by Jim Benjaminson, Copyrighted by the Plymouth Bulletin. Reprinted by permission.
At 10:00 am on June 28, 2001, the last Plymouth, a silver Neon LX with a 5-speed transmission and every available option, hearing serial number 1P3AS46C61D304662 —the final serial number assigned to a Plymouth-came off the Belvidere, Illinois, assembly line.
1928: Detroit was buzzing as word spread of a new automobile soon be manufactured in the Motor City. Motor Age, in its June 14 issue, stated “no information as to what company is to build it, its price, size or other details could be secured.” The production lines for the mystery car had been in full swing four days by that time.
Across town in the suburb of Highland Park, a group of executives sat around the huge oak desk of Walter P. Chrysler. They knew who was behind the car but they weren't talking, at least not publicly.
It was at this very desk that the name “Plymouth” first surfaced. Walter P. Chrysler, the legendary “American Workman” was no stranger to the automobile business, although up until 1924 his had hardly been a household name. He had begun his career in the automobile industry with Buick, having moved from the railroad industry that had brought him to Detroit, so far from his birthplace on the dusty plains of Kansas.
After a fallout with William Durant, who controlled all of General Motors, Chrysler had “retired”... until being asked to take over the financially ailing Willys Overland Company. Nervous bankers next convinced him to work his magic on the equally moribund Maxwell-Chalmers Motor Car Company. This move led to his taking control of the operation and eventually incorporating it as the Chrysler Corporation.
Building a car to compete with Ford and Chevrolet in the low priced field had long been a dream of Chrysler’s. When Henry Ford stubbornly stuck to the Model T too long, Chrysler saw the golden opportunity to enter that lucrative market and Plymouth would be the vehicle he would use.
Richard M. Langworth, writing in Kaiser-Frazer, The Last Onslaught On Detroit recounted the story of how the name “Plymouth” came to be chosen. “What we want is a popular name, something people will instantly recognize,” Chrysler is quoted as saying. Joseph Frazer, his general sales manager came back with, “Well, boss, why not call it the Plymouth? That’s a good old American name!” When the other executives questioned the name, Frazer continued, “ever hear of Plymouth Binder Twine?” The salty-tongued Chrysler chimed in “Hell, every goddamn farmer in America’s heard of that!” And that’s how the Plymouth name came to be.
Henry Ford’s reaction to the new car was to tell Chrysler, “Walter, you'll go broke, Chevrolet and I have that market all sewed up!”
Naturally, Chrysler’s advertising people couldn’t capitalize on their boss’s blue language but they at least had a name to work with. By the time the first new car rolled off the assembly line on June 11, 1928, copy writers had found their angle: the car would be associated with the early European colonists on the North American continent, the Pilgrims. Advertising brochures and ad copy explained: “We have named it the Plymouth because this new product of Chrysler engineering and craftsmanship so accurately typifies the endurance and strength, the rugged honesty, the enterprise, the determination of achievement and the freedom from old limitations of that Pilgrim band who were the first American colonists.” The statement was followed by the signature of Chrysler himself.
The new car had a high compression, four-cylinder engine and a first in the low priced field: hydraulic brakes on all four wheels. In the words of Automobile Topics magazine, the new Plymouth was “in fact, a Chrysler car in everything but name.”
Chosen as the symbol of the new car was the ship that had brought the Pilgrims to America, the Mayflower. The ship design would be seen on the radiator medallion and spare tire cover and eventually as the radiator ornament, on the hubcaps, hood and deck lid, dash and window mouldings, even as the design in the upholstery on later models.
Playing up the Pilgrim theme, dealers were urged to dress in Pilgrim costumes, complete with buckle-adorned hats and blunderbuss guns, all supplied from the factory. Plymouth parades were common as the new car was introduced to the public. To add to the mystique, new cars were shipped from the factory under cover, the word Plymouth scrambled across the fabric to pique onlookers’ curiosity.
Adorning the showrooms was a 19-inch high wooden model of the Mayflower ship, complete with full rigging. Billed as “the appropriate decorative piece on the show room table for the Plymouth dealer,” the $4.75 model could also be “an attractive article for use as a prize.”
By early September, demand for the new car far outstripped Chrysler’s Highland Park production facilities which it shared with both Chrysler and the soon-to-be-announced six cylinder DeSoto. By early winter, a new plant located at the corner of Detroit’s Lynch Road and Mt. Elliott Avenue began taking shape. Upon completion, the nearly half-mile-long assembly plant would be the largest auto plant in the world.
From the beginning Plymouth enjoyed amazing sales growth. By 1931 Plymouth had risen to be the third best selling automobile in the country. By 1932, at the height of the Depression, it would be the only make of automobile in the United States to see an increase in sales. As August of 1934 rolled around, Plymouth built its one-millionth car, again setting a record. It had taken Ford twelve years to build its first million cars and Chevrolet nine years. As that milestone automobile neared production Walter Chrysler received a telegram from Mrs. Ethel L. Miller of Turlock, California.
When she took her 1928 Model Q Deluxe Coupe into Stierlen & Tell, the local Plymouth dealer, to have some work done on the car, Mrs. Miller discovered it was the first Plymouth built. “While in the process of servicing the car,” Carl Tell later recalled, “we noticed the serial number, called the factory and they sent out a man to look at it. It had originally been sold in Fresno.” How Mrs. Miller, proprietor of the St. Elmo hotel in Turlock, became aware that the one-millionth Plymouth was about to be built is unclear but she wired the Chrysler factory asking them “to be sure and reserve the millionth Plymouth” for her.
Calling her “one woman in a million,” the Turlock newspaper wrote “(the fact) that (Walter) Chrysler regards the Turlock woman as one in a million lies in the invitation to attend, as his guest, ceremonies to be held celebrating the construction of the millionth Chrysler Plymouth car. Mrs. Miller was asked by Chrysler to make the trip east by airplane and to be his guest during the celebration.” Oddly enough, Ethel Miller declined the invitation, opting to remain in Turlock for the Tenth Annual Melon Festival.
Back in Detroit, Walter Chrysler and other corporate officials gathered in the Lynch Road plant on August 9th to watch the one-millionth car, a Deluxe four-door sedan, roll off the line. As the car neared the end of its run Walter himself placed the “O.K.” tag on its Mayflower ship radiator ornament. Early editions of the Detroit Free Press featured a grinning Chrysler waving from behind the wheel of the car.
The milestone 1934 Plymouth was then shipped to Chicago where it was placed in the Chrysler Pavilion at the Century of Progress. It wouldn’t be until August 28 that Ethel Miller, following a bon voyage party thrown at Turlock’s City Hall by the mayor and chief of police, would begin her journey to Chicago to take delivery of her new car. Greeting Mrs. Miller at the Chrysler Pavilion was J. B. Wagstaff, a Chrysler executive who would later head the DeSoto Division. Also present was famed race car driver and Chrysler pitchman, Barney Oldfield, who was doing daily hell driving demonstrations at Chrysler’s test track at the fair. As she watched Old Number One being put on display where the new car had been, Ethel told the Chrysler people she wanted the two-millionth Plymouth reserved for her when it was built. Although the route of her travels home is unknown, it would be two months before she returned to Turlock. Two years later, late in 1936, she would be presented with the two-millionth Plymouth, a 1937 model Deluxe touring sedan.
From there Ethel L. Miller seemingly disappears from the face of the earth. Nothing is known of her whereabouts after 1938 the last time city directories lists her as living in the Vincent Apartments.
Little is known about the three-millionth Plymouth built in 1939 but, when the four-millionth Plymouth was built in 1941, child actor Mickey Rooney got the honors. Rooney was playing in the Andy Hardy series at the time and the car, a Special Deluxe convertible, would play a prominent role in those movies.
Plymouth’s fortunes seemed to ebb and flow as did the tides upon which the Mayflower had ridden as it brought those first Pilgrims to this continent.
Following the death of Walter Chrysler in 1940, the marque lost its mentor. It was Walter Chrysler who had proposed the Plymouth line in the first place, having learned from his years at General Motors that an auto company had to have a “bread and butter” car in its lineup. It was Plymouth that carried the Corporation through the Great Depression and it was the great Plymouth factory that helped produce the war goods needed to win the greatest war the world had ever known. Ironically at the time of its mentor’s death, Plymouth was poised to knock Ford out of second place in the annual sales race, a move thwarted at the last minute by a major restyling of Ford for 1941.
After the death of Walter Chrysler, Plymouth became the corporate stepchild or, in the words of the late automotive writer Arch Brown, “always the bridesmaid but never the bride.”
For nearly a quarter of a century, from 1931 through 1953, Plymouth had been the number three selling automobile in the United States. Stodgy styling and outmoded power plants had begun the marque’s downward spiral. Of the Big Three (Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth), Plymouth was the last to offer such driving amenities as automatic transmissions, power steering and brakes and was the last with a V8 engine. Yet it had been the first car in the low priced field with hydraulic brakes, independent front suspension and all-steel bodies. In its later years, it was outdone by a foolish intra-corporate rivalry with sister division Dodge which had moved down into Plymouth’s price range (a similar corporate move by the Chrysler Division had earlier tolled the death knell for DeSoto).
There still were a few bright spots on the horizon: the fabulous ’55 models with modern styling and V8 power, the tailfinned 1957 models that sent perennial styling leader General Motors into a tailspin, the innovative—and indestructible—Slant Six of the 1960s, the Hemi-powered muscle cars including the Road Runner and high-winged Super Bird and the outrageous 1930s retro-styled Prowler.
Today, the car Chrysler calls Plymouth #1 is on display at the new Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
The Mayflower ornament was affixed to every Plymouth built from 1928 through 1959. In the latter iteration, it was placed beneath a rocket ship and, for the first time ever, was seen from the bow rather than the stern. After a 36-year hiatus, the Mayflower ship ornamentation returned with the introduction of the Plymouth Breeze in 1996. But it was all for naught.
As the end drew near, only the Neon could still be bought as a Plymouth but it was identical in all aspects to the Dodge Neon.
At 10:00 am on June 28, 2001, the last Plymouth, a silver Neon LX with 5 speed transmission and every available option bearing serial number 1P3AS46C61D304662—the last serial number assigned to a Plymouth-came off the Belvidere, Illinois, assembly line.
Automotive News reported that “Plymouth joins other retirees in Florida,” referring to the fact the last car was headed to the personal collection of Darrell Davis, a Florida resident. Mr. Davis, a long time Chrysler executive—and Plymouth Owners Club member-had placed the order for the last Plymouth with Chrysler President Jim Holden the day he heard the marque was to be discontinued.
Like its namesake binder twine, the Plymouth automobile, too, has become memory.
Ethel Miller, you had the first Plymouth. Where are you now? Somehow it seems only right that the last one should have been yours as well….
Interested in reading about more historical Plymouths? Visit our main history page or the Plymouth Owners' Club.
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