Chrysler’s Ultimate.

photos by olga kowalska

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.

Richard and Serena Breese’s 1939 Chrysler Imperial

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.

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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)

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Style, Class and a Hemi!

photos by olga kowalska of photoprestige


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.

Frank D’Agostino’s incredible 1954 Chrysler New Yorker

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.

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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

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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.

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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)


The unluckiest colour

Dear Mr Ali

Have you ever pondered the idea that green is an unlucky colour? I first heard it years ago from a babbling sports-caster, referring to green racing cars. It was one of those lines that just defecate out of these commentators as if slender moments of quiet lead audiences to distraction and end in a docked pay-check. I guess there’s a sub-class of broadcasters who never fully appreciated the transition from radio to TV. Do you mind if I call you Muhammad? Considering you’re in heaven now I’m sure we can be more relaxed with protocol.

Some time after hearing about it being an unlucky colour for racing cars, I learned there’s a general superstition about the colour green. I’m a bit skeptical. From the evidence I’ve gathered, green might be unlucky for some people, but there’s equally enough evidence that it’s lucky for others.

The luckiness or otherwise of green is a particularly salient question at the moment, with Australia competing at the Olympics in Rio. Our national colours reflect the green and gold of the wattle, our national emblem. At recent Olympics, inspired by an eternally over-optimistic Australian media, both the team and the populace have been left feeling despondently under-endowed with gold. Muhammad, as an Olympian with an extraordinary tale to tell about your own gold medal (even by Olympic standards), I’m sure you can appreciate how emotive this can be for some people.

Australian olympic uniform 2016 Rio

Could these be the unluckiest athletes in Rio?

I’ve observed that most Aussie team uniforms are predominantly gold, with little more than highlights in green. Perhaps what’s needed is to shift the balance in athletes’ attire toward green, thus conjuring a greater amount of inward bound gold due to the tendency for equilibrium in the natural order of things.

It’s worth remembering that green and gold only became Australia’s official national colours in 1984. Blue and gold was one alternative under consideration at the time. If, with objective, evidence based, peer reviewed science we could prove a converse relationship between green and luck, then I’d say there’s a case for revisiting that decision. It’s a matter of personal preference I know, but I think blue and gold are a more fetching combination. But I won’t let that smoke my objectivity.

I don’t know the origins of the superstition as it pertains to green racing cars. The Bentleys of the 1920s and 30s and the Jaguars of the 1950s and 60s are most

Personally, I’d feel lucky with a 1927 Bentley parked in the driveway.

often associated with a shade of green peculiarly attributed to the British, and both marques enjoyed long periods of domination over the competition. As did Mercedes, yet their silver cars ultimately had the worst luck in motor racing history, crashing at the 1955 Le Mans and killing 83 spectators and driver, Pierre Levegh, and injuring many more. Mercedes gave racing away for decades after that.

Dick Johnson’s crash during the top-ten shootout the day before Bathurst 1983 would support the proposition that green race cars are bad luck. Johnson’s major sponsor back then was our lately retired statesman, Ross Palmer. Johnson’s cars were liveried to spruik Palmer Tube Mills trade-marks. Thus you had Tru-Blu through 80-82, and Greens-Tuf in 83-84.

Dick Johnson’s 1983 XE Falcon.

Though externally and mechanically similar to the XD Falcon that preceded it, in which Johnson had won Bathurst in 1981, the XE Falcon of 1982-1984 brought one major technological advance. The origins of the XD’s leaf-spring rear suspension could be traced to horse-drawn carriages, so the XE’s new trailing arm suspension with watt’s linkages represented generational change. I won’t bore you with the engineering principles. Suffice to say that the physics are sound. In the mum and dad road car it really did result in better ride, handling and endurance – although the overuse of these terms by marketeers makes it easy to overlook. Of course, independent rear suspension, which is current orthodoxy, was still a long way off.

The bright, titanic, Greens-Tuf Falcon handled a bit ‘taily’ during Johnson’s 1983 hot lap. Johnson clipped the wall coming out of Forrest’s Elbow and a tonne and-a-half of Kermit-green horsepower hopscotched, tumbling into the trees and landing in a tangled wreck.

RIP Greens-Tuf 1

Johnson acquired a replacement car from a back-of-the-grid amateur racer, who in those days could still enter the Bathurst race (much to the irritation of some professionals, most vociferously, Johnson), and his mechanics battled to put years of development work into it overnight. Local TAFE apprentices squirted the now iconic Greens-Tuf livery onto it, and Johnson was miraculously on the grid for the start of the race. I always have this image of a pit-crew dude with green paint-splotches on his palms after pushing the tacky car out of the shed, though that again is borrowed from the imagination of one of those commentators who wittily invented it to evade silence.

Johnson himself bemoaned the lack of downforce provided by Ford’s homologated rear spoiler design. Whether it was that, Muhammad, or the lead time in coming to grips with a whole new suspension, don’t you think a technical explanation would be at least as likely as the colour of the paintwork? Not to mention human error and human imperfection.

In his Greens-Tuf livery, Johnson went on to win the Australian Touring Car Championship in 1984. His unluckiest Bathurst was undoubtedly 1980, when he qualified in pole position, but his Tru-Blu Falcon crashed early in the race after hitting a rock, thrown on the track by one of the lobotomised spectators who dominate the sport’s fan-base.

Muhammad, though you declared it yourself, many would agree you indeed have good claim to be considered the greatest in your sport. To my knowledge you never wore green trunks. You almost invariably wore white trunks with a black stripe. The notable exception was your fight with Joe Frazier, forty-five years ago this month, when you wore red crushed velvet trunks with white stripes. Frazier wore his signature green trunks, and for that fight, which has gone down in posterity as ‘The Fight of the Century’, Frazier’s green trunks were especially lush, with gold stripes, and a gold floral pattern which looked almost leopard-skin in effect. You and Frazier went fifteen rounds, and Frazier won on points.  If we asked Joe Frazier, who for convenience we’ll say is also in heaven, I bet he’d say green was his good luck colour.

This is where it gets complicated, because you fought Frazier three times. For your 1974 bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden, you were back in your white trunks with black stripes, whereas Frazier had forsaken his green trunks for white, with flamboyant zig-zagged patterned openings over the thigh.  Muhammad, you won on points after 12 rounds.

To summarise: in 1971 Frazier wore his signature green, you went red with white instead of your favoured white with black, Frazier won. In 1974 Frazier experimented with non-green trunks, you wore your white with black, you won. It’s tempting to conclude at this point that we each have our own lucky colour.

Finally we arrive at the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ in 1975, your third and final confrontation with Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Importantly, for this bout, you appeared in your regular white trunks, and Frazier in his regular green.

You went out like a wrecking ball in the first few rounds, capitalising on Frazier’s reputation for being slow to get his mojo. Then you settled into your rope-a-dope strategy, leaning right back on the ropes and defending, for your opponent to tire himself taking shots. Like some American ballet, this oddly complemented the Frazier camp’s tactic to work on disabling your body.

Despite both stratagems, in round 6 you took a succession of lethal right hooks to the head that would’ve ended any other fight. Though you remained standing, people there said you went visibly stiff, as though mildly paralysed.

With your lungs and your skin broiling in the Quezon tropics, you and Frazier tussled savagely for 14 rounds, before the damage you’d inflicted in the first 3 finally stopped him. With his face a fluid-filled vacuum-pack, poor Joe could no longer see out either of his eyes. With Joe now a hundred kilogram slab of meat, trainer Eddie Futch stopped it before you took the ring for the final round. You’d defended your title with a technical knock-out.

You and Joe Frazier had finally met in your respective colours. That day though, Muhammad Ali, I don’t think was lucky for either of you.

Yours sincerely


Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali Thrilla in Manilla

Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Quezon City, 1 October 1975.