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Snapshot NY: Taking A Ride In The Seat Of New York History

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- If you've watched a ticker-tape parade in New York over the past seven decades, you've seen the same car lead the way down the Canyon of Heroes.

The prized possession of the city's fleet of vehicles is the focus of this week's Snapshot New York with CBS2's Steve Overmyer.

Some people hate to drive in the city, but the Big Apple is great for driving if you have the right car.

In 1952, Chrysler custom-built an Imperial Phaeton car exclusively for New York City. Ever since then, every parade has included this car, starting with Ben Hogan in 1953 when Broadway became Hogan's Alley.

Paul Herszdorfer is the caretaker of this rolling piece of history.

"Right here is where the 1969 astronauts came out of city hall with the car and went down the block," he said from the driver's seat.

The car has also carried world champions, kings and queens.

"When you are in a ticker-tape parade, you can feel the energy," said Herszdorfer. "It's amazing."

It's hard to keep the car only moving at 5 mph.

"This car wants to go," said Herszdorfer.

It is not built for speed, but it has a V-8 Hemi under the hood. Every part of the car was custom made by Chrysler and styled to challenged norms. There are gun sight taillights and a flared fender that inspired the most iconic styling trend of the '50s: Tail fins.

How has Herzdorfer kept the body of the car so straight for so many years?

"Having a motorcade around you to make sure nobody touches you," he said with a laugh. "That's one of the things."

New York City's Chrysler Imperial Phaeton
New York City's Chrysler Imperial Phaeton parade car (credit: CBS2)

PHOTOS: Take A Closer Look At The Imperial Phaeton

In the 1950s, cars reshaped cultural attitudes and self-expression. They have been a symbol of freedom and emblem of America's pioneering spirit. If they are preserved, they can become priceless.

As a million-dollar car, that price doesn't make Herzdorfer nervous when driving down the street.

"No, all the history it has makes me nervous, not how much it's worth," he said. "But this car has been through a lot of history."

New York has always had a special relationship with ticker-tape parades and the Phaeton has led the charge. For the past 67 years, it has ferried everyone from Yogi's Yankees to Jeter's Yankees.

"OK, we're coming down Broadway during the parade," said Herzdorfer. "The paper was bunching up on the floor. Some of the paper went under the car and it started to ignite."

He had flames coming out from under the Phaeton, a real-life nod to its mythic namesake.

A fire under this Chrysler was fitting. According to Greek mythology, Phaeton was the son of Helios. One day he was allowed to drive his father's flying chariot. Unable to control it, he went down in flames.

New York City's Chrysler Imperial Phaeton
New York City's Chrysler Imperial Phaeton parade car (credit: CBS2)

Driving this piece of history is exhilarating.

Despite its weight and length, it proved surprisingly responsive and agile. Steering was light and creates the smoothest ride with no rattles.

There are more than 30,000 vehicles in New York City's municipal fleet. This car is the crown jewel: If you've sat on the deck lid of this car, you've achieved something great.

"People don't want to sit up here for some reason," said Herzdorfer. "If we're moving, you might fall. It's a good thing there's handles back here. Well, that's why we put a seat belt. You have to put a seat belt on to sit back here."

Few analog classics survive in a digital world, but the parade car of New York connects generations.

Herzdorfer said the car is maintained and detailed every week, and even though it is 67 years old, it only has 27,000 miles on it.

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