Around midnight on July 25, 1956, the luxury passenger liner Andrea Doria collided with the Stockholm in a fog bank 50 miles south of Nantucket Island. Eleven hours later, after most of its passengers, including actress Ruth Roman, had been rescued, the stricken liner turned on its starboard side and sank in 250 feet of water.
Sent to a watery grave along with 46 of its 1706 passengers was a fortune in paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and other artwork, which has lured treasure hunters for more than four decades. Often overlooked, however, has been a priceless piece of automotive history. Locked in the Andrea Doria’s cargo hold was a one-of-a-kind “idea car” from Chrysler, the “Norseman,” which no one but its craftsmen at the Ghia studios in Italy had ever seen. A few publicity photos and drawings are all the public has ever seen of the car. But that may be about to change.
This summer, John Moyer of Moyer Expeditions, which holds the salvage rights to the liner, has decided to dive into the cargo hold in search of what remains of the Norseman.
“We’ll attempt to locate it and possibly photograph it,” Moyer said from his offices in Vineland, New Jersey. “Beyond that, it depends on what condition it’s in.”
Whatever is left of the Norseman would be put on display by Moyer in an exhibit of the ship’s artifacts he’s helped assemble.
Unlike a freighter shipment of new Essex automobiles that sank in 1914 and are all still in almost pristine condition on the bottom of Lake Michigan, a steel automobile that has now spent 40-plus years in a salt-water bath in the frigid northern Atlantic could be little more than rusty stalagmites.
Moyer has been trying to research the manner in which the Norseman was contained for shipping. Most likely it was strapped to a pallet and stacked in the cargo hold. At best, it may have been put in a container, which would have helped preserve it. At worst, it was merely parked in the liner’s garage, where it probably would have been heavily damaged in the ship’s rollover and plunge to the ocean floor.
The container scenario would make it more difficult to find, Moyer said. “If it was in the garage, it should be easier to find, because that’s more accessible. But nothing is easy to find down there,” said Moyer, who has spent 16 years just looking for the ship’s bell. “Conditions in that area of the Atlantic are quite extreme for diving. The sea’s temperatures are in the 40s, visibility is 15 to 20 feet at best, and there are strong currents.
“Conditions on the wreck itself are quite dangerous, too. The rigging is full of netting, cables, and fishing line. Once we locate the wreckage, we usually follow our anchor line down and start searching from there. It becomes very difficult to move away from that line.”
Moyer doesn’t use the nifty little submarines depicted in the movie Titanic; his dives are conducted with little more than glorified scuba gear. That’s possible because the Andrea Doria is in such shallow water, compared with the 12,500-foot-depth at which the Titanic rests.
“We’re hoping to find recognizable parts and pieces of the Norseman. It would be difficult to bring up the whole car,” Moyer explained. “We believe it’s deep inside one of the holds of the ship. We’d have to maneuver it from deep inside to get it out. I don’t know if that’s possible.”
In 1993, Moyer managed to pull two 1000-pound pieces of sculpture from inside the ship’s opulent first-class compartments. Those are the heaviest items retrieved so far; the Norseman weighed close to 4000 pounds.
Auto enthusiasts would rejoice if anything recognizable of the Norseman were ever recovered. Collector car magazines speak of it–and the dozen or so other idea cars–wistfully, especially as automakers increasingly return to the past for design inspiration. The Norseman occupies an almost mythical place in automotive history–the car that essentially no one ever saw.
What could Moyer expect to find extant of the Norseman?
“A lot of the detail parts were made in brass, then chrome-plated; that stands up pretty well,” said Virgil Exner Jr., son of the legendary Chrysler stylist who, along with the late Cliff Voss, executed the Norseman’s design. “The tires and the wheel covers should still be there. And then, of course, there’s all that glass.”
The car was a veritable greenhouse of glass.
“The Norseman had many experimental features, but the most striking was its cantilever roof,” Exner said. “The glass was totally wraparound. There was no traditional A-pillar. The two roof supports were integrated into the lower body through the C-pillar position. The front tips of the roof supports were tied down with thin steel rods. In case of an accident, the tension on them would cause them to snap up, instead of being crushed down, to protect the occupants. A portion of the top was retractable, too.”
The Norseman was one of the first true “fastback” designs. Its styling was clearly the star. Under the hood was the already obsolete 331-cubic-inch Chrysler Hemi with one four-barrel carburetor, making just 235 horsepower. The car was 227 inches long and 82 inches wide and had a 129-inch wheelbase.
“My father and Cliff went over there to Ghia earlier in the year and turned over the drawings,” Exner Jr. said. “They may have seen the full-size mannequin from which the sheetmetal was cut. But they never saw the whole car.”
Ghia finished the car just in time for it to be shipped on the ill-fated liner from Genoa, Italy, to Chrysler for fall model introductions. Whether it would have actually made a public debut then is uncertain.
“When the ship went down, my father was in the hospital for his first heart attack,” Exner Jr. said. “Nobody wanted to tell him. We didn’t know how he would take it.
“I was there with my mother when Tex Keller told him. Know what he said? `That’s really neat?’ He was a romanticist. He was disappointed they lost the car, of course, but he thought it was neat that it would become a part of automotive folklore.”
Exner said his father gave no real thought to re-creating the car.
“It was very expensive–one of the most expensive idea cars they had done. Certainly, the most elaborate,” Exner Jr. said. “There was no tooling. All the panels were beat out by hand. They had probably all put too much into it to start over from scratch. They just went on to the next thing.”