Curbside Classic: 1959 Dodge Coronet Sedan: Chrome, Fins, And More Chrome

(first posted 7/27/2012)    The 1959 Dodge: Polarizing, to say the least. Perhaps its styling was over the top, piling even more chrome atop Mopar’s already-chromy original 1957 Forward Look bodies. Still, I love the 1959 Dodge. It’s a rare bird too, as I’ve only ever seen three of these beauties in person. One of them was a top-of-the-line Custom Royal Lancer two-door hardtop, like the one my mother bought in 1969 as her first car. Her car, finished in two-tone pinkish-beige-and-copper, was loaded, with power steering, power brakes, Torqueflite and deluxe “roulette wheel” wheel covers. But first, a little background on what is arguably the wildest Dodge ever built.

The 1959 Dodge was based upon the 1957 model, which was part and parcel of Chrysler Corporation’s lineup, from Plymouth to Imperial, of  all-new vehicles. The “100 Million Dollar Look” of 1955-56 gave way to the dart-like “Suddenly it’s 1960” fin-mobiles. The 1957 “Swept-Wing” Dodge had a large bumper grille that resembled a biplane and fins that appeared to be resting on top of the quarter panel. Thanks to varying state laws, these cars had dual “headlamps”–the inboard pair of lights up front were actually turn signal/parking lamps and not high-beams.

The 1958 Dodge was much the same, but now sported a more conventional grille and quad headlights, along with some reshuffled chrome trim. I rather prefer it over the 1957, which appeared rather front-heavy with its large chrome grille bar. The 1959 restyle would be much more extensive.

The ’59 Dodge looked an awful lot like the 1957-58 version, but was actually longer, lower and wider. It was basically an exaggeration–to an almost cartoon-like degree–of the 1957-58 styling cues. There was lots more chrome trim, even on the entry-level Coronet. Top-of-the-line Custom Royals, such as this convertible, wore more chrome than a ’59 Cadillac, and at least as much as a ’58 Buick.

The 1959 Dodges were introduced on October 10, 1958, in three trim levels: Coronet, Royal, and Custom Royal. The station wagons were continued as a separate series.

Along with new interior and exterior styling arrived the 383-cu in V8, in both D-500 (320 hp w/Carter four-barrel) and Super D-500 (345 hp, with twin four-barrel Carters) specifications. They were the biggest, brashest engines you could get in your ’59 Dodge.

And what better place to put your high-performance D-500 engine in than a Royal Lancer or Custom Royal Lancer two-door hardtop? One of these just happened to be my mother’s first car. It was a gigantic boat even in 1969, when she got it at Handler’s Auto on Harrison Street, in downtown Davenport, IA. The price? One hundred dollars.

Of course, at that price it wasn’t a mint-condition car with low mileage, but it was solid and everything worked. As befitted the top model, it had a power seat, power windows, and push-button Torqueflite. I’m sure it wasn’t a D-500, but it probably had the 255 hp Red Ram 326-cu in V8.

Mom’s Custom Royal most likely wore the same color combination as the Custom Royal sedan at the top of this photo. Custom Royals came as four-door sedans, two- and four-door hardtops, and convertibles (the rarest ’59 Dodge, with only 984 built). Mid-level Royals offered only the sedan and hardtop body styles. There was also a base Coronet two-door club sedan.

An interesting new feature for ’59 was the Swivel-Seat option, which allowed the driver’s and front passenger’s seats to swivel out to about a 45-degree angle for easier entry and exit–probably a good idea, given the 1957-59 Mopars’ very low roofline. Sadly, Mom’s car didn’t sport this novel feature.

Although Dodges were solid medium-priced cars, only 4.5% of them were equipped with factory air conditioning, an option priced at a whopping $468.55. Among the more popular options were the Torqueflite and Powerflite transmissions ($226.90 and $189.16, respectively), power steering ($92.15), power brakes ($42.60), and two-tone paint ($18.55).

As previously noted, wagons comprised a separate series. The top-of-the-line Custom Sierra, pictured above, was equipped and trimmed much like the Custom Royals. Just 2,432 six-passenger and 3,437 nine-passenger Custom Sierras came off the line that year.


But back to Mom’s car. This land yacht was her first car, and naturally she was a little nervous driving it. She liked it, and it was a cool looking ride, but after a couple of mishaps she decided to stop driving for a while. The Dodge was sold to her Uncle Art, in nearby Buffalo, Iowa, who used it for many years as a work car. At some point after that it must have been sold or junked, but the details are lost to time. My mother’s next car was a 1960 Impala; now a more experienced driver, she enjoyed that car a lot more than the Custom Royal. That said, she loved her 1959 Dodge and really missed it. There’s always something special about your first set of wheels…

Fast forward to 2005. I was out of college and working at a local bank, but my brother was still in college at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb. He had gone our friends’ home in Burr Ridge, a Chicago suburb, to help them move into their new vacation house in Tallulah Falls, Georgia. After they’d brought him back to Burr Ridge, I was tasked with driving there from Rock Island to pick him up and bring him back.

I detest the toll booths on “scenic” Interstate 88, and driving it became even more of a hassle after manned toll booths were eliminated. I did not relish the idea of carrying some $50 in quarters, so on the return trip I skipped the interstate in favor of the two-lane. It was lucky I did, because we stumbled upon a small car show while passing through Rochelle. The sight of that finny ’59 Coronet in the late afternoon sun immediately caught my eye!

Alas, it was not a Custom Royal Lancer hardtop, but a somewhat more basic Coronet sedan. It was still far from a poverty-spec model, however, especially with that pink and rose two-tone paint job–about as subtle as a truck crashing though a brick wall, but so cool!

Fortunately I had my camera in the car, and Andy also was eager to see a ’59 Dodge. You can see my 1999 Volvo S70 AWD lurking in the background of the picture. It looks like a golf cart behind the gigantic Coronet!

The front end of this car might be its wildest feature, but in back things are far from tame. I’ll bet many 1959 Dodge owners got tired of replacing those elongated taillight lenses. They look rather fragile.

I’m glad I took these photos, but I wish they included one of the interior. The “jukebox” instrument panels on these cars are really neat. There’s even a hidden ashtray that swivels out 180 degrees, like a secret entrance in a bookcase. And who doesn’t love those pushbutton Torqueflite controls?

Today, 1959 Dodges do not grow on the proverbial trees. Only 151,851 were built, which was better than the 133,953 of ’58 but a far cry from the 281,359 made in 1957. Chrysler had really shot itself in the foot with the poor quality of the all-new ’57s, and the chickens came home to roost in 1958 and 1959–which was too bad, as the later ones were much improved–but the damage had been done.

The first one I ever saw was around 2001, at a show in Standish Park in Galesburg, Illinois. It was a Royal or Custom Royal two-door hardtop in black, with red fins, roof and lower sides and matching interior. My friend had a camcorder, but unfortunately, I didn’t have my own camera with me. Later I saw our featured car, and then in 2011 I saw a medium-and-light blue sedan at a show in Davenport. I took lots of pics of that one with my cell phone, but about a month ago it self-destructed and the photos were lost, so you’ll just have to make do with this sedan!