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.
Thanks! As a “Buick Guy” I’m looking forward to Part 2.
#3 in the series is already written, and will be posted next week. Thanks!
here’s a sneak preview
We had a 1959 or 1960 Plymouth wagon from 1961 till 1963 when I was 9 years old. Don’t remember having any problems with the car.
Excellent period advertising copy. As true today as it was back then 😉
Steve, this post and your family’s Plymouth wagon story hits many of my memory buttons. Our Plymouth Surburban was 3 years newer than your family’s, but there were similarities around the crank-down rear window, no air conditioning, unpleasant upholstery, and what I feel were likely significant quality control issues.
The story about the push button transmission also connects with me as one of the legendary family stories of my youth, around 1st grade or so, was about me and my sister, and my friend Chris and his sister (our families were friends through our dads being grad school students together) “playing” in the front seat of Chris’s family’s Mopar wagon that was I think a late 50s model like the one you feature. Chris was all about pushing the buttons on the transmission with the car not running. That was until he somehow got the thing to go out of Park and rolled it down the driveway with us 4 kids in it. There was no major disaster except for the fact that I was somehow punished (along with the other 3 kids)…me for just “being there”. Hummmmm. But more to the point, that car never did run correctly and I recall ultimately had a failed transmission…which of course, us kids (as I was was constantly reminded by MY mom) were blamed for. It was in fact probably just bad Chrysler quality control.
Oh, and those plastic seat covers? We didn’t have those (thank god), but we did routinely get samples in the mail from companies selling them mail-order. The little textured plastic swatches were prized “toys” for me. I particularly loved playing with them when they still oozed that wonderful plastic smell. Kind of like a new shower curtain right out of the bag.
Thanks for the memories!
Mmmm…the first pushbutton-automatic Mopar with a Park gear (activated by its own lever near the pushbuttons) was the ’60 Valiant. The park lever was phased in on the bigger/V8 Mopars starting in ’62 and some didn’t get it until ’63. Perhaps that wagon you unparked was a bit later, or you undid the parking brake?
I have my late father’s 1958 Plymouth Suburban. Perhaps some might enjoy following along as I get it back to daily driver condition? I’m featuring the car on my YouTube channel. Please consider subscribing if this is the kind of content you’re interested in.
Suddenly it’s 1960! Introduced the 57 Forward Look Chrysler Corp vehicles. They were extremely popular, but because of rush into production as well as demand, quality suffered. All kinds of problems plagued these cars. That cost Chrysler reputation dearly for years. Virgil Exners dream cars turned into nightmares for many. New Unibody ,like the body itself was rust prone. Again largely due to rush. Consequently you don’t see many survivors! Too bad. They were beautiful and historic in big changes in automotive design.
“… Introduced the 57 Forward Look … New Unibody …”
The 1957-59 Mopar cars were BOF. It was 1960 MY that they switched to unibody, except Imperials.
OTOH, there are some who “assume” the late model Chrysler/Dodge LX RWD cars are BOF. “They are classic American BOF cars!”
I love the photo of your parents with the fish.
My mother bought a used 1957 Chrysler Windsor 4 door hardtop to use in her new job as a real estate salesperson. It replaced our beloved 2 door 1950 Buick Riviera hardtop that had been pretty much trouble free.
We quickly found out why that sleek black beauty was on the used car market after only one year on the road.
Big problems, little problems, in-between problems, it had them all.
My repair specialty was to fix the power windows that unplugged themselves on a regular basis. I finally got smart and tied off the window wiring in a manner that solved the issue, but I had to remove the door cards and make the fix more than once before I got smart.
It left us stranded – here and there – to the point that we used my father’s 1953 Packard as a more reliable backup, just like your father’s 1955 Buick.
When it was running it was fun to drive; it cornered well and scooted with the 3 speed TorqueFlite, but the anxiety of not knowing how long it would run at all led my family to finally trade it in on a new red 1961 Pontiac Ventura.
In `60 (the yr. I arrived) Dad bought my Mom a used `57 New Yorker 2dr. hardtop–loaded with every option as I recall. What junk that car was. Windows leaked when it rained, below 30 degrees it stalled on corners from a stop until it warmed up, and it burned oil. It had the 392 hemi 4bbl. V8, but the previous owner apparently never changed the oil, or hardly ever anyway. The car was baby blue/midnight blue two-tone, and the smoke from the tailpipe was blue as well. Dick Williamson at the Mobil station would ask mom, “Check the gas & fill the oil, Mary Jo?” she hated that.One horribly rainy day in November the car left us SOL in the grocery store parking lot. Mom got us and the groceries home in a taxi, leaving the keys with the check-out gal at the store. She called Dad and said, “Come and get it! I’m all thought with that bucket of bolts!” A couple days later, Mom got a brand new `65 Barracuda!! And peace reigned in the Valley once again!
My Dad had 57 Plymouth. After a few months, he referred to it as Lucifer. Chrysler quality of the time indeed.
In the ’60s there was more variation in the outer sheet metal but the big Mopar wagons still shared the same inner structure with all of them having the Dodge wheelbase. So the Plymouth wagons are a couple inches longer than the sedans & the Chrysler wagons are a couple inches shorter than the sedans.
I think that shared body went through the 70s too, although the 1974+ versions all got slightly different sheet metal for the doors and rear quarters in addition to the different front clips.
Besides the ’58 wagons, Chrysler took badge engineering to a new level in their overseas markets. What we know as the ’58 Plymouth was sold as a DeSoto in some markets. However just like its ’58 Plymouth counterpart, those DeSotos were favorite of law enforcement.
My own experience with owning a ’58 Plymouth (sedan – not wagon) was the opposite of your Dad’s. Although the car was already 18 years old when I owned it, mechanically it was quite stout. Mine had the 318/TorqueFlite. Unlike the more modern Torqueflites with radiator cooling lines, the one in the ’58 was air-cooled. Never experience the same problems your Dad had with his /58.
I bought my Plymouth in Tulsa. It was my first car buy outside of Wisconsin. In salt country, you’d never see a Plymouth this old. They had all rusted away by then. As an Oklahoma car, it had surface rust where the sun had peeled the paint, but no rot through. Moving to Oklahoma opened up a new world of potential used car buys for me as I could get something much older than was available in the North and save money in the process. As an added bonus, my Plymouth was also my first car with factory A/C. In the North, I never saw even high end makes of this era with any kind of AC. Even Cadillacs and Lincolns normally didn’t have A/C.
I didn’t appreciate the A/C when I bought the car in the fall, but I sure learned to like it when I spent my 1st summer outside of Minniconsin. Those old A/C units required periodic replacement of the electric clutch brushes. Once I figured that out, the unit worked flawlessly for the 2 years I owned the car.
Had to sell the Plymouth when I graduated and joined the Army. One of those cars I look back on with fondness.
Love the old Plymouth cars of sevendies Chrysler man these days cool all Plymouth cars well it.
John Hughes’ original short story that inspired the ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ movie was titled ‘Vacation 1958’, and featured not the ‘queenwagon family truckster’ but a brand new ‘1958 Plymouth Sport Suburban Six’ station wagon! A fun read!
Now the tie-in to National Lampoon makes sense. Thanks!
Folklore says that the 58s were significantly better than the 57s, but I think Chrysler’s quality could vary pretty wildly from car to car. President William Newberg got fired in 1961 after an investigation into supplier kickbacks, so it is not unreasonable to conclude that substandard parts were being used in the years prior. Early engine and transmission rebuilds (of well-thought-of designs) would suggest anomalies caused by bad parts or sloppy production, but it isn’t an anomaly when it happens to your own car.
That is really interesting how your parents picked that Plymouth. Brand loyalty was strong back then. Maybe someone they knew got one of the good ones and raved about it. However it happened, you got a terrible car but (as often happens) some great stories.
Dad passed away at the ripe old age of 96 in 2015. He was sharp as could be at that age, with a great memory. If he were here I’d ask him why he bought that car. As I said, I presume he must have gotten a great deal.
Stay tuned for my story of my 1993 Chrysler LHS. The telephone lines between Seattle and DC (where we lived at the time) were burning up with Dad berating me for buying a Chrysler product. Ironically, the LHS was the most trouble-free car I’ve ever owned.
A mild color/haze correction to the picture of your parents with a fish.
Thanks! It looks even better than the original print, which has faded over time.
Your dad got a real lemon. The ’57’s issues were mostly body-related, as it was rushed into production a year early. Leaks, groans, squeaks, etc. But I’ve never heard of common issues with the engines and transmissions. And by ’58, those body issues were supposedly pretty well fixed.
These were popular in Iowa City at the time. I remember piling into the back of one or two. They were huge; the Suburban of their times.
We had lots of squeaks and rattles in ours. I’ve also heard that the 57-58 torsion bars in the front suspension had a tendency to break (which kind of ruins the car’s handling).
Which triggers a memory: I remember Mom and Dad talking about how nicely the car handled. That didn’t mean much to eight year old me at the time. As long as the torsion bars didn’t break, period Chrysler products were known for good handling, at least in comparison to their domestic competition in the family car market.
I’ve owned a ’58 Dodge Royal, ’58 DeSoto Firedome, ’58 NYer and ’58 Chrysler Windsor, none had mechanical issues. We had neighbors ors who bought a ’58 Sport Sub new and kept it until ’65 traded for a new ‘Fury, no real problems with the ’58. I knew of ’57 issues and avoided them. Body rattles and fit/finish issues were still somewhat present, but the ’58s were indeed much improved, though it didn’t help much in that recession year, sales were way down anyway.
Steve, my dad — who was mostly mopar guy inthe 1950’s — bought a new Sierra wagon in ’57. It is notorious for being the worst POS lemon our family has ever owned (except for maybe my trifecta Vega, R5 LeCar, and S-10). I was born in 1958, so barely remember it, but it went through a couple transmissions, probably Powerflites, lots of other mechanical problems, and body hardware that fell off in one’s hand. At about $3,000, it was yhe most expensive vehicle Dad bought, probably until the late 1970’s. It was also the last automatic he would buy until 1972 ( a Cruisomatic C6). If Dad were alive today, he would still be bitching about that Dodge. Interestingly. It was traded for a new ’61 Valiant V100, which retained all of the body structural integrity of the wagon but lasted a hard seven years.
My experience with Mopars of that era were dependable rugged engines and transmissions. But flimsy front suspension and steering, weak brakes that needed adjustment often, body integrity, water leaks galore. The rear window would gyrate in the opening the body flexed so much. I looked at the frame several times to see if it appeared under engineered, but it looked rugged.
Yes, the ubiquitous Fingerhut plastic textured seat covers!!
Fingerhut mail order was very popular in our house growing up. Kitchen kitsch, various and sundry instantly disposable stuff.
My dad had these on every one of his new cars in the late 50s and early 60s.
And yes, the smell was intriguing, but hot plastic burnt the buns!
Fingerhut! Yes! I’d forgotten that name. As I recall, they also mailed small fabric swatches for the various men’s suits, upholstery, curtains, and table cloths they sold.
Yep…I think it’s a fine idea to buy a suit from the same place that makes burn-your-buns plastic seat covers.
Anyhow, we kids got a lot of mileage out of playing with the stuff that would emerge from the Fingerhut mailings.
The car in the story which was turned into the movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation” was a similar 1957 Plymouth. The story appeared in the National Lampoon sometime in the 70s, long before the movie was made. There was no Family Truckster in the original.
Great story! As a resident of Vancouver Island I am all too familiar with ferry travel so your story about the pushbuttons gave me a laugh. I don’t know what it was like then but today you do NOT want to be the one who holds up the line. At the terminal I always leave enough room to pull around a dead vehicle and continue on board. On board it’s almost always a dead battery and BC Ferries staff have portable boosters to keep traffic flowing, as well as the peace.
One of my employees was bringing a used pickup from headquarters to replace one that had been stolen. Evidently the previous operator had never used the park brake, and when it came time to disembark it was frozen on. Held up the boat for over half an hour and since our company name was on the doors and tailgate we got lots of nice “feedback” for a day or 2!
I can’t look at a “58 Plymouth even today without hearing George Thorougood’s “Bad to the Bone”… Which seems to have fit this car quite well!
In 1957 my family got a new Dodge Coronet four door hardtop. Even as a young teenager who would be supposed to like a new car like that, the car seemed like a piece of junk. The windows did not seem to be weathertight. The roof liner looked like perforated cardboard. On other hand, a friend of mine’s family had a top of the line ’57 Plymouth wagon which I was in quite a bit and that car, to my memory of so long ago, was pretty nice.
I do recall that the 1957 cars in general, by, say 1962 or so, were rustbuckets. Washing them by hand would cut your hand. The GM cars seemed to be better, and I recall a friend getting a ’57 Chev Bel Aire sedan in about 1963 or so which was pretty good looking.
My pop bought a new 58 4dr sedan. Flat six, three-on-the-tree. Options were, heater. Period.
My best memory was whenever it rained and he hit a puddle, it would stall. Sat for a few minutes until the water evaporated from around the spark plugs and off it would go! Till the next puddle……
My first car memory is of our family’s pink/white 2-tone ’58 Suburban that dad bought new (and probably put 50k miles on). I remember those silly dash-mounted rearview mirrors. And I remember the car not starting one night, when we went out to The Patterson restaurant in Dayton Ohio, and had to get towed (we rode in the car while it was being towed….I don’t think that would be allowed today.)
I also remember that when the car was 2-2.5 years old, Dad went out in the garage to leave for work one morning, and the front end of the car was just down on the concrete….torsion bars had broken! What if that had happened while driving? Yikes! It went away in June ’61 when Dad brought home a new Pontiac Catalina hardtop in “Dawnfire mist” color. Other than a crappy Rotohydramatic transmission, that was a good car!
Here’s yet another sad ’57 Mopar story: My aunt bought a new Plymouth Savoy 4-door sedan that year, with the flathead six and automatic (probably the Powerflite). It was a sharp car when new with those gigantic fins and a red and white 2-tone exterior. But it gave her so much trouble (I was too young to remember the specifics) that she traded it in on a Chevy Bel Air sedan just 2 years later. No more Mopars for her!
And she was far from the only one. Can’t really blame any of them for not being interested in getting bitten again, even when the cars were vastly better in ’63-4-5-6.
Great stories! Can’t say I’m a giant fan of the ’58 Plymouth front end or dashboard, but I prefer both parts (not to mention the whole design overall) to the Chev or Ford of that year. What a shame your folks’ Plymouth was such a shoddy car. If my father’s and his father’s Plymouth model-year hopscotch landings had been just a little off from when they were, my own automotive history might’ve been quite different; they had a good ’56 and a good ’62.
There were a lot of 57/8 Plymouths and Dodges around over here in the 70s same body on both minor differences in trim both had flathead sixes none were automatic they hung together quite well perhaps local assembly was done better at Todd motors than in the US local cars came from Canada as kits.
Ours was a Canadian Plodge Kingsway – for some reason Israel got both Canadian and US models back then. I have no idea whether the Canadians built theirs better but in general it was a reliable car (the only time it broke down was when the shifter rod fell apart which meant we only had reverse. That happened a few streets away from home so that embarrassment was minimized). Maybe it had to do with the fact it was a bare bones car: 230 flathead six, 3 on the tree and no extras whatever – there was not much to go wrong on it. Also, dad got it in 1963 by which all teething troubles would have taken care of by the previous owner (a government agency I believe) The body used to squeak though.
Oh and we had seat covers too but cloth ones, anything plastic would have meant 3 degree burns during Israel’s 7 months long dry season…
Thank goodness our Plymouth Sport Suburban was a 1960 year model. Power windows including the back glass and factory air conditioning with pop up ducts on the dash pad. I said thank goodness because obviously MOPAR had corrected many quality issues by then. It was a great car, many family trips, and when a new 1965 Fury III was purchased, the ’60 became Dad’s transportation until 1972. Not sure exactly, but I recall him boasting to a friend about the odometer rolling over to begin it’s third round (200K + miles). It sold us on MOPAR, all brands, been in our family since then
GREAT stories ! .
Thanx also for the link to the original vacation story .
I remember a ’58 Plymouth Plaza, a wretchedly cheap car with only a driver’s side visor and NO HEATER .
FlatHead 6 banger and push button two speed Torquflite slush box .
One of the few good ’58’s even the paint (periwinkle) was nice .
Rotted away fabric seat covers and a crumbling rubber floor mat .
Ooooohhh… memories. In the mid 1960s my parents bought a 1959 Dodge wagon. We lived near Vancouver, so it was actually a Plodge – 1958 Plymouth taillights and a 1959 Dodge front clip. I always describe it as the ultimate 1950s car: tailfins, pushbutton automatic, and two-tone salmon-pink and metallic bronze.
I don’t remember it being unreliable except for one occasion when we were camping when it died in the middle of a national park and had to be towed out. But the broken pushbutton stories are familiar – I was playing with them one day and jammed them so only neutral and second would work. My mother had to drive the car in a circle around the lawn to get the car out on the road so she could go to the mechanic and have it fixed.
This photo is the only one we have of the car, taken during a camping trip in 1967. The big thing on top was a huge plywood box my father made in order to store all the camping equipment.