Curbside Classic; 1964 Dodge Polara Convertible – Engelization Almost Complete

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Poor Virgil Exner; poor Dodge. The early sixties were such a rough time for them both; they were so misunderstood. Or they just misunderstood the American buyer. Or both, realistically. But the damage from the 1962 models was done, and now the clean-up crew, headed by new Design VP Elwood Engel, had to get Dodge (and the other Chrysler lines) sanitized and looking less alien. By 1964, the job was pretty much finished, although it didn’t exactly result in a very compelling car. But it was bland and safe. 

Dodge 1962 Polara conv

We’ve covered the whole 1962 fiasco here and several other times. And while I thought the ’62 Plymouths and Dodges were a bit…different when they first appeared in 1962, there were certain compelling aspects. They certainly weren’t boring; beat looking at 1962 Rambler Classics any day.

Dodge 1962 440 hdtop br 600

And when our neighbor two houses down traded his ’55 DeSoto for a red ’62 Dart 440 four door hardtop, I got plenty of time to see it up close. Refreshingly different, actually.

Most folks think the ’62 Dodge got the short end of the ugly stick, and I admit the Plymouth goes down a bit easier. But in recent times, I’ve become only increasingly fond of the Dodge, perhaps because of that early exposure. Part of that may be that it’s just such an exceptional period piece, but as I’ve read more about Exners, I’ve come to appreciate more what he was trying to accomplish. Undoubtedly, the ’62s might have looked better on a longer wheelbase, but much of the styling details would likely have carried over, and the Dodge is a veritable palette of Exner-isms.

Dodge 1962 Polara conv rq

Let me perfectly clear: I’d take that white 1962 Polara convertible (sporting a non-Exner add-on light fixture on the front fender) over our featured 1964 Polara in a heartbeat. In fact, the longer I look at this car, the more I really want it. It’s anything but bland, which is what Chevrolet and Ford were dishing up that year by the boatload.

Plymouth 1961.asymmetrica

To find the origins of all the details of the 1962 Dodge would require a more in-depth investigation of all of Exner’s projects at the time, so we’ll save that for a 1962 Dodge CC. But his 1961 Plymouth Asymmetrica is probably the richest source of its front end. The only surprising thing about the production ’62s was that none of the asymmetrical details made it to the end. Now that would have been something.

Plymouth 1960 Valiant 1960

Of course much of the rest of the 62’s design direction had already been seen on the 1960 Valiant, except the front end. Exner’s big mistake was to introduce radically new styling on a compact, and then reprising it on the large cars in 1962. That’s considered a cardinal sin. Of course, I’m not sure holding off until 1962 would have really helped the ’62s.

It’s also a bit surprising that the rather less-than stellar reaction to the Valiant wasn’t enough to turn the design for the ’62s toward a safer direction. But by then it was probably too late anyway.

dodge 1963 polara_convertible_1963_01_m

It’s been firmly established that Exner did the bulk of the work in designing/sanitizing the 1963 line, although Engel did make a few last-minute changes here and there to move them more into his square world-view. We know he squared up the trunk of the ’63 Valiant. Did he also do anything with the ’63 big Dodge (above), like square up its boxy rear end? And who’s responsible for its front end, with those prominent outer headlights?

This major stylistic transition era has been covered quite thoroughly in Jim Cavenaugh’s 1963 Chrysler CC. And what apparently happened is that two similar front end designs by both Exner and Engel happened to converge at the same time.

Chrysler Turbine Car Frt Qtr Blue Bk

Engel is credited with the 1963 Chrysler Turbine car, which reflected the 1961 T-Bird in overall concept. Its slab sides and unbroken horizontal lines make that all-too obvious.

Ford La Galaxie_03

Its prominent front end headlights (and rear end ) are clearly from the 1958 Ford La Galaxia concept, which is credited to Engel.


Given the similarities, I’d always assumed that the 1963 Dart front end must also have been a last-minute change by Engel.


But Jim found this series of shots from the Chrysler design studios that show the ’63 Chrysler under development. Jim pegs the time of these undated images to be still from the Exner era, given the unorthodox headlights on the Chrysler. On the wall behind it are renderings of the proposed ’63 Valiant and Dart. The Dart front end is very close to the final design, except for a second set of inner headlights set lower and into the grille. Or is that a proposal for the ’63 Dodge full-sized cars? And what about the third remaindering on the left? It looks just like the Valiant, but with an alternative front end, and a rather conventional one at that.

Well, we may not be able to unravel the mystery of exactly what happened during that messy transition. Exner was kept on for some time as a consultant, but if he really had anymore influence after Engel appeared is highly doubtful.

Dodge 1963 f

The 1963 Dodge front end is obviously quite similar to both the ’63 Dart and that rendering on the wall. Is it possible that Engel consciously adopted Exner’s front end design for these on his Turbine car, so as to make it look like part of the family? Or?

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Those prominent headlights would have one last fling for 1964, but toned down considerably.

Dodge 1965 Polara conv

It was the transition to the dog-bone front end of the all-new 1965 big Dodges, which were of course the first cars to be fully developed under Engel, in all of their rectilinear splendor. The last vestiges of Exneruberance was gone, forever.

Dodge Coronet 1965 wagon rq

Well, not totally, yet. The 1965 Dodge Coronet was essentially the 1962-1964 Dodge re-branded as an “intermediate”, and sporting a 117″ wb for all versions other than the wagons, which kept their original 1962 116″ wb throughout. Chrysler couldn’t afford to “Engelize” the rear end of the wagons, so the Niedermeyer family 1965 Coronet wagon sported a highly authentic Exner rear end,

Dodge Coronet 1965 wagon f

as well as a very bland Engel front end. It was the most extreme manifestation of a hybrid of the two. And needless to say, these Chrysler B-Bodies were never quite genuine “intermediates” thanks to their having started life as a slightly downsized full-size car. They were roomier than the Fairlane by a healthy margin (ask me how I know), and of course sported optional big block engines. It was an expedient solution to re-brand them as intermediates, and helped save Chrysler’s bacon as it recuperated from the dark 1962 era.

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The 1963 and 1964 Dodges had a wheelbase stretch to 119″ (1962: 116″), which was actually the same as the big Chevrolet and Ford of the era. And this Dodge Polara matched the Chevrolet in over-all length; well, it was one-tenth of an inch shorter, actually. So with their increased size in 1963 and 1964, these were legitimately full-sized cars.

Dodge 1962 880 conv br -05

When I say “Dodge”, I’ve been referring of course to their primary “full-sized’ line of cars, which were dubbed Dart and Polara in 1962, and 330, 440, and Polara in 1963-1964. But Dodge was also selling a premium-sized car too. When the sales of the downsized-full sized 1962 cars were obviously heading into the toilet, Dodge rushed out the big Custom 880, an amalgam of the Chrysler Newport body and the 1961 dart front clip.  It sat on a long 122″ wb, and clearly bridged the low-end full-sized market with the next step up.

Dodge 1964 880 conv. br-04

For 1963, the 880 got a new front end, and in 1964, the rear end was Engelized too. Frankly, I’d forgotten that these 880s were even available as convertibles, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Their 1957-era windshields gave them away as rolling relics of the early Exner era, just like the Imperial. This 1964 880 convertible listed for $3264, or some 10% more than our featured Polara, but almost exactly the same as a Polara 500, which had buckets as standard. A bit confusing, all of it. But that was Chrysler at the time.

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If the 880 convertible was a veritable unicorn, this Polara rag-top wasn’t exactly a common sight ever either. These Dodges were very weak sellers compared to the ubiquitous Impalas and Galaxies. Finding this nicely-kept original Polara convertible at the beach near Half Moon bay, CA was about as unexpected as seeing a marlin (the fish) in the ocean out past the beach there. Its a classic California-mobile; original; a wee bit faded, not a hint of rust anywhere, and obviously garaged by its primary owners for decades. Now it’s an extremely cool car to drive for lunch at equally-cool Sam’s Chowder House.

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Although it’s not a Polara 500, it does have split front seats with a fold down arm rest, a much nicer arrangement than the plain benches in Impalas and Glaxies. It was a classic Chrysler touch: forward-looking, if not fully appreciated in its time. Let’s face it: the 1962 116″ Dodge and Plymouth were actually a great size, avoiding the excess of America’s ever-growing full size cars with plenty of room, and better performance and handling thanks to trimmer weight. The predicted the downsized GM B-Bodies with their 116″ wheelbases perfectly.

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1964 was the last year for Chrysler’s push-button controls for its excellent Torqueflite automatic transmission. This car most likely has the polysphere 318 V8 under the hood, but if one wanted more performance, Dodge had the answer, in spades. Two versions of the 383 were the first steps up, and the might wedge 426 was next, in a sane 365 hp version, or the ram-inductions versions with 415 and 425 hp.

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The Polara’s dash is pretty basic, and some of the chromed parts show signs of the underlying yellow plastic base. That goes along with the California sun-bleached look.

Ideally, I’d have taken a few more shots, but I’m out. And so is my story. I wish it had been a ’62, but until one appears, this Engelized version will have to do. And quite nicely, at that.


CC 1963 Chrysler New Yorker: Virgil Exner Comes Full Circle With Some Help  by Jim Cavenaugh

CC 1963 Dodge Custom 880: The One That Got Away  by Laurence Jones