In the 90 years since Walter Chrysler, Chairman of Maxwell Motors, introduced the Chrysler Six, the brand that bares his name has turned out a number of noteworthy cars. So grab a slice of birthday cake and let's go for a ride.
1931 Chrysler Imperial
While there have been a slew of Imperials, many good, some forgettable, they peaked in 1931. Long, low and lithe, the 1931 Imperial was styled by Al Leamy, who had previously designed the Cord L-29. Imperials were fast for their day thanks to Chrysler’s first eight-cylinder engine, displacing 385 cubic inches (or 6.3 liters) and developing 125 horsepower. Imperials also possessed many engineering advancements to make the most of it, as well as custom bodies from LeBaron, Locke, Derham, Murphy and Waterhouse.
1934 Chrysler Airflow
It must have been a humbling moment when Chrysler engineers realized that their automobiles were more aerodynamic backing up than going forward. At Orville Wright’s urging, Chrysler installed a wind tunnel to develop their next car and it proved to be a technical triumph, with a steel-spaceframe and a lightweight, near 50-50 front-rear weight distribution. Nevertheless, its streamlined styling was far too advanced for American tastes, although it proved hugely influential in Europe. Reviled at the time, it is now revered.
1941 Chrysler Town and Country
When it comes to carriages, with or without a horse, timber had been used as a structural element for millennia. Structural wood’s last gasp came in the form of the Chrysler Town and Country, initially offered as a sedan or a nine-passenger station wagon, all powered by six-cylinder engines. Post-war models would be available as sedans or convertible coupes powered by an eight-cylinder engine and a semi-automatic transmission. The name would survive for decades, embarrassingly saddled with tacky fake wood decals.
1951 Chrysler Hemi V8
Chrysler’s now-legendary hemispheric-head V-8 engine, aka the Hemi V-8, was first introduced in the Chrysler Saratoga, New Yorker and Imperial in 1951. It was named for the engine’s combustion chamber, which had a dome-shaped roof that allowed the engine to produce more power than other engines of the same size. In fact, the first 5.4-liter Hemi produced 170 horsepower, 10 more than Cadillac’s new V-8 of the same size. It was the first in a long line of Hemis, and the name survives to this day.
1955 Chrysler C300
Built as a specialty car for Chrysler’s new Hemi V8, the C300 wore a New Yorker Newport hardtop two-door body, an Imperial front end and the Windsor model’s rear quarter panels. With 300 horsepower on tap from Chrysler’s most potent Hemi V8, the C300 was one of the most powerful cars of its time, able to reach 60 mph in less than 10 seconds. A mere 1,725 buyers purchased this formidable machine thanks to its $4,109 price; that's only $36,538 when adjusted for inflation. Sounds like a good deal.
1957 Chrysler line
Having been burned by its 1930s Airflows’ adventurous styling, Chrysler’s styling calcified into conservatism until design chief Virgil Exner’s arrival who, for 1957, caught GM and Ford flatfooted. Marketed as “the Forward Look,” the 1957 models boasted boatloads of chrome, outrageous tail fins, and the automaker’s first torsion bar suspension, which gave the cars a very comfortable ride. As a result, GM redesigned its already-planned 1959 line at great cost and may have contributed to GM’s legendary design chief Harley Earl’s retirement in 1959.
1963 Chrysler Turbine
For more than 25 years, Chrysler experimented with jet turbine power and, from 1963 through 1966, launched consumer tests using 50 specially built two-door, four-passenger cars with a body built by Ghia. Powering the car was a turbine engine rated at 130 horsepower and 425 foot-pounds of torque mated to a modified three-speed automatic transmission. Although the engine was smooth and powerful, issues with throttle lag, engine braking, poor fuel economy and high nitrous-oxide emissions killed the program by 1980.
OK, it’s not a car, but Chrysler introduced the idea of paying their customers to buy a car. After the 1973 OPEC oil embargo led Chrysler sales to sink 34 percent in 1974, and facing a two-month backlog of cars, Robert McCurry, who would join Toyota in 1979, came up with the idea. Introduced during Super Bowl IX in 1975, the ads featured sportscaster Joe Garagiola dressed as a carnival barker asserting, “Buy a car, get a check.” Costing Chrysler $300,000 a week, it began a promotion that has outlived many of its cars.
1975 Chrysler Cordoba
Having arrived just as Chrysler’s full-size cars were foundering, the Cordoba represented Chrysler’s first step down-market. Famously marketed on television by Ricardo Montalbán, the personal luxury car was promoted as “the new, small Chrysler,” despite measuring 215-inches long. Chrysler’s luxury cache, still evident to consumers, rubbed off on the new model, and accounted for 60 percent of the brand’s sales in 1976. With 170 horsepower on tap, it’s no speed demon, but represented a new, [marginally] smaller direction.
1982 Chrysler LeBaron
Having escaped bankruptcy, Chrysler’s recovery was due to the humble K-Car, the company’s line of compact, front-wheel drive sedans, coupes, convertibles and station wagons. The LeBaron came in all body styles, and was the first Chrysler measuring less than 200 inches long. Chrysler’s 97-horsepower 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine and a four-speed manual transmission were standard. A Mitsubishi 2.6-liter four and an automatic transmission were options. A Town & Country model returned wearing fake plastic wood.
2004 Chrysler 300
While the 300 name would return in 1999 on a large front-wheel-drive model, it’s the 2004 300 that truly marked its spiritual return. Using a rear-wheel-drive platform developed for the previous generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the aggressively styled full-sized car had a hoodlum attitude and mild Kustom look, backed by a Hemi 5.7-liter V8 under the hood. A couple of minor styling updates later, the car’s tenth generation remains in production today as the brand’s flagship.