As it turned out, I only owned my first car, the 1961 Ford, for about nine months, roughly coinciding with my senior year in high school. Its replacement was a 1963 Plymouth Belvedere four door sedan, a much better car in almost every possible way. For one thing the Plymouth’s rear fenders did not have 20 pounds of Bondo trying to deal with serious rust. For another the interior of the Plymouth was in excellent condition, I’m not sure that anyone had ever ridden in the back seat. Per the dealer, the Plymouth had been purchased new by the proverbial older couple who drove very little and was a recent trade-in on a new Chrysler. I’m not 100% sure that information was correct as the Plymouth did have around sixty thousand miles when I got it. I don’t have any photos of my Plymouth; the pictures in this article were sourced from the internet, mine was a dark shade of brown.
In any case I was very happy with my new wheels. As opposed to the inline six in the Ford the Plymouth had a 361 CID V8 topped with the biggest two barrel carburetor I have ever seen, it must have been at least six inches in diameter. It was rated at 265 HP and 380 lb.ft. of torque; when you consider that the Belvedere, although considered full-sized by Chrysler, was actually more of a mid-size, the performance potential was obvious (although it didn’t quite pull wheelies). I went from driving a car that would barely get out of its own way to one that was capable of spinning the back tires at will. It was really easy to overload the rear suspension and get the back axle tramping up and down as it wound up against the overworked leaf springs. If my father had understood the significance of the “Commando 361” badges on the front fenders, I suspect I would have ended up with a six cylinder Valiant instead of the Belvedere.
Of course the downside of all of this performance was terrible fuel mileage, I averaged around 11 MPG in normal, around town driving. I’m not sure what the final drive ratio was in the Plymouth but it must have been fairly low; it would run up to 110 MPH without much trouble and then sort of hit a wall. Yes, I know (and knew then) that those kinds of speeds were not really a good idea, especially with an inexperienced driver behind the wheel. All I can say in my defense is that I grew up in a small town and it was easy to find deserted stretches of highway to use for research.
As was true with nearly all cars from that era, the Plymouth came with its share of quirks. One, that I discovered once the weather started to turn cool that first fall of my ownership, was that the engine was not going to start without the choke if the ambient air temperature was 50 or below. This wouldn’t have been so bad except that the automatic choke did not work correctly; the only way to set the choke was to raise the hood, reach under the air cleaner and set it by hand. You didn’t even have to remove the air cleaner to do this, there was room to reach in underneath and operate the choke. It was almost as if Chrysler had anticipated this problem and had created a work around. This almost made me long for the Ford with its manual choke.
Another point of individuality, common to all Chryslers of this era, was that the automatic transmission was operated by push buttons. Some people did not care for this but I found it very easy to learn to use. If you needed to “rock” the car out of mud or snow it was easy to go from Low to Reverse by punching the buttons, and not have to deal with the floppy lever found in Ford and GM vehicles.
Another little example of the Belvedere’s uniqueness was its marginal cooling capacity. From what I could tell Chrysler used the same radiator in all Plymouths. One that worked perfectly well when cooling down the slanty in a Valiant was somewhat overmatched dealing with a big inch V8. To make things even more challenging the original owners had installed one of those “knee freezer” after- market air conditioners; the type that perched on the transmission tunnel under the dash and ate into front seat leg room. To give the thing its due it would blow out ice cold air, unfortunately the only time you could run the AC was on the highway. Around town there was just not enough air blowing through the radiator and you could literally watch the temperature gauge move into the hot zone while stopped at a traffic light. It didn’t really matter; we didn’t have A/C at home so I was used to sweating.
I put over 40,000 miles on the Belvedere in the two years that I drove it. Most of that was going to school at the local community college or going back and forth to work. A good chunk of the mileage however was mindless cruising. As I said I grew up in a small town and the cruising circuit normally consisted of three restaurants, with occasional side trips to other spots. I don’t really remember exactly how long one of these laps was but it had to be less than two miles. There were many Friday and Saturday nights where I used up an entire tank of gas going from nowhere to nowhere. Looking back with 40+ years of accumulated wisdom it is obvious that I could have been making better use of my time and resources but back then it seemed important.
As time went on more and more “minor” things started to go wrong with the Plymouth. The worst was the heater fan quit working, the heater still produced heat but without the fan the heat didn’t get distributed very well. At highway speeds there was enough air flow through the system to at least keep your feet warm and to defog the windshield. Unfortunately, in town there was less air flow and it was just like driving a VW Beetle, wear warm socks and keep a towel handy to wipe off the windshield. You might think that not having reliable heat in one’s car would put a damper on one’s social life; in my case I was pretty socially inept then so this had no measurable effect.
The final issue, and the one that caused me to move on from the Plymouth, was with the transmission. Chrysler’s Torqueflight has a well-deserved reputation for longevity and resistance to abuse but it finally developed a fluid leak that was beyond my capabilities to fix. The poor car began to leak transmission fluid so copiously that I was embarrassed to park it in paved areas. Even a short pause was long enough for a noticeable puddle to begin to form underneath. The transmission would leak out enough fluid so that it would not shift from first to second; the car would still move (somewhat grudgingly) but apparently would not generate enough pressure to accomplish the 1-2 shift. At this point the Belvedere needed professional help and I was past the point of spending any more money on an eight year old car with over 100k miles. I don’t remember if I was able to convince the dealer to take the Plymouth as a trade in on its replacement or if it just got hauled off to the boneyard. In any case it was an entertaining ride while it lasted.