(first posted 4/13/2012)
So, it’s actually 1960. Aren’t you happy with the portrait I painted? What do you mean no? No? What do you want then?
This line of questioning brought to you by Virgil Exner, the head of Chrysler design confused about where to go next after he brilliantly boxed himself in with The Forward Look. The Finned Fantasies of what motoring would look like during those Camelot years from a flamboyant fifties perspective wrangled the styling crown from General Motors, but also boxed in Chrysler about where to go next with their designs.
For 1959 that meant doing, ironically, what General Motors did for years, if it ain’t broke, just add more chrome! And there was an effort to finally squelch the niggling quality bugaboos that plagued the fantastic forward look.
The result were cars that looked almost as chunky as the rotund General Motors cars they mocked, just when their main competitor, Buick, decided to pull out the equivalent of Swiss Army knives on their fendertips, with a surly face looking for a fight.
So, Chrysler (and Plymouth) to an extent remembered the plot and cleaned things up for 1960. Almost as clean and pure (except for the chunky front bumper assembly and trapezoid grille for everybody front end) as the original 1957 models. Dodge stuck with the “slather more chrome, it equates more value” mantra for 1960. And DeSoto was pretty much a carbon copy of the Chrysler line, with a few more fussy details.
But you would think, for all the hoopla about Chrysler’s “return” to Unit Body Construction for all of its products save Imperial, they would have gotten more than a rehash of then 3 year old styling themes. Then again, no American manufacturer was purely predicting the definition of 1960s style we would become accustomed to.
Only the Squarebirds, lower trim Lincolns and Ford Galaxie Sedans were using the semi blind C pillar, decidedly still attached to bodies with the same Space Age doodads of the previous decade. And all GM cars, although breathtaking in 1959, showed (at times awkwardly) the transition from the curvy exuberance of Harley Earl to the crisp precision preferred by Bill Mitchell.
And let us not discount, that in 1960, Mopars of all stripes were still excellent drivers, with the stout RB Block 383 sitting under the hood of our photo car. Torsion Bars that no longer snapped and the excellent Torqueflite Automatic were making their 4th season appearance as the 1960s dawned, and more and more Mopar loyalists could point to these 3 features as calling cards that made their cars among the most roadable in the land.
And, well, what has to be one of the most beautiful instrument clusters ever to grace any car came in all Chryslers starting in 1960 (although this is a 300F Cluster shown). At least the Astradome cluster with it’s indirect electro-luminiscent lighting looked like part of the future lighting up the space age 1960s that would never be.
But what of the Saratoga, not a name many automatically associate with Chrysler? When you think Chrysler you think 300 foremost, New Yorker second, Town & Country third. The shuffling game for the rest of the nameplates from the end of the war through 1962 confuses.
The most that I could ever figure out was that like the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight, the Saratoga was a way to get the Hemi V8 in a cheaper (and maybe a little bit lighter) car than the flagship model that introduced their overhead valve V8s. It disappeared for the 1953-56 seasons (to give DeSoto a reprieve?), to reappear during the Forward Look Fanfare of ’57. By the late 50s it bounced between being a more Buick Century themed car, offering an uprated V8 in the smaller Windsor chassis, or in other years utilized the long wheelbase New Yorker chassis and took on a more Buick Super like role of being a whole lotta Chrysler for a little less money.
As we know with a lot of cars, a lack of identity and purpose can be fatal for sales, as it basically sacked the whole DeSoto brand, along with Edsel, and a few other assorted Mid Priced cars (the disappearance of all big Mercuries above Monterey past 1960, and the decontented “Non Deuce” Buick Electra and the Invicta). The Saratoga would suffer the same fate as the Windsor moved up a slot as the DeSoto-cannibalizing Newport hit showroom floors in the fall of 1960.
Which is totally okay, as the Saratoga probably didn’t want its honor slain by the cockeyed 1961-62 models anyways. But they do mark an interesting footnote before Exner’s vision of the 1960s got psychotic before psychedelic drugs became prominent.
But this is not the vision (at least on a skin level) of what the 1960s would look like. Between the 1961 Continental and the 1961 General Motors line, flamboyance was out like a crinoline skirt. Oh but what fun it was while it lasted. If only they stopped there before we got to the 1961 Plymouth and 1962 Dodge. Jesus.
(Kudos to the photobombing the 1953 Commander Starliner is doing throughout this piece).