(first posted 9/12/2011) Had it been October of 1960, and I was standing at a Plymouth dealership, the title of this post would have been the first words out of my mouth. Sometime between 1958 and 1960, Chrysler’s design studio must have been captured by aliens. Whatever the aliens did had a profound impact on what appeared in Mopar showrooms in 1961. And the 1961 Plymouth full sized line was one of the most mutant of them all.
When Chrysler switched everything but the Imperial to unit body construction in 1960, apparently it wanted to prove that what it showed customers in the fall of 1956 was really what 1960 would look like. So the full line of Mopar offerings minus the all new Valiant showcased an evolution of the Forward Look.
Given that contemporaries from General Motors weren’t all that much more forward thinking in design, it didn’t seem like a bad move.
Only the Ford 4 door hardtops made any design leaps into the present with rather clean side details and the blind C-pillar borrowed from the 1958 Thunderbird. All of the design excesses of full sized cars began to seem obsolete for 1960. With the runaway success of more stoic compacts such as the Falcon, Ford and Chevrolet shed the frills of the 1950s with haste to introduce rather clean 1961 designs.
Virgil Exner just took a pair of scissors to the rear end, hammered on some concave rear fenders and put a heavy dose of eyebrow pencil over the headlights of the 1961 full sized Plymouth cars and called it a wrap. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I introduce you to the 1961 Plymouth Mothra…. err… Fury…”
Pretty much all Mopars were, in some form or other, fashion freaks this year: from the reverse fin Dodges, the cock-eyed Chryslers and the neo-classical free-standing headlamp Imperial. The Plymouth doesn’t initially seem all that out of the ordinary. Then you realize that the Dodges were pretty clean in general. And the Chrysler wasn’t too ugly if you didn’t look it in the eye.
Something is remarkably out of proportion with the Plymouth. For one thing, there’s a healthy dose of the “crab legs” tread stance that make many a 1950s General Motors car seem like a sumo wrestler with small feet. In an era in which Pontiac was leading the way of showing off your shoes by pushing them to “wide track” dimensions and offering 8 lug exposed aluminum drums to dress the whole thing up, the Plymouth seems decidedly retrograde.
And then there’s that Science Fiction face. The 1959 Buick opened the door to many an aggressive face, and the 1961 Plymouth wasn’t the only furrowed brow scowling out of showrooms across the United States in 1961. But it was the one that possibly caused the most nightmares.
As we pull back from those furrowed eyebrows, I can’t help but notice how inharmonious the whole front end is. The grille has a “pinched waist.” The hood starts to flow down and then abruptly stops. Then there’s the cheese grater grille pattern with that gold emblem. I’m surprised I got this close to take a picture. At any moment it looks like this face could come alive and devour me in a torturous death. I don’t think a 361 Wedge V8 slumbers behind that hood. I think seventeen rows of sharp teeth lie behind there. Tell my mother I love her and I died doing what I loved: Photographing strange beasts in the wilds of South Berkeley.
As we flee, umm, move on to a examination of the disconnect between the front and rear, we notice the lantern jaw of a front bumper that dangles like a shelf off of the front end. Also questionable is the choice for convex curves that end with…
…Concave rear fenders. Concave rear fenders that seem to attempt to mimic the much more expensive Imperial by tacking on the tail lamp clusters to the rear fenders. Not exactly the “free standing” units from a Crown Southampton, and a far less an elegant solution to boot.
But like most alien races, the 1961 Plymouth was working with superior technology. The base Slant 6 was the most advanced 6 cylinder available in the big 3 cars that year, still in the infancy of developing its reputation of being an indestructible source of power and economy. There was a wide variety of well regarded V8 engines, from the work-a-day 318 V8 all the way to the SonoRamic Commando 383 V8 that could launch the relatively light Fury to 60 in the mid 7 second range, with all day longevity to cruise well over 100. The Torqueflite was already the standard of Torque Converter based automatics.
Like a true menace to polite society, the angry Plymouth could handle circles around any Impala or Galaxie and had a tighter structure less prone to squeaks and rattles as it aged, thanks to Uni-Body construction. And there was that oddball highback drivers side bench seat and square steering wheel. What’s harder to believe is this isn’t as bad as it would get for full sized Plymouths in the 1960s.
We’ve all heard the details of how the 1962 Plymouth and Dodges went from these 119 inch wheelbase proposals to the actual 116 inch “Plucked Chickens.”
I wonder if I’m the only person who thinks the end result was far better than one could expect after the matinee horror movie the 1961 models had been. Too bad the public didn’t feel the same way at the time. Although the 1962 models share some of the same elements of the 1961, they are far more tidy than one could hope for from the previous year.
It’s amazing what a design misstep the 1961 Plymouth was compared to just about everything else for sale that year. It is also one of those designs that could only happen in the era of mindless movies fascinated by aliens and giant lizards and insects destroying small towns. Maybe Virgil Exner was a big fan of Godzilla and in between sketches he popped into a local matinee and thought what he saw on the big screen was a good face for a car? I’m stretching here. But I thank him, and those loyal Plymouth buyers that looked beyond the face of these bizzare aliens of Highland Park.
We’ve yet to really understand aliens. More often than not they come in peace and offer us solutions to our problems. The Plymouth offered us zippy performance, tight handling and uni-body construction as the way of the future. These were values we wouldn’t embrace in our mainstream family sedans until the 1980s. We should understand and thank Mothra… err… Fury for all that it did to move us forward.