(first posted 11/27/2013) Having been born in the mid-eighties, one might be forgiven for an unfavorable impression of American cars. I’m sure some CC readers in their late twenties and and early thirties may have had a different experience; yet, only when I was well into adulthood did I begin to appreciate good ol’ fashioned Detroit iron. Somewhat uncommonly, Chrysler has taken first place as my favored purveyor of low, long and wide variety classics. I always have to be different.
Along with technical originality and rarity, it’s the styling of the Elwood Engel cars which particularly inspired my appreciation for Mopars. These unibody beauties sold in lesser numbers than their full-framed competition when new, and were absent throughout my youth in New York’s North Country twenty years later, having rusted away before my first formations of solid memory. These machines’ tastefulness and quality makes them genuinely novel for someone my age: like most kids born under Reagan, my experience with Chrysler products amounted to carpooling in minivans, witnessing the destruction of police cars in action flicks and being given minor cuts by interior trim in Neons.
After 14 years living in the nouveau riche suburbs of central Ohio, I recently relocated to Bloomington, IN, and finally have the chance to see curbside classics on a regular basis. As further reward for my patience, one of the first to catch my eye was this hardtop sedan (my favorite body style). I initially assumed it to be a’67 or ‘68 Chrysler of some variety, but a little research revealed it to be a 1966 Newport. The car is driven daily from its home a quarter mile from downtown Bloomington, where I see it parked most nights, to the square outside the Monroe County courthouse, where I photographed it this past August.
For those readers who are unaware, Chrysler wooed Elwood Engel (of 1961 Continental fame) away from Ford to replace Virgil Exner who, under duress, headed the redesign of the hastily downsized (and unsuccessful) 1962 Dodge and Plymouth, but is more fondly remembered for his landmark restyling of the 1957 cars (these “Forward Look” sedans are most famously represented by a 1958 Plymouth Fury in Stephen King’s Christine.) It is said that Exner’s reassignment and replacement was the result of Chrysler president William Newberg, who was soon gone himself, wanting a scapegoat.
In writing this piece, I found that parsing the events in Highland Park between 1960 and 1964 was more difficult than I first expected, but CC regulars have covered this period to great effect here, here and here. Regardless of what readers know or believe about change in personnel, the shift in philosophy from curviness and excess to leanness and (relative) simplicity was readily apparent and affected Chrysler and Imperial, as well as Dodge and Plymouth.
The first cars designed purely under Engel’s tenure were the 1965 C-bodies: the Plymouth Fury, Dodge Polara/Monaco and Chrysler Newport/300/New Yorker. I won’t lie: I vastly prefer this style to that of the Exner cars. All the lines relate to one another and the shapes match: there’s none of the Forward Look’s Googie influence and none of the dissonance that characterized the Lean Breed Dodge and Plymouth cars. It’s like comparing Jackie Kennedy with Divine. Perhaps controversially, I even like the Fuselage cars which succeeded the 1965-1968 models, but that’s a story for another day (a day during which I happen across one of those notoriously brittle 1969-1973 cars).
The cars benefited from several years spent working the bugs out of the torsion bars, the Torqueflite and the unit body. Chrysler even deleted their famed push-button gear selector by this time. Whether this was to save money during manufacture or avoid a potential source of malfunction is unknown, but the decision was in keeping with the company’s new-found aversion to gimmickry.
Available engines in the 1966 Newport were the well-regarded B and RB block V8s. The B block 383 was available for all four years of the production run, in low compression two barrel carbureted form for the Newport and medium compression, four barrel form for the 300. The 1965-only 300L coupe had a four barrel, 413 RB block V8, also standard on the New Yorker. The 440 replaced the 413 starting in 1966 and was optionally available in high compression “TNT” form for all three model lines. I’m inclined to believe this car has a 383 under its hood, given its lower trim level. I spy non-original dual exhausts, however, and would be surprised if the engine were all stock. Whatever is under the hood no-doubt easily overwhelms those 14-inch wheels, torsion bars or otherwise. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to ask the owner one of these days.
Some argue that these cars represent a loss of creativity in the face of conservatively styled competition from GM and Ford, but that sells these cars short. With the 1961 Continental’s original shape hidden under ever more decoration, Engel’s Chryslers carried that car’s chic design language into the second half of the decade, making them unique in their good taste and easily the best looking of their full-size contemporaries.
Looking at the car featured here, there are just two strong character lines running uninterrupted along the car’s long sides, tall windows with slim pillars and just enough discretely integrated jewelry to classify it as elegant rather than merely handsome (if you wanted “handsome,” you got a Rambler).
The low rear deck accentuates both the length and ample glazing of the design with the six-window, non-hardtop Town Sedan varieties providing the most emphatic expression of this shape,
looking a little like a stretched Mercedes Pagoda.
This high-modernism coincided with a return to quality and, for Dodge and Plymouth, parity in size with the competition. The C-body was given typical yearly refinements and a facelift for 1967 which included a new, rectilinear dashboard more in keeping with the design’s overall theme.
Less welcome changes were a slight softening of body contours beneath the beltline, especially in the rear, and a much thicker C-pillar with a reverse slant quarter window on the hardtop coupes. The six-window town sedan was sadly discontinued.
Ironically enough, this sleek embodiment of success for Chrysler coincided with GM and Ford’s return to curves, greater ornamentation, and eventually, neo-classicism. While an emboldened Chrysler charged ahead with an even purer, simple aesthetic for 1969, the market again shifted in the opposite direction and Chrysler found itself with a dud on its hands.
None of this should obscure our appreciation of the car pictured here. Apparently, others agree, as C-bodies seem to be gaining attention on the classic car market, mimicking the long-standing popularity of the 67-75 Valiant and Dart among enthusiasts. That these cars remain relevant to today’s sensibilities is a testament to Chrysler’s mid-sixties, rational approach to design and engineering, demonstrating an enduring appreciation for unique, thorough engineering matched with a stylistic balance of restraint and jauntiness. It’s what made Chrysler successful in the second half of the sixties, what gave Honda a leg up in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and what gives Ford a competitive advantage in today’s market.