Curbside Classic: 1961 Dodge Dart Pioneer – The Anti-Impala

We live in a day and age of opposites.  You may say black while I say white.  We have red states and blue states, Fox News and MSNBC, and let us not forget that Bar-B-Que and PETA each has their fan base.  In today’s automotive landscape this bifurcation continues with opposites like the Prius Hybrid and the F-250 King Ranch.

It was  not always so.  If we could go back fifty or more years, the stark opposites that are so common today were a little harder to come by.  But there was this one:  The 1961 Chevrolet Impala and this car, the 1961 Dodge Dart.

Let us get one thing out of the way.  Yes, say ye sticklers for detail, Dodge was aimed a notch higher in the market – more at Pontiac than at Chevrolet.  Well yes . . . and no.  As America recovered from the nasty recession of 1958, the traditional “low priced three” became the place to be.  All of a sudden everyone wanted in on the action.  The 1961 Mercury advertised that it was “Priced right in the heart of the low priced field.”  Dodge went Mercury one better with an entire new line of Dodges “Priced dollar for dollar with Ford and Chevrolet.”  Uh, I think they forgot to mention Plymouth, which was not having an easy time selling cars as it was.   But whether Chrysler (or America) needed a second version of Plymouth, that was what we all got in the 1960-61 Dodge Dart.

The Dart (which would not take on its familiar status as the compact Dodge until 1963) was offered in three separate sub-models from the low end Seneca to the high trim Phoenix.  This Dart Pioneer was in the middle, so perhaps more akin to a Bel Air or whatever Plymouth was calling its middle line that year.  Really, after finally getting a handle on the strange multi-layered Dodge lineup for 1961 I have no energy left to get the Plymouths straight in my head too, so you’re on your own.  But to review, there were two Dodge models – the Polara (real Dodge on a 122 inch wheelbase) and the Dart (Plymouth-like-Dodge on a 118 inch wheelbase) which came in three sub-models.  Are these the only cars that require three names to properly identify, like John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald?  That both of these men were assassins makes for an appropriate analogy because these three-named Dodges gave killing Plymouth a pretty good try.

When we recently looked at the ’61 Chevrolet Impala, I was struck by a few things.   We all know that it was one of the most popular cars in the land, selling over 400,000 units in just that top trim line alone (with the full range of regular Chevrolet coming in at around 1,300,000).  It was also a beautiful car.  It was not a simple design, either.  It was a complex symphony of sculptured lines, angles and curves that all came together in one of the most svelte and athletic-looking big cars of all time.  We also know (or at least I do) that these were not exactly renowned as great road cars in their day.  That “Jet Smooth” ride was the result of a very soft suspension system and even their fastest steering box took 5 turns of the wheel from left lock to right.  Also, the cars were afflicted by some really odd ergonomics, mainly a very low seat and a high steering column.

Then there was this Dodge.  Could we consider the ’61 Dodge Dart as the opposite of the Impala?  Where Chevrolet’s beauty was on display for all to see, the Dodge’s beauty was visible only to those willing to burrow deep down below its, ummm, unique looks.  The old bit of wisdom tells us that true beauty lies within, and this was where the Dodge could strut its stuff.

Let us begin with the beautiful part of this car.  I would propose that the large cars of the Chrysler Corporation may have been at their pinnacle in the years from 1960-64, at least in terms of their driving dynamics.  The 1957 line is rightly famous as the cars that pushed big American cars to new levels of roadability.  That pesky tradeoff between smooth ride on the one hand and taut handling on the other seemed to have been solved by the suspension engineers in Highland Park.  Everyone credits the front torsion bars for the cars’ great agility, and everyone would be half right.  The torsion bars (and the suspension geometry that went with them) proved able to minimize things like braking dive while providing a relatively compliant spring rate.  The rear leaf springs were also re-imagined.  Not only were they widely spaced on mounts outside of the frame rails (as opposed to below the frame or inside of it, as were the common practices of the time) but the axle was mounted ahead of the normal mid point of the leaf, about 1/3 back from the front shackle.  The effect was that the stiff, short forward part of the spring located the axle very securely for minimization of squat and dive forces in acceleration and braking.  The long, more flexible rear part of the leaf allowed for a smoother ride.

The inherent weakness with the 1957-59 cars was their traditional body-on-frame structure, which permitted too much structural flex.  Although this flex was reduced in 1958 and 1959 models, it was never eliminated.  The 1960 Unibody construction  gave these cars the structural integrity that they deserved.  Now, the best suspension in the industry was mated to one of the most rigid structures in the industry to go along with it.  Later generations of Chrysler C bodies would begin to soften their spring rates in the quest for an improved ride, but those cars lost some of their handling edge in the process.

These cars’ goodness was not restricted to their suspensions and their bodies.  Chrysler’s engines of this era were hard to beat, particularly the 383 and 413 of the B/RB big block family, engines that became the backbone of Mopar’s renowned performance cars of the 1960s.  Although to get the 383 you would have to upgrade to a Polara.  The Dart was offered with the standard slant six, a 2 bbl 318 (4 bbl with the Dart Power Package) or a 4 bbl 361 (the Dart D-500).  Also, not to be forgotten was the excellent 3 speed Torqueflite automatic transmission which was without peer for both performance and durability.

So, we have proved that the ’61 Dodge Dart was far and away a better car than the ’61 Chevy, right?  Well . . . perhaps to the ten five percent of buyers who prize function above all else.  As for the rest who care about how their car looks?  Perhaps not.

It has become a popular thing in modern life to try unorthodox combinations.  “Hey, let’s take a bacon cheeseburger and add peanut butter, cranberries and pine nuts!”  Sometimes these odd combinations work, like the cocktail I was recently served that consisted of rye whiskey, maple syrup and fresh rosemary.  And sometimes . . . . you get things like this Dodge.  Here, it was “Hey, let’s start with a fin over the back wheel, make it slope downward all the way back then do a 180 degree reverse into a line that goes forward until it . . . almost lines up with that line on the front fender, which can then start a whole series of incomprehensible melty bulges and sags around the front.”  A wise man once said that just because something can be done does not mean that it should be done.  Or something like that.

I have looked over the lines of this car quite a bit.  I kind of see what they were trying to do.  There were some fascinating ideas going on here.  Intriguing, even.  This is not a boring design.  And if I might go out on a limb, the basic overall shape is not terrible.  But as actually conceived and built?  It just.  Doesn’t.  Work.  None of it.  The front is a mess, the rear is a mess and even the side (probably the car’s best feature) is a mess.

The ’61 Plymouth was a decent effort that was let down by a bizarre front end.  This Dart?  The bizarre parts of this design have no point of beginning or ending – they just . . .  are.  Where the ’61 Impala’s styling elements come together to form a playground of delight, the ’61 Dart is the automotive version of The Twilight Zone.

We should not be surprised that a fouled up car might be the result of a fouled up styling department.  Virgil Exner suffered a severe heart attack in 1956 (at the age of 46) and it appears that the 1961 cars happened during his extended illness.  There are claims (on that nobody was given charge during this period, which resulted in clay models of 1961 cars going straight to metal without the refinement that would probably have happened under normal circumstances.  The better answer seems to be that there were too many cooks in the kitchen.  Bill Schmidt was hired by management to run things during Exner’s open-ended absence, in part because of management’s feeling that second-in-charge Cliff Voss was too inexperienced.  Schmidt had run Lincoln-Mercury design studios from 1945-55 and that of Packard until that studio was closed in 1956.

Chrysler’s 1960 models seem to have been at least gotten started under Exner’s watch during 1956, and therefore show at least a bit of coherence.  But the 1961 cars were done under Schmidt’s control, however temporary and tenuous that control might have been.  (Former stylist John Sampson has stated that Schmidt’s arrival led to rivalries between those partial to Exner and those who hoped Schmidt would stay.)  There are precious few photos online of 1961 Plymouth or Dodge proposals, but this one (supposedly from 1958) shows something well along in planning and close to the actual tail end treatment for the higher-end Dodge Polara.  Could it be that stylists saw this train wreck happening before the rest of us did and didn’t save many of these photos?

In contrast, there are many photos out there of the 1962 models being developed under Exner’s guidance following his return to work in late 1957.  This one, for example, shows that the original proposal for the 1962 Plymouth was pretty well nailed down by July of 1959, and shows some fresh styling themes as developed with Exner back in the saddle.  The disastrous crash re-start of the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge programs are another story for another day.  It is tempting to conclude that the 1961 Dodge and Dart were Bill Schmidt’s attempts to graft his own ideas onto Virgil Exner’s concept, all done without the benefit of a translator.  Schmidt’s version of a re-imagined third gear of the Forward Look was . . . ummmm . . . not successful, so it was probably a good thing that he left upon Exner’s return.

The mystery deepens when we consider the research of Peter Grist in his book Virgil Exner – Visioneer.  In that account, when Exner returned from his convalescence, the 1961 models were too far along to be changed, and that both he and Bill Schmidt agreed that neither was very satisfied with the result.  Cliff Voss had been in close contact with Exner during the latter’s absence, so did he and Exner share more credit/blame for these cars than other participants?  John Samson’s recollections are of no help as he was in the DeSoto studio at the time and has professed ignorance of what was happening with the Dodges.  The more conspiratorially minded among us could be forgiven for wondering if either the Exner camp or the Schmidt contingent engaged in an some attempts to sabotage the other’s career at Chrysler.  I doubt that any of us will ever know what really went on in that Dodge studio as these cars were being designed.  Ultimately, Exner has been the one to take history’s blame for these cars, whether fairly or not.  As well as blame from Chrysler, as he was relieved of his duties while these cars were in showrooms.

And just when I thought I understood these Darts I learned that Chrysler added a second set of taillights in cars built beginning spring of 1961 (and offered a modification kit for dealer installation on older cars) after complaints about the ineffectiveness of the low-mounted taillights.  There was perhaps but a single way to make a bad design worse and it appears that the boys at Chrysler Corporation found it.  Or maybe these added taillights were just a sneaky way to make us appreciate the original design?

The buying public was not impressed.  Sales were under 168,000 cars for the entire ’61 Dart line, including station wagons.  Plymouth would manage to get nearly 199,000 cars out the door – which, for a line that had been selling between 400,000 and 600,000 for most of the previous decade, was not much to crow about.    But lest you think Dodge was doing well, the entire Polara (“real Dodge”) line was good for only 14,000 more cars, likely the result of another intra-company killer: The Chrysler Newport, which was actually $5 cheaper than the Polara.  By the end of 1961, it was clear that the Dart-as-a-shadow-Plymouth experiment was a dismal failure.  In 1962 the Dart would be the anchor model of the standard Dodge (and an entirely different kind of dismal failure) before reinventing itself as a 1963 compact Dodge that would go on to be one of Chrysler’s most beloved cars of all time.

In 1961 few cars looked as good as the Chevrolet Impala.  But none looked as bad as this one, which might mark the absolute trough of Chrysler’s styling (or any other American company’s postwar styling, for that matter.)  Which is a tremendous shame, given this car’s many (well hidden) attributes.  Is there a better contender for the title of the Anti-Impala?  I couldn’t think of one either.