(first posted 5/11/2011) The 1959s were the last models of the most famous and infamous cars of Chrysler’s history. In the mid-’50s Chrysler was on a roll after having fallen to third place among the Big Three from their traditional No. 2 spot (and never again would overtake Ford). But after replacing the ultra-conservative K. T. Keller with Tex Colbert and a getting new styling direction under Virgil Exner (who was largely responsible for the 1947 Studebaker), Chrysler hit the showrooms with their Forward Look” 1955 models. Chrysler’s 1955-56 models were their most competitive in years, but as they say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Chrysler had new cars in the pipeline, cars that were going to leapfrog everyone else’s in the industry. They’d have new engines (including the legendary 392 Hemi), new transmissions (the equally legendary Torqueflite), new suspensions (front torsion bars) and new bodies. These cars would be new from road to roof–and oh yes, Chrysler would accomplish all this in two years instead of the usual three.
To introduce their 1957 lineup, Plymouth declared that “Suddenly it’s 1960!” In the fall of 1956, these very cars had instigated sheer panic at General Motors, which responded with a crash program to scrap their planned 1958 cars–after only one year–in favor of wholly-new ’59s. The Mopars out-handled, out-braked, out-accelerated and generally outclassed everything else on the road…except in one very important way.
The ’57 were Chrysler’s first (but not last) unmitigated quality disasters. Parts didn’t fit well. Parts fell off. There were dust and water leaks, plus rust on-demand. After a stellar 1957, sales for 1958 dove off a cliff.
Enter the ’59 Plymouth you see here. By now, Chrysler had largely (but not completely) eliminated the worst quality issues: The ’59s were marginally tighter and the best-put together of the series. No one could know at the time that they would be the last really competitive Plymouths until the 1965 C-bodies.
The Plymouth Fury had been a minor sensation since its 1956 debut. In 1959, Plymouth’s new flagship was the Sport Fury, as the “regular” Fury (seen here) moved down a notch along with the Belvedere and the Savoy and the Plaza was eliminated. For traditionalists, this would mark the last year for the old flathead six. Other engine choices for 1959 included the wide-block 318 and the 361 (called the Golden Commando 395, for its torque output.) Buyers could choose from a three-speed manual transmission, the two-speed Powerflite automatic and the three-speed Torqueflite automatic. But the reputation of the ’57s had stuck to them, and ’59 was again not a very good sales year.
In the fall of 1979, when I was in college, one of my Sunday activities was cruising through car lots when the dealerships were closed. And there it was: A white, ’59 Fury four-door sedan, green interior, with those clear plastic seat covers so popular with old people in the ’50s, and 60,000 on the odo. I went back the next week and drove the car. When I read the glove box sticker and found that this car had been delivered to its original owner on the very day I was born, well, I just had to have it.
How bad did I want it? Bad enough to straight-trade a six-cylinder, three-speed ’68 Mustang. Yes, it was one of the dumbest car trades ever, financially speaking. My mother was furious when I brought it home. She always called it Moby Dick. But I loved that Fury at least as much as any car I’ve ever owned. But after six months the 20-year-old transmission was hinting at a rebuild, and I spotted a ’71 Scamp that became my next new love. I was fickle in those days.
I can attest that the ’59s still had some flaws. Mine was plagued by water leaks around the windshield, and brake lights that would stick and keep glowing. And oh yes, a leak at the gas tank filler pipe. And the very beginning of some body rust (something it had managed to hold off for a long time). Still, it drove like cars that were 10 years newer. It felt much more modern than my friend’s ’62 Chevy. It cornered flat, braked pretty well (for drums), and the 318 certainly was adequate. The car was content to drive at 70 mph all day long. Although it was a higher-maintenance car than its ’71 Scamp replacement, I wish I had kept it longer.
(photos by Paul Niedermeyer)