(first posted 2/27/2012) Here I am again, resident defender of some underdog car (whether it be in looks, sales, relevancy, etc.) This time I’m going to go as far as saying the 1962 Plymouth was the best concept of what a full sized American car should be, fifteen years too early and in a questionable wrapper.
We’ve already covered how bad it got, at least in looks. The 1961 Plymouth full size models were pretty much the most cartoonish production cars of the 1960s, and managed to make the canted-eyed Chryslers and reverse fin Dodges from the same year look relatively sane.
We also know that what ended up at Plymouth dealerships in 1962 wasn’t quite what was intended. The well-told story of how Bill Newberg “overheard” that Chevrolet would further downsize its 1962 standard line (actually the Chevy II) led to a directive to downsize the planned Plymouth’s and Dodge Dart from their customary 119 inch span to a 116 inch wheelbase loosely based on the Valiant/Lancer bodyshell. (ED: Here’s a more complete look at what actually happened)
What Exner intended for his follow-up to the Forward Look ended up sacrificed, notably the curved side glass to eliminate the catwalk section in the body. Also notable is how much of a narrow track the prototypes had, which seems decidedly out of touch with where automotive styling was going.
So take my opinion with a grain of salt: What Virgil Exner really intended for these cars in looks was a lot worse than what actually appeared in the fall of 1961, at least for the Plymouth. And they did point to one future trend, the re-emergence of long hood, short deck proportions in American car styling that had been thrown out, in irony, by Exner with the wildly befinned second wave of the Forward Look.
The total effect seems half Valiant/Half Corvair. Notably there’s a start of the Corvair’s universal character line that almost encircles the large Plymouths, but goes missing on the rear quarter panel/door. On the Valiant it branched out from canted tail lamps and gives hips to the rear where it follows the radius around the rear wheels.
Ideally the presentation would have been leaner and crisper like the 1961 Asymmetrica concept. Thankfully one idea from the asymmetric series of cars was the lining up of bulges and trim to the drivers side. The 1962 Plymouths almost shared that ridiculous fate.
No, that’s not a styling clay left out in the sun too long. That’s what Virgil Exner intended to do. Anyways, at least the Plymouth (and Dodge Dart/Polara) accidentally showed a return to sanity in size, perhaps too early, and for too much money. At just over 202 inches long, they were once again around the size of standard Low Price 3 full-sizers only 7 years before, in the days when Chevrolets (in particular) didn’t start their quest to be cut rate Cadillacs.
And with the reduced size (and weight, now in the 3,300 to 3,500 pound range) all engines had a lighter load to carry. That meant the basic 225 Slant Six was possibly the liveliest of base big car sixes in 1962, and each incremental step in V8 power brought more fun, all the way into some quite furious parings of the 413 Wedge body and this body. A 361/305 equipped Fury was good for mid 8 second 0-60 runs, perfectly brisk for the times.
Combined with the lighter body and the last few years that Mopar didn’t decide to soften their Torsion-Aire suspension and you had some of the best balanced, best driving cars on the road. They were everything the 1977 B-bodies were to be, except in the looks department.
It’s quite obvious whoever thought the face of the 1962 standard Dodges was a good idea (or even good looking) was born and raised near the first nuclear waste site.
The Fury face is interesting, in the way some people are intriguing looking, but not hands down attractive. It’s not as angry and alien compared to Plymouths of the recent past, but it’s nowhere near normal. Although there’s a lot of delightful detail, like the inboard headlamps being the same size as the outboard “tunneled” headlamps that make it an interesting case study, instead of a Maalox moment.
And from the rear, the mounted pods in a concave shelf turned into what really looks like an ornate interpretation of the first generation Corvairs. It is less apparent on upper level Sport Fury models that had an Impala-like three tail lamps per side, but that break line between the upper and lower body is too obvious to ignore.
And it all but disappeared in the crisply tailored and squared off 1963 Plymouths. Gone were the awkward aquatic bulges and the semi wrap around rear window. All that remained was the athletic proportioning and similar size. And the more rational looks lead to more sales, but in the early 1960s, the traditional family car buyer still looked to outward size as a symbol of value, and Chevrolet sold about four Impalas to every Fury, even in the improved sales years of 1963-64.
So finally it was recast as what it was, one of those “just right” sized intermediates, in 1965. It retained the Belvedere name, but adding the intergalactic Satellite as top line models. Too bad they really didn’t take off. That’s the problem with trying to be different, and when that doesn’t work, trying to conform: You end up alienating both crowds, and then you have no audience. Plymouth would remain an also ran in both the Mid sized and Full Sized markets, from this point on, never to really recover any seriously competitive traction in either market.
It’s hard to cast the 1962 Plymouth as anything but the awkward good idea dressed in suspenders and a bowtie in an era of seersucker suits. It would take another 15 years and a few fuel crises, and the magic of Bill Mitchell to get the “Smart Sized” motoring concept right and ready for the motoring public.