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How Chrysler Works

The Chrysler Hemi Engine

The 1956 Chrysler New Yorker was powered by the now-legendary Hemi engine, offering unprecedented performance and boosting Chrysler’s image.

Predictably, the 1950 Chryslers were repeats of the all-new postwar '49 models save the usual trim shuffles and a broader chrome eggcrate smile. A Deluxe Imperial sedan with custom interior was added, but the big news was Chrysler's first volume hardtop coupe. Called Newport, it was offered as a Windsor, New Yorker, and wood-trimmed Town & Country (the last replacing the convertible).

Six-cylinder Royals were in their last year for 1950, selling for $2100-$3100. The T&C was no longer needed to glamorize an unglamorous group of cars as it had done in the early postwar period. After '50, T&C would apply only to station wagons. Before leaving, the Town & Country hardtop would pioneer a form of four-wheel disc brakes. Unlike later systems, this one employed two discs expanding inside a drum.


Saratoga, another peripheral seller, would depart after 1952 (though it would be back). So would a revived 1950-51 Traveler, a Deluxe-trim Windsor utility sedan (something of a contradiction). Standard and Deluxe Windsors and New Yorkers then carried on until 1955's "Hundred Million Dollar Look," when only Deluxes were offered sans remaining long sedans and Imperials; the latter were newly marketed as a separate make.

With one singular exception, Chryslers didn't change much from 1951 through '54. Wheelbases stayed the same throughout, as did basic styling, though a more conservative grille marked the '51s. The '52s were all but identical; the firm didn't even keep separate production figures. Taillights are the only way to tell them apart: the '52s had built-in backup lamps. The '53s gained slightly bulkier lower-body sheetmetal, more chrome, and one-piece windshields. The '54s were a little "brighter" still. Body and series assignments also stood pat, though 1953-54 brought a revived Custom Imperial line with sedan and limousine on a 133.5-inch wheelbase, plus a standard-length Newport.

The above-mentioned exception was 1951's new hemispherical-head V-8, Chrysler's greatest achievement of the decade. Highland Park's early-'50s styling may have been bland, but its engineering was still anything but. The brilliant "Hemi" was simply the latest example.

Still, the Chrysler six had long dominated division sales, so its complete disappearance after 1954 surprised some. But it was part of a plan instigated by Keller's successor, Lester Lum "Tex" Colbert. Then, too, the Hemi left fewer buyers for the six: well over 100,000 in 1950, but only some 45,000 by '54.

Colbert took over as company president in 1950 with several goals. The main ones were decentralized division management, a total redesign for all makes as soon as possible, and an ambitious program of plant expansion and financing. Giving the divisions freer reign meant that people close to retail sales would have more say in mapping policy.

The Hemi polished Chrysler's image in a big way, and quickly spread to other company nameplates. First offered on the '51 Saratoga, New Yorker, and Imperial, it wasn't really a new idea, but it did have exceptional volumetric efficiency and delivered truly thrilling performance. Despite lower compression that allowed using lower-octane fuel than most other postwar overhead-valve V-8s, the Hemi produced far more power for a given displacement.

And it had plenty of power even in initial 331-cid form. An early prototype recorded 352 bhp on the dynamometer after minor modifications to camshaft, carburetors, and exhaust. Drag racers would later extract up to 1000 bhp.

But the Hemi was complex and costly to build, requiring twice as many rocker shafts, pushrods, and rockers; heads were heavy, too. All versions were thus phased out by 1959 in favor of more-conventional "wedge-head" V-8s. But the Hemi was too good to lose, and it would return in Highland Park's great midsize muscle cars of the '60s.

Of course, the Hemi made for some very hot Chryslers in the '50s. By dint of its lighter Windsor chassis, the Hemi Saratoga was the fastest in the line up to 1955, able to scale 0-60 mph in as little as 10 seconds and reach nearly 110 mph flat-out -- straight from the showroom. Bill Sterling's Saratoga won the Stock Class and finished third overall -- behind a Ferrari -- in the 1951 Mexican Road Race.

Chryslers also did well as NASCAR stockers, but were eclipsed by Hudson's "fabulous" Hornets in 1952-54. However, millionaire Briggs Cunningham began building rakish Hemi-powered sports cars for European road races, and his C-5R ran third overall at Le Mans '53 at an average of 104.14 mph (against 105.85 mph for the winning Jaguar C-Type).

Then came Chrysler's own mighty 1955 C-300 packing a stock Hemi tuned for 300 bhp -- the most ever offered in a regular-production U.S. car. The 300 dominated NASCAR in 1955-56, and might have continued to do so had the Automobile Manufacturers Association not agreed to de-emphasize racing after 1957.

For more on the amazing Chrysler, old and new, see:

  • Chrysler New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Chrysler Used Car Reviews and Prices