When we think about the golden muscle car era, the late ’60s and early ’70s come to mind. Let’s face it – winged cars, the Street Hemi, Six Packs, and Scat Packs made it much more interesting. Still, the fifties were a pivotal time for the Chrysler Corporation in the performance department, and one automobile with a secret Hemi weapon stood tall among the rest. Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about the 1956 Dodge Coronet D500.
To understand how this lesser-known performance car that occasionally slips the mind took over the muscle car scene and the world of NASCAR, we have to take a walk down memory lane and appreciate Virgil Exner’s futuristic stylistic vision.
It’s a True American Muscle Car
Hollywood paints the perfect American story of building a vision out of nothing, beating the adversary, and finally taking the crown. The 1959 Coronet D500 muscle car had a similar story. It was the first of its kind, and for history’s sake – it was the first proper Dodge muscle car. And that didn’t stop it from taking over the world of NASCAR despite being a newbie.
Developed Under Chrysler President William C. Newberg
Carl Kiekhaefer developed the 1956 Dodge Coronet D500 under President William C Newberg’s tenure. The D500’s styling was the visionary work of Virgil Exner. It is rumored that Kiekhaefer Racing, which was run by Carl Kiekhaefer, had a tough time with the factory and the then Chrysler President Newberg.
Still, in January 1956, the upgraded version of the D500, the D-500-1, was announced, and together with Dodge, Kiekhaefer put together unique pieces for the purposes of its homologation.
One of the First Cars To Use the Mass-Produced 1st Gen Hemi
It’s hard to deny the impact the Hemi has had in the world of automotive performance. It’s almost synonymous with the ‘American V8 engine of all time.’
Well, what you might not know is that the glory achieved by Mopar muscle cars of the late 60s and early 70s can be attributed to lesser-known Dodge cars, including the Coronet D-500, which was one of the first cars with the mass-produced 1st generation Hemi.
Broke Records Even Before the Challenger Was a Thing
They say the third time’s the charm. Still, the mysteriously developed 1956 Coronet D-500 proved otherwise for Hemi Performance, breaking speed records during an era when Hemi engines were just entering the automotive market.
In hindsight, it says a lot about Dodge’s ingenuity as a muscle car maker long before the Challenger was a thing.
High-Performance Version of the Base Model
The race versions of the D-500 that adorned the iconic ‘checkered flags’ used the baseline Dodge Coronet as the basis of the Mopar performance.
Unlike other Chrysler offerings such as the DeSoto, Plymouth Fury, or the 300D, the 1956 Dodge Coronet D-500 was physically indistinguishable from the baseline model on which it was based. The only discreet external features were the checkered flag and “500” lettering.
500 Were Produced As Homologation Cars
To be certified roadworthy and safe for public use (and qualify for NASCAR), the Dodge division had to offer the public at least 500 high-performance Dodge Coronets at par with NASCAR’s homologation requirements.
As a result, the D-500 version was also available on any Dodge model, including two-door sedans and the Station Wagon variant.
The ‘Flags of Distinction’ Were a Dead Giveaway
The 1956 Dodge Coronet came with the iconic “flags of distinction.” It was the only thing that separated the D-500 from other Dodge muscle cars. The checkered flags were placed at the front and rear of the vehicle, and a “500” lettering on its lower deck.
Much like it is today to tell the difference between a base model car and a performance variant – the ‘flags of distinction’ on the D-500 indicated it was a performance-bred line.
The ’56 D-500 Was a Mild Face-Lift
While the 1956 Dodge Coronet D-500 was visually indistinguishable from other Dodge models, there was a mild facelift. At the back, the ‘56 D-500 Coronet came with higher, finned rear fenders (applicable on all models).
Also, on the interior, the control of Chrysler’s optional PowerFlite automatic transmission changed to include the revolutionary and what would later become ‘the infamous pushbutton.’
‘56 Dodge Coronet D-500-1 Made 285 Gross HP
The 1956 Dodge Coronet D-500 packed a 315 Hemi V8 capable of making 260 hp and 330 lb-ft torque at 3,000 RPM. The D-500-1, specifically developed for NASCAR competitions, used the same engine but with larger valves, a double log intake manifold (with two four-barrel Carter WCFB carburetors), full race camshaft, and a stiffer suspension. Together, these mods produced 285 hp.
D-500 NASCAR Performance Was Bone Stock
In the 50s, NASCAR required all race stock cars to be actual stock cars – meaning mods were not allowed. Well, the inspections indeed confirmed that the D-500 Dodge Coronet was stock.
And thanks to Kiekhaefer Racing and Dodge’s detailed piecing, the ‘56 D-500 was text-book stock, down to the details (even featuring a spare and jack in the trunk).
‘56 D-500 Coronet Trims Varied
While the 1956 D-500 was indistinguishable from other Dodge models, the racing models of the D-500 varied from the base model Coronet to the Custom Royal. The D-500 packed a heavier suspension perfect for handling and high speeds.
There was also a D-500-1 that was developed specifically for NASCAR racing (serial number stamped on the engine block) and came with an added 25 horsepower (285 hp) and tougher suspension from the regular D-500.
Prototype For Dodge Muscle Cars?
Let’s face it. Only a handful of cars have come out and smashed records – on their first run. In 1956, the D-500 Coronet was the world’s fastest production car. Think about it. This was a randomly selected 4-door sedan that smashed speed records at Bonneville, Utah, on its first run.
Looking at the specs, the 1956 Dodge Coronet D-500 was developed ground-up for performance. It is believed the D-500 was the prototype for Dodge Muscle cars that followed.
The Dodge D-500 Was a True Symbol of the American Spirit
They say that the true American spirit is an attitude of self-determination and individual liberty. The story of the ’56 D-500 couldn’t be further than that. The engineers, designers, and developers put all their efforts into an upgraded random four-door base model vehicle, and the result paid off the first time around.
None of these would have been possible if the team lacked determination – or liberty. If you’ve had a hand on a project car, you understand that 9 out of 10 times, nothing works on the first try.
Push Button Capabilities
A lot has happened to the automotive world since the first Dodge Coronet D-500 rolled out of the assembly line. Today, car owners marvel at the convenience and ease of driving with advanced automated transmissions.
In the next decade, almost all vehicles will have push buttons or rotary knobs for gear shifting. Well, what you might not know is it all started with Dodge with the ‘Dodge Magic Touch Control’ that was introduced on 1956 Dodges, including the D-500.
The First of Many
The D-500 Coronet was indeed a special car and the first of many. For starters, it was one of the first Dodge models to run the 1st generation Hemi.
Chrysler claimed it was the world’s fastest production car in 1956, and NASCAR championships proved that bold statement right. The D-500 went ahead to break 306 speed and endurance records at Bonneville Raceway, Utah, that year.
Won 11 Races in 1956
They say there’s more to life than increasing speed, but for Dodge, 1956 was a year to set speed benchmarks. Breaking 306 speed and endurance records was just the beginning; the Dodge D-500 Coronet bagged 11 races that season, stamping its authority as the world’s fastest production car. Behind the D-500’s success that year was Chrysler’s ultimate secret weapon – the Hemi powerplant.
To understand how the D-500 came to be, you need to go back in time to post-war America. Initially, Chrysler was researching and developing engines for the military during World War II.
These engines were designated for the P-47 Republic Thunderbolt Fighter plane and the M47 Patton Tank. After the war, their Research and Development changed course, morphing into what we now know as the Hemi engines.
The D-500 option included a 315 cid V8
Under the hood, the 1956 Dodge Coronet D-500 packed a 315 cid V8 Hemi that, unlike other Dodge V8s at the time that had polyspherical heads, this particular mill came with 9.25:1 compression, hemispherical heads, a unique camshaft, pushrods, valve lifters, and WCFB Carter four-barrel carburetor.
The setup was good for 260 hp and 330 lb-ft. To harness the power was a three-speed manual or optional infamous Magic Touch pushbutton two-speed automatic.
D-500 Was a True Sleeper
The 50s Dodges look nothing like the current trim of Dodge muscle cars. They are more stylish and less mean. If anything, the ‘56 D-500 is just a higher-performance variant of the standard 1956 Dodge.
However, for what it lost on the exterior in terms of grim appearance, it gained underneath: Heavy-duty suspension, chassis upgrades, better brakes, a Hemi mill, and a 4-barrel carburetor.
Still Worth a Pretty Penny
The collector car scene is blowing up, and just like art pieces are selling for millions of dollars, classic cars are currently fetching a fortune.
The D-500 wouldn’t fetch anything like the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR ‘Uhlenhaut Coupe did, but with time – who knows? Based on recent auction stats, the 1956 Dodge Coronet D-500 with ‘checkered flags’ costs anything between $30,000 to $40,000.
The Revolutionary Highway Hi-Fi
Today, car infotainment systems have their own lengthy pages on brochures at the dealership. It’s no longer only about visual appearance and engine performance – but also on-board entertainment.
In the 50s, in-car tech wasn’t such a big deal, and it is safe to say that Chrysler had a hand in what has turned out to be a $29 billion industry with the Highway Hi-Fi. Forget the AM/FM radio. Think memory sticks and CD players (but in the 50s). Chrysler and Columbia Record made a deal to provide an exclusive 1-hour Vinyl Disc (with restricted titles). It was a monumental flop.
Helped Shed Off Dodge’s Old Maid Image
For its era, the D-500 was quite the looker. Classic car aficionados still praise it for its sleek, higher-finned rear and iconic checkered flags on the trunk lid, not forgetting the ‘500’ lettering.
The ‘55-’56 Dodge – which also included the Coronet helped shed Dodge’s old-maid image, forging a new reputation in the American car market as a stylish car maker.
The ‘56 D-500 Was What America Needed Post-War
Despite the effects of WWII, Americans looked at the future with optimism. The situation called for it, and the post-war years will go down as some of the most affluent years in the United States.
Education, Real Estate, and the economy boomed – and there was arguably no better time in American history to own a home and buy a car (live the American dream). The 1956 D-500’s success as a performance car in NASCAR and its entry into the American muscle car scene is part of that progressive glory the society needed to forge ahead.
Greatest of an Era
It’s still unknown how many 1956 Dodge Coronets D-500 are left. The D-500s are quite a rare breed on the road and even in classic car shows. Still, it’s safe to think of this classic performance car as the forerunner to the renowned Dodge Daytonas and the Superbirds.
The D-500 had the most potent mill from Dodge in 1956 – same as the 426 Hemi during the 60s. The D-500 was Dodge’s ultimate performance car of the ’50s.