The aftermath of World War II found America in possession of a treasure trove of new mechanical and chemical technologies. All backed up by bank accounts bulging with money saved during four years of war. Rationing had changed the consumer matrix which had shifted from Depression-era realities to a full war footing to a new kind of peace and seemingly unimaginable prosperity.
Detroit’s main industry was back on familiar ground waging a commercial conflict with which they were much more familiar: selling cars. The 1950s dawned as a seller’s market for America’s car producers. Armed with cash and squads of ingenious intellects who had seen enough war and suffering, they were eager to create, rather than destroy.
The market Detroit had dreamed of for four years had finally arrived and the car fantasies of the war years were unleashed on America with few restraints. General Motors did it best and longest with its traveling Motorama shows. But some of the more insistent dream car work came from auto makers with big aspirations and smaller budgets.
Chrysler, the Big Three’s number three, used the peace to wage a new kind of war; the horsepower war.
Chrysler’s ultimate weapon was a new V-8 engine that would become the heart and soul of Mopar’s catalog of dreams for over a decade. In 1952 Chrysler was at a technological crossroads. The staid and stolid designs that anchored Chrysler’s styling roots to the days before Pearl Harbor were still in the showroom.
A new wave of technology was sweeping through Chrysler’s engineering department and it would change everything from customer perceptions to American motorsport.
There was a new power in the land. Chrysler’s Hemi V-8 engine made everything else from America’s other car makers seem old and obsolete. Unfortunately, that new Chrysler power lurked beneath some decidedly pedestrian sheet metal.
To spice up both the sales catalog and the showroom Chrysler turned to friends from Italy for some new clothes for the cars that would wear their new muscular V-8.
Ghia was chosen to create new Chrysler concept cars. Their second example, the two-door Chrysler D’Elegance coupe, debuted wearing a light metallic red paint named Spring Coral. Inside, there was room for three adults with one sitting sideways in the back.
The long hood, beak-like bumper, fastback roof and sharp fender creases amplified the D’Elegance’s 214-inch length.
The “gun sight” taillights mounted on the rear fenders found their way onto production Chryslers and the corporation’s luxury flagship, the Imperial, later in the decade.
The D’Elegance debuted on Ghia’s stand at the 39th annual International Auto Salon in Paris in October, 1952. It was so well received that Ghia delivered approximately two dozen of the big coupes in Europe.
Ultimately, packing a 345-cubic-inch Hemi V-8 with 285 horsepower mated to a PowerFlite two-speed automatic, the D’Elegance offered a forceful amalgam of European style, albeit on a larger scale than usual, with American muscle and attitude.
The Chrysler d’Elegance pointed the way to the mighty Chrysler C300 of 1955.
Within a year Chrysler created La Comtesse and Le Comte, a matched pair of somewhat more practical dream cars than the D’Elegance with its custom coachwork.
The 1950s summoned a sea change in the way cars were purchased. It was a subtle component of the marketing equation for Detroit, but color had eased near the top of the American car buyer’s priority list. The most important marketing paradigm was that women now invariably chose the color of the new family car.
Two-car suburban families were the new norm and women were the latest marketing targets of Detroit. La Comtesse was Chrysler’s first attempt to get a group of male engineers to create a car to woo women to Chrysler Corp. showrooms. The men were not forgotten and La Comtesse’s masculine companion on Chrysler’s 1950s auto show circuit, the Le Comte, was painted black and bronze.
Based on the New Yorker two-door hardtop, La Comtesse wore a transparent contoured Plexiglas roof, a continental kit from Dodge’s Royal line, Kelsey Hayes wire wheels and yards of heavy chrome. The two-tone paint scheme consisted of Dusty Rose with a Pigeon Gray top. Inside was yet more pastel with crème and dusty rose leather with platinum brocade inserts in the rear seats, all in a six-passenger format.
Under the hood was Chrysler’s 235 horsepower FirePower Hemi V-8 driving through a fully automatic PowerFlite transmission. Chrysler’s stop gap Fluid Drive “Safety Clutch” transmission was finally banished. Power steering, Chrysler’s “high-roll” front suspension and power brakes gave the hefty coupe a light measure of feminine ease and low speed poise.
La Comtesse was the genesis of Dodge’s La Femme. The $143, mostly pastel option package aimed at women for the new-for-1955 Royal Lancer coupe lived in the Dodge sales catalog from 1955 until 1957. It all ended with the arrival of Chrysler’s “Forward Look” styling revolution that subordinated color, cosmetics and chrome with a new wave of automotive design that turned American car design inside out.
Chrysler’s lone La Comtesse hasn’t been seen in public for decades. A recent restoration by Chrysler will allow the six decade-old dream car a fresh debut to a new generation of American car buyers and deciders in the Chrysler Concept Car Class of the 19th annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
Packards in the Pack
Across Motown, Packard had spent the war years building the iconic and heroic Merlin aircraft engine under license from Rolls-Royce. It was by far the most glamorous war-time industrial assignment for any American corporation. When the shooting stopped, Packard dusted off their successful trademark slogan and started building cars again.
“Ask the man who owns one” had been Packard’s slogan since the earliest days of the great marque. It was such a potent marketing device that millions of Americans, when they heard or read those words, knew that the car in question was a Packard.
Today one could ask the man who owns at least 40 Packards. Ralph Marano, Sr. is an orthodox Packard man of long standing who has been seized by one of the most dignified and sophisticated obsessions in the car collecting hobby. Ralph has a serious thing for Packards show cars. He likes them so much that he has embarked upon a crusade to collect all of them.
His show car inventory – ten Packards from the late 1930s through the company’s demise in 1956 – will become The Packard Concept Cars of Ralph Marano at the 19th annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance on March 9, 2014.
Marano’s latest Packard show car is the 1955 Request. The Packard dream car earned its unusual name from the small avalanche of letters that poured into Packard during the 1950s asking for a return, or at least a reprise, of Packard’s distinctive and famous vertical grill design of the 1930s. Packard’s Chief Stylist Richard Teague acquiesced with relish. After a barnstorming tour of Packard dealers following the 1955 car show season, the Request returned to Detroit just in time for the company to close its doors forever.
The Request was driven out of the factory and vanished for more than two decades. Marano found the car sitting in a field with comprehensive accident damage. In 1983 it was restored. It re-debuted at the Packard Club annual convention in Oakland, CA wearing the proper Packard ivory and copper paint.
General Motors Dream
General Motors dream cars are the most famous of the genre. Every marque in GM’s passenger car arsenal contained at least one dream or concept car. With more than half the domestic car sales going to GM brands in the 1950s, the Detroit giant had the funds to realize even the most fanciful whims of its design department. GM’s design, color and styling aces were not shy when they sat down at their drafting tables, even into the 1960s.
Buick’s Silver Arrow I concept was another brainstorm of Bill Mitchell, GM’s flamboyant design chief. Upon the introduction of the Buick Riviera in 1963 Mitchell directed the creation of a customized version and christened it the Silver Arrow I. As was his practice the new styling exercise served as his personal transport when it was not on show duty.
The Silver Arrow I was pure Bill Mitchell. The fenders were lengthened and the headlamps concealed, the roof was lowered two inches, custom silver leather upholstery was installed and many coats of gorgeous silver paint were applied.
Riviera, Buick’s personal luxury coupe underwent a styling update for 1971 with the “boattail” theme. Mitchell reprised himself with Silver Arrow III. Real wire wheels, high level warning lights that doubled as turn signals, restyled bumpers, rear quarter windows, silver leather upholstery and silver paint went into the conversion. Both cars survive and will be on The Amelia’s field on March 9th.
Nowhere is there any record of the existence or fate of Buick’s Silver Arrow II.
The dream cars of Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s will imbue the field of the 19th annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance with the spirit of an America with its back turned upon ugliness and destruction of world war and its creative juices flowing. Some might say “overflowing”.