1958 Chrysler Corporation, Dodge, and Plymouth: 1957’s Revenge

The 1957 Plymouths had sold like gangbusters, but there were numerous problems — some caused by assembly, but most by design. The attractive styling, which boosted sales beyond expectations, also led to premature rusting and failure of numerous components; the bodies fell apart prematurely, permanently destroying Chrysler’s long-held reputation for reliability.

1958 Plymouth cars

Starting in 1957, Chrysler had already begun working on the quality problems. Windshields and rear windows continued to leak, but special kits diverted the water to the wheel wells. Braces were added, heavier sheet metal was used, and larger rivets were added to the assembly; the rear view mirror was mounted on longer posts, and for 1958, they were moved forward to reduce vibration further. Sound insulation was added, a boot put onto the end of the torsion bars to prevent dirt from coming in, and other changes were made. At the factory level, conflicts begun in 1956 with a new general works superintendent at Dodge Main were finally resolved in 1958.

testing labs

From the outside, the cars looked very similar to the popular 1957s, to the point where some dealers complained; but Chrysler no doubt was assuming that keeping the elements of style which had sold the cars, while fixing the problems which had sent them back to the dealerships, would be a winning formula. That might have worked, but sales plummeted anyway, with a recession and the fallback from quality problems robbing Chrysler of sales. (New car sales in the United States were the lowest in ten years.) GM sales rose slightly, with an all new car grabbing attention; Ford fell just 3%; Plymouth held on, losing under 2%; but Dodge, DeSoto, and Chrysler dropped like stones. Plymouth held onto third place, with Buick falling back. Chrysler Corporation as a whole lost $34 million — after earning a profit of $120 million in 1957.

Plymouth Savoy

Cosmetically, the primary changes for 1958 Plymouths were the replacement of the lower bumper pan with a grille, and the addition of dual headlamps; Plymouth stuck its parking lights above the headlamps. The Plymouth Mayflower design was no longer included anywhere on the car, for the first time since Plymouth had launched in 1928. The tail-lights were now perfectly round and much smaller, presumably to cut costs, so a “reflecting tower” of chrome was added to fill in the back of the fins. A single reverse lamp was placed in the rear bumper.

rockets

The hottest engine for the year was the 392 Hemi, with four barrel carburetor and dual exhaust, pushing out 345 horsepower (gross).

Dodge had a strong 325 cubic inch V8, with a two-barrel carb and polyspherical heads; the 350 (with dual or quad barrel carbs); the DeSoto 361, sold as the D-500 with dual four-barrel carbs and 333 horsepower. Dodges were popular for state police cars this year, though Plymouth tended to sweep the sheriffs’ offices and local patrols, favoring the 318 “Super Pack” (a 250 horsepower engine with a single four barrel).

Bodies were made in numerous forms, including four-door sedan, two door club sedan, wagon, coupe, and convertible; Plymouth Plaza even had a rear-seatless two-door business coupe based on the club sedan. Wagons were surprising popular, taking 28% of Plymouth production. All cars were body on frame, and would stay that way until 1960, when nearly ever car changed at once.

Plymouth

torsion barsThe Plymouth Fury, whose performance still matched its name, had just two engines: a 290 hp Dual Fury V-800 318 (stick shift only), or a new 305 hp Golden Commando 350, both sporting dual four-barrel carburetors backed by a 10-1/2 inch heavy-duty clutch manual transmission or three-speed TorqueFlite automatic. It put power to the ground through 14x6 wheels; like every Plymouth, it used torsion bars up front, leaf springs in back. Unique to Plymouth was the 150 mph speedometer; and new to Fury was a Buckskin Beige paint scheme, replacing the white color of Fury’s first two years. In 1959, the Fury name would be diluted; 1958 was its last year as a true factory hot rod.

Plymouth Fury interior

Ordinary Plymouths made do with the ancient PowerFlow Six with 152 hp at 3600rpm. The base V-8 was the Fury V-800, a 318 225hp two-barrel which was ironically standard on all models except the Fury; a four barrel version was available, with 250 hp. Transmissions were a stick-shift with or without overdrive, two-speed automatic PowerFlite, or three-speed automatic TorqueFlite.

1958 Plymouth cars - tail

Also available for one year was the Golden Commando 350, always a good engine for bar bets (“I bet $50 Plymouth made a 350 engine.”) With twin carburetors and high compression, it pushed out 305 gross horsepower and 370 lb-ft of torque. This was the first year of the B-block engines, created to be inexpensive to build but still powerful; the 350 would soon be replaced by bigger versions of the same engine, of which the most famous were the 383, 426, and 440.

Fury engine

Dodge cars

Dodge continued its 1957 cars with a completely new grille and dual headlights, with parking lights moved to the sides of the grille by the under-headlight bars. Engines were the major change; they moved to the cheaper wedge design, but still gained power due to tuning, carburetion, and size. At the top was an electronically fuel injected 361 with 333 horsepower; also available were a 230 hp six, 245 hp “Red Ram” V8, 295 hp “Ram-Fire” V8, 305 hp D-500 V8, and 320 hp Super D-500 V8 (which is what customers ended up with when their fuel injected V8s were converted back to carburetors.) Underneath the names were a 325 cubic inch A-type V8 (Red Ram), B-series 350 V8 (Ram-Fire), and B-series 361 V8 (D-500 and Super D-500).

d500 guages

Coronet remained the bottom of the line, and was sold with a choice of straight-six or V8. Moving up one level was the Royal series, which included Royal sedan and Royal Lancer hardtop (two and four door versions). The top Dodge was the over-the-top Custom Royal, which outsold the midline Royal. Coronet was clearly the sales leader, with 77,388 made versus 21,000 or so Custom Royals, 15,500 or so Royals, and around 20,000 Suburban and Sierra wagons.

Worldwide, Plymouth remained the #1 sales brand with 387,617 sales, but Dodge was gaining ground, selling 134,627 cars. DeSoto was next up the ladder, with a dwindling 38,043 sales — down from 117,179 the prior year. Chrysler came in with 54,237 cars, and Imperial, the top brand, followed with 13,488 very expensive cars. (That number actually beat Imperial’s 1956 sales and was similar to 1955.) Truck sales remained well below what they should have been, with fewer than 70,000 sold between Dodge and Fargo.

DeSoto

1957 desoto firesweep

The DeSoto Firesweep was largely unchanged; this V-8 powered car used a Dodge body with DeSoto cues. New this year to all normal DeSotos was the 350 B-type V-8, used as the standard engine as Hemis were now restricted to Chrysler and Imperial. Automatics were standard but cost extra on Firedome and Firesweep; Torqueflites were an extra $220 in these lines. Buyers could (though few did) order a column shifter and get a little money back, instead of using the pushbuttons.

highway hi-fi

Compared with 1957, it switched to a new honeycomb grille insert, a slightly altered middle grille bar, and, to allow for dual headlights, parking lamps were moved to the lower grille opening. The side trim was altered, as well, and an upgraded interior became optional. Electric windshield wipers were standard for visibility when going uphill (versus vacuum operated wipers).

firesweep tailfins

DeSoto Firedome was the next model up. DeSoto Fireflite was the top model, and it had a unique full length upper body side molding with fender-top ornaments. An astonishing 86 two-tone color schemes were available along with 14 solid colors.

1958 DeSoto

DeSoto’s heavy hitter was the Adventurer; with its 361 cubic inch B-engine, it was deceptively fast — while the peak horsepower of the Hemi was higher, the Adventurer could be faster since it made more torque at lower speeds. That engine was also optional on lower models; a DeSoto Firedome with the optional 305hp, 361 cubic inch V8 flew from zero to sixty in 7.7 seconds, with a top speed of 115 miles per hour.

Chrysler and Imperial cars

Chrysler made its 25 millionth vehicle, a Windsor, in Detroit. The Chrysler 300 moved on to the letter D, resulting in a Chrysler 300D — another bar-bet piece of trivia — using a 392 Hemi engine. Chrysler also had two luxury toppers, the Imperial and New Yorker, and for the first time could offer factory air stowed entirely under the hood, without anything in the trunk. All wagons were called Town & Country.

The base Chrysler Windsor was actually a Dodge with moderately different sheet metal, less overdone perhaps than the Dodge but clearly in the same family. A Dartline package, presaging the Dodge Dart, was added in the spring; it added brightwork across the car. A V8 engine was standard on every Chrysler including entry level Windsor.

The first “real” Chrysler was the Saratoga, which continued largely unchanged from 1957, with dual headlamps, moderately altered tail lamps, and some color and trim changes. The top “standard” Chrysler was the New Yorker, which was also moderately face-lifted from 1957; it gained two new, unique options, Auto-Pilot (cruise control) and remote control rearview mirrors. Rear window defroster, windshield washer, power steering and Torqueflite (Windsor), air conditioning, radio, power antenna, and phonograph remained optional.

Finally, at the top, was the aforementioned 300D, officially a series belonging to the New Yorker. It had red paint in depressed parts of the hubcaps; red, white, and blue medallions continued from the 300C, modified to read 300D. Just about 800 of these were made, most of them two-door hardtops, the rest convertibles.

prime minister of malaysia

Imperial was still its own brand in 1958; with its low production, the only major changes were in the grille, which had mesh replaced by stacked horizontal bars. The Imperial came with standard power brakes, power steering, reverse lights, and windshield washer. Every Imperial got the same engine, a 392 Hemi (actually 393 cid) with 345 horsepower and a reliable Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor. Options included air conditioning, instant heater (versus the standard heater), rear defogger, six way power seat, power windows, electric-touch radio, and tinted glass. 94% of Imperials sold had power seats, 93% had power windows, and just 33% had air conditioning.

1956 Imperial, C-73According to Chrysler, “Auto Pilot was introduced on Imperial as the first automatic driver assist which would allow the driver to select turnpike cruising speeds by means of a dial. Optional 11.00 x 14 tires were the largest passenger car tires in the world. An integrated mechanical-electrical door locking system was offered as another Chrysler ‘First.’”

Imperial series were standard Imperial, Imperial Crown, Crown Imperial (limousine), and LeBaron. Crown Imperial, which started at a stunning $15,075 — in a year when you could buy a Plymouth for $2,000 (but would probably spend $2,400). In return, you got a car with the highest quality Chrysler could provide, with a reported 17 hours spent on inspection alone; standard air conditioning, power windows, and other “luxury features;”and seating for eight passengers. Just 31 of these cars were made in 1958, compared with around 7,000 Imperials, around 7,000 Imperial Crowns, and 1,039 Imperial LeBarons.

SIMCA

simca oceaneThe smallest brand was the newest: Simca, which Chrysler had just acquired 25% of. A bit more than 7,000 Simcas were sold by around 2,000 dealers throughout the country, after September 30, 1958. Simca sales did not include those sold by Simca itself in Europe. The cars, as sold in the US in 1958, were Super DeLuxe, DeLuxe, Chatelaine (wagon), Plein Ciel (hardtop), and Oceane lines from the Simca Aronde; four-door Airane sedan; and Vedette Beaulieu, with its embarassing Ford V8, chosen largely because it was the only cheap V8 that would fit into the little car.

Dodge trucks

The Dodge C series pickups had been 1954; they had been brand new, redesigned from the ground up, complete with a new frame. They featured a low cab with excellent visibility. Inside, the pedals were mounted to the frame to reduce vibration, and control buttons were clustered on the driver’s right hand side.

Buyers in 1958 could get a 120 horsepower straight-six or a 204 horsepower 315 cid V8, along with other engines. Dodge started using the name "Power Giant" in 1957 and the industry-standard rating system, calling its half-ton pickups the D100; the 1958 was the “L” pickup, so a half ton would be designated L6D100 (1958 six cylinder, rear wheel drive, half ton). The W designation showed four wheel drive, e.g. L8-W100. The PowerFlite automatic from 1955 continued, with the TorqueFlite added for those who wanted three speeds.

1957 Dodge Power Giant half-ton pickup trucks

Styling had been heavily revised and snazzed up for 1957, and that continued for 1958, with moderate changes. Dodge had claimed that their 1957 line “covers 98% of all hauling needs,” with nine engines and 12 different horsepower ratings, and the 1958 line was no smaller.

1958 Engineering

The big news for performance buffs was the launch of the Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor. Often ignored in favor of the Holleys, the Carter AFB would be a Chrysler mainstay for years. It featured a reduced height versus outgoing units, and all major castings were aluminum; the throttle body was integral to the main body. All cars except Chrysler and Imperial used a crossover automatic choke; Chrysler and Imperial used an integral automatic choke. The step-up rods, pistons, and springs were accessible for service without taking the air horn or carburetor off.

fuel injected badges

The first B engines launched for 1958; they used wedge shaped heads and hydraulic valve lifters, with a 10:1 ratio requiring premium fuel. These engines were lighter and cheaper than the polyspherical and hemispherical head engines that had preceded them. The single-year 350 engine was optional on Plymouth, and standard on Dodge Custom Royal, wagons, and DeSoto Firesweep. The 361, essentially the same engine with a bigger bore, was standard on Dodge D-500 and other DeSotos. Both featured better support for the crankshaft and transmission, eliminating the torque converter housing plate; had an integral timing cover case, for a cheaper and lighter chain cover; full length water jackets for each cylinder; lower weight; and a relocated distributor for easier service.

A new full-flow disposable oil filter was put onto the front of the oil pump base; the engines took five quarts including the filter, and had a suggested oil change interval of 5,000 miles. Plymouth Fury, Dodge D-500, and DeSoto Adventurer used dual points; other Plymouht, Dodge, and DeSoto lines used single points. (Point gap was .015”-.018” in both cases. Cam dwell for single breakers was 29-32°, for dual 36-39° total. Ignition timing was 6° BTDC ± 4°.) A manifold heat control valve was critical to good operation and was to be inspected and lubricated as often as possible.

A very, very rare item, available on select cars in each brand from Plymouth to Imperial, was the Golden Commando with fuel injection, billed as a "the most advanced high-performance engine available in its field,” and using a surprisingly modern Bendix “Electrojector” electronic fuel injection system. It was rated at 315 hp and 370 lb-ft of torque, and would have been far superior in driveability had the system been able to deal with the temperatures and vibration under the hood.

brain

Unfortunately, inadequate testing and a rush to market meant that Chrysler was caught by surprise when the components broke down with astonishing speed and regularity. Materials technology would have to move forward a generation or two before Bosch, which bought the rights, would successfully sell a reliable version. The Bendix system was ahead of its time — had they been able to use modern materials, it would have leapfrogged Chrysler over GM’s mechanical injection. Most of the cars sold with this system had carburetors installed, and the original components junked.

air intake

sure-grip differential

Also new for 1958, and far more durable, was the "Sure-Grip" differential. Sure-Grip prevented the momentary spinning of the wheels when poor traction was encountered or when power overwhelmed the tires. It was available with every engine and transmission unless overdrive was ordered. The differential looked like conventional units, but had friction / clutch plates for coupling the case to the axle shafts. Sure-Grip used four pinions on two perpendicular shafts; they fit loosely to each other.

A brand new, redesigned manual transmission was also launched, starting on February 22, 1958; it used different ratios and internal components, with shorter shifter travel and a better feel. Power steering, where available, used a new, smaller unit which could be adjusted while in the car.

1958 chassis

Motor Trend and Motor Life tested the cars against Impala and Fairlane 500. The Plymouths topped handling tests, and were noted as having good assembly and finish, good cornering, and excellent brakes; they preferred the smoother PowerFlite to the new TorqueFlite. When the Fury was tested against Chevy and Ford V8s, Chevy got 12.7 mpg, Ford 10.3, and Fury 8.4 — but the Plymouth Fury did 0-60 in 7.7 seconds, compared with Chevy’s 9.1 and Ford’s 10.2. The Plymouth Fury, new, with period tires, recorded a 16.1 second quarter mile.

Despite these figures on the hot Fury, the normal Plymouths did not fall behind on gas mileage. Plymouth won the two top spots in its class in the Mobilgas Economy Run (as driven by Pierce Venable and Mary Davis).

1957 plymouth chassis

As for the Torqueflite, its efficiency and reliability were so high that (according to Curtis Redgap) Ford quietly paid Chrysler over $7 million for the right to make a copy of it, replacing their own troubled automatic. The 1958 Ford Cruise-O-Matic was available with most Ford engines; it used the same Simpson gear set as the Torqueflite, but had Ford parts around it (Ford already had rights to the Simpson gearset, acquired in 1953). It was heavier and had more parts, including Ford’s own clutch band controls. The Torqueflite would be used, as made by Chrysler, by some European luxury automakers as well.

torqueflite

Behind the scenes, Project A901 continued to build Chrysler’s response to imported small cars. Possibly Tex Colbert’s most important contribution to the company, the project, led by Plymouth GM Harry Cheseborough (guiding 200 engineers working under top security), would come up with the 1960 Plymouth Valiant — a car which might have saved Chrysler, grabbing a huge market share, spawning the Barracuda, Duster, and Dart, and preserving Chrysler’s presence internationally for decades.

Racing

Richard began his racing career in July of 1958 at Columbia, South Carolina. He came in 6th with a 1957 Oldsmobile convertible, but he was noticed, and Chrysler started making overtures to him for the 1959 season.

dimensions

Corporate

Mound Road built its millionth V8 engine less than three years after starting production; and Kokomo made the millionth TorqueFlite automatic, also three years after the first.

L.L. “Tex” Colbert presided over Chrysler Corporation; William C. Newberg, who would briefly replace him, was promoted to Executive Vice President with authority over all line operating groups and staff organizations, and also-future-president Lynn A. Townsend was in charge of international operations.

chrysler profits

Chrysler sold $2 billion worth of vehicles; they shipped nearly 700,000 vehicles for the year, roughly half the shipments of 1957, and had a 15% U.S. market share, down from 19.5%. Part of the problem was a major strike, ending with an agreement designed to stop future stoppages. Executives were not given any incentive compensation, and officers lost three weeks’ pay as a result of the losses. Chrysler Corporation then hired 96,000 employees in the United States (down from 136,000 in 1957) and had nearly 88,000 shareholders (only 1% were institutional). 60% of revenue went to 13,500 suppliers; cars were sold through 8,100 dealers.

dyno roomOne investment that would continue to pay off was the acquisition of one quarter of Simca, the largest “non-government-owned” automaker in France. The comapny also invested $63 in plant improvements.

Defense and Special Products brought in $325 million, well over double the revenue of 1957; the company was busily making Redstone and Jupiter missiles, and would soon start building M48A2 tanks. (The Redstone was the booster for space satellites launched with the Jupiter C; they were used for the first U.S. satellite and numerous others, following.)

The division also included the Airtemp, Amplex, Cycleweld, and Marine and Industrial Engine Divisions. Airtemp made a full line of air conditioners for commercial and residential applications, and was still a major force to be reckoned with; Amplex, also a formidable company in its own right, made powdered metal products stemming from research done under Carl Breer in the 1930s. Cycleweld, which made adhesives and chemicals, expanded during the year and started to sell a sealing paint, Ceramiseal. Marine and Industrial ended the year in new quarters at the Jefferson Avenue Plant, preparing to make a “Sea-V” V8 engine for marine use and a dual-engine “packaged power” unit.

market share

Chrysler began operations in Rotterdam in December; the plant had 200,000 square feet of space and would soon make Valiants and other cars for Europe. The company also started adapting plants in Havana and Capetown to make Simcas.

Back in the US, construction on the St. Louis Assembly plant neared completion; it was designed to serve the South and Southwest. Newark (Delaware) was completed, to supply Plymouths and Dodges to the East coast; it was adjacent to a parts plant and the indianapolisChrysler Delaware Defense Plant. Los Angeles gained new flexible conveyor systems, and the Warren Avenue (Detroit) plant, originally built by Paige-Detroit in the 1920s, was completely renovated to meet Imperial’s quality standards.

Engines were switched entirely to two large plants, Mound Road and Trenton, so other plants could focus on car bodies and assembly. The Twinsburg plant was listed as one of the Top Ten Plants of 1957 by Factory Management and Maintenance Magazine.

An entirely new Electrical Division started making distributors in January 1959, its plant in Indianapolis having been built in 1958. This endeavor would not last long.

Within Highland Park, Chrysler built a new hot room lab to test air conditioning, and improved Chelsea’s road system for more vigorous testing. Research and development was done by a basic science group and automotive research group, the former being more abstract and the latter working on integrating research into new vehicles. A human engineering team tried to figure out what people needed and incorporate their results into cars.

Related resources

Jim Benjaminson’s chapter on the 1958 Plymouths and Virgil Exner’s justification for fins

Go back to 1957 or go forward to 1959 or ... suddenly, it’s 1960

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