By Jim Benjaminson
Between 1930 and 1942, Plymouth built a confusing array of commercial vehicles, using both passenger car and truck chassis. Regardless of the platform on which they were built, their production figures were never large and these commercial offerings, due to their low initial production, have gone virtually unnoticed in the hobby today.
Throughout its lifetime, Plymouth Commercial Cars, like the Canadian based and export Fargo, would be a companion marque based on the mechanicals and sheet metal of the Dodge Truck line.
Hans Ensing wrote: “For trucks, up to 1958 the Chrysler Export Division had (depending on the market ) independent Chrysler/Plymouth/Fargo, Dodge, and DeSoto distributors and dealers, who sold the basic Dodge trucks. The Swiss postal services used DeSoto-based Mowag 3-ton vans between 1953 and 1988. Chrysler Antwerp, a wholly owned subsidiary, used to show all three makes at the Brussels show in the 1950s.
When I worked in the Chrysler plant in the Netherlands in the 1960s, we made small numbers of Dodge trucks, but we could deliver them with a Fargo or DeSoto nameplate. In the 1970s, Chrysler International in London still sold Fargo trucks from the US. (Do not confound these US trucks with Chrysler trucks built in the UK or other countries which had the same nameplate strategy.)
Regarding the name Chrysler used for Plymouth models, there are the Plymouth chassis sent to bodybuilders in Europe and ultimately registered as Chrysler's. Swiss bodybuilders made some of these (very good quality) conversions.”
For the sake of clarity, we will examine the passenger-car-based commercial offerings first. Plymouth’s first entry into this market came with the 30U models, built in 1930-31. Called the “Commercial Sedan” it was little more than a two-door sedan with a third door added at the rear of the body. The rear quarter windows were blanked out with removable panels (usually these panels carried the name of the business on them).
The idea behind the Commercial Sedan was to serve two purposes for the small businessman who could afford only one vehicle. During the week, it could serve as his delivery truck, but on the weekend, with the window panels removed, and the optional rear seat in place, it could serve as the family car. As a passenger-styled vehicle, even while in the commercial mode, it could travel in restricted areas where “commercial vehicles” were prohibited.
Despite the obvious advantages, it met with little sales success as only 80 were built. At $750 (later reduced to $675) it was considerably more expensive than the $565 two-door sedan on which it was based which may account for its low sales volume.
The Commercial Sedan did not re-appear until 1935. Again it was based on the lowest-priced two-door sedan, with a third door cut into the rear of the body. Although ’35 bodies were of all-steel construction, the framing for the rear door was done with wood. Again, the rear seat was optional for those wanting to convert from commercial to personal use, with snap-in window blanks used to advertise the name of the business. With the window blanks removed, the rear quarter windows could be rolled down like the regular sedans. Built by Briggs, the $635 Commercial Sedan (body code number 651-B), priced $100 higher than the regular PJ Business two-door sedan (body code 651) on which it was based. Sales of 1,142 such models no doubt reflected this modest price difference.
For 1936 Plymouth saw fit to build the Commercial Sedan with its own special body rather than convert two-door sedans. Based on the P1 “Business” passenger-car chassis prices were reduced $20 over the previous year as sales climbed to a record 3,527 vehicles. The quarter window panels were now permanent and no rear seats were offered to even attempt converting this sedan delivery to passenger car use. Like the ’35 version, there was a single door at the rear of the body with the spare tire carried in the right-front fender.
A major change occurred with the 1937 Commercial Sedans (and will be covered more in depth in the Commercial Car section of this chapter) when it was decided to build this model, as well as the wood-body station wagon on the truck chassis. The only “commercial” vehicles on the passenger-car chassis in 1937 were the ambulance/hearse conversion and pickup box options. Although based on passenger-car chassis in years previous, station wagons had always been considered by the factory as “commercial” vehicles.
For 1938 the sedan delivery—or panel delivery as Plymouth preferred to call it, remained on the commercial chassis, with the wood-body station wagon returning to the passenger-car chassis.
Plymouth Commercial Cars for 1939 found them built on a new, truck type 116-inch-wheelbase chassis, which may explain why the panel delivery was once again reverted to the passenger-car chassis. Designed to match the passenger car the panel delivery, utility sedan, and station wagon carried its spare tire in a side-mount fender well. The Panel Delivery still had its own special body, only now with two rear doors. Split vertically, each door contained a retractable window, with flush-mounted inside handles.
Joining the lineup this year was a new “Utility Sedan,” which like the Commercial Sedans of 1930 and 1935, was a converted two-door passenger car built without a rear seat. The partition between the passenger compartment and truck was eliminated as was done for the ambulance conversions. Below the windows, paneling replaced upholstery while the floor was covered with full-length rubber mat. Unlike the panel delivery which came with only a drivers bucket seat (passenger side optional), the Utility Sedan was shipped with two bucket seats. An optional screened partition, with locking gate, was offered to separate the driver from the load compartment of the Utility Sedan. Only 341 of the $685 Utility Sedans were sold, in comparison to 2,270 panel deliveries which commanded a $715 price tag.
Plymouth’s 1940 passenger-based “commercial” offerings included the Utility Sedan and panel delivery on the P9 Roadking chassis. Styling followed that of the passenger cars, the Utility Sedan being a stripped two-door sedan, while the panel delivery again had its own special body. The panel delivery’s most obvious change from ’39 was placement of the spare tire in a special well on the right side of the body, in front of the rear fender. Utility Sedan production was up slightly, to 589 units at a price of $699 while 2,889 panel deliveries were built despite a $5 price increase to $720.
These same two-passenger-based body styles were continued into 1941. At $739 production of the Utility sedan fell to 468 units. Sedan delivery production rose slightly, to 3,200 units, as did the price to $745. The panel delivery discontinued for 1942, although the limited production Utility Sedan was still available. Also missing from the 1942 lineup was the ambulance conversion—1942 would prove to be the last year for any passenger-based Plymouth commercial vehicles. Only 82 1942 Utility Sedan saw units were built. At $842, the Utility Sedan was now priced $8 under the price of the P14S Deluxe two-door sedan on which it was based.
Production of the new Plymouth Commercial Car line began in December of 1936. Plymouth’s first truck chassis pickup was little more than a disguised Dodge pickup. All new for 1936, the Dodge was “updated” for ’37—it and the “new” ’37 Plymouth pickups were virtually identical except for minor trim differences such as grille and tailgate. Mechanically the Plymouth pickup used a Plymouth engine, coded series PT50 by the factory. (Dodge trucks were coded “T” series—Plymouth thus became “PT—Plymouth Truck” to indicate their heritage.)
Built on a 116-inch wheelbase, ladder-type frame with five cross members, the new Plymouth Commercial Cars bore a strong family resemblance to the passenger cars. The resemblance was in looks only, as no sheet metal or trim interchanges between the ’37 passenger car and ’37 truck with the exception of front bumper, hubcaps, and dash knobs. Unlike Dodge, which offered a complete range of models, Plymouth Commercial Cars were built in just four versions—the Express (pickup), cab & chassis (which included full-length running boards and rear fenders), panel delivery, and station wagon. A “flat-face cowl” could also be ordered for those wanting to mount their own special body.
Attractively styled the PT50 series included safety glass in all windows, chrome front bumper, (rear bumper optional—panel deliveries had a rear bumper as standard equipment) with spare tire mounted in the right-front fender. A left fender well was available at extra cost. The box was six feet long and 47½ inches wide, of all steel construction, including the floors.
Under the hood sat a familiar valve in block six displacing 201 cubic inches—the same as all Plymouth passenger cars from 1934 through 1941. The truck engine was rated at 70 horsepower at 3,000 rpm while ’37 passenger cars were rated at 82 horsepower.
The panel delivery, which up to this time had been on the passenger-car chassis, was now part of the commercial-chassis line. Priced $50 higher than 1936, the panel delivery found 3,256 buyers.
10,709 pickups, 158 cab & chassis, 602 station wagons, and 3,256 panel deliveries found buyers making 1937 the best sales year Plymouth Commercial Cars would see.
Plymouth’s 1938 Commercial Cars were so little changed, except for minor appearance items, lines were shut down for less than a day for model year change over. The grille was shorter, and wider, matching changes made to the passenger-car line for ’38. Again, there was no interchange of either trim or sheet-metal pieces between the passenger and commercial car lines. The Suburban Westchester wagon was reverted back to the passenger-car chassis.
No mechanical changes were made with the exception of an optional four-speed transmission with power take-off capability.
Assembly of the PT57 models came to a halt August 17, 1938—only 4,620 pickups and 95 cab and chassis having been assembled.
When Plymouth unveiled its new Commercial Car models for 1939, things had definitely changed—gone was the “passenger-car” look. The new pickups had a decidedly truck-like appearance to them. Literally new from the ground up, the Plymouth Commercial Car was still a clone of the Dodge; the frame was still of the ladder type, wheelbase remained at 116 inches, but from there, similarities ended.
The new cab was moved forward, as was the engine, to provide for a 6½ inches longer cargo bed without drastically increasing the outward dimensions of the vehicle. The cab had a more modern look, with a ship’s prow front end, headlamps mounted on the fender catwalks, and a two-piece, vee’d windshield among the more noticeable changes. The cab was claimed to be the biggest offered by the “Big Three” and was advertised as a true “three-man cab.”
The box was increased in size, measuring 78 1/8 inches long, by 48¼ inches wide. Departing from the all-steel boxes used in ’37-38, the new box had a wooden floor, made up of 13/16-inch thick planking protected by steel skid strips.
Other exterior changes included more massive fenders each featuring four prominent “speed lines” and the elimination of fender-mounted spare tires—the spare now riding in a special carrier under the box at the rear of the frame. (Some ’40 PT105 trucks are known to have the spare tire mounted above the running board forward of the right-rear fender—these trucks have a special indent in the rear fender to allow this type of mount, with the mounting arm attached to the frame passing through an opening in the running-board splash aprons. These trucks also have the gasoline tank mounted at the rear of the frame, instead of under the seat. The filler neck on these trucks is located on the left-rear fender instead of the cab sidewall. It is believed trucks equipped this way may have been military issue.)
Outside of the sailing-ship hood ornament, headlamp rings, and hubcaps, no bright-metal trim appeared on the new models—even the front bumpers, which had been chrome plated on the 1937-38 pickups, were painted black or aluminum. The windshield frame, headlamps, and entire radiator shell could be had chrome plated at additional cost but few were so equipped.
Mechanically the PT81 series differed little from its predecessors.
The engine remained a 70 horsepower, 201-cubic-inch six, with three-speed manual transmission standard and four-speed optional.
The 1940 series PT105 saw only minor appearance changes. New for the year was the addition of sealed-beam headlamps. With the addition of the sealed beam it was no longer possible to mount the parking lamp in the headlamp itself, so a rather odd looking “pod” was added to the top of the headlamp bucket. The upper-grille shell was livened up by the addition of three horizontal stainless strips. Horsepower was increased from 70 to 79, although bore and stroke figures remained the same as previous years. Despite a $10 price hike, sales of the PT105 series increased slightly with sales of 6,879 pickups and 174 cab and chassis units.
Minor changes marked the 1941 Plymouth Commercial Cars, most for the better, although the most obvious change—moving the headlamps from the catwalk to the crown of the fender, was a change for the worst in the opinion of many. Without making any changes to the basic radiator sheet metal, designers fashioned a chrome overlay patterned after the ’41 passenger car grille. Starting at the leading edge where the hood meets the radiator shell, a stainless strip ran forward to converge at the front of the radiator, from there plunging down in two vertical strips to the bottom of the grille shell. In the center was a large Plymouth sailing-ship emblem. On either side of this, on the left and right outer grille panels, were five horizontal stainless strips, similar to the strips used on the 1939 and 1940 Plymouth passenger cars. Paint stripes accented the bars between the stainless strips. The front bumper, while still painted, had a pronounced vee in the center.
“Plymouth” nameplates, which had graced the sides of the upper radiator shell on the PT81 and PT105, were centered on the hood panels. The awkward pod-shaped parking lamps atop the headlamp shells were replaced by attractive bullet-shaped lamps mounted on the cowl, but it was the outward movement of the headlamps that gave the truck its startling new appearance.
Under the hood engine horsepower increased to 82 (vs. 79 in ’40), mated to a new three-speed synchro-shift transmission. Also new for the year were “stepped” brake cylinders with different size pistons in the same cylinder. The front pistons measured 1¼ inches actuating the front brake shoes, with 1 3/8-inch pistons actuating the rear shoes. This difference in size—or stepping—was claimed to exert equal pressure of both shoes against the brake drum.
PT125 sales decreased to the lowest level since recession year of 1938 (this at a time when industry sales were up), caused perhaps by the $40 price increase for ’41. Sales of 6,073 pickups and 196 cab and chassis units mattered little—as production wound down on the PT125 models, so too did an era at Plymouth. With the dawn of the 1942 models, the Commercial Car line was quietly dropped. The reasons why were never publicly discussed. No doubt lower than expected sales volume was a factor. A plausible explanation probably lies in commitments made to the military in supplying vehicles for our allies leading up to our involvement in the war effort. Plymouth truck production halted prior to our entry into the war but within months all civilian truck production came to a halt (on April 30, 1942) as Chrysler Corporation helped turn Detroit into the “Arsenal of Democracy.”
Historically it is interesting to question whether the addition of a Plymouth Commercial line helped—or hurt—corporate truck sales. Studying sales figures provided by the Automobile Manufacturers Association, Dodge garnered only 4.5% of new truck sales in 1932. The dominant truck manufacturers then—as now—were Ford and Chevrolet. For 1933 and 1934 Dodge took 11.6% of the market, climbing slightly, to 11.7% in 1935. The new Dodge line for 1936 raised the sales figures to 13.4% of the market.
With the introduction of the Plymouth truck in 1937, Dodge sales fell to 11.1% of the market, with Plymouth picking up 2.1% for a corporate total of 13.2%. (No figures are given for Fargo, although it is assumed they were counted as Dodges.) During the recession year of 1938 as other sales fell dramatically, Dodge maintained a 9.4% market penetration while Plymouth fell to just 0.9% for a corporate total of 10.3%. 1939 sales for Dodge came to 10.6% plus 1.4% for Plymouth. While the 1940 Dodge trucks posted a gain to 13%, Plymouth remained nearly static at 1.7% for a 14.7% corporate total—the best prewar performance Dodge would see, although the 1941 corporate total slipped only 0.1% to 14.6%. This gain came solely through Dodge sales, as Plymouth captured only 0.5% of the market, its poorest showing ever. It should be remembered that Plymouth offered only a single line of light-duty trucks while Dodge and all the others offered a full line of light-, medium-, and heavy-duty trucks. All in all, the addition of Plymouth as a companion did little to increase Corporate penetration of the new truck market. Although built and marketed at little cost, the results may not have been worth the effort.
This book is reprinted with the permission and cooperation of Jim Benjaminson, who holds the copyright to the text and to his photos. Also see his book Plymouth 1946-1959.
Plymouth Commercial Vehicles
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