by Lanny Knutson. Copyrighted by the Plymouth Bulletin. Reprinted by permission. Transcribed by David Hoffman.
"Product of Chrysler engineering and craftsmanship, Plymouth has been so named because its endurance and strength, ruggedness and freedom from limitations so accurately typify that Pilgrim band who were the first American Colonists."
That was the official line.
It sounded quite logical. The name came from the Plymouth colony of the Pilgrims who journeyed to North America on the good ship Mayflower.
And the official line was backed up with pilgrim garb supplied to each dealer with which to dress up some willing (?) employee to lead a Plymouth Parade introducing this new low-priced car for the young Chrysler Corporation.
It was not entirely new, this "new" low-priced car. When Walter P. Chrysler took over the bankrupt Maxwell company in 1923, he finally had the foundation to bring out the car of his dreams; one bearing his own name. However it was soon apparent that the Maxwell name, corrupted by a series of poorly built cars that had brought the company to bankruptcy, was an irretrievable liability. Therefore in 1926, he put a Chrysler radiator on the Maxwell and rechristened it the Chrysler 58 (its supposed top speed).
Yet this move was but a holding action. Already in 1926 Walter Chrysler was planning a full-fledged entry into the low-priced field dominated by Ford and Chevrolet. Indeed, Henry Ford had warned Chrysler, "You'll go broke! Chevrolet and I have the market all sewed up!" But WPC wasn't one to fear to such warnings. In fact he was more likely spurred on by them to prove such warnings wrong. And Ford's rapidly declining Model T sales seemed to indicate that the giant was vulnerable and that the warning could indeed be proven wrong.
To take full advantage of this vulnerability, Chrysler needed the "perfect car with the perfect name." That name was to be "Plymouth." Named after Plymouth Rock, that great American symbol, right? Well, not quite.
Behind the "official line" is a story that surfaced years later. It is about what really happened behind those closed boardroom doors. "What we want," Chrysler had said, "is a popular name, something people will recognize instantly."
In that room was Joe Frazer, later to become president of Graham Motors and still later to join Henry Kaiser in a post-war automotive venture. "Well, boss," replied Frazer, "why not call it Plymouth? That's a good old American name."
The other assembled executives looked askance the notion of their car bearing such a puritanical sounding * name. Yet against his colleagues' misgivings, Joe Frazer persisted. "Ever hear of Plymouth Binder Twine?" he asked.
" Well," boomed out Chrysler, "every goddam farmer in America's heard of that!" The hidden appeal wasn't wasted on this one-time Kansas farm boy. Every farmer had to have a car, and most of them at the time were driving Fords. Now here was an opening to the giant's vulnerability. "Every farmer uses Plymouth Binder Twine," he said, "let's give them a name they're familiar with!"
And so the name was Plymouth. The Mayflower ship on its radiator suggested the rock and the Pilgrims, but if it wasn't for the binder twine, there would never have been a car named Plymouth.
On January 11, 1928 the first Plymouth was produced. As it turned out, this was the best of times for introducing a low-priced car. Ford was just beginning Model A production after nearly a year's shutdown. Chevrolet's six was yet a year away. Hudson's Essex was in decline. Willys' Whippet was selling like hotcakes, but it had already peaked. And, most importantly, the stock market crash of 1929 was yet a year away.
The new Plymouth sold well, reaching Number 15 in production its first (half) year. By 1931 it had already reached the Number Three position, which it would hold until 1954. In 1932, while Chevrolet and Ford sales were dropping drastically from pre-depression highs, Plymouth was the only car to gain in sales over 1931. In fact, all through the Great Depression Plymouth continued to gain in sales, a remarkable feat considering the times.
Henry Ford, as it turned out, was almost right. He had left out one word in his warning to Chrysler. He should have said, "if you don't build a Plymouth, you'll go broke."
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