Note: This piece currently is still a work-in-process
Plymouth Sets Sails
Few single years have been more profound for an automaker than 1928 was for the Chrysler Corporation. The company 5 year old not only introduced the stylish, mid-range DeSoto make, as well as the truck Fargo brand, but purchased Dodge, which at the time was the nation’s largest corporate merger. But perhaps more important than any of those was the creation of Plymouth.
The first Plymouth debuted on June 7, 1928. The event was at Madison Square Garden, in that day the nation’s biggest venue. Plymouth was a “low-priced” make designed to compete with Ford, Chevrolet and Willys. It was a bit more expensive than the established competition, but it was also roomier, more powerful, and a bit more refined. Plymouth had features like hydraulic brakes, and high compression engines which no other car in the low priced field could boast. Plymouth was a lot of car for the money, a philosophy that would sustain the brand for the next half century.
While General Motors was known for its marketing prowess and Ford for its manufacturing efficiencies, Chrysler Corporation was above all else an engineering powerhouse. That extended to its lowest price offering. Plymouth’s “Floating Power” chassis technology used insulated engine mounts to keep vibration out of the passenger cabin, giving Plymouth a more refined feel than its contemporaries.
Plymouth was a low priced car packed with tremendous value. Given the Great Depression that had by its 2ndbirthday, swallowed up the US economy, Plymouth was the right car at the right time. It was the only major maker to see sales actually rise during the depression. Within 4 years Plymouth had zoomed to #3 on the sales charts behind Ford and Chevy, giving rise to the term, the Big Three.
Watching the Detectives: Plymouth in the 1930s
All new for 1935, the Plymouth Model PJ was a real sleeper. Its new X-frame chassis gave the car a more controlled ride and better weight distribution. The engine was redesigned for a bit more power and much improved engine cooling, while being mated with a fully synchronized transmission. The PJ was a much improved car, and it looked the part with a sleeker body that was adopting the beginnings of aerodynamic streamlining
The Plymouth was an everyman’s car that managed to look a bit menacing. That made it a favorite for Hollywood’s everyman heroes. In Howard Hawk’s 1946 film noir classic, The Big Sleep, Humphry Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe drove a prewar 1937 Plymouth P3. When this writer discovered that what kind of car Bogie drove in this favorite of late show fare, Plymouth pretty much became synonymous with old movies and tough P.Is.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one to link Plymouths with the noir genre. When director Robert Zemeckis chose wheels for his grizzled detective played by Bob Hoskins in his wonderful noir-farce,Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he also made the association with Plymouth.
The Time when Time Stood Still
Plymouth rolled out its all-new 1942 models a few months before World War II forced the shutdown of all civilian automobile production.
When factories were relieved of their war-time duties four years later they were met with frothy demand. Car-starved consumers snapped up any new car they could find. With Manufactures needing to ramp up production quickly, the most expedient way was to simply dust off their 1942 tooling, swap in some new bits of chrome trim and call them 46s. No one complained that they were getting warmed over 1942 cars, so long as the odometer read “0.” And why bother with spending on new ‘47 or ’48 models when as long as the sellers-market raged, nothing much needed changing but the VIN numbers.
A new Plymouth P-18 full sized car was released in March of 1949 – 6 and 10 months after the respective arrivals of handsome new Fords and Chevy’s. Plymouth’s cars were new, too, but their problem was that they didn’t look all that new. Chrysler’s chairman, K.T. Keller, refused to follow the longer/lower/wider “fad” that the industry seemed so taken with. Chrysler’s cars would stick to proven design philosophies, conservative looks and with plenty of room inside. K.T. Keller was 6’4” and over 300lbs. For K.T, a lot of room was a lot of room. Thus, the 1949 ½ Plymouths were upright and dull, at a time customers were looking for sleek and exciting
The Plymouth P-17 variant introduced a few months later was more radical, but in the wrong direction. It rode on a wheelbase shortened by 7 inches, making it the Big Three’s smallest car. A decade later the market would embrace the frugal image of a compact car, but at the start of the 1950s, bigger was still perceived as better. The P-17 lasted only 3 model years of lackluster sales.
While Plymouth’s “compact” car wasn’t quite what the market was looking for as it entered a new decade, the Suburban station wagon introduced in 1950 was a game changer. While often referred to as the first steel-bodied wagon, the 2-door Suburban was actually the third such creature. But the Jeep CJ-based 1946 Willys and the subcompact 1948 Crosley that proceeded it appealed to more specialized audiences.
Those grand woodies were still what America though of when they thought of wagons. Plymouth couldn’t abandon them completely. They still offered a 4-door wood-body that year. But the death toll for timber sounding. Steel required little maintenance and was safer in a wreck. They were significantly cheaper, too. Not surprisingly, in its first year, the steel-bodied Plymouth outsold its wooden sibling by almost 6 to 1. Plymouth did not offer a woody in 1951, and by 1954, no one did.
Awakening: The Exner Era
Many years ago I was out on a date with an artist, a hipster before anyone had thought of the term. I’ve long forgotten her name but not her style. Upon discovering that I knew something about cars, she announced that her current dream car was a 1960 Plymouth Valiant. Really, I asked, not prepared for such a pronouncement but intrigued nonetheless. She liked tail fins, you see, and the Valiant was the cheapest car she knew of that had them.
By the late-1950s, Detroit had taken note of the Import Invasion. Sales of imported cars, led by the diminutive Volkswagen Beetle, had topped 100,000. It wasn’t until the 1960 model year that the Big Three finally had their new compacts ready to do battle. General Motors unveiled the technically advanced, but not, as it turned out, fully develop, rear-engined Corvair. Ford offered up the simple and austere, yet strangely handsome Falcon. Chrysler’s response was the high-style Valiant, the only one sporting honest to god tail fins.
All three of Detroit’s import fighters were about 3/4ths the size and price of their standard sized siblings. The Plymouth, however, had two features that set it apart. The first standout was the soon to be legendary “Slant Six” engine. Engineers tilted the motor 30 degrees to the right. This positioning allowed for better lubrication, a lower hood line, and a pretty cool nickname. The Slant Six would provide bullet-proof reliability to the frugalest of Chryslers for the next quarter century. The second was that the Valiant was voluptuous. It had not one but two flowing pairs of the aforementioned fins.
The Slant Six came in several sizes and power levels. The top dog on the option list was the special order Ram Air Hyper Pak, with a 4bbl carb and 148hp, that could propel a Valiant to 122mph. To showcase the Hyper Pak, Exner penned his eponymously named XNR sports car. He couldn’t make the case for getting it into production.
Even so, looking at the XNRs luscious lines makes me think that Ex, unlike yours truly, would have gotten a second date with my fin-loving femme.
The Valiant served well for another 15 years. Later versions of the Valiant provided owners with reliable basic transportation. They supplied Plymouth with reliable 6-digit sales numbers. As for being anyone’s dream car? Not likely.
Lets Get Small
While “Lets get small” was probably the genius comedian Steve Martin’s greatest routine, getting small didn’t work out so well for the Chrysler Corporation’s new full sized cars of 1962. It was funny, though in a different sort of way. Like watching a multibillion 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 Sunday 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, who 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 time Exner and his team were at work on an all-new full sized line 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 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 and it was 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.
Then came that fateful Monday morning. Newberg, the Chrysler president, marched into the studios and told Exner and his designers to stop 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 car from scratch. The only viable option was 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 shoulders 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 a pretty car.
And it didn’t this time. The Swept Wing styling, so beautiful and flowing on a larger car, now looked awkward and top-heavy on the shorter, narrower body. To make matters worse, cost the accountants killed the PPG curved glass that gave the car’s flanks their contour and helped integrate the body with the greenhouse.
Credit the stylists, however. 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 were not 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, 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 Ex 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 '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 2 years. Sales grew by over 50%.
For 1965, Engle unveiled his new from the ground up, fully full-sized 1965 cars. Sale rose another 19% and Plymouth was again the #3 selling car in America. The brands’ decent into smallness had mercifully come to an end.
The Plymouth Barracuda was introduced on April 1, 1964 but it was no joke. It was a sporty derivative of the tried and true Valiant compact sedan. The Barracuda broke ranks with the vanilla Valiant sporting a sleek fastback roof, bucket seats, and an innovative fold-down rear seat that created a long flat cavernous cargo area. It might have been the coolest new car of 1964… had not 16 days later Ford introduced the Mustang.
Comparing the Barracuda to the Mustang was like seeing two movies about the same subject, but one is an art house film, the other a Hollywood blockbuster. You appreciate the Barracuda’s elegant shape as the eye lingers on its many fine details. With the Mustang, you are swept up in the spectacle of it all.
The sales charts, like the box office, revealed America’s preferences. Plymouth made a tidy profit selling 23,000 Barracudas in its abbreviated first year, and a further 65,000 in 1965. Ford sold nearly a million Mustangs it its first 18 months, giving birth to an American icon. Together the Mustang and Barracuda launched a brand new automotive category… and they weren’t called Fish Cars.
A redesign for the Barracuda came in 1967. Following the Mustang’s lead, the sporty Plymouth no longer bore such stark visual connection to the dull-as-dirt compact sedan on which it was based. It was now a unique line that included coupe, fastback and convertible version. The Barracuda’s humble beginnings where still evident to the sharp observer. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. With less mass and slightly smaller dimensions Barracuda was lighter nimbler than the Mustang, which had gotten bulkier with its own update that year.
Nineteen sixty-seven also saw the debut of Chevrolet’s sporty Camaro. Mercury brought out the elegant Cougar that was based on the Mustang. Pontiac introduced its sexy Firebird that year, too. Even though the Barracuda was the first of the sporty compacts, it seemed to always be playing catchup.
The 3rd generation Barracuda of 1970 finally caught up. This writer would say it left Mustang and the others in the dust. All visual links to the humble Valiant were obliterated. There was not a wrong line in this car. The ’70 Barracuda was arguably the most refined and handsome iteration of Chrysler’s new aircraft inspired “fuselage” look.
Unlike some of its competitors in the pony car field, with tasteful application of graphics and accessories, even tarted up versions of the Barracuda were still gorgeous. It may have been the best looking pony car ever.
The trouble with perfection is that it is fleeting. The trouble for Barracuda’s good looks came from Detroit’s requirement that each model year bring updates and “improvements.” Nineteen seventy-one brought a quadra-lamp faceplate, complete with a set of teeth in its grill that would do any predatory fish proud…but art it wasn’t.
The revised car seemed cartoonish compared to the sublime original. Two decades later, however, this made it the perfect choice of wheels for the cartoonish namesake star in TV’s Nash Bridges. What is it about network television that seeks to put undercover detectives in the most over covercars imaginable?
It was fitting, given the unfortunate timing of its earlier ancestors, that just as the Barracuda was reaching its full potential in 1970, the market at which it was aimed turned to decline. When work began on this latest, greatest, and unfortunately last Barracuda in 1968, combined Pony Car sales accounted for over 8% of the new car market. By its introduction 2 years later, the sector was grazing below 6%. By 1971, insurance rates on performance cars were soaring. Sales correspondingly cratered.
The Barracuda was cancelled midway through the 1974 season, almost 10 years to the day after it first hit the market.
The Muscle Car Era
If you were a carmaker in 1970 and you wanted to get the attention of a 10-year old boy, I can say from experience that this car will do the trick. No other car looked like a Plymouth Superbird. That long, sloped nose and towering rear wing were stunning, but they were not just for show. The reductions in drag and increase in downforce meant one thing; speed… lots of it. The Superbird was the fastest car on the big oval tracks of NASCAR. Too fast, as it turns out. The aero tech allowed the Superbird to out run period tire technology. Race rules were changed in 1971, setting NASCAR down a regulatory path that would eventually lead to the cant-tell-em-apart jellybean race cars of today.
Thanks to John Lasseter and the folks at Pixar Animation, 10 years olds of the Seventies aren't the only ones to be wowed by the Superbird.
Not all Plymouths of the early seventies rippled with muscles. The Cricket was a byproduct of Chrysler Corporation’s purchase of the Rootes Group in the early 1960s, much like a staph infection is a byproduct of poor hygiene. The Cricket started life as a Hillman Avenger, which was considered by Britons to be a monumentally bad car at a time when British cars in general were monumentally bad.
Cricket’s acceleration from 0-60mph took slightly less time than one of those endless matches in the sport that carries the same name.
The Last Plymouth
The last car ever to be conceived from the beginning as uniquely a Plymouth was the 1970 Duster. The 3rdgeneration Barracuda, also due out that year was larger and more expensive than its Valiant-based predecessor. At the same time, the compact 3rdgen Valiant was boxy and possessing not an iota of excitement. Between these two cars Plymouth planners spotted a gap in their lineup for an inexpensive 2-door with a bit of style.
Their problem was that the Barracuda was consuming a good portion of the product budget. So too had the redone 1969 full sized line. So, given only minimal funding, designers were forced to use about 90% of the 2-door Valiant granny-mobile and somehow turn it into something sporty and exciting. They decided to put all of their efforts into giving the Valiant one of the most attractive ass-jobs in the annals of the automobile.
Duster buyers were given a wide spectrum when it came to power options. They could specify anything from a budget-minded 198cu in, 125hp Slant Six, right up to a mighty 340cu in, 275hp V8. As it turns out. Of all the potent machines of the muscle car era, that Duster 340, with its combination of low weight and high power, turned in one of the faster times on the drag strip.
The Age of Malaise: Beginning of the End for Plymouth
As a teenager, our family owened a 1973 Torino wagon, a 1974 Vega, and a 1976 Volare Premier. With such a sampling of mid-seventies crud, I naturally viewed the Volare was a well-built, reliable car. It was not.