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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. — Curtis Redgap
by Curtis Redgap
The first advertising materials about Valiant were strongly worded, almost challenging. “Nobody’s kid brother.... this stands on its own four wheels.”
Chrysler intended to market Valiant on its own, with standalone Valiant stores. Marketing must have been holding its breath to see how sales of the new car were going to go. For the initial introduction, however, the Valiant was sent only to those dealers selling Plymouth — so the newly freed Dodge dealers did not get any of the small cars. It didn’t take more than a couple of days before some of the Dodge boys were whining about the lack of the Valiant.
On the opening night of October 9, 1959, we sold 7 new cars. This was a good sign for the health of the dealership, but it did not bode too well for Plymouth — no one bought a new 1960 Plymouth.
The Dodge Dart accounted for three sales that first night, sales which would ordinarily would have gone to Plymouth. Valiant made two sales. Even with a new hefty price tag of over $4,000, two fairly loaded Chryslers left the lot.
We had a good crowd. Ford's new cars had turned away a lot of regular Ford people — “It just don't look like a Ford.” To be honest, I liked the fastback Starliner. Chevrolet had toned down the “batmobile” design of its big cars, but the small Chevrolet Corvair was not a hit. The rear engine confused traditional buyers, and it was underpowered.
Ford’s conventional Falcon sat on a 109.5 inch wheelbase, which was 3 inches longer than the Valiant, though the Valiant appeared larger. The only engine was a small (144 cid) straight-6 which developed 90 horsepower, a “coffee grinder” mill that always seemed busy. With an automatic transmission, it took a long time to get up to speed.
Valiant kicked butt on both Corvair and Falcon in any area you wanted to compare it, except perhaps styling. It was different. It still had all the right Chrysler stuff, though: torsion bar suspension, Torqueflite, good power, new Bendix brakes (an item that only Valiant had), a smart looking dashboard that was “big car” in appearance, a station wagon that Corvair didn't have, and a host of options. The buyer could get their own “unique” car that suited their tastes.
If a buyer compared all three, hands down, the Valiant was far superior. It had two problems. One: it was a Chrysler product, and that old gremlin of poor quality was still attached. Two: no one knew what kind of car it was! Was it a Plymouth? A Dodge? A Chrysler? Once again, they didn't know how to market a car. Corvair was a Chevrolet. Falcon was a Ford. What was Valiant?
Valiant sales were good, with over 194,000 sold in the first model year, but Falcon really took off, with 435,000 units.
The Valiant’s styling was based upon the Exner “S” car. I am not saying that the Valiant was unpleasant in its looks, it was just unlike anything else.
Conventional in layout, the Valiant rode on a 106½ inch wheelbase; the Valiant V100 was the base and the V200 was the upgrade. Both came in four-door sedan and four-door wagon form; the wagon could be configured to carry 6 or 9 passengers. Transmissions were a floor-mounted 3 speed stick or the brand new Torqueflite built just for the Valiant, using an aluminum case which made it some 60 pounds lighter.
Other innovations on the Valiant would also find their way to the rest of the car lines. The biggest news was the switch from a generator in the electrical system to an alternator; the latter made alternating current, and a Chrysler-invented diode setup converted it seamlessly to direct current. It provided power even at idle speeds, keeping batteries and accessories operating at optimum power, and, could produce far more power than the generators.
Valiant had a direct linkage floor shift, the first standard floor mounted shift since 1939. The slant six engine developed more torque and power than any other manufacturer's engines, inch for cubic inch.
Valiant also had a new Bendix brake design, which eliminated the need for two cylinders per wheel; the duo-servo used the weight of the car to build braking power. The brake drums were flanged on the ends and finned to avoid fade; they were also a full three inches wide! The drum size of the Valiant was 9 inches, and on a 2,700 pound car, they were tremendously powerful.
Once again, Chrysler had achieved putting good brakes on a car. The only problem was that it would be three full model years before these good brakes found their way to the rest of the car line!
The standard 170 cubic inch engine was rated at 101 horsepower, with, as a dealer-installed option, a “Hyper-Pak.” which used a four-barrel carburetor, exhaust headers, a reworked distributor, and a larger radiator, building 148 horsepower. The first indication of its power and ruggedness was when Lee Petty took a 1960 Valiant with the Hyper-Pak to a victory at Daytona in the new (and short-lived) small car class.
The race was run in January, prior to the speed weeks and Daytona 500 miler. CBS (at that time, the first of two major networks) decided to air the compact sedan races as well as the qualifying for the Daytona 500 race in a live TV special for CBS's “Sports Spectacular.” It was the first time the races had been televised live, and 17 million people were watching.
The compact sedan race quickly turned into a dull affair as, lap after lap, Lee Petty turned away all challenges. It was made even duller by the fact that besides his Valiant, the next 14 challengers were also all Valiants! The finishing order was Valiant 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15! Did Chrysler use that for advertising fodder? Nope. Go figure!
NASCAR agreed with CBS on the dull part of the race, and quickly canceled any other plans for compact sedan races. It was not the first time a sanctioning body has changed the rules because Chrysler showed up ready to race.
Of the two Valiant sales we had the first night, one went to my Mom. Talk about being shocked! Up until now, she never had her own car. She had just never felt the need. She always drove Dad's cars. It was amusing in a way to watch her. She was in her usual circulation mode, talking to customers, making sure they were comfortable, keeping them fed and coffeed up. Yet, every time she would pass the Valiant on the show room floor, she would stop, look, touch, and yes, smell the new interior.
About the tenth time by, she put all pretense aside, and started to sit in the car. Each sit in grew a little bit longer. Finally, she made up her mind. She went outside and looked at the Valiants on the lot. She choose a nice one. Blue 4 door sedan, automatic, power steering, brakes, radio, heater/defroster, cloth seats, and upgraded trim package. My Dad was proud as punch, somewhat confused, and I believe, a little stunned that his wife of all these years had gotten her own car, on her own!
A true barometer of the fate of Plymouth showed when three Darts were sold the first night. One of the customers who chose the Dart shocked everyone that knew her.
Mrs. Beacheum was a high school English teacher. Her reputation was formidable. She was all about business, and didn't stand for any funny stuff, either in her classroom or outside it. Her husband died a hero on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944, in the D-Day invasion of France, and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Mrs. Beacheum dedicated it to the school system, so the medal was on permanent display in the High School.
Prior to the war, Mr. Beacheum owned a food processing company that made apple and fruit products. It had been absorbed by an industrial giant; the original plant Mr. Beacheum had built was incorporated into several huge expansions at the site, and is part of the operation to this day. His wise investment in stocks gave Mrs. Beacheum fine annuities. I sneaked a look at her financial statement when she bought her last car. She didn't have to work, several times over!
From 1932 onward, Mr. and Mrs. Beacheum's sole outward indulgence appeared to be the purchase of a new Plymouth car, each and every year. They got it within a week of introduction night, always the same. Black, two door, stick shift, six cylinder, radio deleted, heater/defroster, carpeting, and cloth seats.
Their trade in car always had people standing in line: low mileage, garage kept, meticulously maintained, non smoked, and complete with all records. The only change came in 1955, when Mrs. Beacheum asked my Dad if he thought her husband, if he were alive, would object to her getting her new Plymouth with air conditioning. Dad didn't know what to say. In her usual no-nonsense manner, she was blunt. “You were always a good student, but how you came to selling cars is beyond me since you never had the ability to lie to someone. Now, if your wife asked you about air conditioning in your car, what would you do?”
My Dad didn't hesitate. “If she wanted air, she would get air, no questions from me.”
I think that is the first time I ever saw that lady smile, truthfully. “You make a fine couple, worthy of respect. I would like the air conditioning then, from now on.” Everything else was the same.
Opening night, she was there. Her 1959 Plymouth two door was outside. Probably 20 of her neighbors were there just to buy her trade in.
What she did was a harbinger of the future for Plymouth: she looked at the Plymouth models, then marched over to a Dodge Dart sitting on the show room floor. There was no doubt in my mind at that moment, that Plymouth might as well go away right then!
The Dart was a two door hardtop, not a sedan, and it was well loaded, with a 318 V-8, automatic, power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, carpeting, cloth seats, and other upgrades; the car was white over red. She made no explanation.
The sticker price was close to $3,800 including air. Dad gave her $1,550 for her 1959 trade and said that he would deliver her new car the next morning because he had to wait until the store closed to get the car off the show room floor. She stiffened and told him, “That won't do. It is my car now, I paid for it, and I don't want anyone else in it, or touching it.” Within ten minutes, the car was outside. It caused a stir of curiosity, but she drove away in her new Dodge that night.
People talked about that deal for months afterwards. She had become an instant legend. We sold her 1959 Plymouth within five minutes, getting $2,000 for it. See why I loved the business? She said that she took the Dodge because, after thinking about it long and hard, she “just couldn't take those stupid, ugly tail fins any longer.” Mrs. Beacheum, wherever you are, may God bless you. I couldn't have agreed with her more. (By the way, she was a darn good teacher. We need a few thousand more like her in this world. If you are reading this, you can thank her as a teacher!)
Grandpa's fling with DeSoto wasn't quite over. He took a nice blue 4 door hardtop that was pretty well loaded out. It had the 383 ci V-8 with a four barrel and dual exhausts. He vowed that if Chrysler took DeSoto off the market, he would put his up on blocks and leave it for me to have as a museum piece. He didn't know then how prophetic he was.
Don’t miss Jim Benjaminson’s Plymouth 1946-1959
or our other Chrysler heritage articles and racing coverage
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