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The 1955 Plymouth Belvedere, Plaza, and Savoy

1956 Plymouth Belvedere car in water

By Lanny Knutson. Transcribed by David Hoffman. Originally published in the Plymouth Bulletin.

It is a brisk day in November 1954, as you stride up to your local Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, having seen the ads in the Saturday Evening Post. This was to be a Plymouth like none other, the most stylish Plymouth since the 1932 roadster. It was due to receive (get this, 5-6-7 Chevy lovers) the "Most Beautiful Car of the Year" award by the Society of Illustrators. But seeing a car in print and seeing it "live" are two different things.

1955 plymouth belvedere

There it is, standing there in the middle of the showroom floor — a Belvedere hardtop. What strikes you, though it will take some time for you to figure it out, is the long, gentle, sweeping arc stretching uninterrupted from headlight brow to tail light tip. And those headlights, unlike the previous year's Plymouth -- and unlike those of Ford and Chevrolet -- are hidden from the side by forward-canted hoods. The taillights are hooded with a complimentary rearward cant. It gives the new Plymouth a sense of being in forward motion even while standing still; the promotional signs hanging and spinning there in the showroom announce that very thing: "Motion Design, the Forward Look." That is it!

To humor your Ford-Chevy loving buddies, you had gone with them to see those Brand X new models. Though both Ford and Chevrolet had come out with good-looking 1955 models, you can see now that compared to the new Plymouth, the new Fords and Chevys look positively boxy.

It was none too soon. The 1949 Chrysler products were good, sensible, comfortable, durable, dependable cars. All the proportions were right. But these cars were always compared to the competition, where they did well in all categories but one—styling. After two decades of austerity, enforced by a depression and then by wartime shortages, the public was in no mood for practicality. They wanted style, and the style they wanted was glittering, overstated extravagance. Against that criterion, the 1949 Chrysler models failed in the public's eye.

After a few years, Chrysler knew it had to make a drastic move. They spirited away a promising young designer from Studebaker who had a bit of a reputation for extravagance, Virgil Exner. He had a free, almost total, rein with the 1955s, and the change came none too soon. In 1954, Plymouth had suffered the embarrassment of being dumped out of its traditional third place in annual sales, all the way down to fifth place, victim of a vicious sales battle between Ford and Chevrolet. Nevertheless, the Plymouth still looked like a chunky vehicle designed expressly for spinster school teachers.

But by summer of 1954, Chrysler stock took a sudden 5% jump in value. The K.T. Keller wear-your-hat-in-the-car days were over. A Connecticut professor claimed that he could no longer do so in the 1955s — wonder what the good professor thought of the 1957s? But nobody else seemed to mind. Low, long cars were hot.

Although the wheelbase was increased just one inch (to 115"), the total length of the new Plymouth was increased a whopping ten inches. An inch increase in width and a good 1 1/2 inch decrease in height fulfilled the longer, lower, wider claims that sold cars in those days. After, you got "more car for the money".

Your eyes catch those impressive headlight hoods (which neither you nor anyone else could imagine would be great salt-and-slush collectors). Beneath the headlights began massive grille bars that curved up and around parking lights towards the center of the grille cavity where they bent down again to hold a ribbed center section. This was the continuation of a Plymouth tri-sectional grille-bumper theme that began in 1953 and would continue through 1961. Beneath the grille was a massive bumper that continues the forward look of the car by trusting to a prow-like point in the middle. It looks good, but later, you would notice what a great licence-plate mangler that forward-thrust prow would be.

plymouth logos 1955 On the hood is the most abstract sailing ship ornament yet. In fact it is barely distinguishable as such. In one more year it would sprout wings, then "fly away" never to be found on a Plymouth hood again, bringing to a close a 32 year tradition. Below that hood ornament is something never seen before on a Plymouth, a V8 symbol, signifying Plymouth's first V8 engine. The Savoy sedan in the corner has a much plainer straight nameplate indicating that it is a six-cylinder model. This badge duplicated the tri-sectional theme of the grille right down to the ribbed center section.

Plymouth calls their wraparound front glass the "New Horizon" windshield. There was some residual dowdiness there — it had no requisite doglegs. Your knees appreciated that. Plymouth's sales literature claimed that, unlike the competition, their windshield also wrapped around at the top. Besides, the backward slanting A-post contributed to that "fleeting look." Still, doglegs were the latest fashion and Plymouth didn't have them. And it was fashion, not practicality, that was ruling the day.

1955 plymouth belvedere profile

The hooded taillights echo the front-end theme. Beneath the vertical red lenses are round white back-up lights. These lenses appear even on the stripper Plaza out on the lot. But to get bulbs behind those lenses, you'd have to pay an extra charge.
  Building the Plymouth Belvedere - 1955

Beneath the taillights is an indented panel running the full width of the car, extending out wider than the taillights, creating a crease that runs forward to end just over the rear wheels. The rear panel creates a rather high ledge over which luggage would have to be lifted; this began on the 1953 Plymouth and wouldn't end until 1965. Within this panel was the license plate. Fortunately, you think, the gas filler neck is no longer there. You look for it and find it behind a door on the right fender. "Why the right?" you wonder. You think of Elmer, the meticulous lessee of the City Service station down the street. Now you would have to either incur Elmer's wrath by pulling up to the wrong side of his pumps, or endure his annoyance as he drags the hose to the far side of your new Plymouth. Upon opening the trunk you see some wisdom in the filler-neck placement. The pipe is now behind the spare tire, where it is out of the way.

When you opened the trunk you appreciated the push-button mechanism. Most other makes had now gone to a key-only trunk latch. You would rather not have to pull the keys out of the ignition every time you wanted to get into the trunk. In a couple of years Plymouth would join the crowd on this "advanced feature." Above this button resides a duplicate of the front V8 or six-cylinder "Plymouth" nameplate.

Picking up a brochure, you check out the model offering. It is available in five body styles: Business Coupe (no back seat or rear roll-down windows), a two and a four door sedan, and a two and a four door wagon. The mid-line Savoy series has but two offerings: a two door and a four door sedan. Continuing the hotel-name theme is the top-line Belvedere which like the lowly Plaza is available in five styles: a two and a four door sedan, a hardtop, a convertible and a four door wagon. In the fine print you see that when any of these cars come with a six they are coded P-26. As V8s they are called P-27. The Plaza business coupe is available only as a six. The convertible can be ordered only with the V8 engine. Following the code is a suffix that indicates the model. In an apparent illogical order Plaza is 1--, Belvedere is 2--, and Savoy is 3--. A possible reason for the illogicality is that Plaza and Belvedere are full five-body lines, while Savoy offers only two.

The three lines are identified by means of side trim. The low-line Plaza has none whatsoever, though by mid-year these cars would sprout the same spear that ran from the front fender to mid-door on the Savoy. A Savoy with two-tone treatment has a thinner strip beginning above the rear fender crease and running forward to mid-door and then curving downward to the rocker panel, creating space for a contrasting color. By mid-year this same scheme would become available on the lowly Plaza. The two-tone trim on the belvedere ran up to meet the front fender spear. Forward of this chrome intersection a straight piece ran down to the rocker panel, creating a larger two-tone panel. One-tone Belvederes (or those with contrasting color only on the roof) have a single long spear running the full length of the car, ending in a chrome wing. Where the rear fender crease ends on this car is a unique V8 symbol.

You open the door and notice Plymouth's first push-button door handle (and the last, until 1962). Inside you are met with a great splash of color which had first begun replacing the prosaic greys in 1954. Something really catches your eye on the cloth seat inserts. "What is it, in that pattern?" It's none other than hundreds of Mayflower symbols! It was to be a kind of swan-song for the venerable Mayflower. By 1960 it would have vanished as a Plymouth symbol, only making a brief return in time for the Plymouth brand to be abandoned.

Now you sit on the thick foam rubber cushioned seats and take a look at what lies before you -- the dash. It has a balanced look to it, you notice; perhaps too balanced. In the center, below the radio, is the glove box in the same place it has been since 1953. A good idea, and very convenient for the driver as well as the passenger; but not convenient for the driver is the ash tray, which pulls out on the far right side of the glove box door. Maybe drivers shouldn't smoke, but this placement is not likely to stop them, and their reaching for it could lead to less-than-safe driving.

Flanking both sides of the glove box-radio center section are a full complement of gauges, completely matched on each side as if a mirror were set sideways in the middle. The large round speedometer is matched by the identically sized radio speaker grille on the passenger side. But stranger yet, the ammeter and fuel gauges nicely placed directly in front of the driver are matched by all pressure ans water temperature gauges placed in front of the passenger! They are impossible for the driver to see without taking eyes off the road. Customers, dealers and road testers complained loud and clear. On the 1956 model, the gauges would be moved in front of the driver, but they would be transformed into idiot lights. The heater-defroster controls (of a very good two-motor heater-defroster) which in 1955 were conveniently placed in front of the driver, would be moved in 1956 to the spots vacated by the gauges. Again, not so convenient for the driver. Plymouth was still trying for symmetry, and losing.

Other complaints would come regarding the dash layout. Unlike the 1951-54 dashes -- and those of competing makes -- the 1955 instrument panel has the speedometer mounted low, almost out of the line of vision. You would find that it's not too bad once you get used to it. However, to make it easier for you to see the instruments because of this low mounting, they are tilted upward. Your first nighttime driving experience would show how they can reflect on the windshield. One Popular Science reader would unscrew the chrome moulding (which would reflect sunlight in the daytime) and slip in a sheet of plastic to provide a hood he thought the factory should have put there in the first place. It was not that Plymouth wasn't thinking of dashboard glare. The top of the panel was painted with a grained flat paint that did the job quite well, but would be considered "ugly" by more than one prospective owner.

Plymouth lever gearshift But what really stands out on the dash has them all talking -- A dash-mounted automatic transmission selector. Chrysler was reasoning that since automatic transmission selector need not function like a manual shifting lever, why should they make it look like one? So they put it on the dash, next to the key, where the hand would automatically fall after starting the engine. A gimmick? Some would think so. It would turn out to be an "either love it or hate it." The only complaint was that there was no light on the quadrant. Yet, if it was such a good feature, why would it be replaced by push buttons the very next year? (This design actually made a return on the 2008 minivans, following its use on the first Toyota Prius.)

Now, slipping out from under the wheel, your knees again thankful for the absent dogleg, you look under the hood. You notice how easily the hood latch works, all in a single motion. But its what the hood opens to reveal that you came to see. And there it is, Plymouth's first V8, resplendent in familiar silver paint, and suspended by Floating Power engine mounts! (1956 would be the last year for those.) You are disappointed that the engine is not a hemi. But you weren't really expecting that it would be, not since you lifted the clam-shell hood or a mid-year 1954 Dodge pickup to look at its first V8. This was Chrysler's first single-rocker-arm overhear valve engine. It had to be, you thought at the time, the forerunner of MoPar V8s to come. It was. Dodge, DeSoto Fireflite and Chrysler Windsor all shared it with Plymouth. It had become the replacement for the six-cylinder engine in the senior divisions.

Chrysler was already becoming painfully aware that their easy-breathing, high performing hemi was too expensive to produce. And its added features were not selling enough extra cars to pay for the added expense of building hemi-head engines. So Chrysler engineers sought to build the next-best thing to a hemi, but with a single rocker arm. They came up with what they called the polyspherical combustion chamber. Not quite a full hemisphere, it still had a rounded, circular combustion chamber that could be served by a single rocker arm. This was accomplished by putting the intake valves on the top side of the rocker arm and the exhaust valves on the bottom side. To avoid having to use spark plug tubes as on the hemi, the bottom side of the new engine's valve covers were scalloped in a unique fashion to leave the spark plugs accessible from the top. This gave Plymouth another feature to advertise since on the engines of both Ford and Chevrolet, one had to reach under hot exhaust manifolds to get at the spark plugs.

The new Plymouth "Hyfire" V8 was available in two displacement and three horsepower ranges. The 157 hp engine was of 241 cubic inches, while a 260 cubic inch engine produced 167 horsepower, and later, a mid-year addition of a power package (four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust) increased the 260 to 177 horsepower. The latter engine was not part of the original plan. J.C. Zeder, Director of Engineering, claimed "we are not seeking to develop higher speeds and greater power than anyone else. The increased speeds and torque of the 1955 Plymouth, when combined with the PowerFlite transmission, results in improved performance in low and middle ranges, plus greater economy." In other words, Plymouth's new V8 was considered to be no more than a higher-powered extension of the traditional and reliable Plymouth flathead six. The horsepower race, at the time, was considered to be the exclusive property of luxury cars. But Chevrolet's new V8 brought that concept to an end and the horsepower race to the low-priced field. Plymouth had to respond, and they did — with the 1955 power package and later with the 1956 Fury.

The overhead V8 was another facet of the latest automotive fashion. Everyone had to have one if they wished to keep selling cars. So Plymouth had one. If people like Zeder had their way, the familiar flathead six would still be Plymouth's sole powerplant. It was still available in spite of automotive writers, who, caught up in the V8 fervor of the times, claimed that the days of the six were numbered, and that if it weren't for fleet buyers and a few thrifty individuals, it would vanish completely. This year for Plymouth, the 230 cid six was upped to 117 horsepower for those who really wanted it.

Those who really wanted the six appeared to be mostly in Canada. But then, the six was what the Chrysler Corporation of Canada mostly offered. On the north side of the border, only the Belvedere series was available with the new V8. It came either in the 240 or 260 size, but not with the power package. The Plaza and Savoy series were six-cylinder powered only. The body availability in these series was different from that in the US, as was the model coding. The Plaza was coded P26-1 and was available as a four door sedan, a club coupe and as a two-door wagon. The Savoy was called P26-2 (not P26-3 as in the US) and it came in four (not two) body styles: four door sedan, club coupe, special club coupe (hardtop) and four door wagon. The Belvedere was designated P27-2 (as in the US) and was available In the same four body styles as the Savoy. Later demand brought on a six-cylinder Belvedere series under a P26-4 designation- The Savoy hardtop was the beginning of a common Canadian practise of offering this body style one model lower than in the U.S. When ordered with twotone paint, the Savoy even came with the Belvedere side trim! The Canadian Savoy outsold all other series combined, and Plymouth's sixes outsold its eights five- to-one. It would be two years before Plymouth's V8 would outsell the six in Canada.

Of course the Canadian Plymouth six continued to be the 25" long block. In fact a six-cylinder PowerFlite car came with the big 251 ci engine just discontinued on the Chrysler Windsor. Surprisingly, this engine was larger in displacement than the small V8 Plymouth offered. Not surprisingly, only 486 of the 241 V8 engines were sold in Canadian Plymouths that year.

Also sold in Canada were the usual Plymouths bearing Dodge names and front sheetmetal. Called Crusader, Regent and Mayfair, these cars were identical in model and engine availability as were the "real" Plymouths.

Plymouth also supplied cars for DeSoto's export market. Unlike the Canadian Dodge, these cars (called Diplomat) used all of Plymouth's sheet metal, including the front fenders and hood. Only the trim, including a traditional DeSoto toothed grille, was different. Many youthful customizers would find out for themselves that a DeSoto grille would look good, or at least different, In their '55 Plymouth, Perhaps they were inspired by a teaser photo appearing in a Popular Mechanic's story on Plymouth's styling studios. In the background, plan as day, is a full-clay mock-up of a Plymouth-like Diplomat.

Having checked out the engine compartment, you are ready for that test drive. As you pull out from the curb, you can't help but notice the light feel of the power steering. Some road testers would tout its complete isolation from road-feel as a good thing. Their counterparts of later years would condemn this feature as a Chrysler curse.

As you come to a stoplight, you note the brake pedal of this PowerFlite equipped car. It's a full eight inches wide, extending to where the clutch pedal would be on a manual transmission car. It's a feature nobody seems to have thought of. And it makes sense. Automotive writers would suggest that this wide brake pedal should lead to a whole new style of driving, with left-foot braking. After all, it was assumed that the manual transmission was going the way of six-cylinder engines.

1955 Plymouth air conditioning - BelvedereThis is the softest riding Plymouth you have ever driven, perhaps even a bit too soft. There's some lean as the car corners, though it doesn't seem excessive. Upon checking the underside of this Plymouth, you will find that they set the rear leaf springs outboard of the new U-channel frame, lengthening them a half inch and increasing them to a width of two inches. The front suspension looks not much different from that on a 1939 Plymouth you once owned, except that the shocks are now mounted inside the coil springs. But there's a recalibration of the whole system that brings about better handling, as does the new symmetrical idler arm steering linkage. These are the final changes to the proven coil-spring/king-pin system soon to be replaced by torsion bars and ball joints. Yet it is enough to get Plymouth voted by Motor Trend as 1955's "Easiest Car to Drive."

The brakes were good, the front drums increased to 11 inches, the rears remaining at ten. Power brakes were an option, as are air conditioning, power windows and power seats. But these you saw only on the Chryslers at your local dealership.

What you do notice most in your test drive is power. Power of a V8 engine that may not have been designed for blazing acceleration, but still it cuts Plymouth's 0-60 times nearly in half from its six-cylinder days.

It's quite a car, this new Plymouth. Like none you've ever seen. They call it “Design in Motion.”

“I'll buy that!,” you say. And you do.

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