Insider's History of Chrysler and Plymouth: Part 1, 1946-1953

As Chrysler was being given to Daimler in 1998, Curtis Redgap went through his family’s journals, his memories, and other sources to provide us with this view of Chrysler Corporation at an earlier crossroads. This year, we re-edited and reorganized the collection and added photography; we are proud to re-present the series.

As World War II came to an end, Chrysler President K.T. Keller became heavily involved in the electronics side of Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler was deeply involved in the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, and numerous other military projects. What did it have to do with automobiles? Absolutely nothing! Chrysler was a big military contractor by this time, and its electronics division was second to none.

harry truman DodgeThe U.S. military had been stunned by the capabilities of the German V-2 missiles. President Harry Truman appointed K.T. Keller to run the Army's own missile program in 1950; Keller never looked back to Chrysler’s automobile business. That was in chaos, with nobody at the helm, for years; divisions competed against each other as hard as they competed against Ford and General Motors. From 1946 to 1950, despite heavy pre-war investments and advantages, Chrysler survived mainly on the pent-up demand for new automobiles and the booming economy.

Customers shifted from wanting solid, reliable, anvil-like cars (reliability being a prime sales factor in the days when breakdowns were far too common), to preferring “fancy” models like the new step-down Hudson with its lowered floor and racy profile. Automatic transmissions, power steering, power brakes, electric windows, and high-power engines were rising fast.

Chrysler looked to its Chairman for guidance. His response was to continue as they had been — solid, silent, and stodgy. Keller said the styling “won't knock your hat off, and neither will getting in one of our cars.”

1949 Plymouth Special DeluxePlymouth was, as always, the largest division — but the company believed that, since it was the “small margin” car, it depended on the other divisions. Plymouth production surpassed half a million cars in 1936 (520,025) and it never looked back — until Buick gave Chrysler board members a shock in 1954, when Plymouth fell to fifth place in production behind Buick and Pontiac!

My father and grandfather owned a full MoPar dealership, one of the rare outlets that dealt directly with the factory, and was not a franchise; they could sell every brand, including Dodge trucks. They made insightful journal entries about the Corporation from year to year. Both disliked the 1953 Plymouth, due to its stubby design, poor assembly quality, and lack of amenities. No automatic, no power steering, no power brakes, and it was dusty and leaky. The gas filler, just above the rear bumper, caused, in my grandfather’s words, more gas spills than “Carter had farter starter pills.”

1953 Plymouth Plaza cars

1951 was a critical year, and materials were hard to get due to the Korean “police action.” Automakers assured President Truman that he would have all the things the Armed Forces needed, and still sustain car production. Truman did not, therefore, have to officially declare war and once again end car production; but at the automakers, compromises had to be made. Key materials, particularly steel, were in short supply. Chrysler sheet metal was thinned out, some braces were eliminated, and fasteners were spaced further apart. The 1952 Plymouth was visibly less sound than the 1949 and 1950 models.

Dodge was to receive its own V-8 “double rocker” (Hemi) engine in 1953. Plymouth should have received its own V-8 in 1954; it had already been agreed that the Plymouth V-8 would have the cheaper and lighter “polysphere” head. Plymouth took it on the chin: with materials critical for engine manufacturing in short supply, the Board shoved Plymouth’s V-8 into the year 1955 at the earliest. Dodge also cried that it didn't have the production capacity to build engines for its own vehicles, its truck division, and Plymouth too!

cutaway

Hy-Drive semi-automatic transmissionFurther, the company’s first fully automatic transmission (project JUS95A which later became the Powerflite) was put up for further study as to meeting Plymouth’s needs — in short, it was not given to Plymouth. Finally, when the government threatened to reduce access to the materials needed to build cars, the Board decided that Plymouth would be the first to stop production if that occurred.

Despite all the bad things thrown its way, Plymouth managed to hang onto its traditional third place finish in the production race. But not by much, as a surging Buick was snapping at its heels.

For 1953, things looked better. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had gotten the North Koreans to the bargaining table, slowing demand for war materials. Plymouth’s new models, while they looked about the same inside as they had since 1941, looked new outside, and management was convinced they were on the right track when new car sales took off on a pace that equaled the 1951 record year of over 660,000 Plymouths. That is, up until July 1953.

When the Korean War ended, Ford began an all-out sales blitz to regain the #1 spot; Chevrolet joined in the fray. The dealers had to unload their cars, because the factory was just dumping them on their doorsteps, whether they ordered them or not. Suddenly everyone else began to sweat.

1953 plymouth cranbrook

Plymouth, running over capacity, was pushing out 20,000 cars a week. That was the best they could do, without help from the other divisions. Despite sacrificing quality for numbers, it was not enough. Ford was running 26,000 cars a week, and Chevrolet grabbed whatever space it needed from other GM divisions to reach 37,500 cars a week.

Suddenly, it dawned on Highland Park that Plymouth not only lacked capacity, it also lacked the glitz of its competitors. While other cars were growing, Plymouths shrank. While other cars laid on the chrome trim, Plymouth took it off. While the competition was increasing power, Plymouth had the flathead six that had been around for over 20 years. Plymouth couldn't even point to its oddly acquired NASCAR racing record any more, since the usual Plymouth drivers had switched to V-8 power from Dodge or Oldsmobile.

1953 plymouth carsPlymouth was one of only seven cars that did not have an automatic transmission, or even the semi automatic. There was no power steering, no power brakes, no fancy packages of any kind. Still, at the end of the 1953 production year, Plymouth hung on to its third place.

One of the last things that K.T. Keller did before he retired was to hire a new corporate designer; the 1954 models were set and were not affected. The arrival of the new designer met with little notice — but by the disastrous end of 1954, Virgil Exner was to be put on a pedestal at Chrysler.

Part 2 coming next week • Comment on this page in the forums

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