by Gerard Wilson
Chrysler Corporation was riding high during 1946 – 1948 when the cars discussed here were being planned, and the success of the 1946 – 1948 cars influenced the design of their successors.
Chrysler, along with other domestic producers, had put revised pre-war designs into postwar production, and sold as many of these as they could build. Chrysler management understood that their success was greatly due to the need to replace worn out vehicles that had served during the war, when new cars were not produced, and that they would have to introduce new designs for 1949. But they also felt that they had a practical design philosophy which offered something valuable, not available from GM or Ford. The challenge to Chrysler was to design new vehicles which continued that design philosophy.
Before automotive stylists began to exert their influence during the 1930s, most car bodies were boxes with seats. Larger, more expensive cars were larger, more expensive boxes. Stylists during the 1930s began to design bodies which were lower, longer, wider, and streamlined. This made it possible to give each make its own visual identity, but it compromised passenger space.
Chrysler had gone along with this, but tried to keep the box within the modern sheet metal. It was important that passengers sit comfortably and be able to easily enter and exit the car. The rear seat was forward of the axle, not on top of it. That was true of the 1946 – 1948 products, and it continued through the 1949 – 1952 products.
The 1946 – 1948 cars had plenty of extra sheet metal, but the 1949 – 1952 were more compact: lower, shorter, narrower outside; higher, wider, longer inside. Styling, at least for the 1949 models, was a matter of adding chrome without much thought; the 1950 and 1951 – 1952 models were cleaned up but the boxy silhouette remained.
Another element of Chrysler design was to offer smaller cars . All domestic producers had considered small cars for postwar production, but none produced them, until the 1950 Nash Rambler. Plymouth and Dodge did offer smaller, albeit not small, cars alongside their standard cars for 1949 – 1952. Even the standard cars were lighter than their 1946 – 1948 counterparts, but durable and well constructed.
The conservative design philosophy of Chrysler President K.T. Keller was blamed for the company’s poor sales performance in 1949 against more modern styling from GM and Ford. This was undoubtedly true: buyers in 1949 wanted modern, not practical. Chrysler would move slowly in that direction, and get there in 1955. However, it lost second place to Ford in 1949, and remained in third place for decades.
Chrysler’s inability to climb out of the hole that they fell into in 1949 would have serious consequences. Ironically, most vehicles today are built to maximize interior space, and minimize mass. Keller was right in general, but it did him no good in 1949.
Chrysler continued to buy its bodies from Briggs, and would buy the company in 1953. Briggs bodies were well made, but no more corrosion resistant than any other cars of the era. Chrysler engines and semi- automatic transmissions were mostly carried over, until the brilliant hemispherical head V8 – for which Keller’s engineering team deserves credit – was introduced in 1951. It was a better engine than the GM overhead-valve V8, but two years behind it to market.
Chrysler’s 1949 models went into production around January of 1949, but it was not until March that enough of them were available for official introduction. By December 1949, the 1950 models were on sale.
1949 Dodge cars
1949 Plymouth cars
While 1949 was a short model year, volume was slightly above the much longer 1948 model year. Then, just as the 1950 models were going on sale, a strike closed all U.S. Chrysler plants during February, March and April of 1950. Without that, it is possible that the company might have regained second place in 1950. But it did not, and after that the U.S. government limited car production because of the Korean war, which meant that Chrysler was locked in third place for 1951 and 1952.
These cars were well engineered and well built and sold well, even if not as well as expected, or well enough to regain second place. The disappointing sales of the 1949 models prompted the company to quickly simplify the styling for 1950 and sheet metal changes for 1951 – 1952. The development of the Hemi V8 moved toward production. The company was not standing still. Chrysler made plenty of money during this period – some of it from military contracts. The quality of its products was evident then, and is evident to those who own and maintain the surviving examples of the era today.
Two series of Plymouth were built for 1949 – 1952. The smaller of the two was called the Deluxe for 1949 – 1950, then Concord for 1951 – 1952. The wheelbase was 111 inches (2819 mm), and the average weight for the three models offered (business coupe, fastback 2 door sedan, 2 door wagon) was about 230 pounds (105 kg) lighter than the standard Plymouth, much lighter than the earlier P15.
The decision to offer this car, as well as the Dodge Wayfarer, may have been based on the belief that there was a market for smaller cars. Whatever market there was, the absence of a 4 door sedan in this line (or the Wayfarer) limited sales: a sedan might have drawn too many sales from the more profitable standards. Many of these smaller Plymouths were sold outside of North America. This small Plymouth also was popular with a few stock car racers, not because of its 97 hp but because of its ability to sustain abuse. Factory support of this effort would have gone far to erase Plymouth’s stodgy image, and stimulate sales, but all of the factories stayed away from any association with racing at the time.
The steel body wagon in this line was the wagon to dispense with the expensive-to-maintain wood trim. It was quickly copied by everyone else, opening the door to the popularity of wagons which lasted until they were supplanted by the Chrysler minivans starting in 1984.
The standard Plymouth was built on a 118.5 inch (3010mm) mm wheelbase. It was a longer wheelbase and a bit heavier than the earlier P15, depending upon the body style, but overall length was shorter. It was available as a club coupe or sedan in Deluxe or Special Deluxe trim, and as a Special Deluxe wagon or convertible for 1949 – 1950.
The worn out model names were replaced with Cambridge and Cranbrook for 1951 – 1952. A hardtop was added and the standard wheelbase wood trimmed wagon was dropped in favor of the small all steel 2 door in the Concord line.
Plymouth carried over its prewar 6 cylinder engine/ 3 speed manual transmission as the only powertrain, finally adding an overdrive in 1952. Although a better engineered car than Ford or Chevrolet, styling and a dowdy image held sales to less than half of what those makes were producing.
Dodge produced five different car lines during this period. The entry level Dodge was the D31/D35 Deluxe, which was renamed the D39 Kingsbrook for 1951 -1952. This was the 111 inch (2819mm) Plymouth Deluxe with a Dodge badge and grille. The Deluxe/Kingsbrook was produced in the U.S. for sale in Canada and for export. It was necessary in Canada, because Chrysler maintained Chrysler – Plymouth and Dodge – Desoto sales networks, and each network needed a full range of cars to sell.
The Deluxe/Kingsbrook models were the same coupe, fastback 2 door sedan, and 2 door all steel wagon as the equivalent Plymouth models. After 1950, U.S. built Kingsbrook units received Plymouth P22 serial numbers so it is not known how many were produced.
The Dodge D32 Deluxe/Special Deluxe, D36 Deluxe /Special Deluxe and D40 Crusader/Regent models were built on the standard Plymouth 118.5 inch (3010mm) wheelbase and were equivalent, except for the substitution of Dodge badges and front grilles, to the Plymouth. These cars and the D31/D35/D40 received U.S. Plymouth engines if built in the U.S., Canadian Plymouth engines if built in Canada.
The U.S. and Canadian Plymouth engines were of different design, but of similar power and displacement, because Canadian restrictions on the import of engines had forced Chrysler to downsize a Chrysler design to Plymouth requirements.
The D32/D36/D40 wagons and convertibles sold in Canada were built in the U.S., but none of these cars were sold in the U.S..There was a market for these rugged and economical cars in many countries where there was not yet any local manufacture. Serial numbers of these cars built in the U.S. for 1951 – 1952 are mixed in with the Plymouth P23, and thus there is no record of U.S. production volume.
The smaller Dodge that was sold in the U.S. was the Wayfarer. It was built on a 115 inch (2921mm) wheelbase, again perhaps to test the market for a smaller Dodge. Dodge could not offer a Wayfarer club coupe or sedan, because that would have taken sales from the more profitable standard models. Chrysler wanted an intermediate car between Plymouth and Dodge, something that would offer something different from either. The Wayfarer was a modest success, but Chrysler would try something else for 1953 – 1954. The only Wayfarer model that sold in any volume was a fastback two door sedan; the two-passenger coupe and roadster models were not very popular. Today, the Wayfarer roadster is a collectable.
The standard Dodge for 1949-1952, as the Plymouth, did sell in volume, but failed to meet expectations. During the three postwar years of 1946 – 1948, Dodge had been one of the top five in sales, but during 1949 – 1952 it was one of the second five. Dodge dependability, solid engineering and construction began to be eclipsed by the sleek styling and V8 engines of its contemporaries.
The standard Dodge was built on a longer wheelbase than the previous D24, 123.5 inches (3137mm) vs 119.5 inches (3035mm), for additional passenger space, but overall car length and weight were reduced. The Dodge body shell was entirely different from that of Plymouth, but smaller than that shared by Desoto and Chrysler. The boxy styling of 1949 – 1950 was improved for 1951 – 1952 with a smoother front end and a more careful application of trim. The standard, and only, engine was the 230 cid (3.8 liter) six cylinder with 103 hp. The only transmission for 1949 – 1950 was the 3 speed manual with fluid drive, which was semiautomatic in operation. For 1951 – 1952, an optional “gyrol drive” was offered. This was the M6 transmission with fluid drive and two driving ranges for better acceleration.
In Canada, these cars were known as Custom, and only a club coupe and sedan were built. The name was changed to Coronet for 1951 – 1952, bringing them in line with the U.S. Hardtop, convertible, wagon, and the less expensive Meadowbrook sedans sold in Canada were sourced from the U.S.
The most expensive Dodge was the Coronet (or Custom, in Canada) 7 passenger sedan. This was a low volume vehicle, built on an extended wheelbase. Unlike the Desoto counterpart, it does not appear that any detrimmed versions or taxi packages were offered for fleet use, although many of these cars did end up in taxi service for which they were well suited, especially if the appropriate severe usage equipment was retrofitted to the car. As sold by the factory, they were luxury cars, and it is not likely that Dodge was able to recover its costs on the low volume. The commercial rationale for Canadian assembly of these cars is not apparent, but there was Canadian assembly. The last year of the 7 passenger sedan was 1951.
Like the Plymouth, the Dodge for 1949 – 1952 was a well engineered product that sold well, but not well enough. There were still buyers who appreciated the practicality and reliability that Dodge continued to offer. But the equally dull Pontiac for 1949 – 1952 far outsold Dodge. Dodge needed an updated image and a V8, both of which it would receive in 1953.
The Desoto was Chrysler’s mid market car, and it faced strong competition from Oldsmobile, Buick, and Mercury during 1949 – 1952. The standard Desoto sold in North America used two “shorter on the outside – larger on the inside” bodies which were shared with the higher cost Chrysler. A DeSoto buyer got essentially the same car as a Chrysler buyer, but with a less prestigious nameplate and a slightly detuned engine. The selling points for Desoto, as for all Chrysler products, were quality, practicality, and reliability. This became a harder sell during the cycle.
Desoto built four car lines, but only two were sold in North America. For export, Desoto built the Diplomat, which was an 111 inch (2819mm) wheelbase Plymouth with Desoto badge and grille, and the Diplomat Deluxe/Custom which was a standard 118.5 inch (3010mm) Plymouth with the same add-ons.
It is understandable why Chrysler built these cars for sale overseas, because they were smaller and more economical than most American cars, but more durable and comfortable than the 4 cylinder European cars. This was a time when automobile assembly outside of Europe was almost non-existent, so with some local assembly of kits supplied by U.S. or Canada plants, the cars could be sold. It is less understandable why Chrysler went through the charade of building the same car with three nameplates. It is possible that the Dodge and Desoto nameplates were perceived as more prestigious than the Plymouth and could be sold for enough of a premium to justify the minor modifications.
Canadian Diplomat production numbers are known. The small Diplomat did not go into Canadian production until 1951. Both the Diplomat and the Diplomat Deluxe/Custom were in U.S. production for 1949 – 1952, but were intermixed with the equivalent Plymouth models. Diplomat serial numbers were Plymouth serial numbers with an “S” prefix. Records of U.S. production of Diplomat units as well as of the equivalent Dodge models have not been located.
The standard Desoto was built on a 125.5 inch (3188mm) wheelbase, in Deluxe and Custom trim. Only Custom club coupes and sedans were built in Canada. It had a bit more passenger room and better trim than the less expensive Dodge Coronet. However, fluid drive was standard on Dodge, optional on Desoto.
In addition to the standard body styles, Desoto offered a CarryAll sedan with a rear seat that could be folded down for additional cargo space. Today this is a common feature, but at that time only one other make, Kaiser, offered it. (Chrysler built a similar Traveller model for 1950 – 1951).
Many standard wheelbase sedans were sold with a taxi package, continuing a relationship with fleet owners. It was not from sentiment that fleet owners bought DeSoto taxis, but because they had a proven record of longevity and inexpensive maintenance which repaid their initial cost. Desoto Deluxe and Custom models all used the same flat head 6 cylinder engine that had been used for decades, but for 1951 - 1952 the 276.1 cid (4.1 liter) version from the Chrysler Windsor replaced the smaller Desoto version. Then, for 1952, Desoto installed a smaller version of the Chrysler Hemi V8 engine into the Custom series, renaming it the Firedome, and Desoto was back in the game. Desotos were available with a manual transmission, fluid drive manual, and fluid drive/torque converter semiautomatic transmissions.
The top line Desotos were the Deluxe, Custom and (for 1952) Firedome 8 passenger models, built on a 139.5 inch (3543mm) wheelbase. These cars were sustained by the taxi market. No records are available of how many taxis were standard wheelbase and how many were long wheelbase, but there were certainly many long wheelbase taxis built which kept the body style in production after Dodge had dropped their version. (The production tables attached to this article estimate the number of long wheelbase cars built, including taxis).
Desoto managed to build over 400,000 standard Deluxe/Custom/Firedome models in the U.S. for 1949 – 1952, which was the highest volume ever attained by any Desoto model . Desoto languished toward the bottom of the sales charts, but given that many components were shared between Chrysler and Desoto, the volume of Desoto sales spread out the costs and increased the profitability of the important Chrysler brand.
The 1949 models marked 25 years of Chrysler production, and they were marketed as the “Silver Anniversary” models. Great things were expected, but unfortunately Desoto and Chrysler production for 1949 fell below that for 1948. There were four model lines, and all had new bodies designed along the “smaller on the outside – larger on the inside” principle.
The volume Chrysler was known as the Royal and Windsor for 1949 – 1950, the Windsor, Windsor Deluxe and Saratoga for 1951 – 1952. It shared the 125.5 inch (3188mm) wheelbase body shell with the Desoto Deluxe/Custom/Firedome, and for 1951 – 1952, Desoto Deluxe/Custom models also shared the 250.6 cid (4.1 liter) L – head 6 engine. Windsor models for 1949 – 1950 were more luxuriously appointed than the Royals, and had the semi automatic fluid drive as optional. The same was true for the 1951 – 1952 Windsor and Windsor Deluxe.
However, for 1951, Chrysler introduced the Hemi V8 in a Windsor Deluxe, renamed it the Saratoga, and the competition for higher performance became a permanent part of the U.S. auto industry. The Chrysler Hemi of 1951 was a more efficient, more advanced engine than the Oldsmobile/Cadillac V8 of 1949, but it was also more costly to produce. The Hemi V8 and the sight of a boxy Chrysler moving faster than it looked like it could served notice that the company was not to be disregarded.
Chrysler Canada built 1949 – 1950 Royal /Windsor club coupes and sedans, 1951 – 1952 Windsor/Windsor Deluxe club coupes and sedans, and for 1952, the V8 Saratoga club coupes and sedans.
Chrysler’s second car line was a fairly high run of 8 passenger sedans, using the 139.5 inch (3543mm) wheelbase body used for Desoto 8 passenger models. For 1949 – 1950, they used the Royal/Windsor model names, for 1951 – 1952, Windsor, Windsor Deluxe and Saratoga. Chrysler Canada built Royal 8 passenger sedans for 1949- 1950, Windsor 8 passenger sedans for 1951, in very small quantities. It appears that this model was dropped from Canadian assembly after 1951. All except for the Saratoga used the 4.1 liter 6. The total production of these big cars, without any assist from taxi production, was quite high, but demand fell off sharply for the subsequent series built during 1953 – 1954.
The next tier were the models using a 323.5 cid (5.3 liter) L head 8 for 1949 – 1950, the 331.1 cid (5.4 liter) Hemi V8 for 1951 – 1952. Because of the longer engine, these cars used a 131.5 inch (3340mm) wheelbase body, but the passenger compartment was the same size as the Royal/Windsor line. For 1949 – 1950, Saratoga, Town & Country, New Yorker and Imperial models were built. The Saratoga used Royal trim, the New Yorker used Windsor trim, for club coupe, sedan and convertible body styles.
The Town & Country was a very costly wood trimmed convertible for 1949, an even more costly wood trimmed hardtop for 1950. (From 1951 to 1988, the Town & Country name has been used without interruption for Chrysler wagons, including the front drive CV LeBaron, and from there it was passed on to the Chrysler badged minivans which are in production today. None of them had the extravagance of the originals, of which 1950 was the last example).
The 1949 – 1950 Imperial was a sedan only, with a very luxurious, quiet interior. For 1951 – 1952, only New Yorker and Imperial models were built on the 3340 mm wheelbase body. Both used the new Hemi V8, and the Imperial was styled to differentiate it from the New Yorker.
The “Silver Anniversary” 1949 models were poorly proportioned and over-decorated, but the overdecoration was cleaned up for 1950. The 1951 – 1952 models were better still, especially the Imperial, which added club coupe, hardtop and convertible body styles. All of the cars produced on this platform were expensive, high quality automobiles.
But perhaps the highest quality car produced in America at this time – Packard owners may disagree – was the Chrysler Crown Imperial. It was certainly the most expensive, $500 more than the base Cadillac Fleetwood 75 or Packard Super Deluxe Eight limousines in 1949. It was built on its own special chassis, with a wheelbase of 145.5 inches (3696mm). It was a large, heavy car, designed to carry important people in comfort and privacy. The 1949 – 1950 models lacked power steering and had to make do with the 135 hp L head 8 cylinder, but did have disc brakes. The V8 and power steering arrived for 1951 – 1952.
Cadillac built more Fleetwood 75 models in one year than Chrysler built in Crown Imperials in four years, and Chrysler probably lost money on each one. This car was not a commercial product, but an opportunity to enhance the company’s image, as well as the owner’s image, both of which it did very well.
Holding the #2 position in the industry, and a pile of cash, Chrysler was free to design whatever it thought would sell for 1949. It made a modern decision: increase packaging efficiency. The resulting products were sensible but unattractive to contemporary customers. Even with Chrysler’s reputation for engineering and reliability, many clients went to GM and Ford, putting in Chrysler in third place for 1949.
Chrysler did a superficial restyle for 1950, and sales were up strongly, but then all production was suspended for three months because of a dispute with the UAW. Chrysler ended 1950 in third place and for the next two years wartime restrictions kept them there. In fact, it would not be until 1996, in a very different market, that Chrysler again occupied the # 2 position, and then for one year only.
The difference between being #2 and #3 in the U.S. market during the 1950s was about 300,000 units per year, a chronic loss of marginal revenue which made Chrysler vulnerable to the downturns of 1954 and 1958. Chrysler did become quite profitable again in the late 1960s, but it did not have the capital to develop as broad a selection of vehicles or as extensive a dealer base as GM or Ford. Again and again, corners were cut to save money, which impacted vehicle quality. So from 1949 on, third place became a place from where Chrysler could not escape.
- Gerard Wilson
Note: I would welcome any comments, criticisms, or corrections from anyone interested in 1949 – 1952 Chrysler vehicles.
P18 (1949), P20 (1950) Deluxe, Special Deluxe,
P23 (1951+) Cambridge, Cranbrook
Also by Gerard Wilson: Chrysler 1945-48 • Chrysler 1949-52 • Chrysler 1953-54 • Chrysler 1955-56
and Production numbers and histories, 1946-onwards
Chrysler Heritage • History by Year • Chrysler People and Bios • Corporate Facts and History
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