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1957 Chrysler Cars: Lovely Lines, Quality Qualms (DeSoto, Dodge, Plymouth)

ADDED JUNE 2011: McKinsey’s 1957 Review of Chrysler Past and Present (near the end)

The 1957 Chrysler Corporation line - consisting of Chrysler, DeSoto, Dodge, and Plymouth, in descending order of price - were extensively restyled, and were in many ways the first “real” postwar cars to come out of Chrysler Corporation, with totally new styling and many new features. The three-speed Torqueflite introduced on some premium models in 1956 was now made available across the line, at a time when three-speed automatics were still new; and the TorqueFlite was both more reliable and more efficient than most, without sacrificing smoothness. With minor changes, the 1957 line was kept intact for 1958.

1957 dodge custom lancer

All the lines had a new rendition of the Forward Look, complete with large fins (or, as Chrysler called them, rear stabilizers). Technologically, two basic engine families were shared - straight-six and V8 - along with transmissions and a basic rear-wheel-drive layout with torsion-bar front suspensions; mainstay engineering features were common across lines rather than being restricted to the most expensive vehicles, so that a Plymouth could benefit from the Torsion-Aire suspension as much as a Chrysler.

1957 PlymouthThe Chrysler line consisted of the Windsor, Saratoga, New Yorker, and, with January introduction, 300C. As befitted a luxury sedan, all Chryslers had V8s - most with the famous Hemi V8s. Production of Chryslers was a fraction of other vehicles, but they also sold for much more - $3,088 to $5,359, with the top of the line being the convertible 300C. Production numbers varied from a mere 484 300C convertibles to 17,639 Windsor four-door sedans. All told, Windsor was clearly the biggest seller, with about 47,000 sales.

The Hemi V8 was used in the premium lines or as an option; starting in 1954, Chrysler Corporation started making a cheaper version of that engine, with a polyspherical head. This was Chrysler's first single-rocker-arm overhear valve engine, and it was used by Plymouth and Dodge, and in the DeSoto Fireflite and Chrysler Windsor. It was far cheaper to make, lighter, and presumably easier to service; the Hemi was still available in some vehicles.

To quote Lanny:

Chrysler engineers sought to build the next-best thing to a hemi, but with a single rocker arm. They came up with what they called the polyspherical combustion chamber. Not quite a full hemisphere, 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.

hyfire v8

To avoid having to use spark plug tubes, the bottom side of the new engine's valve covers were scalloped to leave the spark plugs accessible from the top. This gave Plymouth another feature to advertise since on the engines of both Ford and Chevrolet, one had to reach under hot exhaust manifolds to get at the spark plugs.

1957 Dodge Custom Royal

For Dodge, the Coronet - once the highest level of trim - was the base model, selling nearly 161,000 copies in its various forms. Above the Coronet was Royal, and above that Custom Royal. All were essentially the same vehicle in different levels of trim, and together Dodge sold 257,488 of them. A hot new D-500 version was added as a separate model/engine option. The base six pushed out 138 horsepower; the Red Ram V8, 245 hp; and the D-500, 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. That 303 V8 only lasted one year in Canada, replaced by a 313 and 318 in 1958.

dodge mayfair

DeSoto was in its prime, with the Firesweep, Firedome, Fireflite, and, for midyear, the awesome Adventurer. The DeSotos were wider and longer than in the past, and had a unique, minimized-size grille underneath a big bended hood. The middle Firedome was most popular, with about 45,000 sales, while Firesweep reached about 40,000. The late-introduction Adventurer sold fewer than 2,000 copies.

1957 Plymouth Belvedere

Plymouth was by far the big seller in 1957, as it was for most of Chrysler's history. While it made the headlines and was a draw, the Fury, in its second year, was introduced in January and only represented 10% of sales.

The bread and butter line - the entry level - was the Plaza / Deluxe Suburban, with the four-door sedan selling for just over $2,000 and moving over 70,000 units; also sold were a popular two-door club sedan (nearly 50,000 US sales), a far less popular two-door business coupe, and the two-door Deluxe Suburban wagon.

torsion barsVery similar in design and close in trim as well was the Savoy series, 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. Then came the Belvedere, again essentially the same car with different trim and tuning, and many standard features; it too was surprisingly popular, but this time the two-door hardtop was the most popular variant with over 67,000 sales, and the four-door sedan was the least popular save for the convertible, with just over 10,000 units. Other models included a popular four-door sport sedan, and a popular two-door club coupe. The Sport Suburban wagon was the most popular Plymouth wagon.

The hot Plymouth Fury was only made as a hardtop coupe, and had a unique optional 318 cid engine with two carburetors.

1957 Plymouth dashboard

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.

1957 plymouth belvedere

Styling and engineering

1957 Dodge

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; Plymouth alone counted for 752,874 (10% of those were Furys). Plymouth being able to claim third in the overall production race, displacing Buick.”

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.

1957 chrysler 300c

“The engineering included the standard Torqueflite across the board for all engines; but often ignored was the single most significant contribution to American car handling, ever, the Torsion-Aire suspension system. A torsion bar was like a spring that had been straightened out. It was remarkably simple, and unbelievable in application: no nose dive in hard braking. A standard Plymouth could outhandle any car in its class on a twisty road. 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 "easiest handling car weighing over 2500 pounds."

1957 Belvedere

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.

The most exciting vehicles arrived in midyear - the new Chrysler 300 "C" arrived, DeSoto Adventurer, and Plymouth Fury all showed up in January, causing nearly as much excitement as the rest of the line had when it had showed up.

Performance

At Daytona Beach, “The highly touted 300 "C" set a two way mark of 134.108 miles per hour. That was some 5.5 mph off the 1956 mark. Yes, it was still the fastest car on the beach, but something was lost. It was especially confusing because the Hemi engine was bored to 392 cubic inches for an output of a standard 375 horsepower. A 390 horsepower 392 was available, though not recommended for street use.

1957 Plymouth cars

“DeSoto made a good showing for itself, but the same type of body held its speed down as it had the 300. Both had a metal strip at the top of their windshields that later tests proved had acted just like an air brake. Chrysler also missed the opportunity to assert that DeSoto’s engine had reached the engineer's dream of one horsepower per cubic inch displacement, as had the 300B in 1956. Chrysler felt that since the 355 horsepower 354 was an optional engine that it didn't meet the exact criteria to stake the claim.

“DeSoto's top engine was bored to 345 cubic inches. its measured output was 345 horsepower. Over at GM, Chevrolet ads were touting their 283 cubic inch V-8 making one horsepower per cubic inch. DeSoto’s was the standard engine, available across the board in a standard model. Chevrolet's 283 horse engine was an expensive ($500 in 1957 dollars) option, and not standard on any vehicle.

instrument panels

Dodge’s D-500 option was a 325 cubic inch Hemi engine that had 310 horsepower. The Dodge boys also had the less well-known D-500-1. It was about a hundred or maybe 150 of the lightest, cheapest Dodge bodies had, with the 354 cubic inch Hemi installed in them for NASCAR racing compliance.

“As gorgeous as the Plymouth models were, they did not equate themselves too well at Daytona. The Fury was dismal in its showing, winning nothing at all. The 303 Canadian sourced engine was bored out to the ubiquitous 318 cubic inch engine that soldiered on in various corporate applications until 1967. However, in the 1957 Fury form, the ‘V-800’ developed 290 horsepower with 2 four barreled carbs, high lift camshaft, and low restriction dual exhaust. Despite the great potential, several testing magazines were critical of the 318 for its lack of low end "punch." It was fairly quick, running out to 60 miles per hour in 8.5 seconds, with an observed top speed of 120 miles an hour. However, it is torque that wins races, and the 318 lacked that at the low end of its operating range. This engine was available in all models.”

Squad cars

“Keeping its eye on Dodge, Plymouth had come up with a Police Pursuit package on its own for the 1957 models. It was every bit 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. Plymouth however, had put together a series of packages that appealed to a cross section of police work. Most fleet managers though are leery about multiple carburetor packages. They tend to be 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. If you thought the Dodge brakes were tough, the ones on the Plymouth were formidable!

1957 sales

“A Nevada Highway State Trooper in his 1957 Plymouth spotted a tractor-trailer driver signalling wildly that the air brakes had gone out. The Trooper wheeled around at 40 miles an hour, accelerated to over 120 mph to catch the runaway truck. Momentarily blocked by on coming traffic, the Trooper had to stay in line behind the free wheeling 18 wheeled monster. He clocked it at 85 mph, as it was accelerating. ... the Trooper accelerated past the roaring tons of freight; once in front, he slowly allowed the tractor's front bumper to contact the rear of the Plymouth. The Trooper steadily pumped the brake pedal, keeping the front bumper of the truck against his car. With smoke coming from all four of the Plymouth's service brakes, the speed began to steadily decrease down to 20 miles per hour.... As the Trooper stopped the two front tires explosively blew out from the tremendous heat. ... After the tires were changed, the Plymouth brought the Trooper safely back to his station.

market share

“Instead of offering a whole gamut of mix and match hardware, Plymouth targeted three specific areas of Police work. They had their Sentinel package that was revolved around economical city operations, much like a taxi; it featured a six cylinder. Then they had their Metro Patroller that concentrated on the sheriff's departments which usually 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. By 1959, Plymouth's marketing strategy set the tone of fleet purchases that still lasts into today's markets. You could buy whatever you wanted, but with the most popular options on the packages, it not only allowed for lower bids, it made the fleet manager's job a whole lot easier.

1957 plymouth chassis

Quality issues

“The only failure point was the decided and obvious lack of quality control. 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. However, 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.

torsion bar suspension

“Just a few weeks into the 1957 production, of course, the rushed assembly began to come home in the form of quality problems gone out of control. To Chrysler's credit, 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. No, the actual 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 in the structure. The body metal was assembled using larger rivets. A heavier gauge of sheet metal was employed. Longer posts were tried for the rear view mirrors. (The vibration never truly went away on any of the models fitted with the dash mirror). Extra sound deadening was liberally applied, especially in the floor pans and rear trunk. Seat springs and materials were completely changed. The small $2 rubber boot that had been taken away by the accountants to cover the end of the torsion bars was quickly reintroduced. It prevented dirt from entering the rear of the bar seat area and causing it to bind and break. The 1959 models were discernibly better, except for rust.

1957 dashboard

Curtis Redgap continued: “Many years later, in the 1970s, it was alleged that, to aid the economy of Japan in the mid 1950s, scrap steel from buildings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was melted down and, under a subsidy, sold to the American automotive industry. Remelted iron and steel has no radiation, but it contained high levels of oxidizers, and adding nickel or chromium into the molten steel to resist oxidation was prevented due to cost. The use of that poor quality steel, along with the lack of rust resistance methods on the line, garnered Chrysler a poor reputation that still lingers today. Yet, given what we know now about the steel from Japan, it is unfair to lay all the rust problems at Chrysler's door step. They were doing their patriotic duty for the country, as they had when refusing profits from World War II. They were never repaid for that.”

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 in the 20th century. It was simple, reliable, dependable, quiet, efficient, economical, and gave Chrysler cars a performance advantage.

The Torqueflite centered on a rather simple Simpson planetary gear set, named after its inventor, Howard Simpson — who licensed it to Ford in 1953 and Chrysler in 1955. As later racing versions of the Torqueflite proved, you could increase the amount of torque capability by machining more "beef" into the gear set. Late 1956 Chrysler 300 Bs 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) it quietly bought the rights to manufacture a sort of copycat. The story was quickly picked up by the automotive magazines; Ford reportedly paid Chrysler $7.5 million, which was a big chunk of change in 1957! The 1958 Ford "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

carCarl Breer seemed to feel increasingly uneasy about Chrysler as time went on, and for good reason. In 1956, Chrysler engaged McKinsey & Company to study the company, and in 1957, McKinsey delivered its report. They noted that “Chrysler’s growth in the 1920s is surely one of the nation’s most exciting industrial chronicles,” crediting it to “a handful of highly capable executives...”  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.

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... Every indication is that 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 auto environment changed dramatically over the years, becoming more complex; General Motors recognized this and developed policies and long term planning, as well as delegating more responsibility. Meanwhile, 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:

  • Few trained executives despite a vastly larger corporation
  • Nonexistent or weak management staffs
  • No clear plan of organization and little managerial control
  • No sound financial facts and more direct-labor hours invested in the cars
  • An obsolete distribution system and behind the times styling
  • Antiquated personnel systems
  • Long lead times with poor vendor relations and major quality lapses

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.

The writers slammed Chrysler for its 1953 move to divisionalization, taken, they said, without forethought, but merely copying General Motors. Divisions were given responsibility without strong controls, and division presidents did not have the power or staff help they needed.

Changes made in 1956 included bolstering the corporate staff, tweaking the division system, emphasizing “your most important product — Plymouth” more, and starting a program of profit planning and new financial controls. A study looked into the lead time issue and created a new director of product/volume planning to coordinate planning; and a new office of production programming was created.

1957 Imperial

Tweaks to the divisions basically took away profit responsibility and scheduling; instead, they were to reduce costs, and plan and launch products (in conjunction with corporate planners and schedulers). The report complained, though, that they “still aggressively meddle in dealer operations,” a group marketing function, 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).

Suggestions for the future included changing decision-making to revolve around facts and 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; 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.

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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