by Jim Benjaminson. Copyrighted by Jim Benjaminson. Reprinted by permission.
Originally published as a printed book by Motorbooks International.
Government restrictions dictated early in 1952, aimed at conserving steel for the Korean War, nearly kept Plymouth from introducing its all-new 1953 design. Fortunately the war did not escalate, and, as hopes for peace grew, the restrictions were lifted early enough that the planned model year changeover could take place.
The year 1953 marked Plymouth's (and DeSoto's) twenty-fifth anniversary, but the company chose not to mention its silver anniversary when the new cars made their public debut November 20, 1952. For Plymouth, there would not even be a special model to commemorate the occasion. This decision may have been made easier by the fact both Buick and Ford were celebrating their fiftieth anniversaries in 1953.
If K.T. Keller liked the "larger on the inside, smaller on the outside" cars built from 1949 to 1952, the 1953 Plymouth was an even more perfect car for Keller's tastes. Once again, the cars were downsized; overall length was only 1 inch shorter, despite a 4-1/2 decrease in wheelbase for all body styles, while interior dimensions were increased, including greater headroom. Not a single piece of trim, glass, or sheet metal interchanged with 1952 models.
The twenty-fifth anniversary Plymouths were caught in a time warp—at a time when bigger was better, they had grown smaller. As other makes plastered on chrome trim, Plymouth took it off, making it an extra cost option on even the most deluxe models. As other makes entered the horsepower race and introduced V-8 engines, Plymouth's only powerplant was the twenty-year-old valve-in-block 6-cylinder (but then 50% of all cars sold in 1953 were sixes). Plymouth was one of only seven makes not to offer power steering, and of the low-priced three, it was the only one not to offer an automatic transmission.
While there were some obvious modern updates, including a curved one-piece windshield and rear fenders integral with the body, there were still throwbacks to the old days like the cowl ventilator. For traditionally conservative Plymouth buyers, this was a car with which they could be comfortable. Sales suggested Plymouth was on the right track, as the 1953 models surpassed by nearly 40,000 units the sales record set just two years earlier.
Plymouths for 1953 were built under the single engineering code of P24. The code letters S and C, which had been used in previous years to indicate standard or deluxe models, were dropped in favor of additional number codes to indicate the model series.
Model series were pared to just two, the less expensive cars sold as the Cambridge (P24-1), while the Cranbrook (P24-2) continued as the deluxe line. The short wheelbase Concords were discontinued in favor of a single chassis for all series, a chassis that was 3 inch longer on the less expensive cars but 4-1/2 inches shorter on the upscale cars.
Cambridge body styles included a four-door sedan, club (two-door) sedan, business coupe, and two-door Suburban station wagon. The club sedan and business coupe shared the same general body details, the club sedan having a slightly different roofline and rear quarter window divider bar while the business coupe did not. The business coupe deleted the rear seat to make room for a traveling salesman to carry his wares. An optional rear seat could be installed at trade-in time and the car traded off as a regular passenger car. Business coupe buyers could mount the spare tire in either the trunk compartment or against the back wall of the interior.
Cranbrook body styles included a four-door sedan, club coupe (which did not have a quarter window divider bar), a convertible club coupe, the Cranbrook Belvedere two-door hardtop convertible, and the Savoy station wagon.
For the first time Plymouth's assignment of serial numbers no longer indicated the model series of the car. In years past, for example, Cranbrooks had been assigned one sequence of numbers, with Cambridges a different sequence and Concords a third sequence. (These number sequences had also indicated the plant of manufacture.) Now regardless of the model series, the serial number indicated only the plant in which the vehicle had been built. To compensate for this change, dealers were notified that it would be necessary to include the body code number on all correspondence regarding a car.
"Beautifully balanced body design" are the words Plymouth used to describe the 1953 cars. The cars' silhouettes were lower, at least in corporate eyes, but the overall shortness of the package contributed even more to the square and boxy Keller three-box school of styling. The one-piece windshield had a gentle curve, finally eliminating the center divider bar. The one-piece hood sat lower, providing an even better view of the roadway. Even the traditional Mayflower sailing ship sat lower, directly above a new medallion featuring the Plymouth crest and nameplate.
Headlamps sat higher and wider apart, with the parking lamps located directly below at the extreme outer ends of the grille bar, which flowed into a similarly shaped body crease wrapping around the side of the car to form a rub rail contour on the front fender. This rub rail ran back to the leading edge of the front door. A similar rub rail began on the lower rear door flowing across the rear fender to a point just beneath the parabolic-shaped taillight lens.
The grille was a simple horizontal bar flowing from the rub rail all one fender to the other. Only the center third of the grille was chrome (if the purchaser had opted for the chrome grille option) while the outer thirds were painted to match the color of the body. The painted sections of the grille were adorned with two vertical chrome teeth (which detractors said gave the car a "buck-tooth" appearance). Chrome strips on the front fender rub rails and a similar strip on the rear quarter rub rails were optional on all models.
It should be noted these cars may have been deliberately designed devoid of chrome trim; when they were on the drawing board government restrictions on copper, nickel, and chrome were still in effect. Regardless, the final result was a "Plain Jane" automobile. "I remember two dealer meetings where the cars drew loud complaints," recalls William Burge, a long-time South Dakota dealer. "One of the meetings was on the 1953 models (the other the 1962). In 1952 we sold a quality car, but in 1953 they cheapened them something terrible .... "
Another long-time dealer, C.D. Murray of Colby, Kansas, had even harsher words for the car: "The 1953 Plymouth was a ... dusty S.O.B. I had to buy an undercoating machine from a Ford dealer who quit—if you remember [the] '49 Ford was a dusty S.O.B., too—you would've thought Chrysler would've been wise to that. I undercoated every new car as soon as I got them, gave it to the customer if I couldn't collect for it."
Rear door cutouts were changed, the upper door swooping back into the "C" pillar to allow easy entry or exit—a feature "doubly appreciated by women and heavier-than-average persons," according to the dealer data book. Outside door handles were changed to a pull type from the traditional twist type handle Plymouth had used since 1928.
In back, the rear and side windows were enlarged. The Plymouth nameplate was less prominent, relocated to the lower left hand of the deck lid, directly above the gas filler cap. After riding on the left rear fender since 1936, Plymouth engineers decided to place the gas filler at the rear of the body, just above the rear bumper, a move made to make it easier to fuel the car from either side. A relief valve in the pipe was supposed to prevent gasoline from surging out of the pipe, but the idea worked better on paper than it did in actual practice. Spilled fuel was one of the major owner complaints noted by Floyd Clymer in his road test of the 1953 Plymouths for Popular Mechanics.
Despite its otherwise plain appearance, the addition of real wire wheels (in either painted or chrome trim) was a welcome, albeit expensive, addition to the option list. Kelsey-Hayes announced in September 1952 that it would build 50,000 sets of these wheels for both General Motors and Chrysler Corporation at a cost of "about $50 per unit." The per unit price meant one wheel, hence wire wheels were a fairly rare option even when new.
Interior changes included a revised two-toned instrument panel with an "eyebrow" over the gauge panel to prevent light reflection into the windshield. The gauge panel remained the same as 1951-52. The glove compartment was relocated to the center of the dash, directly below the radio, and all control knobs had a modern square design. Cranbrooks had a mottled-finish floor mat with the Plymouth crest embedded in it, while Cambridge buyers had to settle for a plain mat.
Bright trim accents provided the color break line for door trim panels that were two toned in contrasting shades of vinyl plastic (the darker color used at the lower edge of the panel). Color harmonizing plastic window regulator knobs, escutcheons, and cowl vent knobs were used on all models except the Belvedere, Cranbrook convertible, and Savoy wagon, on which they were chrome plated.
Rear-seat passengers in two-door models were treated to a new "E Z Exit" off-center split seat, allowing the driver and center seat passenger to remain in place on two-thirds of the seat, while the right third of the back rest folded forward to allow rear-seat passengers entry or exit.
For years, one of Plymouth's selling features had been the "economy" of removable rear fenders should they need replacement following an accident. Plymouth's new integral rear fenders found the factory backpedaling to explain the change: they were "welded directly to the rear quarter panels, adding to Plymouth's compact, unified look" claimed advertisements. If they should need repair, Plymouth assured the buyer "access to the rear fenders through the luggage compartment makes removal of minor dents and dings simple and economical."
Plymouths for 1953 sat on a fully boxed, four cross member perimeter frame that was 6 inches wider than before. The rear axle was moved 4-1/2in ahead of center on the rear springs, with a higher kick-up for the axle, resulting in the frame sitting lower than before, especially over the rear compartment. This allowed a flatter floor and more legroom in the rear seat.
Suspension changes included nonparallel control arms on the front suspension to reduce body tilt on outward turns, a front sway bar, and splay-mounted rear springs. Splay mounting was accomplished by moving the rear ends of the springs outward and suspending them under the frame on rubber-insulated shackles. Front ends of the springs were mounted inside the frame on silent block rubber bushings. This, along with a 2in spring with, and longer anchor pins, helped resist twist and sway. Rear springs consisted of only five tapered leaves, grooved for lightness and strength, the ends of the upper leaves separated by interliners of wax-impregnated fabric. Rear shock absorbers were mounted "sea leg," slanting inward toward the center of the car to add to comfort, stability, and safety.
Under the hood sat the same engine as had been used since 1942, a 217 cubic inch six now rated at an even 100hp by virtue of a 0.1 increase in compression.
At the beginning of the model year, Plymouth offered only two transmission choices, three-speed manual or three-speed manual plus overdrive. In his test of the 1953 Plymouth, Floyd Clymer wrote, "One characteristic of Plymouth owners that sets them apart from those with other makes is: They are not too favorably disposed toward automatic transmissions. Plymouth does not feature this, and only 33% said they want some form of automatic transmission in their next car." A semi-automatic transmission introduced in April—called Hy-Drive—would have to suffice until a fully automatic transmission arrived in 1954. Clymer's figures weren't far off; by year's end, Hy-Drive would be fitted into one out of every four cars corning off the line.
Hy-Drive, in its simplest form, placed a torque converter (instead of a flywheel) ahead of the standard clutch and transmission. Hy-Drive was a scaled down version of the "Gyro-Torque Drive" used by Dodge.
The Hy-Drive torque converter produced an engine torque multiplication of 2.6:1 (the highest in the industry), in combination with an 8-1/2 inch, twelve-spring, high-pressure clutch with sixteen (rather than ten) splines coupled to a Synchro-Silent transmission modified to absorb the added torque. Like all automatics, a neutral safety switch allowed Hy-Drive cars to only be started while in neutral. To get under way it was still necessary to manually shift into high gear, but from that point Hy-Drive eliminated the need for shifting, except under emergency conditions or when shifting into reverse.
The Hy-Drive converter consisted of four major parts: an impeller, turbine, and primary and secondary stators. The converter was a welded, self-contained assembly, although the starter ring could be serviced separately. The Hy-Drive converter received its oil supply from the engine oil pump through passages in an adapter plate and the converter housing. A ball check valve in the converter maintained engine oil pressure at 20lb during low engine speeds providing a constant supply of oil to the converter without surges due to different engine rpms, An internal bypass valve in the oil pump recirculated the oil within the pump instead of allowing returned oil from the converter to return directly to the oil pan. An oil filter bypass valve was located left of the engine block where the engine oil pressure relief valve was located on cars without Hy-Drive.
Because the Hy-Drive converter shared oil with the engine, 11 quarts (with filter) were required when changing oil. Plymouth recommended only two oil changes per year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Replacement of the Hy-Drive oil filter was recommended every 5,000 miles, or more frequently when operated in extremely dusty areas or for short distances in cold weather. When changing oil, the oil pan and torque converter had to be drained separately although the refill was done in the conventional manner.
Hy-Drive cars were specially built in more respects than just the addition of a torque converter. Hy-Drive transmissions were shorter, with no extension at the rear of the case and had heavier gear teeth to carry the additional torque. Hy-Drive gear ratios were different, using 2.37: 1 first gear and 1.68:1 second gears. Hy-Drive cars had a larger cooling area radiator (with approximately the same coolant capacity), a different clutch disc, and a longer propeller shaft. Carburetors in Hy-Drive cars were equipped with a dash pot, a longer speedometer cable was required, the rear engine support cross-member was bolted in place, and the clutch linkage was heavier. Even the floor pan of the body was changed to provide increased clearance for the convertor.
Hy-Drive cars were so different that the factory advised dealers "it would not be practical to attempt to install a Hy-Drive unit except in production." Even an item as simple as an engine change called for a special Hy-Drive block.
Record sales kept Plymouth in third place, although Buick continued to make a strong showing in its bid to overtake that position. Lack of sheet steel had kept January production below 2,700 cars per day. New car production in April saw Plymouth building 12,000 cars per week, to Ford's 20,000 and Chevrolet's 27,500 cars. By June production schedules had risen to 3,000 cars per day.
Then came July, when Ford began an all out blitz to overtake number-one Chevrolet. Ford simply began overstocking its dealers, dumping huge quantities of unordered cars on them. When the dealers asked how they were to sell the cars, Ford told them it didn't care how—just do it. When dealers complained they were told to either sell the cars, or Ford would find someone else who could. The blitz increased Ford sales to the point where Chevrolet could no longer sit idly by, and it, too, began dumping cars on its dealers.
Despite the fact Plymouth's 1953 sales were up 40% over 1952, it found itself caught in the middle of the Ford/Chevrolet War—and even had they wanted to, Plymouth lacked the plant capacity to join the war. Chrysler's franchise agreement with dealers also committed it to build cars only to dealer's orders. All it could do was sit on the sidelines and watch.
For Plymouth it would spell a disheartening slip in market share the next year. For many of the independents, it simply spelled doom. General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler Corporation controlled 88.2% of the 1953 market, leaving precious little to be divided among Studebaker, Nash, Packard, Kaiser, and the others.
Plymouth's days of glory on the nation's race tracks had all but come to an end by 1953. Lee Petty and other Plymouth stalwarts had abandoned the 6-cylinder cars for V-8 power, leaving only a winless Dave Terrell to continue campaigning a six. Plymouth's 1953 race standings showed no first-place wins and only one second-place finish. Plymouths did manage to eke out four third-place, three fourth-place and five fifth-place finishes. Plymouth's only victory came from overseas, when a Plymouth captured first place in the Francor-champs Stock Car Race in Belgium, winning its class at 81.2mph.
Plymouth fared better overseas in gas mileage marathons than it did in the U.S., capturing the first four positions in economy trials held in Belgium, taking top honors at 25.3 mpg. On the home front, Plymouth only managed a fifth (out of six positions) in the Ninth Mobil Gas Economy Run from Los Angeles to Sun Valley, Idaho. Competing in Class A (low price, standard, and overdrive transmission) a Plymouth Cranbrook recorded fourth best mileage of 22,83mpg, but fifth (at 46.95) in ton/mpg, far behind the winning Ford Mainline six at 27.03mpg and 56.7ton/mpg, The only car in the class scoring lower gas mileage was a Ford Mainline V-8 at 22.52 mpg.
Chrysler Corporation Parts Division, better known as MoPar, began offering several interesting accessories during 1953. January saw the introduction of wire wheel covers for all cars equipped with 15 inch wheels. At $49.75 for a set of four, they were considerably less expensive then the genuine wire wheels built by Kelsey-Hayes. The MoPar wire wheel cover had a plain hubcap, while another factory-approved wire cover featured a Lancer crest, crown, and crossed sword medallion. This cap, made by Cello Wire Wheel of Boston and costing $89.50 per set, fit into the wheel rim and was held in place by the wheel lug nuts. The Cello design was used not only by Plymouth and its sister division DeSoto but by Nash and Kaiser as well.
Another January MoPar offering was a dual tailpipe extension kit for Plymouth (and Dodge). The kit consisted of a "Y" pipe and two chrome-plated exhaust extensions to give the illusion of a V-8-powered car with dual exhausts. February saw the release of lower sill protective molding for all cars except the convertible. Outside companies capitalized on the lack of chrome trim on the 1953 Plymouth, offering front and rear rub rail moldings for the Cambridge and a continuous door finish molding for both Cambridge and Cranbrook sedans. Ironically these same trim pieces would be standard equipment on 1954 Belvederes!
Customized cars were all the rage, so it was only natural that Plymouth attempted to cash in on the craze by offering a factory Continental spare tire carrier for all models except the Suburban. Two kits were offered depending on whether the car was fitted with wire wheels or not. The rear mounting of the spare tire allowed the full trunk space to be utilized. Several aftermarket suppliers also offered continental kits for the Plymouth, including Hudelson-Whitebone, the largest maker of continental kits. Newhouse Automotive, a popular aftermarket parts supplier, offered a fake "full Continental" for $135 (the spare tire remained in the trunk) or a bustle-back Continental (which bolted to the deck lid and gave a false impression of a rear-carried spare tire) for $34.95.
April saw the addition of factory-designed fender skirts, while August brought the most outrageous accessory in the form of dual fender-mounted trumpet style air horns. Externally mounted chrome horns had last appeared on the 1936 Plymouths, mounted by special brackets under the head lamps. For 1953 Plymouth offered four horn kits, including one set with 18in and 23in trumpets to be mounted on either front fender, a single black painted coiled horn for underhood mounting, or a choice of side-by-side trumpets on a single base for fender mounting, one set with 10-1/2in and 13in trumpets, the other with 12in and 18in trumpets. A 5x9in heavy steel air tank, 70lb compressor, and power unit were mounted under the hood, with the control switch mounted on the gearshift lever.
As conservative as Plymouth was in its 1953 styling, it is hard to believe that such an outlandish accessory was offered. Plymouth may not have been able to outrun all the cars on the road, but they could at least blast their way through traffic.
Although the horsepower race was still a few years off, Plymouth was definitely losing among the low-priced three. Chevrolet boasted 115 hp to the Ford V-8's 110. Even the Ford six, at 101 hp, bettered the 100 hp Plymouth. Aftermarket manufacturers came to the rescue for those willing to spend extra money to add needed horsepower to the now rather anemic Plymouth six. Edmunds offered a dual intake manifold for all Plymouth sixes back to 1937 for $41.25 along with a high compression head for $52.50, a substantial outlay for a few more horsepower. Weiand, Tattersfield, and Offenhauser all offered dual intake manifolds and Weiand a finned aluminum head for the Plymouth six. Another popular hop up trick was "splitting" the manifold to create dual exhausts.
According to Floyd Clymer's polling of 1953 Plymouth owners for Popular Mechanics, 75% indicated they had owned a Plymouth previously, with 18% claiming to have owned five or more. Forty-seven percent of owners rated their cars as excellent, while 40% rated the car as good. Only 1% gave the car a poor rating.
When asked their likes about the car, 97% commented on the excellent forward visibility. Only 28% liked the location of the gas filler. Major complaints centered on the gas filler pipe and poor workmanship, including paint and chrome work. Sixty-four percent said they would buy another Plymouth, with just 4% saying they would not.
As the final P24 Plymouths rolled off the line September 18, 1953, Plymouth looked back on its best year ever. As the year drew to a close, Chrysler Corporation invested $35 million to purchase the Briggs Manufacturing Company. The acquisition of Briggs, which supplied bodies not only to Chrysler but to Packard and others, added twelve plants and 6.5 million square feet of floor space to the already vast Chrysler holdings.
Chrysler's new Indianapolis transmission plant came on-line supplying PowerFlite automatics, and both Evansville and San Leandro assembly plants each built their 1 millionth car. A March price cut of about $100 per car had helped Plymouth maintain its traditional third place by a substantial margin over Buick. Then came 1954 ... .
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