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Dodges of 1955: Looking back at the Forward Look

based on a story by Mike Petersen in the Walter P. Chrysler Club magazine

Chrysler Corporation's post-war design philosophy - namely, that utility was more important than looks - started to fail once cars were widely available, and the company lured the extravagant Virgil Exner away from Studebaker to restyle the entire line. The first full result of this was the 1955 product line, though he had been able to tinker with the 1953-54 cars.

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Tex Colbert funded the changeover with a long-term loan for $250 million, which included money for process and plant upgrades. That may have brought about the advertised name - the "Hundred Million Dollar Look" (also called the "Forward Look"). Sales shot up immediately, and the company easily recouped its investments.

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Not all of the cars were direct Exner designs; Maury Baldwin was in charge of the 1955 Dodge. Still, he seemed to have followed Exner's lead, using spear-shaped side trim and split grilles. The body shape was common, because Chrysler shared more between brands than GM. Baldwin's 1955 Dodge was 212 inches long, on a 120 inch wheelbase; it grew by nearly seven inches over the prior year. Buyers got a modern wraparound windshield; the grille had traces of Studebaker in it, suggesting Exner's influence.

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At the time, Dodge was a fairly high brand; Plymouth was responsible for meeting Chrysler's mass-market needs, and Dodge, DeSoto, and Chrysler picked up a smaller number of more lucrative sales.

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Buyers could pick between two and four door sedans, two door hardtops, two and four door wagons, and a two door convertible; the Dodges were all basically the same, with names assigned to trim levels. These were the Coronet, Royal, and Custom Royal; only the Coronet had a standard six cylinder engine, with an optional polysphere V8. The other cars had standard V8s. Later in the model year, the specialty Lancer and La Femme added to the variety; from then on, the hardtops and convertibles were named Lancer.

The Coronet wagon was not marked as a Coronet; instead, it had the word Suburban on the rear fender. In the opposite fashion, while the two-door hardtops were technically Coronet Lancers, they only had Coronet on the fenders. The next step up was the Royal; again, the Royal wagon had a different nameplate, "Sierra," on the rear fender. The hardtops could have either Royal or Royal Lancer badges.

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The top of the line Custom Royal was only sold as a two door hardtop, four door sedan, or two door convertible. Early cars had Royal Lancer nameplates, later gaining the word Custom as well. The four-door went from Royal and Custom nameplates to Royal Lancer and Custom nameplates; and, at some point in production, gained fender fins and "spear" side trim. Custom buyers not only got upgraded interiors, but special rear light bezels and, for the Lancer, chromed rear fins.

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The Custom Royal Lancer, like the 1954 Custom Royal, had chromed rear fins, along with different tail-light and backup-light bezels. The interior was also upgraded.

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As for the ill-fated La Femme: Dodge noted that women were increasingly buying cars, or at least making the purchasing decisions, and thought it would tailor a car for them. The La Femme, only sold with Heather Rose and Sapphire White two-tone colors, included matching accessories - cape, boots, umbrella, and shoulder bag; the interior had special compartments in the back of each front seat for the accessories, along with floral fabrics.

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In advertising, the company pushed the Dodge's ease of driving, and said the car was suitable for both husband and wife.

1955 Dodge engines and transmissions

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Dodge used three engines in the 1955 cars: the flat-head "Getaway Six", Red Ram V8, and Super Red Ram V8. The old flat-head was a fairly old design, and provided fairly slow acceleration, but was relatively economical.

The Red Ram V8 was based on the first-generation Hemi V8s; the company had to reduce costs and increase production, and swapped in a more practical polyspherical head design. These used a single rocker arm per cylinder, rather than two in the Hemi, and had low-friction valve locks so the valves could rotate, reducing wear. It was optional in the Coronet and standard in the Royal, in 270 cubic inch form.

The Super Red Ram V8 was also 270 cubic inches, like the Red Ram, but it had the hemispherical combustion chambers with dual rockers (one for exhaust, one for intake) per cylinder; it was called the "double rocker," with the "Hemi" name not arriving until the (almost completely different) 426. This was optional on lesser Dodges, and standard on the Custom Royal.

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Very few buyers got the Super Red Ram power package - a four barrel carburetor and dual exhaust, mainly; the Carter four-barrel carburetor had metering rods on the primary jets, with velocity valves for the secondaries. The forged crankshaft may be the weak point of these engines; a warning sign for failure is falling oil pressure.

Still relatively new to Dodge was a fully automatic transmission - the two speed PowerFlite, controlled from a lever on the dashboard (a single-year device). Traditionalists could get the three-speed manual, a very simple setup, or the three-speed with a 0.7:1 overdrive for easier highway driving. Dodge still used a tailshaft parking brake.

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Under full throttle, the PowerFlite would not shift until 60 mph; and could still kick down, once in second gear, until 50 mph. Because the fluid pressure was very high in reverse, owners can prevent problems by cutting their idle speed (shifting into reverse, while stopped and braked) to reduce the idle speed somewhat. It always came with the strong four-pinion rear axle.

Colors and trim

In a year when other manufacturers tended to be quite flashy, Dodge tried to keep up; they had 45 different color schemes, with basic, two-tone, and triple-tone combinations, using 13 basic colors, never clashing. The triple-tone cars allowed buyers to switch the upper and insert colors, to the point where there were 76 possible combinations.

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Inside, there were fewer choices (still more than modern cars): black, blue, green, and yellow, with Jacquard fabrics matched to a tough, color-matched vinyl material on the seat backs. The interiors were all two-tone, and the Custom Royal split the colors with chrome; Custom Royals also had painted rear window weatherstripping, to match the headliner. To help buyers, late in the year, Dodge added a plate with the paint and trim codes.

Dodge used quite a bit of stainless steel trim on the car, with numerous trim parts being die-cast in addition.

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Popular accessories included power steering and brakes. Buyers could also get a four-way power seat (up, down, forward, backward), spinner or normal wheel covers, a foot-pumped windshield washer, wire wheels, air conditioning, rear seat speaker, spotlight or mirror on either or both sides, various lights - backup lights were only standard on the Custom Royal - day/night mirror, radio (AM, station-seeking or manual tune or pushbutton), and turn signals (standard on all but Coronet).

Rather than fuses, Dodge used automatically resetting circuit breakers. Wire insulation was vinyl and varnished cloth.

This was Chrysler's last year with six-volt electrical systems (they would move to 12 volts in the 1956 line); it was also the last year for the bolted-on chrome fins.

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The cars had black-faced gauges, with an ammeter, fuel gauge, antifreeze temperature, oil pressure gauge, speedometer, and odometer; the ash-tray/headlight switch is designed to also look like a gauge. The ignition was automatically lighted up when the parking lights were turned on. Fresh air doors under the dashboard diverted air into the heater when closed, and into the cabin when open; these were meant to be seasonal items. The air conditioner still had the evaporator in the trunk.

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Dodge suspensions, 1955

With torsion bars still in the future, 1955 Dodge cars (along with Chrysler, DeSoto, Imperial, and Plymouth) used coil springs up front and leaf springs in back. The coil springs were attached with king pins, which can only travel in one plane; that kept the front wheels' axis of inclination the same at all times, an odd feel today (they would be replaced on the 1957s). V8 cars had an idler arm parallel to the steering gear arm. Steering was easy, regardless. Owners will have to pay special attention to lubrication: there were 23 grease fittings, including the rear wheel bearings.

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Canadian Dodges of 1955

Chrysler did well in Canada, with a 17% market share - up from 11% the year before. That put them #8, as a brand. The lineup in Canada was Crusader, Regent, Mayfair, and Custom Royal - and only one, the Custom Royal, was an actual Dodge; the others were Plymouths, with Dodge fronts, on a 115 inch wheelbase.

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Regents and Crusaders had a little 228 cubic inch six cylinder, with a 250 optional; Mayfairs had a 241 cubic inch V8; and Custom Royal had the American engine.

Based on information from the Walter P. Chrysler Club magazine. Also see Plymouths of 1955 ... Inside Dodge Main ... and Chrysler 1955-56 ... and Building the 1955 Dodge cars

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