Curbside Classic: 1972 Plymouth Satellite Custom–The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

(first posted 12/26/2012)    Here’s a little secret; just promise to not tell anyone:  Inspiration for writing a Curbside Classic can sometime be pretty elusive.

When you find a great car, the question to consider is,  how do I present this?  Sure, I could tie it to some goofy or bizarre story line–and every one that involves my family is quite accurate– but it may not be the right vehicle.  Do I want to wax eloquent, or tear it to shreds?

Then there is this Satellite.  At first, it truly excited me, but then I started to (over)analyze it.  Taking a long drive after finding a car can do that.

Still, I kept thinking about this Satellite, and its qualities and demerits.  To borrow from Sergio Leone, this nearly immaculate, baby-blue Satellite is at once good, bad, and ugly.

In keeping with the spirit of Sergio’s infamous flick, let’s take them in order.

The Good:  There is actually quite a bit of good in this particular Satellite.  In a bit of symmetry, JPCavanaugh once found a ’74 Satellite that was a real Thanksgiving turkey (here), and this Satellite was found on Thanksgiving Day.  Ironic?  Not really; this Satellite is more of a Christmas ham–doesn’t it almost appear to be smiling at you?  Satellites of this vintage are no longer frequently found in the wild, and even reruns of Adam-12 don’t feature frequent sightings of their ’71 Satellite.

The road to finding this Satellite was a circuitous one.  After I’d taken the family to the annual Thanksgiving Day parade in downtown St. Louis, which features such nifty creations as this souped-up shopping cart (the scaffolding in front of the old courthouse doesn’t help, I know)…

…and the “Grinch-illac”, we headed toward my in-laws house (you met my father-in-law here).

Road construction necessitated a detour, and thus did the car gods guide me to this 34,000-mile Satellite.

Plymouth restyled the Satellite for 1971, and the new two-door and four-door Satellites were rather dissimilar in appearance, and rode different wheelbases.  Earlier this year,  CC covered a 1971 Road Runner (based upon the two-door Satellite) here.

Sales of the 117-inch wheelbase, four-door Satellite, including both base and upscale Custom models, increased to 47,767 in 1972.  Among the 1972 mid-size offerings from the Big Three, the Satellite Custom was both the lightest (at 3,318 pounds) and the least expensive (at $2,848).  In contrast, Ford’s Gran Torino was almost 170 pounds heavier, and Chevrolet’s Chevelle $43 more expensive.

Exterior styling is a highly subjective matter, but to my eye the Satellite is the most attractive of the three.  Its design may not be the most memorable ever, but it’s much more pleasing than

Photo by Paul Niedermeyer

the bloated, restyled-for-1972 Torino.  If wearing white makes one look slimmer, you certainly couldn’t prove it by this poor Ford.

The Satellite was also more visually pleasing than the bug-eyed Chevelle that was being hawked by Chevrolet dealers.

Unlike these days of 50-shades of-gray interiors, there was a time when blue interiors were quite prevalent. Despite my previous lack of fondness for them, this one really makes me nostalgic.

It appears that one could even trace the 318 cu in (5.2-liter) powered history of this particular Satellite.  That’s always a good thing for those so inclined.

The Bad:  Every rose has its thorns, and so does this ’72 Satellite.

Generally speaking, the biggest involved sales:  Despite being highly competitive, the Chevelle outsold the Satellite by a factor of two; the Torino beat it by a factor of three, excluding wagon and two-door production.

It was a total sales rout. We’re not talking about a few-odd-thousand cars difference; in fact, not even  large fraction of a difference.  This was a difference whose magnitude translated to annihilation, and undoubtedly Chrysler found it demoralizing.

To put things into perspective, the Valiant-based ’72 Plymouth Scamp sold 49,470 units.  When a two-door Valiant is outselling your bread-and-butter mid-size sedan, things are bad.

One measure of a car model’s success, or lack thereof, is the percentage of units sold to fleets.  After watching “Toby” Halicki’s movie The Junkman recently (as well as too many episodes of Adam-12 as a youngster), I suspect a high number of these Satellites were sold to fleets.  Because fleet cars aren’t exactly known for being treated like precious objects, that does not bode well for their longevity.

Although I’ve opined that its styling was superior to that of the Torino or Chevelle, I suspect it also worked against the Satellite.  The Torino was obviously a Ford, and the Chevelle obviously a Chevrolet.  The Satellite was obviously…what?  Except for the wheel covers on our example, it simply doesn’t shout “Plymouth” in any discernible way.  Several of our highly knowledgeable editors and commentators have noted that in general, Chrysler Corporation’s styling lagged behind the competition.  Might this be the case with today’s Satellite?

Even if this one doesn’t look like a Plymouth, the Satellite did finally evolve into the Plymouth look; of course, it might have been mere familiarity, as this creature lived on until 1978 as the Plymouth Fury.

When deciding whether to attend my twenty-year high school reunion a few years ago, I realized I had forgotten about several classmates–and my class numbered only forty-three.  About ten days prior to spotting this ’72, I saw a ’71 Satellite sedan, in avocado green with the dog-dish hubcaps. My initial reaction was, “Damn, I forgot Plymouth made those.” Sadly, I was unable to stop for pictures.

These Satellites, like some classmates, just don’t seem to be very memorable.  That’s too bad.

The Ugly:  Over the years, Chrysler Corporation has entertained a reputation for building cars that are like scratch-off lottery tickets: Either you get a winner or a dud, with no real gray areas.  While I do not know where this poor, wonderful Satellite rates, it certainly has some ugly traits about it.

First, look at this tail light very carefully.  It has the same basic shape as the ’71 version, but look at the two vertical dividers on those of the 1972 Satellites.  They comprise the entire difference between the two, and what holds them on?  Big-headed screws!  It really looks like Plymouth had a batch of leftover tail lights and didn’t know what to do with them.  I can almost hear it: “Hey, Lonnie, put down your doobie and lookie here!  If we take a few screws and this chunk of plastic, we can take these ’71 lights and turn them into something really snazzy for ’72.  Who’s ever gonna notice?”

Couldn’t a highly creative engineer in Chrylser’s renowned engineering department have devised a more elegant way to attach two slats?  This sure as hell wasn’t done by any stylist or engineer worth their salt.  Even the piece on the left doesn’t look vertically aligned.

These slats really make the tail of this Plymouth look gap-toothed and ugly.

Another observation: This car isn’t so much ugly as awkward.  That might be a bit of a stretch for some of you, but it screams at me.  Look at the middle of the lower grilles and bumpers of the ’72 Satellite and the ’63 Ford Galaxie. Notice that curled-lip look?  Can you name another car with a similar design trait?  It might create an assertive appearance, but the similarity just screams at me.

I cannot decide if this is a coincidence, or if Plymouth simply reverted to an eight-years-old Ford design element.  But wait–Plymouth even put their name on the end of the hood, just like Ford did.

Overall:  I would drive this Satellite in a heartbeat.  Other than a few minor scuffs on the corners, it is in very good shape, with a drive train that is nearly immune to abuse.  Still, I have a nagging feeling of uncertainty about this car–but why?  Apparently I am not alone, at least according the sales numbers.  But is my apprehension about this Plymouth similar to what people tend to feel about things unfamiliar, like public speaking?  Or is it based on something intangible that cannot be easily defined?

My guess is that both the uncertainty and lack of sales mostly boil down to an eight-letter word that begins with a P.  And that is unfortunate.