Inside Chrysler: the stunning and disastrous 1957 cars
I am by no means an expert, and I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles. In some cases, the journals go back 50 years.
In October 1956, Chrysler showed its new models to its dealers at the Chrysler Chelsea Proving Grounds. The guys that sell 'em got to beat them up a bit, run them out, and see what the cars feel like. The Proving Grounds had a 5 mile long high speed track, so there was plenty of space to let 'er rip if you felt like it.
Ford had brought out a completely new car for 1957, and I thought that the 2 door hardtop Fairlane was almost perfect except for the bugged-out headlamps. They certainly were far better looking than the 1957 Chevrolet; I still don't know why such a fuss is made over Chevrolet's 1957 cars. Plymouth was so far ahead of both Ford and Chevrolet, in design, and components, that they seemed almost old in comparison.
Dad was almost overwhelmed when the materials arrived on the 1957 Chrysler line. It was hard to believe that they were even connected to the cars we had been selling just three years prior. Put a 1954 Plymouth alongside a 1957. Built by the same company? Assembled in the same place by the same people?
Grandpa came home from the event in a contemplative mood. About a week after the trip, Dad was pressing Grandpa about which car he wanted for 1957. Grandpa didn't say anything in return, which was not exactly like him. Finally, setting his jaw, Grandpa set down his fork, and looked right into my Dad's eyes, and uttered the words that stunned us all into silence.
“I won't be taking any 1957 car!”
I thought my Dad was going to burst a vein in his head. His eyes bulged, and he turned red. When he tried to speak, only a sort of hoarse gasp emitted from him. The owner of the Chrysler dealer not taking a new model? Especially one of these beautifully stunning new 1957s! Finally Dad was able to sputter out something like, “What the hell do you mean by that?”
I felt that this time, Grandpa has gone way too far. My memory has faded because in the first few seconds of Grandpa's explanation, I was still in shock which is not conducive to listening well. Finally, I grasped onto what Grandpa was saying..."I am telling you, they are going to be a warranty nightmare!...They are junky as anything I have ever seen out of Chrysler! If you thought the 1952 Plymouth was bad, wait until you get to see what they have done to these 1957s. Sure, they’re gorgeous, and we’re going to be able to sell a ton of every model. But they rushed them. These cars should have had another year of engineering for assembly. They are terrible.”
My Dad had gone from red to completely white. “My gawd, are they really that bad?” Grandpa shook his head affirmatively.
"I would get one of those undercoating machines and train a couple of guys that will do a good job to operate it. These things are as tinny as a Ford, and leak dust and water around all the windows and doors. If we throw a coat of undercoating on, maybe, it might stop some of the leaking, and perhaps keep rust out of corners that you don't know you got until they rot enough to fall off!"
Dad's forehead sort of knotted. "Aw c'mon, Pa... they can't be all that bad. I'll have to pay ten, fifteen dollars on every car to put that stuff on it, besides paying wages for it."
Grandpa nodded again. "Yup, but it might save a few thousand in claims later on down the line, and could stop some of that tinny sound you get when you close the doors. You know they mounted the rear view mirror on the dash, sorta right by the driver's right arm. By about 50 miles an hour, it vibrates so badly, it is useless! And, if anyone is sitting in the middle in the back, you can't see through them ... The seats are covered with something plastic like and they are calling it Vannahide material. But, in every one of the cars that I saw, the seams are puckered and bunched. It won't take much to split them like a grape getting pushed out of its skin. The outside door handles on the Plymouth are like the lever on a refrigerator. They bend without much pressure and I can see some kid yanking them right out of the holder with no trouble at all. The rest of the line has outside handles that you pull up from a sort of recess. It looks strong, but on the inside of the door where you can't see, it has a lever about as thick as a coat hanger to operate the mechanism. That is a sure fire warranty nightmare."
Dad just sat with about the most dejected look he ever had. "Gawd, Pa, isn't there anything good about the cars?"
Grandpa softened quite a bit. "Oh hell yes! The engines should make all the cars the top performers. As you know from my experience with the Torqueflite, you can't beat that tranny. And that new torsion bar front suspension makes every one of the cars a real road car! You can take it around corners that would put a Ford right into the weeds, just like it was on a set of rails!"
For a few moments, there was just utter silence. Finally Dad looked up. "What about the Fury, Pa... did they make it as good as it looks"? Knowing what my Dad had gone through for that model, Grandpa sorta smiled. "Son, you will just love the first one you actually see. The engine just makes it so fast, it is like a streak."
The 1957 cars: Launch Day
October 30, 1956 arrived quickly. We had people at the front doors before we were ready to open. It was a big event. We had a big wash tub that we filled with water so kids could bob for apples. There was plenty of candy to give away. Everyone dressed in a costume. Dad set up a film projector with the advertisement reels from Chrysler. We had tons of the new Slinky toys, and so many hula hoops we were afraid we wouldn't be able to give them away. The new television station came down and filmed a lot of what was going on. We got a whole minute and a half that evening on the 6 o'clock news. That brought out a crush of people later on that night, and persuaded Dad to get some air time on TV.
Imagine my surprise when I got called to the Principal's office. I was shocked to learn that Dad had called the school to get me out! It was so busy at the dealership that he needed all the hands he could get! Literally, we were mobbed. We could barely move! There was absolutely no question that Virgil Exner was a design genius!
The 1957s were a smash hit. Dad sent the band home early because no one could hear them, and they did not garner any attention anyway. He called down to Raymond's, a neighborhood tavern, and had cold cuts, bread, dips, crackers, bread, soda pop and other food sent over. That was an instant draw. I think Raymond's daughter about wore out the sidewalk. I am sure that the butcher was rubbing his hands together. He probably hadn't moved that much ham, bologna, and salami in his entire existence. But it worked! People stayed on and waited for us to get to them until the wee hours of the morning! We got home about 2:00 a.m. Dad was up at his usual 7:30 a.m., only this time no one got to sleep in! He dragged us all out again. One of our police officers, seeing Dad getting the paper, had stopped to let Dad know that there were at least 50 people outside the store at 6:00 a.m.
Dad was worried that he wouldn't have enough people to handle the crowd. By the time we got there at 9 am, all of the sales people had been on the floor for at least an hour. It was like an extended family. What a crew!
Raymond himself came this time, laughing that his daughter would be ready for the second shift. My Dad waved and yelled across the sales floor to just keep the food coming. Raymond got about halfway across the lot when he saw a Royal Blue Chrysler New Yorker. He hesitated, then looked around to see if anyone was watching. Like a kid reaching for a cookie, he opened the door and got in. One of the guys let out a whoop as he shot for the door. “Hey, Raymond, you wanna buy it?”
There was no answer, but neither did Raymond get out of that car. Wally, who was one of the best salespeople I ever saw, yelled that he would have Raymond sold in 10 minutes. Someone else yelled, “That’s a bet.”
“O.K.” said Wally, “20 bucks...anybody else?” Wally strode out across the black top parking area. My Grandpa was laughing so hard, tears were coming out of his eyes. You see, in all the years that they had been there, Raymond had bought only Ford products. But, this time, he knew, just as Wally had known, that Raymond was going to buy that Chrysler as sure as it was sitting there. And he did. Wally collected the $20 bet. That was just how good those new models were.
The day wasn't over for Wally either. A guy came in and wanted to test drive one of the new Plymouths that had the big V-8. Wally said the only thing he had was a Belvedere with the 301 cubic inch 4 barrel, 235 horsepower. Guy thought for a minute. "Lemme make a phone call," he said. Wally said sure because there was so much business going on that every one of them had at least three deals done, waiting for the Finance and Insurance folks to do their stuff. A few minutes later, the guy practically ran up to Wally. "Hey, yeah that’s OK, but we gotta hurry... I gotta test drive it right away." Wally agreed, taking his tag out and putting it on the car.
The guy got behind the wheel, and was careful. Wally had a set route that he liked to take potential customers on for a test drive, but this guy started heading out of town towards the military highway. Wally started to get concerned, but the guy assured him that he just really wanted to drive it in his own way. Wally wasn't pleased, but decided to keep quiet. At least the guy was being careful.
Suddenly, the man braked hard. A new 1957 Ford Fairlane pulled up alongside and also stopped. Wally recognized the passenger as one of the Ford sales people. The guy behind the wheel yelled over, “This one is a 312 with a four barrel. Got 245 horsepower.” Wally's guy yelled back, “Yeah, and this one has got 235 ponies!" Wally started to get madder than a wet hen, but just as he was going to grab the guy, the Ford driver yelled out, "GO!" With that the two cars set up with a roar.
The Ford got the jump, but the Plymouth started to catch right up about 60 and by the time the Torqueflite had wound the 301 out to 85 miles an hour, the Plymouth was 10 car lengths ahead. They began to slow, and Wally started yelling at the guy to stop the car. The guy went right on, wheeling the Plymouth onto Hogback Road, with the Ford right in tow behind them. It you are familiar with a hog's back, you would well recognize why this road was named for it; it was full of curves, dips, and assorted other ills that did not make for high speed transition over it. The guy slapped the accelerator on the Plymouth and they were off in roar. The Ford kept up through the first real curve. After that they never saw it again until the guy stopped the Plymouth.
Wally was prepared for that. He snatched the keys, and then jumped out, cursing like a drunken sailor. The Ford salesman also bailed out when they stopped. Then the guy driving the Ford walked up and shook Wally's hand. “Congratulations. We will buy two cars from you. Take us back to the dealership.”
Well, it wasn't all that easy at first to persuade Wally to escort those two guys anywhere, except the local jail. Finally, they pulled out their wallets. Between them they had close to $5,000 in cash. When they convinced Wally that he could hold the cash until they got back, he relented. They were brothers and could not make up their minds between the Ford or the Plymouth. They came up with the scheme to conduct their own road tests. They did not get a price break, but they did get two new Plymouths from Wally.
The Ford salesman had called the police. Two bored looking cops showed up at the store looking for Wally and two kidnappers. Wally feigned ignorance. After a few minutes, the cops took to looking at all the cars on the lot, more interested in the engines than any two kidnappers in the area. The brothers left in their shiny new Plymouths and even waved at the police as they left. Dad laughed until he cried whenever Wally told someone about that sale.
We didn't break any new records for Plymouth on the first day. 1955 is and was the single Plymouth day record. Overall between all the car lines, we moved an absolute record of 38 cars! 14 Plymouths. 11 Chryslers. 6 Dodges, 4 DeSotos and 3 Imperials. The second day also saw a record flurry of activity when we sold 22 units!
My expectations of a late sleep in on Saturday were sent flying away when Dad shook me awake at 7:00 a.m. "We got an even bigger crowd waiting this morning than we had yesterday! Son, you are doing a wonderful job, and I truly need you to help me." I was up, showered, dressed, and fired up to go by 7:30! We hit the store at a running start at 7:45. Three of the sales people were already there, and the F & I (finance and insurance) folks had already closed three sales left from yesterday, with four more new folks waiting.
Dad told me the first thing to do was to get the replacement stock moving in a rush to the store. We had a teletype and a private phone line to the stock marshaling yard, which was about 200 miles away. Dad said, "I won't tell you what you need to do, except that you may want to take a fast inventory of what we have left, and then increase our stock by 50% over what we ordered to begin with.”
Grandpa popped in for a quick look. "Man, that isn't enough! Whatever we had, we should double it!" Now, what do I do? I had Grandpa's benefit of experience, and my Dad's marching orders. What would Dad do? I did what any good son would do, I compromised and ordered 75% of the original lot inventory. The teletype chattered cheerfully away as I hunted and pecked my way through the entire order, then hit send. One thing about the teletype is that no matter how slowly you entered the message, when you sent it, you at least sounded like a speed demon. Around 4:00 p.m. we got in three trucks with some new inventory. Wally and his crew were out on the back lot, selling those 1957s right off the truck. I have never seen anything like it, before or since!
When Dad saw that, he told me, "take whatever we originally had, and double it along with a half!" Grandpa chimed in, "Hell, we better triple it or we are gonna get skinned here." I looked at Dad, who then took in the sight of Wally and two other sales folks selling right from the truck, and then said: "DO IT!" I ran back to the teletype and sent another long list of models. All I got back is a short, terse rattley teletype reply: It said, "we're loading, WE'RE LOADING!"
On Saturday, we sold 30 cars. Over 200 new ones were either being delivered or on the way. I set up a mini-Max kind of inventory so I could keep track of when to place orders; I had gotten the idea from a friend of mine that stocked shelves over at the A&P grocery store.
Sunday, we got to the store at 1:00 p.m. It was quiet. Not one person from our crew stayed home. More deliveries arrived, were checked, cleaned, matched to the paper work, and set on the lot ready to go. We labored far into the night on Sunday. We sold 17 units in 6 hours. By the end of the first week, our store had moved 173 units! We had nearly turned the inventory over.
Mrs. Weed explained the mini-max inventory to Dad. He was so impressed that he offered me my first true regular job. After school, when my homework was done, I was to insure that the inventory was complete and have the cars on the line, ready to go. He was going to pay me the princely sum of 75 cents an hour. I was ready to take it until my Grandpa scoffed and called him cheap. My Dad then offered me $2 an hour. I couldn't believe it. I was going to be the richest kid in the whole world at that price! Most kids didn't get two dollars a week! One thing Dad did make me do however, is open a saving account with my first check. He never asked if I was contributing to it. I did anyway. I liked to see the sum add up, especially when the interest was calculated in.