Copyright © 2006 by Curtis Redgap, Orlando, Florida. All rights reserved. Contact Allpar for reprint permission.
In the late decade of the 1960s, a war was going on in the United States. Not one of bullets or bombs or explosives, but it was an all out war just the same. There was a no holds barred, no prisoner taken attitude, and the depth of feeling about the enemies was just as vehement as if bullets were flying about the heads of those involved.
In a way, Chrysler Corporation has been investigated and held to be accountable for the main battery salvos that actually started the whole thing. Some four years after introducing their first production V-8 engine, Chrysler engineers, headed by Bob Rodger, put together the most powerful car in America. Built around the 331 cubic inch V-8 engine, the 1955 model Chrysler C-300 created an absolute sensation no matter where one was seen. Crowds gathered around it, while observers peppered the driver with questions. "Does it really have 300 horses?" "How does it go?" Sure mundane, but certainly important issues for the day in which a whole lot of dreams were instantly created when one of those awesome C-300 Chryslers rumbled by. Quite simply it was the most powerful car in America, and no one had any ammunition at the time to answer it back.
Utilizing the magnificent depth of the knowledge of the "Engineering Company," Chrysler didn't just create a fast car. It stopped as well as it went, and handled the high output with a superb suspension system unmatched in its class. Auto testers went just all out eloquent when given the opportunity to wring one out for themselves. Writing for Mechanix Illustrated, "Uncle" Tom MacCahill wrote effusively about the mighty new Chrysler. Considered at the time as the premier automobile tester, he wrote that the new car handled better than any car that he had ever driven, right off the show room floor. "It sticks in the corners like a hungry dog clamped on a bone," he wrote. Since the super Daytona Speedway was four years from being built, Uncle Tom had a special road that he used in rural Florida near his home. He wrote that the Chrysler was a "beautiful brute" and as "solid as Grant's Tomb and a 130 times as fast." In that year, he purchased a new C-300 for his personal car. It wouldn't be the last 300 he ever owned either.
Neither Ford nor General Motors had any thing to answer the overwhelming guns from the mighty Chrysler. It cleaned up in all major auto racing sanctioning bodies that year, particularly NASCAR and USAC. At the time, neither Ford nor Chevrolet had been very open about their activities. The C-300 had caught them totally by surprise. Along with the Virgil Exner inspired styling the 1955 model Chrysler Corporation created a huge sensation, garnering tremendous sales. When the HQ crowd saw the showroom traffic that the C-300 generated, high performance models were ordered into production for all the lines, except the Imperial and the Plymouth. The Plymouth Fury story is told elsewhere in this forum.
Rumors always were flying around in Detroit. Hey, it is the motor city. Industrial espionage did not go on to the level that it does today, however, it was certainly a big element in the rival corporation's bag of tricks. Corps of private detectives was devoted solely to the major car manufacturers. Sometimes, however, even hard liner insiders get sucker punched. Henry Ford II pulled a cute one out of his hat in 1956. He announced that he had hired former Indianapolis winner Peter DePaulo head up the Ford Motor Company Racing Division. Clearly Henry had his eyes on NASCAR. His return salvo in the war was pretty big at the time. A factory actually backing racing teams. Common practice in Europe for decades, it had never been done here in America. It made Chrysler take some notice; however, they had not gone all out like Ford to get into highly competitive racing. Not yet anyway.
A run at the Indianapolis 500 in 1952 with a stock block 331 V-8 Hemi resulted in the rules being changed to restrict the big Chrysler. When news about the testing of the original stock block 331 got out, the sanctioning body at Indianapolis went cold with fear. In a Kurtis race chassis, exactly the same kind as the 1951 Indy 500 winner drove, the big Hemi pushed the racer to speeds easily 5 to 7 miles an hour faster than the highest lap speeds had ever been at the Indy track. The main factor being that the car had plenty of room for further development, thereby making everything else out there also ran instantly. Acting quickly, the rule makers stacked up the deck against mighty Chrysler. They cut back on the cubic inch limit in stock blocks to 272. The A311 Hemi engine V-8 was down on power and didn't qualify. A very conservative crew still ran Chrysler Corporation, so at the time; they didn't see many results for the company by going all out to race. No more attempts were made to race the Hemi at the corporate level. That would change.
However, 1955 was one of the best years for Chrysler despite themselves. The 1954 NASCAR Champion, Lee Petty, (sire of the NASCAR King Richard Petty) had kept his winning 1954 Chrysler and used it in a few 1955 races, picking up some wins. The "Forward Look" by innovative styling leader Virgil Exner led Chrysler Corporation far away from the days of dumpy looking vehicles.
The high powered 300 had made a serious impression on a man that had the time and the money to make things work. He also instituted many innovations that were unheard of then that are common practice today in NASCAR.
Back then, since the rules for NASCAR were called "strictly stock," a manufacturer that came up with something that was better and faster than the rest, just kept on winning. Karl Kiekhaefer was a hard nosed businessman. He wasn't interested in racing nor was he even a fan. However, his research had shown that wherever a NASCAR race took place there were tremendous potential for sales of outboard boat engines. As the owner of Mercury Marine Outboard Engines, he saw hard dollars in using the races as a means to advertise his outboards. The rest is history.
Between Karl's 3 team drivers, and Lee Petty, the 1955 300 notched an incredible 27 wins. 14 top 5 finishes and the NASCAR Championship to Tim Flock who took home $37,779 for his efforts.
In a harbinger of things to come, Karl Kiekhaefer left little to chance. He dug deep into his pockets. 1956 was a racing season that set chills up Big Bill France's spine when he saw the Kiekhaefer teams pull into a NASCAR event. France was not in control when it came to Kiekhaefer. In an era when some of the racers were actually driven to the track, then raced, Kiekhaefer equipped each car with a box truck full of spare parts, tires, tools, and test equipment; the truck towed the car to the races. Besides the original three drivers of 1955, Karl had hired two more drivers for 1956, fielding 5 cars. He would test the track, sample the dirt, and had a weatherman check for conditions up to 5 days before a race, just to make the right tire selection for the race. He applied military like discipline on his drivers, keeping them all in the same motel, imposing a nightly curfew and making them sleep away from their wives to avoid distractions. Truly, the man was just about 40 years ahead of his time.
Big Bill France had every car fielded by Kiekhaefer torn down, double checked, and would disqualify them for the slightest infractions. However, none were ever found. All France could do then is hope that they broke or blew up. A rare event. The cars competed like the stock champions that they were. At the end of 1956, the mighty teams had won 30 of the 50 events sponsored. At one point the 1956 300 B models won 16 races in a row. Prize money amounted to $70,000. Big money in 1956.
However, an interesting phenomenon started to occur. The Kiekhaefer teams were being booed. Beer bottles were thrown at the cars and drivers. By the middle of the season, fans started staying home in droves. Purse money went down. The fan appreciation that Karl had expected, especially in regards to selling his outboard engines, did not happen. Instead of respect and good will, he received boos along with a total lack of respect. At the end of 1956, he pulled out. Left everything and quit for good, never to return.
Rumors float around to this day, that have taken on the hard edge of truth that Big Bill France had actually not only encouraged the showing of utter disrespect, he may have been responsible for paying some few "good ol' boys" to institute the booing and beer bottle heaving shows.
That left Lee Petty as the only major Chrysler Corporation car user. He ran 1956 in a Dodge Coronet 2 door sedan, with the big D-500 option. He won two races. He finished the year in fourth place in the Grand National standings with $15,000 in winnings. When you consider that most workers were getting about 1.85 cents an hour, he didn't do too badly.
Taking heed of the lack of further development or encouragement from Chrysler Corporation, Lee Petty switched to Oldsmobile in 1957. After all, that division had come calling and even helped him obtain two 1957 models!
So, the end of the 1956 NASCAR season was the end of the mighty Chrysler Corporation mark on early racing. There would not be another notch on the tree until 1959, when the Petty team returned to Plymouth. Dodge would not see another win until they snuck one in 1960. Chrysler would not be back on the record books until 1961.
Things change. Chrysler had been thrown into an internal upheaval. L.L. Colbert had been succeeded by Dodge President Newberg. Two months later, scandal charges were all over the place about sweetheart deals with Chrysler suppliers. In the end, both Newberg and Colbert departed. Lynn Townsend, an accountant but a great car guy, emerged from the dust and became Chrysler President. Concerned about the perception of Chrysler vehicles, Townsend asked his two teenaged sons about stuff on the street. Their reply was that Chrysler didn't exist there. Stung, Townsend took decisive action.
It may well have had little to do with what Townsend's sons had to say. As the head of the company, he was very aware of the things that Henry Ford had been doing. It had just been a few short years ago that Chrysler Corporation was the big number two manufacturer in the USA. Henry Ford II and his assembled team of "whiz kids" had managed to push past Chrysler at the beginning of the 1950s. He did not want to let his insider knowledge of what Ford was doing for racing go without utilizing it to make sales for Chrysler.
One of the first things that happened after Townsend put the Corporation on a performance bent was that in the early part of 1962, Chrysler dropped a bombshell on the public. They had to do something. The 1962 model Plymouth and Dodge were just absolutely wrong. They were shrunken images of what the ailing Virgil Exner had envisioned, turning out to be horrible designs.
Ford took note. Chrysler's largest (at that time) V-8, the venerable 413 had been transformed into a torque generating monster. Nick named the Max Wedge; the engineers had done some magic on the engine. For drag racing, it put terror in the hearts of competitors. It took record after record. A 1962 Super Stock Plymouth was the first ever STOCK car to break through the 12 second barrier. The Melrose Missile ran an 11.83 second shot with a trap speed of 118 miles an hour. Ford had a good engine in the FE 406 block, but the Galaxie body was too heavy to compete with the small Plymouth and Dodge. Chevrolet had its powerful 409 and some trick body work. Pontiac was coming on strong as usual.
However, on the NASCAR circuit, the Chrysler Cars didn't fare too well. The Petty clan was the only bright spot with their Plymouths. The 1962 Daytona 500 remains one of Richard Petty's favorite races. Giving up at least 50 horsepower to the Pontiac cars, Petty managed to get the Plymouth into second place, and he hung on! In fact, he led the race for 27 laps. He ended the '62 season with 11 wins and second place in Grand National Points. Dodge and Chrysler were not even on the radar.
The war started to heat up. Henry Ford had fired some shots back.
In 1957, the American Manufacturers Association had been convinced by Henry Ford II not to compete outright in racing. GM, Ford, and Chrysler had given all the appearances that the factory team situation was over. Of course, that meant other avenues were open. Dodge had already jumped into the Police and Severe use arena with their 1956 models. Plymouth did the same in 1957. So called "export" parts somehow made their way to racing cars. Since this wasn't a NASCAR deal, Bill France could have cared less, as long as fans kept coming through the gate with money in their hands.
Ford hadn't gotten out of racing altogether either. In 1960, they designed the Starliner body which had a very slippery back light. The FE 352 cubic inch V-8 had been hopped up for a stock output of 360 horsepower. It ran fairly well on the fast tracks, but not good enough. Ford cranked up the cubic inches of the 352 to 385. It ran real well with that engine — well enough that Bill France promptly banned the engine saying it was not a true production engine available to the public. France was right, but Henry Ford was not happy.
Ford moved again by introducing the 390 cubic inch V-8 for 1961, essentially a stock version of the earlier 385. It wasn't enough. Pontiac again dominated with a really big Super Duty 421. Even when the 390 ran in the Starliner body it wasn't quite enough to hold off the Pontiacs. Drag racing in a Ford was enhanced by a triple carb set up, but the Ford bodies were too heavy.
For Chrysler 1961 was an off year. Lee Petty was near death after a qualifying race accident for the Daytona 500. Essentially, his racing career ended with that crash. The 1961 Dodge and Plymouth cars with their reverse fins were odd handlers. Richard Petty (Lee's son had joined his father at the age of 21 in 1957 for a Petty Enterprises two car team) won two races in 1961. Richard had managed to keep gasoline in the tanks and beans on the table for Petty Enterprises. Lee was not in charge anymore. He wasn't capable. Again, Dodge and Chrysler were nowhere to be seen.
In 1962, Ford didn't have the slippery Starliner roof model. This is sort of an odd thing since the previous two model years had done pretty well. The square back Thunderbird roof style on the Galaxie was just not slippery at all for NASCAR. So, Ford engineers came up with a fiberglass top that could be fitted to the Sunliner convertibles. The Fords ran real well when it was installed. NASCAR banned it after one race saying that it was not a regular production item. Again Henry Ford was not happy.
Right after the 1962 NASCAR ruling banning the Starlifter top, Henry announced that he was no longer going to observe the 1957 AMA ban. Not that he had been much in the past, but at least now he acknowledged it. Lynn Townsend promptly followed suit, announcing that Chrysler Corporation was going back to racing. Not that they had ever really stopped lending support to teams all along with the severe and police parts made available across the counter. GM was still seemingly quietly observing the AMA race ban requirements.
1963 was when the actual war came out from behind the corporate smoke screens. Lynn Townsend told his engineers in the middle of the 1962 season, that he wanted something for NASCAR that would "kick Ford's ass!" Things being as they are, it didn't take long for those words to reach Henry Ford. He didn't like Chrysler. He didn't like Townsend. In fact, Henry didn't like too many things that he couldn't control. That probably included Bill France. He invested heavily for 1963.
NASCAR had set a limit to engine size of 7.0 litres or 427 cubic inches. Chrysler met the size with a slightly bored out 413, making 426 ci. It also had done some internal work scrumming up the horsepower to somewhere around 600 in racing trim. The new design for the cars was also more aerodynamic. The Petty Plymouths were fast. Hope sprang up in the hearts of Chrysler fans. They should have stayed in the "fox holes" with their heads down.
Just before spring, for the 1963 year, Henry Ford unleashed the "Sport roof" body style on the large Galaxie. It was not built like the Starliner or the Starlifter styles; however, it achieved an aerodynamic advantage through the air. The Ford boys didn't stop there. They put a mighty, well engineered and very powerful 427 cubic inch V-8 in the Ford engine bay. And out of the blue, Chevrolet appeared with a 427 engine of its own.
Somehow, the Chevrolet guys had convinced GM brass that it was scheduled for its station wagon body. Purportedly only 48 engines had been built. When the GM board room learned that there had been some Chevrolet cars, led by all out Junior Johnson, running around the Daytona Beach race track at over 165 miles an hour, they got real nervous. Someone pulled the plug. Not much was ever known, at the time, about the GM 427. So little in fact that it began to be called the "Mystery Motor." However, Bill France made no effort to stop Chevrolet from racing with that engine.
The 1963 Daytona 500 became a Ford parade with the top 5 finishers being all Ford. Richard Petty in the 1963 Plymouth came in sixth, the first non Ford to finish. On shorter tracks the Petty Plymouth was nearly unbeatable. It generated tremendous torque, sometimes spinning the rear wheels out of control. The 426 V-8 also proved to be rugged and reliable, rarely breaking down. Petty won 19 races in 1963, all for Plymouth. Dodge got shut out.
Click here to read Part II - Enter the Hemi!
Once...as Jerry Olesen wrote..."The cars were production line models, which were reinforced at key points...These days, they race 'cars that never were,' so to speak, and much of the relevance to actual automobiles has been lost. "
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