Curbside Classic: 1967 Chrysler Newport Custom – Upscale, Downscale

The mid-priced car market has often perplexed manufacturers.  Should mid-priced cars be cheaper versions of high-end models, costlier versions of low-end models, or should they comprise a separate make altogether?  Chrysler’s Newport was a long-running example of the first approach: For nearly two decades it served as the “bargain” Chrysler.  This example is from 1967 – one of the Newport’s peak years, both in terms of popularity and style.  Though in well-worn original condition, this car appears to be generally intact, and one can imagine it being driven from a new-car lot right to the 1960s-era subdivision where it was photographed on the eve of its 50th birthday.

For many years, Chrysler Corporation’s DeSoto brand filled the middle of the company’s model range.  However, DeSoto sales plunged in the late 1950s.  A 1958 recession drove buyers to cheaper cars, and DeSoto – struggling with a somewhat weak personality and lack of distinction – never recovered.  Sales plunged by 78% over three years, and DeSoto was axed in late 1960.  Not willing to quit the medium-price market, Chrysler Corporation instead tried a different tack for 1961 – the Chrysler Newport.

The Newport filled the void left by DeSoto, and its market position as a bargain Chrysler was quite intentional.  At the time of the DeSoto/Newport shuffle, Chrysler-Imperial General Manager Clare Briggs said “The public wants economy, but it also wants big car comfort.”  With Newport, he was able to deliver a car with both attributes to Chrysler’s customers.

Briggs called the Newport “a tempting alternative to buyers exploring the upper strata of the low price field.”  Essentially a lower-priced version of the Chrysler Windsor, the 1961 Newport offered full-size comfort and the prestige of a Chrysler nameplate, all for about the same price as a 1960 DeSoto.  It was a winning combination – Newport sales singlehandedly rescued what would otherwise have been a dismal year for the Chrysler brand.

If Chrysler managers worried about a cheaper car tarnishing the upmarket Chrysler name, they kept quiet about it.  Numbers talked, and Newport’s sales figures justified its existence.  From a short-term perspective, Newport provided immediate sales and kept customers out of rival Oldsmobile, Buick and Mercury showrooms.  Longer-term, it was hoped that today’s Newport buyers would return to buy tomorrow’s higher-end New Yorkers or 300s.

In its first year, Newport achieved 57,000 sales – more than the entire DeSoto range achieved in any year since 1957.  Newports accounted for about 60% of total Chrysler brand sales that year.  The next three years saw similar success for the new entry-level Chrysler, averaging over 80,000 units per year and two-thirds of Chrysler sales.

For 1965, the Newport and other Chryslers were redesigned by Elwood Engel onto what became known as the C-body.  Featuring a 2-inch longer wheelbase, C-body design exemplified the 1960s clean, crisp and decluttered ideal.  The highly stylized chrome-and-gingerbread look of the 1950s was out, and the lower, longer, sleeker look took full root.

On the road, these cars featured very respectable performance for the era – handling was crisp thanks to the torsion bar front suspension, and for 1965 Newports gained Chrysler’s 383-cid engine.  Even with the performance and styling improvements, base prices increased only 2%.  That was a recipe for success: Sales of the ’65 models increased by nearly 50%.

Even with the redesign, Newport’s marking strategy stayed consistent.  Ads and brochures emphasized value.  The overarching theme was that for only a few dollars more than an ordinary car, buyers could have an honest-to-goodness full-size Chrysler – just like a New Yorker, only more attainable.  This strategy’s success depended on the ongoing cachet of the Chrysler nameplate, and there was good reason to bank on such cachet: A fully-loaded New Yorker listed for nearly twice the price of a stripped-down Newport.  But ironically, as the decade moved along, it was the Newport itself that came to define Chrysler.

source: Standard Catalog of Chrysler, 1914-2000

In our featured year of 1967, Newports accounted for an all-time high of 72% of Chrysler brand sales.  For the Newport’s first 9 years, it accounted for 2 out of every 3 Chryslers built, and was by far the best selling model group in the Chrysler lineup.

So the Newport was a downscale version of the upscale Chrysler.  With 1967 came a twist: A better-equipped Newport variant called the Newport Custom.  Yes, an upscale model of the downscale version of the upscale Chrysler.  Confused?  Buyers weren’t.  Chrysler sold 50,000 Customs in 1967 – one-third of all Newport sales.

Our featured car is just such a car.  Newport Customs were distinguished on the outside by additional trim, representing a slight reversion to extra brightwork that was noticeably absent in the original 1965 design.  This included chrome lower body moldings and chrome horizontal deck lid trim (with integrated vinyl handles) – neither of which was available on standard Newports.

Other differences between standard Newports and Customs were found inside.  Upgraded upholstery and better cushioned seats made the Custom an inviting place in which to spend time.  Newport’s dashboard was new for 1967, ditching the previous space-age theme for a long, wide setup and bar-style speedometer that stylistically matched the long and wide exterior.

The controls were likewise characteristic of the times: Chromed push buttons and toggle switches abounded on this dashboard, while the AM radio was controlled by four thumb wheels.  Our featured car contains the optional “3-in-1” front seat – a 50/50 split bench with two folding armrests.

This view shows one of the 3-in-1 seat’s oddities: Only the passenger side received a headrest.  The headrest could be adjusted to one of four positions, and the passenger seatback could recline to a 45° angle.

As one would expect from a car with a 124” wheelbase, rear seat room was generous, and combined with the relatively high level of appointments, the rear of a Newport was a pleasant place to be.

By 1967, “longer, lower, wider” had been a trend for quite some time, and there’s a good argument to be made that the Engel-designed 1965-68 Chryslers epitomized this movement, if not in absolute dimensions then possibly in essence.  The car was certainly long (all 18’ of it) and low (5” lower than Chryslers from 12 years earlier), but its styling effects accentuate these attributes.

Horizontal lines formed by the sharp beltline crease and the stretched hood and trunk lids make a long car appear longer, as does the Custom-specific lower body molding.

The proportions seem exaggerated today, largely because the shape is atypical when compared to modern cars.  Our featured Newport is 21” longer and 3” lower than the 2016 300C shown above, but pure dimensions tell only part of the story.  The length difference comes mostly from overhangs (the Newport’s rear overhang is twice as long), and the height difference is emphasized by not just a lower roof, but also by a lower hood and trunk, and a vastly airier greenhouse.  Horizontal lines on the Newport contrast mightily with rotund forms on the 2016 Chrysler.

Speaking of shapes, a unique styling touch supplemented Newport’s design: Concave-shaped side body panels.  Running nearly the car’s full length, the scooped-out appearance made by this concave form fashioned a subtle, but effective supplement to the car’s sharp-edged styling details.

Concavities didn’t stop with the side panels.  Some sort of concave shape can be seen from just about every angle.  These complex shapes may not be apparent at first glance, but collectively they augment the car’s already captivating countenance.

1967 4-door Newports were offered in the sedan body style such as this example, and a pillarless hardtop.  Coming with a price premium, the hardtops were rarer than the sedans, though the extent to which this was true differed for the base and Custom models.  Just 23% of base Newport 4-door buyers sprang for the hardtop in 1967, compared with 38% of Newport Custom buyers.  Still, our featured car was not one of those, instead presenting the standard, but still elegant, sedan package.

Elegance in our featured car still shows through the accumulated tarnish of five decades on the road.  The original turquoise paint is dulled, but a lack of serious visible rust or major body damage point to a car that may still have its best years ahead of it.

Perceptive readers may notice the Florida license plate contrasting with a decidedly un-tropical environment.  Indeed, the car was photographed 700 miles from the Sunshine State.  That distance, plus cans of starting fluid on the seat, suggest an ambitious road trip.  Wherever the final destination, let’s hope this Newport continues to carry its driver and passengers in style.

The 1965 C-body redesign lasted until 1968, with annual trim and equipment revisions that made each year’s models distinguishable from each other.  For 1967, Newport gained a revised grille and rear deck treatment.  The grille, V-shaped, with a chrome bar in the middle containing three “gold crown medallions,” was only used for that year.  1968 Newports received another then-customary annual grille and rear deck freshening, but that would be the final year for the vintage-1965 C-body cars.

The Newport name carried on, first as the fuselage-body 1969 model, and right on through to the 1981 R-bodies.  Through all that time, Newport stayed true to its mission crafted in 1961 – offering full-size Chrysler comfort in an “easy-to-own” package.

Newport represented a quiet revolution for Chrysler.  For 14 straight years – from its 1961 introduction until 1974 – it was the Chrysler brand’s top-selling model, until that honor was assumed by the Cordoba.  During that time, the Newport presided over a vast increase in the brand’s sales figures.  Our featured car hails from what could arguably be called the Newport’s peak period – the model’s top three sales years were 1966, ’67 and ’68.

While the downscale model of Chrysler Corporation’s upscale brand may have diluted a bit of the brand’s prestige, it more than pulled its weight in terms of sales.  This was perhaps the quintessential upper middle class sedan of the late 1960s… a good value, contemporary design, reputable drive train, and the impression of social respectability.  Given those qualities, it is little wonder that the Newport dominated Chrysler’s sales charts.  Maybe the mid-priced car market isn’t quite so perplexing after all.

 

Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in December 2016.

 

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