Car Show Classics: 1956 Plymouth Belvedere Convertible and 1966 Plymouth Barracuda Formula S – How Have You Changed In Ten Years?

A few weeks ago, my wife and I diverged from our normal car show routine and attended the rescheduled “Eyes on Design” car show at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, MI.  This show normally falls on the same June weekend as my favorite car show, Motor Muster at Greenfield Village in Dearborn; therefore, this was my first time attending Eyes on Design.  In addition to hundreds of interesting vehicles, I was reacquainted with two Plymouths, ten years apart, that had little in common other than making me fall in love with them.

The first was this beautiful 1956 Belvedere convertible in a wild shade of pink, or more specifically Briar Rose, if one is to believe the color charts.  Like many of us, I’ve gone through periods of prolonged “Forward Look” envy where I’ve kept an eye out for any Chrysler product produced during Virgil Exner’s halycon days of the late 1950s, but I’ve been lately focused on other things.  Maybe that’s why this Belvedere was such a pleasant surprise: I wasn’t expecting to love it.

After all, its hue is…unique.  Secondly, I’ve long wondered what kind of psychology student/rat maze designer came up with the side trim on the ’56 Belvedere, and how anybody in Chrysler’s design department managed to sign off on it.  I’ve chalked it up to its being the ’50s – they all did things like that.  On this Belvedere, however, I begin to see the plan.  The 1955 model’s simpler trim may still be more appealing, but on this particular car, it’s fine.  I like it.

The interior is an equally shocking shade, and it also works, with its first-year “pushbutton drive” and bathroom tile masquerading as a door panel.  The uneven split bench and uniquely symmetrical instrument panel were mere precursors to the “Populuxe” wackiness that Exner would pull out of his hat over the course of the next six or seven model years.

This was a really nice car, one of my favorites of the event, but it wasn’t the only Plymouth that struck my fancy as a jaded car show regular.

This ’66 Barracuda Formula S was also such a crowd pleaser that I had a hard time taking a picture of it all day.  Even though I own a ’65 Dart, I don’t consider myself a huge fan of early Chrysler A-Bodies; let’s just say our interests happened to align one bleak November day when I was powerless to resist its quirkiness.  To me, the restyled ’67 Barracuda was a giant improvement over the first-generation model with its giant rear glass.  But there’s still a lot of charm to a Formula S with its stripes and its neat wheelcovers and its throaty single exhaust system and its “just right” blend of power and handling.

When I was a kid, I bought a Hot Rod compilation of muscle car era road tests, including a great Eric Dahlquist article about a ’65 Formula S, full of the vivid “living the car life in real time” descriptions that I always enjoyed in his writing.  The lead image (pictured above from the actual magazine I bought when I was eight) showed the car mid flight, and from that point on, I had a bit of a soft spot for a striped Formula S.

I prefer the earlier grille treatment on the magazine car, but the red-stripe tires and attractive yet conservative color combination on this ’66 make up for it.

Like any good mid-1960s sporty car, this Formula S has bucket seats and a console, although a four speed would be more fun than the Torqueflite in this example.  Its wood(ish) steering wheel adds a little street cred, and Chryslers always had reasonably complete instrumentation (except for the oil pressure warning light on many models, something Dahlquist disparaged in his article).

Considering that the Belvedere and the Barracuda were two of my favorite cars of the day, and they were produced by the same manufacturer, and they were built ten years apart, it seems silly not to evaluate Plymouth’s evolution during that time period.  Like most American producers, Plymouth had expanded its line past the “low-priced three,” one-body-fits-all mold of 1956, offering a full line of compacts, intermediate, and full-size models, some even encroaching on the territory of more premium makes.  Like Chevrolet with its Caprice, Plymouth copied the LTD by way of its Fury “VIP” (they even went so far as to use a three-letter name – come on, Plymouth).  The Barracuda itself wasn’t a Mustang copy, as it was introduced before the Mustang was, but one could say it was a reaction to the Falcon Sprint and the Corvair Monza.  Many road testers of the day felt it was the best all-around car of them all, even if it didn’t have the Mustang’s hearty everyman appeal or the Corvair’s vaguely European air.

About the only thing the Belvedere had in common with the Barracuda, however, was its basic rear-drive architecture and engines of similar displacement that shared a bit of family heritage.  Oh, and a touch of that quirkiness that made me fall in love with my Dart back in 2013.  There were many cars that were more exotic, rarer, and more expensive than these two Plymouths at the Eyes on Design show, but you don’t need to be any of those things to be a knockout.