1955 was a great year for the automobile.
It was a breakthrough one for one particular manufacturer thought to be lost with the shenanigans of the early part of the decade by America's biggest two pugilists of the business.
That year saw Chrysler gaining the world's attention. It came up with something that took our breath away and almost made us lose it in the process.
Until the 1950s, Chrysler had a reputation for "great ideas that were not well executed." There was actually one that fit into this category: Airflow. It was too advanced of a vehicle for its time. No one found it sustainable, especially when the U.S. economy was still recovering from the Stock Market Crash of 1929. There was merit in what Chrysler attempted in the mid-1930s, as it leads to a complete change in thinking regarding automobile design.
One questioned why Chrysler walked away from the tenets of Airflow in its post-war cars. After producing distinctive machines through the 1940s, Chrysler took a more conservative route than General Motors, Nash, Studebaker, Packard, Hudson, Kaiser-Frazier and Ford’s upscale brands Mercury and Lincoln. Ford also went conservative, but did so to the liking of its customers.
Chrysler might have lost people's attention to its lineup through the early 1950s. Yet, it also had some things up its sleeves. As an engineering company, Chrysler worked on its own high compression, overhead valve V8 design. They adopted the hemispherical combustion chamber design for its cylinder heads and a monster was unleashed. They had great names: FirePower, Firedome and Red Ram. They evoked a quest for fire, which translated into a quest for performance.
You could have a great engine. You could also have a great automatic transmission – the TorqueFlite. But, what got people into the GM and Ford showrooms were styling – and price. The battle for sales in the early 1950s began the attrition of the North American automobile industry. Nash, Hudson, Studebaker and Packard found themselves on the short end of the stick. What was to be a merger of all four "independents" ended up with two – Nash and Hudson formed American Motors under George Romney and Studebaker-Packard merged as a single entity. Kaiser-Frazier gave up on car production and ramped up on acquiring Jeep from Willys-Overland. The transfer of Jeep effectively closed Willys-Overland as a business.
Chrysler struggled during the price war. They saw customers enticed by the back-and-forth of deals at Chevrolet and Ford dealers. The mid-priced field was not immune as Buick and Oldsmobile turned on the heat against Mercury showrooms. Though Chrysler competed in every segment, their customers were sucked into the vortex of the price war leaving Plymouths, Dodges, De Sotos and Chryslers languishing on their respective lots.
Yet, Chrysler had a healthier balance sheet than the independents. It also had the Hemi and PowerFlite to leverage the next step.
Virgil Exner already made a reputation as an automobile designer. He sat at Chrysler's Highland Park headquarters in the Advanced Styling Group. He was responsible for introducing the Ghia carrozzeria into our conscious on this side of the Atlantic. What transpired with his interactions with Ghia prompted the biggest comeback of the post-war era.
It began when Exner was curious about the benefits of tailfins. The 1948 Cadillac introduced a set of rear wings incorporating tail lights in a fashion reminiscent of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning bomber. Exner thought nothing of them, but he was intrigued. A hypothesis was made: If the fins were fashioned as aerodynamics aids, how could they be properly integrated onto the modern automobile?
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Exner tested this hypothesis at the campus wind tunnel. In the process, Exner played with a body style that extended the length of the hood and shortened the trunk area – something that was a design tenet through World War II. Yet, the cars of the early 1950s had become "boxy" – a "three box" design defining the engine area, the cabin and the trunk. Exner "played" with this by lowering the profile of the car – the roof and the body – while playing with hood and deck length.
His designs were ready by the fall of 1954. It was not just a design language reserved for certain brands – it was employed across all of them. The design language also spawned a new brand – one that would be a direct competitor to one of the world's great automotive brands, Cadillac.
Chrysler introduced the "Forward Look" for their 1955 lineup. The Forward Look was not just a reboot of the company, but a revolution in design. Exner knew that if he dared to play with detail in every car he designed, he would capture a lot of attention for them. If you examine each 1955 car produced by Chrysler, you would understand exactly what Exner was after.
Plymouth, Dodge, and Chrysler took radical leaps in design compared to their 1954 models. They went from "not entirely stodgy, but…" to "OH MY GOD, it's beautiful!" This is probably the best way to describe to leap in styling for these three brands. De Soto appeared to be a bit evolutionary, despite various details Exner employed on the 1955 models. Then again, it was a time when the grille spoke to the personality of the car.
The big radical design amongst the Forward Look Chryslers came at the top of the range. They were based on "regular" Chryslers, the new C-300 and Imperial blew everyone out of the water. They both wore big egg-crate grilles and had details that were bold and astounding. Rearward, the C-300 and Imperial broke from the norm and created a sense of purpose for each model. The C-300 denoted a sports car with European flair, while taking the FirePower Hemi V8 to 300 horsepower – hence the name.
The Imperial took on a life of its own – literally. Chrysler announced that Imperial would be its own brand as of 1955. The mission for Imperial was to compete directly with Cadillac and Lincoln, but exude its own luxury beyond what either brand could muster. Though they were sold mainly through Chrysler dealers, salespeople knew they have a goldmine in their midst by selling the Imperial apart from the Chrysler brand.
The Forward Look opened up opportunities at Chrysler. Plymouth had a personality to match Chevrolet and Ford. Dodge looked stunning next to Pontiac. De Soto contended with Mercury and Oldsmobile on a level playing field. Chrysler and Buick went after each other, though the former had a weapon that went to the races and brought back trophies. While the Chrysler brand improved, Buick became the fourth best-selling brand of 1955 – much to the chagrin of Chrysler's executives. Imperial did fine in its first year, but far below Cadillac and Lincoln.
With the lid open at Chrysler, some new innovations began to show up as part of the Forward Look. For 1956, a push-button automatic transmission actuator appeared on cars equipped with the PowerFlite transmission. At Chrysler, tail designs tightened up with a bold shape integrating huge tail lights.
Exner received a promotion for his work with the 1955 design change becoming Vice President of Design and Fashion at Chrysler. His work was not done. Exner had another huge advance he foisted upon his company – and a waiting public.
Later in 1956, the next evolution of the Forward Look was revealed. Until that moment, regular cars were convenient for drivers and passengers as they "stepped up”" into their seats. The 1955 designs actually lowered the entry point of all occupants, hence why you noticed that they were lower than their 1954 counterparts. The 1957 models took it one step lower. Instead of "climbing in" or "onboard," the driver and its passengers began to "step in" or "step down" into the cabin.
The 1957 models heralded a lot of new advances on top of what was already established for 1955. Though still a body-on-frame design, the frame was built lower to accommodate the new body. Chrysler introduced a new three-speed automatic transmission – the TorqueFlite – in 1956. This would become the standard automatic architecture for the next couple of decades. The TorqueFlite was made available across the line for 1957.
The big advance was the use of torsion bars for the front suspension. Chrysler called this Torsion-Aire, which included a long torsion bar running from the back of the front-mid crossbar of the frame to the lower arm of the suspension set. This eliminated springs and coils making the suspension react to the torsion bar instead for stability.
The new lower 1957s were visually stunning. The tail fins were cleaner in design and taller in height. You had even more distinctive grilles and side detailing denoting not only brand, but specific model, if applicable. Imperial design became even more distinctive and apart from standard Chrysler brand design, giving the new brand more leverage for its marketing department to promote the new cars.
This year also gave Plymouth a huge boost in the "budget" segment. Though Chevrolet and Ford lead the pack, the 1957 Plymouth drew a lot of eyes with its bold design and daring new materials and engineering. This also provided a new look at the rest of the brands – Dodge, De Soto, Chrysler and Imperial. The one brand that everything to gain – or lose – was Plymouth, thanks to pricing that competed well against Chevrolet and Ford.
The second phase of the Forward Look came at the apex of the post-World War II era. Rock-N-Roll became part of the American consciousness and television programming is booming. Youth culture was given a larger spotlight thanks to a fusion of musical influences of Afro-Cuban, Modern Jazz and Rock-N-Roll. The suburban family lifestyle has also taken onto its own, as it spawned it own form of community and culture away from the city core.
Yet, 1957 was a time when the country took a blind eye on so-called negative forces. It was still a time where all races could not mingle together. It was also a slow thaw in religious relations between people and institutions of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths. Beyond our borders, there were civil wars, revolutions, crumbling empires spawning newly independent nations, and covert involvement by our government not covered by the evening news.
If everything was "fine," no one expected the double whammy that would rear its head in 1957, into 1958. First off, the 1957 models were flawed. The demand on these new models ramped up production to numbers unheard of at Chrysler. The downside of ramped up production would be the lack of quality control, especially with new engineering and materials on board. The biggest problem was the Torsion-Aire suspension. In part of executing advanced engineering, the suspension system – especially the torsion bar – broke. Window seals also accounted for the bulk of quality issues Chrysler received for the 1957 models. Customers reported leaks in both front and back windows. The 1957 cars lacked rust protection, for which issues developed on various cars exposed to the outdoors for long periods within the first year of ownership.
The recession of 1958 put a damper on postwar progress. Auto sales were down through most of the year and everyone was affected. By the end of 1958, you no longer had Nash, Hudson and Packard to sell anymore. Ford tried their hand on a new mid-priced brand, which proved to be the wrong car at the wrong time. That car was the Edsel.
Though quality control was improved for the new model cars, Chrysler's reputation was hit deeper than their rivals by the recession. Profits diminished more due to finding fixes to flawed 1957 cars than the loss in sales due to the economic downturn. The $110 Million profit of 1957 soon became a $35 Million loss in 1958. Part of the loss write-off was attributed to making the fixes on new 1958 cars addressing the "finishing" of the Torsion-Aire suspension, including adding a rubber boot to the end of the torsion bars. Window seals were addressed, but not rustproofing. That would end up being finally addressed for the 1960 models.
The Forward Look continued through 1961. Some might argue that the design language continued on a lower scale through 1963. The high water mark for rear fins was in 1959, though Chrysler continued with the design feature through their 1960 models. By 1961, the fins began to recede onto the rear fenders on some brand’s cars. For 1962, you saw Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth cars without fins.
One car that carried the Forward Look further was Imperial. While the Lincoln Continental redefined North American luxury, the Imperial was as bombastic as always. The flamboyant Imperials continued through 1963 with its paeans to its past – rifle scope tail lights, scalloped front fenders with stand-alone low beam headlamps inside of it and levels of luxury that were simply over-the-top. While Lincoln provided the look of the Kennedy era, it just seemed that the Imperial was stuck in time.
One victim of the Forward Look era was De Soto. The 1961 model would be the final year Chrysler offered the mid-priced brand, as the Chrysler brand offered the lower priced Newport in the De Soto price range. Dodge also had to fill the gap by offering larger cars than its Dart with the introduction of the 880, built off of the Chrysler Newport platform.
The postwar era turned out some beauties by 1955. I still consider Chrysler's Forward Look some of the most alluring designs ever created within that era. What is it did was get the attention of a public that was caught in the middle of a sales war between GM and Ford. These cars also kept Chrysler in the game when the industry went through attrition losing some of its most memorable brands.
However, you cannot overlook the problems with the 1957 models. It secured Chrysler's reputation for being a great engineering company that does not execute their products well. This would be a reputation that would follow them right through Lee Iacocca's arrival at Highland Park.
If you set aside the flaws, there is beauty in these Forward Look cars. Exner and his team were daring enough to create textures and shapes that challenge the naked eye. Examine each car inside and out – and underneath the hood. These were simply works of art – flawed in execution. Flawed art usually captivates even its detractors.
From 1957 to 1960, you could agree there was nothing simple about a Forward Look Chrysler, Dodge, De Soto, Plymouth or Imperial. The technology was advanced – transistor radios by Philco, Torsion-Aire suspension, push-button automatic transmission actuation…to name a few. Plymouth's advertising for the 1957 cars heralded the coming of the new decade with the Forward Look. Yet, no one was prepared for the reality that would come after Kennedy’s inauguration – a return to simplicity and elegance known as "Camelot."
Still, the delight of seeing a Forward Look Chrysler on the road or on display at a show still evokes a response. Like any work of art, one of these cars will elicit conversation, discourse and critique.
It took a history lesson to get to this point. That alone is what makes the Forward Look a topic worth discovering again.
All photos by Randy Stern