Vintage Reviews: 1962 Dodge – Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

(first posted 12/7/2017)        Dodge was royally confused for 1962.  Historically seen as a slightly upmarket brand, competing with the likes of Pontiac and Mercury, Dodge shifted focus starting in 1960 and competed most aggressively against low-priced sister division Plymouth.  Therefore, like Plymouth, Dodge also centered its 1962 offerings on the new “downsized” full-sized cars.  While the shrunken ’62 Plymouth hardly qualified as a beauty queen, the smaller Dodge was even more challenging style-wise.  Even before launch, it was painfully obvious these new standard Dodge cars would be lost causes, so Chrysler’s Product Planning, Marketing and PR departments went into overdrive in a desperate attempt to make a favorable impression with buff book readers.

Motor Trend dryly noted that the new Dodge was smaller than the “senior” products had been in years, not a good sign for an all-new design targeting the semi-premium Medium-Priced bracket.  Nor was it good that the technical benefits of the new design so closely mirrored those of low-priced Plymouth, with little differentiation to support Dodge’s more upmarket aspirations.

Note that at the outset of the 1962 model year, these downsized cars were the “big” Dodges: the traditionally full-sized Dodge Custom 880 (with the ’61 Dodge front clip grafted to a Chrysler Newport body) arrived after the start of the 1962 calendar year as a desperate Product Planning ploy to have at least something in the Medium-Priced full-sized class where Dodge had typically competed.

Right out of the gate, in the November 1961 “New Car Issue” of Motor Trend, Dodge’s Marketing Department kicked into overdrive with an in-depth 12-page advertisement touting the new “Lean Breed” of Dodge.

This huge insert, with heavier paper stock and color images, was unprecedented, at least in Motor Trend, up until that point in time.  Virtually all other automakers ran single-page or double-page spreads, often in Black and White, and most typically featuring a glamourous beauty shot of the product.  Dodge marketers understood that simply focusing on looks of the new full-sized cars wasn’t going to be enough to attract buyers (in fact, the ’62 styling actually repelled many people), so they essentially inserted a detailed sales brochure into a buff book.  Not a cheap approach, but probably their best hope to appeal to car enthusiasts who might place more value on the engineering benefits of the new car than on its peculiar styling and smaller scale.

The Chrysler PR teams were also careful to serve-up convertibles for extended road tests.  Though the open-top body-style was usually the least popular in the line-up, in the case of the downsized Mopars, it was probably the best looking.  Hence, the PR fleet for Dodge and Plymouth was weighted toward drop-tops.

Dodge served-up a Dart 440 convertible with the 2V 318 V8 and Torqueflite for Motor Trend to test, and the buff book’s starter sentence summed up the enormous challenge of the new car: “our first glance suggested they’d sent us a Lancer by mistake.”  No brand should ever have its style defined by its cheapest product, especially when the intended buyers have more upmarket aspirations.

Dodge was undoubtedly conducting all sorts of “motivational research” studies to figure out how to best recover from the debacle of the downsized Dodges.

The convertible tested by Motor Trend was a tame set-up (odd given the “dynamic” Dodge brand positioning), and MT’s editors also noted that the handling characteristics seemed worse than before…. hardly a ringing endorsement.  At least the testers praised the nicely-finished interior trim and well-executed instrumentation.

But what the “Dodge Boys” really needed was some grunt, the kind of legendary power that would help cement Mopar’s performance image.  Thus, late in the 1962 model year, Dodge (and Plymouth) got the “Max Wedge.”

Engines like these rightfully earned respect from the performance crowd, though they weren’t suitable for daily street use.  And unfortunately nothing was fast enough to get away from the disastrous ’62 Dodge design.