(first posted 3/20/2012) Chrysler had indeed come a long way from the dowdy boxes K.T. Keller insisted on for the late 1940s and early 1950s. But before the flamboyant plumage of the second wave of The Foward Look, These Million Dollar Look wagons added a posh touch to a few select well to do driveways around the country.
Before Virgil Exner fully got his way with all of the Chrysler lines in 1955, All of the Mopar wagons suffered from painfully dowdy looks. Although some of the pre-1955 Chryslers can hide their dowdiness with healthy dosages of chrome and a hardtop roofline, the poor wagons had the hardest time moving into the 1950s.
They looked especially dowdy next to their nearest competitors, the newly all steel (and cheaper) Special and Century Estates at Buick, which along with ditching their wooden upper body structure, gained up to 200 horsepower and a surprising zeal for performance formerly lacking in Buick family movers.
So Chrysler retaliated, finally, with a fresh looking line of cars that included a fresh new pair of Town & Country Wagons. Since Oldsmobile was absent from the Station Wagon Market from 1950 through 1956, the war for premium wagon buyers was between offerings at Chrysler and Buick. The look bestowed upon the Chryslers was equally as sporting but more elegant than the Boxy B-Brute look used by Buick.
Chrysler also kept a super premium New Yorker version of the Town & Country above the Windsor version, while Buick completely vacated the super premium wagon market until it introduced the Clamshell Estate in 1971. From 1954 through 1970 (when offered) Buick’s most premium full sized wagon was roughly the equivalent of then concurrent “Bankers Hot Rod” in the line.
It was a remarkable turn around; from being a complete also-ran in your field to being one of a few quite special competitors. And although rarer, The Chryslers didn’t suffer the growing pains that Buick suffered as it grew to #3 in auto sales.
As we all know these beautifully executed family haulers represent the calm before Chrysler self inflicted a 7 year storm on itself between the quality horrors of the Forward Look and styling oddities year after year in the early 1960s that scared away buyers.
It’s hard to believe this relatively restrained and well proportioned 1950s concoction came from the same man who came up with the idea for the 1961 Plymouth. How Virgil Exner and studio made that type of leap in 5 years is beyond me. Although decidedly gaudier than the 1955 model, the judicious usage of chrome trim give a very proper “picnic basket” appeal to these wagons. These weren’t mere carpool tools for suburban mothers, these were elegant all purpose vehicles for the well to do family.
Chrysler would keep the concept of the well to do all purpose wagon for years, and was one of the first to move the plush elegance of a luxury wagon to a more practical size, first with the Aspen/Volare based LeBaron and then the K Car LeBaron. The concept is still alive and well with us as Chrysler still uses the Town & Country name for its (supposedly) more premium minivans.
But few of its successors in name cast such an elegant, tasteful and well crafted image as the ones that shone for an all too brief few automotive seasons in the 1950s. The standard set by the elegant all purpose car has been one of the few nameplates to survive name debasement to sit in glossy brochures today.