The fact that the downsized and unusually-styled 1962 Plymouth and Dodge were a blunder is indisputable, in terms of their failure on the market. But there’s one or more upsides: We invariably love stories of human folly, as it makes us feel just a wee bit smarter. And the more extreme the folly, the more delicious the resulting schadenfreude. But blunders often contain brilliance. And the stories are often not as simple as they’re commonly made out to be.
The story of how these cars came to be have become the automotive equivalent of a Grimm’s fairy tale on stupidity: Once upon a time, Chrysler’s William Newberg was at a party and overheard Chevrolet’s Ed Cole saying that there was going to be a smaller Chevy for 1962 (the Chevy II). Jumping to a wildly erroneous assumption that Chevy was going to downsize its large cars, Newberg instantly decreed that the already-designed large 1962 Plymouth and Dodge were to be cut down drastically.
And as a consequence, Virgil Exner’s original styling no longer fit; he had to chop the originals down and called them “plucked chickens” and disavowed any responsibility for them. And he was fired regardless. And of course, the cars were total duds. And we invariably chuckle when we repeatedly hear this fable of how a giant corporation spent nearly one billion (current) dollars on this impulsive redesign as well as cancelling its planned new 1962 Chrysler and Imperial, all based on an overheard comment.
Well, I stopped believing fairy tales a while back, and this story is simply too pat. “Corporations are people, my friend”, and corporations, like people, act according to their personality, even if that personality has a touch of bi-polar. In the case of Chrysler’s personality, there was a well-established tension between styling and engineering; between excess and restrained practicality. This dynamic manifested itself in large swings in both the size and the styling of their cars. In 1962, these two dynamics collided, and the results are commonly judged to be either a stylistic train wreck or a welcome breath of fresh air; too small or just right-sized; an aberration based on an overheard comment or the result of a long-simmering internal power struggle as to the direction to take in an increasingly fragmenting market. The line between brilliance and folly is a very fine one.
A more nuanced insight on these controversial cars requires a skeptical reading of the existing stories and closer look at Chrysler’s history, which was then just some 35 years old, and still very much reflecting its founders’ personalities. That makes this anything but a short, quick, and pat story. And although some conjecture is inevitable given the dearth of available facts and the often inconsistent stories published so far, it’s not going to be a fairy tale.
Walter Chrysler, a self-trained railroad mechanic, engineer, and railroad works manager, moved into the automobile business and became a successful executive at Buick and GM and a rescuer of several other auto manufacturers. He then enjoyed meteoric success with his 1924 Chrysler 70, due to its overwhelming engineering superiority. It was technically some five years or so ahead of its competition at the time (“Suddenly It’s 1929”), with its powerful engine, hydraulic four-wheel brakes, and other features.
These were the doing of his key lieutenants, the engineering holy trinity of Carl Breer, Owen Skelton, and Fred Zeder. That advanced engineering was the making of the company was deeply etched into the corporate mindset. These Chryslers were also attractive, as Walter knew that was important too. His brilliant synthesis of these qualities propelled Chrysler into the number two position in 1936, out of almost nowhere.
Chrysler’s only flub during the pre-war years was the 1934 Airflow. It was predictable that Chrysler’s engineers would be highly attracted to the objective benefits of streamlining. And that wasn’t all; the Airflow was very advanced in other ways; by pushing its engine well forward over the front axle, the passenger compartment could be moved forward, now fully between the axles, allowing substantially more width, room and a better ride. That was functionally a bigger step forward than its aerodynamics. Unfortunately, the Airflow’s blunt and too-different front end styling turned off buyers, despite its many inherent objective advantages.
The Airflow debacle would be remembered for a long time, and made Chrysler more conservative. But that doesn’t mean its focus on engineering and the resulting objective qualities was diminished; rather the opposite, actually.
Chrysler’s key lieutenant and heir apparent two was ‘K.T’ Keller, who became Chief Executive in 1935, and took full control in 1938 after the founder became ill. Keller had a similar mechanical-production dominated background to Chrysler, but lacked his mentor’s flair for what buyers wanted in a car, something that was of course perpetually changing. But there was nothing to suggest any kind of significant change in the direction of Chrysler, which suited its stockholders just fine. During the Keller era, Chrysler typically had healthy profits, and diligently plowed a high share of its revenues and profits back to its stockholders. Everybody was happy, for the time being. But Keller was steeped in the pre-war era, which did him no favors in the very different era to come.
Given what was to come stylistically at Chrysler under Keller, it would be wrong to say that Keller did not have any appreciation for advanced design. Keller was smitten by the 1941 Thunderbolt, designed by Alex Tremulis.
During WW2, Keller managed to keep a few designers (A.B.”Buzz” Grisinger, John Chika and Herb Weissinger) at work on developing concepts for the post-war era. These progressive, pontoon-style Chrysler models from 1942 clearly show Thunderbolt influence, and the direction they were working towards for new post-war cars. But the three of them debarked for Kaiser-Frazer, where their ideas were developed further into the stylistically-advanced pontoon-style 1946 K-F cars.
Their departure resulted in K.T. Keller exerting more direct influence over styling, and the tension between short boxy cars and stylish, smooth long ones clearly shifted. Keller explained in advance that the 1949 cars would favor interior space, including the ability to enter and exit with a hat on. “Our cars are made to sit in, not pee over”, was one of his more salient quotes on the subject. “Bigger on the inside, smaller on the outside” was the official line. But Keller’s bet turned out to be wrong; hat-wearing was on the way out and massive headroom was no longer the priority the market was looking for.
When the Big Three finally unveiled their all-new post-war cars for 1949, the Plymouth (and all the Chrysler cars) came off looking boxy, tall, short and dumpy compared to the smoother, longer and more stylish Chevrolet (top) and Ford (bottom). But despite being half a foot shorter overall than the other two, the Plymouth had a significantly longer 118.5″ wheelbase,and as a consequence, its interior space utilization was superior. With its short overhangs and tall body, the Plymouth predicted the CUVs of today. “Suddenly It’s 2010!”
But that wasn’t all. Plymouth also had an even smaller version, the P17, which sat on a 111″ wb, was a mere 185″ long, and could be considered a genuine foray into compact-car territory. This was the smallest car in America at the time, except for the diminutive Crosley.
Although Keller’s fedora-mobiles sold reasonably well enough during their long run (1949-1952), they under-performed the market dominated by their flashier, lower and longer competition. Chrysler’s lost its coveted number two rank to a rejuvenated Ford in 1950, and its market share continued to slip, steadily. Clearly, the pendulum had swung too far.
Perhaps to compensate for his dominant tendencies towards short and boxy, Keller had initiated contact with the Italian design houses Pininfarina and Ghia in 1949 and contracted them to build two sedans. Pininfarina’s Chrysler sedan’s front end influenced the 1953 Plymouth’s.
The Plymouth XX-500 by Ghia (above), although a bit heavy in the rear, was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with that firm, because Ghia could build fully functioning concept cars much cheaper than Pininfarina. And in an even bigger step, 1949, Keller hired Virgil Exner to head and develop a new Advanced Styling Studio. The XX-500’s classic grille undoubtedly influenced Virgil Exner’s love for classic upright grilles.
In 1950, “Old KT” handed over the reins to Lester Lum ‘Tex’ Colbert, and the roller coaster ride that he and Chrysler would take in the 50s to 1961 was now underway. Things started off rather poorly.
Curiously enough, the 1953 Plymouth was downsized, again. Wheelbase was cut to 114″, and overall length to a mere 189″. It essentially split the difference between the two series of its predecessor. And the timing couldn’t have been worse: Ford and Chevrolet engaged in a production blitz to increase their market share at the expense of Chrysler and all of the independents.
Although Virgil Exner was not directly responsible for the rather lackluster 1953-1954 cars, he was peripherally involved, having championed its one piece windshield and integrated rear fenders, both decided steps forward from its predecessor. But the Plymouth and Dodge were out of step for the times, when the competition was going the opposite direction.
The results were dismal. Plymouth sales dropped a whopping 36% in ’53, despite the new styling, and then dropped another 29% in ’54. Dodge dove too. Chrysler Corp. market share, revenue and profit all took a nasty tumble. And Chrysler would never again be Number Two. Colbert was determined to right the listing ship, with an emphasis on design as well as size.
Exner’s job had been to create advanced concepts that would provide fertile ground from which future Chrysler production cars would sprout. After being introduced to the Italians via the XX-500, he formed a partnership with Ghia in Italy that became highly productive, and a stream of concepts, show cars and even limited production cars flowed from it. The first was the 1950 K-310, which is here posing with Exner and Luigi Segre, Ghia’s chief designer. The partnership with Ghia allowed Exner’s artistic abilities to flourish, as well as have them be turned into actual cars. A dream come true.
Although Chrysler never put any of these cars into production, it was a different approach from GM and Ford, who “built” much more outlandish concepts that were mostly non-functional. All the Ghia built cars were completely road-worthy.
We’re not going to do an in-depth review of the extensive collaboration with Ghia, but it must have been a deeply satisfying one for him, as Ex was an artist in temperament and was often referred to as “a designer’s designer”. This Chrysler D’Elegance from 1952 is an evolution of his K-310, and already shows numerous elements that would reappear on future production cars.
His love of the large classic grille, low set headlights, and most importantly, the lack of a continuous horizontal belt line are all in evidence here, as well as the signature fake spare tire cover (“toilet seat”) and free-standing taillights, which would both make repeated appearances on production cars. And note how flush the side windows are with the top of the door; that, along with the lack of a break at the base of the C-pillar was the beginning of Exner’s “fuselage style” that would come to fruition on the 1960 Valiant and 1962 Plymouth and Dodge.
Given how this story ends, ironically it was the failure of the downsized ’53-’54 Plymouth and Dodge that catapulted Exner into the big leagues, with big cars. He was promoted to Director of Styling in 1953, and tasked with the Herculean job of completely restructuring Chrysler’s Design Studios in the vein of GM’s Styling Studios, no longer under the wing of Engineering.
But most importantly, he put his career on the line by offering to completely the styling of the proposed new 1955 cars within a very short period of time. Colbert took him up on the offer, with less than 18 months to go before they went into production. The “Forward Look” had arrived, with its emphasis on long and strong front end styling.
The 1955 cars, which still sat on their predecessor’s 1949-vintage frames and chassis (with certain changes), were absolutely critical to returning Chrysler to health. And they lived up to the high expectations set for them. Exner had proven himself, and now had the full trust and support of the company behind him. Chrysler was back in the game, thanks to a big bet on big and stylish cars.
And they were mighty big, including the Plymouth, which shared its basic body shell with the Chrysler and Imperial. Overall length jumped to a whopping 203.8″, compared to 198.5″ for the ’55 Ford and 195.6″ for the ’55 Chevrolet. 1955 was a huge sales year for the industry and Chrysler; Plymouth managed a strong gain to 702k. Although ti was a relatively good year, even then Chrysler’s profit margins were not nearly as healthy as GM and Ford’s. Which left Chrysler with less margin for future errors or downturns.
But being back in the game was not enough for Exner; he was determined to leap-frog GM and Ford, and his ambition was soon fulfilled in the highly-finned 1957 cars, which were rushed into production one year earlier than the typical three-year cycle. It was a mammoth undertaking, not only their design, but also to convince the engineers that it was possible to build a car a full 5″ lower than its predecessor. And of course longer (204.6″) and wider (78.2″), essentially setting the standard for American full-size cars for years to come. The pendulum had now swung as far away from Kellner’s short, boxy fedora-mobiles as possible.
The resulting all-new chassis, including the new torsion bar front suspension—but still using a full frame—required a revolution in how these cars were developed. In the past the engineers at Chrysler had controlled the packaging, format, development and before the ’55s, even the styling of new cars; now they were forced to work in partnership with the stylists, if not even in a subordinate role. Were they happy about this? Was this all going too far? Would there be a growing backlash, not only inside Chrysler but outside as well?
Space efficiency, passenger comfort, seating position, parking and the ease of handling and maneuvering these very large cars had all now taken a back seat, and it did not sit well with many Americans, not just Chrysler engineers.
A public backlash was already brewing, fueled by the press and in books like “The Insolent Chariots” (1958). AMC was all-in with compact cars, and sales of the Rambler exploded in 1958 to number six overall. Studebaker brought out its successful 1959 Lark. And of course, there was an explosion of imports all through the 50s, and the rise of the VW Beetle, the ultimate anti-’57 Chrysler, was well under way. The bigger the Big Three cars got, the better the imports sold.
The Big Three had held off the insurgency of the first wave of domestic compacts in the early 50s, but now a tsunami was brewing. Detroit had convinced itself that bigger, longer, wider and finnier was the formula for Americans, but a rapidly growing number of them weren’t buying it anymore, or only buying it reluctantly, because the domestic alternatives weren’t quite palatable either.
Rightfully or not, Virgil Exner was now seen as the father of these finned beasts, and not just the ones Chrysler built. Fatherhood can be a heavy crown to wear. Exner, a chain smoker, had pushed himself very hard to get the ’57s completed. He preferring to spend his long days being hands-on, working out some detail in clay rather than just directing his teams. Ex suffered a massive heart attack in July of 1956, shortly before the ’57s arrived to great accolades. He had to recuperate at home for five months, and afterwards his health was delicate. He stayed in contact with his design teams, and took full responsibility for what came out of his studios, despite the turmoil. Obviously, the period that followed was more difficult, in more ways than one, including Chrysler’s precarious financial position. Bill Schmidt took effective control during Exner’s convalescence, and after Exner’s return, a nasty political battle divided the studios.
Serious quality lapses of the new ’57 Chrysler Corp. cars tainted these cars and the company further. Combined with a nasty recession of 1958, which hit large and more expensive cars disproportionately hard (think Edsel), Chrysler was in a world of hurt, posting a bruising loss of some $500 million ($4.2 billion adjusted) in 1958. 1959 was not much better either. Undoubtedly, there were heated internal discussions as to the choices Chrysler had made, and serious retrenchment was in order, including the beginning of repeated waves of deep cost-cutting. Many hundreds of white collar jobs were eliminated in successive waves.
There was also a serious intrinsic stylistic problem for the 1958-1959 years, as in how to follow-up on the bold new ’57s, given the financial limitations on doing anything more than minor refreshes. Meanwhile, Chevrolet was all-new in 1958, and would be again in 1959. And Ford’s changes to its cars during these years, which had mostly eschewed fins anyway, were much more extensive than at Plymouth, which had only a very minor refresh in ’58 and a slightly more ambitious face lift in 1959 (above). They already seemed stuck in 1957.
Although the 1960 models were touted as “new”, and eliminated the separate frame from the cowl back (unibody construction with a front subframe), the differences, as perceived by the customer—and in their actual stats—were very limited. Chrysler simply couldn’t afford truly “new” cars for 1960. Did this 1961 Chrysler 300 (bottom) really look that much different than the 1957 (top)? Look closely at the many details shared, both stylistically, and technically. They have the same wheelbase, front and rear track, height is the same, and their length is within a half inch, and width would be the same width save for the ’61’s outstretched fins.
That question would never be asked of the competition, which underwent drastic changes during these tumultuous years in the industry. Now the relevant slogan would be “Suddenly It’s 1960, Again, and Again and Again”. These were undoubtedly difficult years for Exner for a number of reasons. He was a designer, not a design executive, and the uneven results during the various restyles in this period speak for themselves. Exner needed to do something truly new and different, all the time.
There was another major financial distraction, or an opportunity, in the case of Exner. Chrysler had dithered for some years on varying plans to build a small car. Initially is going to be a European-sized car with a four cylinder, but the knowledge that both GM and Ford were going to build compacts in 1960 forced their hand. In July of 1958, Chrysler finally decided on the size and packaging of their compact. It was to have a 106.5″ wheelbase car that would be able to seat six (in a pinch), have a six cylinder engine, and be a genuine “car”, not a “toy”, as the small imports were referred to in Detroit. Designing and engineering a completely new car and putting it into production in 14 months was a phenomenal performance. Predictably, it also resulted in quality issues not unlike the ’57s, including body leaks and such. Tesla isn’t the first to learn that a very short timetable from design to production has its risks, or more like predictable results.
The 1960 Valiant plays a key role in this story, both stylistically and technically. Needless to say, the Valiant gave Exner exactly the kind of sculptural challenge that the big cars hadn’t been providing. By 1958, Exner was over the ’57’s symmetrical body shape and fins, and was looking for the next design design barrier to smash. And he found it, in the form of the long-hood, short deck fuselage style. It was dubbed “Forward Flair”.
Rightfully, a full post on the Valiant would precede this one, as it is such a critical chapter of Exner’s design evolution. The 1957-1961 cars, like all American cars at the time, were what I call “two-box” cars; a smaller, narrower box (roof/greenhouse) sitting on a larger box (everything from the belt line down), creating a distinct shoulder that defined their meeting point. The 1961-up Lincoln (and other cars of the era) made that a prominent design feature, but it was there to varying degrees on all production cars, in part for engineering purposes.
Exner’s 1958 Imperial D’Elegance concept, although acknowledged to be flawed by him overall, was the turning point and provided most of the direct inspiration for the Valiant, and subsequently on the 1962s. The leading edge of the protruding headlight nacelles turned into a protrusion on the front fender that Exner called a “side fin”; he would soon utilize it at the rear too. This would be the feature that replaced the rear fins, still present here. But the most important aspect was the center section of the body. The curved side windows were essentially flush with the doors, to create the “fuselage look” that he was after, inspired by modern airplanes. And Exner’s desire to maximize visibility resulted with thin or no pillars, to the extent technically possible.
The D’Elegance’s set-back greenhouse, semi-fastback rear window and sloping trunk accentuated the extravagant length of the front end, which protruded well ahead of the front wheels. And the windshield was set back close to the driver to accentuate the proportions more so. Exner was out to replicate the proportions and feel of his beloved Ghia coupes, but on a compact sedan. That alone was a highly questionable move, as it’s generally considered much wiser to introduce a new styling direction on a high-end car, and then have it filter down to the lowly compacts. That’s essentially what Ford did with its 1958 Thunderbird, and GM with its Corvette and Cadillac Broughams.
The Valiant was bequeathed the D’Elegance’s six-window greenhouse, but with pillars, although as slender as possible. The side windows were as flush to the door upper edge as Chrysler’s engineers could possibly make them, a major technical breakthrough for a mass production car at the time. For the Valiant’s face, Exner reverted back to one he had done variations of so many times before. And here were the front headlight eyebrows that turned into side fins on the front fenders and tapered into the front doors. And now there were the new rear side fins that started low, arced their way around the fully-exposed rear wheel, and terminated as a flared winglet. This was all rather radical. And controversial. And highly prescient, in terms of its basic shape, minus the extrusions.
And yet the rear managed to be even more controversial than the front, with its sharply-sloping trunk lid which was graced with Exner’s trademark fake spare tire cover (“toilet seat”).
Since the seating requirements for a compact sedan limited the possibility of actually moving the passenger compartment to the rear of the platform (like Ford would do with the Mustang), Exner had to rely on more sleight of hand. He pushed the windshield back as far as possible, which resulted in an unusually shallow and flat dashboard, with the self-contained instrument pod mounted on it. It created a very different sensation, especially for the passenger, and was in opposition of the trend towards steeper windshields whose bases were set increasingly further forward windshield.
The contrast to the Valiant’s 1960 domestic competitors, the Corvair (top) and Falcon (bottom) was all-too obvious, in all these and other respects. Its styling was—and still is—polarizing. I can appreciate its many boundary-breaking qualities, and understand what Exner was trying to do, but it’s not a truly harmonious or pleasing design. It has a bit of a hunchback quality, and the rear side fender treatment is a bit much. The Valiant was John Coltrane at his most dissonant, to the Corvair’s Herbie Mann and the Falcon’s Frankie Avalon. An acquired taste, in other words. But its long-hood, short trunk proportions would be soon-enough acquired throughout the industry, and Virgil Exner rightfully gets the credit.
Given the Valiant’s groundbreaking design, it’s a bit curious that the response in Europe to it was nothing like the Corvair’s, which was embraced as the second coming of post-war auto design, and set off a global design revolution.
The Valiant’s sales results were rather predictable. Despite being technically superior to its competition, the Valiant in its first generation (1960-1962) was not a success, being outsold (by a huge margin) by the Falcon, and even the ill-fated Corvair. It sold reasonably well enough, and certainly helped Chrysler’s otherwise dismal results during those years. And its fully unitized body (the large 1960-up cars still had a bolted-on front subframe), its excellent slant six engine, lightweight aluminum-case Torqueflite automatic and torsion-bar front suspension would serve not only the Valiant and its future A-Body descendants for many years to come, but would also play a key technical role in the ultimate 1962 Plymouth and Dodge.
From here on out, the creation myth of the ’62s, based on numerous readily-available accounts of it available, gets decidedly less consistent and a bit fuzzy at times. Clearly, Exner’s next big challenge was to create a whole new line of 1962 large cars, long overdue. One or two sources say that Exner gave orders to three designers (Bill Brownlie, Cliff Voss and Dick Baird) to sequester themselves (mainly from Bill Schmidt) and create a concept as a basis for the new direction. And supposedly after a few weeks, this is what they came up with, dubbed “Super Sport”, for the Plymouth brand. But other accounts differ, but in any case, this sporty Plymouth hardtop gives a clear indication of the direction taken for the ’62s.
And in some tellings, the Super Sport led directly to the disappearance of Exner-rival Bill Schmidt, as it proved that Exner was still very much the alpha male at Chrysler design. In any case, Chrysler President Lester “Tex” Colbert was fully behind Exner at this point, and the Super Sport would lead the way, for the time being.
The rear sported two versions of the roof line and rear window; one with a Colonnade-style B-pillar and wrap-around window, the other a more conventional approach, not all that different from the production 1960-1961 cars.
Some of the same design language can be seen in the 1960 Ghia L 6.4, which is not overtly credited to Exner, but was clearly the fruit of the continued collaboration that was still going on with the Italian design firm.
Exner wanted to replicate 1957 and lead the industry once again. One of the key features of these cars are their “chicken wings” over their rear fenders. It’s just an evolution of what he did on the Valiant, and reflects his almost pathological resistance to continuous horizontal features; belt lines, or otherwise. Anything but that, it seems.
What are we looking at, in these pictures from the studio on or about July 1959? Starting on the left, a big Plymouth wagon, and what is likely a Plymouth hardtop coupe and then four-door hardtop, a Dodge, along with the Super Sport in front and Imperial in the back, far right.
Here’s a close-up for those two in the back. Note the Vee’d rear window as well as the curved side glass. How expensive were those two ambitious features going to be? No one had done either of these before, except the curved side windows on the expensive ’57 Imperial. The four door is a Dodge, because its front fender protrusion has a bright trim strip, which the Plymouth concepts and production cars never did. But its rear fender treatment is not yet what the final version carried.
Here we see the S-Series family from a different angle. The Dodge in the foreground. The Imperial (most likely) is next (from the left), followed by another Imperial, then the front of the Chrysler, and then two DeSotos and finally another Imperial.
Here’s a better shot of the big Plymouth wagon.
And the Plymouth sedan. As is quite obvious, these are all large full-sized cars. It’s safe to say that these were all designed to share the same basic body shell, except of course for additional length on the senior models due to wheelbase stretches.
Here’s the DeSoto, but there were other similar ones with different front ends, which seemed to be constantly in flux throughout this period.
One hopes that the still-born ’62 Chrysler would have worn a different face than this one.
The proposed ’62 Imperial (above) clearly shares its basic large body with the Chrysler, DeSoto, Dodge and Plymouth, which reflects a pragmatic retrenching after the poor showing of the unique Imperial after 1957.
Clearly Exner had found his new design language for 1962, dubbed “Forward Flair”. The key emphasis was on a strong and long front end; that quality would only be enhanced further due to the subsequent downsizing on the Plymouth and Dodge. Another design element was the “speedboat cowl”, where the base of the windshield was not flat, but decidedly curved to meet a raised and curved cowl. It too became even more prominent on the final cars.
It’s quite evident is that these were not going to be inexpensive cars to build, particularly in the case of the Plymouth and Dodge. Which brings up a very important point that is often overlooked: Plymouth, although Chrysler’s low-price brand, historically was more expensive than the other two low-priced brands (Chevrolet and Ford). In the 30s and 40s, Chrysler justified this premium due to the engineering superiority of its products, and consumers (mostly) agreed, and were willing to pony up. Back then, engineering superiority was worth paying for, at least in the eyes of the consumers.
For instance, the cheapest 1951 Plymouth 4 door sedan (Cambridge) cost 9% more than a comparable Chevrolet, and the Belvedere coupe cost 10% more than the Bel Air coupe. These higher prices partially masked Chrysler’s proportional higher overhead. Chrysler’s contracts with the UAW were more expensive than GM’s and Ford’s, due to an aversion to strikes. Chrysler’s situation was not totally unlike Studebaker’s, which resulted in lower profit margins overall, even in good years like 1955 and 1957. Chrysler was inherently less healthy financially than GM and Ford, due to its focus on engineering and not enough attention to its divisional structure, which was inefficient; its internal organization; its sales organization, and other key aspects. Was Chrysler really one of the “Big Three” or just a big “independent”?
To Americans looking for the latest in swoopy styling and gimmicks in the late 50s, Chrysler’s “engineering premium” was no longer saleable; the market had moved on. Plymouth’s price premium had to (and did) shrink throughout the 50s, but the Beleveder’s premium to the Bel Air was still 7% in 1955, but finally narrowed to 2% in 1957. That was due directly to increased and more complete body sharing among all the ’57 cars. All wagons now shared the same body, and the differences in sedans and coupes was much more limited, save for some wheelbase stretches and external skin.
Walter Chrysler’s original decision to make Plymouth available as a low-cost “companion brand” to all three of the primary brand dealers (Chrysler, DeSoto and Dodge) turned out to be a rather big mistake, as the dealers invariably treated Plymouth as the poor stepchild, always trying to upsell its customers to the more profitable cars, except during recessions, when Plymouths came in handy. This was intrinsically a flawed strategy, as GM and Ford had long moved away from that type of arrangement.
It’s not possible to go into depth on all of the very serious financial challenges facing Chrysler in the 50s, but there were constant internal battles about the best solutions to them. Deep cost-cutting was the most obvious one, and paramount in this time period, especially in 1958-1959. And into this charged atmosphere, Exner was proposing very ambitious designs across the board for 1962.
But just how ambitious and forward looking was it? The Plymouth Super Sport hardtop coupe was probbaly the best-looking of the bunch, due to being the most conventional. In fact, looking at the Super Sport and the actual 1961 Plymouth, clearly designed to provide a preview of assumed coming attractions, the basic proportional differences aren’t all that huge. It’s an evolution, with the fuselage-style doors and curved glass, the kicked-up rear fender, and of course the new front end. If Exner was hoping for a true design revolution, with a decided change in front-rear proportions, than the Super Sport doesn’t really show all that well.
And by 1962, bubble-top roofs were utterly passé. Both Chevrolet and Ford had switched to formal coupe roofs in 1962. And the 1960 Olds had already co-opted its rear end. Many Mopar fans believe the Super Sport might have been the second coming of Plymouth, but that’s debatable.
Although there’s no denying that the real 1965 Super Sport (by Chevrolet) did show significant influence from Exner’s S-series work, from its fuselage sides to its rear hips, the Plymouth’s side fins turned vertical. And the semi-fastback roof was back too. The intelligence in this case was flowing the other direction, and to good effect, even if it was based on a car that was never built, just like the 116″ wheelbase Chevy that Newberg supposedly heard about. Maybe Newberg returned the favor?
None of these proposed S-series cars came to pass. Why? That is of course the crux of this story. And as stated at the top, it is supposedly the sole doing of William C. Newberg (above), after overhearing the misinterpreted comment from Ed Cole at a garden party.
Right from Newberg’s title, there’s inconsistencies in the story. Some versions of the story have this event happening between April 28, 1960 and June 30, 1960, during the 64 days that Newberg was President of Chrysler, before he had to resign due to a conflict of interest charge.
That timetable would have left barely 12 months before pilot production of the ’62s would have started, which is unrealistic. The story has design and engineering staff working round the clock for months to make this happen. And the results were of course the “plucked chickens” that resulted.
But there’s plenty of evidence that this didn’t happen in 1960 at all, even photographic.
These pictures are from the same studio, but now dated February 1960. And in the lower picture, in the center, is a Dodge coupe that has clearly been downsized.
There’s one more reason to cast doubt on the “overheard Ed Cole” story. The Dodge in that February 1960 is extremely close to the production version (below). Yet it’s well documented that there were numerous iterations in the process of redesigning these actual ’62 cars, which we’ll look at more further on. This suggests that the garden party and the decision to completely revamp the ’62 cars more likely happened in the summer of 1959, as some versions tell the story. But there’s a hitch with that one too: Ed Cole only decided that what became the Chevy II was going to have to be created in or about December of 1959, two months after the 1960 Corvair went on the market and was instantly outsold by the Falcon by a two-to one margin. Did they have winter-time garden parties in Detroit?
It may seem like a small detail, but all the versions of the story say it happened at a garden party (one says on the golf course).
There are reasons why the date is important: In 1959, Newberg was Executive VP in charge of Operations. And in an excellent article in Fortune magazine from 1958 on Chrysler’s woes, Newberg is identified as having a boss other than Chrysler President Colbert, in the person of Edgar C. Row, First Corporate VP. So is it reasonable to assume that an executive two layers down from the top could make a unilateral decision to completely change the direction of the development of the two largest-volume cars in the company? Maybe Fortune got it wrong, or maybe Row had retired by then. But even then, it seems unrealistic.
In Richard Langworth’s excellent book “Chrysler and Imperial – The Post War Years”, there is no mention of the so-called garden party episode. He quotes Virgil Exner, Jr.: “He (Exner Sr.) always referred to them as the ‘picked chickens’, because somebody got a wild ass idea up there (the executive suite) to make them low in cost”. Sounds more like it was in large part (or all) due to another major wave of cost-cutting that had been decimating the ranks of white collar Chrysler works since the year before (1958), and would continue yet for some time until Chrysler’s costs got under control.
There had always been a massive political war going on at Chrysler between the conservative engineers and the stylists, and this now came to a head due to the ’57’s well-publicized quality issues. The engineers blamed it on the extreme demands that Exner and the stylists (with the support of Colbert) placed on them. And there was a strong contingent of engineer and executives at Chrysler who had bemoaned the general growth in size and weight of the American full-size car during the 50s, and had been advocating a more rational, space-efficient, fuel-efficient and cost-efficient approach. The failure of the ’57s after one year vindicated them, and there’s no doubt that the decision to abandon the large and expensive S-Series was a long-simmering issue that finally burst wide open, in their favor.
We can speculate forever, but a fair assumption is this: the garden party episode probably happened (in the fall of 1959), or something like it, but at best—if it even happened—it was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The battle between the stylish-longer-lower camp and the practical-shorter-lighter camp had been raging within Chrysler since the beginning of the decade, and after the issues with the ’57s and Chrysler’s deep financial problems, the engineers/smaller-is-better camp won this round.
Before we look at the stylistic development of these new “picked/plucked chickens”, lets briefly examine just what Newberg and the engineers decreed: the Plymouth and Dodge would be built on a 116″ wheelbase, 2″ less than before, and no more than 72″ wide at the door posts. And reduce the amount of glass (which is heavy) and ditch the expensive curved glass, and especially the Vee’d rear windscreen. But most significantly, these cars were not to be just cut down versions of the existing platform, but to be totally new, a 100% unibody, and to draw heavily on the Valiant in doing so.
This brings up another area of controversy. Some versions of the story say that the edict was that these new cars (we’ll call them B-Bodies from now on) were to actually share the Valiant’s body, at least in substantial part. There are references to the Valiant’s body being stretched to meet the new dimensions. Or that the side fins on the Valiant’s front fender and door and similar ones on the B-Body prove that they shared basic body shells. One of the accounts claims that the designers and engineers were forced to use the Valiant’s cowl and make it work for the B-Body. That’s essentially impossible, as the cowl is the most complex part of a unibody car, and the Valiant was significantly narrower; one can’t readily “stretch” a cowl.
Despite certain obvious structural similarities between these cars, there were too many differences to support this story. Yes, the B-Body (bottom image) in concept and engineering principles very much follows the Valiant’s (top two images), but it is larger, wider and heavier, and none of the pressings and details appear to be shared directly.
In fact, these stories have it backwards. One quote is; “the formula came down on high that the body shell was to be shared by the Plymouth, the Dodge, the Valiant and the Lancer; common doors, common cowls”. The right interpretation is that management wanted the next generation Valiant and Lancer to share as much with the new B-Body as possible, not the other way around. And here’s likely proof, in the form of a Valiant clay from this time, with what appears to aspects of the coming B-Body’s squared-off roof structure and presumably other elements being incorporated, and not very positive effect.
From the 4/95 CA article: “Precious time was wasted trying to spin a compact Valiant off the full-size body shell, even though it was slightly smaller”. It turned out to be a dead end, and the A-cars kept their distinct platform/body/chassis for quite some years to come.
Once again, the commonly-told stories suggest that once the edict came down, time was very short, and the design staff was put on double shifts to get these new B-Bodies ready, by essentially just cutting down the design of the S-series to the smaller dimensions. But the photographic record doesn’t support such a rushed and direct route. it suggests that rather than “cutting down” the S-series cars, a lot of fresh, new design went into them, for better or for worse.
Exner was now on his asymmetrical binge, as realized in his XNR sports car. And he wasted no time (but wasted lots of time in the process) applying aspects of that on the new B-Body.
Here’s a number of rather absurd clays in the top two rows above that were made to Xplore the subject, for the B-Body Plymouth. And yet none of the S-series cars had any asymmetry. Was Exner being serious, or was he trying to torpedo the new B-Body out of spite? Although forced to tone it down, it was only at the last minute that he finally had to drop the driver’s side hood spear and the asymmetrical license plate and tail lights on the Plymouth (bottom row). They may have been “plucked chickens” in his eyes, but they’re mutant chickens in mine.
Let’s take a look at how the Dodge design evolved. This early rendering has the same body as the other S-Series cars, and already has the kicked-up rear wheel/fender crease, which was of course also used on the Valiant.
Curiously, that particular feature then went missing in the later clays; the upper three rows are from June 30, 1959. The show the evolution of the Dodge’s front end, which needless to say, has always been its most controversial feature. According to the B-Body lore, Dodge Division GM M.C.Patterson insisted on having the grill work being convex instead of the concave design that is seen in the concept on the right. Would it have made much of a difference either way? Certainly not.
The mock-up on the bottom is dated February 29, 1960, and is very close to the final product, and the rear upkick extrusion is back. Given that date, there was some 18 months to engineer and tool these cars, compared to the 14 months for the Valiant, which included styling it too.
Engineering and tooling for the new B-Bodies was anything but cheap, running to some $87.5 million (about a quarter billion adjusted). One of the major consequences of this massive investment in these new B-Bodies is that the planned 1962 S-Series based Chrysler, Imperial and DeSoto programs were killed. Which of course makes a huge amount of sense, given that all of the planned large S-Series cars from the Plymouth to the Imperial would have shared the same new basic body. So this decision to downsize Plymouth and Dodge was really a decision that affected all of the company’s products form top to bottom.
The Chrysler made do with another do-over in 1962 by finally cutting its fins, and then got a 1963 styling refresh with aspects of the original and Imperial’s planned design ideas grafted largely unto its existing body shell (the wagon used the older body outright except for the front end). And the Imperial had to limp along until 1964, and then only got new skin on its ’57 body. The DeSoto brand was of course killed altogether after 1961, a victim of contagious Edsel-itis. It would be 1965 before the large C-Bodies finally got a new body, except for the Imperial, which would limp along on another refresh until 1967, when it would share the Chrysler body shell.
The resulting 1962 B-Bodies were a revolutionary departure from the norm, meaning the development of the full-size American car from the early 50s up to this point. Before we compare them to their competitors, let’s quickly examine just how different they were from their predecessors (top). In terms of their design and visual impact, the differences were stark, with the ’62’s boxier green house, shorter tail and overall proportions.
Length was reduced some 7.5″, and width by 6.5″, over half a foot. Yet interior space was actually better in many respects than the ’61s, more so than the numbers alone tell, with the coupes actually increasing rear leg room by four inches. And since the seating was raised (in relation to the floor), a more natural position was affected. Only hip and shoulder room suffered by a couple of inches, which was only noticed on the relatively rare occasions when three-abreast were seated.
The station wagons had the same 116″ wheelbase, but the body was extended a full 10″ at the rear to make a competitive cargo area and room for a rear-facing third seat. This was quite unusual, and I can’t think of a ready analog in Detroit, but the sedans’ short rear end would have made for a wagon lacking in rear cargo space.
The transmission tunnel was reduced substantially due to the new aluminum case V8 “TorqueFlite 8” (A-727), which followed the example of the Valiant’s 1960 version in a number of ways, and now it also had a parking sprag to eliminate the old-fashioned parking/emergency drum brake on the back of the old Torqueflite unit. The six cylinder B-Bodies naturally used the Valiant’s unit (A-904).
The front compartment is similar to the Valiant’s, with the steep and shallow dash and a self-contained instrument pod directly in front of the driver.
Not surprisingly, it’s asymmetrical in shape and layout. Exner didn’t have to give it all up.
It’s certainly well-laid out, in terms of functionality: Full instrumentation in the center, push buttons for the automatic on the left (not on this manual car), and heater/ventilation/ac controls on the right. The speedometer is one of the best in any American car; Corvette-worthy. Compare it to a ’62 Chevy panel for a real contrast.
To improve front seat leg room in the shorter body, in a nod to the Airflow the engines were pushed forward four inches, as well as being mounted somewhat lower. That created a lack of ground clearance, so the flywheels were reduced 2″ in diameter. But the smaller ring gear hampered cold-weather starting.
The solution was the Chrysler double-reduction-gear starter with its classic Na rayre neeer neeer neeer sound (copyrighted by Jim Cavanaugh). So we have one more thing to add to the many lasting influences of the plucked chickens.
There were numerous other improvements, including a new lighter aluminum steering box, and steering effort reduced by 20%. In total, all these changes meant that weight was reduced by a whopping 400 lbs compared to the ’61s. This yielded numerous dynamic benefits, including consistently higher performance as well as improved fuel economy from every engine, as compared to its predecessors and the competition.
The B-Body was specifically designed so that even when powered by the base 145 hp 225 CID slant six would it perform quite satisfactorily; almost as well as its V8 competitors. And that its steering would be quite manageable without power steering. Ditto for its brakes. And of course, for all aspects of its handling, which was materially better in all metrics. A six cylinder two-door weighed in at all of 2930 lbs (curb weight).
This comparison with a few other select cars is telling. The ’62 Plymouth (and Dodge) are very close in many dimensions to the 1955 Chevrolet, a design I’ve often upheld as the ideal size and packaging for a sedan. Of course the ’62s are lower, but that’s almost totally due to their unibody structure eliminating unnecessary height due to the ’55 Chevy’s frame; the B-Bodies actually beat the ’55 Chevy on headroom.
The most compelling comparison is with the GM 1977 B-Bodies, as represented by this Chevrolet Caprice. Wheelbase is the same 116″, and GM used many of same tricks that Chrysler had 15 year earlier, pushing the engine forward and squaring off the passenger compartment. The similarities in their proportions are unmistakable, as are the sloping hood and trunk. GM even reverted to the same trick as Exner did with the windshield, pushing it closer to the front passengers to maximize the visual mass of the hood. The biggest difference is in their overall lengths; the Chevrolet is 10″ longer, mostly accounted for by the regulation bumpers.
Making the downsized Chevrolet look as long as possible was high on the priorities of Mitchell’s last big styling project before his retirement. and clearly the results were much more palatable to the taste of the typical American buyer in 1977 than was the case with the Chrysler B-Bodies in 1962. But then an energy crisis in 1960 or so might have made them look a lot more attractive.
Here’s what the buyer looking for a new full-sized low-cost coupe was looking at in 1962, from the Big Three. Stylistically, the Plymouth stands out dramatically. The Chevy and Ford are “two-box” cars; a slightly narrower and smaller box sitting almost symmetrically on a bigger one below. In both cases, a strong horizontal trim line accentuates their intrinsic rectilinearity; the greenhouse sits roughly in the middle. Very easy on the eyes; no challenges there.
The Plymouth, with its rear-set cabin, long hood, short deck and fuselage sides, with no break between the base of the C-Pillar and body, looks to be from a whole different…world. Exnerworld, that is. Regardless of one’s feelings for the Extrusions on its sides, the tension in its taut body skin and rippling muscles makes it looks dramatically more dynamic and aggressive. And of course the Chevy outsold it eight to one.
We haven’t yet touched on the most compelling benefit of downsizing: performance. Due to the significant improvement in weight, Chrysler cut the large 383 and 413 V8s from the line-up, reducing it to just the standard 225 slant six, the polysphere 318, available in 230 hp 2V and 260 hp 4V versions, and a 305 hp 4V version of the 361 B-Block V8. With the 361, performance was already stellar (0-6 in 8 seconds or less), but in response to Chevrolet’s new high-performance 409 and Ford’s 406, Chrysler saw fit to expand the engine offerings later in the year, with several versions of the 383 and 413.
The top offering was the legendary “Max Wedge” 413, with its new short-runner ram intake manifold and wild upswept cast exhaust headers that emptied into large exhaust pipes with cut outs. Needless to say, just about every ’62 Plymouth or Dodge two-door has been turned into a Ram wedge tribute.
These cars, with their short wheelbase and light weight, were immensely successful on the drag strips. The Melrose Missle became the first factory stock car to break the 12 second barrier in the quarter mile. These cars also did extremely well in shorter-track NASCAR and USAC circle-racing, but not so much so on the super speedways, where their aerodynamics and limited top end power would soon be rectified in the form of the 426 hemi.
These cars did not move as well in the showrooms as they did on the tracks, being slaughtered by the competition. In 1962 1.4 million Americans chose a full size Chevy, 705k chose a Ford and only 183k took home a Plymouth tells the sad tale. That was a 12% drop fro Plymouth after an already terrible 1961.
And the Dodge fared worse, plummeting 25%, down to a mere 148k. Even the Corvair outsold it by a large margin.
Dodge dealers had seen it coming at the dealer presentations, and demanded a full-sized car. Plymouth dealers, who were most often paired with Chrysler, at least had the brisk-selling Chrysler Newport to offer. The Dodge 880 was quickly cobbled up from leftover body parts (1961 Dart front clip and Chrysler Newport body), but it did little to stem the hemorrhaging, selling only 18k units in its shortened year.
There was one silver lining in the dark cloud: the Dodge Polara 500 coupe and convertible was outfitted with bucket seats, console and other accoutrements to make it one of the pioneers in the category, soon to be flooded with cars like Grand Prix, Impala SS, Ford XL, etc.. It sold a healthy 12k units, which resulted in Plymouth’s mid-year intro of its own Sport Fury to join the bucket brigade. Buyers in this segment seemed to find the Polara 500’s unique styling and fine performance to be quite compelling. In subsequent years, when its styling was substantially toned down, Polara 500 sales completely tanked.
Due to immense pressure from Plymouth dealers, who had air-sickness from Exner’s fuselage design without an single piece of trim connecting the front to the rear, a ill-advised hasty trim revision were taken during the 1962 model year. A continuous bright strip now was added that ran from the tops of the fender, along the belt line, ending at the rear. Exner would not approve. Oh, and the Sport Fury got a third taillight to better compete against the Impala.
Looking at his convertible, the influence of the 1960 Corvair, which was already out, is unmistakable at the rear. No wonder Exner couldn’t connect the two side fins; if he had, it would like a Corvair knock-off.
The new addition is also seen on this Fury coupe. Hiss.
In the maelstrom of change that was swirling around the industry in 1959-1960, Chrysler executives really were convinced that they were on the right track with these smaller cars. But as intelligence about the competition’s plans became available, their confidence soon eroded, even before they went on the market. So the 1963 program went through its own drastic changes, hastened by the ascendancy of Lynn Townsend to the President’s position in July 1961 after Colbert also had to leave under dark clouds. The original plan had been to just change the front ends, as in the upper row of these Plymouths mock-ups. But Townsend, who had never liked these cars, pushed hard to have the whole body to be worked over, substantially changing the roof line to a more Ford-like one, and the rear end extended and squared off (lower row).
Here’s the original mock-ups for the ’63 Dodge.
The Dodge was even treated to a 3″ wheelbase stretch (in the rear), to 119″ , as part of the make-over. Not that any of it helped much; the ’63 Dodge B-Body still only sold some 183k units.
The Plymouth version did somewhat better yet, with a healthy jump to 263 k units. But in absolute numbers, these were still dwarfed by their competition. Although Chrysler Corp. did post decent profits now, due to the drastic cost-cutting.
It’s important to note that these 1963 cars, along with all of the ’63 Chryslers, were done under Exner’s watch (with a firm boot in his rear by Lynn Townsend, who was not a fan). And that they were finished and production-ready when Elwood Engel showed up after Townsend fired Exner in November of 1961. Engel is quoted as saying “These are good-looking cars. What’s the big deal?” The only known change to these cars were an extra trim piece to be added at the outside edge of the Dodge grille, but production problems nixed them in the end anyway. It showed that Exner was quite capable of doing conventional cars, when forced to.
These changes in 1963 didn’t come cheap either; another $27 million ($222 million adjusted) spent on retooling.
For 1964, the dullification of both brands continued under Engel’s watch, with new front ends that were essentially generic. The Exner “speedboat cowl” was replaced by a conventional windshield base, and the shallow Exner dash with instrument pod was ejected for what has to be the most bland dashboard ever. The process of making them 100% Exner-free was well underway.
And nobody ever looked twice at a ’64 Polara 500 convertible, like they had done in 1962. Townsend’s safe-but-boring strategy was working though, and enough families bought wagons and sedans to bring increasing stability to Chrysler, as would be the case for most of the rest of the decade, thanks largely to the B-Bodies.
For 1964, both brands also got a new hardtop roof. A bit of zest on an otherwise dull car. That is, in terms of its looks. We all know what they were capable of with the right engines in the right hands. Suddenly it’s 1950.
In 1965, Chrysler’s new large C-Bodies, the first to be designed fully under Engel’s direction, arrived. But it was largely for naught, as Plymouth and Dodge would never again be truly competitive in the full-sized sector. The last time that happened was in 1957. But this wasn’t just the fault of the downsized ’62s; it was already well in the works in the difficult years after 1957.
And somewhat ironically, the aged B-Body Dodge, now called Coronet in 1965 and marketed as an intermediate, outsold the new 1965 C-Body Dodge Polara/Custom/Monaco by a huge margin. I’m very familiar with it, as a ’65 Coronet wagon just like this one was the first car I ever drove, the Niedermeyer family truckster. Dishwater dull, outside and in, but a sturdy and competent family hauler.
And for the record, these B-Bodies were never mid-sized cars like the Fairlane or Chevelle, but considerably roomier and substantial, befitting their status as downsized full-size cars. Except for a bit of interior width, these cars never felt less than full-size.
That especially applies to the wagons like ours, which were a full ten inches longer than the rest of the line. And which undoubtedly explains why they sold so well compared to the C-Bodies. But it certainly didn’t solve Chrysler’s problems in the segment.
Ironically, 1962 turned out to be the high-water year for the full-sized American car’s market share. The 1960 compacts, the 1962 Fairlane and 1964 Chevelle, the Mustang, the Thunderbird and its imitators, and just the ever-increasing fragmentation of the market came at the expense of the full-sized car. GM and Ford continued to do reasonably well in the segment for some more years, probably in part due to Chrysler’s weakness.
By the late 60s and early 70s, the mid-sized cars, especially the coupes, were on the ascendancy, and would soon regularly take the top-selling position, with the exception of the down-sized GM B-Bodies in 1977. And of course, they were the same size and format of the Chrysler B-Bodies in 1962.
The B-Body became Chrysler’s bread and butter for decades, and spawned several off-shoots, including the E-Body (Barracuda and Challenger) and the R-Body, which ironically finally played itself out in in 1981 in a desperate attempt to compete with GM’s B-Bodies. “Suddenly it’s…Too Late”.
Given the fact that Dodge and Plymouth never again fielded a truly successful full-sized car, and given that the market began moving away from them starting in 1962, and given the huge expansion of the mid-sized sector i the coming decades, the Great Blunder of 1962 looks much more like it was rather prescient, if not brilliant.
The only real question is the execution. And that leaves us with a conundrum. If Exner had toned the styling down, like he did for 1963, Chrysler most likely would have had reasonably decent success with them from day one. But to think of a world without these exotic and compelling 1962’s is like imagining…a world without John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Thelonius Monk. And that’s a much drearier world, at least for some of us.
Thanks to CC Contributor GN for scans of some vintage Collectible Automobile and other articles, without which this would have been a less complete undertaking.