Sunken Treasure: The Chrysler Norseman


Story By Matt Stone • Photos Courtesy Chrysler

Today, people mostly refer to them as concept cars. Others know them as those one-off dream machines, mock-ups, and design studies intended to dazzle at auto shows, hint at soon-to-be-released vehicles and automotive design languages, and even gauge how the public and media will react to such new ideas.

Virgil M. Exner Sr. had a different name for them. He called them Idea Cars because, in his mind, the power of good ideas was everything. He began his career as an advertising illustrator. As a young design phenom and protégé of GM design boss Harley Earl, Exner ran the Pontiac styling department before leaving to join Raymond Loewy and Associates in 1938, where he worked primarily on Studebaker projects.

Exner was dismissed by Loewy in 1944, only to join Studebaker directly. Even though Loewy gets most of the credit for Studebaker’s fresh postwar designs, much of that effort should be more correctly attributed to Exner. Exner left Studebaker in 1949 to join Chrysler’s design studio, ultimately to become Chrysler’s styling chief and a member of the board.

Exner rightly assessed that Chrysler’s early postwar cars were staid and boxy, so he went to work revolutionizing their look to be more in step with the Jet Age. He was immediately successful, as his new Forward Look designs were sexy and exciting, and sales improved dramatically.

Ex, as he was affectionately nicknamed, respected the great work being done by so many of Italy’s design houses and automotive bodybuilders, and soon established a friendship and business relationship with one of the best: Luigi Segre, who ran Ghia in Turin, Italy. Exner saw the value of a relationship with an Italian carrozzeria who could turn out high-quality one-offs in relatively little time and at affordable costs. A decade-plus-long parade of Idea Cars soon followed that enthused the public, the media, and Chrysler management.

In an internally published catalog about idea cars, Chrysler stated that these vehicles had to be more than just show cars. That meant they couldn’t be models simply wearing special paint and upholstery. At the same time, they could be impractical dream cars. They had to have completely new bodies that would interest and even startle the casual observer. They had to feature new, practical, usable ideas in styling and passenger accommodation.

Once their days as dazzling turntable toys are over, some concept cars spend a quiet retirement in the carmaker’s museum or heritage collection. Over the years, many have been appropriated by design studio chiefs or other corporate executives for use as personal transport. Others have been disassembled and their parts reused in the creation of other concept cars. Far too many have been cut into pieces or crushed whole and destroyed.

The Norseman’s nearly pillarless front windshield gave a clear view of the road ahead while making the car appear light.

The Norseman’s nearly pillarless front windshield gave a clear view of the road ahead while making the car appear light.

Like Luca Brasi of “The Godfather,”one of Exner’s Jet Age concepts–the 1956 Chrysler Norseman–now sleeps with the fishes. The Norseman’s principle design innovation was a roof section that was cantilevered from the rear and appeared to float over the front half of the car without any conventional windshield pillars.

Exner’s main goal with this design was to make the car appear visually lighter while also improving the driver’s forward visibility. In place of the traditional, thick A-pillars, the Norseman employed chromed steel rods at the corners of the windshield to help hold up the roof and support the glass.

The Norseman was a good-looking car, combining a sweeping fastback rearend design and Chrysler’s own take on a tailfin and bumper treatment. It also employed hideaway headlamps and a finely detailed chrome grille. Its cabin design was elegant and filled with chrome and other luxury detailing, including large, thickly upholstered front bucket seats with a wide, padded center console.

As with most of Chrysler’s Idea Cars, Exner and Ghia tag-teamed the Norseman. The car was built in Turin during the first half of 1956 and completed in the early summer. On July 17, it was loaded aboard the Italian luxury cruise liner Andrea Doria, which was preparing to embark for New York. The Norseman, being more than a mere automobile, was specially crated and carefully packed into the Doria’s No. 2 cargo hold to ensure it made the 4000-mile journey to America safely.

Sadly, the Norseman never got to strut its stuff and show its innovative design features to the world on the 1957 show car circuit. In one of the worst civilian maritime disasters ever, the elegant Andrea Doria, sailing just off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, and only a few hours from safe harbor in New York, was struck broadside by the SS Stockholm, a passenger liner of Swedish registry. The time: around 11 o’clock on the evening of July 25.

The gravely wounded Doria took on water and began listing immediately, but it somehow stayed afloat well into the next morning. Then, with her nose fully submerged, she pointed her tail toward the sky and began a tragic dive toward the ocean bottom–with the Chrysler Norseman aboard.

The injured Stockholm remained afloat. Even though her ride height had dropped several feet due to the damage to her bow, she was able to assist in rescuing passengers from the Andrea Doria. Miraculously, she steamed into New York Harbor under her own power.

Naturally, there were numerous inquests as to how this tragedy could have taken place. Conditions were dark and foggy during the collision, and it’s likely that both ships were traveling slightly too fast. It’s also generally accepted that various crewmembers failed to properly read the radar signals showing the other ship’s location and direction of travel. Five people aboard the Stockholm died, and approximately 46 Doria passengers and crewmembers also perished.

Strange though it may sound, the Norseman’s fate was in some ways better than what awaited it in the United States. Chrysler’s plan for the car was to tour the 1957 auto show circuit. Then, in order to test the structural rigidity of its unusual roof design, it was scheduled to be crashed at the Chrysler Proving Grounds. The Norseman would have surely impressed showgoers, but now it’s part of a greater, more historic story.

Chicago native Joe Bortz has purchased, rescued and restored many of Detroit’s most famous concept cars, including some that have been cut into many pieces and long thought destroyed. One of the world’s experts in the area of factory design studies and concept cars, Bortz knew of the Norseman and its unfortunate fate. He wondered, given today’s advanced industrial diving techniques, if the car could be located within the ship, extracted, brought to the surface, and restored.

After some research, Bortz met an industrial diver who claimed he could do the job. He pursued more information and spoke with scientists qualified to assess what the car’s condition might be after more than 50 years underwater. Unfortunately, Bortz and company concluded that the ravages of time, pressure, and the corrosive nature of salt water would have reduced the hapless Norseman to little more than rusty sludge.

According to a Hemmings Motor News article, in the mid-1990s a leading underwater researcher and explorer named David Bright wrote on his website about finding the remains of the car.

“While looking for a lost diver, I had an opportunity to see the Norseman for myself in the cargo hold,” he wrote. “Normally, all passenger cars were placed in the garage section of the Andrea Doria that is slightly aft of the collision point where the Stockholm impaled the Doria, underneath the bow wing bridge. These cars would have been placed onto the Doria by use of a crane and meticulously parked in the garage and arranged strategically for stability. However, the Norseman was no passenger vehicle, and was specially packed and treated with extra care. The Norseman was put into a wooden crate and placed in the No. 2 cargo area.

“The crate had disintegrated and the car was in very, very poor condition. The ocean’s salt water invaded the Norseman’s metal and most of the car is rust, corrosion and a heap of indistinguishable junk.”

Thus, the Chrysler Norseman rests aboard the Andrea Doria, which lies on her starboard side off the cost of Nantucket, some 250 feet below the ocean’s surface. We don’t expect to ever see this one on the grounds at Amelia Island.

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