CC Capsule: Dodge Custom 880 – A Re-badging Success?

Photo by Eric Clem, taken from the Cohort.

As car snobs, we hate re-badges. We see a Packard Peregrine rolling down the road and think, “That idiot could have bought a Studebaker Star-cruiser and saved himself a ton of dough. He paid $1,000 for $10 in chrome and $50 in upholstery!”

For those unfamiliar with the 880’s story, here’s a brief recap:  It’s 1961, and Virgil Exner is still in charge of styling for Chrysler. He has a new line coming out, but during a social function a top-level Chrysler executive overheard (and misunderstood) a remark by his GM counterpart about the debut of a new, smaller Chevrolet; the result was that Chrysler’s powers that be issued an unfortunate edict to shrink the standard size 1962 Dodge and Plymouth because GM and Ford would be coming out with new and smaller competitors.

Dodge_1962_Polara_500image –

Those new small cars turned out to be the Ford Fairlane and the Chevy II; indeed, the General’s and Ford’s full-sizers were large as ever. And what showed up at Dodge and Plymouth dealers not only looked like a wool sweater left in the dryer a mite too long, but also sported “Godzilla Does Googie”-themed styling. Soon, the Dodge Boys were clamoring for something for which they could convince their usual buyers to sign on the dotted line. A scramble ensued in Highland Park for something that would sell–but what exactly to do?

Googie carIn the Collection of the Northeast Classic Car Museum, Norwich, NY

Well, first take the front clip of the 1961 Dodge…

529350475_72d3d7fcf0_z                      image by Kid Duce on Flickr!

…and graft it to the 1962 Chrysler. Voila!

8234692445_b447e1b77c_zimage by AldenJewell on Flickr!

Dodge’s years of work putting together Plodges helped the effort, and the strangely appealing result was called the Custom 880. Dodge’s 160,000 1962 sales total included some 16,000 880s that helped keep the Fratzog brand in business.


The question, then, was what to do for 1963? Mr. Exner had been shown the door once again, freeing him to focus his neoclassical energies on model kits (although evidence suggests that Exner penned the lines of the 1963 Dodge like the one that graced my neighbor’s driveway back then). Despite three inches of added wheelbase, the new “regular” Dodges were nevertheless judged too small to take on the big Fords and Chevys. Thus, the Custom 880 soldiered on, now joined by a plain 880 for thrifty individuals and fleet buyers. A new front clip was commissioned, but the strangely organic 1962 rear returned, albeit with revised taillights to justify its newness.  The 1963 does look a bit odd–the new front end doesn’t quite mesh with the carryover rear, while the ’62 at least managed to look like it was designed as a piece, and not another of Chrysler’s hurried, every-few-years Hail Mary passes.


6034353872_91052d082f_zImage by splattergraphics on Flickr!

In 1964 came a new and more harmonious rear-end treatment that finally escorted the overall look into the mid-1960s despite Exner’s by now passé soaring roof. Note how this car’s ruler-like side trim not only emphasizes its bigness, but also hints at the 1965 Chrysler’s styling. Of course, all that new 1964 tooling poses a bit of a head-scratcher, as the 1965 Dodges, with their full-sized lines and Elwood Engel’s crisply starched styling, were waiting in the wings.

5469721487_bbe33ff943_zImage by AldenJewell on Flickr!

In 1965 only the Custom 880 remained; the base 880 was now badged Polara. As it turned out, 1965 marked the 880’s final appearance on the showroom floor, as a new branding strategy rechristened it with a name that would live long and prosper: Monaco. In the end, the 880 fulfilled its mission of keeping the Dodge brand alive, at least until the next disaster–a fact that qualifies the 880 as a re-badge that worked.