Curbside Classic: 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook – What The Hell Else Can You Do With A ’53 Plymouth?

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If one were to get technical, this should be a Car Show Classic since that is where I took these pictures.  However, in my defense, this 1953 Plymouth has been tootling all over this area with its owner enjoying every mile of it.  A car show is simply where I was finally able to snag a few pictures of it.

Despite the fact Plymouth made 647,451 cars in the Cambridge and Cranbrook series’ that year, a person is hard pressed to actually find very many of them anywhere.  Unlike some other cars of the period, such as the ubiquitous 1957 Chevrolet, it appears the number of 1953 Plymouths has actually dwindled since they were made.  What a novel concept.

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Defying what the dowdy styling would seem to indicate, Plymouth sales were up nearly 40% over the 1952 models.  While 1953 was Plymouth’s 25th anniversary, there was little fanfare made about this notable milestone by Chrysler.  Perhaps avoiding any hoopla could be attributed to both Ford and Buick marking their fifty years in business, with Ford making note of it in the steering wheel hub of every 1953 model car they built.

UN forces' transport vehicles recrossing 38th Parallel as they withdraw from Pyongyang, North Korean capital, during Korean War. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/National Archives/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Photo by Time Life Pictures/National Archives/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Another possibility for this hesitancy was the Korean War.  Caution had been exercised by the federal government in early 1952 to conserve steel should US involvement escalate.  With all indicators soon appearing much more favorable for less involvement, material restrictions were eased in time for the 1953 model year.

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Plymouth was likely on tap to save steel regardless simply by virtue of their 1953 update, it being another overhaul of the 1949 models.

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In 1952, Plymouth had offered the 111″ wheelbase Concord (the four on the right side of the picture) with the upscale Cambridge and Cranbrook on a less modest 118.5″ wheelbase.

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For 1953, Plymouth realigned their models to the base Cambridge and upper trim Cranbrook, both resting on a 114″ wheelbase, a length that wasn’t exactly an even compromise between the two former series.  Overall length was also down 4.75″ from 1952.  In a time when cars were starting to creep outward in length and width, Plymouth shriveled.

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However, the 1953 model was shorter in height, likely much to the chagrin of Chrysler president K.T. Keller.  By his own admission, he didn’t want to make cars that a person could pee over and a three inch reduction in the height of the Plymouth did help with achieving such a lofty conquest.

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Plymouth remained in third place of the sales race for 1953, with the Cranbrook four-door sedan far and away the most popular of the lot with nearly 299,000 built.  This particular Cranbrook well represents the most favored child and she does have a story to tell.  This story of course leads into another story.  And that may lead into a third – which is why you come here in the first place!

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Our featured Plymouth was sold new twenty-five miles north of me in the little town of Fulton, a town whose primary claim to fame is having Westminster College, an institution that simultaneously  hosted Harry Truman and Winston Churchill for speeches in 1946.  This set the stage for many future world leaders, such as Mikhail Gorbechev, Margaret Thatcher, and Lech Wałęsa, to visit Westminster College in the Truman/Churchill tradition.  Not too shabby for an otherwise anonymous town of 12,000 persons.

This Plymouth was originally purchased by a resident of Fulton who rarely went anywhere and never very far.  Prior to the current owner taking possession, our two-tone Cranbrook had never ventured any further than 85 miles from home.  That distance was a singular occurrence to visit the state fair.

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Looking at the odometer, this mileage does not have any hidden digits in front of it.  38,758 miles is all she has on her.

At some point in time, the owner passed away and the car was purchased by an individual here in Jefferson City.  This person loves old Mopars of all varieties, but as is often the case, storage room became precious and the Plymouth had to find a new home.  He sold the car to Todd, the gentleman JPCavanaugh and I met by happenstance at the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Indiana.

There is where the things get complicated.

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Let’s start with the front door.

The 1953 Mobilgas Economy Run ended in Sun Valley, Idaho – not Kansas City.  There are times when a person needs to take a few creative liberties and Kansas City is more relatable than Sun Valley for those who will be seeing this car out and about.

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However, if this were a Mercury Sun Valley instead of a Plymouth, the creative liberties may or may not have happened.

The desire with touting the Mobil Gas Economy Run was to liven up the old Plymouth with something interesting because, as was posed to me, what the hell else can you do with a 1953 Plymouth?  It’s been mission accomplished as this door painting generates a lot of curiosity.

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Sometime in March, Todd and I went to lunch in his Plymouth.  Stopping at a restaurant outside of town, the car generated some initial interest while the Mobil Oil sign convinced people to ask questions.  It was almost difficult to leave the place.

How does an ultra-low mileage sixty-three year old time capsule ride?  On paved surfaces it provides a smooth ride with the only interior noise being from the flathead six at speeds above 50 to 55 mph.  An overdrive transmission was available to make any ’53 Plymouth happier at high speeds, but that was a $98 option on a car having a base price of $1,853.  For comparison, a radio cost $100. This Plymouth has neither.

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From the passenger’s perspective, K.T. Keller was right about Chrysler making cars in which you could wear your fedora without problem.  Headroom is delightfully ample and the overall comfort is amazing with a shallow dashboard that gives the feeling of nearly unimpeded room.  Sure, it lacks seatbelts, everything inside is made of nice, solid steel, and crumple zones are going to be on whatever gets hit.  Yet looking at this car through the prism of 1953 shows me a car that could easily accommodate six medium framed persons without a lot of difficulty.

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As an aside, there was another 1953 Plymouth that hauled that many people routinely.  My paternal grandfather purchased a brand-new 1953 Plymouth for commuting to work helping build the nuclear power plant near Kevil, Kentucky.  Charging his passengers paid for his Plymouth.  This is the only remaining picture of the car and it was taken in July 1959; my aunt is in the foreground.

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Another thing to remember about 1953 is there were simply fewer paved roads at that time.  Any direction Todd picks to go home involves several miles of gravel road, with some sections being poorly graded creek gravel having a rather large nominal size.  To put it in other words, some of those roads are as rough as a cob.  As we traversed several miles having such a surface, there was never a single squeak, rattle, or shudder from the Plymouth.  It remained as composed (and nearly as smooth) as a luxury car on the interstate.  Cars were built quite stout back in the day.

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Slogging around at 15 to 20 mph on these gravel roads revealed something else.  The old flathead six has a terrific amount of torque and meandering along in second gear at such speeds doesn’t faze it one iota.  Unsurprisingly, this Plymouth is better suited for use on such low speed roads than it is for use on modern four-lane highways.  That rear axle ratio of 3.73:1 certainly comes into play here as does the engine’s peak torque of 177 lbs-ft at a very usable 1,200 rpm.

Going 15 to 20 mph in second is likely playing to its strengths, which is saying something on such a stout car.

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Incidentally, Plymouth did offer their Hy-Drive semi-automatic transmission starting in March 1953; it was a $146 option.  By July of 1953, the take rate was only 25%.

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Another area of stoutness is the windshield visor.  It is not original to the car as I sold this visor to Todd a few months ago.  It had been on my father’s 1946 Ford way back when and I pulled it from a scrap pile at my grandmother’s house around 1990.  I’ve kept toting it around with me to every residence I’ve had since 1998.

The visor was manufactured by some aftermarket company and neither Todd nor I could determine the brand.  Since it has an adjustable width, getting it to fit the Plymouth wasn’t a problem; the problem was stability in the center of the visor at speeds over 30 mph.

The solution?

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A telescopic pole from that bastion of inexpensive paraphernalia, Harbor Freight.  Since this has been installed this visor could withstand 200 mph speeds with nary a complaint.

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For a completely bizarre tangential story, Todd has crossed paths with the Shafer family previously.  While I took pictures, he and my father struck up a conversation only to discover they were both in basic training at the same time in mid-1969 at Ft. Leonard Wood.

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This Plymouth is not a show car – it is a driver.  Todd has repeatedly told me how the car he has paid the least for is his favorite and simply the most fun to drive.

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To emphasize this, the day Todd and I had lunch he drove me back home in his 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray convertible.  With its seven-speed manual transmission, it is the only car I’ve experienced that tried to break traction at 75 mph – it was a hoot.  However, Todd and I soon started talking about his Plymouth again.

He knows what the hell to do with a 1953 Plymouth.

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Pictures taken May 2016 in Jefferson City, Missouri

Related Reading:

1951 Plymouth by PN

1952 Plymouth by PN

1954 Plymouth by Brendan Saur

1966 Mobil Economy Run by Kevin Martin