by Jim Benjaminson. Copyrighted by Jim Benjaminson and reprinted by permission.
Originally printed by Motorbooks International.
One of Chrysler Corporation's downfalls during the early 1950s was its lack of styling. The prewar Chrysler Airflow had been a triumph of engineering, but many considered it ugly, and it didn't sell. The economy and the car's relatively high price had just as much to do with buyers rejecting it, but Chrysler's reaction was to retreat into a shell from which it would not emerge for decades.
General Motors proved that styling could sell cars, but it wasn't until 1955 that Chrysler finally answered the challenge. By 1957, Chrysler had wrestled the styling crown away from GM.
Much blame has been laid on Chrysler boss K.T. Keller, who demanded “smaller on the outside, bigger on the inside, with room to wear your hat in the car” styling. Keller had failed to notice that most of the nation now went bareheaded. Yet it was Keller who saw the need to move forward, and it was Keller who hired Virgil Exner away from Studebaker to revitalize a moribund product line.
Detroit had discovered that there was considerable interest in “dream car” design proposals—so much so that GM took their cars on tour, staging elaborate "Motoramas" around the country. Not to be outdone, Ford and Chrysler began displaying their dream cars as well. From 1950 to 1959, Chrysler displayed a string of two dozen cars, all but one of which were fully functional. Most were built in Italy to Chrysler designs.
Italian coachbuilder Pinin Farina was looking for business after WWII, so he built a design proposal on a 1950 Plymouth chassis. This car never came stateside, however, and no photos are known to exist. The Ghia coachbuilding works of Torino, Italy, was also struggling in the postwar period, Mario Boano and Luigi Segre approached Chrysler Export Vice-President C.B. Thomas and offered to build a show car for just $10,000. Thomas, recognizing a bargain, had them proceed with what became the Plymouth XX-500 a four-door sedan on the 1950 P20 118-1/2in chassis. The result was a car looking much like the P19 fastback sedan with two additional doors and an Italian accent.
From these modest beginnings, a string of Ghia-built show cars followed, culminating with the Turbine Specials during the 1960s. Most dream cars bore the Chrysler name, with the odd Dodge or DeSoto tossed in for good measure. As Plymouth's sales fortunes plummeted, two dream cars were assigned Plymouth nameplates.
The first of these was an ungainly looking two-passenger roadster called the Plymouth Belmont. Unlike the other dream cars, this one was designed and built by Briggs Body (soon to be purchased by Chrysler). The other was a rakish sport coupe called the Explorer.
The Belmont made its public debut at the Chicago Auto Show and no doubt caused more than a few hearts to skip a beat. Resplendent in Azure Blue, the topless, V-8-powered, fiberglass-bodied model gave a glimmer of hope to Plymouth dealers-some predicted this would be Plymouth's answer to the Corvette and Thunderbird.
Although officially tagged a Plymouth, Chrysler described the Belmont as a "styling experiment on a 1954 Dodge chassis." While Plymouth and the small Dodge shared the same 114 inch wheelbase chassis, only Dodge offered a V-8, Plymouth's first V-8 wasn't scheduled to appear until 1955 in a model coded the P27 series. Although credited to Dodge, the V-8 in the Belmont carries serial number P27-1014-the fourteenth Plymouth V-8 built! Why this fact was never made public is a secret remaining with Chrysler.
With an overall length of 191-1/2in, the Belmont was not a small car. Overall width was slightly more than 73in with a height of 49.3in. Among the car's unusual features was a radio with power antennae controls located in the center armrest, a removable cloth top, and a spare tire carried in a separate behind-seat compartment.
The Belmont's styling was clean, but soon became dated. Motor Trend pictured the car in its May 1954 issue but one year later discounted rumors Plymouth would build it as the design was "too old to consider for production."
The Belmont managed to escape the crusher and surfaced in Oregon in 1988. Its owner, Don Heckler, had purchased it in 1968 when the previous owner had tired of all the attention the Belmont drew whenever it was driven. Little is known of the car's early history once it departed Chrysler. It did make a dealer tour in Southern California and appeared in the 1956 movie Bundle of Joy starring Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds; it. is also thought to have been used in the 1957 movie Mister Cory starring Tony Curtis.
The restored (but incorrectly painted red) Belmont now resides in the Blackhawk Collection in California and is on display with other Chrysler dream cars of the era. [It is now in the hands of Don Williams in New Jersey.]
The second of the 1954 dream cars was the Explorer coupe. Designed and built by Ghia on a 114in wheelbase chassis, the car debuted in the May 1954 Motor Trend. Despite its racy good looks, the Explorer was powered by the lowly 110hp 230ci 6-cylinder engine coupled to a Hy-Drive transmission.
The Explorer had metallic green paint and the bucket seat interior was covered with white leather. The car also featured fitted luggage behind the seats and an unusual retractable radio tuner control concealed by a movable instrument panel section. The Explorer was 76.9 inches wide, 54.4 inches tall, and, at 185.2 inches, nearly 6 inches shorter than the Belmont.
Like the Belmont, the Explorer is now part of a private collection in the U.S. Along the line the Explorer has undergone tremendous changes, most obviously in the grille—gone are the open vertical bars replaced by a rather ugly Jaguar-looking grille. The front bumper was changed from a two-piece affair to a single bar. Even the windshield wipers have been changed, the originals tracked right and left, but now both track in the same direction.
The Explorer, with an “updated engine,” was offered for sale in the March 1990 issue of Hemmings Motor News with an asking price of $95,000. It finally ended up at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
The last of the Plymouth dream cars, the Cabana, made its appearance in 1958. Like the Plainsman, the Cabana was a station wagon built on a 124 inch wheelbase. Unlike Plymouth's other dream cars, it was only a body mockup on a rolling chassis and not a running automobile.
Plymouth's next show car took a different twist — it was a station wagon, foreshadowing Ram Laramie and various Ford pickups as “a luxurious vehicle to serve the variety of needs of the successful Western ranch holder.”
Chrysler’s in-house magazine wrote: “The striking front-end features of the Plainsman include a simple, functional divided grille, flanked by massive bumper guards with integral parking lights. The body color is a metallic ‘Palomino beige,’ and the new wagon’s all-stell top is two-thirds covered by padded white weather-resistant fabric... Most novel feature of the eight-passenger station wagon is the rearward-facing ‘observation car’ back seat that comfortably accommodates two adults.”
The car was shipped to Cuba due to a U.S. Customs demand that it be dismantled or exported if Chrysler wanted to avoid paying duties on the expensive, hand-assembled car. It was used as a daily driver, according to RM Auctions, from 1957 until an unknown date; the owner fled to Australia, where he put in a 440 cubic inch engine and converted the car to right hand drive. A collector purchased it and brought it to the United States afterwards; it continues to have the 440 and automatic, but is now left hand drive again.
The car last surfaced in 2011, on eBay, after an unsuccessful auction; while RM felt (in 2011) that it would be worth a quarter of a million dollars, the top bid was $160,000.
Many of the Plainsman’s innovations were adapted to production cars, including the rear-facing third seat, spare tire in the right rear quarter panel, and power tailgate window; the latter was a Chrysler first.
Chrysler Heritage • History by Year • Chrysler People and Bios • Corporate Facts and History
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