Plymouth cars of 1949 — A new car at last!
Plymouth was the last of the Big Three to unveil its “true” 1949 models. Ford had been the first, with a debut early in 1948, followed by Chevrolet.
All three cars were revolutionary in design, compared with their 1946-48 counterparts. Ford's new “shoe box” concealed a host of mechanical improvements, including independent front coil spring and rear leaf suspensions. Chevrolet's “stove bolt” six remained basically unchanged, while Chevrolet bodies were styled in two categories, the now popular shoe box, and the familiar fastback.
Chrysler Corporation entered its silver anniversary year with a $90 million investment to bring its 1949 line up to market. True to its heritage, the all-new Plymouth was conservatively styled (in what would later become known as the “Keller [for Chrysler President KT. Keller] three-box school of styling” -one box piled on top of two boxes laid end to end).
The new cars rode a longer wheelbase, yet were 4-3/16 in shorter overall than the P15 they replaced. This "larger on the inside, smaller on the outside" concept was again blamed on Chrysler's president. “The American motorist is tired of having his hat knocked off every time he gets in or out of a car,” wrote Wayne Whittaker in the April 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics, before quoting Keller directly: “As far as design goes we wanted to build an outstanding car, a car that is easy to get into and get out of, that is easy to garage, to handle in traffic or when parking. The outsides of our new cars are actually sculptured around conditions prescribed for the inside.”
When it came to automobile design, Keller was conservative to a fault. “A car shouldn't knock your hat off-or your eyes out either,” he is quoted as saying, nor should the hood be so low “you can piss over it.” The 1949 Plymouth was truly a car KT. Keller could love.
The 1949 Dodge also featured Keller-friendly styling.
The first of the all-new second series 1949 Plymouths, a Special Deluxe, was completed on New Year's Eve, 1948, Long wheelbase Deluxe models followed on January 14 with the short wheelbase Deluxe not going on line until March 7, 1949. To help meet demand for the new cars a second California assembly plant went on-line in May at San Leandro.
The 1949 was offered in three series on two different wheelbases. At the bottom of the ladder was the P17 Deluxe. Built on a 111 inch wheelbase, it was the most austere in terms of trim, bright work, and upholstery. The P17 came in three body styles, a cozy single seat, three-passenger businessman's coupe, a five-passenger fastback two-door sedan, and the revolutionary new two-door all-steel-body Suburban station wagon.
The P15 Deluxe was built on the longer 112 inch wheelbase, and like the P17 Deluxe, was devoid of much external bright work, but featured slightly better interior appointments. The P18 Deluxe was built in two body styles, a two-door notchback club coupe and four-door sedan. (Why Plymouth decided to have two models with two different wheelbases designated "Deluxe" has never been explained. If chronological order were followed, at least one of these cars should have been the P16. Perhaps this engineering code was reserved for the Cadet, a 105-1/2 inch wheelbase economy car Plymouth was developing at the time. The Cadet reached full mockup stage in 1947 and could have been ready for the 1949 model year, but the project was canceled.)
The P18 Special Deluxe on the same 118-1/2 inch wheelbase enjoyed more external bright work and considerably more luxurious interiors. Special Deluxe models included a club coupe, four-door sedan, convertible club coupe, and a wood body four-door station wagon, which now had a steel roof and steel lower tailgate. For the first time all models, except the P17 two door, had external door locks on both front doors.
From the cowl forward, all three series shared the same sheet metal, grille, and bumper. Four-door sedan doors were now hinged at the front, and for the first time since 1942, rear quarter windows were placed in the door frames rather than the body. The second series 1949 Plymouth was all new-not a single piece of sheet metal, glass, or trim was retained from previous years. The headlamps, mounted nearly 1-112in higher and 4in farther apart, used the new bull's-eye sealed beams. The grille was wider but still recognizable in terms of the P15 grille work. Individual letters spelling out "Plymouth" were mounted on the hood, just above a trim piece on the hood's leading edge.
A seam molding running the length of the hood was only partially covered by a redesigned and all-metal Mayflower sailing ship. Three wide and two narrow grille bars alternated down the face of the car, with the parking lamps set under the headlamps and surrounded by the edges of the widest middle and lower grille bar. The front bumper was unique as it, too, had three horizontal ribs, giving the car a delicate, yet expensive look. (These bumpers, like the ribbed bumpers of the 1937 DeSoto, would prove to be popular with the hot rod and custom car set.)
The hood and deck lid were much lower, but still sat several inches above the fenders. A heavy belt molding separated the more rectangular "greenhouse" from the lower body, and a larger windshield (37 percent more area but still of the two-piece, flat glass variety) and larger rear window with "blind" rear quarters contributed to the car's formal flavor.
Front fenders blended neatly into the front doors, but attempts at blending the rear fenders into the body were not as successful as Plymouth retained detachable rear fenders. These fenders were one of Plymouth's selling points and from a repairman's point of view were easier to replace than the non-detachable fenders used on either a Ford or Chevrolet.
The tail lamps sat high atop the rear fender and formed a slight fin in their housing, which helped conceal the fender-to-body seam. For the first time, the tail lamp lenses were plastic. The separate brake light was centrally located on the deck lid, just above the trunk handle and below the license plate. An indentation in the deck lid was provided for the license plate and bracket with a heavy medallion containing the word "Plymouth" and an enameled (Special Deluxe only) Plymouth crest mounted directly above the plate. As in the front, the attractive three-ribbed wrap-around bumper contributed to the elegant look of the new car.
Body side moldings on all models included a spear running from the headlamps to the trailing edge of the front fender and a second spear on the rear fender, Special Deluxe models had a chrome gravel shield on the leading edge of the rear fenders as well (Various pieces of sales literature alternately show Deluxe models with and without this trim.)
Despite all the horizontal visual cues designed into the car, it still had a rather high, boxy appearance and sat too high off the ground. This problem was cured early in production by shortening the front coils and flattening the rear springs, to achieve a 1 inch drop in front and 1-1/2 inch drop in the rear.
All models were treated to one of the most stunning instrument panels ever placed in a low priced automobile. On the rich, dark, wood-grained panel, directly in front of the driver were three circular white-on-black dials; in the middle of the panel a chrome radio grille and mesh cascaded down to a heavy chrome molding running along the bottom of the panel from door to door. Set into the molding were the new key-start ignition switch, rotary light switches and other knobs, and the ash tray. To the right of the radio grille was a panel containing a ship ornament, which could be replaced by an electric clock. Optional heater systems, although an "add-on" accessory, were designed to blend into the design, mounting the controls directly beneath the radio. An unseen change was the switch to a magnetic fuel gauge in place of the bi-metal strip used in years past.
Window mechanisms were redesigned to permit full up-and-down travel in one and a half turns of the window handle, a feature that didn't receive much advertising. Trivial as it may sound, the highly-geared windows meant the driver didn't have to take his hands from the wheel as long to roll down the window as on other cars.
Front seat cushions were increased 5 inches and rear cushions 6 inches in width, with legroom in the rear seat increased to 42-1/2 inches. Advertised as "chair height," the seats could have extra springs added to firm them up; Airfoam seat cushions were optional on all models except the P17 two door, Suburban, and woody station wagon.
Mechanical changes in the second series 1949s were modest at best. The frame was still the box perimeter type with four cross members as used since 1942. The steering ratio was unchanged at 18.2:1. Front wheel brakes continued to use the upper and lower wheel cylinders introduced on the P15 models. A welcome change in the electrical system replaced fuses with a circuit breaker system. Rear axle ratio on P17 models was 3.73 and 3.9 on all P18s. Rear axles in all models were of the semi-floating, hypoid design with ratios of 3.54, 4.1, and 4.3 optional at no additional cost. Gas tank capacity remained at 17 gallons, with an Oilite fuel filter mounted in the tank.
Engine displacement was unchanged at 217 cid, with horsepower up to ninety-seven. This change came about through a newly designed cylinder head that raised compression from 6.7:1 to 7.0:1. A new intake manifold provided better distribution of the fuel-air mixture, fuel pump capacity was increased, and a fully automatic electric choke prevented "over" choking. New oil control rings with wider drainage slots and a chrome-plated top piston ring, along with improved crankcase ventilation, were also claimed. A larger starter motor, resistor spark plugs and weather-proofed ignition system aided in cold and wet weather starting.
The least expensive car in the Plymouth lineup was the P17 business coupe. Designed for the businessman, the cozy little three-passenger car offered nearly unlimited carrying capacity. Surprisingly, the fastback two-door sedan proved to be the best seller in the P17 series.
The landmark offering had to be the new all-steel two-door Suburban. With the rear seat in place there was 42 inches of cargo space available; with the seat folded down, another 26- 1/2 inches were added. In a departure from the other wagons, the Suburban carried its spare tire in a well under the rear floor. While the P17 line was intended to be an economy series, the Suburban, at $1,840 was exceeded in price only by the convertible and four-door woody station wagon!
The value of the all-steel wagon was not lost on Plymouth buyers and 19,220 were sold, accounting for 3.7% of all 1949 Plymouths sold. Compared to the 3,443 four-door wagons sold, it was obvious Plymouth had a winner on its hands. There was only one year (1941) when station wagons accounted for more than 1 percent of production. In future years, sales of wagons would continue to grow-5.6% in 1950 and 9.75% in 1954—until 1958 when the station wagon would be the largest selling body style in the Plymouth lineup. Years later the 1958 Dell's Car Buyers Guide would call the Suburban "probably the most functional automobile built after the Model T."
The Suburban had as standard equipment some items not found on the other P17s, such as two sun visors, dual horns, front bumper guards, rear-seat armrests, dome light, and nine-leaf rear springs (seven leaves were standard on the coupe and two door, eight leaves on Special Deluxes). Standard tire size on all P17s was 6.40x15in Goodyear Super Cushions (6.70 x 15 on the long wheelbase cars, mounted on 4-1/2in rims); 18in wheels were optional on the Suburban only. An oil filter was extra, the rear springs were uncovered, and no crankshaft vibration dampener was furnished.
Standard upholstery in the business coupe was woven fiber fabric with dark red vinyl resin fabric door panels. This same material could be ordered for seat cushions and backs at no charge, with striped broadcloth available at extra cost. Standard upholstery in the two-door was striped broadcloth, with no other options. Suburban buyers had the choice of light tan or dark tan vinyl resin seats and seatbacks and woven fiber headlining.
The P18 Deluxe was intended as a fleet sales unit. The P18 Special Deluxe, which cost about $80 more, easily outsold the P18 Deluxe by a four-to-one margin. It differed from the Special Deluxe in not having blight trim around the windshield and rear window and by the lack of a radio grille (which had to be purchased and installed if a radio was ordered). Checkered broadcloth was the only upholstery offered. Door armrests, glovebox lock, and horn ring were options.
Special Deluxe models were easily recognizable at a distance by the bright trim around the windshield and rear window, as well as the stainless stone guards on the leading edge of the rear fenders. Interiors were upgraded accordingly, with a choice of green or blue broadcloth, or green or blue pile fabric depending on the outer body color. Upholstery in the convertible club coupe was Bedford Cord with bolsters in red, blue, or green vinyl, again depending on car color. In addition to the regular colors, convertibles could be ordered in two special colors, Mexico Red or Plymouth Cream.
Electric motors replaced the vacuum cylinders on the convertible's power-operated top, and for the first time, convertibles were fitted with quarter windows. Convertible owners welcomed the clear plastic rear window, which had more than doubled in size from previous years.
The eight-passenger woody station wagon was upholstered in tan vinyl with exterior colors limited to Malibu Brown, Edmonton Beige, or Rio Maroon. The big wagon had removable center and rear seats, whereas the Suburban rear seat simply folded over. The center seat in the woody wagon could also be folded forward to aide entry to the rear-most seat. Where to carry the spare tire was finally resolved when a semi-recessed receptacle was built into the lower portion of the tailgate. Covered by a circular, rearward-swinging access door, the tire was neatly hidden from view. The little “bustle” gave the car a "continental" look in addition to providing the rear-seat passenger with more legroom. A special rear bumper had to be employed on the wagon, with the center section hinged to swing down out of the way when the spare was removed or when the lower tailgate wets opened. This arrangement also allowed rear bumper overriders, the first Plymouth wagon so equipped.
Typically considered an under-powered car, the 1949 Plymouth held its own against the competition. Chevrolet claimed only 90hp, with the Ford V-8 claiming 100hp (just five more than its 6- cylinder cars). Despite its turtle-slow reputation, Plymouth found its way to the winners' circle on many occasions. Stock car racing in those days was exactly that-the cars were not modified in any form. Except for taping the headlights, removing the hubcaps and muffler, and tying down the hood, the cars were as they came off the showroom floor. One of the first to see the winners' circle from behind the wheel of a Plymouth was a Level Cross, North Carolina tobacco farmer by the name of Lee Petty.
Having wrecked the family Buick in a race at Charlotte, Petty reasoned the little 1949 Plymouth business coupe at the local dealership would be easier on tires and gasoline than the bigger cars. Petty's hunch proved to be right as he coasted to a first-place finish in his next race. Earning his nickname, “The Rock,” one seventh and two second-place finishes were enough to put Petty and Plymouth in second place in the season's final points championship. When asked how he did it, Petty explained in a 1954 interview,
I could go through the turns flat out and when an Olds was trying to dig off the curve, I had a running start on him, I ran a 4.78:1 rear axle, lower than any of the other boys were using. And that little motor was doing full revs all the time. I found that Chrysler Imperial springs, shocks, wheels, etc., fit perfect beneath a Plymouth.
That made it handle fine, and the changes were legal. The Plymouth wouldn't do but 92mph wide open, but I tuned it so the car ran top speed lap after lap. The other boys blew tires or ran hot. Then I moved in.
Petty managed to put the little Plymouth among the first three cars in nineteen consecutive races to the chagrin of other drivers who charged he was running a souped-up motor. The engine was torn down fifteen times during that nineteen-race stretch and found to be bone stock each time.
Petty's victories were not flukes as Plymouths across the country began to score more wins. On October 16, 1949, another Plymouth, driven by Walt Faulkner, scored a first-place victory in a race at Delmar, California. Driving a P17 two-door sedan, Faulkner started on the outside of the sixth row in a twenty-three-car race. Faulkner was in second place by lap sixty and took the lead on lap ninety-eight when the leading Hudson ran out of gas. From 1949 through 1952, Plymouth was ranked number three in stock car wins across the country.
Plymouth 1946-1959: Introduction • Turbines • Diesels • Christine • Dream Cars • Print version
1924-1945 • 1946-48 • 1949 • 1950 • 1951 • 1952 • 1953 • 1954 • 1955 • 1956 • 1957 • 1958 • 1959
DeSoto and Plymouth Buyers’ Guide: DeSoto 1929-39 • DeSoto 1940s • DeSoto 1950s • Exports
Plymouth 1928-29 • 1930-34 • 1935-39 • 1940s • 1950s • 1960s • 1970s • Valiant/Barracuda
Acknowledgements • Introduction • Top Ten Lists and Clubs