by Jim Benjaminson. Copyrighted by the Plymouth Bulletin. Reprinted by permission.
For 1939 Plymouth fielded a line of totally restyled automobiles — longer, wider and lower-priced than the 1938 models. Production began on August
1st, 1938. Before the end of the model run, the 3
millionth Plymouth was built, an amazing feat for an
auto barely ten years old (and only two years since the 2
millionth car rolled from the assembly lines in 1937).
Unknown to the general public, the basic underbody remained much the same as in 1937 and ’38.
By careful restyling, there remained little evidence of
the old body underneath the new expanses of sheet metal. A prow-shaped front end, a deeply Vee’d two
piece windshield, a new roof panel and a new deck lid
stamping effectively hid the old body. The hood alone
was ten inches longer than the previous model and the
new windshield added another 6 1/4 inches to the
Prices for 1939 averaged from $5 to $10 lower per
car than the 1938 models. By the end of the model run,
417,528 cars had rolled from the assembly lines, not
counting 6,300 commercial vehicles — a
gain of 17% percent over the previous year.
Styling of the 1939 Plymouth had been at the
hands of Chrysler's design staff, which consisted of less
than two dozen people. Famed classic car designer
Raymond Dietrich had been employed by Chrysler in
1932 to supervise the design of Chrysler's product lines
and although Dietrich had left early in 1938, his influence
was left on the ’39 cars. Briggs Body had also submitted proposals for the car which closely resembled
the 1938 Dodge and DeSoto but this design was turned
down in favor of the Chrysler design.
Starting in earnest in 1937 (although the practice
had seen limited use earlier), Chrysler began using one basic body shell for all divisions. By juggling door
panels and floor pans it was possible to use the same
basic body shell for different chassis wheelbase
lengths, saving considerably on expenses at a time
when the Great Depression and the economic recession
of 1938 were still making themselves felt on the industry.
For 1939, Plymouth entered the market with the
largest array of models it had offered since 1932. Three
series were offered, the P7 Roadking and the P8 Deluxe
on the 114" wheelbase and the Commercial Car PT81
series on a 116" wheelbase. The convertible sedan used
its own 117" wheelbase chassis while the 7-passenger
models used a huge 134" wheelbase.
Motive power came from Plymouth's
familiar 201 cubic inch, 82 horsepower L-head 6-cylinder engine. An optional 86 horse high-compression
engine was available while export models carried a
smaller six of 170 cubic inches. With a 6.7 to 1 compression ratio, the Plymouth Six had the highest
compression ratio of any car in the low priced field.
An 18 gallon gas tank replaced the 16 gallon tank;
at the front end the fuel was supplied
to the engine by a new fuel pump, inverted to move the fuel bowl farther away from
the heat of the exhaust manifold (to prevent vapor lock).
Plymouth was the only car in the low-price field
to sell a 4 door sedan with ventilating wings in both
front and rear, and the only to offer a totally
rustproofed car. The entire body, including fenders
and sheetmetal parts, received this rustproofing
Bodies were available in solid colors only,
although the fenders and sheetmetal parts could be
ordered in a second color if so desired. Prior to 1939, the
Roadking models had all received a two-tone treatment
with the fenders being painted black (solid colors were
optional), but now the Roadking and Deluxe were painted
Plymouth did not offer factory sidemount spare
fenders after 1936 but sidemount fenders were available
for the P7 Roadking Commercial cars and several Deluxe series cars were equipped with
sidemounts although they were not officially available
as an option.
For those unable to purchase a new Plymouth
outright, Chrysler Motors Commercial Credit Company
offered 6% time payment plans for those willing
to sign their name on the dotted line. Payments could
range from 6 to 18 months.
Body styles in the Roadking series included two and four door sedans, two and four door touring (trunk) sedans, and a coupe. On the export P7 chassis was a rumble seat coupe and a station wagon. Bodies in the Deluxe series matched those of the Roadking series with the addition of a domestic rumble seat coupe and station wagon along with a convertible coupe, a four door convertible sedan and the 7-passenger sedan and limousine. The Commercial Car series included a pickup truck and a cab and chassis for those who wanted to mount a body other than those available from the dealer. A "commercial" Utility Sedan and Sedan Delivery were offered on the P7 chassis.
For 1939, the parking brake handle was moved from the floorboard to a spot under the dashboard. The Deluxe series had the new "Perfected Remote Control Shifting" — a column shifter — resulting in the first truly three-passenger front seat compartment. Interior fabrics were broadcloth and pile fabrics with genuine leather in the open models and the limousine.
Bodies for the 1939 cars were supplied by the Briggs Body Company, with the exception of the wood bodied station wagons which were built by the U.S. Body & Forging Company. The steel Briggs bodies boasted heavy padding advertised as "Radio Studio" soundproofing.
For the first time, the headlamps and taillamps were an integral part of the design and were mounted in the body rather than on it. "Amola" coil springs, hypoid rear axles, and steel tooth transmission gears were advertised as helping keep the ’39 quiet. The bodies were mounted on a heavier frame, with a 6' deep X brace cross member.
The wood body "Sportsman" station wagon was built by the U.S. Body & Forging Company at a plant in Indiana. The firm first offered wagons on the Plymouth chassis in 1934 although only 35 were built; by 1939, production had zoomed to over 1600 units on the Deluxe chassis, and an additional 97 were built for export on the Roadking chassis. The wagon featured a safety glass windshield along with safety glass in the front doors but, standard equipment for the remaining windows were side curtains (with optional safety glass).
The Commercial Car series was built on a Dodge- like truck frame. Prices ranged from $545 for a cab and chassis to $575 for the express pickup. The Plymouth pickup was priced $3 higher than a comparable Chevrolet pickup and $21 less than a Ford V8 "85".
The Utility Sedan was actually an adaptation of the Roadking two door sedan. The rear seat and trunk partition were removed and a sliding screen panel (optional) divided the drivers compartment from the rear cargo area. The vehicles spare tire (carried vertically in the trunk of other models) was mounted in the right front fender. A rear seat could be ordered at extra cost to convert the Utility Sedan into a passenger car.
The Sedan Delivery, also on the Roadking chassis but with a special body, dual rear doors, and a heavier suspension, it boasted over 124 cubic feet of payload capacity at a price tag of $715.
A rather unique option was available for $23.95 to convert the normal business coupe into a pickup. A utility pickup box which could be installed in the trunk, it provided a 15 inch floor space when slid back. The box was designed to fit in the trunk with the lid closed but with the lid open it could be slid back and forth as needed for additional carrying space. When in the extended position it also had its own taillamp and license plate attachment.
Another unique offering for `39 was the Plymouth
Ambulance conversion. Available as a $55 option, the car came with a special rear seat and total access to the passenger compartment from the trunk. The rear seat was hinged so the right half folded upward and a stretcher (optional) could be inserted through the trunk. The left rear seat remained inplace for the ambulance attendant. The conversion was available on both the Roadking and Deluxe chassis and a complete lineof ambulance equipment was available through the local dealer.
The first four door convertible sedan ever built by Plymouth was also the last Plymouth convertible sedan. Only one other had been built, that being a two-door in 1932. The convertible coupe and convertible sedan were both built on a special subframe chassis with a heavy X brace to provide rigidity for the open body; it had been used in Plymouth convertible construction since 1935.
The convertible coupe, convertible sedan and station wagon received heavy advertising throughout the year as the "New Plymouth Sportsmen," but the Sportsmen named appeared only in the advertising and was never the official name for any of the three body styles.
Plymouth found itself in a unique situation regarding open cars in 1939. The rest of the Chrysler line had gotten new bodies but no convertibles were offered in any division though every other division has previously sold both convertible coupes and convertible sedans. The lack of any open cars probably explains the reason for offering a convertible sedan at a time when such body styles were quickly fading from the scene. The convertible sedan body used by Plymouth shared many components with the `37 and `38 DeSoto and Chrysler convertible sedans--perhaps there were just too many of these bodies left over to scrap so they were made available to Plymouth. Even so only 387 were sold--and at the premium price of $1,150. It was the most expensive Plymouth ever built to that time.
Convertible coupe production jumped to 5,976 units, up from the paltry 1,900 built in 1938. It was priced $200 above the `38 model! Oddly enough, Plymouth's number one sales rival, Chevrolet, did not offer a convertible in 1939.
For the first time on any automobile in the industry Plymouth used, as standard equipment, a power operated convertible top on the convertible coupe. The power top ("Turn a switch and the top goes up or down by itself" stated the advertising) was actuated by two large vacuum cylinders mounted behind the seat. Vacuum lines from the engine were controlled by a dash mounted switch and when activated the top whooshed its way up or down without any assist from the driver or his passengers. The feature was not available on the convertible sedan.
The Plymouth Quality Chart appeared for the first time listing 25 features found on various makes. Of the 25 features listed the Roadking boasted 20 while the Deluxe scored 24. Ford and Chevrolet rated only 7 and 9! This type of comparison advertising, along with lower prices than the ’38, no doubt helped bring many buyers into the showrooms. Plymouth finished the year strongly, in third place in the national sales — a position it had held since 1931 and would hold until 1953.
The “Safety Signal Speedometer” (“Like A Traffic Signal”) had a small eye in the center of the needle, which passed over a colored band. From 0 to 30 miles per hour the eye showed green; from 30 to 50 mph it showed amber; and when speeds exceeded 50, the eye glowed bright red. For this and other safety features, the 1939 Plymouth received the Eastern Safety Conference award, and would do so again in 1940.
Plymouth returned to an independent front suspension after an absence of four years. Rear springs were of the semi-elliptic type. The new front suspension was responsible for the 2" increase in wheelbase over the 1938 models.
For rural mail carriers and others needing extra road clearance, 20” wheels and tires were available, raising ground clearance to nearly ten inches (the standard wheel and tire size was 5.50 x 16). Both the convertible coupe and convertible sedan came with double-sided wide whitewall tires.
Chrysler Heritage • History by Year • Chrysler People and Bios • Corporate Facts and History
Tested: ProMaster City vanBill Cawthon tests the cargo and passenger versions of the small Ram van
Powell Sport Wagon: Carlike SUVTough campers built on used Plymouth chassis
All Mopar Car and Truck News
Racing down Woodward: Roadkill ’16
Living with a 2016 Ram 1500 Limited
2016 Viper Week at MPH