by Mike Petersen in the Walter P. Chrysler Club magazine; reprinted by permission.
1955 was the year of a complete styling turn-around for Chrysler, a styling renaissance led by Virgil Exner.
Following World War II, the American car-buying public purchased everything on wheels, so that the relatively stodgy Chrysler cars were successful in spite of their looks and shape.
Because of production lead time, newly hired stylist Virgil Exner was restricted to dabbling with ornamentation on the 1953 and 1954 cars.
Sales in 1953 began to tell the bad news and by 1954 car sales were so bad that some new Chryslers were bootlegged onto used car lots.
Part of the preparation for 1955 was a Tex Colbert hundred-year loan for $250 million, largely for plant and process upgrades. The company structure was overhauled to form divisions that would be mildly competitive with each other. Virgil Exner’s “Forward Look,” advertised as the “Hundred Million Dollar Look,” debuted in 1955, resulting in a dramatic increase in sales, with styling years ahead of the competition.
Exner worked mostly on the Imperial, Chrysler, and DeSoto, while Maury Baldwin designed the 1955 Dodge. There are many similarities in these designs: split grilles, sweep spear side trim, the windshield shape and incline, and body proportions, to name a few. The Dodge grille is close to that of the 1953 Studebaker, designed by Bob Bourke under Lowey. Since Exner had been at Studebaker, the 1955 Dodge and the 1953 Studebaker grilles may have a common lineage.
The 1955 Dodge had a 120 inch wheelbase and a length of 212.1 inches — 6.6 inches longer than the 1954 Dodge). The Dodge had flair, with a wraparound windshield and clean lines.
There were ten body styles in three series: D55-1 and D56-1 Coronet V8 (V8 and six), D55-2 Royal V8, and D53-3 Custom Royal V8. The basic body styles were two door sedan, four door sedan, two door hardtop, two door wagon, four door wagon, and two door convertible. Lancer and La Femme, introduced at mid-year, expanded styles to ten. All hardtops and convertibles were then called Lancers.
All Dodge Coronet cars have the script “Coronet” on the front or rear fenders, except the wagon, which has the script “Suburban” on the rear fender. The two door hardtops are Coronet Lancers, but show Coronet on the front fenders. Body styles are were a two door hardtop (V8 only), four door sedan, two door sedan, and two or four door wagon.
The next step up were the Royals, which have the script “Royal” on the front or rear fenders; Royal wagon have a script "Sierra" on the rear fender instead. The two door hardtops are Royal Lancers and may have either "Royal" (early cars) or "Royal Lancer" on the front fenders. Body styles were two door hardtop, four door sedan, and four door wagon. The polysphere V8 was standard on all Royals.
The flagships of the Dodge line were the Custom Royals, sold as two door hardtops, four door sedans, and two door convertibles. The early two door hardtops and convertibles have "Royal Lancer" on the front fenders; later cars have an additional "Custom" medallion on the front fenders. The early four door sedan has "Royal" on the rear fender with a "Custom" medallion, switching to "Royal Lancer" and a "Custom" medallion on the front fender along with other Lancer trim.
The early model year Custom Royal Lancer and the late model year Royal Lancer two door hardtops were similar, but the Custom Royal Lancer has chrome rear fins, like the 1954 Custom Royal. The Custom series also has unique taillight bezels and backup light bezels and a deluxe interior. The fender fins and sweep spear side trim were added to the late model year Custom Royal four door sedan trim package.
The La Femme is a special trim option with Heather Rose and Sapphire White color combinations. A matching cape, boots, umbrella, shoulder bag, and floral tapestry-like fabrics are the feminine niceties available with this Custom Royal package. There are compartments built into the back of each front seat for stowing all of this gear.
The hidden message behind this and the number of women in the ads seems to be "this car is easy to drive" and "this car is for both husband and wife."
1955 had some very gaudy paint combinations, such as the Studebaker Speedster. Dodge teetered on the brink of bad taste with a green exterior and yellow interior, but never had clashing primary colors outside. There are some metallic colors in the Dodge color lineup, which had thirteen basic colors, sixteen two-tone, and sixteen three-tone color combinations, to make a total of 45 different exterior color schemes.
The two-tones have the top and taillight housings one color, with the rest of the car the other color, or the top, hood, trunk, and taillight housings will be one color while the fenders, doors, and front would be the other color. Within the three-tone combinations, the upper color and the insert color could be swapped, adding an additional 15 color combinations. Along with the variations in the two-tones, the total number of color schemes is 76. A car with one of these 31 variations may appear to be a repaint as not all of the trim was off of the car when the factory varied the color scheme.
Interior colors were blue, green, black, or yellow, with seats covered in Jacquard fabrics with Cordagrain on seat backs and other areas of wear. Cordagrain is a vinyl material that matches the headlining and dash insert color as well as the upper color on the door panels.
Interior panels were two-tone, with the Custom Royal series using chrome trim and chrome insert panels to separate the two colors. The rubber trim around the rear window is painted to match the headliner in the Custom Royal series. Brochures show the dash insert color appearing on the glove box chrome handle, but I have never seen one like this, and it is probably an artist's error. The sales literature also shows the insert color of the taillight housings and rear stone deflector extending up to the stainless steel trim just below the trunk opening; in all of the cars that I have seen the insert color is on the taillight housings, rear stone deflector, and top only.
Late model year 1955 Dodges have a plate with paint and trim codes mounted on the cowl under the hood in the engine compartment. It does not appear in the 55 Dodge shop manual, and the serial number is on a separate plate on the left door jamb.
The engine serial number helps show when the ear was built. For example, a Custom Royal four door sedan, serial 34934003 with engine D553-80369, is car number 194,003 with engine 79,369. This car was sold in September, 1955. Since all V8 cars had the same style of serial numbers, the engine number is the car was built in the series. [See our VIN decoder.]
The 1955 Dodge accessory list is quite impressive. The accessories on my Dodge are marked with an asterisk.
All of these accessories, except two, are controlled by circuit breakers which automatically reset. Even the lights and overdrive transmission are on circuit breakers. This means that any intermittent electrical failure of a vital system will not stop the car, but allow safe travel to a repair area. The wiring is a combination of vinyl and varnished cloth insulated wires, which causes some mechanics to scratch their heads.
The eight tube radio is superb, and not as sensitive to power lines as are transistor units (the first all-transistor radio in any car was optional on Chrysler and Imperial for 1955). The tuning is crisp and fade in-and-out rarely happens. The tube warm-up period and the drone of the vibrator are continual reminders that the radio is drawing a massive fourteen amps.
The clock in my Dodge is still running after all of these years. I cleaned it once (instead of every six months as recommended by the shop manual). The clock has a solenoid which winds it up when a set of contact points close, usually every 3 or 4 minutes. The solenoid makes a loud “clink” and the clock light flashes on every rewind.
All 1955 Dodges have full instrumentation. The instruments have black faces with white numerals and pointers, including an ammeter (±50 amps, except heavy duty generators on air-conditioned cars and convertibles, which were ±65 amps); fuel; electrically-actuated water temperature; odometer; and mechanical-actuation oil pressure gauge, 0-80 psi.
The ash tray and headlight switch are designed to look like a gauge. Switches along the bottom of the dash are for the fan (heater and defroster are separate), ignition, wipers, and cigar lighter. When the parking lights are turned on, the ignition switch is illuminated. There are also lights for turn signals (a single green lamp) and for high beams (red).
There are two summer doors under the dash which allow vent air to bypass the heater. When closed, the fresh vent air is forced through the heater core. In very cold weather, the summer doors may be opened and the cowl vent closed to allow for recirculation of the air.
In addition to the adjustable cowl vent, there is a conventional temperature control switch to regulate water flow through the heater core. This unit is very effective. The one drawback is that the summer doors are not controlled from the dash, and the novice driver (or anyone with short arms) needs to stop the car in order to adjust these safely. However, they were designed to be closed once each fall and opened once each spring.
The air conditioning system is simple, with one three-level control for blower speed and one three-level (cold, cool, none) for cooling. The evaporator and blower are in the trunk, with vents to allow fresh air (one part fresh air, two parts recirculated); at high speed, the blower moves 300 cubic feet of air per minute, changing the air inside the car every 1 1/2 minutes. Cool air enters the car through grilles in the package shelf.
Fender vents are opened and closed with levers inside the trunk. Like the summer doors under the dash, they are designed to be opened in the spring and closed in the fall. The air conditioning compressor has a forged crankshaft and rods. The compressor is driven by two belts, another example of what some may call "over engineered."
There is a lot of stainless steel trim on the car, including window mouldings, rocker panel mouldings, and side trim. The remainder is die cast: medallion bezels, headlight doors, taillight bezels, parking light bezels, backup light bezels, all script, and the fake hood scoop. The die cast can be a nightmare to restore. The thin stainless steel side trim and the rocker panel trim are attached by clips and studs. All of the other trim is attached by studs. There is an extensive use of gaskets to seal out water, and the car is literally bolted together.
There are three engines used in the 55 Dodges - the 230 cid flat-head Getaway Six (for Coronets), the Red Ram V8, and the super Red Ram V8.
The 270 cid V8 engines were bigger than in the year before, and a polysphere was added to complement the Hemi.
The Red Ram V8 was a polysphere (single rocker shaft) and was used in the Coronet V8 and Royal. The Super Red Ram V8 was 270 cubic inches, like the Red Ram, but it had hemispherical combustion chambers with double rocker shafts; at the time, it was called the “double rocker” instead of the “Hemi.”
The Hemi was standard on all Custom Royals and optional on other lines. The two V8s share many internal components, and will accept manifolds and other components from the 241 Hemi engines from 1953 and 1954. The six was already outdated.
The Super Red Ram with the power package (4 barrel, dual exhaust) was way ahead of the Red Ram in terms of power.
Horsepower figures were measured with the generator, water pump, manifolds, and fuel pump. The Red Ram had low friction valve locks to allow for valve rotation but the Super Red Ram had no special provision for valve rotation.
The power package is a very rare option. The Carter carburetor was a surprisingly modern design, with metering rods on the primary jets and velocity valves controlling air flow to the secondaries.
The weakest part of the V8 engine is the forged crankshaft, but owners are warned of future problems by oil pressure issues. The trouble may have been in the bearing materials.
There were three transmissions available in 1955: three speed manual, three speed manual with overdrive, and two speed automatic PowerFlite. The straight-six and V8 transmissions were all the same except the clutches. The three speed is so simple that the shop manual covers it in fourteen pages. The 0.7:1 overdrive is more complicated, and requires 31 pages. The PowerFlite takes up 84 pages of the shop manual. All had a tailshaft parking brake to simplify the rear brakes. 1955 was the only year for the automatic transmission lever mounted on the dash.
The PowerFlite transmission and torque converter were air-cooled, and had no vacuum modulator, enhancing its simplicity. On the V8 car, a full throttle upshift occurs at about 60 mph. Kick-down occurs all the way up to 50 mph. One oddity is very high (260 lb/sq.in.) fluid pressure when the transmission is in reverse. The life of the PowerFlite can be extended by shifting to drive (foot on the brake) to cut the engine idle speed, before going into reverse. During a rebuild, transmission life will also be extended by installing the kick-down cushion spring in the trash can, not in the PowerFlite. This spring softens the shift by momentarily holding the transmission in low and drive during kick-down, and puts a strain on the internal components.
The PowerFlite came with the four pinion rear axle, the stronger axle; one year later it was a high performance options. 3.54 is a standard rear gear with the PowerFlite, 3.73 is an optional ratio. Manual transmission sixes got 3.9, 4.3 with overdrive; the V8 counterparts received 3.73, 4.1 with overdrive.
The 1955 Dodge suspension had conventional leaf springs in the rear and coil springs with king pins in the front. King pins can only rotate in one plane, so the front wheels do not change their axis of inclination much as they turn and travel over bumps. It is like having an elbow where your shoulder goes.
The V8 cars have an idler arm that is parallel to the steering gear arm for complete steering linkage symmetry. There are 21 grease fittings, 23 if you count the plugs in the rear axle for wheel bearings. Steering ratios are 22:1 in the six and 27:1 in the V8 cars. Steering had little effort, and the 16:1 ratio power steering made it almost effortless.
The 1955 Dodge was the last year for a six volt electrical system and the next to the last year for king pins and fifteen inch wheels. It was the first year for three-tone colors and the last year for bolt-on chrome fins. Six adults can ride in the car in comfort with all of the luggage in the trunk. It had a 20 quart cooling system and six quart oil capacity (sixes as well as V8s). All of the engines work on low octane gas.
Dodge placed eighth in sales in 1955 with 320,948 cars built in the USA and Canada. Chrysler captured 17% of the market as a whole, up from 11% in 1954.
There were four Canadian Dodge cars: Custom Royal, Mayfair, Regent, and Crusader, in 15 body styles. The Custom Royal was the same as the USA Dodge of the same series, while the other three were Plymouths with a Dodge front. Contrary to some writings, Dodge and Plymouth did not share major sheet metal.
The Mayfair was powered by the 241 V8. A 228 six, and optionally a 250 six, powered the Regents and Crusaders. The Canadian cars have a 115 inch wheelbase and are 207.4 inches long.
From the Walter P. Chrysler Club magazine - first printed 1980. Reprinted by permission. Also see Plymouths of 1955 ... Inside Dodge Main ... and Chrysler 1955-56 ... and Building the 1955 Dodge cars
Chrysler Heritage • History by Year • Chrysler People and Bios • Corporate Facts and History
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