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Reminiscing – The “sleeper” Saratoga

Published in

1951 Chrysler Saratoga magazine ad. Period advertising courtesy of

[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Don Sheppelman of Spring Hill, Florida.]

For those of you who have never owned a 1951-’52 Chrysler Saratoga, you can’t imagine what great cars those really were. I bought a late-1951 model during 1953 and it was one of the most memorable cars I have ever owned. It was a dark gray sedan, without power steering, but with the Fluid Torque transmission.

I was fortunate to have an uncle in the Denver area who owned a Chrysler/Plymouth dealership and loved performance cars as much as I did. He agreed to modify the Saratoga, keeping it nearly completely stock in appearance with the exception of cast-iron headers, duals and a Mallory ignition. He had built cars for the Pikes Peak Hill Climb which was every July 4th, was President of USAC (United States Automobile Club) during the ’50s and was co-sponsor of the 1951 New Yorker convertible that served as the Indy pace car in 1951. Some of you old-timers may remember him: O.O. Roth of Roth Motors in Littleton, Colorado.

Our goal was to build a “sleeper” that appeared stock but would blow the doors off of anything being manufactured at the time. Bore and stroke were left stock, but the engine was completely disassembled and was balanced, ported and totally blueprinted. An Ed Iskendarian or Chet Herbert roller tappet camshaft was installed (can’t remember which, but have had both), and it was nothing radical, but it gave the engine a slight lope at idle. The two-barrel carb was heavily modified and thinner head gaskets were installed to raise compression slightly. The engine would rev freely due to the cam and the balancing of the internals. Shift points were raised to 6,000 RPM, which permitted a 3rd and 4th shift at just over 70 MPH versus 60 MPH stock.


Regarding Chrysler’s quirky four-speed transmission, most people did not understand this transmission and didn’t have a clue how to shift it for maximum performance. Low gear was where 2nd gear is on a conventional transmission. Overdrive was available on both Low and 3rd gear – 3rd being conventionally located. Normal driving was to start in 3rd gear and shift around 70 MPH. Normally to go into overdrive meant letting up on the accelerator, there would be a slight pause and the transmission should shift into 4th gear on its own. The secret was to pop the clutch at 70 MPH and move the shifter up towards Low gear just enough to make electrical contact, thus fooling the transmission to shift much, much quicker. If you were racing anything “serious” it was to your advantage to start in Low, which was geared very close to Low on a Hydra-Matic, and at approximately 6,000 RPM shift into 3rd, and then 3rd overdrive, which was 4th. Sounds a bit complicated, but it worked as well as any conventional three-speed on the market.

Did I ever get beat? Yes, but not until the 1955 Chrysler 300 came on the market. I would stay with it to 100 MPH, and after that it was taillights – not mine – his. I drove this car to nearly 100,000 miles without incident. In 1956, I was out of the Navy and went to work for the Chevrolet dealer in Champaign, Illinois. Sold the old Saratoga and bought a ’56 Bel Air with a stick, overdrive, 4:11 gears and a dual four-barrel Corvette engine. Then a new story began, but that’s better left for another day.