1960 Valiant: the compact car that was to become a Plymouth
In 1957, Chrysler president Tex Colbert set up a committee create a car for sale around the world, to fend off imports in North America while regaining lost ground in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. Led by Plymouth General Manager Harry Cheseborough, 200 engineers in Detroit’s Midland Avenue plant worked on “Project A901” under security so tight many thought it was a government project. A few leaks escaped (20 prototypes were built, with 57 experimental engines racking up 750 million test miles), but most were surprised by the result.
One of the Valiant’s predecessors was the Chrysler Falcon show car. Mark Vaccaro wrote:
The Falcon had a 276 cubic inch overhead-valve Hemi V8 engine with five main bearings and a cast iron block and heads ... connected up to a two-speed PowerFlite automatic. The differential had a hypoid final drive (3.54:1 ratio) with semi-floating drive axles. It was, needless to say, rear wheel drive.
The front suspension used individual unequal-length upper and lower control arms, coil springs, and hydraulic shocks — no torsion bars. The rear suspension had the usual rigid axle and leaf springs.
The idea was to make a smaller, lighter car that did not sacrifice much comfort or luggage space — not merely a scaled-down mid-size, but a car with superior handling, an attractive appearance, and an efficient engine, all benchmarking European models. Styling chief Virgil Exner sought to make sure the Valiant did "not look small or tiny from a distance," with original styling that eschewed oversized fins.
Russ Shreve noted:
The Valiant was one of the first cars to have its suspension tested for loads and stress by computer. IBM computers were used to greatly cut development time by testing competing designs electronically rather than making each part and testing it by hand. Designs not failed by the computer were then built in prototypes.
The Valiant was also one of the first vehicles to be tuned for lower noise by computer, work normally requiring many mathemeticians working for months. Computers were used to find electronically where and why parts would resonate or echo with road or engine noise and vibration. An October 1959 magazine said that "the Valiant may well be the quietest small car ever made" and that "Chrysler is building more than just a smaller car. Instead, it appears to be a revitalized approach to basic transportation." Given the massive success of the Valiant, and the transfer of improvements to other vehicles, this seems to have been exactly right.
When they were launched in 1959, the 1960 Valiants were well engineered, and sales were strong both in the US and internationally. With brand new alternators, a hot new engine, and radical Virgil Exner styling, the Valiant had a torsion-bar front suspension which at the time was hard to equal. Daniel Stern commented, though, “Build quality was somewhere between shoddy and sloppy. There were some engineering goof-ups, too; search the valiant.org history page for the word “embarrassing.”
As with just about all 1960 Chryslers (but no 1959 Chryslers!), the Valiant used an integral body and frame welded into a single solid structure; the body was strong, light, and resistant to twisting.
The Valiant had the smallest wheelbase of any Plymouth produced since the 1930s, at 106.5 inches, but the overhang was immense by present-day (or contemporary European) standards, with a 184 inch long body. The grille took cues from the Chrysler 300; the 1959 Studebaker Lark ended up being similar.
The interior was spacious, with more leg room than the Ford Falcon or Chevrolet Corvair, which came out at around the same time. The interior was comfortable and well styled, not nearly as spartan as competitive cars. The manual transmission was a close-ratio three-speed with a long throw (too long for some drivers to reach second, even in the pre-seat-belt days, according to Daniel Stern), while the automatic had a pushbutton control (with a lever for Park). Gauges and controls were well designed and easy to learn and operate.
The Valiant had a surprisingly tight feel, especially compared with the 1970s Valiants and Darts, with soundproofing. Driving an existing 1960 Valiant is still an amazing experience; it is more responsive by far than a 1970s slant-six Valiant, and while handling is competent, the ride is that of a larger, newer sedan. The Torsion-Aire suspension was quite advanced, with unequal-length control arms and torsion bars up front and the de rigeur leaf springs in back.
Engines and powertrain
The 1960 Valiant's engine was advanced, and nearly brand new. The 225 cubic inch version produced more power than the Chevrolet and Ford compacts' engines, while the 170 was both competitive and economical. One key to its success was the 30° slant, which allowed room for a modern and efficient intake manifold.
With an automatic, zero to sixty times were claimed at 16.7 seconds, though Road and Track reported a 13.9 second time. Chrysler tested two 1961 models, with similar mechanicals, in a four hour endurance run, where they had average speeds of over 95 miles per hour - and gas mileage of around 12 mpg (an achievement, at those high speeds). In a later test at 40 mph, they achieved over 30 mpg. These weren’t carefully worked over, with handmade engines — both cars were chosen randomly.
On the custom side, a Ram-Air, HyperPak equipped Valiant managed to lap Daytona at over 122 mph, beating the Corvair and Falcon by a large margin. (The Hyper-Pak was offered briefly as a dealer-installed option producing 148 horsepower.)
The TorqueFlite automatic transmission was a new setup based on the original, with a lighter aluminum casing and a more compact design, resulting in a savings of 100 pounds.
Body and suspension
The 1960 Valiant was two feet shorter, one foot narrower, and three inches lower than the 1960 Plymouth; doors were thinner than competitors, so that the interior was larger than cars of similar width, and it had 25 cubic feet of luggage space.
To prevent rust, Chrysler dipped all body parts in seven chemical baths, including one of zinc chromate. Still, misaligned body panels led to water leaks and rust through water collection, which may have consigned many of the first generation to the crusher.
Two trim levels were sold in 1960, the V-100 and V-200, both in four door sedan and wagon form; wagons were sold with two and three rows of seats. Colors were silver-gray, blue, green, white, and black; V-200 buyers could also get red.
V100 used a multi-colored, nylon-faced, acetate-based seat cloth in a free-form block pattern with gray vinyl bolsters; V-200 used a similar materail in a brocade-like pattern with fine metallic threading for highlights and borders of grained vinyl. Interior trim colors on V-200 were coordinated with exterior paint. V100 had rubber mats, V200 had color keyed carpet; trunk mats in both cases were gray rubber.
V100 had one color for seats and door panels, while rear shelf, door garnish molding, and dash metals were color keyed to the body; V200 had blue, green, and red interiors. V-200 used a two-tone steering wheel with bright horn ring, while V-100 was blue-green with a medallion horn button.
Don Gardner, writing in the Plymouth Bulletin, said that a scaled down version of the Torsion-Aire front suspension system from full-size Chryslers was used, and confirmed that the Valiant was one of the first cars to have its suspension tested for loads and stress by computer. There was little brake dive and acceleration squat, with light manual or power steering. Left-hand-drive models had a steering box in front of the steering linkage, so that the pitman arm, idler arm, and steering knuckle all swung in the same direction, with a similar arc.
Those who drive an original Valiant may be amazed not just be the handling and ride, but also by the quiet interior. This was done partly by the exensive use of sound proofing in the floor, roof, and firewall, and contributed to its solid feel.
Chrysler President (for a brief time) William C. Newberg wrote:
The Valiant is not an imitation --an American-built copy -- of the small imported automobile... or of any other American-built car. It is not a little “convenience” car to park in one corner of your garage and to use just for errands and short trips to the super-market, the playground, and the PTA. It is not a stripped-down, cut-down box on wheels with just enough horsepower under the hood to give barely adequate performance.
... The Valiant is a completely new idea in automobiles. It has been designed as a high-efficiency, high-performance economy car to fill all the motoring needs of the modern American family -- and to fill them in style. The Valiant four-door sedan will seat six passengers in comfort. And it will have plenty of space for luggage in the luggage compartment at the rear.
The Valiant is a rugged car. Its unitized body makes it remarkably tough and quiet -- and it has passed its endurance tests with flying colors. The Valiant is getting the same rustproofing treatment as our other lines of cars. And that means, as you heard yesterday, that protective coatings are applied in seven separate and distinct dipping operations, supplemented by six intensive spray applications. It is also getting fully as much sound-proofing as our other lines, to make it a remarkably quiet performer.
The Valiant is an economy car -- and it will be priced competitively with all other American economy cars -- but we are definitely not economizing on its construction. It is just as rugged, durable, and quiet as our other cars. We have not trimmed down essential parts or shortcut any operations merely to save weight.
It is powered by a brand -new six-cylinder engine - - an engine which is the most efficient of its kind ever developed. This engine has the horsepower to meet all motoring needs. With this engine the Valiant will get away from a traffic light fast if a driver likes to get away fast. It will hold its own in safety on a turnpike. And it will deliver the acceleration to meet driving emergencies under all driving conditions. We will announce the horsepower of this engine just before public introduction of the Valiant. At this time I can tell you it will be fully competitive - -and then some -- with the horsepower of the other economy cars being introduced by our major competitors.
This engine will provide the kind of performance American motorists like -- and at the same time it will be highly economical. The Valiant engine can get 30 miles to the gallon of gasoline in highway driving --and even better than that when the factors of speed, driver skill, temperature. and road surface are favorable.
... We told our engineering staff they had complete freedom to design a new car -- as long as it met a few simple requirements, based on our market studies. Here are those requirements as we gave them to our engineers:
- The car would have to be built at low cost -- the lowest cost of any Chrysler Corporation cars.
- It would have to provide low operating costs for the motorist.
- It would have to furnish a high degree of roadability, driveability, and controllability.
- It would have to be a complete family car -- suitable for safe, comfortable, long-distance driving as well as city driving, and with ample luggage space.
- It would have to be a car people could be proud of, with no loss of prestige for the owner - - a car that could be considered a fine car in the economy field.
- And -- above all, it would have to be new and different.
... I remember that in 1933, when I joined the Engineering Division, experimental work was being done on a small car. And from then until now, year after year, development of small-car components and over-all small-car design has been continuous. Then in the early 1950s, as Mr. Colbert has pointed out, our strong traditional interest in highly functional smaller cars led us to bring to market a series of Plymouths and Dodges with relatively short wheelbases and roomy interiors.
Over the past quarter century we have designed and tested virtually every known type of engine, transmission, and suspension for possible use in small cars. This experimental work has included, for example, a V-6 engine and a pancake six with opposed cylinders. As a result of all this work with smaller cars, when we decided to design and build the Valiant we had behind us a lot of solid research and development relating to the engine, the automatic and manual transmissions, the suspension and many other components that would be needed in a car of this kind. We knew the right direction to take -- and we knew enough to avoid taking some wrong turns. Without the many years of planning and experimentation our engineers devoted to small-car development, we could never have moved as rapidly as we did to bring the Valiant to market.
Plymouth Valiants at valiant.org • Dodge Dart • Inside Chrysler: 1960 Valiant • How Valiant and Dart Almost Killed Plymouth
See “Valiant Through Advertising: Launching the 1960s” • Valiant and Barracuda 1960-69 • Valiant and Duster 1970-76