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Backward Glances: 1952 Chrysler T53E1- A Lost Branch On The Power Wagon Family Tree

Posted in Features on July 12, 2017
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When you look at the things Chrysler Corporation was working on from the 1930s into the 1960s, you will note they were at the forefront of the technology curve. We could cite many examples in the car world, but the company’s truck developments were equally cutting edge, even if many of them never saw the light of day.

In the mid-1940s, Chrysler was riding high on World War II production and their success as the major supplier of light 4x4 trucks in that conflict gave them a lot of connections in what would become known as the Military Industrial Complex. As the Cold War heated up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, fanned by the Korean conflict, the U.S. Military began a modernization program at all levels. These developments started at the pointy end of the spear, but as that war-fighting hardware evolves, so must the rest of the spear. Military transport exists to carry the war fighters to the front lines and keep them supplied while they fight. If that part of the equation fails, so does the battle.

Most likely, this is the sole survivor of the two T53E1s built and has serial number 002. It hasn’t run in 30-plus years. You can’t really call it a “cabover” because the engine is mid-mounted behind the cab. Forward control is the more correct terminology. Note the suicide doors and it’s as hard to clamber in as it looks. It originally mounted a 7,500-pound PTO winch up front under the bumper, but it’s missing.

The Dodge family of light trucks had been a vital component in WWII, but changes in the battlefield and automotive technology had put them behind the current and projected technology curve. Chrysler began work on a replacement for the WWII W-series trucks in July of 1944, by most published reports, with a rig called the T233. The “T” number was Chrysler Truck’s internal nomenclature system, and because it was a military development, it was also given a GI “T” experimental number, in this case T-47. The goal of the project was a modular truck that could be quickly reconfigured for different roles. In just a few minutes it could transition from a ¾-ton cargo truck to a four-seat command and reconnaissance vehicle. Presumably other “presto-chango” roles were envisioned and the chassis was largely the same as what had been used for the W-Series Dodges for the war.

The next development was the T53 (Chrysler T237), which started in 1947. Three were built by 1949 and tested at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, doing extremely well. This rig had moved away from the modular concept, being more or less a cargo/personnel truck, but introduced a high level of technology. Among the highlights were a front mounted Continental air-cooled aircraft engine, a GM/Allison automatic transmission, outboard drum brakes, and independent torsion bar suspension. It was a slow-going project and the Army wanted a replacement for the WWII rigs right away, so from the general layout of the T53 came the M37. Development of the M37 started in 1948 and it was similar in dimension to the T53, but recycled many of the WWII powertrain components, and those used in the recently introduced Power Wagon. It went into production in 1951, but Chrysler continued development of the T53.

The brakes are outboard of the wheel and described as double discs activated by ball bearings on ramps. The truck has a very tall stance, so loading height was something only young soldiers would tolerate. Top speed was listed at 50 mph.

As the T53 was being tested, another major adaptation was developed called the T53E1. One of the bugaboos with the T53 was weight—a whopping 8,100 pounds. The T53E1 shared many components and features with the T53, but was mid-engine with a forward control cab. The cab and body were made of aluminum and a fiberglass hardtop was added, though a canvas top could be substituted. The engine devolved from a 402ci, 152 hp Continental AO-402-1 six-cylinder horizontally-opposed, air-cooled engine, to a four-cylinder version of the same engine that displaced 268ci and made 138 hp. With all the changes, the T53E1 dropped to a “mere” 6,350 pounds. The Army tested it starting in 1952 and, again, it won high marks for performance and features.

Like the T53, the T53E1 performed well and proved durable but cheap, it was not. Ultimately, it was found that a lesser rig like the M37 could do 80 percent of what the T53 was capable of and cost half as much. As a result, the T53 projects were discontinued, though many of the developments went on to be featured in other rigs. We all know torsion bar suspension played a big part in Chrysler cars for many years. The independent suspension was recycled to a degree in the 1970s when Chrysler competed for a contract in the development of another new military vehicle type, the HMMWV (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle).

The T53E1 had a generously sized cargo area with a wooden floor. You can see the pioneer tool rack at the front of the bed and the spare mounted on the engine deck just forward of it. The images of this vehicle on test in 1952 show it with a full canvas cover over the bed.

The vehicle shown is the second of the two vehicles built, the first having larger 11.00–20 tires and enlarged fenderwells. The owner, Dan Horenberger, knew all there was to know about it, but sadly and suddenly passed away before all the final interviews had been made. Dan was a foundation stone in the Jeep Forward Control community, and is sadly missed there, but his collection also ran to the more eclectic things like the T53E1. The history of this rig is murky from the end of tests to when Dan purchased it in 2013 out of Colorado. He found it there in non-running condition and showing 2,962 miles.

Probably the best way to look at the T53E1 is as a vehicle that was a little ahead of its time. It embodied all the things that became common in later military vehicles. Look at the ’59-’70 M-151 MUTT, the Humvee, and any number of European military rigs. At the time, despite generally good performance, it was just too complex and expensive for prime time.

This is a very unique setup. The front and rear axles and suspensions were identical. The rear had steering pivots like the front, so it could have been made into a four-wheel steer, but both the prototypes had the rear wheels locked into the straight-ahead position. The torsion bars acted on the upper control arms and there were dual shocks at each corner located directly across from each other on the upper arm. It isn’t known which axle universals were used, but Rzeppas are a safe bet.
One would hope the Continental flat-four was reliable because it’s incredibly difficult to access. The AO-268-4 was an adapted aircraft engine and fuel injected using a system we can’t even describe to you. It was a low revver, with peak power at 3,000 rpm, but it was torquey, as most aircraft engines are. It’s an obvious mess now and in need of some big help.
Again, we don’t know enough to describe what you are looking at. We know the truck used a three-speed GM/Allison TT-150-2 Torqmatic automatic. This is a very early version of the legendary Allison automatics used in trucks, and one of the earliest successful truck automatics. We can’t tell you much about the transfer case except that it’s listed as having two speeds. Most likely it was handbuilt for the application. Note the chassis is fully boxed and pretty beefy looking. Hard to believe this was supposed to be rated a ¾-ton.
Too bad ergonomics were not a part of military transport back in the day. Here is your typical spartan military interior guaranteed to cause hearing loss, spinal deterioration, and permanent numbutt. The seating position is decidedly odd, with your right foot off to the right more than is comfortable.
It’s rare enough to find a surviving prototype of any type, but to have a direct ancestor also surviving boggles the mind. This is the 1945 Chrysler T233 prototype, which had a modular body that could be converted quickly from a cargo truck or weapons carrier to a four-seat command car. The underpinnings were more or less standard WWII Dodge W-series pieces. This survivor belongs to noted Dodge and Jeep historian and author, Fred Coldwell.

The Details

Vehicle: Chrysler T53E1 (prototype)
Owner: Dan Horenberger
Engine: Four-cylinder, air-cooled, horizontally-opposed, Continental AO-268
Power (hp @ rpm): 138 @ 3,000
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm): 230 @ 2,600
Bore & stroke (in): 4.75 x 4.00
Comp. ratio: 6.9:1
Transmission: Three-speed auto, GM/Allison TT-150-2 Torqmatic
Transfer case: Two-speed
Wheelbase (in): 114
GVW (lb): 8,300
Curb weight (lb): 6,350
Fording Depth (in): 67
Tires: 9.00–20
Ground Clearance (in): 14

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