Without question, the stars of the 1957 season came from Chrysler Corporation. Virgil Exner’s stunning designs simply clobbered everything else on the market. For buyers seeking newness, glamour and the most modern expression of longer, lower and wider, no other company could top Chrysler’s offerings. Engineering was first-rate too, with robust engines and transmissions, along with new torsion bar suspensions that provided better road feel and handling than any domestic competitor. Even mighty GM was startled by the newfound strength of the perennial #3 U.S. automaker. Of course, there was a dark side to the new products–abysmal quality–which would lead to long-term brand damage. But when the cars were shiny and new, making their first appearances in Motor Trend and on showroom floors, there was nothing but wonder.
Chrysler brand cars wore the new Forward Look styling especially well: the simple detailing really helped showcase the beauty of the clean, sweeping design. Ironically, Chrysler was the only division in Mopar’s stable to post a sales decline for ’57–volume was down by almost 5% to 122,273. Perhaps some of this dip could be attributed to in-showroom competition: I’m sure some New Yorker shoppers couldn’t resist moving up to Imperial, while frugal Windsor prospects may have been tempted by the much-lower-priced but still beautiful Plymouth Belvederes. Or maybe the bad word-of-mouth about the terrible quality of the new designs hit Chrysler first…
DeSoto had been slowly declining for years, but 1957 proved to be a short-term shot in the arm for sales–one last hurrah before the division died in November 1960. The dramatic styling undoubtedly helped; DeSoto offered a particularly nice rendition of the Forward Look. An entry-level Firesweep model was added to the line-up, targeting the large pool of price-conscious buyers, and the new model wound up accounting for 40% of total 1957 DeSoto sales. The problem was that the Firesweep was simply a Dodge with different trim, and showcased the muddled brand positioning that ultimately would sink DeSoto.
Dodge’s rendition of the Forward Look (referred to as “Delta Wing” by Motor Trend, but called “Swept-Wing” in divisional marketing materials) was the edgiest and most aggressive of the lot. The bold image helped give Dodge a big lift in the tough mid-priced market segment, and sales grew 17% to 281,360 while market share increased by 14%, at a time when all other non-Mopar medium-priced competitors were losing ground.
1957 was the Year of the Imperial. For the first (and last) time, Chrysler’s top luxury marque was a real contender in the quest for high-end buyers. The new design brought greater styling differentiation than ever compared to less expensive Chryslers, allowing the Imperial to really stand out from the crowd. Curved side window glass was also an Imperial exclusive and pioneered a look that would become commonplace in the 1960s. Interiors were particularly lavish, while power was smooth and strong. In sum, it was an aggressive push into the luxury market. Sales soared, rising 251% over 1956 to a record 37,593 Imperials–just 3,530 units shy of Lincoln. Even King Cadillac felt the heat, losing sales (down 5%) and market share (down 6%), so undoubtedly some Cadillac intenders decided to go for the Imperial instead.
Sweeping new styling led to soaring sales heights for Plymouth: the division regained its 3rd place ranking in the industry with a 33% increase in volume over 1956. It was a bold play in a segment that had historically been more about value than flash, though for ’57 Plymouth delivered both, with proven engines, excellent transmissions and torsion bar front suspensions to go with industry leading looks. But then there was that unavoidable Achilles Heel of horrific quality control…
1957 represented the best of times and the worst of times for Chrysler Corporation. The market reaction to the new designs was impressive–Chrysler Corporation market share surged, climbing a full 4 percentage points in one year, from 17% in 1956 to 21% for 1957. Sadly, the wildly popular 1957 products were rushed to market and weren’t ready for prime time. Production models were riddled with defects and poor workmanship, and showed an alarming tendency for premature rust. Many, if not most, of the new and repeat buyers that flocked to Mopar for 1957 were bitterly disappointed with the quality of their cars. That damage to Chrysler’s long-standing quality reputation was severe and long-lasting, and subsequent years would see dramatic sales declines as a result.
For my automotive alternate universe, however, I love to ponder the “what ifs” that could have been. Imagine what today’s automotive landscape would look like, for example, if these Forward Look Chrysler products had been as well-built as they were well-styled. What if the market share gains achieved for 1957 hadn’t abated and had stayed relatively strong (the impact of the 1958 recession not withstanding) filling Chrysler Corporation’s coffers with profits? Could Mopar have genuinely challenged Ford, or even GM, for market position if things had all gone as planned? We’ll never know… But at least we’ll forever enjoy the Forward Look cars, flaws and all.