The 1931-32 Plymouth PA: Walter Chrysler’s Fistful of Aces

by James Benjaminson - courtesy of the Plymouth Bulletin (issue 152)

tail lightWhen the low priced Plymouth appeared in the summer of 1928, history claims that Henry Ford told Walter Chrysler he would go broke, because Ford and Chevrolet had that market completely sewn up. Undaunted, Chrysler forged ahead, always the optimistic gambler.

Plymouth’s first two years were good. By 1931, Chrysler’s entry into the low priced field kept the corporation afloat, after the crash of 1929.

Despite the nation’s fast sinking economy, during the first years of the Depression, Walter Chrysler spent nearly $2.5 million to bring out a totally new Plymouth — the first new Plymouth since the marque’s inception. (The original Plymouth was a continuation of the improved Maxwells).

The Plymouth PA was a 1932 model; the first car was built on May 1, 1931. The PA would be the last model without any model year identification, and would be followed in April by the 1933 PB. Formal nationwide announcement of the PA took place on July 11, 1931.

Was the story about Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler true? Given that the Plymouth was essentially a rebrand of the “Good Maxwell,” he probably did not mean that creating the brand would bankrupt Chrysler; but, to make it in large enough numbers to be a profit engine, Chrysler bought Dodge Brothers, and that was a major risk. That is most likely what Henry Ford was referring to.

Unusual features on the PA (also found on the 30U) was a fuel pump, replacing the vacuum tank; using hydraulic, rather than friction-based, shock absorbers (dampers); and using an electric gasoline gauge. PA added its own features, including a revolutionary engine mounting for a smoother ride, and an automatic spark advance.

Chrysler lowered prices on certain models, while raising them on others. The two most popular body styles, the two and four door sedans, both increased by $10, while the sport roadster and the rumble seat coupe dropped by $15 each. The business coupe and the business roadster stayed with their 1930 prices, while the phaeton dropped $30 and the convertible coupe fell a whopping $50 below its 1930 price.

cars

The blue 1932 Plymouth Phaeton pictured here is a PB model. The appearance was similar.

The PA was much costlier than most competitors, with a four door PA going for $635 — $45 over a comparable Ford Model A. Plymouth head (and Ford refugee) Fred L. Rockelman believed in providing more car for the money.

106,896 PAs were built, well higher than the 76,950 cars the year before. While far from Ford’s 626,579 cars and Chevrolet’s 619,554 for the model year, it pushed Plymouth into the number three spot in national car sales, displacing Buick. (In Plymouth’s first year, Willys-Overland’s "Whippet" was #3. For 1929, Hudson’s Essex had slipped into third.) Plymouth kept the number three or number two spot until 1954, when Buick recaptured it.

Production took place in two assembly plants: an existing one in Windsor, Ontario, and the freshly completed Lynch Road assembly plant in Detroit. The largest automobile factory under one roof in the entire world, it took up 40 acres, and was just 150 feet short of a full half-mile long. At the peak of production, two PAs per minute were completed, even as the company finished up the 30U, with the two running together for over a month.

four-cylinder Plymouth engine

The story goes that Walter Chrysler jumped behind the wheel of one of the first Plymouths when it came off the line, driving it to Henry Ford and his son Edsel. Chrysler presented them with the keys and called himself a taxi for the ride back home. The story may be fiction — according to Plymouth, Its First Forty Years, Chrysler made the trip twice, first with a Model Q, then again with a PA. Ford historian David L. Lewis and Randy Mason of the Henry Ford Museum could not substantiate the story; and with the elder Ford’s penchant for saving things, it would seem strange indeed that the PA, if this story is true, did not survive.

Although the PA was almost totally new, it kept the 30U’s 109” wheelbase and the basic engine. The frame was now a double drop type, with a “kick” over both the front I-beam axle and the banjo-type rear axle. The center part of the frame was therefore much lower to the ground, so the new all-steel Briggs bodies could sit lower; sedans topped off at 68 5/8" while the roadsters were a ground hugging 64” with the top up. The new frame lowered the car’s center of gravity, for better road holding.

The pressed steel frame was deepened, with four cross members, for better rigidity. Semi-elliptic springs front and rear, mounted in rubber shackles, along with hydraulic shock absorbers at all four corners, improved the ride, but added about 200 pounds more weight per car than previous models. Wire wheels, with adjustable spokes, were fitted with 4.75x19" tires.

Power

1932 Plymouth four-cylinder cars

The 196 cubic inch four cylinder went from 48 to 56 horsepower at the same 2,800 rpm. Bore and stroke remained 3 5/8" by 4 3/4", but the compression ratio was upped from 4.6 to 4.9:1. Power was transmitted through an 8 7/8” dry plate clutch to a semi-floating spiral bevel rear axle with a 4.33 to 1 ratio. An automatic spark advance system debuted, with a vacuum controlled spark retarder taking over at idle speeds (required when the car was driven in the free wheeling mode).

With increased pep from its high-turbulence “Silver Dome” cylinder head, the little four banger would propel the PA from 0 to 40 miles per hour in just 9.7 seconds, according to factory brochures.

1931 PA

The 44-pound crankshaft of the PA was now both statically and dynamically balanced, and all piston and rod sets were matched in weight, to within .02 pounds each, to improve balance. Pistons were made of aluminum and fitted with four rings each. There were shell type insert bearings and full pressure lubrication from the 6-quart oil pan via drilled passages in the block.

carter carburetorThe fuel pump had a visible filter; the company used a Carter 1 1/8” carburetor with an acceleration pump and an air cleaner. Twenty-four ball or tapered roller bearings were used throughout the drive train, with seven bearings alone in the transmission.

Power from the engine was transmitted via an “Easy Shift” transmission, so named because the second and high gear were in constant mesh with each other, making it possible to up shift or downshift at any speed without having to double clutch to get the gears into mesh.

Free wheeling, brakes, and cooling

Coupled to the rear of this transmission was a standard cam and roller type free wheeling unit. Free wheeling was popular during the early part of the 1930s; Plymouth was the lone low-priced car with free wheeling, but critics roundly disliked the units.

Free wheeling allowed motorists to shift between gears without the clutch, except from a stop; and, when one lifted their foot off the accelerator, the drive to the rear wheels would in effect be disconnected; the engine would slow down to idle speed and no engine braking would take place. When the driver put his foot on the throttle again, the connection would again be made to transfer the engine’s power to the rear wheels. Free wheeling could be locked out by the driver, if desired. It gave som extra economy and convenience.

The loss of engine braking put a strain on the brakes, leading to an upgrade for Plymouth’s superior four wheel hydraulic brakes. They had 11 inch drums with 1.5” wide brake shoes, a major selling point, especially when the car’s two major competitors stuck to cable actuated systems.

Radiator capacity was increased to slightly more than 3 1/2 gallons, a 12 gallon gas tank was fitted at the rear of the frame and a faster semi-reversible worm and sector steering gear was employed. The six-volt cars all had an 84-amp-hour Willard battery.

1932 Plymouth Phaeton

The PA was the first Plymouth to have a built in radiator grill, flanked by headlights on a crossbar; the lamps had chrome plated rims, but fully chromed lamps were optional. Bodies had deep structural moldings stamped into them, painted contrasting colors for emphasis. This marked a turning point in Plymouth magazine advertising, with switched to extensive use of color ads.

Body and appearance

Coupes and sedans had the oval shaped rear windows from late 30U production. Five wire wheels were standard, with the spare mounted in the rear, but dual fender mounted spares (six wheels) were optional. The fenders and all sheet metal received a treatment called “Bonderizing” to prevent rust.

Flying Lady hood ornament

Most cars were adorned with an attractive and delicately detailed “Flying Lady” radiator cap. Designed by Herbert V. Henderson, it was made for Plymouth by the Jarvis Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan (buyers could also choose a plainer cap with a single raised rib). The “Flying Lady” would continue through 1933, but for 1933 it would be less detailed, and sit much higher off the radiator.

The sport roadster windshield could be folded forward at the cowl. Sedans had broad cloth upholstery, four door models sporting a foot rest, robe rail, dome light and rear window curtain, while open cars were fitted with leather upholstery (optional on the convertible coupe). Front seats were adjustable, and all enclosed models were factory wired with a radio antenna — the first radios in Plymouth cars — but the price of almost $100 scared away most buyers.

A speedometer, oil, amp, and temperature gauge were nestled in the center of the dash, surrounded by a chrome panel, while garnish moldings were trimmed in walnut. The horn button and light switches were placed in the center of the 17” steering wheel. Instruments were illuminated by indirect lighting at night.

The new look of the PA was a welcome change from the style of the Q, U, and 30U models; it matched the styling that Chrysler and DeSoto had gotten six months earlier. The PA shared most of its body structure with the DeSoto SA, and the DeSoto much with the Chrysler CM. Both DeSoto and Chrysler were six cylinders, while the Plymouth was the Corporation’s lone four cylinder line.

The PA Plymouth was easily the largest car in the low priced field, and was advertised as the most beautiful low priced car in the world. Each body was made of five steel sections, beginning with a full steel floor pan, and electrically welded together to create a solid, one unit structure. Even the doors were made up of five steel stampings welded together. Prior Plymouths had been steel over wood.

Floating Power

The big news in the engine department was the method of mounting the engine into the chassis. Plymouth was the first car in the Corporation to use “Floating Power,” but it was soon adopted not only in all the Corporation’s cars (within six months), but by other automakers, paying royalties.

“Floating Power” was a way to address the inherent imbalance in a four cylinder engine, which caused vibration. Mainly the work of Owen Skelton (one of Chrysler’s “Three Musketeers,” with Fred Zeder and Carl Breer), it was the best of over 1,000 engine mounting ideas.

Almost sheer simplicity in its final form, it eliminated most vibrations by mounting the engine along its center of gravity, insulating the mounts with rubber. The engine was mounted high at the front, just below the water pump, then low at the rear. That simplicity came at the cost of many hours of theory building and testing.

Through a special internally developed process, inch-thick rubber was bonded to steel upper and lower halves. The upper steel half would be mounted to the engine; the lower steel half would be mounted to the frame of the car. The engine made no metal-to-metal contact with the frame; it could rock in the chassis, yet no vibration or motion was transmitted through the frame into the passenger compartment.

To prevent the engine from moving out of line with the drive train, a small spring was fitted to the right frame tail and bolted, again via rubber mountings, to the bottom of the engine. The engine would remain essentially in its place should the spring break. To prove the strength of the rubber to metal bonding process, Chrysler engineers took a rear motor mount, attached one end of it to a loaded 30-ton railroad freight car and the other end to a tractor, then proceeded to pull the freight car down the tracks with no apparent damage to the rubber or its bonding. The factory claimed it was possible to lift the weight of the entire PA by a single mount without the mount separating under the strain.

plymouth flathead four

Before the launch, Plymouth took a fleet of cars to some of the nation’s larger cities and asked the mayors of those cities to ride blindfolded in the car. They were then asked whether they had ridden in was powered by a four cylinder or eight cylinder engine, and most of the mayors said they felt the car had been eight cylinder powered. This led Chrysler’s advertising department to coin the slogan, “The smoothness of an eight — the economy of a four.”

Walter Chrysler himself would call Floating Power “the Fourth Milestone” in the history of the motorcar, following the electric self starter, enclosed bodies, and four wheel hydraulic brakes.

Rolled over a cliff — 19 times

There was little wood in the Plymouth, mostly in the roof as a support for the fabric covering. The car was “fire and crash proof,” according to the factory.

Engineers took a PA sedan to Bald Mountain and pushed the car over a cliff. The car came crashing down, overturning several times, but landing on its wheels. Amazingly, not one single pane of glass in the car was broken, so engineers climbed into the car, started it up and drove it to the top of the mountain where they again pushed it over the cliff — nineteen times! At the end of the 19th crash, all doors were operable and outside of dented fenders and running boards, and a few body dents, the car was still operable. The estimated cost of repairs to put the car back into A-1 condition was — $50! Plymouth engineers felt they could easily call this all steel body a “Triumph of Engineering.”

Special versions

Several styles were prototyped but never put into production, including a two door convertible sedan and a seven passenger, auxiliary-seat sedan on an extended wheelbase. These would end up in the PB lineup.

Chrysler did not suffer much in the early years of the Depression, squeaking through 1930 with a profit of $234,155. In 1931, with the launch of the much-improved PA, sales actually slackened, but profits shot up to $1.5 million.

In 1932, Chrysler suffered an $11 million loss as car sales fell despite a drop in the price to $614/car on average. 1933 made up for it with a $12 million profit on double the sales — though prices now down to $528/car.

The company stayed profitable throughout the rest of the Depression and into the war.
editor

Plymouth tried to break into the taxi market with a $665 dedicated model; only 112 were built. From the outside, the car looked like a regular Plymouth sedan, but on the interior, the driver sat in his own single-seat compartment, protected by dividers in back and on his right. The seating arrangement allowed the car to seat six, over the normal sedan’s five.

Dealers could buy “Flame Cars,” four door sedans painted Flame Red, as demonstrators. Many were fitted with one way mirrored windows, which allowed the driver and passengers to look out, but the viewer could not see inside; and with public address systems to help draw more attention. Before these cars were placed into private hands they were repainted and the mirrored windows replaced with regular glass. The flame cars would continue to be a Plymouth drawing card through at least 1934.

Production of the regular PA ended on July 13, 1932 (PB production had begun February 4th), but a special PA model, known as the Thrift, continued. Built as a four door sedan selling for $575 (compared to $635 for the regular four door) and a two door ($495, compared with $575), the PA Thrift models started like Model T Fords — available in any color so long as the color was black. Also painted was the radiator shell, the grill, the headlamp tie bars, and all cars were fitted with demountable rim wood wheels. There was no free wheeling transmission (not even as an option), no shock absorbers, no dome light, and no temperature gauge. At the rear was a two piece bumper planking a fabric covered rear mounted spare rim and tire.

The PA Thrift series began January 1, 1932 (a true 1932 model) and continued through September 23, 73 days after the regular PA had ended.

PA Thrifts built after April 4th were greatly upgraded; first, the company added wire wheels. From that point on, buyers who wanted wood wheels had to pay for them as an option — and only for the 1932 and ’33 models. Then Plymouth added free wheeling (which allowed the cars to coast more readily, saving fuel) and more colors.

Other “regular PA” equipment also found their way into production and advertising, but despite all the upgrades, the PA Thrift was only a moderate seller, with only 4,892 cars built.

Plymouth also made an upgraded four door sedan under the “Deluxe” label, starting in the fall of 1931, for a $55 premium. The buyer got a chrome cowl band and cowl lights, requiring a special cowl with a “break” in the body side molding for the chrome trim to fit into; side mounted spare tires with thread and side wall covers; a luggage rack; chrome windshield frame; and a one-piece rear bumper. Inside, it had broadcloth upholstery with no pleating, three pull-down window shades (on the rear and side quarter windows), a rope-type robe tail, two pull straps, and two rear seat ashtrays. Production of 4,384 Deluxe sedans showed some desire for more “upscale” cars, even during the bleak months of 1931-1932 — possibly from people who normally would have bought a Chrysler or DeSoto.

The rise of Plymouth: value, features, dealers, daredevils, stunts

Historians have been quick to point out Plymouth’s meteoric rise to the number three spot. Walter Chrysler’s decision to sell the Plymouth (in 1930) through all his dealerships, trebling their number to over 10,000, was one factor, but many buyers abandoned the medium and upper priced cars for cheaper transportation. When these people looked for a less expensive car, they looked for one that gave them more of what they were used to.

The relationship between Plymouth and the higher priced DeSoto did not go unnoticed, and may have hurt DeSoto in the long run, as many people referred to it as “a Plymouth with two extra cylinders.”

By year’s end, Chrysler Corporation’s total sales would be up nearly 4% over the previous year, while Ford’s sales were down by nearly 50%. Willys would drop the Whippet early in the year, and the last car of William Durant’s third (and final) automotive empire would be out of business entirely. Studebaker, Nash, and Hudson would be in serious financial trouble.

Plymouth gained a lot of mileage from publicity stunts. A fleet of PAs, driven by factory drivers, traveled to the Death Valley desert and crossed over every condition they could find, in 134° heat— followed by near zero temperatures on Mt. Wilson.

The biggest publicity stunt of all was smashing the transcontinental speed records. 57 year old Chrysler employee Louis B. Miller and two co-drivers easily broke all existing records in a San Francisco to New York and back run.

Many dealers also promoted the cars. One such event, sponsored by HB Leary, Jr. & Brothers in Washington, DC, drew more attention than it planned when tragedy was narrowly averted. They had a fleet of demonstrators at the Washington-Hoover Airport, getting customers to come by offering a free airplane ride over the Capitol to women and children if the man of the house first took a demonstration ride in a new Plymouth and then purchased a $3 ticket for himself to accompany his family.

A grand finale had a fireworks display and a night-time parachute jump (the first ever over DC at night) were scheduled. Traffic was so heavy on Saturday night that a cavalry unit had to clear the streets. As the lone parachutist leapt from the plane, his suit lighted to show the crowd his descent — the chute failed to open on time. When it finally did, strong winds pushed the skydiver toward the murky waters of the Potomac River, where he could drown should he become entangled in the chute in the water. For 40 minutes, the crowd waited before it was announced that he had landed safely on a small patch of land in the middle of the river, “only a few feet from water on either side.” The incident made the front page of the Sunday Washington Post.

The concern for Harold Annas’ safety was not feigned: three search teams, an airplane, and a motorboat were dispatched to find him. None succeeded; Mr. Annas was spotted by I.W. Thompson, a Memorial Bridge guard, who climbed down to the island to help. Thompson and Annas had to walk half a mile to get a car to drive back to the airport in.

The record was set for the largest number of people taken aloft in one night, 150 people, beating Chicago’s prior record.

In the giant poker game that is the automotive industry, Chrysler held a handful of aces with the PA. Although it could not match the production capacities of Ford or Chevrolet, the year was still good for Chrysler. One can only wonder what kind of year it would have been had the national economy not been in the dire straits that it was in. Today, nearly 55 years later, the PA is still a sought-after car, solid proof that Walter Chrysler had a winner.

1932 Plymouth PB • 1933 Plymouth PC • Featured 1932 Plymouth Phaeton

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