Curbside Classic: 1965 Plymouth Belvedere Station Wagon – One Of The Last Of The Engel-Exner Editions

This Plymouth Belvedere is one of the final chapters in the Engel-Exner transition years at Chrysler, a chapter already covered at CC in more than one instance. Station wagons, with their lower volumes and tooling often expected to have longer lifespans, endured conflicting design briefs more often than not.

On this Belvedere, the formal lines favored by Chrysler’s design chief Elwood Engel, have to make do with some of Virgil Exner’s googly, space age, leftovers. The front is full Engel, straight, forceful, and one could argue, a step or two behind GM. Which was just as fine. Following GM’s styling lead suited Chrysler’s spirit of the times, in search of recouping losses after the troubling early 60’s. A conservative approach was welcomed after Exner’s adventuresome years.

The back end shows Exner leftovers, particularly in the back roof and rear windows. Space age, here we come! That convex pod in the cargo area will surely take us into Flash Gordon’s future! Just make sure to bring your tanning lotion.

That said, I’ll admit that Exner is my favorite American designer of the period. Not because I find his work satisfying, a spot that belongs to Mitchell at GM. Instead, as someone with interest in the arts, his work generally provokes me, for good and bad. A school of thinking in the arts asks of designers to create works that leave no spectator indifferent. Exner definitely achieved this, every time.

Here is the Belvedere in its original 1962 intent; the future as envisioned by Exner’s team by the early 60’s. And yes, management interference, a questionable decision to downsize the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge, had some to do with the result. Though the early 60’s were not Exner’s best years. It’s unavoidable; every designer peaks and then declines. After a golden period in the mid 50’s, pushing the world into full finned-mobile-land, as competitors quickly caught on the outré-train, Exner felt he had to ‘reinvent-the-design-wheel’ every single model year. Every attempt and effort was aimed to wow the public, and thus, was an artistic approach to product design.

Exner’s efforts did cause an impression at Chrysler’s management, as sales went down. After being shown the door, Exner would eventually find new successful themes, anticipating the neo-classical era by a few years. That said, I doubt Chrysler’s finances could have sustained Exner’s yearly quest for artistic reinvention, until said hit arrived.

Here’s the Engelized Plymouth wagon in ’66, with all Exner genes expunged. Engel was probably what Chrysler needed after Mr. X. With a flair for safe, conservative, functional designs that projected sober elegance. Most of Engel’s designs at Chrysler were not trend setters, but weren’t dull either.

From anecdotal evidence, Engel was quite a different animal than Exner. A social type who was into practical jokes and raunchy stories (probably a good drinking buddy too, as he was a favorite of Ford’s design honcho George Walker during the 50’s). Additional evidence suggests Engel possessed a business acumen that Exner lacked, and was more interested in designs that ‘sold’ rather than leaving indelible impressions on buyers.

The Belvedere’s face, while aesthetically forceful and attractive, seems to suffer from Chrysler’s penny pinching. The one piece screwed-on grille shows that engineering and accounting had other priorities.

This particular example looks to be an original import, as the plates numbers suggest. Salvadorian numbering is linear, and by the mid 60’s, plates were indeed in the 30-40K mark. I doubt more than a few were sold here. As for its semi-abandoned state, lovers of Belvederes fear not. It stood in this corner a few weeks before vanishing, probably sold to a collector. A neighbor in this street apparently deals in antique vehicles, either as hobby or as a business. Some weeks prior, a Fiat 127 was in the same spot, only to disappear in similar form.

Some of the trim is missing on this Belvedere; the tacked on elements probably brought more cohesiveness to the vehicle, the frosting that Chrysler’s team used to turn it into an Engel-mobile. That said, the Belvedere looks more or less coherent, in spite of split parenting.

Exner and Engel were nowhere close in their designs briefs, styles or interests. Still, I appreciate how their forced collaboration cancelled out the worst of each: Exner’s daring eccentricities forcing Engel to work in shapes he wouldn’t dare otherwise. Then, Engel’s touch eliminating Exner’s proclivity for fussy detailing. Let’s take one last look at this surviving example of that unlikely “collaboration.”

More on Exner and Chrysler:

1963 Chrysler New Yorker, Virgil Exner Comes Full Circle – by JPC

1962 Plymouth and Dodge: The Real Reason They Were Downsized  PN

1963 Stutz Revival – by PN

1961 Plymouth Fury, What Planet Are You From? – by Laurence Jones