Repair Shop Classic: 1950 Plymouth – Hearty Meatloaf

There are many American dishes that have gained international fame and demand. You know the ones; hamburgers, hot dogs, buffalo wings, pizzas -from NY to Chicago style- and even BBQ ribs. Then, there are other American plates not quite so known abroad, like chicken pot pies or meatloaf. In my case, it wasn’t until I finally moved to the US mainland in 1990 that I discovered and developed an affinity for such dishes, in particular meatloaf.

Why meatloaf hasn’t made it beyond the English-speaking world is beyond me. Maybe it’s because it isn’t on the menu of some US fast food chain; the starting point for international fame. As far as I know, there’s no McMeatloaf (and I secretly hope there’ll never be).

In any case, ever since I left the US in the early 00s, I occasionally have a craving for the dish. And whenever I visit the US, I know what my itinerary will be; get a rental as soon as I land in LAX, and after seeing my LA friends, take the I-5 towards SF to visit my old work colleagues in the City by the Bay. Halfway through that drive, I know my obligatory stopover will be at none other than Pea Soup Andersen’s in Santa Nella, where I always order a hearty serving of meatloaf.

I absolutely love diners, and while I also enjoyed the cosmopolitan goods California offered -from Thai to Moroccan food, etc.- I always cherished visiting traditional diners. And during my LA days in the 90s, we used to see them all with my roommate from Wyoming. In those outings, I learned about those dishes that never found their way into a McDonald’s menu, from Patty Melts to French Dips and more. But in the end, few things competed against my liking for meatloaf.

It was somewhat different after I moved to the City by the Bay. For some reason, American diners were not quite common in good ol’ SF. I used to go with my pals for lunch and try all kinds of gourmet-like or ethnic dishes; artisan pizzas, Asian cuisine, etc. But rarely any diners. There was Mel’s Drive Inn, of American Graffiti fame, which we did visit a few times. Though I only remember myself ever ordering meatloaf. Then again, my pals probably just preferred the meatloaf they grew up with at home. Hard to compete with Mom’s cooking.

So, yes, I like the dish. And please ignore the parsley in the online-sourced image above. If you remember The Flintstones well, the only purpose of parsley is to decorate servings and be dutifully thrown away before eating.

Maybe it’s too traditional a dish, or just plain too common, but no gourmet channel devotes much time to meatloaf recipes. Unless they muck it up with something like sriracha sauce or any other odd choice. Gourmets just can’t leave food alone, you know?

In any case, meatloaf is just there, being quietly fulfilling, and not calling much attention to itself. Qualities that sort of apply to this meatloaf-gravy-colored 1950 Plymouth. After all, it was the age of the sensible and practical Chryslers, passionless vehicles for families whose only desire was reliable transportation. A hearty companion, there to serve faithfully and to satisfy its owner without fuzz. A known and dependable quantity.

Before we go any further, a brief break. Plymouth fans must be wondering what in the world is wrong with the meatloaf-gravy 1950 model I found in San Salvador. Well, that’s just Salvadorian creativity, and their ever-curious efforts to keep their rides in presentable fashion once the original trim is lost.

For non-Plymouth fans, here’s another 1950 appearing in a local car show. It’s in a far better presentation and much closer to what the car would’ve looked like when new.

Hard to imagine nowadays, but when the new Chryslers of 1949 arrived, the carmaker was Detroit’s number 2. Back in 1936, Walter P. Chrysler’s company had surpassed Ford in sales; an astonishing feat for the then decade-old enterprise. It had remained ever there, second only to all-mighty GM. But by the late ’40s changes were a-coming; Ford was gaining steam, under the direction of Henry Ford II and his Whiz Kids, while GM was redoubling efforts to remain number 1.

Meanwhile, the US public had an appetite for the cars it had imagined during the doldrums of war. Sleek new shapes for the future of the automobile had appeared in publications such as Popular Mechanics and the like. Nash and Hudson would oblige, while GM and Ford were about to offer more restrained versions of such visions. However, those eager to see daring and bold new forms would find none at Chrysler.

As it was Chrysler’s habit, much engineering had gone into the new ’49 products. “Lower outside, higher inside, shorter outside, narrower outside, wider inside” was the company’s description for the new models. Regardless of later appreciation, in ’49, ’50, and ’51 the new line sold in record numbers; credit to the company’s reputation for engineering and owner loyalty. However, Ford crept awfully close to taking the number 2 spot in ’49 and ’50, a sign that change was in the air.

Much blame for the dowdy appearance of Chrysler’s ’49-’51 models is placed directly on the company’s then-president K. T. Keller. But then again, Chrysler’s mantle had been engineering and efficiency, and a conservative approach to design had worked wonders for over a decade. Why change habits at that point? Businesslike practicality had placed the company at number 2, not fancy wardrobes. By logic, evidence showed the method worked. Who was to know that fashion was going to take over the business?

That said, Keller is definitely behind the shape of the ’49-’51 line, as he directed their development. As it’s known, his affinity for no-frills design is legendary, mostly captured in a speech given in 1948 at the Stanford University School for Business: “… there are parts of the country containing millions of people where both men and women are in the habit of getting behind the wheel… wearing hats.”

Chrysler styling was nominally under the guidance of Henry King. Though according to Chrysler senior modeler Bill Miller, Keller was very much involved in the process: “Keller used to come into the clay rooms and pull up a stool and sit down beside the model, sometimes for hours, directing the styling of cars under development. He wanted his own way and he usually got it.” Miller also confirmed that Keller had a talent for expletives, so we’re talking about working environments of ‘yore.

Chrysler’s stylist had other worries besides Keller. The styling department, such as it was, was located on the top floor of the Engineering building. Not surprisingly, the considerations of engineering got priority over all else.

For the ’49 line, some of the practical Engineering-Keller decisions meant the vehicles would have high roofs and upright seats, with a big cowl vent for fresh air. Passenger comfort was the top priority. Also, rear fenders were bolted, for easy replacement and repair; while the tall old-fashioned hood remained to provide easy access for maintenance.

In the end, the whole line was not only conservative in its approach, but it was also uniformly applied throughout the company’s realm; giving every single Chrysler product a Plymouth-esque look.

Thanks to hindsight, we know that by the mid-’50s Chrysler’s bottom line was to be in freefall. Not that Keller was blind to market shifts. In due time, he got himself a new tailor by the name of Exner. However the US market was red hot at the moment, and after that slip, the company never again enjoyed the success it had from ’36 to ’51.

But all that is beyond the scope of today’s find, to which we now turn again. So, how did this meatloaf-gravy-hued Plymouth come to appear in one of San Salvador’s humble repair shops?

In the case of Plymouth, the brand probably gained notoriety back in the early ’40s, when local news covered a ’41 model driven by 3 Americans on their way to Cape Horn in Argentina. It was quite a stunt, and the Plymouth fared rather well the whole ordeal. The model’s ruggedness and prowess over non-existent roads were often highlighted in local coverage as it crossed the continent. In the above image, here are the Americans driving over Oaxaca’s dirt roads, in Southern Mexico.

Chrysler products were sold in El Salvador by the Franken family, themselves of US origin. Although it has appeared in previous posts of mine, it deserves to be mentioned again; the fancy Art Deco showroom of the Franken’s survives to this day in San Salvador, and its Auto-Palace sign still crowns the structure. The area surrounding the building is now in run-down condition, though the structure still serves of use, and is occupied by small auto-supply stores.

So, San Salvador used to have Plymouths and this is a rare survivor. No mystery there. Oddly, I spotted this one in a repair shop in a low-class neighborhood, half a block away from where I had found a ’55 Chevrolet wagon. Kind of a weird coincidence actually. What kind of neighborhood was this? San Salvador’s old American iron area?

With the car being inside a repair shop there was no way to avoid interaction. Since I’ve faced a bit of everything during my finds, I was ready for anything. Best scenario? The car would be for sale and they would just let me shoot at ease.

Indeed, the car was for sale! No big surprise there. Of my finds, about 30% suddenly turn out to be ‘on sale’ once I start taking pics. Luckily, this time the sales pitch was short-lived, and I was given free rein to take photos while I occasionally inquired about the vehicle.

As I have shown in previous posts, Salvadorians have a peculiar penchant for customizing, and this Plymouth is no exception. I suppose that as the original trim got lost or damaged, some prior owner got creative and added many chromey bits at whim. I’ll just say that he must have been a Harley Earl admirer.

The odd trim makes it hard to pinpoint which Plymouth exactly we’re seeing here, though I think it’s a Special De Luxe. And while the added chrome is annoying, the body seems remarkably rust-free. Should one desire to do so, it should be easy to get this Plymouth back to its original condition.

The interior is remarkably clean as well, and it looks mighty inviting too. I can suddenly see where K. T. Keller and Chrysler’s Engineering priorities were, and I’ll even admit that I have a sudden urge to sit in this old cabin. With a hat over my head, of course.

Also in this shot, you’ll notice some brake components, which is the reason the car sits in makeshift stands. As the repair man told me, the shop hadn’t found a number of parts to fix the brake system. I’ll admit I was briefly tempted to hand them my Ebay account info just to see this bit of automotive-meatloaf back on the road. Luckily, I found the will to restrain myself.

Here’s a bit of more gravy; not that tasty, but it will suffice. Chrysler’s dependable, and satisfying -for the times- L-Head 6-cyl. engine, providing 95 hp at 3500 rpm. I’m told it works, and I suppose it does so since those spark plugs look rather new and ready to fire.

I’m not familiar with old inline engines, but to my eye, this looked rather large and very mechanical. A window to a bygone age. It was quite a nice sight and got me thinking of the time when most US cars were powered by such mills.

Just like meatloaf isn’t the thing most associated with cooking channels, an old Plymouth Sixer isn’t the first thing that pops to mind when American cars of the fifties are mentioned. Not a problem with that in my book. After all, I’m sure this Plymouth’s service must have been rather satisfying to its original owners. A bit hard to imagine for me now, but I come from a rather spoiled generation.


Further reading:

Curbside Classic: 1951 Plymouth Cranbrook – Automotive Immortality

Cohort Classic: 1950 Plymouth All-Steel Wagon – The First Modern Station Wagon