Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Milt McMillen has had to make plenty of tough calls over the years on whether to buy — or not buy — a car to add to his impressive collector vehicle fleet.
His 1956 Dodge La Femme was not one of those tough calls. It was one of the biggest no-brainers he’s come across.
“With the ‘Forward Look’ cars, you take them in whatever condition you can get them, but this one was an easy choice,” he says with a grin. “It was very solid. I think it had a dent in the back fender, so I had to replace the ‘V’ chrome. And we had a dent in the driver’s side front fender, so I had to replace the headlight ring. And that was it. It had no rust. It was very solid. It wasn’t a hard decision.”
The truth is, McMillen probably would have bought the La Femme even if he had to drag it home in boxes. The car is so rare and unique that it’s worth taking a swing at regardless of condition. Fewer than 2,500 of the special Dodges were made in 1955 and ’56, and fewer than five ‘56s remain with the D-500 engine option, which McMillen’s car carries. “And it’s the only that’s restored with the D-500,” he says.
McMillen located the car in Colorado after spotting it in a magazine ad. The La Femme had been idle for a long time, but luckily it had not deteriorated much.
“The car was originally sold in Denver to a farm couple that owned it up until an insurance man saw it sitting in a barn,” he says. The car changed hands once, but didn’t have any work done to it until McMillen found it and shipped it back home to La Crosse, Wis. “We saw it and pursued it right away when we saw it listed,” he says. “It was all there, but the interior was mousey and so that had to be all redone. You can get all the material and fabric from S&S … It was kind of fun when we tore it apart because you’d find various things, like the colors it was chalked on the firewall when we took the font passenger fender off.”
The ’56 Dodge was done from top to bottom and given the full restoration treatment. The body was stripped and given a fresh paint job using the factory correct Misty Orchid and Regal Orchid colors that were a one-year-only combination for the ’56 La Femmes.
The Le Femme is the oldest vehicle in McMillen’s collection of “about three dozen” machines, and certainly one of the most interesting. The La Femme is often credited with being among the first — and only — cars aimed specifically for a female audience. It was a radical idea at the time, and though the car that resulted wasn’t a big commercial success, it was memorable nonetheless.
The cars were direct offspring of the 1954 Chrysler Le Comete and La Comtesse dream cars that were built from Chrysler Newports hardtops. The “his and hers” concepts had wild plastic roofs over the passengers areas that never made it past the dream stage, but the La Femme had some other unique features that were all its own. The cars were fancy versions of the Custom Royals. The Custom Royal was once again the top trim level Dodge and included all the Royal features plus hooded and painted headlight doors; grooved back-up and taillight housings; a strip of the lower body color extending up the rear edge of the rear fenders and the Custom Royal name, in script, on the rear fenders, along with the V-8 emblem.
For 1955, the La Femmes had special floral pattern upholstery and gold-colored La Femme script. The ‘55s included a special pink calfskin purse that matched the car’s interior. The purses came with matching compact, cigarette and lipstick cases, comb and lighter. The driver’s seatback had a special compartment to store a raincoat, rain hat and umbrella, which all came with the car.
For 1956, the Sapphire White and Heather Rose paint scheme was changed to Heather Rose and Sapphire White or Misty Orchid and Regal Orchid. The upholstery and headliner design was changed, the carpet was changed to a loop-pile variety, and the purse accessory was dropped.
The base engine for the La Femme was the 230-cid six-cylinder, but a small number of the special offerings, including McMillen’s car, were equipped with the muscular — and today highly coveted — 315-cid D-500 rated at 260 hp. A 295-hp four-barrel D-500 option was also added midyear for manual transmission cars.
For all its pink interior surfaces, shiny chrome plating and interior trim doo-dads, cutting-edge push-button transmission, big V-8 power and outgoing personality, McMillen insists his La Femme was not as fancy originally as it could have been. “It has the D-500 and La Femme options, but no power steering, no power brakes,” he says. “We did upgrade it a little bit. It had a pretty plain Jane radio, I’m not even sure it had buttons on the radio. But we found a Town and Country radio for it and we added Highway Hi-Fi — the record player. We added the rear speaker. We added the dual antennas; it had a front antenna. Everything was ’56 Dodge appropriate. The only thing that is not reproduced is the carpet, which was a purple and white tuxedo carpet, and so we found a plum one that harmonizes with everything … The original carpeting is a hoot. I kept it for a while, but it was so mousey.”
Importantly, though, the La Femme was solid underneath that carpeting, which is not often the case for the finned Chryslers of the era. “We didn’t have to do any floor work or any trunk floor work, and we didn’t have do much for parts chasing,” McMillen adds.
“We’ve done other later ‘Forward Look’ cars and they have a lot fewer bits and pieces. This is a major undertaking to do one of these, compared to a ’57 on up.”
McMillen is on the lookout for some of the unusual accessories that came with the 1956 models. He doubts that the items that came with his car still exist. “We contacted the [original owner’s] son and sent letters before and after the car was restored, but we got no response, unfortunately. We were hoping they would have the raincoat, bonnet and umbrella that were in the pockets in the backside of the front seat. Those were not in the car.”
It seems odd in hindsight that Dodge apparently did little to promote their La Femme models for the two years they were built. Many Dodge/Chrysler dealerships never had one touch their lots, and no doubt many potential buyers never knew the cars existed. By the time the 1957 model rolled out, the La Femme was gone and largely forgotten.
McMillen says they are still head scratchers today for many who see them for the first time.
“People have heard of Le Femmes — people that are pretty knowledgeable on cars, but nobody has ever seen it,” he laughs. “It’s been very well received. We’ve taken it to a couple of concours. It’s got 24 miles on it. [since being restored] It’s been rotisseried, so we want to show it before we drive it much. We’ll probably try to keep it pristine. We have driver cars, too.
“It probably belongs in a museum at some point.”
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