by Jim Benjaminson
When it was first shown, Chrysler’s radical 1934 Airflow took the New York Auto Show by storm. Unfortunately Chrysler wasn’t able to deliver until later in the year, by which time, the competition had done a number on the car. Although the Airflow was never a sales success, the concepts of automobile engineering they pioneered have been carried into the industry to this very day.
Plymouth’s 1935 models followed Airflow, moving from the “square box” school of design to a more rounded look, but was never as radical as the Airflow. Fenders took on a teardrop shape, flowing towards the rear of the car. A softly rounded, more massive radiator shell flowed back to a gracefully sloped hood which melded neatly into the body. Running boards melded into the front fenders, matching a slight bulge at the trailing edge of the fender where the two came together. The windshield frame carried the theme, with no sharp angles anywhere around its circumference, sloped at a steeper angle but still curved gently into the roof line. At the rear of the car, the roof line sloped downward at an angle tapering out toward the bottom of the car. Compared to earlier models, the cars simply looked more massive—deceiving since the wheelbase had actually been decreased to 113”.
Sold in two series, each known as the PJ model, the bottom line was the “Business Six” that included flatback two and four door sedans without trunk, business coupe, commercial sedan and Westchester Suburban station wagon.
Deluxe Six models included flatback two and four door sedans, two and four door “Touring” sedans, so called because of their built in hump back style trunks, business coupe, rumble seat coupe and convertible coupe with rumble seat. Two April editions included a 128” wheelbase 5-passenger “Traveler Sedan” with built in trunk and a 7-passenger trunk-less sedan.
A short lived (just 837 built) “PJ Six” appeared on the Canadian market.
Deluxe PJ’s were identified by their bullet shaped chrome headlamps, chrome windshield frame and hood design that included three long stainless strips over five circular “port” holes. PJ Six’s featured the Deluxe’s hood trim but with painted headlamps, while the Business PJ had painted headlamps and with just three horizontal hood trim pieces, sans portholes. Atop the radiator sat a slightly redesigned Mayflower sailing ship.
Sitting on a completely revised double drop “X” frame, all PJ series reverted back to a tubular front axle, abandoning independent suspension pioneered the previous year. Frame rails were ballooned out to form a perimeter matching the contours of the body, the body mounted down, over the frame rather than on top of it, secured both vertically and horizontally by 46 bolts in what was called “Unit Frame & Body” construction.
Under the hood, major changes had taken place to the engine. A completely redesigned water jacket with the addition of a water distribution tube was employed to prevent hot spots around the two rear cylinders. The block was recast to form a full water jacket on the left side of the engine—overall dimensions of the engine remained the same—only the starter motor had to be moved outward on its axis from the bell housing by about a quarter inch. An increased compression ratio raised horsepower to 82. Vacuum control of the distributor automatically eliminated spark knock. The small bore export engine was shipped in cars sent overseas and for the first time, an economy engine package with 1” bore carburetor and 5.2 compression ratio rated at 65 horsepower was offered.
There would be no further changes to the external dimensions of the Plymouth six cylinder engine throughout its lifetime, a factor that kept many any old Plymouth on the road when its original engine expired. Newer engines, up through Plymouth’s last flat head six of 1959 (and even later truck engines) were a bolt-for-bolt swap. For a ’35 or later engine to be used in a ’33 or ’34, the bellhousing had to be modified to move the starter outboard of the water jacket. Even when Chrysler Canada began putting two inch longer engines into its Canadian built products in mid-year 1938, engines continued to be interchangeable—this time by merely swapping the radiator support from front to back.
350,880 PJ Plymouths broke all existing production records, keeping the Mayflower solidly in third place in industry sales.
With an improving economy and a slimmer, trimmer looking car, Plymouth was well on its way to setting an all time sales record. To many, the ’36 Models, coded P1 for the Business Six and P2 for Deluxe, didn’t look all that different from the previous years car. As in 1934, the changes were deeper than most people realized. The X braced frame had again been redesigned, body structuring had been slimmed down, yet made stronger, and exterior sheetmetal changes were evolutionary.
Business Six customers had their choice of trunk-less two and four door sedans, business coupe and for the commercial buyer, a sedan delivery. Small quantities of Business Six touring sedans, in both two and four door form, were built only for export markets. Those considering a Deluxe model had the choice of regular or touring sedans in two or four door, business coupe, rumble seat coupe, convertible coupe and 7-passenger sedan. Wheelbase remained at 113” with the lone 7-passenger offering on a 128” chassis. Unit Body & Frame construction was carried over—the major change in the frame being at the front cross member although the center “X” was moved further forward.
A new three section grill—consisting of two outer chrome plated grills separated down the center by a grill painted body color, gave the cars a slimmer look. A sturdier sailing ship rode atop the radiator shell. Body color, bullet shaped headlamps replaced the bright metal maps of 1935—still mounted on stanchions bolted to the catwalk between the radiator shell and fender. Deluxe models had the stanchions decorated with three bright metal chevron stripes.
Hood trim consisted of a tear drop shaped stainless strip (mimicking the headlamp shape) followed by three “speed streaks” running the length of the hood. A redesigned roof line melded nicely into the bustle line of the touring sedan trunk. Front and rear fenders received beaded edges around the wheel openings and on touring sedans, taillamps were attached directly to the body rather than on the fender.
1936 would be the last year sidemounted spare tires would be offered on a Plymouth passenger car. The wheels rode rather high and restricted front door opening—outside mounted spare tires were becoming a thing of the past—only the convertible coupe and trunk-less sedans would continue to carry the spare at the rear of the body, the spare moving behind the front seat on all coupe models and into the trunk on touring sedans.
Unusual options first cataloged in 1936 included a removable pickup box for use in the trunk of the business coupe and the $40 hearse-ambulance conversion, which allowed a gurney to be inserted through the deck lid until the patient’s head and torso were in the passenger compartment. A split rear seat, which hinged to the roof, allowed the gurney into the rear compartment while allowing the attendant to be seated next to the patient. The pickup box would last as an option through 1939—the ambulance conversion through 1941.
Engines remained virtually unchanged from 1935; the small-bore export and economy engine continued to be available. Standard tire size on he the Business was 17”, one inch more than Deluxe cars.
For the first time in its history, Plymouth production passed the half million mark, reaching 520,025 units, more than enough to guarantee a third place finish in sales.
1937 was quite a year for Chrysler, as it paid off the last of the debt incurred when Chrysler Corporation purchased Dodge Brothers in 1928. The Corporation was sitting solidly in second place in behind General Motors, and it would be the first year the Corporation would build over one million cars in a single year—and the two millionth Plymouth—a 1937 model—had come off the line after new model change over in the fall of ’36.
By model end, a record 551,994 Plymouth passenger cars had been built. Sold in two series, the P3 “Business” Six and P4 Deluxe six, the cars had found a ready market in a much improved economy. The ’37 Plymouth would set an all time record in sales of Deluxe vs. business models when the P4 captured fully 86% of sales.
While the chassis and drive train remained little changed, the 1937 models received all new bodies. “Impressive, artistic massiveness in design” the brochures called it—the hot rodders’ term of “Fat Fender” fits even better.
The car was swept clean from end to end of every projecting ornament or accessory while every line or contour was softly rounded and smooth flowing. Despite its massive appearance, the wheelbase was again reduced—this time to 112” where it had been in 1933.
The grill was fuller, with a slender painted vertical section surrounded by right and left halves of bright chrome, rounded to curve from side to side. Headlamps were mounted directly to the radiator shell and painted to match body color. The redesigned Mayflower ship spilled over the top of the shell, in a smoother flowing line—long horizontal stainless strips adorned the hood sides, accentuating the speed bulge running back to the cowl. Fenders were crowned and dipped lower in front—and at long last, the cloth roof insert had been replaced by a solid steel stamping.
Prospective customers had the choice of a business coupe or flatback two and four door sedans in the Business line—Deluxe buyers could choose between a business coupe, rumble seat coupe, two or four door sedans with or without trunks and convertible coupe with rumble seat. This time three long wheelbase models made their debut—on an even longer 132” wheelbase including a 7 passenger sedan, 7 passenger limousine with divider window, and for the taxi trade, a 7-passenger taxi package.
Safety became a big issue with the ’37 models; all interior knobs were located under the dashboard (both push-pull and drawer-pull types used) while door and window handles were curved inward to prevent passengers from catching their clothing, front seat backs were heavily padded and the dome light was moved from the center of the roof to directly over the rear window—even exterior door handles were redesigned.
Changes to the engine were nearly nonexistent—the 201 cid 82 horsepower six was the only engine with the exception of the 65 horsepower economy engine and 170 cubic inch export engine. Chassis changes included “airplane” type shock absorbers, a kick shackle on the left front spring and hypoid rear axle replacing the spiral bevel type used in previous years. Interesting options included 20” high clearance wheels (which had been available for rural mail carriers since 1933) and a sliding package tray for the trunk of business coupes.
As the year drew to a close, dealers were counting record profits and looking forward to another record setting year; they would have to wait 13 years.
More 1937 Plymouth information and photos
Slightly restyled for ’38, the Jubilee models were graced with a shortened grill, not really any wider than the previous year but enough to give the car a a rather pug-nosed appearance. Not helping any were the larger headlamps, which increased illumination (generator capacity was increased to handle the extra load). Adding to the cars’ heavy look was a massive winged medallion below the waterfall grill. Marking its tenth anniversary, the Mayflower grill medallion was finished in red and white cloisonne rather than the familiar white on black. Adding insult to injury—prices had increased by 12% across the board.
The less expensive “Business” models, series P5, could be had in business coupe, or two or four door fastback sedans. The flatback sedans were proving so unpopular that a line of P5 touring sedans with built in trunks were added, the four door in February, a two door in March. Export buyers could also choose a P5 rumble seat coupe, a choice U.S. buyers couldn’t make. Sales resistance to the term “Business” six was so great that mid-year the P5 officially became the “Roadking” series.
P6 Deluxes came in business coupe, rumble seat coupe, two door and four door flatback sedans as well as two and four door touring sedans, convertible coupe with rumble seat and Westchester Suburban station wagon, marking the first year the wagon was built on the Deluxe chassis. Two long wheelbase 7-passenger chassis, in sedan and limousine form, were also cataloged.
As dealers and customers alike complained about the car’s “bug-eyed” look, Chrysler responded by casting a new headlamp mounting bracket which moved the headlamps two inches lower and four inches further back—just enough to take the edge off the original design.
Upholstery continued in the same vein as years before—cloth as standard in all but the wagon and convertible, leather extra in all closed models—with the exception of sedans fitted with Accessory Group C which received “pillow-type” upholstery, special door design, chrome trim and carpet strips on bottom door panels, special seat back trim, lighter wood graining, contrasting colors on the instrument panel, colored escutcheon plates, two front door arm rests, special color steering wheel with chrome horn ring, special gear shift knob and chrome windshield wipers, front grill guard, wheel trim rings, glove box lock and chrome trim on the running boards, all for $35 extra.
Mechanically there were few changes, the engine remaining an 82 horsepower 201 cid six. An optional aluminum head which would have raised compression and was rated at 86 horsepower was cataloged, but dropped before it ever saw production. The small bore export engine was still in use, but the economy engine could be had in two versions—the first with small bore carburetor and manifold, the second adding a throttle stop to hold speeds to 45 miles per hour or less.
Canadian buyers did see a distinct change under the hood, as the Windsor engine foundry came on line mid-year. Chrysler Canada, because of its lower production requirements, could justify casting just one size block. In the U.S., Dodge and Plymouth shared a 23” “small block” while Chrysler and DeSoto shared a 25” “long block”. If one block had to be chosen by Chrysler Canada for use in all its production, it was natural it would choose the long block—Plymouth and Dodge, while having a smaller displacement, would still be fitted with the 25” long block. The Canadian block (identified by the letter C in its serial number) would displace 201 cid, same as its U.S. cousin—only the dimensions would be different, derived from a quarter inch larger bore (3 3/8”) and 5/8” shorter stroke (3 3/4”). The Canadian “long” block would remain in production until replaced by the Slant Six in 1960.
Caught with higher prices in the midst of a brief economic recession, and car lots filled with good used trade ins from the previous year, industry wide sales fell by nearly one half, to 285,704.
Plymouth for ’39 was lower in both price and height, longer, and wider, with a deeply prow’ed front end, vee’d two piece windshield, and streamlined features such as head and taillamps mounted flush into the fenders. Underneath it all was the same body structure that had graced both the ’37 and ’38 Plymouths. By cleverly juggling sheet metal and utilizing a new roof stamping, the car had taken on an entirely different look. The hood alone was ten inches longer and the vee’d windshield added another 6 3/4” of room to the passenger compartment.
Full length body side chrome (a first for Plymouth—on Deluxe models only) and multi-piece horizontal grill bars aided the illusion of extra length and width. The return to independent front suspension meant a two inch increase in wheelbase, to 114”. It was only when viewed in profile—and from the doors back—that one got a hint to the 39’s origins.
The Roadking (P7) had two or four doors, as either flatback or touring sedans, business coupe, utility sedan or panel delivery (see commercial chapter). A handful of rumble seat coupes and station wagons were built for export markets. Deluxe body styles also cataloged two and four door trunk-less and touring sedans, convertible coupe with rumble seat, station wagon with side curtains or full glass enclosure, business coupe, rumble seat coupe, Westchester station wagon, 7-passenger sedan, limousine and taxi.
New for the year was Plymouth’s first and only four-door convertible sedan. Built on a special 117” wheelbase chassis, the convertible sedan shared the same body (aft of the cowl) as the ’37-38 Chrysler and DeSoto convertible sedans, supplied by Murray rather than the usual Briggs. Only 387 were built, at the premium price of $1,150 making it the most expensive Plymouth built prior to World War Two.
A year of transition, 1939 found Plymouth with the only open models in the entire Chrysler lineup; even rival Chevrolet did not offer a convertible. It also marked the last year for the rumble seat and the industry’s first power-operated convertible top. Another first was the addition of an optional black convertible top, on both open models.
Mechanically, the car was much the same as before. An optional aluminum cylinder head (delayed from the prior year) raised horsepower to 86. The small bore export engine was in its last year of production as European demand dried up for the duration of the war. Canadian-built Plymouths continued to use their unique long black engine.
The return to independent front suspensions came as no surprise, as the other Chrysler lines had been adopting it in previous years. Roadkings would be the only Chrysler-built cars to still retain floor shifted transmissions. Deluxe P8s featured “Perfected Remote Control Shifting,” placing the shift lever on the steering column, using cables and levers and fitting a special plate to convert the old transmission from top to side shifting. “Power Shift,” a vacuum controlled aide to shifting, was a seldom-seen $9.50 option.
The unique “Safety Signal Speedometer” cleverly incorporated a small round “eye” attached to the speedometer needle. Ran over a colored band underneath, the “eye” glowed green from zero to 30 miles per hour, amber from 30 to 50 and red at any speed over 50. Versions of the “Safety Signal” speedometer would still be in use as late as 1959.
Production totals for the year were up, although not to the record level of 1937. Included among the 423,850 cars built was the three millionth Plymouth. Who the car was sold to remains a mystery.
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
Top Ten List and Club Directory
Plymouth 1946-1959: Introduction • Turbines • Diesels • Christine • Dream Cars • Print version1924-1945 • 1946-48 • 1949 • 1950 • 1951 • 1952 • 1953 • 1954 • 1955 • 1956 • 1957 • 1958 • 1959 DeSoto and Plymouth Buyers’ Guide: DeSoto 1929-39 • DeSoto 1940s • DeSoto 1950s • Exports
Plymouth 1928-29 • 1930-34 • 1935-39 • 1940s • 1950s • 1960s • 1970s • Valiant/Barracuda
Acknowledgements • Introduction • Top Ten Lists and Clubs
More Mopar Car and Truck News
If Chrysler Used the 3.9 V6 in the F/J/M Cars? • 2015 Dodge Charger SE Console • Starting on a '55 Plymouth Plaza Suburban