By Jim Benjaminson
Walter P. Chrysler retired in 1919. It had been a voluntary retirement, of sorts. He was barely 44 years old, but he had come a long way since his birth in the sleepy little Kansas town of Wamego. His childhood had been spent in Western Kansas, at Ellis, where his father was an engineer with the railroad. His first job, in fact, had been with the railroad, sweeping floors for ten cents an hour. From there he moved through the ranks until he had become the youngest man to hold the position of Superintendent of Motive Power for the Chicago & Great Western Railroad.
Mr. Chrysler’s jobs had taken him and his beloved wife, Della, across the face of the nation. When the superintendent’s job no longer held a fascination for him, he moved the family to Pittsburgh, where he took the reigns of the ailing American Locomotive Company, transforming the locomotive builder into a financially solid organization. It was at ALCO that Chrysler came to the notice of James J. Storrow, an ALCO director and former President of General Motors, who urged Chrysler to visit Detroit, where General Motor’s huge Buick plant was struggling. GM’s boss, Charles Nash, offered Chrysler a position with Buick—at half his ALCO salary; Chrysler accepted the job and within weeks the Buick plant was turning out 200 cars a day, rather than the paltry 45 they had been building earlier.
By 1912, Chrysler was president of the Buick Division. General Motors’ flamboyant founder, William C. Durant, entered the picture and Chrysler’s life began a series of “hills and valleys.” By 1915, Chrysler was being paid half a million dollars a year in cash and stock—but Durant’s reckless business style clashed steadily with Chrysler’s no-nonsense approach until Chrysler decided he’d had enough and walked out.
Retirement did not suit the likes of Walter Chrysler. It was welcome relief when friends in the banking industry approached Chrysler in 1920, to ask if he would consider taking over the reigns of the ailing Willys Corporation. Willys was one of the oldest U.S. automobile manufacturers, but John North Willys ran the business in the same reckless abandon that continued to get Billy Durant in trouble. Willys was rich in assets and the offer to Chrysler was sweet—a million bucks a year, with a two year contract. To the relief of Della, Walter accepted the job and she could get him and his cigar smoking pals out of her living room!
During his stay at Willys, Walter Chrysler meet the three engineers who would influence the rest of his life—Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer. Together they collaborated on building a car under the Chrysler banner, while still at Willys. Their plans—and their car—were whisked out from under their feet when Durant, who had once again been ousted from General Motors, bought the plant and plans for the car at auction. The Chrysler name had already been affixed to the plant roof, but Durant put the car on the market as the Flint.
It wasn’t long before bankers were once again seeking Walter Chrysler’s help. This time it was for Maxwell-Chalmers Corporation. Unlike Willys, Maxwell was nearly broke, with a huge inventory of unsalable cars. This time Chrysler took his salary in stock, a move that would eventually put him in full control. He moved quickly to unload the inventory, [bringing the Zeder, Skelton, and Breer team over to repair] problems that had plagued the cars — fixing cars already in the field gratis — and selling the left over cars at $5 over cost. They were sold as the “Good Maxwell”, to regain the buying public’s confidence.
Once again, Zeder, Skelton, and Breer designed a new car, and once again the Chrysler nameplate was attached to it. Chrysler rented the lobby of the nearby Commodore Hotel, where most of the industry bigwigs were staying anyway, to make it much more visible, a marketing coup of gigantic proportions.
On June 26, 1925, Maxwell-Chalmers became Chrysler Corporation. Within four years, Walter Chrysler would introduce three new vehicle lines—the four cylinder Plymouth, the six cylinder DeSoto, the Fargo commercial car line and, in a move that rocked the industry, purchased the huge Dodge Brothers complex from the banking firm of Dillon, Reed and Company. If that weren’t enough to keep him busy, workmen at the corner of 45th and Lexington in New York City began construction on what would briefly be the tallest building in the world, the 1,046 foot, 77-story Chrysler Building — featuring a radical new air conditioning system that would become the world’s “new normal.” For someone who had “retired” in 1919, Walter P. Chrysler was busy man!
“We have named it the Plymouth because this new product of Chrysler engineering and craftsmanship so accurately typifies the endurance and strength, the rugged honesty, the enterprise, the determination of achievement and the freedom from old limitations of that Pilgrim band who were the first American colonists,” read the press release signed by Walter P. Chrysler.
First shown to the public at New York’s Madison Square Garden on July 7, 1928, Chrysler’s entry into the low priced field was conventionally styled, designed by purpose to emulate its larger Chrysler brethren. Like the big Chrysler’s, the “thin line” radiator design, exposing only the outer lip of the radiator, gave the visual effect of greater car length. Sitting atop the radiator was a delicate, winged “Viking” hat radiator cap. Called a “daring and refreshing change in motor car design,” the thin shell radiator design would be discarded for more conventional designs within two model years.
“Airwing” fenders swept gracefully, accenting the length of the car, with full rear fender aprons and gas tank shield helping form a neat, unbroken appearance. Arched windows on closed models, with cloth roof covering stretched down over the side of the car resulted in a slightly lower look although interior headroom was generous. The louvered hood panels were embossed with the same arched design as found on the side windows.
Bumpers were of the two piece type, each bar carrying two horizontal grooves running the length of the bumper. Standard equipment on all models included an automatic vacuum powered windshield wiper, motor driven horn, semi-spark advance controlled from the dash, with hand throttle, light controls and horn button located on the steering column.
Though production began early in 1928, the Model Q was considered by the factory to be a 1929 model—some states, however, demanded the car be registered for the year in which it was built, causing much confusion today as to whether there actually was a “1928” Plymouth. Chrysler’s model year policy had been adopted from Dodge’s policy established in 1922—”All cars manufactured after June 30th are known as of the series of the next calendar year.” Following this policy, roughly the first 3,500 Model Q Plymouths built should be considered as 1928 models. Production had begun June 14, 1928 at the Highland Park complex, which Plymouth would share briefly with Chrysler and DeSoto.
Built on a 109 3/4” wheelbase, the new Plymouth was powered by a Chrysler-built four cylinder engine. That Plymouth could trace its heritage back to Maxwell was obvious, but there were few similarities in the cars outside of wheelbase and engine. The last Maxwell, the 25-C, had ridden a 109” wheelbase, its four cylinder engine developing 38 horsepower. Its replacement, the Chrysler F58, had exactly the same specifications. The succeeding Chrysler Fours, the “50” and “52,” had a three inch shorter wheelbase, with horsepower edging up to 45—same as the new Plymouth.
With a bore and stroke of 3 5/8”x4 1/8”, the Plymouth engine bore little resemblance to the Maxwell four. The Maxwell had been built with separate intake valve ports for each cylinder and siamesed exhaust ports; cooling problems caused it to overheat and warp the valves. This problem was cured by Chrysler engineers while still in the Maxwell chassis, by revamping the camshaft and manifolds, and swapping the location of the intake and exhaust valves. When used in the Chrysler 50, the engine was converted from two to three main bearings.
Improvements in the Plymouth engine over the Chrysler 52 included full force-feed lubrication, larger diameter chrome nickel intake valves, crankcase ventilation, aluminum alloy ventilated bridge-type pistons, silchrome steel exhaust valves, frictional type impulse neutralizer for dampening vibration, and an oil filter and air cleaner as standard equipment. [The creation of most of these innovations is detailed in Carl Breer’s autobiography]
Of the low-priced cars, Plymouth was the only one to feature internally expanding, four wheel hydraulic brakes. An independent parking brake was mounted on the front flange of the forward universal joint. Transmitting power to the rear wheels was a three speed, spur gear transmission operating through a single, dry clutch plate. Wood wheels were standard on all models, with wire wheels optional.
The Plymouth was sold in six body styles, including two and four door sedan, roadster, phaeton, business coupe, and Deluxe coupe with rumble seat. The Deluxe coupe, although fitted with a cloth top and landau irons, was fixed in position and did not retract. Early roadsters were built without rumble seats.
The Model Q—and it successor, the Model U—would be the only Plymouths built using composite metal over wood framing. Bodies were supplied to Plymouth by Briggs and, for some four door sedans, Hayes. Two door sedan bodies were built by Budd and acquired through the Dodge Division, as were some Kercheval bodies—which was a Chrysler owned subsidiary.
At $725, the car was considerably more expensive than the rivals it hoped to take on—the $595 Ford Model A and $495 Chevrolet. Still, Model Q production totaled 60,270 U.S. and 5,827 Canadian built cars—good enough to put newcomer Plymouth in 15th place for calendar year 1928.
The model year changeover occurred on January 7, 1929 with car number RR120P; 4,000 more Model Qs would roll off the line during this period. The 1929 Model U quite literally became a U by its use of a changed engine, minor mechanical revisions, and an almost imperceptible change in appearance.
It took a sharp eye to detect the external changes between the Q and U. Bumpers, still the double bar type, were now rounded, rather than flat, missing the two horizontal grooves of the Model Q. Headlamps looked the same, but the supplier had been changed from Depress Beam to TwoLite. The radiator medallion, which previously read “Chrysler Plymouth,” now read simply “Plymouth;” hubcaps were larger, with the “hex” for the hubcap wrench behind the face of the cap rather than on the leading edge.
The Model Q and early U’s rode on 4.75x20” wheels until after car number Y076LE which switched to 19” rims. Wooden wheels remained standard with wire wheels—in both 5 and 6 bolt pattern—optional.
The manifolds were revised so exhaust gases exited at the front of the engine, to eliminate heat build up near the passenger compartment. The distributor drive housing, which sat vertically on Model Q, was changed to an angle position (these distributor housings, which had a tendency to crack over the years, are now being reproduced.) Front and rear main bearings were increased in size, with a quarter inch increase in stroke, raising displacement to 175.4 cubic inches. Despite these changes, rated horsepower remained at 45 [note: measurements before 1971 are nearly always gross, not net.]
The Model U was sold in the same six body styles as the Model Q, as well as, starting in October, the Deluxe Sedan, which, for $20 more, netted the buyer cowl lamps with chrome cowl band and plusher upholstery.
The Model U remained in production through April 5, 1930 although cars built after July 18, 1929 were considered to be 1930 models (somewhere around car number Y020WW).
To meet demand for the new car, Chrysler built what would, for many years, be the largest assembly plant under one roof. Work began on the Lynch Road plant during the winter of 1928-29. At nearly half a mile long, construction crews began work at four locations—two teams at the center of the plant, working out to the ends, and two crews starting at the ends of the building, working their way toward the center. A steam railroad locomotive, parked on a siding, provided steam heat for the workmen.
Approximately 13,157 Model Us were built in the old Highland Park plant before production switched to the newly completed Lynch Road complex. Production of 99,178 U.S. and 9,167 Canadian built Model Us moved Plymouth into tenth place in U.S. sales for calendar year 1929.
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.
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