Poor Plymouth. Despite several unique models and astounding successes, most Plymouths were little more than lesser trimmed and slightly restyled Chryslers and Dodges. Especially during its later years, Plymouth had little more to show for than a lineup virtually identical to those brands, albeit smaller and blander. The fall of this lamented make is a sad story, but it’s time to give it the spotlight here at Curbside Classic.
Plymouth was introduced, in 1928, as a low-priced companion make to the premium Chrysler brand. Later that year, Chrysler also introduced DeSoto and purchased Dodge, both of which covered the mid-price ground between Plymouth and Chrysler. Through pure coincidence, the timing for Plymouth couldn’t have been better; the Great Depression hit the following year, and as higher-priced brands suffered, Plymouth’s low price point actually turned out to be a blessing, with Plymouth sales ensuring the survival of the entire Chrysler Corporation.
It may be hard to believe, but Plymouth was once the third-best selling brand in the U.S. Outsold only by Chevrolet and Ford, Plymouth took the #3 spot nearly every year from 1932 to 1960 (only in 1955 and 1956 did Buick take third place, bumping Plymouth to fourth). But during the ’60s and ’70s, various missteps would start eating away at Plymouth’s success.
The downsized 1962 “full-size” Plymouths were a huge sales disaster that sent Plymouth from fourth to eighth place in sales. Plymouth would recover, especially with the debut of the attractive, “upsized” ’65s, but the renaissance would be short-lived.
Despite Chrysler’s cost-cutting measures and mounting financial woes, the Fuselage years were particularly good for Plymouth sales. Cars like the muscle-car Barracuda, the old-reliable compact Valiant, and sporty-yet-affordable Duster were enough to keep Plymouth flying high. Despite the less-than-stellar Buick-knockoff ’74 Furys, strong sales of other models once again boosted Plymouth up to #3 in sales (for what would be the final time)–and then the Oil Crisis hit.
Muscle cars all but died, sales of full-size cars plummeted, and Chrysler, with precious few compact offerings, was again in financial turmoil. Chrysler was quicker than GM and Ford to standardize the practice of badge engineering, with little to no sheet metal differences between Chryslers, Dodges, and Plymouths. Soon enough, the Big Two would also make this a common practice, but not to Chrysler’s extent.
The 1974 death of the Barracuda spelled an end to anything interesting (or even remotely unique) in Plymouth’s lineup. While Dodge and Chrysler could at least salvage some of their historically sporty and luxurious identities, respectively, Plymouth was left with no real selling point besides value–and by this point, Dodge was selling all the same cars as Plymouth at the same prices. The K-car may have saved Chrysler, but it killed Plymouth.
Plymouth was consistently denied variants of more interesting cars given to Chrysler and Dodge. With a shrinking lineup, Plymouth’s overall sales began to slip, and they never recovered. Dodge permanently supplanted Plymouth as Chrysler Corp’s best-selling brand starting in 1983; now the latter’s only real value to the Corporation lay in the company’s separate Chrysler-Plymouth and Dodge franchises. Since Chrysler hadn’t yet started selling stripper models across the board, lower-priced Plymouth models were needed in Chrysler-Plymouth showrooms.
By 1995, Plymouth was down to only three models: the compact Neon, midsize Acclaim and Voyager minivan. This 1995 brochure tries to inflate Plymouth’s offerings by presenting as separate models the Neon coupe and sedan, and the Voyager & Grand Voyager. Sorry, Chrysler, we’re not that gullible.
The 1997 Prowler brought some much needed excitement to Plymouth, but as a halo model, the $30,000 two-seat roadster did little for the brand in terms of increasing sales or profit. The Prowler did, however, influence future Plymouth styling. Unfortunately, the end result never came into fruition; various Prowler-influenced “Plymouth Pronto” concepts were in development, with an upcoming production model planned, when the Daimler-Chrysler merger occurred. The Daimler
takeover merger was the final nail in the coffin.
The official death announcement was made in November 1999. Plymouth would be phased out by 2001, with current and future models to be either discontinued or integrated into the Chrysler lineup. The Breeze ended production within two months, while the redesigned Neon lasted a bit longer, into June 2001. The Prowler and Voyager were rebadged as Chryslers.
Among Plymouth’s lasting legacies was the PT Cruiser. Originally planned as a Plymouth, the orphaned PT Cruiser would be launched as a Chrysler in 2001, and would live on until decade’s end. Plymouth’s Voyager minivan–largely responsible for both creating the entire minivan market and keeping Plymouth alive throughout the ’90s–continues to live overseas as a Chrysler (and, in some markets, as a Lancia!). Also, it’s highly likely the Barracuda will make a return, this time not as a Plymouth but an SRT.
Though few people miss (or even remember) Plymouth today, I will always have a soft spot for this tragic figure in automotive history. So much more could be said about Plymouth, and its highs and lows; thankfully, though, we know Plymouth always will have a place here at Curbside Classic. For us Plymouth fans, even better news is that it’s Mopar Mania Week at CC, and Plymouth will not be ignored!