Curbside Classic: 1936 Plymouth – I Can Take It For A Spin?

(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