The 1951-1959 Plymouth Belvedere: Body-on-Frame Belvedere cars
In 1951, Plymouth introduced the Cranbrook Belvedere; essentially identical to the other Plymouths except in trim, it was distinguished by numerous cosmetic features. In 1952, it was differentiated further, becoming the the only Plymouth different enough from the others to recognize at a distance, thanks to new roof and paint treatments. Jim Benjaminson wrote in his book, Plymouth 1946-1959:
The side window drip molding, rather than stopping at the belt line molding, swept down behind the quarter window, crossed over the belt line, then flowed down the fender-body seam (rear fenders were still detachable) to the rear bumper. When two toned, the color of the top cascaded across the deck lid as well, the moldings serving as the dividing line between the two colors. A "Belvedere" script was placed between the molding and belt line. The Cranbrook Belvedere was painted in one standard color, a metallic "Belmont Blue." Two-tone combinations, of which there were three, were optional.
The Plymouth Belvedere became a separate product line in 1954, a year in which Plymouth tried to distract buyers from the plain appearance of its cars with ornamentation.
The basic design of the car was conventional; the welded steel body sat on an arc-welded frame with double-channel box-section side rails and five crossmembers, with the convertible having an X-member design. The floor pan was channeled and ribbed, and box-section reinforcements were provided around window and door openings. A baked enamel finish completed the package.
The suspension used springs, similar to the Ford and General Motors vehicles of the time, while the rear sat on leaf-springs. Steering used a worm and ball bearing roller gear, with symmetric idler arm linkage and rubber-isolated pivots; ball-joint steering knuckles aided handling.
In 1955, Plymouth was revolutionized with new V8 power (from a Dodge engine), a true automatic transmission, and exciting styling which caught the eye through shape and form, complemented by ornamentation. It was a key year for Plymouth as sales shot through the roof. See our separate 1955 Plymouth Belvedere page.
Engines for 1955 were the standby PowerFlite 6 (117 hp, 230 cid), a new 241 V8 (157 hp), and a 260 V8 with 167 hp. Later, a four-barrel, 177 hp 260 was sold; both 260s claimed 231 lb-ft of torque at a mere 2,400 rpm, while the 241 claimed 217.
For 1956, a “true” Plymouth V8 engine would finally appear. Styling changes were relatively minor.
The 1957 Belvedere and its companion Plaza and Fury jettisoned the outmoded styling that had characterized Plymouth since 1950, and shot forward three years — “Suddenly, it’s 1960,” claimed the ads, and for good reason. GM’s famed styling boss, Harley Earl, was called onto the carpet when the Plymouth catalogue arrived at General Motors’ headquarters. Ford was caught equally off guard.
Chrysler Corporation had completely changed its car lines, dropping the bodies that had been brought out for 1955 and replacing them with the designs heralded as Virgil Exner’s best.
Unfortunately, the cars were rushed into production, and while they sold extremely well, they also made many enemies and permanently destroyed Chrysler’s reputation for quality and reliability. Rust was everywhere, parts broke off, and customers were lost. Chrysler would have been much better off in the long run had the 1957s bombed in the marketplace.
1957 was a major year for other reasons; not only did Chrysler regain styling leadership and lose its reliability reputation, but a new suspension system appeared which would keep Chrysler on top in handling until the mid-1970s. This was the torsion-bar suspension, a unique approach to a system on some high-end cars, including Packard and some European imports, but never on a mass-production, mass-market car.
The system, including redesigned rear springs, was called Torsion-Aire. It was carried through, with numerous tuning changes, into the 1980s, finally disappearing in 1989 with the last Chrysler Corporation rear-drive (and, for that matter, the last V8-powered) cars. The system allowed owners to easily raise and lower the front suspension, but more importantly improved both ride and handling. Critics proclaimed Plymouth and other Chrysler brands to be the handling champs in their classes for years to come.
1957 was also the debut of the all-important TorqueFlite automatic transmission, which opened up Plymouth to many new buyers who rejected both manual transmissions and the two-speed PowerFlite. As if to show that Chrysler was on a roll, the TorqueFlite dominated automatic transmissions for the next two decades, and was sold to both American Motors and to high-line European makes; technology from the transmission was reported licensed to Ford as well. The TorqueFlite would quickly earn a reputation for durability and efficiency which remains to this day, allowing automatic-equipped drag racers to win against manual-transmission cars.
For 1958, there were few apparent changes, and they were largely to address problems. Quality was dramatically improved, as it had been through the 1957 model year. The lower bumper pan was replaced by a lower grille matching the upper section, and real dual headlamps were built in, with the parking lamps moving to a small spot above the twin headlamps.
The 1959 Belvederes kept the 1957 bodies, with more changes. The slat grille was replaced by a new anodized aluminum egg-crate grille, with the Mayflower ornament (which was merged with the former Forward Look rocket) mounted on a black screen in the middle. The parking lamps (which doubled as turn signals) were wraparounds, a trend that would not be taken up seriously until the 1980s.
New fenders were designed to draw the eye to the car’s “eyebrows” and “floating” dual headlamps; an under-bumper air scoop was supposed to look like a jet intake. The fins were made smoother, accentuating the length of the rear, and were capped by stainless-steel trim. Numerous other changes were made to draw attention from the fact that the bodies were essentially the 1957s.
For the first time, the Belvedere was not at the top of the Plymouth pecking order. The special-purpose, high-peformance Fury took that spot, with the Sport Fury convertible and hardtop at the very top, followed by Fury (four-door sedan, four-door hardtop, and two-door hardtop), then Belvedere; Savoy sat on the bottom, with Plaza having departed. The Fury’s drop from limited-run specialty car to Belvedere replacement presaged a time when the Belvedere would be completely replaced by the Satellite; eventually the Fury name would sit on cars which had been Belvederes.
Big changes were in order for 1960 and beyond. The 1959 Plymouth Belvedere was the last of its kind. The flat-head six was in its final year for cars, the body-on-frame design was in its final year for Plymouth, the Mayflower was about to depart, and Plymouth’s long history was to take a sudden, rapid change which would lead to its demise. But first, there would be 14 more Plymouth Belvederes and the new Plymouth Belvedere Satellite.