Curbside Classic: 1951 Plymouth Cranbrook – Automotive Immortality

(This is one of  my very first CCs, and has a special place in my heart as well as its owner. And six years later after it was first published, I continue to see it regularly at the Y)

I’d been admiring this Plymouth’s blocky solidity for ten years, whenever its owner and I happen to workout at the Y simultaneously. I can count on its reassuring, unchanging, seemingly immortal presence at least a couple of times a month, an anchor of constancy in this turbulent world.  And you can’t get much more anchor-like than this cast-iron 1951 Plymouth Cranbrook. But anchors sink, and this car began Plymouth’s long dive into the deep blue.

Chrysler products of this vintage developed a rep early on for their build quality. But the Plymouth wasn’t just solid; it was also stolid. And that’s not what folks were looking for in 1951 (or pretty much anytime). After almost a full decade with few new models, Americans after WWII were more than ready for a little excitement. They wanted sleek, and low. Ford and GM delivered; Chrysler . . . not so much.

Ironic too, since Chrysler’s meteoric rise in the twenties was in good part to their handsome looks. And when Chrysler boldly launched the attractive low-price Plymouth brand in 1928, it was an instant hit. Within three years, Plymouth captured the number three sales spot behind Chevrolet and Ford. That was no mean feat considering the dozens of brands competing back then—think China 2009.

And Plymouth stayed a solid number three for over twenty years. But after Walter Chrysler died in 1940, the baton was handed to K.T. Keller. Chrysler styling now . . . wasn’t. “Cars should accommodate people rather than the far-out ideas of designers,” Keller said. Was he referring to Harley Earl and his GM Motorama dream-mobiles? The fedora-wearing Chrysler prez dictated that the all-new ’49 Chrysler products accommodate hat wearers, with room to spare: “the styling won’t knock your hat off, but neither will getting in one of our cars…We build cars to sit in, not to pee over.”

The result is self evident. Abe Lincoln in his stovepipe hat would feel at ease in this tall-boy. Well, the stovepipe-hat-wearing market was small, if non-existent. But the market for anything new was huge. Americans’ pent-up appetite for new wheels in 1949 created the biggest seller’s market ever. And the stodgy un-Dodge sold well enough.

That is, until the market caught up. In 1951, Plymouth still moved 600,000 fedora-mobiles. But the unchanged 1952 model crashed, down by a third. And by 1954, Plymouth tumbled out of the bronze. There was a brief return after 1957 with the dramatic Virgil Exner-styled “Suddenly it’s 1960” models. But after two more cameo appearances in 1971 and 1974, Plymouth’s days on the low rung of the winner’s podium was over.

Plymouth had developed a reputation for dullness and styling stodginess (or quirkiness in some years, like 1962) that it could never quite shake, despite some good efforts along the way. A rep it took all the way to its grave.

But this original Cranbrook is far from its final resting place. At the rate it’s aging, it’s got another sixty years in it easy—before it needs a restoration. And, ironically enough, its proportions actually look more contemporary today than they did in the low-slung sixties. Tall boxy cars and crossovers are in, the benefits in seating comfort rediscovered. Keller was a genius, ahead of his time. And  fedoras are in again too.

Sitting in one of these old tanks is a joy. Driving one . . . well, you have to change hat and mindset to 1951. Or even 1933. That’s the year the Plymouth’s 218 cubic inch flathead six first saw the light of day. These long-stroke (4.38″) chuffers deliver a gentle but steady dose of torque, right from idle speed (max. 175 lb·ft @ 1200 rpm). Just the ticket for chugging around town and not sweating the not-fully-synchronized three-speed trannsmission.

On the highway, these gentle cars are happiest at a pre-interstate system 55 or 60 mph. The advertised horsepower was 97 gross @ 3600 rpm—maybe 85 horses in today’s net rating.  That might take you up to an equivalent number of miles an hour. But you wouldn’t want to. Everything wants to happen slowly, like the unassisted steering, and gently, like the brakes. And the word “handling” hadn’t entered Detroit’s dictionary yet.

This car brings back a raft of memories. They were ubiquitous in Iowa back in the early sixties. Ironically, I hated them then for their durability. They were a blot on the carscape, which in my mind should have consisted of nothing but dazzling 1960 Pontiac Star Chiefs and the like. In those first years in Iowa during the early sixties, I knew of three families that had Plymouths of this vintage. And they all looked utterly solid still, not so common for 12-15 year old cars back then. They were the Plymouth Valiant and Camry of their time.

On one of my hitchhikes from Baltimore to Iowa in 1972, I got a ride in one of these, right through a blizzard in the mountains of Pennsylvania. It was piloted by a young guy who understood how to drive it properly: steady as she goes. Everyone else was stuck or off the road. The already elderly Plymouth didn’t have enough power to spin its wheels and just chugged on through. Right into a special place in my heart.

 

This Cranbrook plays a special place in the heart of its owner too. His teen-aged son bought this car some years ago, on a whim. After he passed away in tragic circumstances, he and his other kids took on the Plymouth as a family project, and continue to maintain, improve and drive it regularly. It’s a living and driving memorial to the son, who unwittingly chose well in picking a nigh-near immortal car for that role.