Story and photos by Bob Tomaine
Ed Kratil wasn’t the only one to notice an online classified for a 1959 Dodge Royal four-door. As he later learned, several of those who saw it had plans very different than his own.
“(The ad) was basically a one-line description with a really bad picture,” Kratil recalled, “but it was an original car as part of that description, and I went up there to take a look.
“The gentleman I met with said he had some interest from overseas, Sweden and Germany. He did not want to arrange shipping and I said, ‘Look, if this is truly an original car’ — I couldn’t get under the seat at the time — ‘underneath the seat there’s a build sheet, under the dashboard, on top of the glovebox, there’s a build sheet and they should match whatever you have.’ He called me later that night. ‘I’ll sell you the car since you’re interested in it and you know what you’re talking about.’”
The deal was closed and instead of a making transatlantic crossing, the Dodge made a trip of roughly 50 miles to Kratil’s home in Ithaca, N.Y. That was in 2012 and the odometer showed 17,735 miles at the time, a fact that goes far toward explaining the car’s condition. Kratil doesn’t know where the Dodge spent most of its life, but if it lived in upstate New York where he found it, someone either devoted a lot of time to washing the winter road salt off on a regular basis or — more likely, given the mileage — stored it inside during the winter months. No matter which of those possibilities was the case, the car obviwously had a strong appeal to an owner or owners willing to go to such lengths to protect it.
From top hats to space suits
The appeal is understandable, as Dodge in 1959 was wearing its own interpretation of the Space Age and was a far cry from its ancestors of just 10 years earlier. Dodge had resumed production after World War II’s interruption by introducing mildly updated 1942 models for 1946. It was the universal formula among the “Big Three” and the few Independents that had survived the war. Reintroducing slightly updated prewar vehicles enabled the industry to quickly begin building cars and gain time to come up with new designs.
True postwar cars began trickling out with the 1947 models from Studebaker, Kaiser and Frazer and others followed for 1948. By 1949, new designs were in every showroom, although Chrysler Corp. had gotten off to a late start and launched its new Second Series 1949 lineup after having continued its 1948 models as the First Series 1949s. At Chrysler, cars had low fenders and high roofs, because Chrysler Corp. president K.T. Keller required enough headroom to wear a hat.
Across the industry, the new cars were obviously more than reheated versions of their predecessors, but with a few exceptions, they carried styling that reflected prewar thinking. The real difference — where there was one — was under the hood, as Cadillac and Oldsmobile introduced their similar but unrelated modern overhead-valve V-8s in 1949. The engines’ oversquare design meant the bore’s diameter was greater than its piston’s stroke with resultant benefits ranging from higher revs to smaller size. Combined with the OHV configuration, the GM engines represented the future and the competition knew it.
In 1951, Studebaker and Chrysler Corp. were first to respond with a 120-hp 232 and a 180-hp 331, respectively, but there was more to the story than just numbers. Chrysler’s FirePower V-8 was the start of what would become known as the Hemi engines for the engine’s hemispherical combustion chambers. More important in 1951, though, was the fact that Oldsmobile and Cadillac now had competition and that was just the beginning.
At Chrysler Corp., De Soto received a 160-hp, 276-cid version of the Hemi in 1952 and called it the Firedome. It continued its flathead six alongside the V-8 for a time, as had Chrysler, while the Dodge Division went another year with only its six. When its turn came in 1953, the Dodge was on a modern body with nearly every trace of prewar styling gone. Dodge was now “powered for action, with surging new V-8 performance” from its “new 140-horsepower Red Ram V-Eight (which) packs more punch per cubic inch. Most efficient engine design in any American car, with more speed than you’ll ever need!” The 241-cid Red Ram didn’t banish the six immediately, but the older engine was living on borrowed time.
Chrysler Corp. was on a roll with the rest of the industry, as 1955 saw only Kaiser and Willys lacking modern V-8s and they were exiting the domestic-passenger-car business anyway. Dodge by then was “a car that fairly breathes adventure” with its “aircraft-type V-8 engine” and completely new styling. Buyers now had a choice of V-8s up to a 193-hp, 270-cid Super Red Ram — the horsepower race that never officially existed was well underway — and smooth new bodies wore wraparound windshields and backlights, plenty of brightwork and the beginnings of fins. The 1956 update raised the fins and introduced overt performance in the D-500 option that Dodge promised “digs out like a demon, handles like a dream, corners like a chopped-down ‘rod,’ with a load of sand. It features a hefty 260-horsepower mill” displacing 315 cubic inches, and driving it would show “why guys who really know cars call it the hottest thing on wheels!”
Power and performance continued to increase and the two-year cycle brought a completely new “Swept-Wing” 1957 Dodge. Long and low with bigger fins and no shortage of flash, advertising boasted that “everything is new from road to roof.” Meanwhile, the top engine was now a 340-hp 354. The next year, a fuel-injected 361 produced 333 hp while the top carbureted engine generated 305 in a freshened body. The look continued through a subtle restyling in 1959 when the Super D-500 option was a carbureted 345-hp 383, but although the highest-performance version — then as now — got the glory, not everybody really wanted it.
Dodge knew that and offered not only lesser V-8s, but even the flathead “Get-Away Six.” Its entry-level Coronet was “your low-cost invitation to luxury motoring” even as its Custom Royal at the opposite end of the range was “a car completely satisfying in every respect.” Between those two extremes, Kratil’s Royal “gives you more of what you want. If a man were looking for ‘buying justification,’ he could certainly find plenty of reasons in the Dodge Royal Series because the list is both long and impressive … Whatever the reason, the conclusion is clear. There’s more of what you buy for in a Dodge Royal.”
It was, in effect, everyman’s Dodge. With its 295-hp 361 and PowerFlite automatic, Kratil’s Royal sedan is probably a typical example. It’s not his first.
Just the right Dodge
“I’ve always liked the Dodges,” he said, “the ’59s specifically, because they look mean from both ends. The Dixie Cup taillights in the back are ridiculous-looking and the front just looks aggressive. The styling on some of the newer Chargers and such still has that eyebrow and it’s very similar. I’ve always liked the body style, I don’t care if it’s a two-door, four-door. That really doesn’t matter to me.”
Liking the Dodge that much gave it a few points to start with and fortunately, Kratil soon found that it had no real problems. “It needed new tires,” he said. “It had the original bias plies on it. The original. The original bias ply spare is still in the trunk.
“When I went to pick up the car, it ran really poorly. Once I got it home, I looked in the shop manual and for some reason, some of the plug wires had been switched. As soon as I did that, it purred … It didn’t need a spec of bodywork, it didn’t need anything on the interior. I put seat belts in.”
He said that it had run well on the 75-mile trip he’d just made to the Rolling Antiquers show in Norwich, N.Y., and that it’s ready for much more than that. He knows the reactions it would get on such a trip.
“I’ve heard, actually this morning from somebody who pulled up behind me at the gas station, ‘I don’t know much about cars, but I like what I see,’” Kratil said. “A lot of people don’t know what it is, but they say, ‘I think my grandfather had something similar to that’ or, ‘Is that a Cadillac?’ I do get a lot of older folks, if I’m driving down the road, who turn their heads and then kick a light bulb on, and also the little kids who have watched ‘Cars.’ They like things with fins. It has a lot of ‘shiny’ to it and they get a kick out of it.”
And while it’s not the Super D-500 engine, he said the 361 has no problem keeping up with traffic.
“It will not beat anybody off the line,” Kratil said, “but it will sure get you there with a smile on your face.”
*As an Amazon Associate, Old Cars earns from qualifying purchases.