While “Let's get small” was probably the genius comedian Steve Martin’s greatest routine, getting small didn’t work out so well for the Chrysler Corporation and its new full sized cars of 1962. It was still funny, though in a different sort of way, watching a multi-billion dollar car company slip on a banana peel.
It all started on a pleasant spring Sunday in 1960. As the story goes, while attending a garden party, new Chrysler President William C. Newberg overheard then Chevrolet boss, Ed Cole, talking to a companion about a downsized Chevy being developed for a 1962 introduction. This was alarming news for Newberg, who was in his first few weeks on the job. The industry had not recovered from the 1958 recession, and the big, swoopy and freshly redesigned cars had not been well received in the marketplace. AMC’s irrepressible leader, George Romney, was all over the media claiming that the age of the “Detroit Dinosaur” was at an end. The AMC lineup was nipping at Plymouth’s heels for the number three spot on the sales charts with a lineup of nearly exclusively smaller cars, causing commentators to suggest that the consumer’s tilt toward frugality was permanent. On top of all this, rumors were circulating of a smaller Ford due in ’62.
Fearing that the rest of the market was zigging small, as Chrysler zagged big, Newberg could perhaps be forgiven arriving at Chrysler headquarters Monday morning in a panic.
At that same time, Chrysler design chief Virgil M. Exner and his team were hard at work on an all-new full sized lineup for 1962. It would be a departure from his past themes. The prominent tail fins were gone, replaced with tucked wings swept strait back like a raptor in full dive. The proportions of the car were also swept back, emphasizing a long hood and short rear deck. Originating from prominent headlamps, another pair of tucked wings flowed gracefully into the front doors, lending further preeminence to the long wide hood. Between these subtle but elegant style lines was a sleek cabin section featuring side windows that were nearly flush with the doors, like the body of a jetliner. While this is common design practice today, in the early 60’s it was revolutionary. Exner had sought this ‘fuselage’ look for years but it was now made possible by a special curved side glass developed by supplier PPG. Ex referred to the new look as “Swept Wing,” and it might well have turned around his and Chrysler’s ailing fortunes.
Those fortunes were not helped by Exner’s attempts at creating a modern interpretation of the 1930s Classic Era. The 1961 Plymouth was, to put it kindly, not well received.
Then came that fateful Monday morning. Newberg marched into the studios and told Exner and his designers to drop what they were doing and get to work on a crash downsizing program. One stylist who was present that morning called it Chrysler’s “Day of Infamy.”
With about 20 months until the start of the ’62 model year, there was no time to design a new smaller car from scratch. The only viable option as to stretch the compact Valiant platform into a not so full sized full-sized car.
Funds were short. With Chrysler still suffering lingering effects of the recession, the suits from finance were looking over everyone’s shoulder for cost savings. Then Virgil Exner was stricken with a heart attack and could not vigorously fight for his say. With a directive from the president, no money, and their leader laid low, the designers had no choice but to compromise - that dreaded solution that almost never produces anything pretty.
And it didn’t this time. The Swept Wing styling, so beautiful and flowing on a larger car, looked awkward and top-heavy on the shorter, narrower body. To make matters worse, the accountants killed the expensive PPG curved glass that gave the car’s flanks their contour and helped integrate the body with the greenhouse.
Credit the stylists, however. While the results weren’t good, but they weren’t bad either. Given the circumstances of the ’62 Plymouth, “not bad” is as good as one could hope for.
It was much worse for the Plymouth's sister car, the 1962 Dodge Dart, The impressionist Picasso might have considered the Dart a bit strange looking. One reviewer likened it to an “angry warthog.” You have to wonder with this one if the designers weren't venting some of their frustrations.
Despite his heart condition, Virgil Exner protested as vehemently as he could against Newberg’s decision. Americans would return to big cars just as soon as the nagging remnants of the recession were past. As it turned out, Ex was right.
And Newberg? He was as wrong as wrong can be. Nineteen sixty-two arrived and the downsized Chevrolet that he had heard being discussed turned out to be a conventional new compact called the Chevy II. The big Impalas, Bel Airs and Biscanes were as full-sized as ever. The smaller Ford he’d heard rumored was the new Fairlane, that was slotted between the compact Falcon and the still very big Galaxy. Newberg had made Chrysler zig while the rest of the industry had kept right on zagging.
William Newberg was not around for Exner to say ‘I told you so.” Just months after his decision to get small, Newberg became embroiled in a scandal involving kickbacks and nepotism and was forced to resign. Ex wasn’t around either. Oh, he survived the heart attack. But between the market’s tepid response to his not at all tepid looking 1961 cars, and him publicly referring to the company's '62s as "plucked chickens," Ex got the sack, too.
Exner's replacement, Elwood Engle, who had been brought over from Ford after he had penned the iconic 1961 Lincoln Continental, managed to draw some pretty feathers onto those plucked chickens over the next two years. Sales grew by 50% over that time.
For 1965, Engle unveiled his new from the ground up, fully full-sized 1965 cars. Sales rose another 19% and Plymouth was again the #3 selling car in America. The brand's decent into smallness had mercifully come to an end.
Copyright@2018 by Mal Pearson