Vintage Comparison Test: 1961 Chevrolet Impala, Dodge Dart, Ford Galaxie – Which One Of These Does Not Belong?

(first posted 7/5/2017)           A few weeks ago, J P Cavanaugh penned this great “compare and contrast” post on the 1961 Dodge Dart and the 1961 Chevrolet Impala.  Now, let’s turn the clock back and take a look at the January 1961 issue of Motor Trend, which featured an in-depth comparison of these two cars, along with the Ford Galaxie.  Did their conclusions back in 1961 mirror our perspective 56 years later?

First off, there was an interloper among the “Low Priced Three,” which had traditionally consisted of Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth.  But with the arrival of the Dart in 1960, Dodge elbowed into the Low Priced Full-Sized Category, utilizing a reskinned Plymouth to grab sales volume.

For Sales Managers at the Dodge Division, the move was a “success” since more units were sold and overall Dodge volume was up a whopping 135% in 1960 versus 1959.  The problem, of course, was that the cheapest Dodge took a whopping 75% of the total brand volume for 1960, lowering the average transaction prices at Mopar’s traditional “step-up” brand.  The damage at Mopar’s traditional “value” brand was even worse: sales of the standard Plymouths (Savoy, Belvedere, Fury) plunged approximately ~40%, as buyers shifter either to the Dart (“better” brand for the same price) or the newly introduced compact Valiant.  So, in the reality of 1960, the Dodge Dart became Mopar’s most successful entry into the Low Priced Full-Sized field, beating the standard Plymouths by 69,736 units (323,168 Darts to 253,432 Plymouths).

Poor Plymouth.  They tried valiantly (pun intended) to fight back for 1961.  At the rear of the car fins were gone, replaced with “Buck Rogers”-style tail lights.

Around front, an unusual new look was deployed.  Though the design was seen as peculiar at the time, the ’61 Plymouth did ultimately prove inspirational to designers at Toyota’s upscale Lexus division…

But these Plymouth enhancements didn’t matter to Motor Trend.  Given the Dart’s sales success in 1960, it was logical for Motor Trend to test the Dodge, instead of the full-size Plymouth, for their test of the 1961 versions of America’s “low-price leaders.”

Even though sales in the Compact Segment were surging, the core of the U.S. car market was still the traditional Full-Sized Segment.  Buyers were presented with the very American concept of “more for the money”—roomier, more comfortable cars with starting prices that weren’t all that much higher than the cost of the compacts.  Plus, the “big cars” could be had with and array of V8 engines, giving them added power and smoothness.  The buyer simply had to decide the trade-off between performance and economy.  To that end, Motor Trend examined Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford full-sizers equipped two different ways: with the “economy” V8s and with more potent V8s.

All the way back in 1961, Ford was migrating toward the “whipped cream” ride with corresponding “marshmallow” reflexes.  Motor Trend lamented that the full-sized Ford had gone from being one of the best handling cars in its class to one that felt even sloppier than it actually was.  That ominous trend would get worse, with Ford products reaching their handling and responsiveness nadir in the 1970s.

Galaxie Victoria 2-door hardtops started at $2,713 ($22,108 adjusted) plus $409 ($3,333 adjusted) for the 390 4V V8 and 3-speed Cruise-O-Matic.  The Victoria 4-door hardtop started at $2,778 ($22,638 adjusted) plus an additional $306 ($2,494 adjusted) for the 292 2V V8 and 2-speed Fordomatic.  With exterior dimensions reduced a bit (the 1961 full-sized models being 3.7 inches shorter and 1.6 inches narrower than their 1960 predecessors) and a fresh, straightforward design, Ford was ready for the style of the 1960s.

Despite the updates, sales of the full-sized Fords dipped 3% to 791,446 units for 1961 (a challenging sales year that saw most makes lose ground).  Of the big Fords, the most popular series was the top-trim Galaxie line (sales up 21%), which accounted for 44% of the volume, followed by the base-trim Fairlane at 21% and the mid-level Fairlane 500 at 18%.  Full-sized wagon models accounted for 17% of 1961 full-size Ford sales.

Without a doubt, the 800-pound gorilla in the low-priced full-sized segment continued to be Chevrolet.  And for 1961, the full-size Chevy was thoroughly revamped.

In Chevrolet’s case for the Motor Trend test, the Impala 4-door hardtop was equipped with the largest non-performance V8 and the 3-speed Turboglide Automatic, while the Impala 2-door hardtop featured a more typical combination of the “step-up-from-the-six” base V8 and 2-speed Powerglide.

Like the full-sized Ford, Chevrolet also reduced the scale of its big cars for 1961, trimming length by 1.5 inches and width by 2.4 inches.  Styling was modern inside and out, with sweeping lines and more restrained trim.  Interior roominess was increased, with less transmission tunnel intrusion and a new deep-well trunk.  Chevrolet also focused on comfort and style, with nice trim (at least at the Impala-level) and a compliant ride—though the cushiness was achieved at the expense of handling responsiveness.

The Chevy-versus-Ford battle raged at full force when it came to pricing—the Impala and Galaxie were base priced within a few dollars of each other.  In Chevrolet’s case, the Impala 4-door hardtop started at $2,769 ($22,565 adjusted) plus $411 ($3,349 adjusted) for 348 4V V8 and 3-speed Turboglide Automatic.  The Impala 2-door hardtop listed for $2,704 ($22,035 adjusted) plus $306 ($2,494 adjusted) for 283 2V V8 with 2-speed Powerglide.

In the challenging sales year that was 1961, the full-sized Chevrolet did see volume decline 13% to 1,193,900—but that was still 51% more than the sales totals achieved by the big Fords.  The Impala series accounted for 491,000 cars (41% of the big Chevy mix), while Bel Airs sold 330,000 (28%), Biscaynes sold 204,000 (17%) and wagons sold 168,900 (14%).

Challenging was also a good adjective to describe the Dart for 1961.

On the one hand, Chrysler’s engineering expertise was well represented.  Overall, the Dart did handle and brake well by the standards of the full-size category.  But the “performance” D-500 383 V8  with the 3-speed TorqueFlite Automatic, as tested in the Phoenix 4-door hardtop, was felt to be “too much” for the Dart’s standard suspension tuning, and the test car was equipped with special police brakes in order to insure decent stopping ability with the big engine.  But how many Darts were ordered that way?  Most buyers seeking a power boost probably did not want to go to the extremes of special equipment.

The “base” 318 V8 mated to the Torqueflite Automatic, as found in the Phoenix 2-door hardtop in the test, was seen as more appropriate for the car.  It was quieter and smoother than the D-500, while still offering acceptable performance for the class.

Steering response was praised—requiring only 3.5 turns lock-to-lock, it was far tighter than the loosey-goosey systems in the Chevy (5.2 turns) and the Ford (4.5 turns).  Dodge was also given credit for the balance between ride comfort and handling, which was an advantage for all Mopars at the time.

But then there was the styling.  While Motor Trend didn’t want to tread into a “subjective” area (and ruffle the feathers of a major advertiser), it was clear that they weren’t enamored with the design of the Dodge.  After all, with the prominent fins and odd curves, the Dart screamed “Fifties” more than “Sixties.”  In that fashion conscious era, when yesterday’s automotive styling was the kiss of death, the Dart trailed the clean-lined Ford and sweeping Chevrolet designs.  But, hey, at least with the robust unit body construction, Dodge’s dated looks had the potential to last a long time…

Dodge charged $2796 ($22,785 adjusted) for the Dart Phoenix 2-door or 4-door hardtop. Torqueflite Automatic added $211 ($1,719 adjusted), while the high-performance 383 V8 with Ram Induction added $313 ($2,551 adjusted).  So the Dodge was priced competitively for the low-price field, but that just wasn’t enough.  Sales plunged for 1961, with Dart dropping 43% to 183,561 units.  Perhaps the devastating dip was due to the “challenging” looks, or maybe the arrival of the Valiant-based Dodge Lancer in showrooms (with inaugural year sales of 74,776).

The model mix was nothing to brag about either.  Unlike Chevrolet and Ford, where the “top” series accounted for the lion’s share of full-size sales, at Dodge the cheapest Dart, the Seneca, sold the most (87,701, 48%), followed by the mid-level Pioneer at 57,268 (31%), with the top-line Phoenix ranked at the bottom with 38,592 sold (21%).  Even Plymouth, with its funky face, was able to regain the lead in low-priced full-sized cars at Chrysler Corporation: 206,757 Plymouth full-size models found homes for 1961.

One saving grace for Dodge’s bottom line, and key profit driver for Chevrolet and Ford as well, was the ample availability of options for the full-sized models.  In the comparison test, Motor Trend repeatedly noted the broad array of customization options for all the cars.  The base prices listed in the article were truly just that: no options were included in the prices shown.  However, each of the cars sported common extras for the class, such as power steering and brakes, full wheel covers and white stripe tires.  A quick look at the pricing for popular accessories demonstrates how much could easily be added—and most likely was:

1961 Popular Option Prices (Adjusted)
Chevrolet Dodge Ford
Power steering  $75 ($611)  $77 ($628)  $82 ($668)
Power brakes  $43 ($350)  $43 ($350)  $43 ($350)
Tinted glass  $38 ($310)  $30 ($245)  $43 ($350)
Heater/defroster  $74 ($603)  $74 ($603)  $75 ($611)
AM radio  $62 ($505)  $59 ($481)  $59 ($481)
Electric clock  $16 ($130)  $16 ($130)  $15 ($122)
Windshield washers  $11 ($90)  $12 ($98)  $14 ($114)
Padded dash  $18 ($147)  $20 ($163)  $24 ($196)
Two-tone paint  $16 ($130)  $17 ($139)  $22 ($179)
Full wheel covers  $15 ($122)  $19 ($155)  $19 ($155)
White stripe tires  $32 ($261)  $33 ($269)  $34 ($277)


Re-visiting the test cars and adding the above-listed niceties would have added $400 ($3,260 adjusted) to the Chevy and Dart, and $430 ($3,504 adjusted) to the Ford.  Coupled with the V8 engines and automatics, these cars would have been out the dealer’s door in the $3,410 to $3,580 ($27,788 to $29,173 adjusted) range for Chevy, $3,407 to $3,720 ($27,764 to $30,314 adjusted) range for Dodge and $3,514 to $3,552 ($28,635 to $28,945 adjusted) for Ford.  Some lucky dealers would have even been able to get buyers to spring for the added cost, comfort and convenience of power windows at $102 ($831 adjusted, same price for each brand) or air conditioning at $364 ($2,966 adjusted) for the Chevy, $445 ($3,626 adjusted) for the Dodge and $436 ($3,553 adjusted) for the Ford.

Proving that the more things change the more they stay the same, it is interesting to note that these 1961 cars, in the high volume sedan segment of the day, would have cost roughly the same as cars in today’s highest volume sedan segment—the ubiquitous mid-sizers.  Equipped with the up-level V6 engines, the 2017 Nissan Altima 3.5 SR sells for $27,990, the 2017 Honda Accord EX V6 sells for $30,995 while the 2017 Toyota Camry XLE V6 lists for $31,370.  Of course, today’s cars are loaded with safety and technology features that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of automakers in the 1960s, but like the full-size models tested by Motor Trend in 1961, they simply represent the current state-of-the-art for everyday cars.  So then, as now, the primary purchase motivation would have been style and brand preference.

To that end, if I were choosing to buy a new full-sized car in 1961, my pick would have been the Impala, with the 348 4V V8 and Turboglide.  To me, it offers the best blend of style, comfort, quality and performance.  Which of these cars would you have brought home, back in the day?

Additional reading:

Curbside Classic/Alter-Autobiography: 1961 Ford Starliner 390-375 – Yes Pop, You Can Get A V8 Four-Speed 1961 Ford If You Really Must Have One by Paul Niedermeyer

Curbside Classic: 1961 Chevrolet Bel Air Sports Sedan – The Last Bel Air Four Door Hardtop by Paul Niedermeyer

COAL: 1961 Dodge Dart Seneca – Forward Look Family Heirloom by Guest Writer