• Vincent De Rossi

Down Among the Dead Men

Whilst researching the topic of ‘Dream Cars’ one inevitably encounters many creations that have been lost forever. Sometimes though cars thought to have been lost forever miraculously reappear back into the public spotlight.

But what about a car, the whereabouts of which has been known all the time, but has been considered lost for more than half a century? Here is the story of the sensational Chrysler Norseman and of its unfortunate demise.

Considering the tradition of exquisite craftsmanship of Italian coach builders, it is not surprising that when Chrysler wanted to create some research prototypes, it turned to Italy for its styling.

In 1956 Chrysler commissioned CarrozzeriaGhia to build a show car. It was to be "the most automated car in the world.” Designed by Virgil Exner and his team, the Norseman’s most striking feature being the cantilevered roof, which was supported only at the rear C-pillars. There were no side B-pillars or vent windows with the front edge of the roof sitting directly onto a frameless curved windscreen. To make things even more complex, the power operated rear windscreen slid upward into the roof - a very advanced feature at the time and extremely difficult to integrate into the slender roof structure.

William Brownlie, then assistant manager of Chrysler’s studio that produced the Norseman, recalled in a 1996 interview that he was the one to suggest building a car without A-pillars, which was the car’s most distinctive feature. The idea gained support. The designers–styling director Virgil Exner and chief stylist Cliff Voss among them–were concerned about the perceived practicality of the design, particularly the protection that the roof would afford passengers in a rollover. Quarter-inch steel rods located where the A-pillars would have been held the roof in tension; in a rollover, the theory went, they would snap, allowing the roof to spring upward. A Chrysler engineer worked with glassmaker PPG Industries on the development of a crush-resistant windshield. The corporation’s publicists made the somewhat doubtful claim that the cantilevered roof could support eight times the car’s weight.

There is no consensus over the subject of the car's colour. Chrysler ordered the car in dark green, with green and grey interior, while according to Exner it was to be painted silver. The reporters, who saw the car loaded on to the ship in Italy, wrote that it was finished in two-tone blue, with red leather and black accents. Who really knows? Ghia took precious few photographs of the car figuring that there would be plenty of time for photographs once the Norseman arrived in America.

Needless to say, such a complex design required a lot of time and money to be completed. It took Ghia fifteen months and cost Chrysler over $150,000 to finish. The Norseman was finished on schedule and on the 17th July 1956. The Norseman was now ready to be loaded onto the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria.

Back in Michigan, Exner’s design team eagerly awaited their new show car. Although they designed it, none of them had seen the final creation in the flesh. Instead of the car however, the forwarding agent delivered the bad news that Norseman along with the Andrea Doria had been lost forever.

The SS Andrea Doria lists severely to starboard ~50 miles off the coast of Nantucket.

On 25th July 1956, the Andrea Doria was heading through the New York Bay when it collided in thick fog with MS Stockholm, a Swedish passenger ship. Thanks to a professional rescue operation, only 53 people out of 2500 perished in the catastrophe. Eleven hours later the Italian ship sank, taking all of its cargo, including the Norseman, 72 metres to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

On the day of the Andrea Doria’s sinking, Virgil Exner had suffered a heart attack, and was recuperating in a hospital bed. 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. Some of its styling cues would later be used on other Chrysler idea cars, but not the cantilevered roof.

Swedish passenger liner MS Stockholm being escorted back in to port.

Since the accident, only one person has seen the car. In 1994 the famous wreck diver David Bright during one of his numerous expeditions to the wreck found what he described as a "rusted hulk" of the Norseman. According to his description, the car's position in the wreck makes it almost certain that no one will ever see it again. David Bright died in 2006 from decompression sickness after another dive to the Andrea Doria.

Had the Norseman reached America, it would have certainly influenced the design of Chrysler cars in the late 50’s / 60’s. As it is, only a few period photos are left for us to look at and think of the car that was once described as "the handsome lad who never made it to his prom."

David Bright

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 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. 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. David Bright died in July 2006 after a dive to the 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.

David Bright after one of his deep sea dives.

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