Chrysler 1957: Lovely Lines, Quality Qualms

All of the Chrysler Corporation cars — Chrysler, DeSoto, Dodge, and Plymouth — were so extensively changed for 1957 that they could be called the first “real” postwar Chrysler cars. The three-speed Torqueflite sold on some premium cars in 1956 was now made available across the line, at a time when three-speed automatics were still new; and the TorqueFlite was more reliable, smoother, and more efficient than most.

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). 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 and rear leaf-springs; mainstay engineering features were common across lines, so a Plymouth could benefit from the Torsion-Aire suspension as much as a Chrysler.

1957 Plymouth

The Chrysler line consisted of the Windsor, Saratoga, New Yorker, and, as of January, the famed 300C. As befitted a luxury sedan, 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, with the top of the line being 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

The Hemi V8 was standard on premium cars and often optional on lower cars; starting in 1954, Chrysler Corporation had started making a cheaper version of it, with a polyspherical head. This was Chrysler’s first single-rocker-arm overhear valve engine: cheaper to make, lighter, and easier to service. To quote Lanny Knutson of the Plymouth Owners Club:

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, because 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

At Dodge, the Coronet, once the highest car, was the base model, with nearly 161,000 made. Above the Coronet was the Royal and top Custom Royal. All were the same car in different levels of trim, and together Dodge sold 257,488 of them. A hot new D-500 was created as a separate model/engine option.

The engine range started with a base six pushed out 138 horsepower; the Red Ram V8 ramped that up to 245 hp, and the D-500 was well above that, with 285-310 hp.

dodge mayfair

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.

DeSoto was impressive, 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 midrange 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. Thus, sales were well above Chrysler — but far lower than Dodge, much less Plymouth.

1957 Plymouth Belvedere

Plymouth was by far the big seller in 1957, as it was for most of Chrysler’s history. The Fury, in its second year, was introduced in January and only represented 10% of sales, but grabbed headline, magazine coverage, and “buzz.”

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.

torsion bars

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.

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

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

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.

1957 chrysler 300c

Curtis Redgap continued, “Often ignored was the single most significant contribution to American car handling, 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.

1957 sales

“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, however, had put together a series of packages that appealed to a cross section of police work. Most fleet managers were leery about multiple carburetors. 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!

market share

Instead of a large gamut of mix and match hardware, Plymouth targeted three specific 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.

Quality issues

by Curtis Redgap

The 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.

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.

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; body metal was assembled using larger rivets; and 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 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.

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:

  • 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, which they said was 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 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. 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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