Minichamps 1956 Chrysler Norse­man

A Stun­ning De­sign Study Lost to the Deep

Die Cast X - - OUT OF THE BOX -

The story starts—as vir­tu­ally all Chrysler con­cept cars of the 1950s did—with the ge­nius of Vir­gil Exner and his pro­lific part­ner­ship with the famed coach­works out of Turin, Italy: Car­rozze­ria Ghia. Exner’s stu­dio in Detroit drew up the de­sign for the car, which fea­tured a dra­matic can­tilevered roof. As­sis­tant man­ager Wil­liam Brown­lie came up with the idea of de­sign­ing the car with­out A-pil­lars. Exner and oth­ers wor­ried that it would not pro­vide suf­fi­cient pas­sen­ger pro­tec­tion in the event that the car rolled in an ac­ci­dent. The so­lu­tion was to put the roof panel un­der ten­sion.

The fast­back roof was shaped to nat­u­rally ex­ert force up­ward to straighten it­self out, but a se­ries of thin steel rods in front—near where the A-pil­lars would have been—pro­vided re­sis­tance, hold­ing the roof down rather than up. In the event of a crash that caused any down­ward pres­sure on the roof, the rods would snap and the roof panel would flex up­ward, pre­vent­ing it from col­laps­ing. De­sign­ers boasted that the roof could sup­port up to eight times the car’s own weight, but trag­i­cally that claim would never have the chance to be tested.

Exner’s group drew up the plans and draw­ings, and made clay styling mod­els of it. Then they shipped the ma­te­ri­als and info for the Norse­man to Ghia for most of the fab­ri­ca­tion and assem­bly, as they had with so many other con­cept cars pre­vi­ously. The car was to be built for the com­ing show sea­son, and plans were made to tour the Norse­man around to all the ma­jor auto shows. As with most of the pre­vi­ous Ghia-built con­cepts, the Norse­man was fully func­tional, built on a 1955 chas­sis with

stock tor­sion-bar/

Even with­out one of the most in­trigu­ing back­sto­ries of any one-off show car, the 1956 Chrysler Norse­man would likely be leg­endary for its bold, beau­ti­ful shape and unique roofline. But the fact that it dis­ap­peared be­fore any but a tiny group of its creators ever got to see it adds a level of drama and mys­tery that makes it ab­so­lutely ir­re­sistible.

leaf-spring sus­pen­sion and a 235hp 331ci Hemi for power. Be­tween the de­sign crew and Ghia’s crafts­men, an es­ti­mated 50,000 man-hours went into the project, and it cost Chrysler $200,000 in 1956 dol­lars (the equiv­a­lent of about $1.9 mil­lion to­day!). When Ghia was fin­ished, they snapped a few pho­tos for pos­ter­ity and then loaded it onto a ship bound for New York—the SS An­drea Do­ria— a name that would be­come far more fa­mous than the show car she car­ried (see side­bar).

The Norse­man was lost be­fore Exner or any of his stylists ever ac­tu­ally laid eyes on their cre­ation. The only peo­ple to see it were the Ghia team and the load­ers at the docks. The hand­ful of black-and-white pho­tos are all the ev­i­dence of it that re­mains. No color pho­tos were taken, so even the color of the car is some­thing of a mys­tery. It lies in the spec­trum some­where be­tween sil­ver and green, but the ex­act shade is lost to his­tory. Minichamps’ cho­sen hue is as ac­cu­rate an es­ti­ma­tion as can be made based on de­scrip­tions, and it’s a beau­ti­ful color that com­ple­ments the car’s lines per­fectly. The car had an alu­minum roof in­sert painted off-white, and the rear win­dow fea­tured a power re­tract­ing mech­a­nism, which al­lowed it to slide up un­der the in­sert panel. The fast­back shape bears more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to the first Dodge Charger, which de­buted a decade later in 1966. The for­ward-lean­ing wheel arches re­sem­ble those of the ’57 Chevy Bel Air but pre­date that car by more than a year. Power- op­er­ated head­lights hid­den in the lead­ing edges of the fend­ers kept the front fas­cia clean and clut­ter­free. The ver­ti­cal tail fin/light hous­ings sug­gest some of the jet-in­spired de­signs hap­pen­ing over at Gen­eral Mo­tors at the time, while the deeply slop­ing rear deck, which comes nearly to a point at the bumper, evokes some pre­war Euro­pean grand tour­ers. All in all, it’s a stun­ning ma­chine, and Minichamps’ ren­di­tion is equally so.

Only a cou­ple pho­tos of the Norse­man in­te­rior sur­vive to­day, but the model is faith­ful to them. This is a sealed resin replica, but the driver’s side win­dows are down, pro­vid­ing an ex­cel­lent view of the in­te­rior.

The Norse­man was laid out as a 2+2, so there are bucket seats sep­a­rated by con­soles front and rear; the fronts were power ad­justable and swiveled out­ward like some high-end Chrysler mod­els had. In­ter­est­ingly, the de­sign team in­cluded seat­belts front and rear, long be­fore such items were man­dated, and these are de­picted on the model with fab­ric belts and etched-metal buckles. A con­sole-mounted gear lever op­er­ated the 2-speed Pow­erFlite au­to­matic, but be­cause the hood doesn’t open, it and the 331 Hemi are left to the imag­i­na­tion. The wheels and tires are white­walls with vented chrome wheel cov­ers—at­trac­tive but fairly con­ven­tional. There is no chas­sis de­tail, but since Exner equipped the Norse­man with an aero­dy­nam­ics-en­hanc­ing un­der­body cover, it’s doubt­ful you would have seen more on the real thing.

FI­NAL THOUGHTS

The bizarre and sen­sa­tional ill-fated end to the Norse­man story en­hances the drama and the ap­peal, but this car—and this model—are tremen­dously ap­peal­ing in their own right.

As has be­come tra­di­tion for its up­scale resin 1:18 mod­els, Minichamps de­liv­ers its Chrysler Norse­man with a first-class pre­sen­ta­tion: a dec­o­ra­tive plinth with a cob­ble­stone mo­tif and a metal plaque in­scribed with the car’s name and se­ries pro­duc­tion num­ber. All that is con­tained within a dis­play box dec­o­rated with a photo and the his­tory of the car on the in­side lid. There’s no ques­tion Minichamps has a keen sense of what col­lec­tors look for in a pre­mium lim­ited-edi­tion car, and this model has it. If you have any in­ter­est in 1950s’ Amer­i­cana, Chrysler, or Vir­gil Exner, the Norse­man should be on your wish list.

EVEN WITH­OUT ONE OF THE MOST IN­TRIGU­ING BACK­STO­RIES OF ANY ONE-OFF SHOW CAR, THE 1956 CHRYSLER NORSE­MAN WOULD LIKELY BE LEG­ENDARY FOR ITS BOLD, BEAU­TI­FUL SHAPE AND UNIQUE ROOFLINE.

By far, the most strik­ing styling el­e­ment on the Norse­man is the dra­matic can­tilevered roof and sweep­ing fast­back. Minichamps de­picts both beau­ti­fully.

The dec­o­ra­tive dis­play box the Norse­man ar­rives in houses a plinth with a cob­ble­stone mo­tif and text ex­plain­ing the car’s his­tory and tragic fate. It’s a first-class pre­sen­ta­tion.

The driver’s side win­dows are down, giv­ing an ex­cel­lent view of the de­tailed 2+2 in­te­rior, which fea­tures fab­ric repli­cas of the seat­belts—a unique safety item in 1956. Note also the ab­sence of A-pil­lars; the car used tiny ten­sion rods in­stead.

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