Curbside Classic: 1960 -1962 Plymouth Valiant – No One’s Kid Brother

(first posted 7/6/2011)     Call me crazy, call me nerdy. But one of my favorite cars of all time, just to stare at for hours, is the original Valiant. Within a short three years, it would become the definition of the automotive appliance. But for those first three years of  its life, Valiant was the wildest peacock of the Big Three compacts.

valiant 1960 blueside

Out of the three domestic compacts introduced in the fall of 1959, visually the Valiant had no precedent. The Corvair could reference both roof styles with contemporary large GM hardtops. The Falcon had large afterburner tail lights in common with its larger brethren, except, oddly, in 1960.

Imperial d Elegance 1958

Not so much the Valiant. There’s clearly elements of Virgil Exner’s 1958 Imperial D’elegance concept roller. Despite some of its flat-out details, it’s “fuselage” styling, with no break between the bottom of the windows and door upper edge, was very distinct break from tradition, and was first seen in a production car on the Valiant.

But I also see elements of the original Studebaker Champion in the Valiant. Fascinating to me considering Virgil Exner had a hand in designing the original 1939 Champion under Raymond Loewy. Like the Champion, the Valiant was a clean sheet design. Thematically the Champion seemed a spiritual ancestor to the Valiant more so than the dowdy, over engineered Cranbrooks, Cambridges and Concords that were the Plymouth practical bread and butter in the early 1950s.

But the Valiant continued to  display Chrysler’s long established reputation for engineering prowess. It was also one of the first cars designed using computers. The taut “Torsion-Aire” suspension, the easy to use pushbutton TorqueFlite, and the seemingly indestructible Slant 6 were attached to its unit body. Special care was paid to sound deadening and vibration control to make the Valiant seem less removed from a larger, more traditional mid century American Sedan.

It rode the second shortest wheelbase in it’s class (106.5 inches) but at 184.5 inches long it was almost 10 inches longer than a Lark. The interior afforded more leg room than either Falcon or Corvair. Also, reflecting its higher entry price the interior wasn’t as spartan as a standard Falcon or Corvair 500.

Valiant Slant Six Large

According to Allpar the Valiant almost ended up a lot like the Corvair. The Slant 6 started as a Slant 4 mounted out back, but didn’t produce enough torque for American tastes and was soon upsized to a six.  The stories from the GM proving grounds scared Chrysler engineers to approach their interpretation of the “rationalization” of the American sedan from a more traditional stance. The slant six was named such because of its 30 degree angle slant towards the passenger side of the car.

Due to its longer intake runners and other engineering tricks, it was a superior performer to a majority of the six cylinders offered by competitors. At 101 standard horsepower, the 170 cube version ran 0-60 times in the 15-17 second range (depending on which source), which put it a 3-4 seconds ahead of the Corvair, and up to 9-10 seconds ahead of a dawdling Falcon wheezing through it’s 144 Six and a Ford-O-Matic. The Hyper Pak equipped versions shamed the Corvair and Falcon in a special compacts only 1960 Daytona 500 event. The Valiants took the first Seven positions in the race. On the second day, the first place Valiant averaged 122mph.

So, if the original Valiant was so superior at everything, why was it the (seemingly) most unloved of the first Big Three compacts? Although it sold 194, 000+ units in its first year, that trailed the Corvair’s 250,000 or the 435,000+ Falcons that spewed like ants out of Ford factories throughout the nation. In 1961 and 1962 the sales stayed pretty much steady, never really breaking out of the 150K range. The main reason I can attribute is the curious styling.

The original Valiant looks like nothing that came out of American design studios at the time. There’s a lot of classic design elements trying to break through. The front fender brow hints at trying to have a separate fender look, as does the radius curve around the rear wheel that flows into the slanted fins. The most awkward element of the Valiant to me is the way the roofline was handled on the two door cars. As shown on this 1962 2 door there was still a six window look. It was also retained on the V200/Signet Hardtops.

It gives the upper body structure of the 2 door Valiants a rather pregnant look compared to the smooth taper of the Corvair, or the faux pretense of a Falcon Futura 2 door with its square C pillars cribbed from the Thunderbird. The reason was a cost saving measure, so all Valiant non-wagons could use the same roof stampings and door/window parts.

Another curious throwback of the Valiant design is how far the passenger cabin sits above the fender line. In contrast to even with the beltline design of almost every other American car of the period, the Valiant harkens back to a school of design that says that says film noir more than Fellini. It’s very retro modern in that way. And perhaps details like these hampered its appeal.

But, the Valiant has a fan in me. And my favorite element of the original Valiant has to be its fantastic face. It’s the most complete face out of all of the American Compacts on offer in original form. The Corvair’s face didn’t look quite right until the 1961 nose surgery that gave it more cargo capacity. The Falcon looked decidedly unfinished and cheap with its 1960-61 face.

I know it’s pretty much is a downsized form of a Chrysler 300 Letter series front end. It’s not a “pretty” face. It’s a rather masculine look. But the detail involved with making such an expressive visage gives the Valiant a premium look that contemporaries could not match. Well, until the 1961 B-O-P Luxury compacts did LeSabre, Eighty Eight and Catalina in miniature.

Dodge Lancer Gt

My father’s second car was the Valiant’s slightly more upscale sister ship, the Lancer (in GT Hardtop form) after he had a a disastrous relationship with a Corvair 500 sedan. Although I seriously think the disaster part of the Corvair relationship is that he had to knock the battery terminals off with a stick to turn it off. He highly regarded the Lancer as a great car, and had he not fallen into the Cutlass Cult then sweeping baby boomers in the late 1960s, he might have stayed Mopar loyal.

Or was it the fact that the Valiant grew too plain to catch the eyes of those that wanted more visual bang for their buck? It’s remarkable how quickly the Valiant turned into the functional equivalent of a Camry in looks. The 1963 model, although available in Convertible form, turned up a more crisply tailored version of Falcon design themes.

Valaint 1963 LJ

The brave warrior face was replaced with the face of an accountant in 1963. He was no longer standing on his own four tires as an independent from his parents make. In puberty, dear Lance gained 5 inches in wheelbase and the show car design (with elements from the Turbine Coupe) and got a big boy name: Dart.  Prince Valiant became the lowliest of Plymouths, now in the shadow of his flashier, more well endowed brother Dart.

When they graduated High School four years later Prince Valiant became the CPA.

While brother Dart became Joe Namath:

And that was perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Plymouth as a whole. All of the best accomplishments got better accolades as Dodges. Whether it was the massive damage the 1960 Darts did to Fury sales, or Lancer becoming the sportier Dart, or the fact that there’s a Dodge line to revive the Challenger for today instead of a Plymouth line to reincarnate the Barracuda for. The image of Plymouth didn’t handle the outreach to sporty compacts or broughams very well.

But once the Valiant was brave enough to be unique and march to a different drum. Like most cars of the 1960s, there’ll never be another car like it.

Related reading:

CC 1961-1962 Dodge Lancer: How Are We Going To Make You A Little Less Weird?

CC 1963 Plymouth Valiant: When The Curious Looking Get Self Conscious, Conform