The contribution of the Chrysler FirePower hemispherical head V-8 to the domestic-car horsepower race of the 1950s is widely known and unquestioned. Lesser realized is the fact that, during the first year this engine was produced, Chrysler added a potential "factory hot rod" to its model lineup—the Saratoga.
The FirePower engine made its initial appearance when the new, mildly facelifted models were introduced in 1951. Replacing the flathead straight eight used in previous New Yorker and Imperial models, the engine was a plus in these large automobiles with their 131.5-inch wheelbase chassis that dated back to late-1949 models.
The 331.2-cid Hemi engine produced 180 hp. That was equal to the top rating available in the entire industry. The engine featured twin rocker shafts in each cylinder head, which allowed the valves to be canted on either side of the centrally positioned spark plugs. The early Hemi ran a 7.5:1 compression ratio and a Carter two-barrel carburetor, so operation required only regular-grade fuel.
At first it was the New Yorker that showcased the FirePower V-8. Automotive scribe Tom McCahill tested one of these cars. Despite its Fluid-Matic "semi-automatic" transmission, this car did just over 100 mph in the Flying Mile run at Daytona Beach. Motor Trend reported the New Yorker’s top speed at 106 mph.
Almost overlooked was the introduction of the Saratoga in July. It combined the FirePower V-8 with the smaller, lighter Windsor chassis. The series offered short- and long-wheelbase sedans and a Town & Country wagon, but the hot rod was the Club Coupe. It was 200 lbs. lighter than the New Yorker coupe with the same power. It was essentially Chrysler’s version of the Rocket 88 Olds. Even with automatic transmission, Motor Trend got a 10-second 0-to-60 run out of the Saratoga.
The new car’s racing potential wasn’t overlooked. Stock car driver Tommy Thompson piloted a Saratoga to Chrysler’s first NASCAR win August 12, 1951, at Michigan Fairgrounds, a dirt oval in Detroit. A bunch of auto industry brass were there and the Saratoga’s go power impressed them all.
Saratogas were also the hot ticket in the La Carrera Panamericana or Mexican Road Race. Non-professional driver Bill Sterling finished third overall in his Chrysler, as well as first among strictly stock cars. Despite such performances, the ’51 Saratoga gets little respect from muscle-car buffs or those bidding on high-performance models at classic car auctions. Too bad.