The 1956 Chrysler Norseman Show Car

Andrea just sunkOn the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean lies the wreck of a magnificent ocean liner with some precious automotive cargo still inside.  The ship was struck at night while on her way to New York and sank with loss of life.

This vessel is not the Titanic, but rather the Andrea Doria, pride of the Italian LineShe sank on July 26, 1956, after a collision with the MS Stockholm the night before.  At 160 feet down you could touch her hull; at 240 you can touch mud.

Somewhere in a cargo hold is a show car that never made it to America for display.  It is a 1956 Chrysler Norseman, or rather the 1956 Chrysler Norseman, as only one was ever made.  And more amazingly, both the Andrea Doria and the Norseman began their lives in 1953, then sank together three years later.

fullscreen-capture-2212017-85508-am-bmpBut what also makes this story fascinating to me is the Norseman’s connection to our old blog, Car Lust.  It seems that the Norseman was designed by none other than Virgil Exner, father of fellow contributor Virgil Exner, Jr.

And perhaps Mr. Exner, Jr. (From now on referred to as Mr. Exner) should receive credit as co-contributor of this post, as he guided my attempts at describing this amazing show car.  When the resources could not answer a question about the Norseman, Mr. Exner was there.

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I like show cars that are as close to a production vehicle as possible.  But I’m especially fond when the designers and builders push styling and technical stuff out just a bit past production models, to add imagination and interest.  And that’s where the Norseman shines.

This car looked like it could have entered production the next day, as it didn’t have protruding aluminum wings, a plexiglass bubble roof, or spinning turbine blades.  It was… a car.

norseman-body-buckBut it wasn’t a typical American lead sled of the time either.  Here’s the wooden body buck used to bend the panels over.  Long and low and sleek, the fastback Norseman looked like an early 1960s car, not one from a decade before.  The car’s name is said to have come from the Exners’ Norwegian descent, and Ghia’s Italian craftsmanship is unmatched.  I can’t help but wonder whatever happened to that buck… maybe it’s in storage somewhere, waiting to be found.

Norseman frontAs mentioned, work commenced on the Norseman in 1953 as its design was finalized.  The Ghia team spent 50,000 man-hours and approximately $200,000 to build the car.  The work continued until it was finished, then the car was crated for the voyage to New York and loaded deep into the ship.

And most tragically, the American team that designed the Norseman never got to see it.

norseman-a-pillar-detailIts most prominent design elements were the pillarless wraparound windshield, cantilevered roof, and lack of door vent windows (Again at least a decade ahead of its time.  The earliest modern car without vent windows I can name is a ’68 Camaro.).  But would the advance of visibility make the car less safe if it went bottoms-up?  Hardly!

Mr. Exner sent me a copy of a 1994 letter in which he had written: “Father had explained its cantilevered roof looked pillarless, but was actually held in tension at the “A” pillars by two 1/4″ diameter steel rods which, in theory, were designed to “snap” in a roll-over situation and allow the roof to spring upward.”  So the rods weren’t holding the top up, but rather holding it down?  I think the word “brilliant” barely begins to describe the thinking here.

Norseman colorLike the Titanic, very few pictures were made of the completed Norseman because it needed to skee-daddle on across The Big Pond.  After all, it was going to a car show circuit… lots of pictures would be taken of it by the press and public then, right?

No color photos of the car are known to exist.  Even the car’s true hues are open to speculation by some.  Again, Mr. Exner informed me that the car was a light metallic green, a bit lighter than this scale model, and it had a silver roof.

The lack of photos even caused speculation whether an engine was fitted in Italy, or was there one waiting for it here?  But Mr. Exner provided paperwork that shows a 331.1 cubic inch V-8 Hemi with 235 horsepower, connected to a PowerFlite automatic, was in the car before it left the Tuscan shores.

Norseman 4 19 12Built by Ghia a year after they built the Lincoln Futura (Which as we all know, later became TV’s Batmobile), the Norseman was 227.5 inches long, 82 inches wide, and 56 inches tall. It had a 129-inch wheelbase.  For a comparison, a 2012 Honda Accord 4-door is 32.6 inches shorter, 9.3 inches narrower, 2.1 inches taller; the Honda’s wheelbase is 18.8 inches on the wee side.

I think the Norseman’s styling was about 10 years ahead of its time (Again, having been styled in 1953); to me, it looks like an early, sleeker 1960s car rather than a typical frumpy, bloated ’50s sedan.  Its smooth sides and horizontal trim suggested aircraft travel, not unlike a 1959 or ’60 Chevrolet… just much better done.

The flip-up headlights were invisible when closed, the tail fins were superbly integrated into its sides, and the wheel openings were nicely exaggerated; thankfully, no fender skirts were tacked on to spoil the effect.

Norseman interior (left)Norseman interior

The Norseman’s interior was as advanced and elegant as the rest of the car, and its rear quarters suggested a BMW 630-635 Series with a prominent console separating the chairs.   The seat belts (2-point lap belts) retracted out of the doors and center consoles; one is visible in the photo of the back seat.  All four seats had their own power controls… special ambient lighting was all around the interior.  Again, this car was way ahead of its time!

Norseman rearIts rear window was power-operated and slid up into the roof.  This was a novel idea at the time, and was later offered on the 1963 Mercury Monterey / Montclair and Ford’s SportTrac, though those windows went down instead of up.

The Rambler Marlin‘s hind quarters are similar to the Norseman.  Was it inspired by the Norseman?  Maybe.  But before the Marlin, it was on AMC’s concept car, the Tarpon, based on the Rambler American.  The Norseman also did not have door handles; a push button was fitted instead.

The Norseman has grabbed my attention and will not let go.  The more I read about and study this car, the more amazed by it I get.  And if I find a kit, a scale model Norseman will grace my shelves some day.

Norseman on Andrea_Doria

This romanticized image of the Norseman being loaded on the ship does not show the car enclosed in a crate, as it truly was.  In fact, that rig looks a little perilous, to be kind.  But it’s a nice image to suggest the day in 1956 when the car was beginning a trip that it would never finish.

When the Andrea Doria sank, Mr. Exner, Sr., was recovering from a heart attack and surgery.  In time, the family carefully told him that his car was lost in the sinking.  But Mr. Exner, Sr., took it in stride.  Mr. Exner told me, “I might add that when mom and I told father about what happened, he smiled broadly and loved the idea that one of his show cars had become part of one of history’s famous ship wrecks.  He was very romantically inclined that way, and followed ship wrecks, the Wild West, Joan of Arc, etc.”

fullscreen-capture-11132016-113455-am-bmpWhat’s left of the Norseman in 2017?  Probably very little.  Sixty-one years of shallow salt water are not good for sheet metal, but glass, leather, rubber, plastics, and thicker metals may still survive.  I have a book about diving on the Andrea Doria, “Deep Descent,” and it seems that china plates, portholes, and photographs are the most popular artifacts brought up from the wreck… nothing was mentioned about finding any pieces of any of the nine cars on board.  And most sadly, recent sonar scans of the wreckage show that the hull is decaying much faster than expected, further trapping the Norseman inside its watery tomb.

However, in 1994, an explorer said he found the car.  A technical diver named David Bright, a veteran visitor to the Andrea Doria wreck, said he saw a “rusted hulk” that was the Norseman.  He said that due to the car’s position in the wreck, it was “almost certain that no-one will ever see it again.”  Mr. Bright died in 2006 from decompression sickness after another deep dive on the ship.

So the Norseman lives on as she was, but only in memories, grainy photographs, models, sketches, and paintings.  We’ll never know the effect it would have had on future cars’ styling, but surely some of its advanced design elements and features would have made their way to production.

norseman-replicaHowever, they say imitation is the highest form of compliment, and there’s a gentleman building a replica of the Norseman.  Marty Martino has the car well under way, so maybe soon his Norseman will travel the show car circuit the original one never had a chance to make.

–Chuck Lynch

Image Credits:  The first Andrea Doria wreck image was found at AndreaDoria.org; the second was from Wikipedia.  The Norseman body buck photo is from Kustomrama.com.  The front view of the finished car is from Wikipedia.  The A-Pillar detail photo was found at BlogSpot.com.  The green Norseman scale model rear image is from OOCities.org; the front scale model image is from PhotographyByBruce@PhotoBucket.  The Norseman’s left interior image is from OmniAuto.it/AWPImages; its right interior image is from DWTAuthor.BlogSpot.com.  The car’s rear view came from Coachbuild.com.  The painting of the Norseman being loaded onto the Andrea Doria is from OceanLinerPaintings.com.  The 2016 sonar image of the Andrea Doria is from BathyMetricResearch.com.  And the Norseman replica photo is from KustomRama.com.

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