1952.
Chrysler remained solidly profitable, not only because its cars sold steadily but also because of military contracts. The company confidently made investments in plant capacity in both Canada and the U.S., while preparing new products for 1953 that would regain second place. Unfortunately, that would not happen.
Two important management changes in 1949 and 1950 had no immediate effect, but would determine the company's fortunes and misfortunes during the 1950s.
In 1950, Chrysler President K.T. Keller, who had run the company since being appointed President by Walter P Chrysler in 1935, became Chairman; and Dodge Division General Manager Lester L Colbert became President. Keller was a conservative engineer who had run the company through fifteen successful years - quite unlikely in the revolving door management of corporate America today - and the foundation he had put in place helped to carry the company through the turmoil that would lie ahead. That foundation, Keller's bequest to Colbert, was a well-respected engineering capability and a solid balance sheet.
Chrysler Canada also got a new President in 1951, E.C. Rowe replacing H.C. Churchill. Colbert and Rowe were both confident about the company's future and invested accordingly.
Another important appointment was that of Virgil Exner as director of advanced styling in 1949. Exner had been a major contributor to the successful 1947 Studebaker, but tension between Exner and Raymond Loewy prompted his departure from Studebaker. Exner's responsibility was to create a series of stunning “dream cars” for display at the local auto shows, which were common at the time. Exner's dream cars, or concept cars as they would be called today, were built by Ghia in Italy to Exner's designs. They were intended to create a halo effect for Chrysler's design, which was badly needed, but for whatever reason, Exner did not turn his attention to the design of cars that could be sold in Chrysler's showrooms until 1953. The results, to be seen for 1955, would be dramatic.
For 1953, Chrysler presented an all-new design, shared with Dodge and Plymouth; but it carried over the 1949-1952 Desoto and Chrysler shells with a major restyling. According to the company’s own internal history:
Every 1953 Chrysler Corporation car was new from bumper to bumper, and fifty new mechanical features were introduced. Improvements were incorporated in the windshield wipers, heater, chassis frame, carburetor, rear axle, suspension, fuel tank, drive train, and virtually every other main component of the car.
Dodge introduced its first V-8 engine and advertised it as the “Dodge Red Ram V-8.” It offered Dodge owners outstanding performance, economy and durability. Compared to the previous six-cylinder engine, the new V-8 provided 35% more horsepower and 15 per cent greater torque from a displacement increase of less than 5%... this was the first year in US automotive history when more eight than six-cylinder engines were produced.
In March, the PowerFlite automatic transmission was introduced on the Imperial and the following model year it was extended to all other car lines.
It was a major effort, and Chrysler production for 1953 hit a record which would not be surpassed until 1965. But against GM and Ford, and against the brief recession of 1954, Chrysler U.S. production for 1954 fell sharply. Clearly, a better effort would be needed.
As mentioned, Plymouth for 1953 was built on a brand new body shell, replacing the boxy bolt-on-fender look with a more modern envelope body. It was a great improvement, at least on par with the 1953-1954 Chevrolet and 1952-1954 Ford. None of the three won any beauty awards, but the Plymouth looked less old-fashioned than before.
The new body was between the two shells used for 1949-1952. Plymouth engineers were quite adept at downsizing their cars while maintaining interior space.
|Plymouth||wheelbase: mm (in.)||pounds (kg)|
|1946||2,984 (117” or 9’ 10”)||3,144 (1,426)|
|1952 P22||2,819 (111”)||3,012 (1,366)|
|1952 P23||3,010 (118.5”)||3,122 (1,416)|
|1953||2,896 (114”)||3,033 (1,376)|
Today, the quest for making vehicles smaller and lighter, while preserving structural integrity and interior space, is essential for survival in markets shaped by government regulation or fuel-price fluctuations. In 1953 it was not essential, but it was good engineering, and Plymouth designers updated, but did not abandon, the principles used in prior designs: a roomy, high roof interior; a comfortable ride; solid construction; and no excess sheet metal. So the end product was an updated version of what had been offered before.
Chevrolet had been offering an automatic transmission since 1950, Ford since 1951. Plymouth was first offered with overdrive in 1952, semi-automatic Hy-Drive in 1953, 2-speed fully automatic Powerflite in 1954. Neither Plymouth nor Chevrolet offered a V8 until 1955, but Ford introduced a modern overhead valve V8 in 1954. Plymouth was a half-step behind its competitors in these aspects, although its performance was on par with its 6-cylinder competition. The perception of being a half step behind mattered more in the marketplace than in reality, a fact which obscured Plymouth's advantages in other areas.
Being a half-step behind was not the factor that damaged Plymouth. It still offered as much or more value than Chevrolet or Ford, and had a well earned reputation for durability. However, Ford and Chevrolet began shipping unordered vehicles to their dealers in the summer of 1953, hurting Plymouth, Dodge, and the independent makers. One result of Chrysler's failure to increase volume for 1949-1952 (as GM and Ford had) is that Chrysler did not have a dealer base that could absorb cars and sell them at a loss. The consequence is that Chrysler production for 1954 was slightly more than half of Ford's. Although the practice abated during the record-breaking year of 1955, in future years it would return as labor agreements encouraged all makers to keep their plants running and building unordered cars, to sell with rebates that made them unprofitable.
Kingsway,Crusader, Regent, Mayfair,
Suburban 2 door wagon, Sierra 2 door wagon (1953),
convertible, Royal hardtop, convertible (1954)
To cut production costs, Chrysler used the same 2,896 mm wheelbase body for all of these cars and for all Plymouths. The Kingsway, Crusader, Regent and Mayfair were not sold in the U.S., but the others were. The Sierra 2 door wagon for 1953, the Coronet and Royal hardtop and convertible models had the new Red Ram V8 as standard equipment, and sold for a substantial premium over the equivalent Plymouth body styles. Trim was much better.
For 1954, the Dodge hardtop and convertible added some length in the rear quarter panels to differentiate them from Plymouth. The Royal models added for 1954 were more luxurious than the Coronet. The offering to buyers, who may or may not been aware that their cars shared a body with the Plymouth next to it on the showroom floor, was the V8, better styling and appointments.
The Red Ram V8 was a 3.95 liter V8 with a 2 barrel carburetor and 140/150 hp, a scaled down version of the larger Hemi V8 installed in DeSoto and Chrysler models. It was a substantial transformation for the Dodge brand, sold for forty years as a substantial, durable vehicle, never with any performance aspirations. Adding to the performance was the fact that all Dodge cars lost weight for 1953. The short wheelbase V8 models were livelier and better handling than any Dodges ever built, quite able, finally, to keep up with Mercury and Oldsmobile. Dodge continued to offer their semi-automatic transmissions through 1954, but in that year the fully-automatic 2 speed Powerflite became available.
Sales of the Coronet/Royal hardtops, convertibles and 2 door wagons were strong for 1953, but collapsed in 1954. GM introduced dramatic new Oldsmobiles and Buicks for 1954, and the lower range hardtops and convertibles were only about $100 more than the Coronet hardtops and convertibles. Unlike Dodge, GM B body models did not share anything with the A body Chevrolet. However, most of the export Dodges used this body shell, so total production, which was included with Plymouth, was much higher than that reported here.
Dodge Meadowbrook, Coronet club coupe, sedan; Coronet Sierra wagon (1954); Royal club coupe, sedan, 1954
Chrysler extended the wheelbase of the Plymouth body shell 127 mm for additional interior room, and used this extended shell for the sedan and 4 door wagon models. No Plymouth models were built on this chassis, nor did Plymouth offer a 4 door wagon. The extra length served to visually differentiate Dodge from Plymouth, as did the V8 engine.
The V8 became optional on the base Meadowbrook models for 1954. It was optional on the 1953 and 1954 Coronet club sedan, sedan, and 1954 Coronet Sierra, standard on the 1954 Royal. The semi-automatic transmissions continued to be offered through 1954, but the fully automatic 2 speed Powerflite was introduced that year. The Meadowbrook was the base trim line, the Coronet the top line for 1953, but the 1954 Royal was more luxurious still. In Canada, the Cornet sedan was built in 1953, the Royal sedan in 1954.
These models were lighter and more compact than any of the previous postwar sedans or wagons, and even with the ancient Dodge 6, performance was livelier than before. Of course with the V8, it was livelier still, a new experience for Dodge owners. They were far more successful than the more stylish, but less practical, hardtops and convertibles. Sales in 1953 were very strong, and the dropoff in 1954 was less than it was for the 2 door models.
For 1953, the model year production for both countries combined exceeds the serial number total for both countries combined by 9.402 units. For 1954, the serial number total exceeds model year production by 9.457 units. There is no apparent explanation for the discrepancy. The totals reported in the tables are the serial number totals.
The export Desotos used the P24/P25 structure and mechanicals used for the Plymouth and export Dodge models. Diplomat was sold as Diplomat, Deluxe and Custom, offering the same body styles as the Plymouth. The Desoto grilles imposed on the front did little to improve its appearance, but there still was a market outside of North America. Almost all of these cars were built in the U.S., but they are included in Plymouth production and serial numbers. Canadian production was very low, but it is broken out from Plymouth.
Desoto Powermaster, Firedome
Desoto and Chrysler continued to use the 1949-1952 body and chassis for 1953-1954, but one piece front windshields, wraparound rear glass with reverse angled rear windows, and fully integrated rear quarter panels, replacing the removable rear fenders, made the cars more attractive.
Powermaster used the 4.1 liter L-head six for the last time, Firedome used the 4.5 liter V8. The old semi-automatic Fluid Drive was replaced by the Powerflite 2 speed fully automatic transmission for 1954. It was a high, boxy but comfortable and well constructed package, with perhaps the best V8 and automatic transmission then available.
As with the other Chrysler makes, U.S. sales were strong for 1953, but dropped off sharply for 1954. Desoto and Chrysler sales were impacted by the new GM B and C body Oldsmobiles and Buicks, whose clean styling made the Chrysler products look dated. In Canada, Desoto was always a low-volume product, but production for 1953 and 1954 was about the same, and higher than the Dodge Coronet and Royal. Desoto built sedan and hardtop models in Canada, with 6 cylinder and V8 engines.
[Editorial note: DeSoto was in for a major change in 1955.]
Desoto Powermaster, Firedome 8 passenger sedan'
'These cars also carried over the 1949-1952 body and chassis, retaining the bolt-on rear fenders but otherwise updated with the rest of the line. The increasing cost and lower volumes of these cars were mutually reinforcing, and this would be the last time they were offered. Checker was taking over the taxi market, with a far less expensive and equally durable long wheelbase sedan. Many fleets were switching to standard wheelbase low priced sedans. Only Cadillac, and briefly Imperial, would continue to build an 8 passenger sedan in the U.S., and they would be far more expensive than the Desoto.
The actual number of these cars built is estimated from available information.
Chrysler Windsor (1953), Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker, New Yorker Deluxe
All of these models used the carried-over-but-updated 3.188 meter wheelbase chassis from the 1949-1952 models, which was shared with the Desoto. The Windsor was the base trim line for 1953. The Windsor Deluxe was also offered in 1953 and became the base trim line for 1954. The New Yorker was trimmed as the Windsor Deluxe but came with the V8, the New Yorker Deluxe a step above that.
Chrysler and Desoto shared the same body but Chrysler engines were more powerful. The Windsor and Windsor Deluxe used the L-head 6, in its final year. This engine had been expanded to 4.3 liters and 119 hp in 1952. The New Yorker and New Yorker Deluxe had the 5.4 liter hemi V8 installed, but for 1954 the New Yorker Deluxe was equipped with a 4 barrel carburetor which, according to Chrysler, developed 235 hp. This engine was prominently advertised in 1954 and added to the company's luxury-and-performance image. Buyers of this class of car did not buy Chryslers to race Cadillacs and Buicks in the streets, but the reserve of power, though it might never be called upon, was reassuring. The 2 speed Powerflite automatic which first became available at the end of the 1953 model year would have restrained enthusiastic driving, as would have the drum brakes and power steering.
In Canada, Windsor Deluxe and New Yorker Deluxe sedans and hardtops were built.
Chrysler produced a healthy 156,530 of these cars in the U.S., but production fell the following year to only 95,893. Part of the reason was the recession of 1954, but the restyled Oldsmobile and Buick for 1954 drew away many Desoto and Chrysler buyers. This would be the last Chrysler built in accordance with a conservative design philosophy rooted in the company's depression-era experience with the Airflow. It had served the company well, but buyers clearly wanted something new.
Chrysler Windsor 8 passenger sedan (1953), New Yorker and Windsor Deluxe 8-passenger sedan (1954).
These were the same 8 passenger sedans offered by Desoto, with the more powerful Chrysler engines and better trim. This body style had been a staple of most manufacturers in the U.S. since the beginning, but after 1954 only Cadillac kept in the line at a very high price.
Chrysler Custom Imperial sedan
In 1951, Chrysler began a 25 year investment effort to make the Chrysler Imperial, and later the Imperial, into a competitor to Cadillac and Lincoln. The Imperial had always been a quality car, equal or superior to those two, but it was perceived by many as just a more luxurious Chrysler, without the separation and prestige of those makes. The company never succeeded in making the Imperial a market rival to Cadillac, in spite of the massive funds spent on the effort, but they were engineered and built to a very high standard.
The 1951-1952 Imperial, though it used the same 3,340 mm wheelbase platform of the 1949-1950 Imperial, and of the 1949-1952 New Yorker as well, received a great deal of design attention to visibly and favorably differentiate it from those cars. For 1953, that platform was used for the Custom Imperial hardtop, but the sedan was built on a 3,391 mm wheelbase for additional interior comfort and separation from the other Chryslers. It was an impressive car. The front end was quite elaborate for 1953, simplified for 1954, but the body added an additional spear of side chrome for 1954. It was a tasteful design, perhaps too restrained for the luxury car market at the time, which favored ostentation. The similarly-priced Cadillac Fleetwood Series 60 Special sedan, which was a limited production model at the time, outsold the Chrysler Custom Imperial sedan by 3 to 1. Chrysler got the message, and would provide ostentation for 1955.
Custom Imperial Newport hardtop
'This car used the 3.340 mm wheelbase platform which was also used for the volume Chrysler Windsor and New Yorker models, not the longer platform used for the Custom Imperial sedan. Interiors were colorful nylon and leather, rather than the more restrained, top quality cloth used in the sedan. An impressive car, left behind by the Cadillac Coupe de Ville in the marketplace, which sold for considerably less.
Crown Imperial 8 passenger sedan, limousine
'Very few of these costly vehicles were made, using the enormous 3,696 mm wheelbase chassis used for previous models, suitably updated with the hemi V8 and Powerflite transmission. There was a great deal of off-line manual finishing required for both the interior and exterior, the cost of which was not recovered in the purchase price. The era of the 8 passenger sedan, once common and available in low cost makes, was coming to an end. This would be one of the last of this traditional body style, with mid 1950s design and engineering.
Chrysler Corporation Production Totals for Canada for 1953 and 1954
|Camridge, Cranbrook, Belvedere||24,417|
|Plaza, Savoy, Belvedere||25,726||50,143|
|Crusader, Regent, Mayfair||22,048||23,130||45,178|
|Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker Deluxe||3,911||2,719||6,630|
|Chrysler Corporation model year total||56,187||57,788|
Chrysler Corporation Production Totals for the United States for 1953 and 1954
|Plaza, Savoy, Belvedere||431,213||1,056,121|
|Crusader, Regent, Mayfair||(included with Plymouth)|
|Suburban, Sierra 2 d wagon; Coronet hardtop, convertible||42,585|
|Suburban 2 d wagon; Coronet, Royal hardtop, convertible||15,492||58,077|
|Meadowbrook, Coronet club coupe, sedan||265,345|
|Meadowbrook, Coronet, Royal club coupe, sedan; Sierra wagon||145,963||411,308|
(included with Plymouth)
|Powermaster, Firedome 8 passenger sedan||436||463||899|
|Windsor, Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker, New Yorker Deluxe||156,530|
|Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker, New Yorker Deluxe||95,893||252,423|
|Windsor, New Yorker 8 passenger sedan||525|
|Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker 8 passenger sedan||640||1,165|
|Custom Imperial sedan||8,036||4,409||12,445|
|Custom Imperial hardtop||823||1,250||2,073|
|Chrysler Corporation model year total||1,228,168||770,570|
Chrysler had been behind GM and Ford, since 1948, profitable, but not expanding as rapidly as they had. Going into 1953, Chrysler could not radically change their entire product line, so they elected an inexpensive and conservative redesign of their volume cars, combined with expanding V8 availability and power, to at least keep their position. There were still many buyers who respected Chrysler engineering and design, but this holding strategy failed. For 1953 and 1954 GM and Ford pulled further ahead of Chrysler.
Even as the 1953 cars were going on sale, Virgil Exner was given the responsibility and budget to redesign the entire product line for 1955. For 1955, not only the products but the entire company would break away from the conservatism that had guided it for the previous two decades.