Curbside Classic: 1955 Plymouth Belvedere Suburban – Suddenly It’s…1956

(first posted 2/2/2012)

We build cars to sit in, not to pee over. Chrysler Persident K.T. Keller’s delicately-chosen words resulted in boxy tall-boy sedans out of sync with the market, leaving Plymouth drowning in the toilet. Ironically, Keller turned out to be decades ahead of his time, but in the early fifties, longer, lower and wider is what moved the metal. The pug-like ’54s were a dud, and the market was pissing on Plymouth, washing it out of its perennial third place sales rank all the way down to fifth. Chrysler’s whole future was now in the hands of its bankers and Virgil Exner, recently installed as head of Styling. The task facing Exner was Herculean; bring Chryler styling up to date for 1955, the company having hocked itself to raise the $100 million bucks to do it. Not only did Exner pull it off, but he may have even overshot by a year.

First, we’d better take a quick glance at what almost sunk Plymouth. The ’53 and ’54 redesign were an attempt to spruce up the very long-in-tooth 1949 – 1952 models (CC here). For what it’s worth, Exner had some sort of hand in these, but let’s not hold it against him. They were just too short and stubby compared to the competition. Pugs were out; the longer, lower race was on, and Plymouth was left behind.

1947 Studebaker by David Saunders

Previously, Exner had a hand in the 1947 Studebaker, although somewhat controversially. He was pulled out of the Loewy team, and offered the chance to do his own version, in secret. Technically, his design won, but it was really just a variation of the basic body shape that had already been mostly locked in by Loewy’s team. Exner’s main original contribution was the front end, and frankly, it’s the weakest part of that otherwise bold design. No wonder Loewy redid the front end for the 1951.

1954 Ghia Chrysler Special

We can’t do a whole retrospective on Virgil Exner here, but after Studebaker, he was given an Advance Styling Studio at Chrysler, which resulted in a stream of (mostly) Exneruberantly marvelous concept and limited-production cars, the result of a most holy alliance with Ghia. Now just who was wagging the tail in that relationship has been a source of some controversy. Regardless, the most prominent thing to come out of that was that “classic” grille, which Exner would draw on repeatedly.

But one thing is fairly clear: that grille first showed up on the Plymouth XX500, which was a 100% Ghia design, and started the whole cross-Atlantic relationship. And why have I taken this overly long detour to Italy? Because as we consider Exner’s 1955 Plymouth and his other cars, it might help to remember that front ends weren’t exactly a strength of his, except when he could fall back on his beloved classic grille.

Well, there’s no sign of that here. Instead, we have a rather odd floating bar, and a rather heavy one at that. Obviously shooting for some visual continuity with its predecessor; an old trick when the rest of the car is all-new. Too bad.

It isn’t really a grille at all, but more like a wide tongue with an ailment slightly protruding from the otherwise empty maw. Just needs some lipstick on that upper lip…

Ironically, the ’55 Chevy (CC here) has a decidedly Italianesque eggcrate grille. And of course, that won’t be our only comparison to the winner of the ’55 sales race. So we’ll give one to the Chevy for the grille, but look at how tall and blunt its front end is overall. And right here, we begin to see how Exner was in many ways one step ahead of both GM and Ford in 1955.

Now saying he was ahead of the 1955 Ford is not quite as an easy proposition to make as the boxy Chevy, since at first glance the the Plymouth and Ford are rather similar.

But take a closer look at the overall proportions and stance in comparison to the Ford, it really does show the Plymouth’s advanced aspects, subtle as they may be, or not. The Plymouth may not really be any lower, but it sure looks it, and has a horizontal fluidity and a gently sloping nose that simply says: I’m one year ahead of you two. The nicely faired-in headlights only bring the point home further. And that forward sloping line of the leading edge of the front end of the fender is a giant step alone, vastly more integrated than the Big Two’s bug eyes, and strongly hints at things to come in 1957.

Now I will admit that the station wagon perhaps shows the 55’s lines most advantageously, which may be odd, given the utilitarian status of wagons then. The sedan,

and even the hardtop coupe; well, I’m grappling with this one here, because I have conflicting responses to the ’55 Plymouth. They’re not as overtly “attractive” or “cute” as the Chevy and Ford in certain respects, like that much-less-than-stellar side treatment on this coupe here.

But if you can get past that, and focus on the poise and proportions of the design below the baubles…it keeps telling me the same thing: I’m one year...Maybe a stripper wagon will show that better. Mostly.

How about the Business Coupe? As plain and unadorned as it gets. And yes, this was a genuine business coupe, with a flimsy removable back seat, and no roll down windows (Zachman!). And yes; it’s working for me; the ’55 Plymouth wants to be au natural, to really show off its body-in-the-bare; a nudist at heart. Or maybe that’s just me, because I know the hardtop is the one that ’55 – ’56 Plymouth fans rave about. But I’m a contrarian, and never liked much make-up on women either; give me natural beauty. The Plymouth doesn’t wear its baubles well.

Maybe I’ve lost you by now; if not, let’s throttle back the emo a bit, and talk engines. Ironically, Plymouth rather played down the new Hy-Fire V8 engine. Not one mention of its horsepower anywhere in the brochure. The 241 inch version made 157 hp, and the 260 incher belted out 167 hp (gross, on both accounts). A Power-Pak was offered later in the year to address the performance image Chevy was making hay with: a four barrel carb and dual exhausts upped the ante to 177 hp.

Maybe one reason Plymouth was a bit low-key is that these engines were actually built by Dodge, at a time when the divisions were still proud of their own engine plants and such. And Plymouth was so deeply associated with its thrifty and sturdy sixes. Plymouth’s own V8 came on line in 1956.

These are the Polysphere V8s, an engine that tends to be a bit over-rated by its fans. It was a well built and rugged-enough motor, but Chrysler’s attempt to create a semi-hemi with a single bank of rocker arms to cut costs never quite lived up to its hype and promise.

The hemi was too expensive, but Chrysler was so invested in the hemi-thing, that it seemed to make sense at the time. But look at those combustion chambers, that’s not anywhere near a real hemisphere. Nor a wedge either. When this A-block finally got Chevy-style wedge heads, starting in 1964 with the 273, it not only became substantially lighter and narrower, but a better and more efficient performer too. Some Chrysler engineers have admitted as much, that the poly head was a blind alley, with neither of the advantages of a proper hemi nor a wedge. But the poly 318 labored on until 1967. Live and learn, by trial and error. Or just imitation.

The result was decidedly middle of the field. Contemporary tests consistently had the Chevy tops in acceleration and economy, and the dullard Ford Y-block at the bottom in both categories, despite its biggest displacement.  Handling? A bit on the soft side, not quite up to the Chevy either, but not bad.

Well, someone took engine matters into their own hands with this car, and in admirable style. A healthy 383 four-barrel has been transplanted, along with a matching Torqueflite three-speed automatic. I found this exactly an hour or two after the owner arrived in town with it, having just bought it in Tacoma for $4200. He said it was very happy bopping along at 75 – 80 mph on I5. Undoubtedly. Fits so nicely too, as the 383 B-block probably is no wider, if less so, than the wide 241 inch poly Hy-Fire that it replaced.

Now Exner was known for a certain inconsistency and eccentricity, and it plays out in the Plymouth’s dash. It was getting late, so my pictures aren’t very good, but you can see a rather symmetrical aspect to it, with the round radio speaker grille on the right edge matching the round speedometer. Just one very silly problem:

Here’s the driver’s side with speedo, and the ammeter and fuel gauge.

And the engine temperature and oil pressure gauges are now on the passenger side: brilliant! All for the sake of symmetry! Needless to say, that was quickly changed for the ’56s. But what were they…never mind; I’ve long stopped trying to understand what fueled Exner’s brilliant and foolish idiosyncrasies.

Maybe Plymouth already knew they had a an issue on their hands, because the brochure tries to make lemonade out of piss: spreads its dials across the width for maximum visibility

Oh yes: and richly textured to eliminate glare. That speedometer was so notoriously prone to glare, Plymouth added some dark texture to its top chrome ring mid-year. And Popular Mechanix was advising folks how to rig a little plastic hood over it to avoid seeing the speedo in the windhield at night. Heads-up display, indeed.

Another 1955 Chryler innovation was the in-dash selector for the automatic transmission. Now that was just the first shot over the bow in Chrysler’s quixotic efforts to get the automatic shift lever off the steering column. In 1956, they moved on to the famous push-button selector, until they threw in the towel about ten years later. Once again, Chrysler was ahead of its time with the dash-mounted selector, as some minivans and such now have them. Makes sense, actually.

This wagon obviously once had a three-on-the-tree and overdrive. So where’s the quadrant for the Torqueflite?

There isn’t one. The manual column shifter has been adapted to goose the Torqueflite. You shift by feel was the owner’s succinct response. Works for me. In fact, all too well. And a very effective anti-theft device at that. I’m falling in love with this wagon gear by gear.

The upholstery is hiding under a blanket, but the door trim gives us some indication. Molded plastic door panels? No less than four sheets of vinyl and/or fabric were cut in the upholstering of this door.

The back seat folds in a way that also has come back in style . I’m not exactly sure, but I think starting with the ’57s, most big American wagons had their rear seat backs just plop down on top of the seat cushion, generally resulting in a slanted floor there, unless one was hauling concrete bags or such.

Let’s check out the state-of-the-art of tailgates in 1955. It wasn’t 1960 back here yet. The solid latch below the rear window is turned to lift up the upper section.

Then one reaches in and has to pull both of those handles to release the lower tailgate hinges. Yes, we’ve come a long way back here. But then all of this still works like new, although a touch of lubricant would be welcome in those slightly arthritic joints. How well will the fob-operated electric tailgate on your minivan work when it’s 55 years old?

Here’s the spring-loaded upper tail-gate hinge. No hydraulic strut to wear out every few years. Or is that better now? My Cherokee and Caravan ate those things like snacks.

Dark and out of focus, but let’s make this scenic tour complete, and show you the lever that has to be flipped down over the top of the lower tailgate hinge to secure it. I can just see keeping my hands off that if I was a kid riding back there.

Are you in love yet? I sure am. I’d take this off his hands in a second for what he paid for it. BTW, that Rambler American is a former CC centerfold (check her out here), but is there strictly by coincidence. It belongs to the girl who rents the downstairs apartment in the house. Eugene!

This old couple sitting there together are straight right out of my early years, when two cars like this graced so many driveways. A big burly wagon for Dad, and a little economy car for Mom. Of course sometimes it was the other way around, but our neighbors in Iowa City had the same kind of combination: a ’57 Olds wagon for him, and a Lark for her. And ten of us kids would pile in the Lark after school on rainy days. Logic? What’s that got to do with it? Or maybe it depended on who was really wearing the pants in the family.

If you wanted a third seat, it was a bit of an afterthought: a lightweight removable seat. And no well for the feet. Oh well. I mean, oh hell.

Back to my growing feelings of love: Patina? Check. Manual steering? Check? Unassisted drum brakes? Check. Do you know how nice a 383 sounds, chatting through twin pipes? A love song indeed. Or more like a siren song. Time to back away…

Hey, I’m young at in heart, if not in body. And I’m working on a similar shit-eating grin, if that’s what it ’55 Plymouth ownership entails, or requires. I’ll even hold my hands up like that in whatever gesture that is. It was that long?

Before I forget, the ’55 Plymouth, like the whole new ’55 Chrysler line, did the trick. Chrysler stock jumped when they were unveiled. Plymouth numbers weren’t great for the ’55 MY, because of production snafus, but 1955 calender year sales exploded, to a record 743k units, a high that wouldn’t be seen again for some time. By 1956, Plymouth was working its way back up the sales rankings. And Exner was hard at work on his next great leap forward, the Suddenly It’s 1960 1957 Plymouths.

But before we reluctantly say goodbye, let’s take a look at one more detail. Chrysler’s ’55 lineup was generally considered highly up-to-date, but it did get some criticism for not having a proper wrap-around windshield, like GM had. Of course, with the attendant knee-banging dog-leg as one entered. Another dead-end, and props to Exner for never jumping on that one. But the ’55s had a lovely windshield: just enough wrap-around for good vision, without the goofy optical warping that the GM and Ford wrap-arounds caused. And trimmed so nicely too.

a ’58 Dodge, ride height exaggerated

So here we come to the painful reality: the ’55 – ’56 was in may ways a much better real-world car than the excessive ’57’s; longer, wider and lower they may have been. Yes, praise Almighty Exner that he did what he did, for our amusement’s sake anyway, although the results were no amusement, throwing Chrysler back into the next perpetual crisis.

But for a couple of years, the sun shone brightly; and dammit,wasn’t being one year ahead of the competition good enough? Give folks a year, and they’ll want three. Human nature. Until they get slapped. So just how would a Suddenly It’s…1958 1957 Plymouth have looked?