NEW YORK — It is not built for speed. It burns through gas. And it is too big to park on any street.
But none of that matters when it is a 1952 Chrysler Imperial Parade Phaeton.
The open-air car in glossy black with red leather seats is New York City’s official parade car and the grande dame of the 30,000 vehicles in the nation’s largest municipal fleet. It stretches 20 feet from front to back to seat up to eight passengers, and it comes with its very own red-carpet floor. It has only one job: ushering VIPs through blizzards of ticker tape on Broadway.
For more than six decades, its back seat has been filled with a who’s who of world leaders and celebrities. It gave rides to the Apollo 11 astronauts, the American hostages freed from Iran and the New York Yankees fresh off a World Series win — and another and another. It introduced the city to Van Cliburn, escorted John Glenn twice and ferried the kings and queens of Greece, Denmark, Thailand and Nepal through the streets.
“It’s really a piece of city history,” said Lisette Camilo, commissioner of the Citywide Administrative Services Department, the official caretaker of the parade car. “It’s a touchpoint. It puts New York City at the heart of world events.”
The 1952 Phaeton was one of only three that Chrysler made — part of a tradition of custom-made parade cars that once carried the newsmakers of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s in grand style, all while showing off Chrysler’s latest design in the ultimate bit of product placement. No need to advertise with Queen Elizabeth II, John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong and Joe DiMaggio in the car.
The three Phaetons — each in a different color — were owned by the Chrysler Corp., which based them in New York, Los Angeles and Detroit, and lent them out for processions around the country. The cream-colored Los Angeles car made its debut at the 1953 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, with the grand marshal, Richard M. Nixon, then the vice president-elect, and his family in the back seat. The New York car made a cameo in the 1953 film “How to Marry a Millionaire,” starring Marilyn Monroe.
The 1952 Phaeton had an extra windshield mounted just behind the front seat to keep celebrities from getting windblown, a leather cushion stripped across the top of the back seat for being seen above the crowds and built-in flag-holders on the grill in front. Unlike today’s armor-plated cars, the Phaeton was fully exposed to bad weather and worse. All three have been updated, reupholstered and repainted over the years.
But the allure of the parade cars eventually faded. “There’s nothing older than last year’s parade car, dream car, or race car,” said Leslie Kendall, chief historian for the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “It’s done, it’s over, it had its moment in the sun. Time to move on.”
The cars in New York and Los Angeles were sold to those cities for a nominal fee in the early 1960s. The third car passed into private hands and later turned up in a car collection at the Imperial Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. In 2001, it was bought at auction by Robert E. Petersen, the son of a mechanic who built a media empire that included Hot Rod Magazine, and was relocated to the Petersen Automotive Museum. The reported sales price was $332,500. Today, all three Phaetons still carry out parade duties. Los Angeles’ parade car was featured in an episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage” in 2015 and carried Mayor Eric Garcetti in a parade as recently as April. The Petersen museum’s car was part of Petersen’s funeral procession in 2007. The two cars appeared together in a Christmas parade in Hollywood some years back. When the museum’s car was being driven away, some city employees thought it was their car.
“Cars are artifacts, just like pre-Columbian pottery and impressionist paintings, but we understand that they have a functional component — which is the reason they were built to begin with,” Kendall said.
New York’s Phaeton is so prized that it is housed in its own shed in Brooklyn and has its own entourage. It is escorted at all times by a car in front and in back, to ensure no one runs into it. A flatbed truck is sent along when it goes to other boroughs and beyond, in case of a breakdown.
It has logged more than 27,000 miles, mainly on parade routes. It stays home when rain is in the forecast. There is no heat or air conditioning. It stalled only once while carrying Rudy Giuliani, then the mayor, in a parade for Sammy Sosa on Broadway.
“My heart fell out of my body,” said Paul Herszdorfer, a deputy assistant commissioner at the Citywide Administrative Services Department. “I was like, ‘OMG.’ That’s your biggest fear — the car breaks down in a parade.'’ Giuliani ended up getting out and walking. The car had to be pushed to a side street and loaded onto the flatbed truck.
The parade car has been overshadowed in recent times by flashier floats and double-decker buses. At its last parade in 2015 for the U.S. World Cup-winning women’s soccer team, it lined up with the other parade vehicles. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the soccer players hopped onto a float. No one climbed in the parade car, so it drove empty and forgotten down Broadway.
On a recent afternoon, the Phaeton swung through downtown Brooklyn with Tony Leston, a city driver, behind the wheel and Camilo and her staff in back. The car squeezed through narrow cobblestone streets at barely 10 mph. Its extra-large, white-walled tires made for an unusually smooth ride. Pedestrians waved and snapped photos. Someone yelled out that it was the car that carried Kennedy when he was shot. (It was not.) “You get a lot of that,” said Leston, who was once asked by a newly married couple if they could jump in and take a photo. He let them.
Pulling into Brooklyn Bridge Park, the car drew a crowd. One man said it was too big. But to Dario D’Incerti, a visiting film director from Italy, the home country of the Ferrari sports car, it was perfect. “It’s one of the most beautiful cars I’ve seen in my whole life,” he said. “And I’m 65, I’m not 5, so I’ve seen a lot of cars.”
Rima Badawi, a pharmacist from lower Manhattan, said she would like to see more of the car. “It should be out more,” she said. “It should be available for rentals — for my daughter’s wedding someday.”
Leston recalled that when he stopped for gas in Brooklyn one day, the owner of an auto parts shop across the street came over to admire the car. Noting that the side mirrors were cloudy from age, the man returned to his shop, cut two replacement mirrors and presented them to Leston — at no charge.
“Anybody that’s around, it attracts attention,” Leston said. “All the time, it never fails. People have a love for it.”
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