History originally published in AutoWeek October 31, 1988
Chrysler called it “Flightswept” and although 1956 didn’t bring the ultimate in befinned automotive extravaganzas from Chrysler styling chief Virgil Exner – memories of the Chrysler Airflow were still too recent to rush into things – the trend was definitely set. Advertisements showed the cars not very subtly juxtaposed with Air Force jet fighter aircraft just in case anyone missed the point. Which was of course that the future – and anything associated with it – was good, and since we’d all be commuting to work by aircraft by 1976, well, why not start with tailfins?
Chryslers first had fins in ‘56. In 1955, Chrysler had little chrome proto-fins, but those hardly count. The fins for ‘56 were relatively modest, and on the Windsor and the New Yorker which shared the same basic body but differed in trim level, they originated on the car’s flanks and swept more to the rear than upwards. For the first time, eight chromed “teeth” appeared on the fins in what would become a New Yorker trademark. The front bumpers carried the theme forward with wing -like shapes on either end, and a stylized chrome bird served hood-ornament duty.
All Chrysler models since 1955 came with the V8 engine, the original hemi, Chrysler’s Firepower V-8. Introduced in 1951, the V8 displaced 331 cubic inches and produced 180hpP (a net figure, by the way), almost half as much again as the flathead straight eight it replaced and was lighter is well. The same size as Cadillac’s V8, it made some 20 hp more. Interestingly, the Chrysler engine featured interchangeable heads and symmetrical, reversible intake manifold, so it didn’t matter if you put it back together backwards. The engine’s breathing ability was notable, thanks to relatively unrestricted manifolding, big valves and high valve lift.
When introduced, the engine was used only in the New Yorker, Imperial and Crown Imperial, but by 1956 versions had spread to all Chrysler models (and some other Mopars, for that matter). The Windsor made do with the original displacement – the horsepower was up – but the big news for the New Yorker was the first size increase of the hemi engine, up to 354 cubic inches, via an increase in bore. The compression ratio went to 9.0:1, the highest in Chrysler history up to that point, and horsepower went up to 280 at 4600 rpm.
Only 41,190 New Yorkers made in 1956, 24,749 were the four-door six-passenger sedan, making it the most popular version. Mrs. Roberta Smull’s father bought one – she says he admired Chrysler’s engineering – and she inherited it in 1962. She has driven it regularly and the car now has about 70,000 miles on its odometer. Although it was recently refinished in its original forest green, a mechanical restoration wasn’t performed because it wasn’t necessary. The single exterior color was unusual, however, as two-tone paint was all the rage.
Close the heavy door and inside is a sofa-like bench seat covered in a woven plastic fabric in various shades of green. The driving position is high; one looks down even on Volvos. The transmission hump is low because the car is so high. The large diameter plastic steering wheel with “Power Steering” in the hub is finished in two shades of green and is mounted before the highly sculpted sheet-metal – with chromed controls in the middle designed more for appearances than for use. It would be easy, for example, to confuse the lighter for the headlight knob.
The AM radio has two speakers, a real luxury, one in the right front and one in the rear. Chrysler offered a “Highway Hi-Fi,” an under-the-dash record player that required special discs, but Mrs. Smull’s father didn’t go for it. No wonder. There were only six discs available and they came with the option, including music from Broadway’s Pajama Game, Paul Weston Playing Quiet Jazz, and – how’s this for a period piece – Davey Crockett. Where are my mouse ears? There was also an optional gasoline-fired heater in addition to the standard hot-water heat. Mrs. Smull’s father didn’t go for that either.
Four buttons marked R, N, L, and D are on a pod to the left of the steering wheel (the Japanese didn’t think of pods first). These buttons shift the automatic transmissions through a combination of slides and latches and a cable. According to a Motor Trend report at the time, “you’ve got a transmission that does everything but think for you.” For which we can be thankful.
A Motor Trend test yielded the standing start quarter-mile in 18.8 seconds at 75.5 mph, a result of a test weight of 4740 lbs. Top speed was clocked at just under 110 mph. Observed fuel mileage overall was 10.9 mpg. My driving was limited to the streets around Mrs. Smull’s Chevy Chase, Maryland, home, but the engine felt smooth and unobtrusive and torquey on the hills. The power steering did what it was told and had a remarkably small turning circle for a car the size. You can really crank the wheels around when you don’t have to worry about half-shafts and universal joints. Luxury, no matter what the era, never comes cheap, and the base list price for a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker four-door sedan was $3,728.
Mrs. Smull will never give up her New Yorker: They don’t build them like they used to and the new ones would come off second best in a collision. Perhaps. But now aerodynamics is real, not just visual, and Mr. Exner’s dart shapes have become, after a dip in reality tank, the shape of the day.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
K.T. Keller, president of Chrysler from 1935 to 1950 had two measures of a car’s design, that its roof was high enough for a man to wear a hat, and that its trunk be tall enough to fit a milk can. According to Keller, “A car shouldn’t knock a man’s eyes out or his hat off.” As competitors’ cars looked sleeker by the model year, Chryslers were frumpy old man’s cars.
Fortunately for Chrysler, Keller’s influence on design ended when he became CEO, and under chief designer Virgil Exner, the 1955 New Yorker took on a whole new look. But it was in for 1956 that the New Yorker got hips and the New Yorker got tail fins. And the rest, as they say, is history.
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