Curbside Classic: 1956 Plymouth Plaza – The Backward Forward Look

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Lovers of automotive history have written and read many times about the styling renaissance at Chrysler Corporation in the 1950s.  Virgil Exner brought about a sea change in the company’s stodgy image with the new 1955 line, and the excitement quotient continued upward for the rest of the decade.  But we must not forget that even the new and exciting designs of the famous Forward Look sometimes had to come to us in the form of a black, plain-jane strippo.  And here it is.

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In 1949, Virgil Exner was hired to run Chrysler’s advanced styling studios.  Fresh from his successful (if complicated) stint at Raymond Loewy’s Studebaker studio, Ex brought a new vibrancy to Chrysler’s styling operation.  His series of show cars in the early 1950s showed a new direction for a company that had become increasingly –  um – conservative after Walter Chrysler’s incapacity in the late 1930s.  By 1949, Chrysler was still the number two in the industry, but its brand new line of postwar cars was not performing to expectations.  President K. T. Keller was sharp enough to do something about it right away.

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Although Exner was able to effect some marginal changes to the company’s 1953 and 54 models, it would not be until the 1955 line that his new look would hit showrooms.  Every car, from the new Imperial to the basic Plymouth would be completely new.  And, it being the 1950s, it just wouldn’t do to simply describe the cars as “new.”  Chrysler would call this new style The Forward Look.

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When someone says “Forward Look”, my mind conjures up images of bright colors and gobs of chrome trim slathered across the high-end models.  Of course, isn’t this what any self-respecting company of the 1950s wanted to sell?  But there remained a type of customer who was too numerous to ignore:  Let’s call him Uncle Clem.

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Uncle Clem was frugal.  “A new car is a waste of money, but a used car is just buying somebody else’s problems.”  “A car is just a way to get from one place to another.”  “People put all of this extra stuff on cars, but all it does is break and cost you money.”  “All that chrome is dangerous because it blinds you in the sun and just makes a car rust faster.”  We have all known an Uncle Clem or two in our lives, and have probably ridden in their cars.

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My childhood piano teacher was like Uncle Clem.  She shelled out for a new 1969 Plymouth Valiant 100 two door sedan.  Other than the 225 cubic inch slant six over the base 198 and an AM radio, the car had not a single option.  At least it was green and not black, but otherwise the car was as basic as basic transportation gets.

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This particular Plymouth is exactly what my piano teacher might have chosen had she been fifteen years or so older than she was.  This basic black Plaza was not terribly different from what was on offer at your local DeSoto-Plymouth dealer in 1949.  Or 1946.  Or even 1940.  Flathead six?  Check.  Three speed column-shifted manual (without overdrive)?  Check.  Minimal trim inside and out?  Check.  The only difference is that this one actually had a kind of attractiveness to it that was hard to overlook, even when wearing no makeup.

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Of all of the 1955-56 Chrysler offerings, the Plymouth never got much love.  The pricier Chryslers and DeSotos are seen quite a bit more frequently, expecially in their sexy 300 and Adventurer versions.  And Plymouths of the 1957-59 generation have been, of course, immortalized by the Stephen King movie Christine.  But a ’56 Plymouth?  In fairness to Mr. Exner, Chrysler old-timer Henry King did most of the work on the Plymouth and Dodge designs, so if these seem just a tad less graceful than the higher priced offerings, this might be one reason.  But whoever designed the ’55-56 Plymouth, it still seems to have gone down a black hole.  Until this one got pulled out of someone’s Uncle Clem’s barn.

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I am not sure if it is a strictly legit “Curbside” classic when it is found on a trailer in a mall parking lot, but I say we go for it.  We do have some precedent, after all.  It’s not like I am overrun with ’56 Plymouths at the curbside everywhere I go.  This one is so intriguing to me, in a bipolar sort of way.  Is it a sexy, swoopy 1950s dream machine (if in a minimalist kind of way)?  Or is it the dowdy, plain basic transport that someone’s Uncle Clem bought because he hadn’t yet heard of a Studebaker Scotsman?  I still don’t know.  I just know that I really like this car, despite the Scotsman-style gray painted trim around the headlights and taillights.

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Plymouth offered its new V8 in every model, even the basic Plaza.  But this one surely has the hoary old flathead six that had been powering Plymouths since the 1930s.  Without a chrome “V” in sight, the Jet Age on Wheels, this is not. “Nobody in the history of the world ever needed more than six cylinders.  And everybody knows that the flathead design is actually superior to these newfangled overhead valve things.  They design too much stress into ’em, and by fifty thousand miles, they will be needing an overhaul.”  And can anyone tell me why Plymouth named its super-cost-cutter model after one of the ritziest hotels in New York?  Maybe even tightwads like Uncle Clem hanker after at least a small illusion of luxury.

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1956 was the intro year for the famous Mopar pushbutton controls for the automatic transmission.  But not here, because Uncle Clem wouldn’t pop for the newfangled Powerflite.  “Why would you only want 2 gears in something that will break and cost a fortune to fix when you can have 3 gears in the same indestructible box they have been building since 1928?  Never trust a man who is too good to shift gears for himself”  And just forget about that Highway Hi-Fi.  “A record player in a car?  I don’t even have a record player in the house.  Even a radio’s not a good idea.  Draws too much on the batt’ry and distracts the driver besides.”

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None of those popular colors, either.  “Black is the only color that holds up on a car.  All those colors look purty now, but wait until a few years in the weather, then they’re all dull and faded. ”  Let’s not even bring up the Airtemp air conditioning or the electric power seat or windows that were offered at extra cost.  I can’t even imagine what Uncle Clem might have said about them.  Well, I actually can imagine it.  I just can’t print it.  There was something proudly puritanical about a basic black Plymouth, right down to the sailing ship that could still be found on the car.  Even though the ship would be removed from Plymouths by 1960, the brand never really did shake the image that is so perfectly displayed in this car.

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After looking this old Plaza over for a bit, I can grudgingly say one thing about Uncle Clem: it looks like he turned out to be right after all, given that this plain black Plymouth probably lasted him the rest of his life.  Which is likely more than most of us will be able to say about our own rides.