(first posted 4/23/2014) The first truly warm day after a harsh winter brought out a fair number of Bloomington’s classic cars a few weeks ago and the tall, narrow and round proportions of this P15 Plymouth made it impossible to ignore. At sixty-seven years old, it falls somewhat outside our purview at CC, but it’d be wrong not to share it with you. It’s an excellent example of very early post-war automotive design and benefits from its restorers’ great attention to detail.
It also photographs very nicely, as you can see here. A fairly basic, everyday car, the 1946-1948 Plymouths displayed a watered-down Streamline Moderne influence, with nothing to alienate traditional buyers who were offended by such cars as the Chrysler Airflow. And while it seems odd to compare this ’47 Plymouth to a car which shocked the public’s sensibilities thirteen years earlier, try and think of it as a 1942, since the war interrupted the majority of design and development for about four years (in fact, production began winding down well before December of 1941). If anything, the minor trim differences of the first post-war models showed an even more conservative sensibility compared to the earlier, more expressively styled grilles seen on the 1939-1941 models.
It worked, though, with Plymouth remaining among the top-three marques in terms of sales volume. The basic body dated back to 1940, and through its first and second seasons, the line-up seriously challenged Ford for second place in sales. That was no longer the case after the war, but the increased production had workers smiling nonetheless.
Behind those gleaming slats, a 217.8 CID six made all of 95 gross horsepower, using a depressingly low 6.6:1 compression ratio. But, unless one was truly used to a fast car, this must have been satisfying enough and the mandatory three-speed made the most of what was there. It wouldn’t be until 1955 that Plymouth would get a V8 engine.
Even with the flathead six, there were a number of other mechanical features which made these cars more advanced than some low-priced competition. An open driveshaft, a rigid frame and a suspension which placed the rear passengers ahead of the axle marked a few of these distinctions, and help explain Chrysler’s early reputation as an engineering-led company.
Don’t get the idea that these cars were conceived without a concern for flair or beauty. That dashboard is an especially gorgeous piece and uniquely angular, compared with Ford’s and Chevy’s very similar, rounded layouts. This photo is not of the featured car, but is necessary to properly show off the beautiful integration of the radio and the clock. I’m generally ambivalent about Art Deco, but this dashboard does a lot for me.
I don’t know how easily cars were totaled in those days, but a morbid curiosity leads me to wonder if anyone ever bloodied themselves on one of these chromed speaker grate in a low-speed collision, only to hear a tooth rattling somewhere inside the dashboard when they got their car back after the ensuring minor repair. That sort of issue would’ve been in no way unique to Plymouth, but it’s interesting to note that Chrysler later lead the way with padded interior surfaces.
Better to focus on a less macabre aspect of design, like this gorgeous third taillight integrated into the license plate trim, a nice preview of the increasingly complex plastic moldings that were quickly becoming popular across all industries. This is one of the more extravagant pieces on the exterior, quite different in spirit from the flamboyant cars which followed a decade later.
Whether we focus on that third taillight, the dash, the hood ornament or even these wheels, what decoration is present hints at the quality which made these cars famous. And that only added to the disappointment which characterized the release of the 1957 cars, which in their well-known attempt to atone for their maker’s dowdiness also did away with their reputation for toughness.
Luckily, the same flat-head six which exhales through this exhaust pipe carried through until 1959 with boosts in compression and other minor refinements to keep power output competitive. The slant-six which replaced it is known for its durability, but the engine in this car was even more so, lasting through the late ’60s in military applications. It’s a fitting power plant for a car known for its strength even more than its plainness, and in that sense, this Plymouth is reminiscent of a contemporary Volvo, even though those cars are widely known for aping Ford’s styling.
The yellow rims add a jaunty touch to the otherwise somber color scheme, but manage to avoid looking tacky. Considering the enormous sacrifice Chrysler made to the war effort, Plymouth should be commended for finishing this basic model so lovingly. Despite making more tanks than any competitors in both World War II and The Korean War, Highland Park was hamstrung by its obligations to the military, receiving smaller allocations of steel for car production than even Kaiser-Frazer.
Getting back into the game of automobile manufacture happened later than it did for other makers and, during the abbreviated 1945 model year, Plymouth ranked twelfth in sales volume. Sales quickly recovered because of the massive seller’s market that existed, but to Plymouth’s credit, the first postwar cars were durable and well-engineered. The brand quickly dropped to fifth place by the mid ’50s, since the no-holds-barred approach to practicality became stale, forming another part of the yo-yo trajectory that typifies the Mopar experience. That makes this P15 one of the final moments of sanity for the company.