Largely based on Jim Benjaminson’s book, Plymouth 1946-1959
How did they get those names?
Lanny Knutson wrote: You can find a Cranbrook Drive, Concord Street, and Cambridge Avenue between 7 Mile Road and 8 Mile Road (West). Rod Miller added, “Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, MI is a private day and boarding school founded in the early 1900s. Many of the auto executives’ children went there.” A related girls school is significantly named Kingswood.
The Plymouth Cranbrook, Cambridge, and Concord made their debut in 1951, a year when war demands nearly eliminated auto production and restricted access to key metals. The cars were not new; the Cranbrook was the 1950 Special Deluxe, just as the Cambridge was the Deluxe. The very first Plymouth Cranbrook appeared on December 11, 1950; the similar but shorter-wheelbase Plymouth Concord started on December 12.
Body styles were unchanged from 1950 and the prior names, which had been with Plymouth since prewar days. Concord buyers could buy a three-passenger business coupe, a fastback two-door sedan, or an all-metal two-door Suburban station wagon; the Plymouth Savoy made a sort of debut as the high-end Suburban model.
The Cambridge had only a club coupe and four-door sedan, while the Cranbrook had a club coupe, four-door sedan, convertible club coupe, and Belvedere hardtop. The Belvedere was an attempt to match the new Chevrolet Bel Air, which proved to be very popular; Jim Benjaminson pointed out that Chrysler had built a handful of two-door hardtops in 1946, but the body style was dropped until Buick and Cadillac started production in 1949.
The 1951 Plymouths had a new front clip, with a more modern, fast-looking sloping hood and grille. The hood sloped, and the sailing ship hood ornament was pushed back onto the top of the hood, with “speed waves” added. The Plymouth shield was restyled for the year, too. Name badges were on the front fenders. Carried forward were two elements that competitors had dropped: windshields made of two flat panes of glass and bolt-on rear fenders.
A newly updated instrument panel put all the gauges into one group; a light, artificial finish replaced woodgrain. A clock could replace the Plymouth medallion to the right of the radio. Turn signals were moved onto the steering wheel hub, pushing the ignition to the right; the emergency brake became the familiar (until 1975) T-handle. Electric wipers were now standard on Plymouths.
Broadcloth became standard on some models, with others coming in vinyl. A colors department worked on harmonizing interiors and exteriors.
All of the 1951 Plymouths had the same engine, a 217 cid flathead six pushing power through a three-speed manual transmission to a Hotchkiss rear. Engines used Oilite fuel tank filters and had electric automatic chokes. While Ford and GM promoted their V8 engines, and even today enthusiasts stand by their love of those V8s, extra cylinders did not add much to the power; at 97 horsepower, the 217 cubic inch six was not as far as one would expect from the 110 hp Ford V8 engines. Indeed, Plymouth did well on NASCAR against the leading V8 Oldsmobiles and Hudson Hornets. Only Ford fielded more racing cars than the 52 Plymouths in NASCAR, and Plymouth ended up in second place behind Oldsmobile for the year.
New for the 1951s were Oriflow shock absorbers, which provided variable resistance based on the severity of shocks, which confused some owners — they “failed” the then-standard test of pushing the bumper down. Concords rode on 6.40 by 15 inch Goodyear tires.
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, with the final car tipping the scales at around 3,200-3,400 pounds.
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.
Taxi fleets flocked to Plymouth’s special cab deal, which put in a 10in clutch, heavier duty chassis springs, shock absorbers, seat springs, and a battery heat shield protecting a big 100amp-hour battery.
The 1952 Plymouths looked similar to the prior models, with minor changes including round hood medallions, a revised hood ornament, and script instead of block letters on the nameplates. The Cranbrook Belvedere was given new roof and paint treatments.
Inside, upholstery materials were changed (except on convertibles) and a gray metallic finish was used for the instrument panel instead of woodgrain. Cambridge and Concord had a neutral textured fabric weave, while Cranbrook had blue or green textured weave. There were other minor cosmetic differences, including a larger speedometer needle which made it hard to figure out the exact speed. The optional turn signals had a single indicator; the electric wipers were made faster.
Radio grilles were installed in all Cranbrooks from January 1952 on, painted to match the panel; Cambridge, Concord, and Suburban buyers had to put in a grille as well as the radio itself.
While the engines were given the same rating, new heads improved actual performance.
Using Cyclebond brake shoes (which eliminated rivets) increased breaking power, giving Plymouth better stops than competitors. But Plymouth still had no automatic transmissions, and only added an electric overdrive (for speeds over 25 mph) midyear in 1952. The overdrive unit itself was automatic, and included a “kickdown” feature; and it could be retrofitted to Plymouths going as far back as 1940. Science and Mechanics went so far as to start their review with the words, “If you want a new Plymouth you want it with overdrive ... With the otherdrive locked out, the 1953 Cranbrook has a noisy hardworking engine...” The top speed was 84 mph (with the speedometer showing 92).
Tinted "Solex" glass also appeared for 1952; and door handle guards were brought out for the aftermarket in the spring.
MoPar Autostop was brought out in the summer; a gearshift lever-mounted control held the car still, releasing when the accelerator pedal was depressed.
In NASCAR, Plymouth hit a third place in the final points standing, behind Hudson and Oldsmobile, despite only having a flat-head six against those companies’ V8s. Plymouth and Oldsmobile both had three first-place finishes, while Hudson had an amazing 27. Lee Petty stuck with a Plymouth in 1952, but for 1953 moved to Dodge to get a V8.
The 1953 cars lost 4 1/2 inches in wheelbase, but the interior was larger and the length fell by a single inch. The bodies were completely different from the 1952 models, and two hundred dollars cheaper. The public wanted bigger cars, and other makers provided them; Plymouth was also sticking with the six-cylinder, now reaching its second decade but boosted to 100 hp through a small increase in compression and possibly other changes. There was no power steering or automatic transmission, features offered by Ford and Chevrolet; but despite these issues, Plymouth managed to sell 40,000 more cars in 1953 than in 1951, a record year.
The Concord was dropped, simplifying manufacturing; Cambridge was the lower end, Cranbrook (including Savoy and Belvedere) the higher end.
The curved one-piece windshield made visibility better side-to-side, while a lower hood and ornament provided better forward views and larger rear and side windows helped vision in those directions. A simpler grille was put in, and chrome was cut back as much as possible, given that government restrictions reduced the amount of chrome available when the cars were designed. Door handles were switched to a simpler pull type, rather than the traditional twist action; and entry and exit were made easier with different door openings.
Another change was the move of the gas tube, going to a position above the rear bumper, to make it easier to fill the car; but despite a relief valve, spilled fuel became a problem.
A changed two-toned instrument panel included brows to prevent reflections; the gauges were carried over, while the glove compartment was moved to the center of the dashboard. Door trim panels were two-toned.
Part of the new body was a toughened frame, fully boxed with four cross-members, six inches wider than it had been; the rear axle was moved forward, and the frame sat lower in the rear, providing more legroom. Nonparallel control arms up front reduced body roll, and a front sway bar and splay-mounted rear springs increased stability. Rear springs had five grooved leaves, with the upper ends separated by waxed fabric.
Science and Mechanics magazine noted that, even without overdrive, the shorter 1953s increased gas mileage by around 2-3 mpg at most speeds, with a slight drop from 40-60 mph. Adding overdrive, which was introduced midyear in 1952, brought increased gas mileage to the tune of 1.75 to 5 mpg across the full range, and an overall 18.7 mpg on their controlled city-country run. Overdrive’s impact was felt more at higher speeds, going from a 2 mpg savings at 60 mph to a 4 mpg savings at 66 mph.
The 1953 Cranbrook accelerated quickly than the 1952 in most ranges. Getting to 60 mph took 18.9 seconds, beating the 1952’s 21.2 seconds “but still not what you would call a hot pickup.” 0-50 acceleration was done in 13.9 seconds. With overdrive, the top speed hit 90 mph (registering 100 mph on their test car's speedometer), but handling degraded substantially at 70 mph. There was relatively little body roll, with good tracking when crossing railroad tracks. Comfort was called “good” on rough surfaces, with less wind noise than average.
Comfort features included a center-mounted glove compartment, “excellent visibility,” a sun visor that slid on its shaft to cover more ground, and very good headroom, hiproom, and legroom. The usable luggage space was increased by 29% over 1952. The rear seat dome light was only activated by the right front door, which the magazine claimed was to prevent drivers from waking up sleeping babies. Shortfalls were mainly in fit and finish; the complete coat of paint underneath, present in 1952, was absent in 1953, and they strongly recommended getting the optional undercoating.
A semi-automatic transmission was finally brought out in April 1953; the Hy-Drive was a stopgap for 1954’s automatic. It used a torque converter instead of a flywheel; the driver would shift into low, get some speed, manually shift into high, and then allow Hy-Drive to do its work. The unit shared oil with the engine, resulting in longer-spaced but bigger oil changes.
The six-cylinder engine was not far in horsepower from the Chevrolet or Ford V8 engines, at 115 hp and 110 hp, respectively. For those wanting more, numerous aftermarket companies sold dual intake manifolds.
1953 would be the final year for the Cambridge and Cranbrook, despite record sales. Cranbrook would be replaced by its Belvedere and Savoy sub-models, while Plaza would nudge Cambridge out for 1954 (but only lasting until 1959). Perhaps the name changes were designed to call attention away from the lack of real change; however, given the high sales, there seemed to be little reason behind them. Once again, Chrysler gave up a piece of its history and moved forward into a bleak new year.
* Using the US Bureau of Labor Statistics' online calculator. Neon and Intrepid came with many standard features not available on Cranbrook including shoulder belts for all seats, rustproofing and undercoating, overdrive, radio, heater, two side mirrors, clock, three-speed wipers, directional signals window washer, airbags, etc.; Intrepid included automatic transmission. Cranbrook was weighed dry; Neon and Intrepid with fuel and fluids.
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