An Inside History of Chrysler:
The Hot 1955 “Forward Look” Cars, NASCAR’s roots,
and Daytona Speed Weeks
1955 was an exciting year: the country was at peace, and the ravages of the Korean “police action” were behind us. The economy was booming. The major automakers emerged from the shadows of war production with tons of cash, new design themes, and plenty of outlets to peddle their new wares. The majors all targeted 1955 to bring out their totally redesigned, re-engineered cars, some of the first remakes since World War II.
The Forward Look Dodge and Plymouth cars were restyled by Exner protégé Maury Baldwin. There was no visual resemblance to the 1954 or earlier cars, though the same three models were used: Plaza at the bottom, Savoy, and the top of the line Belvedere. Even the least expensive Plaza, the two door coupe with no heater, looked better than the ’54 models. Its base price (two door) was $1,688, FOB Detroit; with the heater/defroster and radio, it cost a bit more at $1,729.
There was excitement down at my father’s dealership. Dad had been to a lot of the dealer pre-shows, bringing back pictures of the new models. I couldn't believe that they were from the same company! Especially the new Plymouth models, and that oh, so special Chrysler, the 300!
Seeing pictures and being to see and sit in an actual car are totally different experiences. Dad began getting the 1955 models in early November 1954. The grand opening was set for November 17, 1954, across the country. Plymouth was behind Ford and Chevrolet introductions, this year.
Chevrolet debuted its exciting new line on October 28, 1954; the new Chevrolet was every bit as made over as the new Plymouth. Ford beat Plymouth on introductions by just 5 days, coming out on November 12, 1954. Dad wrote in his journal that it was a well planned sales ploy to spark any last minute undecided purchasers to wait until Chrysler brought out its 1955s.
From the first night, Plymouth sales took off at a pace that my Dad could hardly keep up with. He sold more 1955 Plymouths on November 17, 1955, than he usually sold in a normal two months — over 20 Plymouths. And that was only the first night. Sales of the newly redone Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, and (now its own division) the Imperial took off too.
This was also the year that Chrysler put its transmission control through the dashboard, with a slender lever. There was an urban legend, simply not true, about injuries caused by that control lever. The lever was designed to break away safely when 10 pounds of pressure were applied, but it still caused a stir.
My Dad sold his cousin a new '55 Belvedere with automatic and the hi-PO V-8. Dad's cousin and his younger brother went fishing one Saturday afternoon, and spent more money on beer than bait. On the way back home, they thought it was great fun to flip the transmission lever up and down, especially when it slammed into reverse and would nearly jerk their heads off as they were going forward. It lasted quite a few tries, until the rear end decided that it had enough abuse and blew out the spider gears. Didn't hurt the Powerflite. My Dad had the mechanics convert the dash lever to a column mounted unit from a '54 so his Cousin wouldn't be tempted to try that game again.
The two-seaters: Corvette, Thunderbird, and Belmont
Ford was only selling “makeovers” except for its new Thunderbird, which created a lot of floor traffic — more so than the Chevrolet counterpart, the Corvette. Chrysler had unveiled a show car called the Plymouth Belmont in 1954 with a so-called “non-existent” Plymouth V-8 — actually the car had the 14th Plymouth V-8, according to the numbers. Why this engine business with Plymouth was such secret, only the company knows.
The Belmont was a two seat sports car; dealers had high hopes, but in the usual Chrysler Board mentality, the car and the design were retired before 1955, as “too old.” Still, Plymouth, against the odds, set new records for sales, speed, and design. Possibly, Chrysler had seen the sales figures set by the 1953 and 1954 Corvette and were underwhelmed by them. However, after seeing the sales recorded for the 1955 T-Bird, they probably kicked themselves in the rear area a few times.
Only 314 of the 1953 Corvettes were sold. For 1954, Chevy sold 3,640 Corvettes, an improvement, though compared to expectations, Corvette figures may have been a bitter pill. 1955 was even worse, with only 700 Corvettes sold, even with the available V-8.
Over at Ford, the T-Bird took off with a first year run of 16,155 units; no doubt, it spurred many sales from people who went to Ford dealers to see the T-bird and left with something else. Belmont, with minor styling adjustments, would have been a worthy competitor to the T-Bird, since it was built with almost the same specifications. One can now only speculate, but, Plymouth should have been given the chance!
Daytona Speed Weeks
In February, we went to Florida to see the speed tests at Daytona Beach. Uncle Chet lived on the ocean right off US Route A1A in Bunnell, Florida. Early in the morning, the Redgap boys climbed in my Uncle's new DeSoto and headed south. The car rode like a dream and was powerful and fast, passing other cars whenever Uncle Chet punched the accelerator down. That Hemi V-8 made a deep belly roar, characteristic of all MoPar V-8 engines, and seamlessly gathered the big DeSoto up and hurled it past any obstructions in the road.
We made Daytona Beach just as the sun was coming up. I was hooked on Florida right then and there. We ate breakfast at the Ormond Beach Hotel, a huge old wooden edifice that is still standing today; that was the site of the original beach races, and it was where all the names of speed stayed, when the beach was king of the speed records. Sir Malcolm Campbell stayed there when he set new records in his BlueBirds.
Then it was off to find the Chrysler group at the testing facility on the beach. Huge banners identified each car company. We were welcomed warmly by members of the Chrysler staff. It was then I began to realize just how much sway that Dad had in the Chrysler organization. He was a pretty big stick, so to speak. Whatever any of us wanted, someone would run and fetch it. I was showered with all kinds of momentos and souvenirs.
There is no way to describe the excitement and awe the new Chrysler C300 drew in 1955. When the first one was delivered to Dad's store, gawker traffic made it impossible to move around the showroom. It continued for over a week like that. It seemed everyone in the country wanted to see the most powerful car built in America. The 331 cubic inch Hemisphere head V-8 introduced in 1951 had grown up to 300 horsepower. It easily outpaced the Corvette and the Thunderbird in power and speed. At Daytona Beach, that day, it proved that it was more than just a pretty face.
The highest top speed was measured over a mile long course on the beach. The sand, even as packed as it was, did not make for ideal traction, so ideal top speeds would never be obtained on the beach; this was not yet known by those involved.
The first of three C300s started. The black car slowly made its way to the end of the course. It seemed like it was going to take forever, then suddenly, there it was! A tiny speck on the sand, hurtling along at an unbelievable pace! It grew in size, then, with a roar like a low-flying plane, a flash, and it was gone! We all waited, nearly not breathing. Speed... 129.298 miles per hour! It had shattered the record set in 1954 (by another Chrysler) of 117.065 miles per hour.
For the record to stick, it had to be a two way average. The black 300 started its run in the opposite direction. Just as before, it seemed like forever. Then suddenly, with a huge roar and a flash it was by. The electronic eyes blinked. The speed... a bit slower at 125.874. The two way average was 127.580. The second 300 was timed at 126.542 mph and the third, operated by a woman [Vicki Woods], set a timed speed of 125.838 mph. The closest any other car came was the Cadilliac which set a timed speed of 120.478 mph.
The real interest after the 300 runs were Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth. Chevy and Plymouth both had new V-8 engines; Ford had sort of a ho-hum attitude, since it had flathead V-8 engines since 1932. They had also been run at Daytona before. Plymouth, however, was not prepared for what lay ahead.
Just prior to speed weeks, Chevrolet introduced a RPO (regular production option) for their new 265 cubic inch engine, supposedly for police cars. (Chevrolet did not have a police car package and would not have one until 1956!) It claimed to have been only a 4-barrel carb and dual exhausts, but later evidence showed a special distributor, and a different camshaft. It was entered as “stock,” and rated at 180 horsepower.
Ford, too, had a nasty surprise, with its 292 cubic inch “Thunderbird Special V-8” (the 292 V-8, with the compression ratio bumped from 7.6 to 1 to 8.5 to 1). This was also entered as “stock” with 198 horsepower. Plymouth showed up with its bone-stock 260 cubic inch polysphere head V-8 at 7.6 to 1 compression and 177 horsepower.
To say the least, it was a total embarrassment for Plymouth. However, once the engineers had determined what had happened, it would never happen to Plymouth again.
Chevrolet surprised everyone with a timed speed of 112 miles per hour. The fastest Chevrolet ever! Ford managed to break 100 miles per hour for the first time, with 105 miles an hour top speed. Plymouth? 98 miles an hour. Not even in the running. "Hell's bells!" My Dad cussed. "Buncha damn pirates over there at GM!" He was not alone in voicing acrimonious comments. The attending Plymouth engineers were a grim group. The term in racing is “sand bagging.”
The engineers knew they had been worked over by GM and Ford. A vow was made to not let it happen again. The pain was eased somewhat when Dodge took its class, ... again, not by much, with the high flying Chevrolet nipping at its heels when the Dodge made 114 miles an hour. That would not happen again for a few years. DeSoto ran through both Buick and Oldsmobile, establishing its own record for power and speed at 115 miles an hour. Chrysler stood alone with the C300 beating everyone. Plymouth went back to Highland Park with a sense of commitment that both Ford and GM would feel for the next few years.
Roots of NASCAR
My Uncle had a fledgling racing engine operation, mostly using Hemi blocks, in North Carolina. One of his earliest customers was Dodge dealership owner Cotton Owens — Richard Petty’s father-in-law—who was newly into stock car racing. Plymouth adopted my Uncle's rented garage space to work over the Plymouths they had brought down, to see if they could get any more speed out of them. I was fascinated that anything that contained as many parts as I saw lying around the garage from the Plymouth engines, and could all work together; it just boggled my mind. I never have gotten over cars, speed, power, and politics.
They did manage to push the '55 Plymouth to speeds, unofficially, of over 120 miles an hour, but it took more money than it was worth on the 277 cubic inch V-8. It also put the compression ratio up to where it would never have been able to run on the street. But more came from that meeting.
My Dad and Uncle both met with the head of NASCAR, William France; both of them disliked him immensely. They both thought he was little more than a power and money manipulator who would do whatever it took to keep himself as sole power broker in NASCAR. They believed that USAC (United States Auto Club) was much fairer as a sanctioning body.
Even in later years, when NASCAR was growing in leaps, my Uncle despised the France family’s actions in NASCAR. “They held all the cards. No matter what an owner or driver or sponsor does, France could make it all go away, with just a word, and no money in it on his part... and no appeal to the decision... period!” My Dad always accused France of being able to manipulate the outcome of races. (There have been public accusations as well; the Orlando Sentinel published several articles on “the call,” where, allegedly, France himself told a team that they were to win a race.) Dad said that banning race car driver Curtis Turner for life (early 1960s), because Turner had gambled on NASCAR races, was to eliminate the competition, to get total control of the betting process.
Police and fleet sales
This was the first year that I can remember heavy competition for fleet sales. Our State Police bid for low cost sedans with the largest performance engines. Chrysler shipped three Plymouths down to Dad's for scrutiny by the Troopers; Ford got the bid. One of the Plymouths had the V-8 package with dual exhausts. The cars were gone for a week, and were trashed when they got back; I had to try to clean them, so I remember!
My Uncle Hurley, Dad's oldest brother, came around, as Chief of Police. He preferred the Plymouth models, especially after trying out the V-8 car for a week, but the City Council accepted the bids from Chevrolet. They were the model 150, 2 door sedan, all black inside and out, equipped with a heater/defroster, stick shift, and the power pak 265 ci 4-barrel, dual exhaust V-8. Cost per unit was $1,537. Dad had bid the Plymouth, only far better equipped, with the Powerflite, radio, heater/defroster, 2 door, red interior, black exterior to a total of $1618. Had he bid out exactly the same car as the Chevrolet, the bid would have been $1498!
The Chevrolets turned out to be a nickel and dime nightmare. The distributor had dual points, and within 4,000 miles they burned out, shutting the engine down. One had to change the spark plugs right along with the ignition points. They just did not like the prolonged idle periods experienced by police cars.
The County Sheriff accepted the bid against the Chevrolet due to the automatic transmission. He bought 80 of them as I described above, except he had the doors painted white. Most of them gave over 100,000 miles service without problems.
Plymouth had long ago established a solid reputation for fleet (taxi) operations; in the early 1930s, DeSoto was taxi king in the biggest cities. A change in wheelbase regulations allowed Plymouth to compete after World War II; Plymouth could fit DeSoto brakes, clutch, engine, shocks, and running gear virtually direct. It was one of Detroit's best kept secrets for years. Finally, in 1955, when Plymouth's fleet sales zoomed, GM and Ford took note.
1955 Plymouth and other Chrysler car sales
Meanwhile, sales, especially for Plymouth, kept going up. According to the journal kept by my father, he averaged two Plymouth sales a day that the store was open. He never opened Sunday, and closed at Noon on Saturday. Dad, even with grandpa's help, was going at a break neck pace. He would pay a price, as would I, later on, for keeping up such a torrid level of business.
My father always waited until December 15 or thereabouts to post his figures for the dealership, because he liked to keep his regular employees, and he had an exquisite joy in handing out cash bonuses to everyone at the annual dealership Christmas party. On December 15, 1955, his employees were paid on the first 1,000 retail trade year (not including fleet sales). They sold 563 Plymouths, 126 Chryslers, 80 DeSotos, 166 Dodges, and 68 Imperials. Plymouth Division produced 705,555 cars in model-year 1955, a new record.
My Dad noted, "This has been the best year ever for the entire corporation. But Plymouth just seems to keep going. I have never seen anything like it. No matter how many I get in, the demand for them still exceeds the amount I have. I got a backlog now of over 100 customers. I hope they will take 1956 models, or I may get skinned alive. What a business! Last year I couldn't seem to give 1954 Plymouths away. Now, I don't have enough 1955s to make everyone happy. I just hope Exner [Virgil Exner, hired by K. T. Keller in 1953, soon to be Vice-president of Style and Design for ChryCo] keeps his head and doesn't go the way of those other striped pants boys in Highland Park. I swear they seem to forget who they were building cars for!"
1955 was the year that the real race began in Detroit. Comparisons were becoming a big thing. Tom McCahill, of Mechanix Ilustrated, lived in Ormond Beach (Uncle Chet and Mr. McCahill knew each other, as nodding acquittances only.) Mr. McCahill, who could have any car he wanted, drove a 1955 C-300 as his personal mount.
Motor Trend tested the “low priced three.” After mileage, acceleration and handling tests, they proclaimed the 1955 Plymouth as the best handling. Chevrolet beat Plymouth to 60 by clocking @ 12.3 seconds compared to 13.1, and Ford's 14.5. However, Plymouth outran Chevrolet in the top end at 98.4 (sound familiar?) miles an hour, compared to Chevrolet's 97 and Ford eating tail pipe smoke at 95 mph.
— Curtis Redgap