Car of the Week: 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer

After an owner's nightmare restoration process, 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer is back on the road.
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Car of the Week 2020
The Royal was perched on the Dodge hierarchy between the top-line Custom Royal and the entry-level Coronet. Dodge tagged its hardtops and convertibles as Lancers, so this is the Royal Lancer, which carried a base price of $2518.

The Royal was perched on the Dodge hierarchy between the top-line Custom Royal and the entry-level Coronet. Dodge tagged its hardtops and convertibles as Lancers, so this is the Royal Lancer, which carried a base price of $2518.

After eight long years and tens of thousands of misspent dollars, Jim Gould finally has the MoPar that he’s wanted since the 1960s.

“I got pretty much what I wanted, but it was painful — pretty painful,” says the Lebanon, Mo., resident.

“After eight years now, I have pretty much got the car I wanted and have begun to enjoy it. I haven’t been driving it very long. 10 years from now, if I have had a good experience, I will be glad I bought this car.”

The purchase started out innocently enough: a solid and intact 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer project that needed everything, but was a great foundation. Equally important, it checked every box on Gould’s wish list.

Once stripped to bare metal, the Dodge proved to be solid and in need of rust repair in only a few places.

Once stripped to bare metal, the Dodge proved to be solid and in need of rust repair in only a few places.

“One of my very first cars when I was a late teenager in college was a ’55 Plymouth Belvedere four-door sedan,” he said, “V-8, not a Hemi, of course — three-speed on the column — and I really liked the car. About the same time, my mother had a ’62 Dodge Dart 318 2-barrel, just a run-of-the-mill base model four-door sedan, but it was a damn good lightweight car and I won a few street races with it.

“The ’55 and ’56 Dodges and Plymouths and the ’62 Dodges and Plymouths were very similar to each other. I had been looking for years — I wanted a V-8/stick, and any body style would have worked. A four-door would have worked. Guess where I found this one? Page 3 of the June 14, 2012, Old Cars Weekly.”

The Dodge was pictured in an ad by Ted’s Tuna Boats in New Ulm, Minn. Within a day or two of spotting the ad, Gould drove to New Ulm to inspect the Dodge.

After this paint job, rust appeared in front of the rear wheel wells and the body had to be repaired again.

After this paint job, rust appeared in front of the rear wheel wells and the body had to be repaired again.

“It had been sitting for 20 to 25 years. It wasn’t running, but [the engine] wasn’t frozen up. Part of the time it had been outside, part of the time it had been inside. A beautiful Royal Lancer, it’s the second from the top trim level. It had the Power Pack Hemi with a four-barrel and a three-speed overdrive — these are all options I really liked. I would have settled for less, but I didn’t have to. I knew I was going to buy the car and I did.”

Gould immediately set about getting his dream car looking good and back on the road. Knowing other people’s restoration horror stories, he tried to be careful in selecting businesses to do the work, mostly relying on word-of-mouth recommendations to find specialists. Unfortunately, that selection method didn’t prove to be fail-safe.

“I knew it was going to be expensive, but I was mistaken in choosing who to do the body and I also made a huge mistake in who I chose to do the motor,” Gould said. “Nothing but angst and heartache and way more money spent than I expected and really should have had to pay.”

Like the rest of the car, the 1955 Dodge’s interior needed everything.

Like the rest of the car, the 1955 Dodge’s interior needed everything.

The hard work paid off.

The hard work paid off.

The trouble started at a Chicago-area shop that was hired to restore the body. It had previously restored a stunning ’55 Dodge LaFemme almost identical to Gould’s car, so the shop seemed like a good choice. After tens of thousands of dollars and more than four and a half years in the shop, work on the car ground to a halt far from being completed. After almost a year after the work stopped, Gould pulled the car out of the shop and trailered it the 500 miles to his home.

Meanwhile, a shop in Nashville that specialized in early Hemi engine rebuilds had been hired to rebuild the Dodge’s 270-cid V-8 because it promised extra horsepower through some internal tweaks.

The “Power Pack” Super Red Ram Hemi was originally good for 193 hp at 4400 rpm. Gould’s car was built to drive, and he’s installed an aftermarket air cleaner with a paper element. The original oil bath air cleaner could not be made to fit to the Holley four-barrel that he now utilizes.

The “Power Pack” Super Red Ram Hemi was originally good for 193 hp at 4400 rpm. Gould’s car was built to drive, and he’s installed an aftermarket air cleaner with a paper element. The original oil bath air cleaner could not be made to fit to the Holley four-barrel that he now utilizes.

“They had the motor for over two years,” Gould said. “They got the job because the son told me that he could give me 1.2 horsepower per cubic inch, which would have worked out to 320 on the dyno, but as it turned out, the motor dyno’d at ‘240 and something’ due to the unavailability of a performance cam for the 270 Hemi.”

Not only did the engine’s performance fail to live up to the shop’s promise, the engine suffered catastrophic failure almost immediately after it was tested.

“When they took [the engine] off the dyno — the apparatus that they hook to the carburetor on the dyno employs Allen screws — and inadvertently an Allen screw was dropped into the carburetor. So months later, and hundreds of miles away from Nashville, when we first started it, it ran, but it ran like s#@t and all kinds of damage was done.”

After arguing over who was at fault for the errant Allen screw, Gould wound up paying for a second engine rebuild, this time at a machine shop only 30 miles from his home.

Even though Top-line Custom Royals received bolt-on chrome fin toppers after the start of production. Gould prefers his Royal without the extra fin trim.

Even though Top-line Custom Royals received bolt-on chrome fin toppers after the start of production. Gould prefers his Royal without the extra fin trim.

Having been a South Dakota car where little to no road salt is used, the Dodge’s body rust was not excessive. The rust was contained to the rocker panels, front floor and fenders. These panels had been repaired and painted by the shop in Chicago, but after about two years, the car developed new rust in front of both rear wheel openings. This rust was removed by a classic car repair shop in Gould’s home town.

From the factory, Gould’s Dodge had been a tri-tone color combination of a creamy off-white (Sapphire White) roof over a Jewell Black saddle and burgundy (Garnet Metallic) lower, but Gould opted to flip the top two colors and substitute Heather Rose for the Garnet Metallic. All colors were matched to the factory paint chip sheets.

“I am very happy with the colors,” he said. “I have never become aware of a ’55, past or present, painted like mine. I don’t think there’s another car on this planet exactly like mine. You would see the off-white on the top with the black being the middle color, but I have never seen a burgundy or Heather Rose bottom that had black over off-white rather than off-white over black.”

Gould looked high and low for the 1955 Dodge “poverty caps” he installed. He says they were rare and uncool when new, but today they really make his car stand out. He says the small caps were simply not seen on 1955 Royals and Custom Royals in 1955.

Gould looked high and low for the 1955 Dodge “poverty caps” he installed. He says they were rare and uncool when new, but today they really make his car stand out. He says the small caps were simply not seen on 1955 Royals and Custom Royals in 1955.

The ‘daring new, dazzling new’ Dodge

Regardless of the position of the colors, tri-color paint schemes were all the rage by the mid 1950s — as was anything else to add additional glamour to the era’s high-fashion vehicles.

After years of boxy, conservative postwar designs under Chrysler Corp. President K.T. Keller, all of Chrysler’s divisions (including Dodge) went all in for 1955 with glitzy designs under the direction of Virgil Exner. The company’s car now had completely slab-sided bodies by Briggs Corp. with high beltlines, thin roof pillars with plenty of glass (including wrap-around windshields), hooded headlamps, aggressive grille designs and ample chrome and stainless decoration. At the rear, aeronautics influenced the rear fender tips, often with wild jet-like taillamp lenses. Not since the Airflow designs of the 1930s had Chrsyler Corp. been so daring with its designs. In fact, Dodge touted its new 1955 Dodge as “flair fashioned” with headlines that called its cars “daring new, dazzling new.”

Chrysler Corp. dubbed the new 1955 designs “The Forward Look” for the aggressive styling features and “The 100-Million Dollar Look” after what it had spent on restyling its complete line. The expenditure was perfectly timed, as nearly the entire industry had new cars in 1955 or immediately before, most of them featuring a different take on the same styling formula of slab sides, high beltines, wrap-around windshields, etc.

Grille

Not only was the Dodge look new, but so were mechanicals. For 1955, Dodges were built on a new chassis that was longer and lower with a choice of more power. The base inline six-cylinder was standard in the Coronet and a carryover from 1954, but with more horsepower from a new two-barrel carburetor and a greater compression ratio. Six-cylinder models had a Dodge crest in the center of the hood and deck lid. The 241-cid Hemi V-8 from 1953 and 1954 was expensive to produce, so for 1955, Dodge offered a poly-head, two-barrel version of its new Red Ram 270-cid V-8 (175 hp) as standard in the Royal and optional in the Coronet. For more money in these models — but as standard equipment in the top-line Custom Royal model — the Super Red Ram hemispherical-head 270-cid V-8 was available in two-barrel (single exhaust, 183 hp) or four-barrel (dual exhaust, 193 hp) forms. The Super Red Ram with the four-barrel also had special manifolding and is often dubbed “Power Pack.” Regardless of V-8 engine, all V-8-equipped Dodges featured a “V” beneath a Dodge crest on the hood and deck lid.

The all-new 1955 Chrysler Corp. products were wildly successful and for its part, Dodge doubled its calendar year sales over 1954, which had been a money-losing year for the corporation. In order to bring the 1955 models to fruition, Chrysler Corp. had borrowed $250 million from Prudential in March 1954 to move full steam ahead. For 1955, Dodge sold 313,038 cars during the calendar year and 273,286 for the model year. Of those, 25,831 were 1955 Royal Lancer two-door hardtops such as Gould’s car.

Finally driving forward

After eight years of ups and downs, Gould was finally able to drive forward last summer in his Forward Look Dodge. So far, he’s added about 1000 miles to the odometer. He updated the electrical system from 6 to 12 volts, and was reluctantly forced to use front disc brakes, noting that the car “simply would not stop with the (rebuilt) front drums.” He says he still needs to rebuild the front suspension. Once that’s done, he hopes to drive the Dodge on long-distance trips.

“After all these years, I basically have the car I wanted,” he says. “I enjoy looking at it and driving it and I’m trying to stay healthy so I can enjoy it for a bunch of years. Not as strong as I was in my youth, it is a chore to steer! How in hell did women drive these cars then? Answer: they did, and little was said about it. We do what we have to do.”

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