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Chrysler 1957: Lovely Lines, Quality Qualms

The 1957 Chrysler Corporation cars had almost everything they needed to be home runs. Their Hemi V8 engines were outperforming (or at least staying even with) GM and Ford; they had new suspensions that boosted handling well above GM and Ford; and the fine Torqueflite automatic, sold on some premium cars in 1956, was now available across the line.

1957 dodge custom lancer

All that engineering was all wrapped in state-of-the-art styling, garishly chromed, often two-toned, long, sleek, and low — what buyers wanted in the 19650s. The latest rendition of the Forward Look boasted a wide range of fins (or, as Chrysler called them, rear stabilizers).

What could go wrong?

There were two basic engine families — straight-six and V8 — that were shared by Dodge, DeSoto, and Chrysler, along with transmissions and a basic rear-wheel-drive layout with rear leaf-springs and a solid axle.

hyfire v8

A new torsion-bar suspension, never before used on such a wide scale, was launched across the board — a risky move, which worked out surprisingly well. Early issues with torsion bars snapping were quickly addressed; the system was mainly reliable and gave every car, from Plymouth to Chrysler, a major ride-and-handling advantage (with much lower brake dive) over GM and Ford.

So what went wrong? The bodies rusted out and fell apart, surprisingly quickly.

1957 Plymouth

Product planner Burton Bouwkamp told us in 2017,

Our worst year was 1957. One customer wrote in, “Thank you very much. I slammed the door on my fingers and didn’t hurt at all.” ... The main problem was that management took a year out of the ’57 program. It was a whole new car; and when we went into production we absolutely weren’t ready.

We had to stop the line. Those were the days when you never stopped the line, but we did stop it, shut down for a week while we refurbished things, and started up again. The cars were so bad, we had to relaunch the product with the dealers, reassure them that we were aware of the problem, that it was under control, we’d fixed it.

dodge mayfair

I was at a dealer meeting in Lubbock, Texas, and the general sales manager, Bill Braydon, was telling them, “Look, we’re serious about this. When the Imperial goes through water tests, we put a guy in the trunk to see if it’s leaking. That’s how serious we are.” And a dealer yelled out from the back of the room, “Let the guy out! He’ll drown.”

torsion bars

by Curtis Redgap

The 1957s started to rust within several months of being built. They leaked water on both sides of the windshield posts, on all models. Torsion bars broke, leaving cars looking like fallen over Towers of Pisa. Upholstery split, seams tore, seat springs popped through, paint flaked off in huge chunks, hubcaps wouldn’t stay on, rear view mirrors vibrated, door handles broke with ease, locks froze easily, and interior appliances fell off.

torsion bar suspension

In all fairness to Chrysler, they were no worse than Ford or Chevrolet in that era. Ford quality was just as bad, if not worse.

The engineers charged right in and began to get on the line fixes to areas that truly needed help. By the time the 1958 models came out, a lot of the areas were fixed. The windshield leaks had been rigged with plugs, nipples and small rubber hoses in a kit. Likewise, the rear window had been rigged. Leaks had not been stopped, but at least the water, for the most part, ran out into the wheel wells instead of on your feet or your luggage in the trunk.

chrysler profits

Extra braces were fitted, and they switched to heavier-gauge sheet metal and larger rivets, with extra sound deadening, especially in the floor pans and rear trunk. Seat springs and materials were completely changed. A $2 rubber boot (that had been taken away by accountants) to cover the end of the torsion bars was quickly reintroduced, stopping dirt that would cause the rear of the bar seat area to bind; and the metal used in the bars was changed. The 1959 models were discernibly better, except for rust.

The 1957 Chrysler cars

by the Allpar staff

Chrysler sold the Windsor, Saratoga, New Yorker, and, starting in January, the famed 300C. All Chryslers had V8s, and most had the famous Hemi V8s.

Chrysler sales were a fraction of other vehicles, but they also sold for much more - $3,088 to $5,359, topped by the convertible 300C. Only 484 300C convertibles were made, compared with 17,639 Windsor four-door sedans. All told, Windsor was clearly the biggest seller, with about 47,000 sales.

car grille

Some of the cars came with a polyspherical head engine, Chrysler’s first single-rocker-arm overhead valve design: cheaper to make, lighter, and easier to service. To quote Lanny Knutson of the Plymouth Owners Club:

It still had a rounded, circular combustion chamber that could be served by a single rocker arm by putting the intake valves on the top side of the rocker arm and the exhaust valves on the bottom side. The bottom side of the new engine’s valve covers were scalloped to leave the spark plugs accessible from the top... both Ford and Chevrolet [made one] reach under hot exhaust manifolds to get at the spark plugs.

1957 Dodge Custom Royal

Dodge made nearly 161,000 Coronets — once the highest car, now the base model. Above the Coronet were the Royal and, at the top, the Custom Royal — the same car in different levels of trim. Together Dodge sold 257,488 of them, including the hot new D-500 — technically a separate model/engine option.

Dodge started with a base 138-hp (gross) six; the Red Ram V8 ramped that up to 245 hp, and the D-500 was well above that, with 285-310 hp.

Canadians could buy the Plymouth-based Dodge Mayfair, Crusader, and Regent; Mayfair was 303-cid-V8 only, while the others could be equipped with the flat-head six or a V8. The 303 was 1957-only.

1957 desoto

DeSoto had impressive names: Firesweep, Firedome, Fireflite, and, for midyear, Adventurer. Wider and longer than in the past, DeSotos had a small grille underneath a big bended hood. The midrange Firedome was most popular, with about 45,000 sales, while Firesweep reached about 40,000. Fewer than two thousand Adventurers — a special high performance edition — were made. DeSoto sales were well above Chrysler, but far lower than Dodge.

1957 Plymouth Belvedere

Plymouth was, as usual, Chrysler’s big seller in 1957. The bread and butter was the Plaza / Deluxe Suburban, with the four-door sedan selling for just over $2,000 and moving over 70,000 units; the two-door club sedan gained nearly 50,000 US sales. There was also a far less popular two-door business coupe, and the two-door Deluxe Suburban wagon.

1957 plymouth belvedere

Similar in design and trim was the Savoy, whose four-door sedan and two-door club wagon sold in similar numbers, both over 50,000 units; there was also a popular two door hardtop coupe, and a somewhat less popular four-door sport sedan. The Custom Suburban was the wagon version.

1957 plymouth savoy

Then came the Belvedere, with higher trim and tuning, and more standard features; it too was surprisingly popular, but this time the two-door hardtop was the most popular variant with over 67,000 sales. The four-door sedan was the least popular — save for the convertible, with just over 10,000 cars sold. Others were a popular four-door sport sedan, and a popular two-door club coupe. The Sport Suburban wagon was the most popular Plymouth wagon.

1957 Plymouth dashboard

The hot Plymouth Fury was only made as a hardtop coupe, and had a unique optional 318 cid engine with two carburetors. It was a late launch, and only accounted for 10% of sales; but it grabbed headlines and made “buzz.”

1957 fins

The advertising campaign around the Plymouths would be referred to in other contexts — “Suddenly, it’s 1960” — as the new Plymouths appeared to be far ahead of any other cars in styling.

Styling and engineering

Curtis Redgap wrote, torqueflite pushbutton automatic“The 1957 models were Virgil Exner at his absolute genius best. He was awarded the new position of Vice-President of design and fashion.

“Chrysler did take an awful risk that year on the engineering side. It was considered a taboo to make design and engineering breakthroughs in the same year. However, in 1957, they sold 1,296,063 units, the absolute best year in Chrysler’s history for sales.”

1957 Dodge

Unfortunately, the strong sales were coupled with severe quality problems, resulting in poor 1958 sales and a permanent blot of Chrysler’s then-strong reputation for quality. The strong sales in 1957 were a double-edged sword — many buyers were permanently lost.

1957 chrysler 300c

“Award after award was given to Chrysler. Motor Trend named Chrysler Corporation the Car of The Year for superior handling and roadability in all its cars. Plymouth was touted as the most roadable car ever built in America. Imperial was awarded the title for ‘easiest handling car weighing over 2500 pounds.’

1957 Imperial ad

“Air conditioning was still a fairly unique option for Chrysler; it had been made available across the board in 1955 (as an expensive option), and, in 1958, would finally show up with all components under the hood in the modern configuration, rather than relying on some trunk mounted items.”

1957 Imperial sedan

The most exciting cars arrived in January — the hot Chrysler 300C, the powerful DeSoto Adventurer, and the quick, light Plymouth Fury all showed up in January, causing nearly as much excitement as the rest of the line had.

Performance

At Daytona Beach, the top Chrysler, the new 300C, set a two-way speed of 134.108 miles per hour, 5.5 mph down from 1956. It was still the fastest car on the beach, but the loss was confusing, because the Hemi engine was bored to 392 cubic inches for 390 horsepower in a version not recommended for street use (a standard 392 was rated at 375).

1957 Plymouth cars

The problem, which also afflicted the DeSoto Adventurer, was a metal strip at the top of their windshields, which caused a great deal of drag at high speed.

Chrysler failed to claim that the DeSoto’s engine had reached the goal of one horsepower per cubic inch displacement for a standard engine. In 1956, the 300B’s 355-horse 354 had hit the goal, but Chrysler didn’t advertise it. Thus, Chevrolet still often gets credit for their 283 cubic inch V-8, the first advertised as hitting one horsepower per cubic inch — though the DeSoto engine was standard, and Chevrolet’s was a $500 option.

instrument panels

Dodge’s D-500 option was a 325 cubic inch Hemi engine that had 310 horsepower; less well known was the D-500-1. Around 100-150 were made, the lightest, cheapest Dodge bodies with the 354 cubic inch Hemi, and sold at retail for NASCAR racing compliance.

The Plymouth Fury, oddly, had a dismal showing at Daytona. The 318 cubic inch engine, based on the 303 and dubbed the “V-800,” developed 290 horsepower with dual four barrel carburetors, a high lift camshaft, and low restriction dual exhaust. Testing magazines claimed that the 318 lacked low-end torque. It still hit 60 miles per hour in 8.5 seconds, with an observed top speed of 120 miles an hour; but the lack of torque hurt it in racing.

Squad cars

by Curtis Redgap

Keeping its eye on Dodge, Plymouth had come up with a Police Pursuit package on its own. It was as tough as the Dodge, and if you equipped it with (if you wanted it) the 318 cubic inch 8 barrel, 290 horse V-8, faster than a D-500 Dodge.

1957 dashboard

Plymouth had put together a series of packages that appealed to a cross section of police work. Fleet managers were leery about multiple carburetors, which were difficult to keep in tune; hence the single four barrel on the 301, the package that Plymouth sold the most of in 1957. Plymouth put 12 inch brakes on all its Pursuits, where Dodge stayed with the 11 inch drums until the Polara model of 1961.

market share

Instead of a large gamut of mix and match hardware, Plymouth targeted three areas of police work. Their Sentinel package addressed city operations, much like a taxi; it featured a six cylinder. Their Metro Patroller concentrated on the sheriff’s departments, which usually had city, suburbs, and wide open spaces to cover. That featured engine was the Hi-Po 301 V-8 with the four barrel and dual exhausts. Then, the State Police/Highway Patrol Pursuit Special centered on the 290 horsepower Fury V-800.

1957 plymouth chassis

Putting the most popular options in the packages not only allowed for lower bids, it made the fleet manager’s job a whole lot easier.

The Torqueflite automatic

Slow to get a fully automatic transmission on the market, Chrysler wasted no time in getting beyond its two speed Powerflite. The Torqueflite was quite simply the best automatic transmission produced for decades. It was simple, reliable, dependable, quiet, efficient, economical, and gave Chrysler cars a performance advantage.

torqueflite automatic

The Torqueflite centered on Simpson planetary gear set, named after its inventor, Howard Simpson, who had licensed it to Ford in 1953 and Chrysler in 1955. You could increase torque capability by machining more “beef” into the gear set. Late 1956 Chrysler 300Bs were equipped with the three speed Torqueflite, along with Imperials, and the senior models of the Chrysler line. For once, Chrysler was prepared for that type of situation, and had engineered a conversion kit for MoPar fans that wanted the flexibility and capability of the new Torqueflite.

Ford was so impressed with the Torqueflite that (according to Curtis Redgap, quoting magazines of the day) it quietly bought the rights to manufacture a sort of copycat. Ford reportedly paid Chrysler $7.5 million, which was a big chunk of change in 1957! The 1958 “Cruise-O-Matic” was available on all standard Ford engines; it was not a Torqueflite, but a Ford automatic built around the Simpson gear set. It was heavier, with more parts, keeping the Ford derived clutch band controls.

Past and present: McKinsey & Company reviews Chrysler Corporation

In 1956, Chrysler engaged McKinsey & Company to study the company, and in 1957, McKinsey delivered its report. The introduction noted two key problems: a climate that “prevented the development of trained replacement management” and the competition’s new, powerful ways of working.

car

The dawn of Chrysler, the report noted, included “skilled engineers, a canny financial analyst, an imaginative factory manager, and, perhaps, a showman. Together, they managed everything... they operated by expediency. Every business problem was an individual challenge to be... solved by ingenuity.” Below this level, the report claimed — possibly incorrectly, based on Carl Breer’s own description — people who simply carried out orders, and did not gain leadership skills.

The report claimed that the second generation of Chrysler leaders, having had no chance to lead, were unsuited to train their own successors. “An echelon removed from the founding group, you [Chrysler’s leaders in 1957] had to operate under the direction of leaders that had limited capability... they permitted problems and competitive lapses to occur and accumulate...”

1957 belvedere sport sedan

The problems faced by the 1950s executives when they took over were, according to McKinsey:

The existing problems were delineated as not having a clear structure or financial controls; having a weak dealer body; poor product planning; and inadequate programming and scheduling.

1957 sales

The writers slammed Chrysler for its 1953 move to divisionalization, which they said was merely copying General Motors. Divisions had responsibility but not control or enough staff.

In 1956, Chrysler had bolstered the corporate staff, tweaked the division system, did a little to bolster “your most important product — Plymouth,” and started new financial controls. A study looked into lead times, and created a new director of product/volume planning to coordinate planning; and a new office of production programming was created.

1957 Imperial

The divisions lost profit responsibility and scheduling; instead, they were to reduce costs, and plan and launch products (with corporate planners and schedulers). The report complained that they “still aggressively meddle in dealer operations,” which was the domain of group marketing, and “believe that it will only be a matter of time before full divisionalization is restored.”  The report suggested that management was working on more single-line dealerships (Plymouth was supposed to be separated from Chrysler at this time, but was not).

The consultants suggested having decision-making revolve around facts, not personalities; preventing coverups of mistakes; imposing penalties on subordinates who did not carry out plans or policies; keeping marketing and dealer relations on a corporate level, but customized for local regions; and controlling advertising and sales-promotion expenses.

The future

In May, 1957, Chrysler president Tex Colbert set up a committee to come up with a competitor for the increasingly popular small imports. Headed by Plymouth General Manager Harry Cheseborough, the Special Car Committee spawned "Project A901," a task force of 200 engineers in the Midland Avenue plant in Detroit, with security so tight many thought it was a government project. Over 20 prototypes were built, with 57 experimental engines racking up a total of 750 million test miles. The result would be the Chrysler Valiant.

Specifications for 1957 Plymouth engines

  P-30 (Straight Six) P-31: 277 V8 P-31: 301 V8 P-31: 318 V8
Taxable HP 25.4 45 48.9 48.9
Gross Brake Horsepower 132 @ 3,600 197 @ 4,400 215 @ 4,400 290
Torque 205 @ 1,600 270 @ 2,400 285 @ 2,800  
Bore x Stroke 3.25 x 4 5/8 3.75 x 3.125 3 29/32 x 3.125 3 29/32 x 3 5/16
Compression 8:1 8:1 8.5:1 9.25:1
Compression pressure 120-150 psi 125-165 psi
Max variation
between cylinders
10 psi 15 psi
Cylinder numbering
from front of engine
1-2-3-4-5-6 left, 1-3-5-7; right, 2-4-6-8
Firing order 1-5-3-6-2-4 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2
Connecting rod bearings Replaceable steel backed babbit; desired clearance, .0005 to .0015 inch
Main bearings Replaceable steel backed babbit; 4 on six, 5 on V8;
.0005 to .0015 inch clearance desired; 2.5 inch diameter (nominal)

Also see Jim Benjaminson’s chapter on the 1957 Forward Look Plymouths and Virgil Exner’s justification for fins; and move forward to 1958

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