The Hundred Million Dollar Look: Chrysler for 1955-56
Although it is hard to imagine today, during the late 1940s through the mid 1960s it was the practice of all domestic producers to introduce their new models in the fall. The simultaneous appearance of new cars in all the showrooms across the country generated a great deal of excitement, even among those whose interest in cars was minimal.
New car excitement was very high in the fall of 1954, because 1954 had been a disappointing year and many of the cars coming for 1955 had major engineering advances along with fresh and dramatic styling. U.S. production hit a record and Chrysler, though falling below its 1950 and 1953 production levels, mainly recovered from a disastrous 1954.
In the late summer of 1954, Chrysler ran unillustrated advertising in newspapers and magazines previewing the upcoming 1955 models, under the headline “The 100 Million Dollar Look.” In 1955, $100 million was a significant and impressive amount of money, and Chrysler probably did spend that much developing all new cars from the ground up. The advertising tagline was changed in 1956 to “The Forward Look,” which, because it was used through 1959, is better applied to the 1957-1959 models, on which another $100 million was probably spent.
To understand the good fortune of the U.S. auto industry in 1955, one must go back to the North Korean invasion of South Korea during the summer of 1950. After allied nations, including the U.S., engaged in a military action to defend South Korea, the U.S. government took three actions which strongly influenced all U.S. automakers and their suppliers.
In October 1950, the Federal Reserve started to curb credit for new personal vehicles, tightening credit at times until stopping in the spring of 1953. Congress had also created a National Production Authority (NPA) with the power to control military supplies, and in December 1950 the NPA began to impose quotas, by plant, for the production of cars for civilian sales; these quotas remained in effect through February 1953.
Both measures curtailed the production and sale of automobiles, delaying new designs and technologies, as well as the modernization/construction of facilities to build them, pending the return of free market activity. In terms of profits, though, the government more than offset the regulations by awarding contracts for military supplies.
Thus, during 1951 and 1952, even the smaller companies were making money (except for Hudson in 1951) and banking it, developing products, and waiting for the lifting of government controls to bring them to market. Some new cars were introduced for 1953 and 1954, but 1955 would bring a deluge.
During the “frozen” period of 1951 -1952, Chrysler facelifted its 1949 designs, and started to install early Hemi V8s in the 1951 Chrysler, then in the 1952 DeSoto (GM was also phasing in higher powered engines into its high-end cars.)
For 1953, completely new body shells were launched for Plymouth/Dodge/DeSoto Diplomat, and the remaining cars were significantly restyled. The Dodge V8 was introduced for 1953, and toward the end of the model year, the PowerFlite fully automatic transmission started to replace the fluid-coupling manual that dated back to 1940.
These were important and costly investments, but by 1952, Chrysler management, aware that more would be needed to remain competitive, began planning for 1955. In that year, Virgil Exner, who had come to Chrysler from Studebaker in 1949 as head of special projects design, was put in charge of a total redesign of the product line for 1955 and was presumably given a blank check. (Exner continued to offer up striking concept cars, most built by Ghia in Italy, during his entire career at Chrysler, in addition to designing the production cars). Simultaneously, Chrysler began to significantly increase V8 manufacturing capacity, expecting to build more V8 than 6 cylinder cars for 1955.
An unexpected development which would also influence the 1955 cars was Chrysler’s purchase of the Briggs Manufacturing Company at the end of 1953. Briggs had not only built most of Chrysler’s bodies since the days of the Dodge Brothers and Walter P Chrysler, they had become collaborators on the designs. Chrysler would have to decide which Briggs facilities to integrate into its own operations and have them ready to build the 1955 models just nine months after its acquisition of the company. If 1951 and 1952 were uneventful, 1953 and 1954 were years of intense activity behind the scenes at Chrysler.
Chrysler’s management knew as far back as 1949 that they needed not only new designs but an entirely new design philosophy to replace the practical, boxy, conservative designs that had been sold since the mid-1930s (due to both the conservative tastes of K.T. Keller and the utter failure of the Airflow cars). All cars were built that way during the 1930s, but Chrysler was slow to change, believing, not entirely incorrectly, that many buyers would value the practical advantages their products offered over the sleek designs coming to market from their competitors. This was true at first, but the success of the 1949 and 1952 Fords made it clear that Chrysler would have to discard the boxy look. The high rooflines, chair –height seats, short overhangs front and rear, thick A and B roof support pillars would have to be replaced with low, long, wide and sleek designs, with minimal roof support and maximum glass.
Exner had proven his skill at developing concept cars, but for 1955 he would have to design production cars to be built and sold in high volume and at a profit. As the leader of the design team, not just the sole designer, he would have to create distinctive designs for each of the five nameplates, using common components wherever possible. Finally, the cars should be built to the standard that Chrysler buyers had always received from Briggs bodies, whether or not they were aware of it.
The Chrysler product line for 1955 was as intended to be a complete break from the past, visually and mechanically. Color was everywhere, inside and out. All car lines — even Plymouth — had optional or standard V8s; most had a standard or optional “dual rocker” (Hemi), a Chrysler exclusive, and Chrysler’s two speed Powerflite automatic transmission, operated by a dash mounted stalk in 1955.
The model year 1955 was a major turning point for the industry, and for Chrysler, in that for the first time, low priced cars were designed to be attractive automobiles, not just basic transportation, and were available with all of the options available on more expensive products. The industry was well on its way to bigger is better, even for basic transportation, a trend against which many buyers would soon revolt.
For 1956, the Torqueflite three speed automatic transmission, often considered the best on the market at the time, became optional equipment on Chrysler and Imperial models. Both Powerflite and Torqueflite were operated by push button controls starting in 1956.
1955-56 Plymouth cars
The 1955 Plymouth was larger than the previous cars, although much of the added length was extra sheet metal. Interior room was only slightly increased, and the extra sheet metal was probably more of a factor in bringing customers in the door than the extra interior room. It was a much more attractive automobile than its predecessors, and that was what closed the deal in 1955.
The L-head 6 continued in production, with a slight increase in power and displacement to accommodate the Powerflite, and around 40% of Plymouth production used that engine. The standard 6 in the U.S. was a 3.7 liter unit, but in Canada an optional 4.1 liter 6 was offered for 1955 and became standard for 1956. In both countries, a 3.9 liter V8, Plymouth’s first, was offered for 1955, but in the U.S., a 4.2 liter V8 with either a 2 or 4 barrel carburetor was also available. For 1956, a 4.4 liter V8 was the standard V8 offered in both countries, with a 4.5 liter optional in the U.S.
There were three trim lines, but the wagons were given a separate Suburban designation for 1956. Special mention must be made of the high performance Plymouth Fury hardtop introduced for 1956, which had a 5 liter V8 as standard equipment, along with special interior and exterior trim.
Plymouth production in the U.S. was strong in 1955, and included an usually high number of export Dodge and DeSoto units, but then fell back in 1956, and failed to regain third place from Buick. Third place was not important, but volume was. Chrysler management probably had a reasonable expectation of regaining volume against the more expensive Buick, an expectation which was not met.
Dodge Kingsbrook, Crusader, Regent, and Mayfair were Plymouth cars with Dodge front end clips and nameplates, produced in Canada for the domestic market and for export, and in the U.S. for export. Engine choices differed according to whether the cars were made in the U.S. or Canada, but followed Plymouth usage in either case. In 1955, all export models were produced in the U.S. as Chrysler reconfigured the Windsor plant for more V8 capacity. Canadian production is known, but U.S. production is not, since they had Plymouth serial numbers and are included in Plymouth compilations.
1955-56 Dodge cars
Some of the 1953 -1954 Dodges — Coronet, Royal, and Custom Royal — had shared the 2.896 mm wheelbase body shell with Plymouth and the export Dodges, but in spite of the advantages of a more compact size, using this shell had probably cut sales. So, for 1955-1956, Dodge used a separate 3.048 mm wheelbase shell for all models except the export Dodges mentioned above.
The visual differentiation from Plymouth was evident, although the interior dimensions of both cars differed only slightly. Dodge accommodated those customers who wanted two (or three!) tone paint with a chrome strip running from the hood along the top of the body, dipping slightly ahead of the rear wheel opening, and rising again to the top of the taillight assembly. It was was particularly well done.
The Dodge Coronet was available with the 3.8 liter L-head six, but other models had a standard 4.4 liter V8, also used by Plymouth but with additional power when installed in the Dodge. For 1956, Canadian-built Custom Royals had an optional 4.95 liter V8, and all U.S. models were available with an optional 5.2 liter V8 (318) in four stages of tune. The top two versions of this engine were sold as the D-500 package, and although few were sold, their availability and Dodge’s support for track competition got the message across. Dodge, like Plymouth, held its ground during 1955 -1956 but did not advance as hoped. [1955 Dodge details]
DeSoto Diplomat was a Plymouth car with a DeSoto front end clip and nameplates, produced mostly in the U.S. for export. The production numbers are unknown, since they had Plymouth serial numbers and are included in Plymouth compilations.
DeSoto Firedome, Fireflite, Adventurer — indeed, all DeSotos for 1955 -1956, except the export-only Diplomat — shared the 3.048 mm wheelbase Chrysler chassis, and had standard V8 engines. The long wheelbase sedans, which had been a part of the DeSoto line since the 1930s, were no longer made. The Chrysler versions were also dropped; the Dodge version had been dropped after 1951. More fleets were using standard wheelbase sedans, and those those that needed long wheelbase sedans were using the more rudimentary Checker.
DeSoto was clearly a step up from Dodge, and it styling, though clearly modern, was more restrained than Oldsmobile, Buick and Mercury (all of which outsold it by wide margins). It did well without the bi-level grill and tacked-on taillights of the 1955 Chrysler, attracting traditional DeSoto buyers who wanted a more modern car, but probably did not attract many GM or Ford owners.
For 1956, DeSoto added the Adventurer models, hardtops and convertibles with a high performance V8, custom styling and interior, and all luxury features standard. This was not aimed at the traditional DeSoto buyer, and few were sold at the time, although they are valuable collector cars today, just as the Chrysler 300B on which they were patterned.
Chrysler sold the Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker Deluxe, C300, Windsor, New Yorker, and 300B. A definite break with past, the 1955 Chrysler had an odd front end and taillight design, which were resolved with the 1956 facelift. The C300 in 1955 is the standout in this Chrysler model cycle.
Chrysler did have a superior engine, but it had been hidden in cars that, however competent, did not quicken the pulse. They decided to showcase it in a limited production luxury hardtop, which was entered into well-publicized speed events which drew attention to Chrysler . Some of that attention came from GM and Ford, although, possibly because of the low sales numbers, they did not follow Chrysler’s lead and build similar cars until the 1960s. The letter series 300 was a unique and iconic American car of its time.
1955-56 Imperial cars
The Imperial had always been the premium Chrysler model, sold by Chrysler dealers. Chrysler management was looking at Cadillac’s semi-domination of the luxury market, and its resulting profitability, concluding that an opportunity existed to win some of that business. Chrysler made a substantial investment and continued to do so for 15 years, even though it ultimately proved unsuccessful. The 1955 -1956 Imperial probably consumed a portion of the “$100 million” investment far in excess of the revenue generated by its modest sales, but the Imperial was a long-term project.
The 1955 Imperial, minus the Chrysler badge for the first time, was an impressive automobile. The front end was an Exner triumph, with its divided grille, large parking lights thrusting out over the front bumper, and elaborate medallion separating the two halves of the grille. The rest of the car, detail by detail, reinforced the impression of luxury and substance, and an Imperial would not suffer from a side-by-side comparison with Cadillac.
Chrysler was confident enough of the car that Imperial prices were somewhat higher than Cadillac prices. Unfortunately, few Cadillac buyers would give the Imperial any consideration, because the fact that it was sold by a Chrysler dealers made it “just” a premium Chrysler, however impressive the Imperial badge was. Imperial was more successful than the 1953 -1954 Chrysler Imperials (sold under the Chrysler brand rather than their own), but not much of a problem for Cadillac. Chrysler would have to try harder with the Imperial, and they would.
The custom built Crown Imperial limousine returned for the 1955-1956 cycle, on its own 3.797 mm wheelbase chassis. Models like this had been offered since the beginning of Chrysler production, but the cost of the hand assembly and finishing required were far in excess of what could be recovered even with its lofty selling price. The loss per car was becoming excessive, but management believed the car was essential to Chrysler’s image. So this cycle would be the last to be assembled in the U.S.; future models would be built from finished Imperials sent to Ghia in Italy to be converted into limousines.
Summary: what they got for $100 million
During 1953 and 1954, Chrysler invested large sum of cash into products that were new from the ground up, across the board, and in new production equipment to build them. The company broke completely from the conservative design philosophy that had served it well for two decades, replacing it with a bolder design attuned to contemporary preferences. The objective was to improve volume and gain share, but their achievement would be more modest.
In the small Canadian market, Chrysler did extremely well for 1955 - 1956, attaining production levels well beyond what they had achieved before, and which they would not attain again until 1965. The Canadian Auto Workers struck Ford at the end of 1954 and GM at the end of 1955, and Chrysler gained from the temporary shortages of cars from these sources.
In the U.S., 1955 volume and market share were above the disastrous results of 1954, but below those reached in 1950 and 1953. They fell again in 1956. Chrysler was stable, profitable, but not advancing. They reported net income for 1955 of $ 100 million, just what they claimed to have spent developing the 1955 models. This were not the results management wanted. Accordingly, they were preparing a second assault, staring advance planning in 1955 for even more advanced cars to be built in 1957, only two years away. This would be “the forward look,” the next chapter in Chrysler history.
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- Plymouth 1946 -1959
- Driving a 1955 Dodge
- Inside Chrysler: 1955 • 1956 (and Belmont) • 1955-56 police cars • 1956 Plymouth Fury and Daytona
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