And here is the holy grail of the Forward Look. No other car of the Virgil Exner juggernaut had so much riding on its success. Few other cars of the 1950s captured the zeitgeist of the cultural moment as well as these befinned bargains. The heaven and hell of these majestic mysteries is just a click away.
Plymouth had made a remarkable leap away from staidness in the 1955 model year. Even in that heady year of record production for almost everyone, the 1955 Plymouth got lost in the shuffle, actually finishing behind Buick, which had enjoyed a smashing year. A very healthy number of Specials, priced barely beyond the fanciest Belvedere, helped Buick sweep to third place behind Ford and Chevrolet.
For a variety of reasons, Buick’s time in the bronze spot would be limited. Ironically, build quality–which would come back to haunt the whole swath of the second wave of the Forward Look–stifled Buick sales by 1957. That left plenty of room for a mesmerizing new Plymouth to reclaim its crown as the third-most popular car in the land.
In the long run, this new Plymouth’s fan base had all the longevity of, say, Fabian’s, Frankie Lymon’s or Frankie Avalon’s, especially compared with that of the tri-five’s Elvis-like devotees. But in the late summer and fall of 1956, did it ever make an influential splash, along with all the other new Chrysler products.
Although the Forward Look quickly became dated, it spurred an entirely new design language. It gave us the swinging sixties look that (to me, at least), represented the last time American style ruled the roost. Had it not been for the mutiny these cars inspired at General Motors, the 1959 GM line would have looked a lot like the ’58s, and there might have been no 1961 Continental in response to the excesses of finned madness–and perhaps Bill Mitchell wouldn’t have brought his crisp creases to us until a few years later.
At the end of the day, the 1957 Plymouth remains one of the most breathtaking popularly-priced cars of all time. It made the 1955 Chevrolet look staid, and its remarkably understated elegance would make the reactive 1959 Chevrolet seem like a weird parody. Its surface detailing is quite simple for such a wildly shark-finned car: There’s not much chrome, and the stance is one of lithe athleticism rather than outright aggression. In fact, those abruptly rising “Shark Fin” tail fins are pretty much its only concession to frivolity, given the rather elegant, dart-like shapes of its Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial cousins.
As is well known, the beauty of the 1957 Mopar line wasn’t merely skin deep. This was the first full year for two legendary Chrysler hallmarks, Torsion-Aire Ride and the Torqueflite automatic. Though open for debate, the relative tautness of the Torsion-Aire ride provided handling that was light years ahead of both Ford’s flaccid and floating “Boulevard” ride and Chevrolet’s general indifference to change of direction.
And as for Torqueflite, it would soon become the standard for all automatic transmissions. In 1957, the only outdated mechanicals on Plymouths and Dodges involved the base engine, a Depression-era flathead inline six. It was durable and had competitive horsepower ratings, but still as dull as Wonder bread, especially considering the technological sophistication of the rest of the car.
In a decade of heartbreaking downfalls, the “Forward Fiasco” of 1957 is decidedly in the top three, along with the death of Packard and the Starliner saga at Studebaker. Rushed to market a year earlier than originally planned, the Chrysler Corporation’s 1957 cars–from the cheapest Plaza Sedan to the most imperial of Imperial Crown Southamptons–could be expected to leak, rust, snap torsion bars and split fabric seams. Haste makes waste.
Some say that was no worse than the quality, or lack thereof, of the indifferent years at Ford or Buick or a legion of other offenders, but one critical detail proved almost fatal to Chrysler: The shabby workmanship applied to all Forward Look cars regardless of sticker price.
It might have hurt less if the quality issues plagued only Plymouth, but their disruption of DeSoto’s legendary solidarity and Chrysler’s affluent image helped to create the perfect storm to overturn all forward (-look) progress. Plenty of people who’d married a 1957 Belvedere divorced it soon after and never again considered another Chrysler product, having been burned by so many things that went wrong.
The desperate attempts to right the ship involved Jerry-rigged solutions to the most egregious problems: hoses to channel the leaks outside, instead of into the cabin and onto your feet and hands. Torsion bar end caps to prevent moisture and discourage binding. Thicker upholstery. The fix list went on and on, but it was too late. Mopar never regained its former reputation for quality, despite the occasional high point with a specific model like the Chrysler New Yorker. After 55 years, quality issues continue to plague the perception (and sometimes reflect the reality) of today’s Chrysler products.
Although it was almost over as quickly as it started, the awe-inspiring impact of the ’57 Plymouths changed things, for better and for worse, on many different levels. Few other cars that I’ve caught with a camera have inspired so much joy. For all their initial popularity, their life-shortening woes have made 1957 Plymouths almost the holy grail of car spotting. This perfectly restored Belvedere, down to its gold mylar door panels, is probably far better built by the Oakland architect that restored it than it ever was when it left the factory in 1957.
It’s a bit like biting into the apple of knowledge: seeing a car this beautiful, but in full knowledge of its flaws, makes me so sad. There’ll never be cars like these again, for many legitimate and good reasons. I think that makes the world a sadder place where it is rare to find such artistic license and creative engineering in consumer products. Thank you, 1957 Plymouth, for you are truly one of a kind.