Car Show Classic: 1964 Dodge Custom 880 – The Forward Look Goes Out With A Whimper

(first posted 9/4/2017)      When Virgil Exner’s Forward Look burst onto the scene at dowdy, conservative old Chrysler Corporation in 1955, it marked a new era for the company that had spent the previous fifteen years trying to build cars that nobody would notice.  The follow-up 1957 models were styling home runs – cars that made the entire industry re-think what a modern car should look like.  But after several tumultuous years and multiple quality and sales disasters later, everything had changed.  In September of 1961, Lynn Townsend was brought in from an outside accounting firm and asked to take over leadership of the company.  Two months later, Virgil Exner was relieved of his duties as chief of styling as Chrysler prepared to enter (another) new era.  By 1964, there was very little left in Chrysler showrooms that harked back to the glory days of 1957 when The Forward Look was in full flower.  But there was this one.


The Dodge Custom 880 of 1962-64 has always been a curiosity.  Or perhaps mongrel is a better description. The 880 was born of several levels of desperation.  There is more than one version of the story of how this car came to be, but this kind of confusion seems to be normal when dealing with the Chrysler Corporation of the early 1960’s. What we do know is that after a conventional (but strangely styled) lineup in 1960 and 61, 1962 brought a brand new body for Plymouth and Dodge on a shorter 116-inch wheelbase.  We also know that DeSoto (which shared the larger Chrysler body) had expired after an abbreviated 1961 model year, and that Chrysler’s dealer system had been reorganized so that Dodge dealers were independent of Chrysler-Plymouth dealers (instead of the older system where each “senior” brand offered Plymouth in addition.)

Some have opined that because the California Highway Patrol required a 122-inch wheelbase for its pursuit fleet, the 880 was demanded in order to meet the spec.  However, closer observation tells us that this was not the case.  Because the 88o was not introduced until February of 1962, fleet orders had long been submitted for 1962 models by the time the cars arrived.  Also, we know that the CHP ordered a batch of 1962 Chrysler Enforcers, which were Chrysler Newports with specs that largely matched those of the ’61 Dodge Polaras that CHP had purchased the year prior.

Others have suggested that with the demise of the DeSoto, Chrysler needed a car priced below the Chrysler Newport in order to fill the gap.  This rationale doesn’t wash either.  The ’62 Newport started at $2964.  And the Dodge Custom 880?  $2964.

The real reason for the 880 seems to have been that Dodge Division general manager W. C. Peterson was livid that his Division had been left without a full-sized car to sell.  Curtis Redgap at Allpar relates that Peterson went to the board of directors and threatened to quit if his Division was left without a big car.  In hindsight, Peterson’s demand was not unreasonable, as Dodge sales had plummeted since 1959.  Having lost its traditionally sized car and with its dealers being deprived of Plymouth sales, things were looking grim at Dodge.  Even after the 880, Dodge sales for the model year dropped to 12th place in 1962, its lowest showing since before WWI.

What actually happened in 1962 is not in dispute at all.  Chrysler hastily took the ’62 Chrysler Newport that it was already building, restarted production of the front clip from the departed ’61 Dodge for the front end, and threw in the dashboard that had been shared by the ’61 Dodge Polara and ’61 DeSoto.  And there it was – the genuine, full-sized Dodge Custom 880.  Unless we are talking about the station wagons, because those used stampings from the ’61 Plymouth wagons mated to the 4-door hardtop wagon body of the ’61 Dodge Polara.  If this doesn’t make for an automotive version of a “Heinz 57” breed of dog, I don’t know what does.

For 1963 this strange story remained, but turned up a notch.  Dodge still needed the car in its lineup.  However, the source of its body (the Chrysler Newport) got a thorough front-to-back, inside-and-out restyling for 1963.  So unless there was some willingness to design a Dodge companion to the rotund, Italian-influenced Chrysler, another solution needed to be found.  The answer turned out to be leaving the old Chrysler body in production alongside the new one, with some minor cleanup including its very own new front end – which was probably the very first in-showroom evidence of Elwood Engel’s new design direction at the company.  The ’63 Custom 88o (joined by a slightly lower-priced “regular” 880) was still a mongrel.  But this time, where the ’62 was a current body with last year’s front end, the ’63 was a current front end on last year’s body.  The ’61 Dodge/DeSoto dashboard remained in place too, providing a car that combined three distinct model years into one.

The body used for the 880 line actually dated back to 1960.  Although the Unibody structure was completely new, the 1960 Chrysler and DeSoto’s styling was not much more than a mild evolution from the 1957-59 model that had began as a smashing success and ended in a mediocre muddle (both in its styling and in its sales figures).  Still, the ’60 Chrysler was an attractive car, especially if you liked fins.

Virgil Exner was nothing if not creative, and for his follow-up to the 1957 Forward Look he started off in at least two new styling directions.  First came the 1960 Valiant.  Its long hood/short deck look, coupled with full wheel openings and six-light greenhouse (derived from the Imperial D’Elegance show car) was Ex’s stab at a second revolution in the styling of the modern automobile.  A second direction came with the 1962 Plymouth and standard Dodge lines which employed heavy-bladed fenders and cleaner sides, a design language exemplified in the Dodge Flite Wing prototype.

By 1962 only the big Chrysler was continuing with some version of the old Forward Look theme.  Some didn’t like the elimination of the fins and some didn’t like the canted headlights, but all in all it was a reasonably attractive car.  Especially when compared with almost everything else the Corporation was turning out.

But back to the Dodge 880.  By 1964 the old girl got some more attention from Elwood Engel’s styling studios which resulted in cleaner sides and a more modern tail end, along with a revised but still Mercury-like grille.

On the inside the dash design was toned down a notch but in pretty much every other way the car was still a 1962 (or 1960) Chrysler Newport.  In many ways, the 1964 Dodge Custom 880 represented the most conventionally styled car that Chrysler had turned out since perhaps 1952.

The car was quite conventional mechanically as well, built like everything else the company built and powered by either the 2 bbl 361 (5.9L) V8 or the larger 4 bbl 383 (6.3L) engine.  Although almost all of them were driven by a pushbutton Torqueflite automatic, either a three or a four-speed floor shift was available for the eleven people who might be interested in a car that was offered for neither the economy nor the performance-minded.

I still recall seeing one of these when I was just a wee tot.  A man who worked with my father was a dedicated Mopar guy.  Even at the age of 5, I knew that there was something just weird about Mopars.  The guy’s wife drove a baby blue ’61-ish Valiant, and I remember walking around and around it, taking in all of the details that were so foreign to someone who grew up in a nearly undiluted sea of GM normalcy.  When Gene and his family drove up in a new Custom 880 one evening (in this very color combination) I walked around it as well.  I could tell that it was a Dodge by the prominent “fratzogs” all over the car.  But it was a strange Dodge in that it was . . . almost normal.  Not actual normal, just almost normal.  Hmmm, I remember thinking, if Dodge can make cars that look like this, I think people will buy them.

Little did I know at that tender age, Gene’s ’64 Custom 880 would be the last of its (half) breed.  An all new C body was on the way which would result in what many would consider “Peak Chrysler”.  That new C body would arrive just in the nick of time, too.  Although the 880 tried to plug a hole in the lineup, it never did so very effectively.  Although the ’64 version was the best selling of them all (31,796 units) the 880s never sold well.  With the exception of the 1962 4 door sedan, no single body style in any of the car’s three years ever broke the 10K unit barrier.  This ’64 convertible is one of only 1,058 built.

It is clear in looking at this car that although some of the details looked modern, the basic car was not.  The soft, rounded shoulders where the doors met the side windows, that ubiquitous slight kink at the top of the A-pillar and those pull-out “Chrysler-type” door handles identified this new car as a direct descendant of the Chryslers and DeSotos that had ever so briefly ruled the sales charts in 1957 before their reputation for quality woes caught up with them.  In one way, that this body could provide the basis for a credible big sedan in 1964 affirms how advanced Exner’s Forward Look was.  Is there any other 1957 car that could wear so much of its basic styling so well seven years later?

The car also shows just how badly management wanted its cars to go mainstream.  Even with the executioner’s axe in mid-swing, this low-volume Dodge got dressed in a respectable suit in a clear effort to conform to the styling norms being once again set by General Motors.  Despite some curious details.

Although the Forward Look jumped into the world with great fanfare in the 1950s, it is less clear when that styling era at Chrysler ended.  Most would probably say that the Forward Look died with the fins that disappeared after 1961.  But I believe that the Forward Look was more than fins – it was about shape, form and stance – a combination that projected the traditionally masculine traits of power and strength with the soft curves that most would consider more feminine.  And by 1964 there remained one car on dealer lots which still embodied at least some of the spirit of the Forward Look.  And did it very well.


Further Reading:

1963 Dodge Custom 880 (Laurence Jones)

1963 Dodge Custom 880 (Perry Shoar)

1963 Dodge Polara (Paul Niedermeyer)

1961 Dodge Dart Pioneer (J P Cavanaugh)

1963 Chrysler New Yorker (J P Cavanaugh)