1954 Chrysler Windsor Deluxe Newport

June 1, 2012 | By Bob Tomaine

The Original Owner Opted for a Flathead Six Over a Hemi V-8. Maybe He Had a Premonition of Today’s Gas Prices…

THE FLATHEAD ERA was almost over in 1954 and while everyone from engineers to drivers to automotive writers was ready to explain why that engine evolution was a great thing, some remained unconvinced.

“It had belonged to an elderly gentleman,” said Wally Tompkins, whose 1954 Chrysler Windsor Deluxe Newport is shown here.

“What (the seller) told us was that the man was 90 years old and when he’d retired, he wanted a new car. He’d never bought anything new in his whole life and he bought this car brand-new. He ordered it the way he wanted it. And he definitely wanted the six-cylinder instead of the Hemi.”

While the idea of someone ordering a new car and specifying a flathead six instead of a Hemi V-8 may be hard to grasp today, it would have been far less surprising in 1954. Such a choice was a conservative one and given the speed with which technology was then traveling, caution was understandable. American automobiles had been evolving since the horseless carriages made their initial runs, but the progress had been mostly gradual. After World War II, with the resumption of production for the civilian market, that began to change.

Major Steps Forward

Studebaker summoned the future almost immediately with its 1947 line, fresh and modern enough that the company claimed to be “first by far with a postwar car”when it arrived in May 1946.

General Motors phased in its first new postwar bodies starting with the 1948 Cadillac and Oldsmobile. Then in 1949 GM launched its modern overhead valve V-8. Introduced by Cadillac and Oldsmobile, the new engines’ common ground was in their oversquare design; with the cylinder’s diameter larger than its piston’s stroke, they provided a new world of improved performance and enhanced efficiency. Flatheads, straight eights and long-stroke engines would fade and while fast, sporty cars weren’t new in 1949, GM unveiled a two-door hardtop body and in Olds or Cadillac form with the OHV V-8, it was a winner.

Chrysler’s Different V-8

The competition saw that and in 1951, Chrysler launched its oversquare V-8, but Chrysler went a step further with the Hemi, a name taken from its hemispherical combustion chambers. The design was costly and complex with each spark plug centered in its combustion chamber and a valve on each side, a layout requiring dual rocker assemblies for each head. The necessarily huge valve covers with “Chrysler FirePower” in big letters are impressive, as are the numbers; the Hemi matched Cadillac’s 331 cubic inches, but produced 180 horsepower to Cadillac’s 160. And like Cadillac and Olds, Chrysler had a two-door hardtop in which to place its new engine.

Performance Up, Greenhouse Down

Chrysler had introduced its first new postwar body as a 1949 second-series line and in 1950 had added the Newport two-door hardtop in both the six-cylinder Windsor and eight-cylinder New Yorker lines.

In any form, the 1949 Chrysler was an almost-clean break with the previous model as it moved toward slab sides and wore flatter horizontal surfaces. Rear fenders were still separate and the windshield wasstillsplit, but the general prewar look was nearly gone and the heavily updated 1951 body continued the trend. It looked flatter—if boxier— despite its roughly unchanged proportions…and that hinted at the next restyle.

The 1953 Chryslers were “America’s First Family of Fine Cars” and “A Stunning New Mood in Highway Fashion,” according to advertising. Copywriters’ claims aside, there was nothing radical in their design. Lines Were slightly straighter, the look of separate rear fenders barely remained and the boxy greenhouse was toned down, a combination that made the car seem longer and lower. The straighter lines mentioned above strengthened the impression of added length, but the less-boxy greenhouse contributed more than mere impression; the cars were now 62 inches high, a drop of three inches from the previous Windsor and four inches from the New Yorker.

The new one-piece curved windshield—Chrysler’s first since the Imperial Airflow of the ’30s—was a nicely subtle touch, but the ad stayed away from such specific features. It spoke of “the kind of engineering the world associates with Chrysler performance” and “the spectacular New Yorker whose performance has all America talking.” Both were allusions to the Hemi and with the horsepower race gaining momentum, that made sense; it would’ve made even more sense in advertising for 1954, when the Hemi reached 235 horsepower. But then, those numbers didn’t matter to everybody.

A Six With Tinted Glass, Carpeting…and Hub Caps

As Tompkins said, his car’s first owner wanted the six and although 1954 was the last chance for a flathead in a Chrysler, it was a proven design. Chrysler had built nothing but inline flatheads from its first six in 1924. It had added an eight in 1931 and the Hemi had replaced the straight eight 20 years later. But the six went on and in the feature car, its 264.5 cubic inches generated 119 horsepower. The six was available only in the Windsor while the V-8 was in the New Yorker and it takes a good eye to tell those cars apart.

The 1954 Chryslers were only mildly updated. New taillights and trim appeared and the grille was simplified; in addition to badges, grilles were just different enough to ensure identification. About $900 separated the New Yorker Deluxe Newport from the Windsor Deluxe Newport, but while the original owner of Tompkins’ car wanted a simple engine, being cheap or low-key wasn’t the point.

“That particular model used to come with clear windows,”Tompkins Said. “He had the tinted green windows like it had air conditioning, but he didn’t want air conditioning. The car came with the rubber mats on the floors and he wanted carpets instead.”

There was more, but one option the car lacked was the Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels it wears today. Tompkins said that it had steel wheels and hubcaps when he bought it in 1980.

On
On a car that’s a mostly conservative design overall, the dashboard is surprisingly flashy.

The
The FirePower Hemi V-8 got the glory in 1950s Chryslers, meaning the flathead Spitfire six seen here is typically overlooked and underappreciated, neither of which is completely fair.

He’d been noticing it parked on a mine property for at least a year, he said, and had mentioned it to his wife, Ann. Then as he drove past one Saturday morning it had been moved and the owner was placing a “for sale” sign on it. Naturally, he stopped.

“I walked over,” he recalled, “and I said ‘I’ve been watching that car for a while. How about pulling that sign? Take it off until I bring my wife up tomorrow.’”

The owner agreed. Tompkins and his wife had occasionally talked about the Chrysler during the time he’d been noticing it, so they went to see it the next morning. In less than an hour, the deal was made and the following Friday, they retrieved their new car. The Chrysler ran and was drivable despite having been off the road for at least a decade, Tompkins said, so the trip of 20 or so miles to his Clark’s Summit, Pennsylvania, home seemed to have a reasonable chance of success. It was working out that way, too, right up to the very last minute.

“We have a little bit of an incline going into our garage,” Tompkins said. “The minute we pulled into the garage area, I stepped on the brake and there were no brakes. I used the handbrake to slow the car and I just tapped the wall. I said ‘I guess we’d better start with the brakes.’”

As noted above, that was in 1980 and the restoration was to consume the next four years. Most of the body’s problems were about what would be expected on a car stored outside for so long.

1954 Chrysler Windsor

GENERAL

Front-engine, rear-drive, coupe

ENGINE

Type                               Flathead six

Displacement                               264.5cu.in.

Bore x stroke                               3.438 in. x 4.75 in.

Compression ratio (:1)                               7

Carburetor                               Single-barrel downdraft

Power                               119 hp@3600rpm

Torque                               218 lb.-ft.@1600rpm

DRIVETRAIN

Transmission                               PowerFlite automatic

Final drive ratio (:1)                              3.73

SUSPENSION & BRAKES

Front                               Ind. coil springs

Rear                               Live axle, leaf springs

Brakes (f/r)                               Drum/drum

MEASUREMENTS

Wheelbase                               125 in.

Length                               211in.

Weight                               3685 lb.

Height                              62in.

Width                               77in.

Track (f/r)                               56/60in.

Tire size                               7.60x15

“The inner fenders up toward the headlights were gone,” Tompkins said. “In the front where the chrome was, the grille was gone. The splash pan in the front was all rotted out. The floors were rotted out. Around the doglegs were all rotted out in the back. The (lower) quarters were full of holes after we started digging in. We had to take the gas tank down and get that fixed. There were holes in the trunk where the spare tire well was.”

The good news as far as the body goes was its lack of impact damage to the sheet metal. Much of the interior remains original, although the carpet and the headliner have been replaced. The dash and interior brightwork needed only polishing, and metal along the windows was worn enough to require paint, but the trunk mat and even the fiberboard along the trunk’s sides is original.

Mechanically, there was the brake work that began the entire project, but although the Chrysler showed only about 32,000 miles, the plan was to head off problems before they occurred. With that in mind, the engine was rebuilt and the transmission was sent to a shop for the same treatment, but proved to need nothing more than cleaning, adjusting and a neutral switch. A pinion seal was replaced and the car was completed.

Wheels Made a Difference

“We were showing it at some shows,” Tompkins said, “and getting second- and third places, never a first. As beautiful as the car was, it had hubcaps, so we purchased the Kelsey-Hayes wheels.”

Its first outing with the new wheels was a Chrysler meet at Detroit, a trip the car made on its own.

“We didn’t have a trailer until about 10 or 15 years ago,” Tompkins said. “Before that, we drove it to Ohio, Maine, Canada, Virginia, Hershey, Detroit. We drove it back and forth everywhere.”

“We showed the car for many, many years,” Ann Tompkins added. “It went to Hershey and got its Senior.”

Time for Another Restoration

Things might have gone on that way if not for one problem that developed in June 2008 and set in motion the Chrysler’s second restoration.

“He was bringing the car up to get it washed for a show,” recalled Mark Wegrzynowicz of Medallion Auto Restoration in Jermyn,Pennsylvania. “He just washed it and the paint came off the rear quarter. The paint just fell off. You could take it with a fingernail and just peel it off the car.”

“From bringing it up from the garage on a beautiful warm day,” Wally Tompkins explained, “when we hit it with the cold water, it was like an egg cracking. The whole car got like that and then on the back fender, the paint started falling right off.”

The lacquer had been on the car for nearly a quarter of a century by then and when it cracked, the choice was between trying to touch it up and doing it over completely.

“So we took it down to bare metal,” Wegrzynowicz said, “and all of the old dented metal that was already worked over I cut out and replaced it with new pieces. The tops of the fenders, up in the front of the hood where the grille goes, that was all replaced steel. The lower doglegs were all done. The rockers had to get all redone. Other than that, it was just a couple of dings and dents here and there.”

Beyond the dings and dents, Wegrzynowicz found one piece of old damage that had been repaired with a not-quite-correct panel that had been made to fit. He explained that the bulge in one of the quarters had been hit and the work was so old that it had obviously been done very early in the car’s life, possibly even before it was delivered to its first owner. The replacement panel mounted differently from an original and had been heavily leaded to fit, he said, so that was corrected when the rest of the bodywork was done. Similarly, a recurring rust spot atop the left fender was eliminated when new metal was pieced in and the area was sealed.

Kelsey-Hayes
Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels were an option on Chryslers in 1954.

Before painting it, though,Wegrzynowicz removed the interior trim to reveal the original burgundy. During the car’s first restoration, that was felt to be too dark and a brighter red replaced it, but when he repainted it, he split the difference and used a 1996 Dodge red. Over two years, it was wet-sanded four times before it was finally clear-coated.

Some Component Problems

There was more to be done, though, because of the age of the first restoration and at least partly because the car had been driven. The generator was rebuilt after failing on the road and the fuel system experienced its share of problems after a drive in a downpour forced water under the filler cap—mounted low on the body behind the rear bumper—and into the tank. The starter was rebuilt, the engine compartment and frame were detailed and the Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels received the help they needed.

“I had to true them up,” Wegrzynowicz said. “The spokes were loose. I have the tire machine and we were balancing them. I said ‘wow!’ I took the tires off and got in there. I made a wrench because they take a special wrench.It’s just tedious. All of them are trued, balanced up nice.”

Then there were the problems lying somewhere between annoyance and aggravation, such as the hard starting and the running that was just slightly off. The engine finally quit on an Interstate highway after seeming to have run out of gas, but the cause turned out to be a weak coil, something Wegrzynowicz agreed happens so rarely that it’s often overlooked.

“Exactly,”he said.“When You Pull The wire off to check, there’s a spark, but how hot is the spark? So, we gave it a new coil and we fired it up. It ran like a bear.”

Before that, it was the carburetor that caused some head scratching as the car would start once and then either stall or fail to start laterin the day. Wegrzynowicz recalled the simple solution that presented itself after he watched the car refuse to start.

“We’re in the garage and he’s cranking on the car,” he said. “I’m looking—he’d said to put some gas down the carb— and the choke is open. I closed the choke and the car fired up. We brought it up here and the choke was snapped all the way closed. I pulled the side cover off, turned the spring around, put it back in. The choke closes now and when it gets hot, it opens.”

“Do you know what the amazing thing is?” asked Tompkins. “That carburetor was brand-new when we put it on there.”

Wegrzynowicz was able to straighten out another oddity that he discovered after he had removed the distributor to detail it for show.

“He was standing there looking at it,” Tompkins explained, “and he said ‘we’ve got a problem here.’ He had it in the vise and he said ‘look at this.’ Down at the bottom, it was bent for all of those years, even before I got the car. Somebody must’ve jammed it in there, and that’s almost impossible. When they go, they break at the bottom or bind right up.”

Combining parts of two distributors was the solution, but the Chrysler also developed brake problems which—although certainly more exciting and potentially more dangerous—were relatively easy to identify and correct. Wegrzynowicz explained that leaking silicone brake fluid ended up on the shoes.

“You’d hit the brakes and they worked great,” he said. “You’d hit the brakes again and nothing. It would just go and go and go. No matter how hard you pushed that pedal, it just kept going and going. I took them all apart and they were all gooey. I cleaned them and put it back together.”

New brake shoes and wheel cylinders all around eliminated that and Wegrzynowicz said the Chrysler is now ready for any trip.

“I would get in that car,” he said, “and drive it to California.”

A True Mountain Climber

Whether sixes or eights, postwar Chryslers are generally acknowledged to be great cars for long trips on the open road, but the flathead sixes and eights are often mildly criticized for a lack of performance. While they don’t compare to the Hemi, these are not cars that struggle to keep up with traffic. Tompkins knows that from his various trips, especially the most recent one to Detroit.

“We were going over the top of the Allegheny Mountains,” he recalled, “and my wife and I were just sitting there talking. Then my daughter-in-law said ‘you’re going 75 miles an hour.’”

It Gets Back to Basics

It’s not a car that’s quickly identified and combining that fact with its color explains the reactions from others who see it on the road.

“They become owls,” Wegrzynowicz observed. “You’ll be hearing a lot of cracking from their necks.”

A coupe like the feature car won’t be easy to find, but sedans are relatively plentiful and should be less expensive. Either way, a 1953 or 1954 Chrysler can be a good choice for the less-experienced restorer because of its design. Wegrzynowicz said that the rust in Tompkins’ car was typical and gave the obvious caution against starting with an extremely rusty example.

“Other than that,” he said, “the car is very easy to put together. It’s all simple brakes, there’s simple ignition, simple wiring, there’s nothing complex. All the bodywork is straight metal and it’s really easy to do. The side glass is all straight, so you can get glass made. You can get all the seals, the firewall seals, the gaskets and pedals, everything.”

Trim can present a challenge, so finding the most complete project possible is more critical with one of these Chryslers than it might be with many other cars. Wegrzynowicz said that coming up with interior and dash trim would probably be less difficult than trying to replace missing exterior trim. Tompkins described one small part as an example.

“On the front grille,” he explained, “there’s a little bit of a piece dead center. The New Yorker has ‘New Yorker’ on it; the Imperial has‘Imperial.’ That has three diamonds. It can’t be found.”

The odds are good, unfortunately, that an unrestored caris going to need that part.

The
The 1954 Windsor gives not even a hint that tailfins were about to appear. Starting small a year later, they would grow quickly during their short lifetime.

Flatheads Forever

Thanks to its straightforward flathead six, the Windsor is a far better choice for the inexperienced or budget-minded restorer than the Hemi-powered New Yorker or Imperial.

Major work on a Hemi will be costly in both parts and labor while whatever the flathead six needs should be affordable. The six has another advantage in that flatheads in general and Chrysler flatheads in particular are not rare. Complete engines can be found and for someone who wants to learn, there’s no shortage of information or expertise.

The FirePower V-8 will pin the driver to the seat under acceleration without even breathing hard. The Spitfire six will not, but in proper tune, it’s a smooth, quiet engine whose performance is adequate, to say the least. “Hemi” is a magical word and rightly so, but the Spitfire six can baffle casual observers.

“They’ll say ‘is that a V-8?’” Tompkins explained. “I’ll say ‘no, V-8s are wider with cylinders on both sides and this has the six plugs on the top. It’s a flat six.’”

Among those who know, the reactions are different. Tompkins recalled talking about his car in Detroit with some older Chrysler workers and engineers to whom he made a vague remark about swapping out the six for a V-8.

“One guy got up,”Tompkins said, “an old-timer, and I thought he was going to kill me. He said ‘don’t you ever.’”