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Chrysler 1953-1954: moving forward, looking backward

by Gerard Wilson

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.

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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.

Forehead White-collar worker Businessperson Suit Spokesperson
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.

Plymouth cars

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.

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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.

Plymouthwheelbase: mm (in.)pounds (kg)
19462,984 (117" or 9' 10")3,144 (1,426)
1952 P222,819 (111")3,012 (1,366)
1952 P233,010 (118.5")3,122 (1,416)
19532,896 (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.

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Dodge


Kingsway,Crusader, Regent, Mayfair,
Suburban 2 door wagon, Sierra 2 door wagon (1953),
Coronet hardtop,
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.

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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.

Land vehicle Vehicle Car Classic car Sedan


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 Coronet sedan was built in 1953, the Royal
sedan in 1954.

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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.

DeSoto

Land vehicle Vehicle Car Classic car Sedan


Desoto Diplomat

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

'
Land vehicle Vehicle Car Classic car Full-size car


Land vehicle Vehicle Car Classic car Motor vehicle
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.

Land vehicle Vehicle Car Classic car Full-size car


[Editorial note: DeSoto was in for a major change in 1955.]

Desoto Powermaster, Firedome 8 passenger sedan'

Font
'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

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.

Land vehicle Vehicle Car Model car Toy vehicle


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).


Land vehicle Vehicle Car Classic car Full-size car


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.

Motor vehicle Vehicle Car Classic car Vintage car


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.

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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

Production Year19531954total

Plymouth
Camridge, Cranbrook, Belvedere24,417
Plaza, Savoy, Belvedere25,72650,143

Dodge
Crusader, Regent, Mayfair22,04823,13045,178
Coronet sedan2,675
Royal sedan2,6505,325
total24,72325,780

Desoto
Diplomat283589872
Powermaster, Firedome2,8532,9745,827
total3,1363,563

Chrysler
Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker Deluxe 3,9112,7196,630
Chrysler Corporation model year total56,18757,788
Chrysler Corporation Production Totals for the United States for 1953 and 1954

19531954total

Plymouth
Cambridge, Cranbrook624,908
Plaza, Savoy, Belvedere431,2131,056,121

Dodge
Crusader, Regent, Mayfair(included with Plymouth)
Suburban, Sierra 2 d wagon; Coronet hardtop, convertible42,585
Suburban 2 d wagon; Coronet, Royal hardtop, convertible15,49258,077
Meadowbrook, Coronet club coupe, sedan265,345
Meadowbrook, Coronet, Royal club coupe, sedan; Sierra wagon145,963411,308
total307,930161,455

Desoto
Diplomat(included with Plymouth)
Powermaster, Firedome128,82175,147203,968
Powermaster, Firedome 8 passenger sedan436463899
total129,25775,610
19531954total

Chrysler
Windsor, Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker, New Yorker Deluxe156,530
Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker, New Yorker Deluxe95,893252,423
Windsor, New Yorker 8 passenger sedan525
Windsor Deluxe, New Yorker 8 passenger sedan6401,165
Custom Imperial sedan8,0364,40912,445
Custom Imperial hardtop8231,2502,073
Crown Imperial159100259
total166,073102,292
19531954
Chrysler Corporation model year total1,228,168770,570

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.



Also by Gerard Wilson: Chrysler 1945-48Chrysler 1949-52Chrysler 1953-54Chrysler 1955-56

and Production numbers and histories, 1946-onwards

Also see Plymouth 1953Plymouth 1954Plymouth 1955Chrysler Corporation 1955


1954 Plymouth Dream Cars: Belmont, Explorer, and More

Chrysler HeritageHistory by YearChrysler People and BiosCorporate Facts and History


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