When I think about things I consider to be stylish or “cool”, one factor has remained crucial and essential: the lack of apparent effort. Effortlessness, or the appearance of it, can be very attractive when I think about people and things whose qualities I admire. Many of us want to seem like our best, externally obvious qualities just come oh, so naturally as to seem baked into our DNA. Let’s consider the opposite: aside from athletes, recording artists and performers with elaborate concert dance routines, and others whose apparent effort is manifested in small feats of strength which are to be admired, others who show just how hard they’re trying to do or be something (versus just quietly going about their business and getting it done) can come across as weak. I realize this is all subjective.
In elementary school during music hour, we used to sing a song called “Putting On The Style” written by one Lonnie Donegan while accompanied on the piano by our music teacher, Ms. Maggie Zerbst. The lyrics to this fun ditty describe a handful of individuals who go to great, apparent pains to impress other people. Some sample lyrics as just found on the internet are as follows:
Well the young man in the hot rod car
Driving like he’s mad
With a pair of yellow gloves
He’s borrowed from his dad
He makes it roar so lively
Just to make his girlfriend smile
But she knows he’s only
Putting on the style
There’s another entertaining verse about a girl who keeps doing all this stuff to try to get the attention of guys. In both examples in this song, both youths were simply doing too much. You know “doing too much”. We all know at least one, colorful person who does, acts, dresses, or talks in a manner that’s (at least) just a little bit “extra”. These can be Drama Queens (and Kings). These are extroverts who will do anything to try to command your attention, regardless of any unreceptive signals you might be sending out. These are individuals you secretly wish had a “pause” button, or a power cord that you could unplug. Hashtag: #doingtoomuch.
Let’s now look at the ’62 Plymouth Valiant. Now, before I get down to the basic premise of what I’ve started to say as it relates to this car, I want to qualify that I have great respect for this model. Valiant sales carried the day for Chrysler fairly consistently once it had gained traction in the marketplace starting with the second-generation cars that made their debut for ’63. The Valiant, so significant a car for Chrysler Corporation that it was established as its own, separate make for inaugural year of 1960, was one of the original compacts, alongside the Ford Falcon and Chevrolet Corvair.
It took on the successful, domestic compact Rambler and Studebaker Lark, as well as evergreen compact import Volkswagen Beetle. It was conventionally and solidly engineered, with its engine in front (unlike the Corvair), and it was also reliable and competitively priced. It was the only one of the original compacts from the Big Three to last all the way through model year ’76, with the Corvair having expired after ’69, and with the Falcon making a brief, one-year run in 1970 after having been upgraded to Ford’s midsize platform.
First-year sales for 1960 were very good, with 194,000 sold – most of which (106,500) were uplevel V200 four-door sedans. However, this was against 250,000 rear-engine Chevy Corvairs and a whopping 435,500 Ford Falcons. The Corvair, with its innovative configuration and novel engineering, was (should have been) the oddball, in a sense, even if the public’s faith in mighty GM’s engineering had not yet been shaken. Yet, the Chevy outsold the Plymouth, at a time when Chrysler’s engineering prowess was still revered among those in the know. Only $141 separated the base prices of the entry-level versions of each make, from $1,912 for the Falcon, to $1,984 for the Corvair (both being two-doors), to $2,053 for the base, V100 Valiant four-door (there was no two-door Valiant offered for ’60) – a range of 7%. So, what happened? I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but I have one theory.
I consider both the first-year Falcon and Corvair enduringly attractive cars, in different ways. The Falcon had a natural charm and simple beauty in its honest shape, detailing, and family resemblance shared with other Fords.
The European-esque Corvair, in any bodystyle, was strikingly styled, with a shape that had just the right blend of lines and curves, with exotic looks to match its novel engineering.
Then there’s the 1960 Valiant.
Draped over all the basic goodness of good packaging and solid engineering is that shape… a visual cornucopia of lines, circles, swoops and fins, and that hideous “toilet seat” on the trunk for its first two years. Mercifully, the trunk was smoothed out by the time our featured ’62 was produced, but looking at this car is not unlike seeing a reasonably attractive person wearing the worst possible attire that does him or her no favors. Crocs with socks. A braided rat-tail. Acid-washed, high-waisted jeans. Nooooo!!!…
I have a thing for underdogs, and for Chrysler Corporation, specifically, as the first, three Dennis household cars since the beginning of my life were a series of Plymouths, including an actual Valiant variant (a ’71 Duster), the Valiant’s pretty-but-abhorrent successor (a ’77 Volare), and with me almost having been born in the front of a ’72 Fury sedan in the middle of a terrible, Michigan blizzard while my parents were en route to the hospital. However, looking at the styling of this ’62 Valiant, I can’t help but wonder what might have been in terms of its initial success and impact within the Chrysler stable (especially in light of Chrysler’s disastrous downsizing of their full-size models for ’62) had this car not been doing, visually, entirely too much.
I’ll step back for a second and look at the styling of other cars of the period, and yes – there were some overwrought doozies, for sure. In my mind, however, part of the point of an entry-level car is to provide transportation that is basic in function, execution, and in how it looks. With its visual gymnastics, I can imagine many Chrysler loyalists who were looking for a second car for their households questioned their loyalty after looking at the wild sheetmetal of the Valiant. Sales dropped to 143,000 units for ’61 despite the addition of a two-door coupe and hardtop, and then rebounded to 157,300 for ’62, which changed from the prior year only in minor details (including the aforementioned revised trunk).
I realize that I tend to write often about the more subjective aspects about cars, as in their styling, cultural relevance, and other qualities I perceive in these cars that seem to mirror some aspects of the human condition. Perhaps that’s because those are the aspects of cars that I consider most interesting. In the case of the early Plymouth Valiant, I can identify the basic goodness of what lies beneath an exterior that, if just a little less effort might have been apparent, might have made this car that much more attractive in the eyes of its first wave of buyers.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Friday, April 16, 2010.