As Chrysler’s flagship model, the New Yorker was significant. Still is. It remains the longest-running nameplate in US automotive history, having been in production for 57 years, from 1939 to 1996. It spanned 11 model generations, though in keeping with much of what has emerged from the US car industry in the past three decades, the last five generations — produced between 1979 and 1996 — were pretty forgettable.
But it was during the New Yorker’s attractive second generation of models, produced between 1950 and 1954, that the marque made one of the most significant contributions to the automotive world ever, when it was offered in 1951 with Chrysler’s magnificent new FirePower Hemi V8 engine. The ’51 New Yorker was an unassuming car. It had subtle styling, with an outer layer that gave no clues to the fact that nestled snugly between its bulky flanks sat an engine which would become one of the most famous in automotive history.
The Hemi engine gets its name from the shape of its combustion chambers, which are shaped like half a sphere, or hemisphere, to best enclose its canted inlet and exhaust valves. The Hemi combustion chamber shape and valve locations, and centrally located spark plug, allow for short intake and exhaust ports and large valves. The result is smooth-running, effective valve stem and seat cooling, extended valve life, good prevention from carbon build-up, and excellent breathing, volumetric efficiency and performance.
The Hemi is synonymous with Chrysler, but hemispherical heads have been in use almost since the invention of the automobile. Alfa Romeo, Stutz, Peugeot, Riley, Daimler and BMW, among others, all produced engines using hemispherical combustion chambers long before Chrysler made the concept its own. Highly successful pre-war Indy racer/car builder Harry Miller also designed Hemi racing engines.
In 1947, six years before joining General Motors and establishing Chevrolet’s hugely successful performance parts programme, and transforming the Corvette from a substance-lacking beauty queen into America’s most successful sports car, Belgium-born Zora Arkus-Duntov, along with brother Yura, formed a small company called Ardun.
Ardun (the name was a contraction of the brothers’ surname) developed a small number of hemispherical heads for Ford’s side-valve flathead V8 engine, which, at the time, was really the only engine option available to drag racers and hot rodders in the US. An entire industry had blossomed following World War II to develop and sell Ford flathead speed equipment, involving fledgling companies such as Edelbrock, Weiand, Mayor, Mallory, Iskenderian (Isky) and Offenhauser.
Fred Offenhauser worked for Harry Miller before the latter went bankrupt in 1933. Offenhauser purchased Miller’s workshop and continued development of the Peugeot-based four-cylinder DOHC four-valve engines the pair built under the Miller name for speedway racing. These engines would enjoy many more successes under Offenhauser’s own name).
But it was Chrysler that really developed the hemispherical design to be made available on a mass scale, eventually trademarking the name ‘Hemi’, which it later used to great effect as part of its marketing campaigns. Yet, when Chrysler began to seriously develop the Hemi, it was not for automobiles at all, but rather World War II fighter planes.
Towards the end of the war, Chrysler built a small number of inverted V16 engines using hemispherical heads. They were conservatively rated at between 2100 and 2500hp, at least one of which was tested in a P-47D Thunderbolt aeroplane. But these engines would lose favour before ever going into production, as the quest for jet power gathered momentum.
Back in business
However, in 1948, as the US settled into post-war peace and automotive manufacturers turned their focus back towards car development, Chrysler engineers wanted to get a jump on competitors Ford and General Motors, and began developing a compact V8 engine with hemispherical heads, using the knowledge gained from the WWII fighter engines for passenger car applications.
With its sturdy cast iron block, cast alloy three-ring pistons, a shot-peened forged steel crankshaft, hydraulic lifters and heavy duty valves, the Chrysler Hemi V8 was built to be strong, smooth and an optimal performer. Once complete, the engine was subjected to more than 8000 hours of dyno testing, and more than half-a-million road test miles, before being made available to the public in 1951, fitted to the New Yorker, Imperial, Crown Imperial, and Saratoga models, in 5.4-litre, 134kW (331ci, 180hp) format.
These were all top-of-the-line, well-equipped cars, aimed not at the speed-crazed youth market, but instead at upper-middle class America. However, drag racers and hot rodders immediately saw the benefits the Chrysler Hemi had to offer, particularly over the aging Ford flathead V8, which had been in production for almost two decades.
Almost overnight, the Chrysler Hemi made the Ford flathead V8 obsolete as a competition engine on salt flats and drag strips, although its hefty price tag (a Chrysler Hemi engine could be purchased for around US$700 in the early ’50s through Chrysler dealers, when a brand spanking New Yorker could be driven out of the showroom for less than $3500) meant the flathead lived on for a few more years in hot rodding, until Chevrolet released its massively successful, and affordable, 265ci small block V8 in 1955.
Chrysler Hemis ruled drag racing by the late ’50s, and even today, engines using hemispherical heads continue to be used at the highest level of drag racing competition, and can trace their DNA back to those original Chrysler FirePower engines.
In 1955 Chrysler released its third generation New Yorker, now named New Yorker Deluxe, with greatly improved styling over the chunky second generation model that preceded it.
The sleek-looking third generation New Yorker finally possessed an outer skin to match its fire-breathing FirePower Hemi V8, and was in-keeping with America’s growing fascination with space travel and jet-age styling during a period that saw US automotive manufacturers produce some of the world’s greatest car designs.
The third-generation New Yorker range was designed by Virgil Exner, who also styled the 1947 Studebaker Starlight before moving to Chrysler and creating his trend-setting ‘Forward Look’ theme of sleek, aggressive, smooth styling with lowered rooflines, long bonnets and short boots. It was offered in four body styles: a stunning two-door hardtop, four-door sedan, convertible, and Town and Country wagon. Styling was sleek, while power figures for the Hemi V8s were now up to 250hp.
Our feature car emerged from Chrysler’s 1955 production line and is owned by Wellingtonian George Loizou. But George’s stunning four-door model is not a recent US import, as you might expect. Instead, it has a unique New Zealand history to it, being sold new here in right-hand-drive format, complete with air-conditioning and smog filters, and used as an embassy car for many years. After it was sold into private ownership it spent much of its life in Wellington, before being pushed into a barn north of the capital, where it sat for many years.
When George purchased it, the once grand New Yorker Deluxe was in a sorry state, having had its all-important FirePower Hemi removed and sold. Much of its trim was missing, it had no brakes, and its years spent dealing with Wellington’s harsh salt air climate had taken its toll on the body, which was full of rust.
Anything but easy
The restoration process was a long, trying one, but fortunately George had the patience and tenacity to follow through with it. He tracked down the original Hemi engine and had it rebuilt and bored out to 354ci with a warmed cam. He found a similar car in Texas, from which he stripped many of the parts he needed. Even so he had to make his own emblems, because originals are expensive and hard to come by.
George’s parts search took more than a year, following which the car spent another two years having the body restored. From there it was passed on to Autobodies in Wellington, which took care of paint and reassembly.
By his own admission, George says the New Yorker is not yet finished as he continues to hunt down those elusive missing parts. You’d be hard-pressed to tell. It is a gorgeous-looking car, beautifully presented, and finished in contrasting green with white roof and rolling on Luxor 24kt gold wheels with whitewall tyres.
George is a brave guy to take on such an ambitious project. But his reward is one of the most distinctive factory hot rods ever built, one that possesses its own important piece of New Zealand history. The 1960s were best known as the decade in which the factory muscle car wars raged. But that war was sparked into life almost a decade earlier by Chrysler, and one of the greatest engines ever made.
1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe
- Engine: Factory 331ci (5424cc) Chrysler FirePower Hemi, bored to 354ci (5801cc), with warmed cam
- Driveline: Factory Power-flyte auto trans
- Suspension: Stock
- Brakes: Stock 14-inch drums
- Wheels/tyres: Luxor 24kt gold wheels, 215/70R15 Cooper whitewall tyres
- Interior: Retrimmed by Rotary Motor Trim, custom wooden steering wheel, converted to 12 volt
- Exterior: Stock restored
- Performance: 250hp, stock (186kW)
- Owner: George Loizou
- Age: 37
- Occupation: Design, wheel importer
- Length of ownership: 16 years
- Previously owned cars: 1971 454 C20 Chevy pick-up, Lt1 1980 Corvette, 1980 Cadillac, 1975 Trans Am, 1969 Cougar
- Currently owned cars: 1979 Lincoln MkV (9000 miles since new), 1983 Cartier Edition Imperial coupe (7900 miles since new), 1984 Trans Am, 1969 Cougar, ’57 Chevy Bel Air (his father’s), 1979 Lincoln MkV (his father’s, 1200km on clock since new)
- Why the New Yorker: It’s very rare and, being the start of the Hemi, it’s a very famous Mopar
- Dream car: 1949 Cadillac coupe, 1978 Trans Am, 1993 Cadillac ‘big-body’ Fleetwood
- Build time: Four years
- Length of ownership: 16 years
- George thanks: Lance at Rotary Motor Trim, Ants at Auto-Kinetic, Dimitri at Ispeed, V8mike and Steve, Autobodies
This article originally featured in the February 2010 issue of NZV8 (Issue No. 57). Don't miss out on having this mag in your collection. Grab one of the last print copies, or grab a digital copy below: