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The Slow Death of Plymouth

Well, probably being the most 'bean-counter type' of the bunch of us, I'll give my best shot at explaining why Plymouth was eliminated. Take into consideration that the closest I ever was to Chrysler was working at the dealership level. Since then I've done market analysis, but I don't have any 'insider scoops.'

I don't think it was a single, major decision that killed it, but a lot of little seemingly insignificant things, that at the time seemed logical. Here's my thoughts.

1960--Dodge dealers get the Dart, built on a Plymouth body shell to have a low-priced car to compete with (not the compact Dart of 1963, but the big Darts). Seemingly a wise move at the time, this starts Dodge on a model for model competition with Plymouth dealers.

1970--Plymouth, not wanting the Barracuda transformed into a bigger, heavier car, spend the targeted dollars for the Valiant facelift on a coupe version instead (Duster) to replace the old Barracuda in spirit, and to compete with Ford's new Maverick. Dodge spends their money on a facelift for the Dart.

1971--Dodge, seeing what Plymouth did in transforming the Valiant into the Duster, wants a version. In a fair play exchange, corporate lets Dodge have a version of the Duster (Demon) in exchange for Plymouth getting a version of the Swinger (Scamp).

1974--In a cost-cutting move, Valiant drops its unique sheet metal and shorter wheelbase for the same shell as the Dart 4 door.

1979--In [probably] a move to maximize profits, as Chrysler is in finacial trouble, however this is speculation, as the new R-body full size cars are introduced (St. Regis, Newport, NewYorker), no Plymouth is launched, leaving the Volare as the largest Plymouth available. The Newport is advertised as "Now you can get a Chrysler for the same price as a Ford or Chevrolet" (Plymouth does get a Gran Fury version a year later).

1981--Reliant and Aries are introduced with the exact same price. This gives CP dealers bascially the same vehicle to sell, at the same market.

198?--Iacocca has a plan to merge with Ford. From what I've read, Plymouth would be gone. Lineup would be Ford, Dodge, Mercury, Chrysler, Lincoln. I don't know how serious talks were, but evidently, execs felt that there was too much redundancy of models, if it were to happen.

1983--Plymouth doesn't get a E-body (but does in 1985)

1984--Plymouth doesn't get a G-body (Daytona/Laser).

1985--Plymouth doesn't get a H-body (Lancer/GTS)

1987--P-bodies are introduced, and marketing says that for the first time, a Plymouth will be priced higher than a Dodge. (Shadow/Sundance). This lasts one year, until Plymouth dealers want an equally priced vehicle and get it.

1987--Chrysler buys AMC from Renault. The AMC dealer network is transformed into the Sport/Euro competitor and renamed 'Eagle.'

mid 1990s--Eagle is determined to be uneccessary, so Jeep will be merged with Chrysler dealers and move the franchises "upmarket" as the onslaught of Lexus, Infiniti, Acura has occured.

Now, let me add my commentary here.

First of all, if you want an upscale image for a franchise, you don't want cheaper stuff attached to the same name. ie, you can't sell Big Macs at a five star restaurant, or you loose exclusivity. Call it snob appeal, or whatever, its a fact of marketing. Hence the thought to separate Chrysler from Plymouth.

Now, one can argue that small town dealers carry Dodge, Plymouth, Chrysler, Jeep, Eagle, and that you can't separate the upper class from the lower class. True, however, this fact shows that product has been duplicated by the same models from Dodge and Plymouth.

In the mid to late 1990s, Chrysler had started a program to put Plymouth stalls in malls (does anyone remember this?). It was when Plymouth's advertising was white cars. Plymouth only, not Chrysler. I think this was somehow part of a plan to try to separate Plymouth from Chrysler, to give it perhaps a "Saturn-esqe" kind of image. Somehow, it didn't seem to work. I'm not sure if it had to do with franchise agreements, but I do know that CP dealers have an agreement to sell CP products and corporate can't just take part of one's products away and keep it named 'Plymouth.'

One of the things that finished Eagle off was the 300M instead of a new Vision. Keep in mind that the rest of the world knows only Chrysler, not Eagle, not Plymouth, not Dodge. The 'new' Vision was to be an international car to compete on a global basis, hence the shorter length under 5 meters (i think that's right). Since it really had to be sold as a 'Chrysler' in the rest of the world, I'm sure marketing thought, if we have to give a 'Chrysler-theme' to it for Europe, why can't we sell it as a Chrysler in the USA? Hence the birth of the 300M. With both Vision and 300M targeting the same market, cost cutters go to work, (it's their job!) and say that an Eagle version isn't necessary.

Now take that same thinking and apply it to the PT Cruiser. It has to be badged as a Chrysler in the rest of the world. Those financial people stick their noses in and say "since it's a Chrysler already, would if have more 'prestige' and perhaps a higher selling price if it was a Chrysler instead of a Plymouth in the USA?"

For entry-level cars, sales are generally to a younger buyer. The brand image has to be 'cool', not neccesarily the product that one is selling the younger person, but it has to reflect 'coolness.' Ask almost any teenager, or college kid what auto brands are 'cool.' Plymouth doesn't even rate. Why is that? Probably marketing decisions that were done in the early to mid 80s. It takes time to build up 'coolness.' Plymouth lost it sometime in the 70s probably. I know that this board is biased, but in all fairness, Plymouth's future looked like an uphill battle.

Could PT Cruiser have given Plymouth 'coolness.' Not sure. Something I've noticed, and I don't have market data, or any hard facts, but the people who think the PTCruiser are 'cool' aren't typically the younger crowd. The majority of people who are awe-struck with the PTCruiser are 40+ (again, this is just my observation--so I don't know how accurate data is--It's like people who want to remember being cool and young) So, if what I think I'm seeing is true, PTCruiser isn't something that would capture young-entry level buyers imagination, but middle-agers who perhaps might also want a 300M, or LHS.

I don't think it is any one of these thoughts or decisions that killed it, but all of them together. Kind of like a mountain is made up of grains of sand.

Keep in mind, that I didn't say I agreed with or disagreed with all the decisions being made, I just tried to be as unbiased as possible.

Response by Curtis Redgap

I think Mr. Minick's concepts are correct in their formulation. One or two small, minor ideas I might want to discuss, but basically no argument.  

The only thing I would point out is that he didn't begin his look at the decline of Plymouth early enough. I have said, and still contend that with the retirement of Walter Chrysler, Plymouth lost it's biggest advocate. His successor often referred to Plymouth as "Dodge's Little Brother." Some brother. Some little!  Even in the face of severe competition from within its own sister divisions, Plymouth still managed to beat the pants off Dodge.

virgil exner with concept car

From around 1940, until Virgil Exner instilled life in the Plymouth division again, no great pains were taken for Plymouth to compete against its true rivals, Chevrolet and Ford. When the painful truth arrived in 1954, more than one upper lip was quivering at the Chrysler Corporation Board room.

Fortunately, Exner had his "forward look" in place and 1955 arrived just in time! The 1955 Plymouths would have sold just like they were for 3 full model years, such was their demand! I know, I was there. Even when the 1956 models were on the showroom floor, people were asking for any "left overs" from 1955. We didn't have any. But it was sure plain we could have just kept right on selling the '55.

That should have been the time for Chrysler to part Plymouth away from all the other divisions, and let the car stand on its own with its own stores and division level input on an equal basis in the Chrysler board room. What a different history it might have been!

1957 was an unprecedented banner year. Virgil Exner has a styling wonder. People just stood in awe sometimes looking at the beauty that the Exner style imparted in the 1957 lines, especially Plymouth.

As an aside, the man who operated the local tavern was a Ford man from the Model "T" onwards. On introduction night in October, we had ordered a big pile of cold cuts, bread, drinks, ice and such from his tavern. Normally, his daughter would make deliveries to the local neighborhood. However, this night he brought the things himself in the back of his 4 door 1955 Fairland Ford. For a Ford it was immaculately kept. He stayed over an hour just visiting. When he went to leave, Mr. Harrison, one of the sharpest sales persons I have ever met, shouted out to no one in particular. "Raymond is going for a DeSoto...who wants to make a $5 bet?" My Dad turned around and shouted back, I take that bet, and it is gonna be a Chrysler!"  "You're on," said Mr Harrison. 20 minutes later, Mr. Harrison had Raymond in his office signing the papers for a new 1957 Chrysler. Yes, Mr Harrison owed my Dad $5. But who was counting when we sold 20 units from the introduction time of 5:00 pm until we got everyone out at about 3:00 am!

Unfortunately, every 1957 we sold or any other Chrysler product dealer sold made an enemy. The quality was so bad it was just undescribeable. And the dealers took it in the shorts.

Even then the corporate board room was in such chaos that the true worth of Plymouth did not sink in. With the loss of Mr Exner, and the subsequent board room scandals of Newberg and Colbert, the future for Plymouth was sealed. Even the return to full size cars in 1965 failed to make a dent in the minds of the people in the board room, who were given the facts and failed to act for Plymouth becoming its own entity.

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