Motoring Memories: 1951 Chrysler Hemi motoring memories
1951 Chrysler New Yorker. Click image to enlarge

by Bill Vance

From its formative years in the 1920s, the Chrysler Corporation developed a reputation for building well engineered cars. Walter Chrysler, a master machinist, valued the importance of soundly designed machinery, and his cars were early users of such advanced features as hydraulic brakes, aluminum pistons, full-pressure engine lubrication, and flexible engine mounts.

After the Second World War domestic auto manufacturers began production of essentially pre-war cars, but they realized the need to replace the current engines, some of which dated to the 1920s. The work of General Motors’ brilliant research head, Charles Kettering, on high compression engines had enabled GM to beat other manufacturers to the punch with short-stroke, overhead valve, high compression V8s from Cadillac and Oldsmobile in 1949.

Chrysler soldiered on with side-valve inline sixes and eights through 1950, but when it did come out with a new V8 engine for the 1951 model, it was a winner. Although displacing only eight cubic inches more than the straight-eight it replaced – 331 compared with 323 (5.4 vs. 5.3 litres) – horsepower was up from 135 to 180.

But the important comparison was not with Chrysler’s former engine, but with rival Cadillac’s current V8. It would be the first significant shot in the famous Detroit horsepower race of the 1950s and ’60s.

Chrysler stung General Motors by producing an engine with the same 5.4 litre (331 cu in.) displacement as the Cadillac (it even had identical bore and stroke measurements), but developed 20 more horsepower.

True to its engineering heritage, Chrysler had not produced just another overhead valve V8 with conventional wedge-shaped combustion chambers. Rather, it had created hemispherically shaped combustion chambers through the use of two rocker arm shafts in each cylinder head, thereby eliminating the cost and complexity of overhead camshafts.

The “Firepower” engine, as Chrysler called it, although it was soon dubbed the “Hemi,” had what engineers call superior volumetric efficiency; it breathed in more air per revolution, and therefore produced more power.

It was a brilliant stroke, and the Hemi soon established a reputation for outstanding performance. Mechanix Illustrated magazine’s car tester, Tom McCahill, took a brand new Chrysler New Yorker V8 to the sands of Daytona Beach in February, 1951, and won the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Speed Week trophy as the fastest stock American car. In spite of the rough and sticky condition of the sand, and what he called a “stiff 25-mile quartering wind,” McCahill managed to average 161 km/h (100.13 mph) in his two-way run.

Briggs Cunningham, a wealthy American sportsman, was building world class sports cars in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was attempting to win the renowned French Le Mans 24-hour race for America, and he chose the new Hemi V8 as his powerplant. The Cunningham only managed to finish 18th in its first Le Mans outing in 1951 (due, said McCahill, to poor quality gasoline), but in 1952 it finished fourth behind two Mercedes Benz 300 SLs and a Nash-Healey. In 1953 a Cunningham finished third.

According to McCahill, one of the modifications Cunningham used to get more power out of the Chrysler engine was to fit it with Cadillac pistons! Because of the different wrist pin placement, the Cadillac pistons reportedly raised the compression ratio of the Hemi from 7.5:1 to 8.5:1, and increased power almost 10 per cent. They were also lighter than the Chrysler pistons.

Even though it had to propel a heavy car (McCahill’s New Yorker weighed 1,928 kg [4,250 lb]) with barn door aerodynamics, the Hemi engine gave the big Chrysler excellent performance. Road & Track magazine (11/51) tested a Saratoga Club Coupe with the V8 and recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of under 10 seconds and a top speed average of 166 km/h (104 mph). These were very fast times for that period.

McCahill recorded 10.9 seconds for his zero-to-96 (60). Both testers obtained these fast times by resorting to manually shifting the sluggish “Fluidmatic” transmission.

In addition to its Hemi engine, the 1951 Chrysler made another significant contribution to automotive technology in the form of hydraulically assisted “Hydra-guide” steering. Power assisted steering was not new; it had been used on trucks and buses for some time, but its use in passenger cars was pioneered by Chrysler. The introduction of power steering allowed engineers to design steering mechanisms that were quick and yet easy to turn. The traditional compromise between steering effort and steering ratio was no longer necessary.

Power assisted steering was a significant advance both in safety and driving ease, and it, along with the powerful Hemi engine, further contributed to Chrysler’s reputation for sound engineering.

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