Vintage Comparison Test: 1967 Chevrolet Impala SS, Ford Galaxie 500, Plymouth Sport Fury – Sampling 2-door Hardtops From The “Low Priced Three”

Back in 1967, the core of the U.S. market was still full-sized cars (54% of total sales), and the jumbo models from the “Low Priced Three,” aka Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth, accounted for a whopping 57% of that segment volume.  So naturally Motor Trend lined-up a representative sample of each—in the highly popular 2-door hardtop body style—for a comparison test in the March 1967 issue.

There was one dirty little secret, though: Motor Trend did not sample the actual top selling American full-sized cars.  If they had, then the full-sized Pontiac would have made the list instead of the Plymouth, since the big Ponchos actually ranked 3rd in sales behind Chevy and Ford in both 1966 and 1967.

However, for the sake of balance (and to protect advertising dollars) Motor Trend decided to include the Mopar product.  Plus, to be fair, the full-sized Plymouth was still legitimately a member of the “Low Priced Three” bracket, even if it trailed Chevy and Ford in sales by a significant margin.

Also, as MT noted at the outset of the test, the “Low Priced Three” cars themselves were very similar in many ways—which made sense, as most buyers were (and are) conformists at heart, and Motown’s executives certainly loved the predictability and margins of tried and true products.

After all, when Plymouth had ventured from the pack in the early 1960s—with outlandish styling, and then starting in 1962 with “full-sized” cars that were noticeably smaller than Chevy and Ford, the sales results were absolutely disastrous.

Plymouth’s full-sized sales volumes starting creeping back up once the cars were conservatively redesigned and enlarged, ultimately returning to traditional full-size proportions for 1965.

By 1967 the “Low Priced Three” were once again marching in lockstep, and each received an extensive styling overhaul of their circa-1965 designs.  Though platforms and powertrains were mostly unchanged, interior and exterior styling was extensively revamped as Chevy, Ford and Plymouth fought for their share of value-conscious big car buyers.

Chevrolet’s landmark 1965 styling (overseen by GM’s Chief Designer Bill Mitchell), with its mix of soft contours and crisp edges, great detailing and handsome proportions was superceded with curvier contours, more pronounced “hips” and more dramatically sloped rooflines for 1967.  Mitchell’s flair was becoming ever more exaggerated as the 1960s came to a close.

Ford softened the lines of its big cars, moving from the very rectilinear ‘65/’66 style to a much more flowing look for 1967, while retaining the familiar Ford styling cues like the large, geometric tail lights.  Conventionally attractive designs seemed to be the name of the game at Ford.

Plymouth also freshened up its styling, with smoother flanks and revised rooflines.  The clean, conservative looks that highlighted size and substance remained intact, but the design was fresh enough to clearly signal that it was new for ’67.  No more risk taking for Plymouth: management was clearly not going to repeat the sins of the past with polarizing size or styling.

Inside the cars, in addition to the expected trim and upholstery changes, the instrument panels were also all new, and designed with more emphasis on “safety” in advance of pending Federal regulations.  However, in vintage Detroit fashion, the ’67 models from the “Low Priced Three” were mostly a triumph of style over substance—few engineering changes were made to dramatically alter how the cars would handle or perform.

So now, let’s get behind the wheel with Motor Trend to see what the editors thought were the high and low points for each car.

Given the similarities in the overall concept for each of these cars, design details took on added importance in delivering differentiation.  Some features, like the “bucket” seats in the Chevy and Plymouth, were options and therefore buyers could choose what suited them best.  Other elements, like the instrument panel designs, were fixed and either very good in layout and usability (Chevy, Plymouth) or more ergonomically challenged, like Ford with inferior lighting and harder to reach controls.

Motor Trend pointed out that for everyday driving, each of the cars did well, and frankly for real world buyers that was what mattered the most.  When pushed, however, differences between the cars emerged.  In the 1960s, Chrysler Corporation products had a strong reputation for superior handling, and the Plymouth Sport Fury lived up to that expectation in this comparison test.  Plymouth’s brakes, however, were noted as being subpar, though that demerit was chalked up to previous hard use the test car had likely endured.  Ford, on the other hand, was focusing more on ride comfort and isolation at the expense of ultimate responsiveness.  Chevrolet seemingly split the difference between the two, and was regarded as a thoroughly competent handler.  Plus, the Impala SS had the best braking performance of the bunch.

Key weaknesses became apparent in the test as well.  One of the biggest noted was the poor quality control on the Plymouth.  This was Mopar’s Achilles Heel in the 1960s (and beyond): lax workmanship and ill-fitting components did significant damage to the brand’s reputation.  Chevrolet was also dinged for inconsistent quality control, though the specific Impala SS test car was praised for being exemplary (as it should have been—the car was undoubtedly a specially prepped PR unit).  As for the Ford, Motor Trend’s editors couldn’t come to grips with the poor ashtray placement: in the smoke-filled sixties, this was apparently a major faux pas.  I guess it’s the equivalent to today’s obsession with ample giant cup holders and a convenient place to access mobile devices….

Under hood, each car featured the tried and true: engines were representative of the “step-up” larger motors that had been on offer in the full-sized cars for several years.  The Blue Oval’s 315 horsepower 390 4V V8 was silky and silent running, in keeping with the big Ford’s mission of isolation and quiet operation.  Chevy’s 325 horsepower 396 4V V8 may not have been the most celebrated engine in the Bowtie lineup, but it was a big, easy running mill that offered good power with decent (for the time) fuel economy.  Mopar’s 383 was a highly praised powerplant, and was noted as being the “pick” for Chrysler Corporation’s engineers.  With 325 horsepower on tap with the 4V version fitted to the test car, the 383 was felt to be smooth and quick.

In addition to very similar performance results between the cars, the prices were also remarkably close.  Using the prices listed by Motor Trend and assuming the upgraded engines, automatic, power disc brakes, power steering and AM radio, the Chevrolet Impala SS and Plymouth Sport Fury Fast Top both would have listed for $3,661 ($27,258 adjusted), while the Ford Galaxie 500 2-door Hardtop was slightly less at $3,490 ($25,985 adjusted).  Adding air conditioning to the Chevy or Ford would have cost $356 ($2,651 adjusted), while cooling the Plymouth was slightly cheaper, at $338 ($2,517 adjusted).  Of course, individual options would have changed the totals, but the basic pricing approach was virtually identical.

One thing I always find intriguing about cars from the 1960s was the extensive à la carte ordering of optional features, which could sometimes result in some perplexing combinations.  A perfect example was the Galaxie 500 2-door hardtop tested by Motor Trend.  While it sported the upgraded 390 4V V8 with Cruise-O-Matic for an extra $490 ($3,648 adjusted), the car still carried the basic “poverty” hub caps—you’d think someone could have coughed up an extra $21 ($156 adjusted) for the full wheel covers.

While the specifications, performance and prices for the cars were similar, when it came to sales there was no contest: Chevrolet was the hands down winner, selling 1,201,700 full-sized cars in 1967, compared to 877,127 full-sized Fords and 317,310 full-size Plymouths.  That ratio of sales among the “Low Priced Three” was pretty consistent for most of the 1960s as Chevy consolidated its dominant position, while Ford held steady with over a 30% segment share.  Pity poor Plymouth: after a sales collapse in the late 1950s (abysmal quality on the ‘57s) and early 1960s (bizarre styling), Mopar’s nadir came in 1962 when only 8% of “Low Priced Three” sales went to Plymouth.  Thanks to the conservative styling and conventional sizing, the 1967 Plymouths were able to claw back up to 13% of the “Low Priced Three” full-sized car sales, though that was a still a far cry from the numbers enjoyed a decade earlier.  In general, however, consumers seemed to have their fixed brand preferences, and there wasn’t too much market share swapping.

A perfect example of the loyal big car buyer was my Granddaddy Will and his Fords.  The standard “Ford” was the only car he ever bought for his entire life, whether that was a Model T or an LTD.  And he owned a 1967 Ford, which I vaguely remember from when I was very young.  His car was a Galaxie 500 4-door sedan, finished in Dark Moss Green with a black vinyl top.  Strangely enough, the interior of the dark green car was a light silvery blue—I even wondered if my memory was playing tricks on me, so I checked with my older brother: sure enough, that was the color combo.  In a way it made sense, as Granddaddy Will bought whatever car he could get the biggest discount on, so a weird color/trim combination that was seemingly unsellable turned into gold for him.  Though he did spring for the full wheel covers….

Granddaddy Will was also a pipe smoker, but somehow he managed to deal with the ashtray location that so flummoxed the Motor Trend editors.  Of my limited memories of his Galaxie 500, one of the most pronounced (other than the curious colors) was the way the interior smelled of his pipe tobacco.

Granddaddy Will viewed cars as tools, to be used (hard) for their intended function, and then unceremoniously disposed of once their usable service life was done.  While he may not have been as rough on his cars as the treatment this Dark Moss Green ’67 Galaxie sedan received in an episode from the TV series “CHiPs”, Granddaddy Will did not baby them at all.  And for that reason, his loyalty to Ford was well earned—the cars did what he wanted with a minimum of fuss.  No surprise that a full-sized Blue Oval was his pick once again for 1967—he was sticking with Ford.

However, if I were shopping for a new car from the “Low Priced Three” back in 1967, the Ford would not have come home with me.  Not that I don’t like it—I can see the many merits of the Galaxie 500.  Likewise, the Plymouth Fury also had plenty to recommend it, especially in terms of responsiveness.  But I am a sucker for style, and that was Chevrolet’s calling card in the 1960s.  While not the best Chevy design of the decade to my eyes (the ’65 would take that honor), I do like the swoopy ‘67s.  I also think the Chevrolet’s interior, especially with the complete instrumentation, was really nice.  And while the Chevy’s performance and handling may not have been the best, they were plenty good enough.  Plus resale values were typically strong, making the big Chevy perfect for buyers looking to trade frequently for the newest style leader.   So out of this selection of popular full-sizers, the Chevrolet would have been my choice.  Make mine Marina Blue!

What would your pick have been in 1967 from the “Low Priced Three”?