Shipwrecked: The Story of the Chrysler Norseman
I DON’T OWN MY TV
Let me make that clear. I actually own the TV set, but I don’t have any control over it. That authority belongs to my wife. She is the master of the DVR, and every day, she loads more and more of her shows on it. Each night, she spends a couple of hours staying current on her shows. I don’t mind, as I seldom find much stuff to watch on prime time anyway. While we can spend time together, I’ll sometimes watch her shows with her for a very short time, and she usually sends me out of the room because I’m critiquing the absurd story lines or making fun of the characters.
When I get exiled from the living room, I either go out to the garage and tinker on the hot rods or grab something to read. On one particular night last week, the garage was too cold to paint the parts I was working on. I went back into the house to my mini-library of all of my car books and picked out one on Concept Cars. I had read this particular book many times before. Yet there’s one car in that book that has always intrigued the heck out of me.
It’s the 1956 Chrysler Norseman. If you’re familiar with this car, it was the mysterious show car that was on the ill-fated SS Andrea Doria when it sank off the coast of Massachusetts in July of 1956. I’m an information junkie, so I set off to find out more about this car. I have to admit, I was not expecting what I learned about the story behind this shipwreck and the sad fate of that beautiful car.
THE CHRYSLER NORSEMAN PROJECT BEGINS
At the time, Chrysler was collaborating on other concept projects with the Italian styling house Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin. Chrysler had come to rely on its Italian connections because their executives liked the quality of the work, and found the cost (starting at just $10,000 per car) to be ridiculously low. Chrysler wanted a fully drive-able vehicle, not just a rolling mock-up.
They started with a modified 1955 Chrysler 300 chassis with an “advanced suspension” of front torsion bars and rear leaf springs. The wheelbase was stretched from 126 to 129 inches, and the chassis had a full belly pan to reduce resistance under the car. It was powered by a modified 331 cubic inch Hemi making 235 horsepower and a Powerflite automatic transmission.
A DESIGN AHEAD OF IT’S TIME
It was on the interior and the exterior where the designers went radical. The Bill Brownlee-designed body of the Norseman was hammered and rolled out of sheet aluminum. The nose was sharply sloped. The angled headlamps were hidden in a clamshell configuration. The full length grille was thin, compared to the larger designs of the day, and was complimented at the ends with pod mounted park lights. There was a full valence panel under the thin bumper. The combination of headlights and grille gave the front end design the appearance of a shark.
A pronounced body line ran from the edges of the headlights all the way back to just before the taillights. Considering the radical nature of the car’s design, the side profile of the car was cleverly simple. Smooth shapes, with no extra body lines. The wheel openings brought some sizzle, with low cut openings and scalloped rear edges similar to the 1954 Buick Skylark. There were no raised door handles. Instead, it had push buttons, similar to the Lincolns of the 1940s.
BRINGING UP THE REAR
The rear of the car had crisp tail fins that resembled some of the other Chrysler/Ghia collaborations of the time. The rear quarter panels tied into the rear body with a pair of elliptical aircraft-inspired nacelles caped with small bumperettes. Inside, the stacked taillights were a tease of what was to come on the 1957 DeSoto. A small bumper with small vertical teeth filled the opening between the nacelles.
THE RADICAL CANTILEVER ROOF
Legendary glassmaker PPG built the heat-treated and shatterproof windshield. Chrysler designers came up with a clever design of attaching the roof under tension with .250” threaded steel rods in place of where the normal A-pillars would be. In theory, they surmised that in an accident, the retainers holding the roof and rods together would shear, releasing the roof from its tension state and springing it upward. Chrysler’s publicists even made a claim that the roof could support eight times the weight of the car, but that number is highly doubtful. The flowing fastback roof shape ran directly though the decklid and ended at the rear bumper. Another styling feature was the brushed aluminum insert in the center of the roof. The 12 square foot rear window could be retracted forward (!) into the roof via an electrical motor.
NOT TO BE OUTDONE
And the cutting edge features of the Norseman did not end at the exterior. The Deo Lewton-designed interior was just as cool. The seating consisted of four power-assisted buckets split by a separate front and rear console.
The seats were covered in light green leather with dark green inserts. Each console had the seat belt reels built in, and the opposite end of the attach mechanism was on the front doors and the rear door panels. Chrysler was incorporating integrated seat belts into a concept car that was nearly 20 years ahead of its time. They also experimented with luminescent paint applied to the backside of the front seats, which glowed in low light.
The instrument cluster pod was mounted in the free space below the padded (!) dash and even had a small writing desk under the glove box on the passenger side that pulled out when needed.
WHAT WAS THE TRUE COLOR OF THE CAR?
Because so few people actually saw this car after completion, there is a controversy concerning the actual color of the car. Chrysler records say that the car was painted in a two tone metallic green with red accents in the wheel opening scallops. Exterior designer Bill Brownlee recalls that Virgil Exner had specified that the car be painted silver, with a red interior and a black accent on the roof. Italian journalists who saw the car before it left Turin reported that it was two shades of blue.
Ghia sent out pictures of the completed car before shipment, and it has the appearance of being just as Chrysler reported, green with a green interior. There were never any color pictures taken of the car, so the controversy has never been completely settled. Many pictures exist of recreated model cars in the green hue, and in my opinion, it looks a lot better than silver or blue.
THE ITALIANS DELIVER A MASTERPIECE
The Ghia team, led by Sergio Coggiola, spent nearly 50,000 man hours and approximately $200,000 to design and build the Norseman. The car spent 15 months at Ghia being constructed entirely from engineering drawings, which have never surfaced. The Norseman was to be the featured attraction of Chrysler’s auto show exhibit for 1957. The Norseman was delivered from Turin to the shipping port in Genoa in mid-July of 1956.
The car was late arriving to the port, and subsequently missed its intended shipment date. Instead, it was put on the next available ship, the passenger ocean liner, the SS Andrea Doria.
This is where the story gets interesting.
BAD WEATHER SETS IN
Everything was going to plan on the trip from Italy to New York. It was the Andrea Doria’s 101st Trans-Atlantic crossing, and it initially seemed as if it would no different from the rest until the night of July 25th. The ocean became heavily blanketed in a fog that prevented the crew from even seeing the other side of the 697 foot long boat. The Captain of the Andrea Doria followed proper protocol by closing the watertight doors, reducing speed, and sounding the fog whistle every 100 seconds.
Crew members on the bridge intently watched the radar, and at 10:30 pm, they spotted a contact 17 miles directly ahead of them.
THE OTHER SHIP
The Stockholm was the name of the ship on the Andrea Doria’s radar screen. It had just left New York and was heading for its home port of Gothenburg, Sweden with 534 passengers and a crew of 215. Knowing he was in the general area of another boat in low visibility, the Captain of the Stockholm also reduced his speed, as well.
Judging from the speed and heading of each boat, the crew of the Stockholm calculated that they ships would pass about a mile apart. The problem was that these calculations were wrong.
They were basing their numbers off of a 15 mile radar scale, but their system was actually selected to a 5 mile scale.
In an attempt to gain more distance between the ships, the Captain of the Stockholm turned his boat to port. The Captain of the Andrea Doria finally got a glimpse of the lights of the Stockholm through the thick fog. And he realized that the Stockholm was heading straight for them. He panicked and ordered a hard left, but it’ was a fatal move. This turn completely exposed the Doria’s side to the sharp bow of the Stockholm. The Stockholm’s throttles were placed in full speed astern in an attempt to scrub off speed. The Captain tried to turn the ship hard to starboard, but it was too late.
The bow of the Stockholm punctures the side of the Andrea Doria at a combined speed of 40 knots. Within 5 minutes, the badly damaged Doria is listing at more than 20 degrees. The ship had been designed with 11 watertight compartments. Constructed that it could remain afloat if any two were breached, the boat was designed to withstand listing of no more than 15 degrees. Unfortunately, the Stockholm had punctured 3 separate sealed compartments and the boat was flooding. The severe listing made deployment from the escape boats on the port side nearly impossible. The 8 lifeboats on the starboard side could only hold a max of 1,004 passengers. The problem was, there were 1,706 passengers on board.
The Andrea Doria was in serious trouble.
THE AMAZING RESCUE
The Captain of the Andrea Doria immediately sends out a distress call requesting lifeboats from any ship in the area. Luckily, the collision has occurred in a heavily traveled corridor. Within an hour and a half, the first assist arrives. Two American navy ships arrive next, but lifeboats still remain scarce. Finally, at around 2 am, the massive French ocean liner, the Ile de France, came alongside with its floodlights and began making rescues with its lifeboats.
The rescue was one of the largest in maritime history, and by 5:30 am, nearly all of the Doria’s survivors have been evacuated. At 10:09 am, the Andrea Doria gave up the fight and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic. Considering the scope of the incident, it was a miracle that only 51 people died as a result of the collision. Five were on the Stockholm, and forty six were on the Doria. The Stockholm was repaired and still sails today under the name Astoria.
THE MOUNT EVEREST OF DIVING
The story of the Andrea Doria did not end when she sank in 1956. Her resting spot is 240 feet below the surface in a silty bed that has become the premier shipwreck dive site in American waters among scuba divers. They refer to it as the “Mount Everest of Diving” due to its poor visibility, torn fishing lines, fishing nets, and dangerously unpredictable currents. These conditions have eerily ensured one thing. After almost 62 years, the Andrea Doria is still claiming lives.
Her resting place on the edge of the continental shelf has become a grave site for at least 16 divers who have lost their lives trying to explore her wreckage. Divers have died in many different ways, from being lost in the ship’s collapsing compartments, torn pressure suits, or falling prey to faulty equipment. Some divers had been stricken by decompression sickness (also known as the bends) or collapsed when their hearts simply gave out. Others have panicked, spit out their mouthpieces, and drowned. With all of the tragedy that has occurred, the Doria has become a dive site in which the world’s best divers measure themselves.
By comparison, 5 times more people have been to the top of Mount Everest than have seen the Andrea Doria wreck site.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FATE OF THE NORSEMAN?
In the early 1990s, John Moyer of Vineland, New Jersey bought the salvage rights to the Doria in the hope of recovering a “fortune” in artwork. After decades under water, the Doria had deteriorated greatly. In his over 100 dives to the site, Moyer was able to recover some sculptures. But he never found the car.
Unfortunately, during a dive to that depth, there is very little time to conduct a search. A diver is limited to approximately 20 minutes to explore inside the pitch black and silt filled compartments. Making matters worse, visibility becomes nonexistent when the ocean currents stir the massive amounts of accumulated silt. Moyer could easily have swam past the debris of the show car and never even known it.
It was rumored that the Norseman had been stored in a crate in the lower hold.
Even if the car had been securely affixed to stay in place as the ship pitched and sank, there’s no way that it could have survived the decades of salt water exposure. The real possibility is that the car was crushed as the Doria rolled on its starboard side and struck the ocean floor.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Just when you think that the Norseman would never be found, diver and explorer David Bright found the car in 1994. While looking for a lost diver, he caught a glimpse of the Norseman in the Number 2 cargo area. He reported that the car was in very poor condition. The salt water had eaten away at the car and had turned it into a pile of indistinguishable junk. He said that the tires and hubcaps were still there, and they helped to identify the car. He went back to the cargo hold area many times, each time reporting more decay occurring to the car. David Bright may be the last person to ever lay eyes on the Norseman. He collapsed and died in 2006 at the age of 49 while making another dive at the Andrea Doria wreck site.
THE MASSACHUSETTS TRIANGLE?
As I continued to research this subject, I started to uncover some really strange occurrences around the Nantucket area. I found that there have been scores of shipwrecks and other odd activity.
Check this out.
Within a 3 year span in the late 1990s, three very famous aircraft crashes occurred in the area. On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic not far to the south off the coast of East Moriches, New York. On July 16, 1999, nearly 44 years to the day after the sinking of the Andrea Doria, John F. Kennedy Jr, his wife Carolyn, and sister in law Lauren were killed when their Piper Saratoga crashed off the coast of Nantucket, very close to the Doria wreck site. Three months later, on Halloween, EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in almost the same exact location as the Doria. If you take those three crash sites and draw a line connecting them, it makes a perfect triangle.
Have I discovered a Bermuda Triangle-ish phenomenon on the upper eastern seaboard? Is the Massachusetts Triangle a real thing? Absolutely not, but it sure is fun to speculate about an area that has produced some weird activity.
THE NEXT CHALLENGE?
Maybe it’s time for me to explore the fate of yet another lost concept car. This time, I’m going to make it tougher. Much tougher. I’m going to find the long-lost 2008 Detroit Auto Show Tang Hua Book of Songs show car. Or not…
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