Steamship Sunday – Chrysler’s Norseman and the Andrea Doria

Steamship Sunday

This is more of a “Gear Head” post than “Steamship Sunday” post – the ship is incidental to the car story here.


Painting of the Chrysler Norseman show car being loaded onto Andrea Doria. There is a factual error in the painting – the Norseman had been carefully packed in a specially-built wooden crate. The car is rendered in blue in this painting. The photos below show it in green. No color photos were taken by the car’s builder, Ghia. The photos showing the car in green are colorized from Ghia’s black and white images. Ghia assumed the color publicity photos would be taken by Chrysler in Detroit and Ghia accordingly took few photos. Chrysler chief stylist Virgil Exner wanted the car to be painted in silver, but the car was actually ordered in a dark metallic green. Reporters who saw the finished car at Ghia before it was loaded onto Andrea Doria said that the car was finished in blue and that the interior was blue with red and black accents. Thus that aspect of this painting is accurate.

We wrote about the tragic collision of Italian Lines’ Andrea Doria and Swedish-American Lines’ Stockholm HERE. An aspect of the sinking of Andrea Doria  that we didn’t cover in that post is that she was carrying a just-completed Chrysler concept car, the Norseman.


The just-completed Norseman went down to the sea floor aboard Andrea Doria.

The Norseman had been built for Chrysler by Ghia in Torino, or Turin, as the name is usually rendered in English. The designers and engineers at Chrysler who had developed the car never got to see it as a completed vehicle except in photos. Chrysler styling chief Virgil Exner had developed a good working relationship with Ghia and Ghia built most of the Chrysler concept cars in the ’50s and into the ’60s. Ghia specialized in building fully-functional, running vehicles. Two other famous Ghia-built concept cars of the same era is Packard’s Predictor and the Lincoln Futura. The Futura later was re-built by George Harris as the first Batmobile.


Ghia also built the fully-functional Packard Predictor.

The Norseman was conceived of at the height of Exner’s reign in Chrysler styling, though Exner himself did not design the car. The project was assigned to William Brownlee who was in charge of Chrysler’s Imperial design studio. The first sketch was done by Deo Lewton. The Norseman name is a reference to Exner’s Norwegian heritage. Work on the project began in 1953.

Norseman sketch

Deo Lewton’s sketch of the Norseman.

The focus of the concept was to build a car without “A” pillars in the roof. The pillar less front glass and cantilevered roof was intended to make a strong visual statement and render greatly improved visibility. Just as there were no “A” pillars, the front windows lacked the vent wings commonly used on cars at the time.

The roof also had the first electrically-operated opening moonroof. The moonroof was 12 square feet in size and retracted forward rather than backward, thus the opening was over the rear passengers. Making this moonroof work in the thin cantilevered roof was a tricky proposition, but they made it work.

The windshield was made of a specially developed heat-treated glass developed by PPG. With no metal “A” pillars supporting the front of the roof, the glass became a load-bearing element. While it is true that there were no “A” pillars used, the edge of the windshield on both sides where it met the cars’ front windows was reinforced with a very high tensile strength metal rod.

The Norseman was a four place coupe with four leather bucket seats and a set of futuristic gauge pods, complete with luminescent paint at the back of front seats as an experimental method of lighting. We think nothing of bucket seats today, but in the 1950s when this car was conceived and built, bench seats were (with very few exceptions) the only seats used on American cars. Bucket seats appeared almost exclusively in British and European sports cars.


Norseman rear seats

The Norseman was fitted with a 331 cubic inch Hemi V8 making 235 horsepower and 2-speed Powerflite transmission, shifted by push-buttons. The Norseman rode on a specially constructed chassis that consisted of frame rails, a floorpan, a full aerodynamic underpan and diagonal cross-welded sections. The wheelbase stretched a generous 129 inches. At 228 inches of overall length, the Norseman was the second longest Chrysler concept car of the ’50s through the ’60s.

The Norseman was built by Ghia entirely from engineering drawings, the first Ghia-built Chrysler show car executed in this manner. Chrysler sent a thorough set of surface drawings (but not the final 3/8-scale clay model) to Ghia, where craftsmen began constructing the full-scale car. Aluminum, hammered over a full-scale wooden buck of the design, was used for the body panels.

Norseman wooden body buck

Above: Grainy photo of the wooden body buck of the Norseman. The aluminum body panels were hammered out over the buck. Below: the body nearing completion.

Norseman body build up

It took Ghia 50,000 hours and 15 months to build the car at a cost of $150,000, equivalent to $1.3 million today. Despite the intense labor required to finish the car, it was finished on time.

The Norseman was intended for the 1957 show circuit. The overall shape of the Norseman’s body anticipates the production ’57 Imperials, though the roofline was unlike anything Chrysler ever put into production. That said, it is arguable that the roofline of the Norseman influenced the AMC Marlin, the mid-’60s Dodge Charger ( both the show car and the production car), and a two seat Ford Mustang prototype.

Imperial Crown

Above: the production ’57 Chrysler Imperial shares much of its body design DNA with the Norseman.

Rambler Marlin

Above: the Norseman likely influenced the sail panel on the ’65 Rambler Marlin. The Marlin’s awkward design was an unfortunate compromise forced on stylist Richard Teague by dunderheaded AMC management. It is not the car Teague wanted to go into production. The buying public proved Teague right by rejecting this Marlin. The second generation Marlin was less ungainly:


Charger II concept

Above: the mid-’60s Charger concept. Below – this fully-functional two passenger Mustang fastback prototype shows the Norseman sail panel influence:


On 17 July 1956, the completed Norseman was loaded onto the luxury liner Andrea Doria in Genoa, Italy and headed to New York City. Typically, all passenger cars were placed in the garage section of the ship. They would have been placed on to the ship by use of a crane and meticulously parked in the garage and arranged strategically for stability.

However, unlike the rendition shown in the painting above, the Norseman was specially packed in a wooden crate and carefully handled. It was loaded in the Number Two cargo area rather than in the on-board garage.

On the very foggy night of 25 July 1956, Andrea Doria was rammed by the passenger ship Stockholm 40 miles south of Nantucket Island. After 11 hours, Andrea Doria sank to the ocean floor 200 feet below. In light of the loss of 46 passengers and five crewmen as a result of the collision, reports of the loss of all the cargo and the Norseman were understandably brief.

Exner had suffered a heart attack, and was recuperating in a hospital bed on the day of the liner’s sinking. It was not until several days later that his family gently broke the news about the loss of the Norseman. There was no effort to recreate it.

As we read in the earlier post about this collision, Stockholm was repaired and, amazingly, is still in service, visiting Mediterranean ports of call as the Athena. It is the ship’s eighth name since the collision. What of the Norseman itself?

In the mid-1990s, David Bright, a leading underwater researcher and explorer, 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 Number Two 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. The tires are still there and have assisted to [sic] its identification.

“I have been back to the cargo area several times (it is pretty scary in the cargo hold because the ship is lying on its starboard side) and visited the Norseman on a couple other occasions…. I have not been back to this cargo site since 1994 and with all the decay that the wreck has had over the past 10 years, it is doubtful if I will (or anyone else) ever get a chance to see the remains of the Norseman again.”

His prediction was sadly true. Andrea Doria has claimed 14 divers (Some reports say 16 divers), including David Bright. He died in July 2006 after a dive to Andrea Doria in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the sinking. He suffered decompression sickness and went into cardiac arrest, and was pronounced dead a short time later at Cape Cod Hospital. He was 49.



Sinking of Andrea Doria (4 min.):


Add yours →

  1. What a beautiful car. I first said that sucker has a Marlin look, but much better for some reason. Great story and a tragic loss.
    I knew of the Clay models of course but not of the body Buck that the aluminum was formed over.I have often wondered how that was done. THANKS Amazing what I do not know lol

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! In my opinion, that was one of the best looking of ‘50s show cars. It’s a shame the public never got to see it!

      Forming the metal over those bucks was not an easy task. (Ditto when body panels are formed in dies.) The metal has to be coaxed into shape otherwise it will tear. When they are forming the metal panels in a regular production body plant, the panels go through a series of dies before they receive their final shape. You can demonstrate how this works at home ( … hee hee … in your case, in the RV … 🙂) by pressing with a quick motion a piece of aluminum foil into a cake pan or a pie plate. I guarantee you it will tear! So hammering those body panels out over the wooden bucks was a labor intensive and difficult process.


  2. I disgree that only the later fastbacks you mentioned were inspired by this design. Yes, the Norseman was a fastback, but the roof itself seems to have been intended to whet the public’s appetites for the 1957 Plymouth and Dodge two door hardtops. The ‘bubbletops’ of the early sixties–all the 1959-1961 GM two door hardtops but the Cadillacs, the 1960 Edsel and the famous Galaxie Starliners, in addition to the 1960 and 1961 Dodges and Plymouths–seem to be spindlier versions of this roof shape with a more horizontal trunk behind.

    Given the 1956 date I don’t believe this car inspired those, as they all descended from the production 1957 Dodges and Plymouths which would have shared the car show displays with the Norseman, had tragedy not struck. But it certainly would have made for even more interesting displays sitting next to those revolutionary cars, which did so much to transition us from the chunky tanks of the 1950s to the low-slung cars 1960s.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: