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 the most stylish Plymouth since the 1932 roadster. It was due to receive (get this, ’55-56-57 Chevy lovers) the “Most Beautiful Car of the Year” award by the Society of Illustrators — but seeing a car in print and seeing it in person are two different things.
There it is, 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, uninterrupted from headlight brow to tail light tip. Those headlights, unlike the previous year’s Plymouth, or those of Ford and Chevrolet, are hidden from the side by canted hoods; the taillight hoods had a complimentary rearward cant (the red lenses included white back-up lights, but bulbs for backing up were extra on the Plaza). It gives the new Plymouth a sense of being in forward motion even while standing still; the signs hanging and spinning in the showroom proclaim it to be “Motion Design, the Forward Look.”
To humor your Ford-Chevy loving buddies, you had gone with them to see those new models. Both Ford and Chevrolet had come out with good-looking 1955 models, but 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 cars. All the proportions were right. But after two decades of austerity, enforced by a depression and then by wartime shortages, the public 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 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, during a vicious sales battle between Ford and Chevrolet.
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 inches), the total length of the new Plymouth increased by a whopping ten inches. An inch increase in width and a good 1.5 inch cut in height fulfilled the longer, lower, wider claims that sold cars — after, you got “more car for the money.”
Your eyes were caught by those impressive headlight hoods, which neither you nor anyone else could imagine would be great salt-and-slush collectors. Beneath them, massive grille bars curved up and around parking lights, then bent down again to hold a ribbed center section. The Plymouth tri-sectional grille-bumper theme had begun in 1953 and would continue through 1961.
Beneath the grille was a massive bumper to continue the forward look of the car by thrusting to a prow-like point in the middle. It looked good, but later, it would be seen as a great licence-plate mangler.
On the hood was the most abstract sailing ship ornament yet, barely distinguishable as such. In one more year it would sprout wings, then “fly away,” never to be found on a Plymouth hood again, closing a 32 year tradition.
Below that hood ornament is something else never seen before on a Plymouth, a V8 symbol, signifying Plymouth’s first V8 engine. The Savoy sedan in the corner had a much plainer straight nameplate, signifying a six-cylinder. This badge reflected the theme of the grille, right down to the ribbed center section.
Plymouth called their wraparound front glass the “New Horizon” windshield. There was some residual dowdiness there — it had no doglegs. Your knees appreciated that. Plymouth’s sales literature claimed that, unlike the competition, their windshield also wrapped around at the top; and the backward slanting A-post contributed to that “fleeting look.” Doglegs were the latest fashion, though, and Plymouth didn’t had them in a day when fashion ruled.
Beneath the taillights was an indented panel running the full width of the car, creating a crease that ran forward to end just over the rear wheels. The rear panel created a high ledge over which luggage would had to be lifted; this began on the 1953 Plymouth and wouldn’t end until 1965. Within this panel was the license plate — no longer hiding the gas filler tube, now behind a door on the right fender. “Why the right?” you wonder, thinking of Elmer, the meticulous operator of the station down the street. Now you would had 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 the reason behind 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 had to pull the keys out of the ignition every time you wanted to get into the trunk. Above this button was a duplicate of the front V8 or six-cylinder nameplate.
The car was available in five body styles: Business Coupe (a two-door sedan with 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 had but a two door and a four door sedan. Continuing the hotel-name theme, there was the top-line Belvedere, which like the Plaza, was available in five styles: a two and a four door sedan, a hardtop, a convertible and a four door wagon. The Plaza business coupe was available only as a six, the convertible as a V8.
The code for these cars was P-26 with a six, P-27 with a V8; a suffix showed 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 had five-body lines, while Savoy had only two.
The low-line Plaza had no side trim, 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 had 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) had a single long spear running the full length of the car, ending in a chrome wing. Where the rear fender crease ends was a unique V8 symbol.
On the door was Plymouth’s first push-button door handle — and its last, until 1962. Inside was a great splash of color which had first begun replacing the prosaic greys in 1954. The cloth seat pattern was hundreds of Mayflower symbols, a kind of swan-song for the venerable Mayflower. By 1960 it had vanished as a Plymouth symbol, making a brief return before the Plymouth brand was abandoned at the turn of the century.
Now you sit on the thick foam rubber cushioned seats and take a look at what lies before you — the dash. It had a balanced look to it; perhaps too balanced. In the center, below the radio, is the glove box in the same place it had been since 1953. A good idea, and 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.
Flanking both sides of the glove box-radio center section were a full complement of gauges, matched as if a mirror were set sideways in the middle. The large round speedometer was matched by the identically sized radio speaker grille on the passenger side. Stranger yet, the ammeter and fuel gauges nicely placed directly in front of the driver are matched by having pressure and water temperature gauges in front of the passenger! They were impossible for the driver to see without taking eyes off the road. Customers, dealers and road testers complained loud and clear. On the 1956, the gauges would be moved in front of the driver, but turned into idiot lights.
The heater-defroster controls (of a good two-motor heater-defroster) which in 1955 were placed in front of the driver, would be moved in 1956 to the spots vacated by the gauges, 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 had the speedometer mounted low, almost out of the line of vision. To make it easier to see the instruments because of this low mounting, they are tilted upward. The 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 had put there in the first place. Plymouth had thought 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.
But what really stands out on the dash had them all talking — A dash-mounted automatic transmission selector. Chrysler reasoned 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. It would turn out to be a “love it or hate it” (but would return on minivans and the Prius decades later). The main complaint was that there was no light on the quadrant. It was replaced by push buttons the very next year.
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, 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, dubbed HyFire, resplendent in familiar silver paint, and suspended by Floating Power engine mounts! (1956 would be the last year for those.) You weren’t really a Hemi, 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 overhead valve V8 engine. It was the forerunner of MoPar V8s to come; and Dodge, the DeSoto Fireflite, and the Chrysler Windsor all shared it with Plymouth. It had become the replacement for the six-cylinder engine in the senior divisions.
Chrysler was painfully aware that their easy-breathing, high performing hemi was too expensive to produce, while it wasn’t selling enough extra cars to pay for the expense of building hemi-head engines. Chrysler engineers sought to build the next-best thing to a hemi, but with a single rocker arm, coming up with what they called the polyspherical combustion chamber. It still had a rounded, circular combustion chamber, but it could be served by a single rocker arm by putting the intake valves on the top side of the rocker arm and the exhaust valves on the bottom side. The bottom side of the valve covers were scalloped to leave the spark plugs accessible from the top — unlike Ford and Chevrolet, which made one reach under hot exhaust manifolds to get at the spark plugs. Years later, development engineer Pete Hagenbuch wrote that much of the cost and effort had been wasted — the wedge design was nearly as good, for a much lower cost.
The Plymouth “Hyfire” V8 had two displacement and three horsepower ranges. The 231 cubic inch engine pushed out 157 hp, while a 260 cubic inch engine produced 167 horsepower. A mid-year power package (four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust) increased it to 177 horsepower, though that was not part of the original plan. Director of Engineering J.C. Zeder had written, “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.” The horsepower race was considered to be the exclusive property of luxury cars, but Chevrolet’s new V8 started a horsepower race in 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 had one if they wished to keep selling cars. So Plymouth had one. If people like Zeder had their way, the flathead six would still be Plymouth’s sole powerplant. Automotive writers, 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. (Still, the 230 cid six was upped to 117 horsepower).
In Canada, only the Belvedere was sold with the V8, in either size but not with the power package. The Plaza (P26-1) was a four door sedan, a club coupe, and a two-door wagon. The Savoy (P26-2, not P26-3) and Belvedere (P27-2) came in four (not two) body styles. Demand later brought on a six-cylinder Belvedere series (P26-4). The Savoy hardtop was the beginning of a Canadian practice of selling hardtops one model lower than in the U.S. With two-tone paint, the Savoy even came with the Belvedere side trim; it outsold all other series combined, and Plymouth’s sixes outsold its eights five-to-one.The Canadian Plymouth Six was still the 25" long block, while a six-cylinder PowerFlite car came with the 251 ci engine (bigger than the 240 V8) just dropped from the Chrysler Windsor. Chrysler Canada also sold the usual Plymouths with Dodge names and front sheetmetal: Crusader, Regent and Mayfair.
Plymouth also supplied cars for DeSoto’s export market. Unlike the Canadian Dodge, the DeSoto Diplomat used all of Plymouth’s sheet metal, only changing the trim, including a DeSoto toothed grille. Many customizers would find out for themselves that a DeSoto grille would fit in their ’55 Plymouth, perhaps inspired by a teaser photo in a Popular Mechanics story on Plymouth’s styling studios.
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 before; automotive writers would suggest that this wide brake pedal should lead to a whole new style of driving, with left-foot braking, assuming that the manual transmission was going the way of six-cylinder engines.
This is the softest riding Plymouth you had ever driven, perhaps even a bit too soft. There’s some lean as the car corners, though it doesn’t seem excessive. 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 was similar to the 1939 Plymouth, except that the shocks were now mounted inside the coil springs; but they retuned the whole system for better handling, also adding symmetrical idler arm steering linkage, the final changes to the proven coil-spring/king-pin system soon to be replaced by torsion bars and ball joints. It was 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 were air conditioning (even on Plymouths), power windows and power seats. But these you saw only on the Chryslers at your local dealership.
Power from the V8 engine may not had been designed for blazing acceleration, but still it cut Plymouth’s 0-60 times nearly in half from its six-cylinder days.
It was quite a car, this new Plymouth. Like none you’d ever seen. They called it “Design in Motion.”
“I’ll buy that!,” you say. And you do. Sales shot up for 1955.
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