Chrysler’s gamble on downsizing in 1962 was certainly not a commercial success, but from an engineering and packaging standpoint, there were some notable accomplishments. For the low-priced Plymouth brand, the pragmatic approach to big car design did earn some accolades from the automotive press back when these cars were new.
In the October 1961 issue of Motor Trend, the editors pointed out the benefits that reduced bulk would bring. Ironically, despite Plymouth’s disastrous results with its “full-sized downsizing,” the market was hungry for more rationally-sized big cars for 1962—as Ford’s new “Intermediate” Fairlane would prove by selling 297,116 units of this “mid-size class” of car, handily beating the 182,220 “full sized” Plymouths (and of course Ford sold an additional 704,775 of its traditional big cars).
The packaging of the Plymouth really was ahead of it’s time, offering comparable (or improved) interior dimensions versus its larger predecessor. And of course with lighter weight performance improvements could be expected, whether the buyers desired more economy or snappier acceleration.
At the outset of 1962, Motor Trend developed its own “Economy Run” to compare the most basic versions of the 1961 and 1962 Plymouth to determine if the new smaller car did offer better economy and performance.
The basic sedans equipped with the Slant Six and Torqueflite Automatic, just like a schoolmarm or shiftless skinflint would order, were driven from Detroit to Los Angeles, encountering severe weather conditions along the way. But when the results were tallied, the ’62 Plymouth did in fact deliver on its advertised economy benefits.
At the opposite end of the Plymouth model spectrum, Motor Trend also tested a loaded 1962 Sport Fury Convertible with the 361 “Golden Commando” V8.
Motor Trend noted that while Plymouth’s styling was polarizing with people loving the looks or hating them, there was little dispute around the impressive performance credentials.
The Sport Fury was deemed quick and reasonably nimble, with nice instrumentation and respectable road feel. Based on the Plymouth’s size and performance abilities, Motor Trend went so far as to laud the Sport Fury as an American “sports-type” automobile.
Unfortunately for Chrysler, buyers did not agree with MT’s assessment: Sport Fury sales were minimal, with just 4,039 2-door hardtops and 1,516 convertibles leaving showrooms for 1962. Those results trailed other big “sports type” cars by a large margin, including far more expensive “sporty” full-sized cars like the Oldsmobile Starfire (41,998 sold) and Pontiac Grand Prix (30,195 sold), though the Sport Fury did at least beat the Mercury S-55 (4,087 sold).
The Plymouth brand really was about pragmatism, so the wagon body style was an area where the newly downsized ‘62s could demonstrate functional benefits. To see how the Plymouth stacked up against the competition, Car Life compared a base-model Plymouth Savoy Wagon with the mid-range Ford Country Sedan and the top-trim Chevrolet Impala Wagon.
As was typical for the time, each of the Big Three wagons had its own character. The Chevrolet was a proven winner, with strong resale, quality and engine performance (even with Powerglide), though it trailed the others in handling. Ford continued to earn its “Wagon Master” status by offering the best functional attributes, with a package that could be made even better by selecting a larger engine than the one on the test car. In typical Mopar fashion, Plymouth was seen as the best handler with strong performance and good economy, but sadly the worst in quality control. Granted, the Savoy was a stripper and the others were more upscale, as reflected in the as-tested prices: $3,748 ($30,816 adjusted) for the Chevrolet, $3,318 ($27,281 adjusted) for the Ford and $2,802 ($23,038 adjusted) for the Plymouth. Still, even basic cars deserve to be well built, something that the Japanese readily mastered.
Interestingly, while the Plymouth was smaller than Chevy and Ford in wheelbase, width and height, the Savoy wagon was actually a smidge longer overall. Given the reduced exterior dimensions, however, Plymouth’s packaging was pretty good, and it wasn’t far behind the Chevy in interior volume. But Plymouth’s wagon trailed the others badly in sales: just 17,473 Plymouth wagons were sold for 1962, compared with 82,106 Ford wagons and 187,566 Chevrolet wagons.
So no matter the good reviews for all the functional benefits inherent in the new smaller Plymouths, the market just wasn’t buying: they offered more of what the market didn’t want (handling, economy, performance) and less of what it did (non-controversial style and exterior dimensions).