Cohort Classic: 1964 Chrysler Newport – Chrysler’s Great Downsizing, Chapter 2.

posted by Corey Behrens

So much has been said about the dramatic downsizing of the 1962 Dodge and Plymouth, unfortunately much of it is bunk. All the old saws about how they came to be never made sense to me, so I took on the subject based on the objective evidence and history rather than hearsay and convenient stories. I’m mostly satisfied with my take, although there’s probably room for more confirmation of my theories and conclusions. I’d love to have access to board meeting minutes from 1959 and 1960; this decision had to have been approved by the board.

But there’s a whole second chapter to this story that I didn’t get into then, and that’s the impact on Chrysler and Imperial. Since Chrysler and Imperial originally were conceived to share a single new body shell with Plymouth and Dodge for 1962, when the latter two were downsized, it also killed the planned ’62 Chrysler and Imperials. The result was an improvised fall back, and hardly state-of-the-art in 1963-1964.

In 1959, Exner and his team were quite far along on what would be a clean-sweep new line of cars for 1962, dubbed the S-series. All the divisions except Imperial had already been sharing the same basic full-size body shell, but because the Imperial’s sales dropped precipitously after 1957, the plan was to consolidate it with the rest of the Chrysler family, and close the small plant that built the unique BOF Imperial. That was right in line with the dramatic cost-cutting already well under way at Chrysler after its disastrous 1958, when sales plummeted and resulted in massive losses. The clay on the upper right corner is for the ’62 Imperial, clearly sharing the same body as the Chrysler next to it, and the DeSoto one further to the left, as well as the other brands all shown here.

Chrysler had been coasting for far too long on its pre-war #2 status, and its cost structure was bloated. 1958 was the year of reckoning, when all big cars suddenly looked like white elephants, and sales dropped across the industry, but most of all at Chrysler. There followed two years of successive waves of lay-offs and cost cutting. That was the real reason the ’62 Dodge and Plymouth were downsized; Chrysler assumed the big car was dying, and these new S-Series were going to be bigger and more expensive to build than ever, given their radical curved side glass.

 

The only picture of these S-series cars that shows the Chrysler properly is this one. I suspect, and hope, that it wasn’t the final one, as it’s a classic out-there Exner-mobile.

These are undoubtedly a bit further along, having been toned down some.

The DeSoto looks a lot more down to earth.

As does the Imperial, at least in relative terms.  The Imperial is the one to look at some more, as it’s clearly what most influenced the actual 1963-1964 Chrysler.

Unlike previous tales about the drastic decision to downsize happening in the summer of 1960 after VP William Newberg heard from Ed Cole at a garden party or golf course that Chevy was going to build a smaller car, there’s photographic evidence that this decision actually took place very late in 1959. The first order of business was to downsize the Dodge and Plymouth.

In these shots from February 1960, it is very evident that the Dodge has been downsized, and looking very much in its final form. But the Imperial, on the upper right and lower left, is still as previously planned, with the new S-Series body. Obviously these S-series cars were stylistically iffy, with lots of fussy details and questionable design. Chrysler execs might well have seen them as their Edsel. They needed to go.

It’s impossible to say for certain if the S-Series Imperial and Chrysler were killed at the exact same time, but logic overwhelmingly suggests that it was so. It would have been completely contradictory to the whole reason—to save money—to do otherwise. But what to do instead? The stylists were all pressed into action to redo the 1962 Dodge and Plymouth.

The solution was to do essentially nothing. Well, not totally nothing. Exner removed the fins. And, contrary to what has been repeated endlessly, his famous comment about the ’62s being “plucked chickens” was actually about the ’62 Chrysler and the ’61 Plymouth and Dodge, as Exner still thought the fins were a key stylistic element to these cars. It makes so much more sense too, since chickens have flamboyant tail feathers. Now they really had been plucked.

The Imperial was plucked too, but otherwise both were largely carry-overs.

Once the ’62 Dodge and Imperial were put to bed, Exner and his team did the best they could with what they had to work with: the previous body shell, including its tell-tale wrap-around windshield. Various elements of the S-Series cars were incorporated, to the extent possible. The final rendering of the ’63 Valiant on the wall dates the top two photos to late 1960 or so. The lower one was a bit less far along.

The 126″ wheelbase (New Yorker) was cut, and all the models consolidated on the 122″ wheelbase. A semi-downswing. And very much a fall-back.

In 1960, Chrysler was still reeling from the continued drop of big car market share that was affecting the whole industry and Chrysler disproportionately. That secular decline would enjoy a brief upswing in 1963 and 1964, before continuing its long terminal decline.

There’s also this rendering for a ’63 Imperial, from December 1960. It appears that moving the Imperial to the Chrysler body was contemplated for 1963, as this appears very much to share its body. This would also have allowed the Imperial plant to shut down. But presumably it was felt that this would be too similar to a Chrysler to justify still maintaining it as a stand-alone brand, and the ’62 Imperial was carried over with very minor changes. The Imperial would limp along in its BOF form a couple more years, before being consolidated on the Chrysler unibody in 1967.

The final result was…compromised. It obviously still used major elements of the old unibody shell. The windshield, and the flat side windows and other elements give it away as being far from really new. It was done on the quick and cheap.

I was ten when these came out, and by then an expert in these details, so Chrysler didn’t fool me for a second. I could recognize that windshield from a mile away. It looked cobbled-up.

There weren’t many really new cars in 1963, except for three stand-outs at GM: the Riviera, the Sting Ray and the Grand Prix. Needless to say, the difference between the “new” Chrysler and the Riviera was all too obvious.

But that’s not to say the Chrysler didn’t have its charms. It appealed to the typical Chrysler loyalist: men who were convinced Chrysler engineering was superior, even if its build quality was notoriously inconsistent. And it sort of sold reasonably ok: 129k in 1963, the same as the big 1962 “plucked chickens”.

Chrysler’s new Chief of Styling, Elwood Engel, arrived from Ford after the ’63s were done. He did nothing, except to say “These are good-looking cars. What’s the big deal?” Well, he probably was referring more to the cleaned up ’63 Plymouth and Dodge line, as well as the majorly-restyled Valiant and Dart. Who knows what he said about the Chrysler; I rather suspect not very much, as it was anything but the kind of styling he favored. But what was he going to do? He put his energies to a completely new design for the big cars in 1965, did a quick Lincoln-esque make-over on the ’64 Imperial, and leaned up a few details on the ’64 Chrysler.

The front end was de-Exnerized a bit, with the headlights now inside a chunk of bright metal, and the grille cleaned up a wee bit.

The rear end got a bit more working over, with these new taillights replacing the circular ones, among other things. The oddest thing is that it sprouted little…fins! Did the ghost of Exner past appear?

Seriously! Here’s the ’63, in case you don’t believe me. Of course it was Engel who added them. He didn’t like the downward sloping rear ends on the Chrysler as well as the ’63 Valiant, when seen in profile. The fins were intended to make the tails look a bit more squared-up.

This little fin on the Valiant was the only change Engel made to the 1963 Chrysler line. How ironic is that? And he did it on the ’64 Chrysler; presumably there wasn’t enough time to make it on the ’63.

 

Related:

My Take on the Downsized 1962 Dodge and Plymouth

A somewhat different take on the 1963 Chryslers by JPCavanaugh