This is my sister Lesa and I on Ray Falconer’s Honda in the back yard of our grandparents’ home in Long Jetty, a part of it which is now called Shelly Beach. It was taken on the day Raymond Joseph MacNamara, our father, was buried at Wamberal. It was also coincidentally my sixth birthday.
The things you come across… Trying to find an old book that belonged to my grandfather, to ask a colleague at the State Library some advice about it, when I came across this photo.
The end of the 1930s was a watershed moment for Chrysler. Which revolutionary model, new line of cars, new engine or new production milestone occurred back then you may ask? It’s hard to believe but it was even more fundamental than any of that. It was in fact when Walter P. Chrysler made his last motorcar, for the man himself died in 1940 after suffering a stroke in 1938.
What you see here is Walter P. Chrysler’s ultimate creation – the 1939 Chrysler Imperial, one of approximately 3,000 built that year and one of 46 exported to Australia.
The era marked an important transition for the whole auto industry. Overall production capabilities would be utterly transformed in the coming years by World War II. If Henry Ford’s techniques marked the transition from ‘craft’ to production, WWII and in particular the period of reconstruction afterward marked the transition to mass production.
The end of the ‘30s was also the high water mark for the art-deco movement and Richard and Serena Breese’s ’39 Chrysler Imperial has no shortage of detail as evidence of that.
The Imperial nameplate ran from 1926 until 1983, though from 1955 it was a standalone make in line with its Cadillac and Lincoln rivals. The Imperial was briefly revisited from 1990 to 1993 and a concept Imperial based on the 300C appeared at the Detroit Motor Show in 2006. In 1939 the Imperial was the flagship model of Chrysler’s premier division.
This ’39 Imperial is motivated by the 323.5 cid flat-head straight eight engine developing 135 horsepower. When Richard and Serena bought the car in 1976 as a fully registered road-going driver the engine had been bored out beyond 350 cubes. During the restoration which began in 1992 Richard had the block sleeved, bringing it back to its original 323.5 cubic inches. It’s a decision he now has mixed feelings about as, while the Imperial is no slouch, it resulted in notably less ponies. “There’s no substitute for cubes,” says Richard.
Around 1979 Richard heard rumour of another Imperial in a forgotten paddock out in the country. That car was in a bad way but incredibly when he looked at the engine number it was the very next one off the line after his. Richard and Serena have that engine in their garage today.
For many years they used the Imperial like a second family car, took it on family trips, even towing a caravan on occasion. They’d put more than 70,000 miles on it when a worn radiator took them out of Australia’s classic Bay to Birdwood run in 1992. Once they started pulling it apart to repair the radiator they decided to keep going with a full restoration. Richard alone put in an incredible 2,140 hours. “Serena would say – surely that’s enough,” says Richard, as he painstakingly filled and sanded panels over and over.
While working on the front left guard Richard found a curious section which had been cut out and superbly patched. It wasn’t til later he found out this was the result of a charcoal burner, a common fitment during WWII gasoline rationing.
The interior was re-trimmed using the Imperial’s original art-deco designs. Richard pulled together a complete set of instruments in satisfactory order. With a good clean up they were re-fitted and retain all the charm of a car that has been in regular use for the greater part of its 72 years. The result is an interior swathed in art-deco panache.
As the US climbed its way back out of The Great Depression cars like the ’39 Imperial were an audacious statement. Even the name ‘Imperial’ set the scene for the America that would emerge over the following decades. This ’39 Chrysler Imperial is a statement of what in those days was American aspiration. It’s only with the value of hindsight we can look at it as a harbinger of days that were to come.
1939 Chrysler Imperial C23 Specs
ENGINE: 323.5 cubic inch side valve inline 8 cylinder. Bore 3 ¼ inches. Stroke 4 7/8 inches. Compression ratio 6.8 to 1
POWER: 135 HP (101kW)
WHEEL BASE: 125 inches
TRANSMISSION: Borg Warner 3 speed with overdrive, syncro on 2nd and top.
SUSPENSION FRONT: Independent coil, pantograph type. REAR: Semi-elliptic leaf springs
BRAKES (hydraulic) FRONT and REAR: 12 inch diameter drums x 2 inch width shoes.
WHEELS AND TYRES: 700 x 16 inch light truck radials
PERFORMANCE: Top speed in excess of 100 mph.
KERB MASS: 4080 pounds (1854 kg)
The 1954 Chrysler New Yorker is an elegant example of that early ’50s style. A New Yorker won the NASCAR championship in 1954 and this inspired me to delve into the surprising racing history of the 1st generation Hemi V8, both in Europe and North America. A Hemi powered Cunningham C4R sports car won the Sebring 12 hour in 1953, and three of the top ten finishers at the Le Mans 24 hour that year were Cunningham Chryslers.
There’s been renewed interest in cars of the early 1950s recently, much of it in the ‘kustom’ car scene where rockabilly music and tattooed pinup girls set the tone, and car aficionados speak in hot-rodding terms like chopped, channelled, shaved and Frenched – terms that make the classic car purist squirm. Each to their own, others would say.
“I like things to be original, that’s just the way I am,” says Frank D’Agostino, proud owner of this incredible 1954 Chrysler New Yorker.
Cars of the early ‘50s began to look sleeker than their upright predecessors yet they maintained a curvaceousness in contrast to the increasing angularity of the cars of the following period. The bold ostentation of the late ’50s had not yet caught on – no big fins, multi-coloured paint schemes or excessive chrome ornamentation. The 1954 Chrysler New Yorker is an elegant example of that early ’50s style – big round front fenders and curvy rear quarters that make you just want to give the car a squeeze and a big kiss. She’s the Marilyn Monroe of Chryslers.
There’s another thing about this immaculate Chrysler that’s enough to bring a tear to the eye of even the baddest hot-rodder. Yes – it’s got a Hemi.
The first generation Hemi was produced from 1951 to 1959 in capacities ranging from 241 cid to 392 cid including Dodge, De Soto, Chrysler, Imperial, truck, marine and industrial variants. This ’54 New Yorker bears its original 331 cid Chrysler FirePower engine rated at 195 horsepower.
As far as engine reputations go, the Chrysler Hemi V8’s is as big as it gets. When pressed into motor sport service the first generation Hemi V8 dominated over a number of seasons.
In 1954 Lee Petty won the NASCAR championship in a Chrysler New Yorker. That same year Chrysler celebrated the opening of their Chelsea proving grounds with a 24 hour endurance run in which the New Yorker averaged 118.18 mph (190.19 km/h). The following year Chrysler won
the NASCAR championship easily with the C-300 powered by a twin four barrel version of the 331, and again in ’56 with the 300B and a 354 cid version of the engine. In Europe a Hemi powered Cunningham C4R sports car won the Sebring 12 hour in 1953, and three of the top ten finishers at the Le Mans 24 hour that year were Cunningham Chryslers. Paul Frere came 1st in the touring class at Italy’s 1953 Mille Miglia in a Chrysler Saratoga. A Hemi powered dragster won the NHRA’s 4th annual US Nationals in 1958 and in 1964 another became the first car in US Nationals history to break 200 mph. The second generation Hemi released that year went on to write its own place in the history books but that’s a whole other story.
The ultimate (factory) expression of the FirePower Hemi was the 390 horsepower fuel injected 392 cid version offered in the 1958 Chrysler 300D. By 1959, however, only a truck version of the Hemi was manufactured.
The New Yorker nameplate ran from 1939 until 1996. In 1953 Chrysler dropped the similarly bodied but lower spec Saratoga nameplate and it became the New Yorker while the newly introduced New Yorker Deluxe was essentially an aesthetically updated New Yorker from the year before. For 1954 Chrysler’s base 331 Hemi was up-rated to 195 horsepower (147 kilowatts) and a four-barrel version was available with 235 horsepower (175 kilowatts). That year Chrysler also introduced the two speed Powerflite transmission.
While lead-sled styled hot rods based on the cars of the early ‘50s are not without their own unique charm, even the most hardcore hot-rodder would never dream of transforming this Chrysler into a piece of what they term ‘rolling art’. The car is a masterpiece already.
1954 Chrysler New Yorker Specs
Body variants 2 door Club Coupe, 2 door Convertible, 2 door Hardtop, 4 door Sedan, 4 door Sedan lwb, 4 door Wagon.
Engine 331.1 cid Chrysler FirePower V8
Bore/stroke 3.81 inch x 3.63 inch
Compression ratio 7.5:1
Power 195 hp (147 kilowatts) 2V; 235 hp (175 kilowatts) 4V
Torque 434 Nm (2V); 447 Nm (4V)
Transmision Powerflite two speed automatic with torque converter.
Wheelbase 125.5 inch
Suspension front independent coil springs, tube shocks
Suspension rear live axle, leaf springs, tube shocks
Final drive ratio 3.54
Brakes front/rear drums (Ausco-Lambert discs optional, $400)
Wheels and tyres 15 x 6/H78-15
Performance Top speed 110-115 mph; 0-100 12.2 seconds (235hp)/ 12.9 seconds (195hp)
Kerb weight 4 door: 1910 kg/ 1950 kg (Deluxe)