I don’t usually do this, but there I was tooling down West 11th when I spotted this red Chrysler up ahead. When I finally got next to him at a light, I waved my camera and gestured if he would pull over for a shoot. A nod of assent followed. But he kept right burbling along, and I began to have my doubts. Suddenly, he pulled into the Lane Memorial Gardens. How fitting.
Especially so since his majestically beautiful 1965 Newport hardtop coupe looks like it has one foot in the grave already. We just don’t see rust like this in this part of the world. The owner said something about it being a “beach car.” I have a different theory.
Studies say that long-time married folks begin to look more like each other. This guy and his car have been soul mates for many decades, and his car is just trying to look like him: a grizzled, hacking, chain-smoking old tough. And the cancerous rust is just the outer manifestation of the state of his lungs. Anyway, you could tell these two were bonded for life and in an unspoken race to see who would end up in the graveyard last. I wouldn’t bet against the Chrysler.
The second half of the sixties was a golden era for Chrysler, perhaps its best after its glorious debut in the twenties. It finally slew the twin dragons of quirky styling and lingering questions of build quality. Good thing, too.
The flamboyant designer Virgil Exner was hired in the early fifties to solve Chrysler’s stodginess problem. His early efforts were exemplary hits, like the superb 1955 Chrysler 300, as well as its over-the top follow-up, the ’57 300 C. But Ex had a tendency to go out of the mainstream of popular taste, like the 1960 Valiant. Technically superior, Valiant sales struggled under the weight of its eccentricity and that fake spare tire.
But the downsized 1962 Plymouths and Dodges were the last straw. Exner was shown the door, and Elwood Engel, the father of the superb (and restrained) 1961 Continental and 1961 T-Bird, was hired away from Ford.
Engel (obviously) was a lover of classic proportions, formal roof-lines, and slab sides punctuated by chrome accents. And his first assignment at Chrysler, the ill-fated Turbine concept has T-Bird written all over it.
The 1965 full-size Mopars were the first production cars with Engel’s signature on them. The Chryslers were the best of the bunch. And Plymouth was mighty happy just to have a full-sized car again. Chrysler sales swelled to over 200k, with the entry-level Newport leading the charge. A handsome car indeed, although its slab-sided edginess made it an outsider from the start, thanks to GM’s tectonic shift to coke-bottle styling in 1965.
But Chrysler’s reputation (back then) was almost always greater for what happened under the skin. It’s torsion bar suspensions weren’t quite as floaty as GM and Ford’s. Brakes were taken a bit more seriously. Engines were all solid, and the TorqueFlite slushbox was the most efficient and reliable in the land. Chrysler’s power steering was effortless but notoriously devoid of feeling. Oh well.
Chryslers tended to appeal to those that still saw a car as an engineered device, rather than a styled appliance or status symbol. In my family’s circle of Germanic-academic immigrant types, Chryslers were the car of choice, especially after Studebaker bit the dust (it was that Mercedes connection). Of course, by the mid-seventies they were buying the real thing (Mercedes, that is). But when this battered but still-proud Newport was box-fresh, it spoke well of its buyer: independent, intelligent and successful. Well, the mid-sixties were a long time ago.
Due to my father’s irrepressible modesty, our family Mopar was a lowly ’65 Dodge Coronet wagon. But his cousin, a traveling salesman of fine German optics, was a real car guy. Always drove in style and had a fine eye for quality.
He first drove a gorgeous powder-blue 1962 Caddy Fleetwood. But it was not with out its vices, and a traveling salesman can’t afford breakdowns. He traded it in for a four door ’65 Newport. With the 315-horsepower four-barrel 383, it was a more-reliable way to get him to the next small-town camera shop in speed, comfort and style. That is, until he traded that it in for a 1969 Mercedes 280SE. I saw the writing on Detroit’s wall a long time ago.
Meanwhile, this pair of old vets will keep rolling along, oblivious to the tattered shreds of their fenders and lungs. In their hearts beats the pride of a glorious past and a healthy, burbling 383. It wouldn’t surprise me if they both outlive the New, New Chrysler.
(Update: I’ve changed my mind about that last line)