COAL: 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban – Dad’s Biggest Regret

In my last post I talked about how the family had just returned to Seattle from fifteen months in East Africa.  We had sold our 1953 Buick Special before we’d left, so we were in need of a new car.  Dad had always been a Buick man, but he bought a NEW 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban.  It became one of his biggest regrets.

I never did ask Dad why he switched from Buicks to Mopar.  My thinking is there were two reasons.  1) He wasn’t a car guy, and he’d been out of America for a time, so he probably hadn’t heard of the dreadful quality control problems of the ’57-’58 Chrysler Corporation cars.  2) We arrived in Seattle in late summer of 1958, just in time for us kids to start school.  So perhaps he got a REALLY good deal on a leftover 1958 just before the 1959s were to arrive on dealer’s lots.

This is the first car for which I have a clear memory. Behind it in the pic is our 1955 Buick Special, which Dad inherited from Grandmama Helen in about 1962.

Ours was a Custom Suburban model, midway between the bare-bones Deluxe Suburban and the zoot-suit Sport Suburban. It came with two speed PowerFlite transmission and V-8 engine. The color was the opposite of the one in this ad:  Turquoise top and side spear with a white body.  And ours had a big covered well instead of the third seat.


Here’s another shot from the internet, this time with the correct side spear but the colors are the opposite of my family’s car.

My parents were true offspring of the Depression, so they were frugal; sometimes bordering on the extreme.  We used to joke about the time Mom saved three green beans from dinner in the refrigerator – “waste not, want not” she always said.  That philosophy extended to our car:  It had a black nylon interior and rubber floor mats, plus an AM radio and heater.  Dog dish hubcaps and blackball tires.    It didn’t have any luxury foo-foo stuff – Dad didn’t go for that, so no air conditioning or power windows or power rear window.

The rear glass lowered into the tailgate by winding a metal handle that came out of a chrome fitting on the tailgate.  To save wear, Mom had Dad put in those clear plastic seat covers.  It doesn’t get really hot very often in Seattle (or at least it didn’t back then), but when it did those seat covers were AWFUL – you burned your butt and sweated through your clothes sitting on those sheets of plastic.


Another InterWebz example.  This 58 Custom Suburban doesn’t have the contrasting color sweep in the side, but it does have the nifty fold-out crank for lowering the rear window that ours had.  This, by the way, was a source of shame to me later on…. all of my FRIEND’S mothers drove cars with POWER tailgate windows.  Ours you had to CRANK DOWN!  Quite the indignity for five year old me.

On interesting bit of automotive trivia:  During the period 1957-58 all Chrysler Corporation wagons used the same basic body.  It didn’t matter whether you bought a cheapo Plymouth DeLuxe Suburban or a Fancy-Schmancy Chrysler Town and Country you got exactly the same body from the cowl back on a 122 inch wheelbase. (I believe the New Yorker and DeSoto wagons had a 4 inch stretch in wheelbase ahead of the cowl, but I could be wrong).  At the front each marque used a brand-specific front clip, which added some differentiation, but at the back evens fins were the same: each marque simply used their own style of taillights:

Here’s a 1958 Dodge Sierra.  The lucky owner has a POWER REAR WINDOW instead of that old-fashioned crank!

Here’s the eastern end of a westbound 1957 DeSoto…

…. and a 1957 Chrysler.  The similarities between makes from this viewpoint are striking. And whether you bought a Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, or Chrysler you got exactly the same passenger and cargo capacity.   The only practical difference was interior trim and upholstery.  Maybe that’s why Dad bought this car – it had the same size and carrying capacity as a Buick wagon, but for much less cost.

The picture that leads off this edition of COAL was taken at my family’s weekend home on Whidbey Island, about 35 miles north of Seattle.  Dad had earned some extra, tax-free income working for the United Nations in Africa, so my parents splurged and built a weekend home in 1960.  That’s why we needed two cars:  Dad used the 55 Buick during the summer when Mom and the kids (and our schnauzer Mr. Mike) stayed at the weekend home on Whidbey Island.

Here’s a pic I took of Dad and Mom posing with a fish she caught.  One reason for the second home was that they were avid fishers (fisher people?) and love to out on our boat and troll for salmon.  In the background, by the way, is GrandMama’s 1960 Buick LeSabre, which meant she was up on the island visiting us.

Speaking of Whidbey Island, you had to take a 15 minute ferry ride to get there.  Which brings me to another bit of family folklore.

Note the four pushbuttons on the left of the dashboard.  This indicated that this 1958 Plymouth had the two-speed PoweFlite transmission rather than the three speed TorqueFile which had five buttons.   One time we were on the ferry to Whidbey Island and the rest of the family was upstairs looking at the view or getting a snack.  I was eight, and had just gotten into cars, I stayed down on the car deck pretending to be a real driver.  Just because I could I pulled the Neutral button (center top row) out of its “pushed in” position.  However, it refused to go back into “pushed in”.  Apparently I’d pulled something loose.  Now, with this setup you couldn’t start the car if Neutral wasn’t fully pushed in.  When the ferry docked at the Whidbey Island terminal the family returned and Dad tried to start the car. Which wouldn’t start.    Which meant we were blocking a bunch of cars from exiting the ferry.  Which meant I was in BIG BIG BIG trouble!  Fortunately, someone got a screwdriver, reset the Neutral button, and off we went.  I didn’t get dessert for a week.

I called this post “Dad’s Biggest Regret”.  That’s because our 1958 Plymouth was a mechanical disaster.  I have vivid memories of this car breaking down repeatedly.  The transmission had to be replaced. The engine needed an overhaul at 10,000 miles.  It seemed like every month something new would break down and we’d get stranded.  One time I recall we were coming back to Seattle from Whidbey Island and we stopped for gas.  When Mom tried to start the car something sizzled underneath and then went BAM.  I think it was the starter.  The guys at the gas station tried to fix things, but to no avail.  Meantime, my big sis Helen was playing on a metal fence and fell and cut her leg badly.  One of the gas station guys drover her to the hospital while Mom, my brother Jim, and I waited for Dad to come by with the 1955 Buick to bring us home.

So: Dad came to bitterly regret buying this lemon.  After overhauling the engine and replacing the transmission at least once it became somewhat more reliable, but still was plagued by other gremlins:  Rattles, leaks, an armrest that fell off, directional signals that failed, and so forth.  The only reason I can think of that they kept it was because with all that room it was good for hauling kids and bikes and groceries and dogs and other stuff between our home in Seattle and Whidbey Island.   By 1967, they’d had enough so Mom and Dad literally gave the Plymouth away to a neighbor’s kid on Whidbey Island and bought my next COAL entry: a 1965 Buick Sportwagon.