The 1955 Chrysler 300: An Early American Muscle Car

Trade catalog for the 1955 Chrysler 300.

Chrysler Corporation has a long and proud tradition of being a trendsetter in the American automobile industry. In spite of its being the smallest of America’s “Big Three,” Chrysler has repeatedly left its mark on automotive history through its engineering, styling, and marketing innovations. In keeping with this tradition, during the mid-1950s, Chrysler sought to create a stylish, full-sized luxury car that was capable of an astoundingly high level of performance. The end result of its labors was an automotive legend and one of the earliest examples of the American muscle car: the 1955 Chrysler 300.

The 1955 Chrysler 300 (officially known as the C-300) was a limited edition car that offered a combination of styling, luxury and high performance not offered by other American manufacturers during the mid-1950s. Essentially an extensively modified version of the 1955 Chrysler New Yorker, the 300 was a striking looking car for its time. It was built on the New Yorker’s chassis and rode on a 126- inch wheelbase. It was clothed by a two-door hardtop version of the New Yorker’s body styled in Chrysler’s newly introduced “Forward Look” (designed by famed American designer Virgil Exner), which featured a long hood, a short deck, and rear tailfins. Inside, the car was also given a luxuriously appointed interior, which featured genuine leather upholstery that was exclusive to the 300.

Trade catalog image of the 1955 Chrysler 300.

Although the 300’s rakish looks and sumptuous interior were more than enough to impress, it was its high level of performance that truly captured the imagination of the American motoring public. The 300 was fitted with a hopped-up version of Chrysler’s legendary V-8 Hemi Engine (equipped with dual four-barrel carburetors and a racing camshaft), which had a displacement of 331.5 cubic inches and developed a then-outstanding 300 horsepower, which made it the most powerful American car of its day (and also gave the car its name). This powerful engine was mated to Chrysler’s famous PowerFlite automatic transmission. Chrysler further improved its performance capabilities by giving the car a lower ride height and heavy-duty suspension. Thus equipped, the 300 was capable of a top speed well in excess of 130 miles per hour and possessed high-speed stability and road-holding capabilities that were exceptional for a large car of its time.

The 1955 300’s reputation for high performance was further advanced by its outstanding performance on the racetrack, especially on the NASCAR stock car circuit. During the 1955 NASCAR season, Chrysler backed a team of 300s campaigned by car owner Karl Kiekhafer. Led by driver Tim Flock, this team of 300s dominated the series and Flock won the driver’s championship by a handsome margin.

The 1955 Chrysler 300 was superseded by an upgraded version of the car for the 1956 model year. But it’s concept of a high performance engine in a large car lived on and became the basic formula for American muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s. Only 1,725 1955 Chrysler 300s were built and surviving examples are highly prized collectables today.

Sources

Chrysler 300 Club International, Incorporated

Chrysler Corporation and Walter P. Chrysler Foundation

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p.287-288.

Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 266-267.

The Chrysler 300: Chrysler: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 300, 1955-2000, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The 1957-1975 Fiat 500

Trade catalog image of a 1959 Fiat 500.

Over the past year and a half, you may have noticed the cute little Fiat 500 driving around on America’s roads. A thoroughly modern city car manufactured by Fiat SpA, Italy’s largest automobile manufacturer, it represents Fiat’s attempt to reestablish itself in the American market after a long absence. Not only do I consider the 500 to be an attractive little car, I also find it very interesting because it is one of the latest cars to feature a retro design, which involves drawing upon the designs of cars manufactured in the past for inspiration. For this week’s blog, I decided to take a look at the classic car that provided Fiat with the design inspiration for the present day 500: the 1957-1975 Fiat 500.

Trade catalog interior diagram of the 1959 Fiat 500.

Designed by famed Italian designer Dante Giacosa, the 1957-1975 Fiat 500 is considered to by automotive historians to be one of the first modern city cars.  It featured a very simple and practical design that was well-suited for use in crowded European cities.  In terms of size, the classic 500 was truly tiny, measuring only 4 feet 4 inches tall, 4 feet 4 inches wide, and 9 feet 9 inches long.  Yet it possessed enough interior room for four adults.  The little car was initially powered a by a rear-mounted 479 cc 2-cylinder engine, which utilized air cooling and produced 15 horsepower.  The engine was mated to a four-speed non-synchronized manual transmission. The car rode on four-wheel independent suspension, employing leaf springs on the front wheels and coil springs on the rear wheels.  Styling wise, the car was clothed in a distinctive egg-shaped body shell, which featured rear-hinged “suicide doors.”

In terms of performance, the classic Fiat 500 possessed attributes that were quite desirable for a European city car of its day.  At the time of its introduction, Fiat claimed the 500 to be capable of a top speed of over 53 miles per hour and gas mileage of up to 52 miles per gallon.  The car’s rear-engine layout and four-wheel independent suspension gave it excellent traction and road-holding characteristics.  The 500’s small size made it highly maneuverable on narrow and crowded European city streets, and allowed for it to be parked in very small parking spaces.

Trade catalog of image of a 1960-1965 Fiat 500. Note the car’s small size. Also note its clear resemblance to the present day Fiat 500.

Over the course of its production life, the 1957-1975 Fiat 500 was an enormously successful car.  Due to its simple design, economic attributes, performance characteristics, and irresistible looks, it enjoyed a very long career as a car of choice for residents of European cities.  The classic 500’s basic design remained unchanged, but received a number of upgrades over its production run, most notably larger and more powerful engines and a switch to conventional rear-hinged doors.  When the production run of the classic Fiat 500 finally came to an end, more 3.5 million examples had been built.

The last classic Fiat 500 rolled off the assembly line in 1975, but it remained well ingrained in Fiat’s corporate memory.  When Fiat started work on a new city car for the 21st century, it turned to the classic 500 for design inspiration.  The design influence is plainly seen in the present day Fiat 500, which bears a striking resemblance to the 1957-1975 Fiat 500.

Sources
Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 297-301.

Fiat 500 (1959): Fiat: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 500, 1959-1975, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Fiat 500 (1972): Fiat: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 500, 1959-1975, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Fiat 500 America

Fiat 500D (ca. 1960-1965): Fiat: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 500, 1959-1975, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 541-543.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

Hollywood Cars: Fozzie Bear’s 1951 Studebaker Commander in The Muppet Movie

I have long been a fan of Jim Henson’s Muppets. I was introduced to them as a small child during the 1970s, first seeing them on Sesame Street and then later on The Muppet Show. One of my fondest childhood memories of the Muppets was seeing them in their first feature film, The Muppet Movie, which was released in 1979. A musical comedy, The Muppet Movie was a hit with movie-going audiences, and won a Grammy Award and a Golden Globe Award.

Produced by Jim Henson, directed by James Frawley, and featuring an all-star cast (including Charles Durning, Dom DeLuise, and Steve Martin), The Muppet Movie’s plot centered on Kermit the Frog’s and Fozzie Bear’s cross-country trip to Hollywood for an audition, which they hoped would lead to fame and fortune in show business. Along the way, Kermit and Fozzie were joined by a crew of additional Muppet characters, including Miss Piggy (who became Kermit’s love interest) and Gonzo. Throughout their trip, Kermit was relentlessly pursued by the villainous Doc Hopper, who sought to make Kermit an unwilling spokesman for his frog leg restaurant chain. For much of the movie, the Muppets travelled in a distinctive car driven by Fozzie, which he inherited from his hibernating uncle: a 1951 Studebaker Commander.

Trade catalog image of a 1951 Studebaker Commander Regal two door sedan. Note the car’s “bullet nose” styling.

The 1951 Studebaker Commander was built by Studebaker Corporation, a now defunct automobile manufacturer based in South Bend, Indiana. The 1951 Commander was positioned on the upper end of Studebaker’s model lineup and sold in the $1,800-$2,200 price range. The car was powered by a 232 cubic inch overhead valve V-8 engine, which was a rather advanced power plant for its time. The 1951 Commander also featured Studebaker’s famous “bullet nose” body, which was styled by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy. It was well received by the American motoring public and became a notable sales success for Studebaker, which sold more than 124,000 Commanders in the course of the 1951 model year.

Two 1951 Studebaker Commanders portrayed Fozzie’s car in The Muppet Movie. For close-up shots in which Fozzie was portrayed driving his car, one of the Commanders was rigged with a camera hidden in its nose, and a steering wheel and a television monitor hidden in its trunk. This allowed the car to be driven by an unseen driver in the trunk while Henson puppeteer Frank Oz portrayed Fozzie driving in the front seat. The other Commander received no mechanical alterations and was used for far-away shots of Fozzie’s car driving down the road. Both cars were painted with poster paint (a psychedelic paint job courtesy of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem), which photographed better than automobile paint, but was vulnerable to rapid deterioration.

Out of the two 1951 Studebaker Commanders used in the production of The Muppet Movie, only the altered car used for the close-up shots is still in existence. This car is now on display at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana. A photograph of this car can be viewed on the Studebaker National Museum’s website.

Sources

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1527-1534.

Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 768-769.

Muppet Wiki

Studebaker National Museum

The New Studebaker for 1951: Studebaker: Trade Catalogs: Studebaker Range, 1948-1954, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Citroën DS 19

Trade catalog image of a 1956 Citroën DS 19.

Citroën, a much-renowned French automobile manufacturer, has a long tradition of building mass-produced cars that feature innovative engineering and head-turning looks. In keeping with this tradition, Citroën dropped a bombshell on an unsuspecting motoring public at the 1955 Paris Auto Show. At this prestigious international auto show, the firm unveiled a technologically advanced luxury car that looked completely unlike anything else on the road: the Citroën DS 19.

Trade catalog image of the interior of a Citroën DS 19. Note the semi-automatic gearshift under the steering wheel and ride height adjuster knob under the dashboard.

Designed by André Lefèbvre, the DS 19 was an enormously advanced car for its time. It employed a longitudinal, front-wheel drive layout, which was a setup Citroën previously used on the Traction Avant, a successful luxury car built by the firm between the early 1930s and mid 1950s. The car rode on an uneven wheel track featuring a front wider than the rear, which reduced the inherent understeer characteristic of front-wheel drive cars. Power was originally provided by an overhead valve inline-four engine, which produced a relatively modest 75 horsepower. The engine was mated to a semi-automatic transmission, which required the driver to shift gears manually, but did so without a clutch pedal.

But the one design feature that truly set DS 19 apart from all other cars was its extensive use of hydraulics. The DS 19 was the first car to be equipped with a central hydraulic system, which provided power assist to the transmission, steering and brakes. It was also one of the first cars to employ a self-levelling hydropneumatic suspension, which permitted the driver to adjust to the car’s ride height and provided a remarkably smooth ride. The hydropneumatic suspension also blessed the car with outstanding road-holding abilities.

Trade catalog image of two 1958 Citroën DS 19s.

Although the DS 19 was noted for its advanced design, it was even more renowned for its otherworldly looks. The car was fitted with a streamlined body styled by Flaminio Bertoni. The body was of a monocoque construction and employed detachable steel panels and a plastic roof. Styling cues included a long, low hood, a short, streamlined rear end, and covered rear wheels. Not only was the body striking looking, it was also quite aerodynamic. Rated at a then impressive drag coefficient of 0.38, it made the DS 19 capable of fuel economy of up to 30 miles per gallon of gasoline and a claimed top speed of 90 miles per hour. The body was also designed for passenger safety, featuring front and rear crumple zones.

Over the course of its production life (1955-1965), the Citroën DS 19 became a much-beloved luxury car in postwar France. Its combination of a comfortable ride, good economy, and excellent performance proved well-suited for driving conditions characteristic of France at the time. Largely due to its innovative design and futuristic looks, the DS 19 also came to symbolize France’s recovery from World War II. The DS 19 later became the basis of two additional model lines produced by Citroën: the ID 19 (a DS 19 stripped of its central hydraulic system) and its eventual replacement the DS 21 (essentially a DS 19 with a larger engine).

The last Citroën DS 19 rolled off the assembly line in 1965. Surviving examples are highly collectable today.

Sources
Citroën DS 19, Citroën: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, DS, 1955-1962, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Citroënët

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 185-194.

DS 19 Prestige, Citroën: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, DS, 1955-1962, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 299-300.

Untitled, 1958 Citroën DS 19 Trade Catalog, Citroën: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, DS, 1955-1962, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Detroit Electric

1914 Detroit Electric Model 48 Five-Passenger Brougham. Note how this car is being marketed to women.

In recent years, rising gas prices and environmental concerns have encouraged renewed interest in electric cars. These days, one occasionally sees them on the road, mostly notably the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Roadster. Although they appear to be strikingly new, the concept of the electric car is actually as old as that of the internal combustion engine powered car. For a brief time during the early twentieth century, they competed directly with their internal combustion engine counterparts. In the United States, there was one electric car in particular that enjoyed a fair amount of success for a short time: the Detroit Electric.

The Detroit Electric, which enjoyed a brief period of popularity during the late 1900s and mid-1910s, was manufactured by Anderson Carriage Company of Detroit, Michigan (later renamed Anderson Electric Car Company in 1911, then Detroit Electric Car Company in 1919). Designed by George M. Bacon, the first Detroit Electric rolled out of the factory in 1907. These cars soon found favor with certain parts of the motoring public and yearly production correspondingly grew, increasing from 125 in 1907 to a peak of 4,669 units in 1914.

Interior of a Detroit Electric Model 47 Four-Passenger Brougham. Note the control levers on the right.

Specifically designed as a city car, the Detroit Electric is a truly fascinating piece of automotive technology. The cars were powered by electric motors supplied by Elwell-Parker Company of Cleveland, Ohio (which became part of Anderson Carriage Company in 1909). Energy for the electric motor was initially provided by lead-acid batteries, which could be recharged either at a rectifier kept in one’s garage (the more common charging method) or at a charging station (if one could be found). Most Detroit Electrics were equipped with lever control, employing a side lever for steering and a horizontal lever for the throttle. Throughout its production life, the car’s design was continuously improved. Direct shaft drive was introduced in 1911 and more powerful Edison nickel-iron batteries were offered as an option that same year.

Trade Catalog for Detroit Electric’s 1931 model lineup.

In terms of performance, the Detroit Electric had characteristics that were considered acceptable for city driving in its day. It had a top speed of approximately 20 miles per hour, but was blessed with quick acceleration. In terms of mileage, its batteries were advertised as having a reliable range of 80 miles. Because they employed electric propulsion, Detroit Electrics were easier to start and operate than internal combustion engine cars (most of which were started by hand cranks at the time). They were also renowned for their dependability, and their clean and quiet operation. It was these performance characteristics that led to most Detroit Electrics being purchased by affluent women and physicians living in urban areas. Women liked to use them to go shopping and for short trips to social engagements. Doctors frequently used to them to go on house calls.

After enjoying a brief period of popularity, sales of the Detroit Electric declined after 1916, dropping from 3,000 units that year to a mere handful during the 1930s. This was mainly brought on by a combination of advances in internal combustion technology (such as the invention of the electric starter) and problems that bother electric cars to this day (limited battery range and lack of charging infrastructure). The last Detroit Electrics were manufactured around 1938-1939. It is estimated that approximately 35,000-37,000 of these cars were built.

Sources

Detroit Electric: http://www.detroitelectric.org/

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 430

Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 444-449.

The Detroit Electric, Detroit Electric: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1916-1931, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

The Detroit Electric, Society’s Town Car, 1914, Detroit Electric: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1912-1915, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.