(first posted 12/7/2011) If I had a magic wish, one of them would be to be able to get into every Curbside Classic I find and take it for a test drive. Every once in while I luck out, but is it ironic that one of them would be perhaps the slowest of them all? So much for experiencing a hemi ‘Cuda. I take what I gets. And since I didn’t have my stopwatch along, maybe it’s just as well, since trying to time this one from zero to sixty would have been a bust. But it was fun trying.
I’m sure back in its prime, sixty wouldn’t have been any problem. And given its (once) 82 horsepower, and a fairly healthy power-to-weight ratio of 34 lb/hp, the “sprint” to sixty would have come in at something under twenty seconds. To put that in perspective, a certain big proud premium-brand American car in the mid seventies had a worse power-to-weight ratio than that (1976 Buick LeSabre V6, and maybe others from that era too).
But this car is feeling its age, which after almost three-quarters of a century of use and abuse, it deserves to. Would you put the spurs to your arthritic great-grandmother? Yet it’s still in use as a daily driver, which is how I came to find and drive it.
I’ve seen the distinctive waterfall grille at a distance in traffic repeatedly this past year or so, but couldn’t quite catch it going my way. But the other day I saw it duck into an alley, and after my light changed, I prowled and found it parked behind a bar, next to a McDonald’s. And the apparent driver turned out to be a dog.
I caught up with “Dozer’s” owner, who turned out to be the only mechanic I’ve ever had to take my old ’66 F-100 to, for a problem that was too messy for me to fix. And when I hit him up for a drive, he swallowed hard, and said sure. I found out after we got back that no one else has ever taken it out of a parking lot before. Thanks, Jeff! You’re a trusting soul.
I’m sure it’s not his car he cared as much about as it was the other participants in the game we call traffic. This Plymouth is exactly the kind of car you would only take to a German or Japanese vehicle inspection in your worst nightmare. The brake master cylinder leaks, the clutch clutches, the steering has more play than a pre-school, the shocks shock, etc. In other words, it’s exactly the perfect vehicle for a fiercely independent mechanic to drive to his favorite watering hole with his dog after a day fixing anything and everything that can be pushed up to his door.
The first impression upon sliding in the front seat: it feels mighty familiar. The front compartment dimensions are practically a dead ringer for an old VW Beetle. Standard-size American cars had a long hood, and lots of rear-seat leg-room, but the narrowness and contours of the body were no bigger than a VW. Well, the Beetle was considered “full size” in its day (in Europe), and both cars were designed around the same time.
Step one: the starting drill. Pull choke fully out, spread right foot on and beyond the gas pedal to also hit the floor-mounted starter button when foot is mashed down. Push choke mostly back in on the first sound of ignition, lest engine be flooded. Simultaneously ease off the starter and flutter the gas. With a six-volt battery, you don’t get many chances. I nailed it on the first try, which seems to visibly ease the tension in Jeff’s face, and the 201 cubic inch flat-head six quickly settles into a smooth, chuffing idle.
The floor shift three-speed also feels familiar; it has all the directness and un-subtlety of the Farmall I drove in my childhood, although it does ostensibly have synchromesh on second and third. Or once did. We’ll skip (literally) the current state of the clutch.
With 4.11 gears in the rear end, and a very tired engine that didn’t like to rev much past 3,000 rpm in its youth, the Plymouth lets you know it likes to be shifted very early, and that it lost its taste for higher speeds many decades ago. At forty-five, it feels composed and unstrained. Perfect for ambling along an Oregon country road on a beautiful early-summer day, with the windshield cocked open to blow away the crankcase fumes streaming in through the porous firewall and floorboards. Just keep me the hell away from a freeway, the Plymouth murmurs unceasingly back to me.
Oh, that and curves too. The steering is a lot stiffer than I had imagined. And it just doesn’t like to change directions. Maybe the front-end geometry has become obtuse with time, but the Plymouth makes my manual-steering Ford pickup feel downright sporty.
But who could possibly be in a hurry to get anywhere in this patina-rich time capsule? Zero to sixty? The Plymouth was already twenty years old before that concept was first invented. Let the hourglass run out; I could happily amble along at forty five with the smell of fresh-cut hay mixed with crankcase blow-by for hours on end.
Postscript: This is an oldie; I mean this CC, as well as the car. And since I wrote about my driving impressions, almost nothing was said about the Plymouth’s place in history. So I’m going to also re-run Jim Cavanaugh’s comment he left at the time, that summed it up so perfectly. I’d hate for him to have to re-write it again:
“Ahhhhh. The best low priced car in the world in 1936. The Fords were faster. The Chevrolet (and the Ford too, that year) was better looking. But the old Plymouth flathead was darned near indestructible. None of the burned valves of the Chevies, none of the cooling system ills of the Ford flathead.
Designed by Walter Chrysler’s ace engineering triumvirate of Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer, these cars were as good as you could buy for the money. Dodges, DeSotos and Chryslers were a little bigger and a bit more powerful, but the Plymouth buyer got most of the great engineering at a minimum price. IIRC, Plymouths (all Chrysler products, actually) had among the best resale value in the industry in the 30s and 40s. How times change.
I once drove a ’36 that was for sale in my area. My most lasting impression was that while those old 30s cars may look like they have the structural integrity of Fort Knox, they are actually a little willowy. They are not built for modern traffic, with their tractor-like handling and brakes that are better on deserted country roads. But for a cruise around the town square or a run at 45 mph on a county highway, these old Plymouths were good all day long.”
Update: More recently, I had a chance to drive Jeff’s latest vintage toy, a 1944 GMC CCKW 6×6
Wrap it up, I’ll take it.
Wonderful article, gave a taste of what it’s like to drive such an old cars for those of us who never had the pleasure. I hope this is a sign of things to come, more test drive of those interesting old cars please! If it’s at all possible, of course.
Did Dozer ride along with you, Paul?
Sure; in the back seat though.
I’ve seldom seen a dog that was more perfectly matched to a car.
He’d go well in a Porsche or Subaru, too.
My family’s first car, bought used in, I think, 1946 was a 1935 Plymouth. Leapin Lena we called it.
Lena had just two doors, so the whole front seat would pivot forward and then settle back on heavy wooden blocks somebody had inserted in place of whatever had formerly held the seats up.
45mph in the ’36 suggests you were driving a very capable example. We rarely exceeded 35mph. More than that and we were rewarded with a blowout.
Nevertheless, first cars, like first loves, tend to affect you in lasting ways. I have always rooted for Chrysler since, and underdogs in general.
I love that car!
Beautiful specimen. I do hope your wrench knows what it is he’s got…maybe a full resto isn’t called for or affordable; but dammit, he ought to do something about that spot-rust before it becomes a problem.
This kinda thing…makes me think. That car was about 29 years old when I became aware of the depth and breadth of the car world…yet, aside from rusted dismembered specimens in farmers fields – or parades – I don’t EVER remember anything that old running around.
Today, a 1982 or 1983 car is no big deal…hey, it’s an old car. If it’s well preserved, it gets a double-take; but beaters of that age are nothing of note.
Nor are they vastly different from today’s models. The blockiness of that age has gone, for the need for aerodynamics for CAFE…but otherwise, totally recognizable.
Compare and contrast, then, the flat-hood 1965 Plymouth models to this example. It’s hard to believe they’re even of the same PLANET.
Your comment reminds me of a trip to visit my Mom’s relatives on a Minnesota farm around 1967. Mom’s youngest cousins were still in high school, and their daily driver was a Ford Model A coupe. It was in a condition similar to this Plymouth. I was about 8 and spent a lot of time riding around with “the big kids”. After I got older and eventually owned an A, I could see that the kids didn’t experience much of a difference between the tractors and the car, except that the Ford was faster. I have often wondered what ever happened to that car.
Similar age here, but different country. As I recall the local rabbi had one of these Plymouths. Didn’t see it on the street much, though I regularly saw a ’38 Chevy sedan and a ’30 Ford A roadster in use. A family friend had a ’26 Stude tourer in a shed, but that hadn’t been on the road since ’58. A fun time to grow up.
A 30’s car that doesn’t have chrome rims, custom paint, and a small block something or other. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
You gave me memories of my ’37 Buick Special 2-door from 40+ years ago – although that one was nowhere near as tired (well, I am talking 40 years ago) and could do 100 on the downhill. Not that such moves were wise, given what passed for shocks back then.
I’m still old enough to remember when you got a 30’s car and either kept it original, or restored it to factory original. That changed sometime in the mid-70’s (I really believe about the time “American Graffiti” came out), and suddenly you couldn’t have an old car unless you at least did enough bolt-on to turn it into the high school cruise-mobile that you thought (or wished) you had back then.
I can still remember when antique car shows didn’t allow cruise-mobiles onto the lot. Go off an play with the rest of the hot rod trash. Unlike today, when an ‘antique’ show is more unoriginal cars the proper antiques, and some kid will have no real idea what cars looked like back then. Times were a lot better in the hobby 40 years ago.
Love that trunk badge shot. The car looks like it’s made from hand-hammered copper!
For me this is much more interesting than the whole Barrett Jackson overpriced overhyped overrestored scene. An old car that you can enjoy, which makes it better than a hemi ‘Cuda Paul.
Of course I’d rather have the hemi ‘Cuda so I could sell it, buy this car, and a house, and have a wad of cash left over…
Man, that is one nice ride deserving of some fixing-up to keep it on the road for another 75 years!
Give that car a special gift of some sort!
The closest I ever go to this era of car was my Dad’s hobby car, a 1949 Chrysler Windsor with Fluid Drive. It was in really good shape and drove very well. Somebody had spend real money on it as it was mechanically perfect. All it needed was a paint job. Dad had planned to paint it up like our taxi fleet, but never got around to it. Shame, really, it would have been a stunning rolling advertisement.
This car was NOT about 0-60, it was all about smoothness and lack of drama. The brakes were actually quite good, not that you needed them that much because the car never wanted to go that fast. It would, however, cruise up the Malahat on Vancouver Island with alacrity and had no trouble keeping up with traffic. It rode and steered exceptionally well; it was just nothing was designed to happen quickly. Turns were taken in their stride and that big steering wheel went right back to centre likety-split.
I loved the Fluid Drive. It was a great and simple solution to an automatic transmission. In town, all you had to do was keep it in second. The ample torque of the Spitfire flathead six would pull you off the line as fast as you ever needed. It just seemed like a really good idea.
Dad kept the car a couple of years and sold it. I will never know why; EVERYTHING worked on that car, even the tube radio set. I am glad to have had the chance to drive it regularly.
Lovely old car Paul you are lucky to get a test flight growing up in 60s NZ prewar cars were a common sight and on the still primitive country roads were still a usefull vehicle and when these were new most roads were gravel or just dirt so high speeds were not even an option. Now 70 years after they were built there are many cars this age in regular use here mostly restored but a few originals but the art deco scene here attracts cars from the 30s they fit nicely into the landscape and make a cruise thru Napier on a nice day quite enjoyable.
The second car I ever had was a 1935 Dodge 4-door sedan, very similar to this car. One big difference was that it had an automatic choke that still sort of worked. I found that it was rather easy to flood the carb, and that if I did that, the best thing to do was to sit there with my foot on the accelerator all the way down for at least five minutes, then try starting it again. I was told that it could use a new ground cable, but that was quite long and pretty expensive as the battery was under the driver’s seat.
My Dodge had the original paint, shiny black lacquer on the body and dull black enamel on the fenders. I suppose that’s how people got the idea that it’s cool to paint the fenders a different color from the body, a look I never have liked.
My old ’35 must have been in pretty good shape – I didn’t do much freeway driving with it as I-5 wasn’t quite finished yet in our area – but it was competitive in traffic and an occasional 60 or 65 didn’t seem a problem. (Of course we have to remember that it was only 23 years old then, the same age as a 1988 model now.) I only had the car for one summer; I came back from college and found out that Pop had sold it to one of his employees who subsequently wrecked it. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the best fifty-dollar car I ever owned.
The cobbler’s son has no shoes…
Pity that he hasn’t kept the mechanical bits sound. Doing so would make it far less stressful to drive, without decreasing authenticity a jot.
Love the shot of the dog sitting behing the wheel.
Reading this story brought a tear to my eye Paul, as I used to own the right-hand-drive Dodge D2 version of this, but was forced to sell it 12 years ago. My late Grandfather bought it in August 1950, and I bought it from his estate in 1994. It was identical to the Plymouth above, except the headlights were mounted on the side of the grille, and there were miniature-grille-shaped parts covering the light mounting holes used for the Plymouth version.
I deeply, deeply regret losing the only solid piece of family heritage from Dad’s side of the family – the forestry town where my Grandparents lived since the 1930s, and where Dad and his sister were born and grew up, was bulldozed in 1976 to plant more forest. The Dodge was the only thing remaining from my Grandparents’ and Dad’s decades there. Being one of the few American cars there (in a sea of British cars) the Dodge is clearly visible in so many of the photos from 1950 onwards.
After my Grandfather died, we found a letter from a car dealer dated July 1950. In it the dealer tells Poppa about a fully-optioned Dodge D2 Touring Sedan he thought Poppa may like. Clearly Poppa did, as he drove 200 miles to buy the car. It was factory metallic gold, with up-spec burgundy leather interior, and very rare (for NZ anyway) factory options of radio, twin sidemount spares, twin tail-lights, and front door wind-deflectors. The original owner was an elderly spinster, and the car had been commandeered by the NZ Army during WWII.
Poppa used the car as a taxi – he was the taxi driver/butcher/postmaster/mill handyman in the village. At least two babies were born in it as they arrived before the taxi arrived at the hospital. In 1961 a rear-wheel brake cylinder broke and Poppa was unable to find a replacement one, so he pushed it into his garage, and there it stayed until 1976. When the town was bulldozed, the Dodge was towed to their new home 20km away. Poppa died in 1985, and the car ended up in my Aunt’s garage until I bought it in 1994. It was original, wearing the scars of a decade of taxi use on unsealed roads. Everything worked, except it wouldn’t start. It turned over fine with the crank handle and the starter button – which was on the dashboard, not the floor as in the Plymouth version above, but I lacked the knowledge and ability (and money!) to get it going.
I had to sell it in 1999, and wish I’d never sold it – though the purchaser lives 15km from where I now live and still has it. I ring him occasionally, he’s been unwell for years, and other than importing some parts from America and stripping it down for restoration, he hasn’t touched it. I’m not remotely good with my hands, so any form of work on it would be well beyond my capabilities, and I couldn’t remotely afford to do anything to it.
“The Dodge”, as it was affectionately called by us all, was an enormous part of our lives, simply because of its existence, and what it meant as a big part our family heritage. It brings a tear to my eyes every time I think of it. I’m delighted to see the Plymouth above is still in use and still loved.
Thanks Paul, you’ve made my day. Cheers, Scott.
Scott, Thanks for sharing. And you know that Dodge will end up in loving hands, sooner or later.
My mom had a ’38 Plymouth that she owned until after 1961, when my older sister was born. They have a picture of my sister as a toddler on the front porch of a friends farmhouse with the Plymouth in the background. She sold it shortly before I was born in 1963 and she said it was still a good car at the time. Maybe it’s still around. I came home from the hospital in my dad’s ’61 VW.
Use the car for extra “street creds” when performing a “drive-by.”
Double points for using a tommy gun with the round magazine.
Max out point potential by wearing a pin-stripe suit with black and white dress shoes.
All clothing required to be USA made, obviously.
I love these fine WPC cars , I had a ’39 Dodge ( ? D11 ?) Sedan back in the mid 1970’s .
As mentioned they were well built tanks and the _only_ reason more are not left is : the Flat Heads didn’t like sustained high RPM’s so as soon as the Federal Interstate Highway System was built , they began dropping like flies .
Greasing the suspension and fitting correct sized radial tires makes them drive very easily indeed if a fair bit of steering wheel winding involved , when you’re most of the way ’round a corner you let go the steering wheel and step on the gas , the spokes become a blur as the steering automatically unwinds and you pick up speed , woe betide the foolish driver who puts their fingers in to slow or stop the steering wheel too soon .
Glycerin is used in the ” Knew Action ” lever typ shocks , they work O.K.when kept full , no one ever bothers anymore .
The reason the brakes were so good is : they had dual leading shoe front brakes , great for stopping , not so much when you had to back down a steep hill / driveway etc. .
Easy to repair and keep in sharp tune too .
Gee, and I thought my dad’s 51 Plymouth coupe was real old.
“Plymouth Builds Great Cars!” proclaimed their advertisement and there was a good deal of truth in that slogan. Durability and reliability of an anvil, one of the best all-around value propositions for buyers of “The Priced Three”. Road speeds of 45 mph were the norm then, most have forgotten how poor roads were decades ago.
But, a pleasant afternoon cruising the backroads in this aged gems would be more fun than I can describe.
I hope it hasn’t been painted over the last four years. It’s got perfect patina. The only thing I would ever do to a car like that would be to change out the rugs/mats and duplicate the upholstery… just restore out the mildew so you can ride in it in your best suit.
We had a 41 Dodge pickup with that same engine in our family in the ’70s. It loved back roads; the federal government did us a solid by dropping the speed limit on interstates to 55 during the fuel crisis, so the Dodge kept up pretty well.
Nope. Saw it just a while back, sitting in Jeff’s shop. He’s been busy with his latest toy: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1944-gmc-cckw-6×6-the-famous-ww2-deuce-and-a-half-jimmy-gets-taken-out-for-a-drive-with-video/
Its almost a shame its so pristine and solid….one of these would make an awesome candidate for a rat rod! But as nice as that body is, and knowing these are rare I wouldn’t have the heart to cut it up….
Cars like these – and Henry Ford’s crazy dealer practices – were a big reason my family gave up their Ford franchise to concentrate on Chrysler-Plymouth in 1938 – when Chrysler, not Ford, was the #2 automaker, a position they would hold until K.T. Keller drove their styling into an upright, boxy ditch in 1949.
That shot with Dozer in the front seat is just begging for a caption…”No time to explain–just get in!”
My very 1st car ride was in one of these back in 1946. They didn’t have seat belts and baby car seats then. I rode home in Momma’s arms.
Great to see it still lives at the repair shop. Was it the cam gear replacement that Jeff tackled on your truck?
I did that myself; my last fairly substantial driveway repair job. He put in a new clutch as well as a sleeve on the back end of the crankshaft at the same time, as a nick in the shaft was perpetually seeping oil past the main rear seal. That was more than I was willing to take on.
I didn’t know it was possible to sleeve a nicked crank, much less while still in the truck. I would have paid someone to do this job. Many shops probably would have not taken this repair on, saying that you need a new crank or engine. It’s great this fix was offered. I still do most repairs myself, but the thrill is gone compared to when I was younger.
Dozer just needs a pair of doggles and a hat. He could probably drive around town and nobody would be the wiser.
In 1936 my grandparents bout a new Plymouth two-door sedan – STRIPPED. No heater, no radio, no trunk lid. All were options. They never drove it. My mother and her three older sisters all learned to drive on that car. They would drive to Boston to visit my grandmother’s sister and family. It took nine hours from The Bronx to Chelsea, MA. Grandpa would load the car by opening the passenger door, folding the rear seat and then placing the luggage in the truck. In 1936 the family began camping on Lake George, NY. Same thing with everyone’s belongings and camping equipment. During the cold months, the car stayed on the street, parked, until warmer weather arrived. In 1942 when gasoline rationing took hold, they sold the car to a man who really needed transportation.
My family owned a ’36 just like that pictured when I was a kid, except it was all black. I remember the doors as particularly hazardous, never closing really tight and always rattling. Dad always held the speed to 45 mph or less because the engine had what he thought was a rod knock at higher speeds. Dad & grandpa overhauled the motor in the driveway at some point, probably just putting in rings & rod bearings and lapping the valves, The old Plymouth was dependable, but like most cars of that vintage, 80K mi was about the limit before the engine and clutch needed attention. Plymouths were much better about needing valve refacing than the Fords & Chevies of that vintage due to the hardened valve seats.
Look at those straight door handles, a lot of cars from this era would have at least one handle at an angle not horizontal, from a time when “Extra Care in Engineering” meant something at Chrysler
I seem to recall Bob Gottlieb writing, in his “Classic Comments” column in (ahem) Motor Trend, that one could restore sagging door handles simply by exchanging the right-hand (square) handle shafts for the ones on the left.
Here’s a rather tired ’36 Plymouth rumble-seat convertible I was given by a family friend, when I was 14. Drove it up and down a 70-foot driveway for a season, then it was gone. The most remarkable feature for me was an accessory cigarette holder and lighter (!), which worked via engine manifold vacuum. I didn’t smoke—yet—so never got to try it out . . .