(first posted 6/14/2015. updated 6/13/2021) 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. 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.
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.
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. Appreciating the Dodge may be an acquired taste. 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; regardless, the Dodge is a veritable palette of Exnerisms.
I’d take that white 1962 Polara 500 convertible (two photos up, sporting a non-Exner add-on side marker light the its 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.
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.
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.
It’s been firmly established that the sanitized 1963 line was styled under the direction of Exner at the very clear behest of new CEO Lynn Townsend. The original plan had been to just change the front ends of the Dodge and Plymouth. But Townsend, who had never liked the ’62’s, pushed hard to have the whole body to be worked over, substantially changing the roof line to a more Ford-like one, and the rear end extended and squared off.
When new Design VP Elwood Engel saw them for the first time, he is said “These are good-looking cars. What’s the big deal?” The only known change to these cars were an extra trim piece to be added at the outside edge of the Dodge grille, but production problems nixed them in the end anyway. It showed that Exner was quite capable of doing conventional cars, when forced to.
But there’s also the curious convergence of designs from both Exner and Engel in the form of the Turbine car.
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.
Its prominent front end headlights (and rear end ) seem to be inspired by the 1958 Ford La Galaxia concept, which is credited to Engel.
Given the similarities, I used to assume that the 1963 Dart front end must also have been a last-minute change by Engel. Not so. The ’63 Dart front end with its prominent headlights and tucked-under grille was finished before Engel ever set a foot at Chrysler, and it was not touched by him. I have to assume that Engel decided to use a similar front end for the Turbine Car in large part because of that ’63 dart front end, likely more than any lingering thoughts about the La Galaxia. The Turbine Car has more Exner in it than is typically credited.
The 1963 Dodge front end is obviously quite similar to both the ’63 Dart.
Those prominent headlights would have one last fling for 1964, but toned down considerably by Engel.
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.
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,
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 realy “intermediates” thanks to their having started life as a slightly downsized full-size car with essentially full-size interiors. 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.
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 length to match their interiors room, in 1963 and 1964 these were legitimately full-sized cars.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Dodge Custom 880: The One That Got Away by Laurence Jones