Pages From The Past: Dodge Sets The Pace

This month’s DodgeGarage Pages from the Past reminds us of the fifth time a Chrysler Corporation vehicle paced America’s greatest race: the legendary Indy 500. The year was 1954 and a bright yellow Dodge Royal two-door convertible did the job. But before we examine the magazine ad and the car’s history, let’s explore Chrysler’s ill-fated effort to make its HEMI® engine family an Indy 500 contender.

The Chrysler HEMI engine’s near brush with Indy success came as the result of the American Automobile Association (AAA) Contest Board’s late 1951 decision to allow Detroit-built “stock block” V8s a chance to show their stuff next to the long-dominating Offenhauser four-cylinder race engines that held a lock on Indy 500 victory since 1946. If you didn’t know, the AAA Contest Board – sort of like what the NFL and NBA are to football and basketball – was the governing body responsible for making and enforcing Indy 500 rules. The AAA Contest Board wielded exceptional power.

Hoping to reduce the cost of racing (where have we all heard that one before?) and encourage lucrative sponsorship campaigns from the deep pockets of auto manufacturers, the AAA decision-makers decided to allow Detroit’s new crop of post-WWII overhead valve (OHV) V8s a chance to race against the highly developed dual-overhead cam (DOHC), 270-cubic-inch Offy four-cylinder. It was like sending a high school wrestling champ into the ring against Bill Goldberg. But again, the cost of a single Offy was a bank breaker to all but the most well-funded race teams, so maybe allowing cheaper V8s might encourage more contestants.

To give the production-based Detroit V8s an advantage, the AAA Contest Board initially said it would allow them an extra liter (about 65 cubic inches) of piston displacement. So while the established Offy four bangers measured 270 cubic inches, the Detroit V8s could run at up to 335 cubic inches. Initially, Studebaker and Chrysler took the bait and began development programs for their regular production line V8 engines.

Studebaker went all out with a variant of its brand-new OHV V8 – but fitted with exotic prototype DOHC cylinder heads designed by racer Willie Utzman that mimicked the Offy’s design. Chrysler, having just unleashed the aircraft-inspired hemispherical combustion chamber onto the automotive landscape in 1951, left well enough alone – but added Hilborn mechanical fuel injection to the Firepower HEMI engine.

During this 1952 Indy HEMI engine development program (known internally as the A311), Chrysler learned that by adjusting the length of the port inlet tubes and the shapes of their entries, a form of mild supercharging was obtained. Thus began Chrysler’s interest in “ram tuning”, which later yielded legends like the 1960 – 1964 long-ram, 1962 – 1964 Max Wedge and 1964 – 1968 Race HEMI cross ram tuned induction tracts, not to mention the first time a “forest of Hilborn ram tubes” sprouted up from the valley between a HEMI engine’s broad rocker covers.

Though Studebaker’s effort was plagued by crankshaft failures, Chrysler’s A311 Firepower HEMI engine – fully developed in-house by Chrysler engineers with aid from California fuel injection pioneer Stuart Hilborn – was a smashing success. With the stock 331 cubic inches, test engines developed over 400 horsepower on alcohol at a mellow 5,200 rpm. Chrysler’s dynamometer rooms were kept busy and the new Indy HEMI engine was verified as being fully reliable for one hundred hours in simulated race conditions. This performance level was fully competitive with the best Offy engines of the day.

To prove the point, Chrysler installed a fresh Hilborn injected Indy 331 HEMI engine in a Kurtis roadster driven by racer Joe Sostillo then invited the AAA Contest Board to witness the demonstration on the Indy Speedway during the 1952 off-season. Sostillo lapped the Speedway at 137 mph (averaging 134.35 mph for 500 miles with pit stops for fuel and tires calculated into the figure). It was good. It was too good.

In the first of many instances of “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Outlaw ‘Em”, the AAA Contest Board knew the HEMI engine-equipped Kurtis test car was fully capable of upsetting the long established Offenhauser domination of Indy (known as The Offy Grip). Naturally, this could render millions of dollars worth of existing race equipment obsolete. So to “level the playing field”, they quickly withdrew the one-liter displacement “gift” for Detroit V8 entries. Suddenly, Detroit V8s had to displace the same 270 inches as the existing Offy fours. This dropped the Indy HEMI engine from 331 to the same 270 cubes as the Offy.

Chrysler hurried back to the drawing board and built several reduced-stroke Firepower HEMI engines with 270 cubic inches but discovered that the 61-cube reduction cut power to 350. Regardless, for the 1953 Indy 500, Chrysler supplied ten of these 270-cube mini-HEMI engines to the Wolcott and Belanger race teams with high hopes for success.

Unfortunately, during qualifying sessions for the big Indy 500 event, the smaller 270-cube displacement reduced torque output and the Offy powered competition consistently pulled ahead when exiting Indy’s banked corners. The Chrysler HEMI engine race teams failed to qualify and retired before the green flag waved.

But even though Chrysler pulled out of the Indy 500 action after 1953, Dodge saw fit to accept the AAA’s invitation to serve as the Pace Car for the 1954 race season. The year 1954 was also Dodge Division’s 40th anniversary so the extra attention was appreciated despite the AAA’s cruelty in recent years. Chrysler Corporation’s HEMI engine message was still valid since Dodge adopted the mighty “dome head” Red Ram V8 for the 1953 model year, following the 1952 DeSoto Firedome and 1951 Chrysler Firepower (Plymouth wouldn’t get a HEMI variant until 1964 … but that’s another story).

The 1953 241-cubic-inch Dodge Red Ram was smaller than the 276-cubic-inch DeSoto and 331-cubic-inch Chrysler (and shared virtually zero parts) but the magic of its over-sized, laterally opposed valves and free-breathing intake and exhaust ports gave it the same HEMI engine advantage as its larger cousins. The result was 150 horsepower, a full 47 horsepower more than the antiquated 230-cubic-inch flathead six’s 103 horsepower of the same year.

The 241-cube Red Ram HEMI engine remained at 150 horsepower for 1954 with the exception of the Indy Pace Cars. In its first-ever use of a four-barrel carburetor, each of the 701 Pace Car replicas – dubbed the Royal 500 model in honor of the race distance – got an aluminum single four-barrel intake manifold as part of the $201 “Royal 500” package, which also included dual exhaust, special black and yellow two-tone paint and interior effects, an externally mounted “Continental-style” spare tire and gorgeous Kelsey Hayes chromed wire spoke rims mounting 7.10-15 wide whitewall tires.

The aluminum four-barrel intake manifold has an – ironic origin. Since Chrysler Corporation’s cast iron foundry suppliers didn’t have an available four-barrel intake manifold ready until 1955, every one of the 701 Royal 500 intake manifolds came from … Offenhauser; the same name attached to the Offy engine dynasty that snubbed Chrysler’s 1952 – 1953 HEMI engine program. But don’t make the mistake of assuming Offenhauser was simultaneously in the business of making Indy 500 race engines and HEMI engine speed parts.

The four-cylinder Offy 270 race engine was an outgrowth of a DOHC, four-cylinder racing engine originally designed in 1930 by partners Harry Miller and Fred H. Offenhauser in California. By 1933, this business was bankrupt but the assets and key employees (mainly design genius Leo Goossen) lived on and grew from strength to strength producing some of the winningest race engines of all time.

But this is not the same Offenhauser as the outfit that supplied manifolds to Dodge in 1954. That company was founded in 1946 by the nephew of Fred H. Offenhauser, who was named Fred C. Offenhauser. This newer Offenhauser was rooted in making speed equipment for engines of many makes and was (and continues to be) known as Offenhauser Sales Corporation. So the two Offenhauser shops were related – but not the same thing. One was the maker of exotic racing engines, the other a maker of bolt-on speed equipment for hot rodders – and Dodge Division of Chrysler Corporation. Fifteen years later, another California speed merchant – Edelbrock – would supply Six Pack manifolds for use on 1969 – 1970 440 and 1970 340 Dodge and Plymouth triple-carb muscle engines.

Getting back to this classic magazine ad for the then-new 1954 Royal 500, the driver depicted is Dodge Division then-President William C. Newberg (the modern-day equivalent is Tim Kuniskis, the hero auto exec who revived Dodge with the Brotherhood of Muscle and the successful emphasis on all things hemispherical) and race legend Wilbur Shaw who at the time (1954) owned the Indy 500 Speedway race complex. Newberg drove the Royal 500 Pace Car (also known as the “pacesetter”) on race day, May 31, 1954. Ironically, Shaw would be killed in an airplane crash on October 30, 1954, the day before his 52nd birthday. And in another twist of Indy 500 trivia, the very first Chrysler-supplied Indy Pace Car (a 1926 Imperial Model 80) was driven by a well-established race driver by the name of … Louis Chevrolet! Louis and his brothers, Gaston and Arthur, were all involved in the automotive industry, including being on the ground floor for the creation of a certain car maker that bears the family name to this day.

Dodge built 150,930 passenger cars in 1954, of which just about 2,500 were sleek convertibles. Of them, just 701 were Royal 500 Indy Pacesetters like the one featured in this Page from the Past. To add some context, we’ve included some pictures of an exciting Junkyard Crawl discovery at Wildcat Auto Wrecking from January 2018. Feast your eyes.

Vintage Dodge advertisement
Fully understanding the power of mass media, Dodge invested heavily in sponsoring weekly TV and radio shows such as Danny Thomas’ “Make Room for Daddy” sitcom (one of the first to use the three-camera method) and Bert Parks’ “Break the Bank” audience quiz show on ABC-TV and singing cowboy Roy Rogers’ half-hour radio broadcast on NBC.
Vintage Dodge vehicle
Still wearing its two-tone Pace Car Yellow and Jewell Black paint scheme, this Royal 500 once helped light the fuse on Dodge’s performance image. The chromed horizontal hood ornament was new for ’54 and fed cool, dense outside air to the engine bay. Dodge’s first Air Catcher!
Engine in an old car
Here it is, Dodge’s first-ever V8 with a four-barrel and dual exhaust. Not offered on any other Dodge model in 1954, the engine breathing enhancements bumped output from 150 to about 180 horsepower versus the two-barrel and single exhaust used on all other Red Ram HEMI engines in 1954. 1955 brought the normalization of four-barrel carburetors, albeit mounted atop hefty cast iron manifolds.
Intake manifold in an old car
The extremely rare aluminum intake manifold and early Carter four-barrel carburetor mark Dodge’s entry into the performance car marketplace. Never again would a regular production Dodge V8 wear an aluminum single four-barrel intake manifold. Though later top-tier long ram, cross ram and (most) Six Pack manifolds would be aluminum, base-level single four-barrel manifolds would be made of cast iron. Even the mighty 1955 Chrysler C300 tandem dual quad manifold was rendered in cast iron