The 1931 Plymouth PA: Walter Chrysler's Fistful of Aces
by James Benjaminson - courtesy of the Plymouth Bulletin (issue 152)
When Walter Chrysler brought out his low priced Plymouth in the summer of 1928, it is claimed Henry Ford personally told Chrysler he would go broke, that Ford and Chevrolet had that market completely sewn up. Undaunted, Chrysler forged ahead, always the optimistic gambler. Plymouth's first two years were good, with a slight dip in 1930 sales, but by 1931 Chrysler's entry into the low priced field would find itself in a focal position in the Corporation- it was Plymouth that would help keep things afloat- that and the Dodge acquisition of 1928.
Things were indeed rosy in 1928. The new Plymouth, considered a 1929 model by the factory, easily slipped into a market ripe for picking. The Ford assembly lines were still struggling to get into gear after their long shutdown following the switchover from to the Model A; Chevrolet was taking full advantage of the switch to take over the industry sales crown. Meanwhile, the popular Willys Whippet and the Hudson Essex were on a fast downhill slide. The following year, 1929, would be the largest automobile production of any year until 1955.
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.
From a factory standpoint the Plymouth PA was a 1932 model, yet the first car was built on May 1, 1931. The PA would be the last model to be "plagued" by a lack of model year identification, as the "real" 1932 model, the PB, would be introduced the next April. Formal nationwide announcement of the PA took place July 11, 1931.
Facing the fact that fewer people had money to spend for new cars, Chrysler wisely lowered prices on certain models, while raising them on others. Close examination reveals that 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 retained their 1930 prices while the phaeton dropped $30 and the convertible coupe fell a whopping $50 below its 1930 price.
The PA sold for considerably more than its major competition (a four door PA sold for $635 while a comparable Ford Model A brought $590). Plymouth division head Fred L. Rockelman was determined to provide the buyer more car for the money. Rockelman may have had more than just "good value" in mind- perhaps it was more like revenge- for he had left Ford to accept the head position of the Plymouth division of Chrysler Corporation. No doubt working under the autocratic elder Ford, who resisted change at every opportunity, prompted Rockelman's move.
By the end of production, 106,896 PAs had been built (up from 76,950 cars the year before). While far from Ford's 626,579 cars and Chevrolet’s 619,554 for the model year, it would be enough to propel Plymouth into the number three spot in national car sales, displacing Buick- not bad for a relative newcomer. (In its first year, Plymouth had placed 15th, while Willys-Overland's "Whippet" was #3. For 1929, Plymouth would rise to 10th, while Hudson's Essex would slip into third. 1930 would find Plymouth in 8th place, with Buick in third.) Plymouth would retain the number three spot until 1954, when Buick would recapture the position.
Production of the PAs began May 1st, while production of the 30U continued until June 8th. Included in the lineup was a two passenger business roadster (a model that would be dropped for good after only 200 had been built), a rumble seat "sport" roadster, a convertible coupe, a phaeton, business coupe, rumble seat "sport" coupe, two door and four door sedans.
PA production took place in two assembly plants, one in Windsor, Ontario, the other at the freshly completed Lynch Road assembly plant located on the corner of Lynch Road and Mt. Elliott Avenue. This plant was the largest automobile factory under one roof in the entire world. Comprising 40 acres, the building stretched 2,490 feet long- 150 feet short of a full half-mile. At the peak of production, two PAs per minute were completed. [Chrysler still has factories in both locations.]
The story is that Walter Chrysler was on hand to watch the first PAs roll off the assembly line. Watching the third car come off the line, Chrysler jumped behind the wheel and drove over to Dearborn to visit Henry Ford and his son Edsel. Chrysler let the two men look over the car, then presented them with the keys and called himself a taxi for the ride back home. Whether this story is fact or fiction is unknown — according to the publication Plymouth, Its First Forty Years (and its subsequent 50th anniversary printing), Chrysler made the trip twice, first with a model Q, and then again with a PA. The story is repeated again in the Richard Langworth-Jan Nordby book, The Complete History of Chrysler Corporation, 1924-1985, but only during the PA era.
The Ford Archives have tried to substantiate the story. Ford historian David L. Lewis has been contacted, as well as Randy Mason of the Henry Ford Museum. 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 an almost totally new car, it still retained some aspects of the model 30U, which it replaced, retaining the 30U's 109" wheelbase and the same basic engine. The frame of the new PA was now of the double drop type, with a "kick" over both the front I-beam axle as well as over the banjo type rear axle. This resulted in the center part of the frame being much lower to the ground (which in turn allowed the new all-steel Briggs built bodies to sit lower) sedans topping 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 as well, resulting in better road holding stability. The pressed steel frame was increased to 5 1/2" deep, with four cross members, for improved rigidity. Semi-elliptic springs front and rear, mounted in rubber shackles, along with hydraulic shock absorbers at all four corners improved riding qualities considerably but added about 200 pounds more weight per car than previous models. Wire wheels, with adjustable spokes, were fitted with 4.75x19" tires.
The engine remained the 196 cubic inch four cylinder used in the 30U, but improvements raised the horsepower from 48 to 56 at the same 2,800-rpm engine speed. Bore and stroke remained 3 5/8" by 4 3/4", but the compression ratio was upped to 4.9 from the previous 4.6. 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.
Also new this year was a fully automatic mechanical spark advance system, with a vacuum controlled spark retarder taking over at idle speeds - required when the car was driven in the free wheeling mode with the engine at idle speed.
Although retaining the same internal dimensions as the 30U engine, the 44-pound crankshaft of the PA was both statically and dynamically balanced and all piston and rod sets were matched in weight, to within .02 pounds each, to improve balance of the reciprocating parts. As was common with Chrysler Corporation vehicles, pistons were made of aluminum and fitted with four rings each. Insert bearings of the shell type were also fitted and all internal engine parts received full pressure lubrication from the 6-quart oil pan via drilled passages in the block.
Fuel was supplied by a fuel pump with a visible fuel filter to a Carter 1 1/8" carburetor fitted with an acceleration pump and capped by an air cleaner-silencer. Twenty-four ball or tapered roller bearings were used throughout the drive train, with seven bearings alone in the transmission. With its 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.
The big news in the engine department was not really the engine, but rather the method of mounting the engine into the chassis. "Floating Power" it was called, and it would become a Plymouth (and Chrysler Corporation) trademark. Interestingly enough, the Plymouth was the first car in the Corporation to use Floating Power but it would soon be adopted not only across the board in the Corporation's own cars within 6 months, but other makers would adopt it (paying royalties for its use) as well.
Because of the inherent imbalance to torque reaction in a four cylinder engine, owners of such cars experienced much more vibration in their cars than owners of six or eight cylinder powered vehicles (the smoothest engine in the world was the Cadillac V16!) and that was a problem which Chrysler engineers attempted to overcome. Mainly the work of Owen Skelton (one of Chrysler's "Three Musketeers", with Zeder and Breer), over 1,000 engine mounting ideas were tried. Almost sheer simplicity in its final form, Skelton found that by mounting the engine on the axis of its own weight- that is by following the engine's center of gravity- then mounting the engine in rubber, most of the vibration could be eliminated. The engine was mounted high at the front, just below the water pump, then low at the rear.
Through a special process developed by Chrysler engineers (while other companies cut back on engineering during the Depression years, Chrysler forged ahead, hiring such men as C. Harold Wills to add to its 804 member engineering staff), 1" 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. Under this "rubber sandwich" system, the engine made no metal-to-metal contact with the frame. This mounting system allowed the engine to rock as it pleased 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 semi-elliptical spring was fitted to the right frame tail and bolted, again via rubber mountings, to the bottom of the engine. Chrysler engineers assured the public that no weight was transmitted to this spring, which might cause it to break, and that 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.
Prior to the car's introduction to the public, 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- the majority 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," in advertising the PA.
Floating Power would prove such a success that it would see service in Plymouth (and all Chrysler products) for the next 28 years. 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.
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.
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 30s but fell from favor as more sophisticated transmissions came into use. Plymouth was the lone car in the low priced field with free wheeling, but critics roundly disliked the units for safety reasons.
Free wheeling allowed the motorist to shift between gears without the use of the clutch (the only time the clutch was needed was to shift into low gear from a standing start and to get into reverse). In addition, the motorist could lift his foot off the accelerator once under way and the drive connection to the rear wheels would in effect be disconnected - the engine would slow down to idle speed and no "engine braking" would take place, while the car continued under its own momentum down the highway. Eventually the car would slow down and 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.
With the loss of engine braking, an extra strain was put on the vehicle's braking system, but Chrysler assured motorists that Plymouth's superior four wheel hydraulic brakes were up to the increased task. 11" drums with 1 1/2" wide brake shoes on Plymouth's enclosed system were a major selling point of the Plymouth, especially when the car's two major competitors stuck stubbornly to the old-fashioned mechanical, cable actuated systems. The free wheeling could be locked out by the driver via a dash controlled cable, if desired.
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 new, faster semi reversible worm and sector gear was employed. The electrical system remained a 6-volt and all cars were fitted with an 84-amp-hour Willard battery.
The PA Plymouth was the first Plymouth to have a built in radiator grill with the radiator surrounded by a gently sloped shell. The grill stood upright and was flanked by bowl shaped headlights mounted on a fender to fender crossbar- the lamps had chrome plated rims but chrome lamps were optional. Placed farther forward, the radiator necessitated a longer hood, which added more to the "big" look of the car. Bodies had deep structural moldings stamped into them, and these were painted contrasting colors for emphasis. Striping helped further adorn these stampings. Although the PA was not advertised with any set model year, 1931 marked a turning point in Plymouth magazine advertising, with extensive use made of color ads.
Coupe and sedan models were fitted with Plymouth's now familiar oval shaped rear windows (the oval windows first saw use in the latter days of 30U production). Five wire wheels were standard, with the spare mounted in the rear, but fender mounted spares and six wheels were optional.
The free flowing fenders were attached in two places for support as well as to the running board support with full protection afforded to the car body and the radiator from flying mud and water. The fenders and all sheet metal received a treatment called "Bonderizing" to prevent rust.
Adorning the radiator of most cars was a very attractive and delicately detailed "Flying Lady" radiator cap. The cap, designed by Herbert V. Henderson, was manufactured for Plymouth by the Jarvis Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A much plainer cap with a single raised rib could also be had. The "Flying Lady" would continue in use through 1933, the 1932 cap matching the PA "short body" style, while the '33 cap was less detailed, sitting much higher off the radiator in a "long body" style.
The business roadster had a fixed windshield post ' with a windshield that swung open at the bottom while the windshield in the sport roadster could be folded forward at the cowl. Sedans were fitted with a broad cloth upholstery, four door models sporting a foot rest, robe rail, dome light and rear window curtain, while open cars were fitted with genuine leather upholstery- leather was optional on the convertible coupe. Front seats were adjustable and all enclosed models were factory wired with a radio antenna- marking the first installations of radios in Plymouth cars- but the price of almost $100 scared away most buyers.
Instruments including 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" diameter steering wheel. Dash instruments were illuminated by "indirect lighting" for nighttime driving.
Although Plymouth (and Chrysler) was more noted for its engineering department rather than its styling department (styling was headed by Oliver Clark who acknowledged himself more as an engineer than as a designer), the completely new look of the PA was a welcome change from the "older" style of the Q, U and 30U models. In reality, the design was not entirely new- of the Chrysler lines, the Plymouth was the last to receive the new body styling which had been introduced nearly 6 months earlier on the Chrysler DeSoto lines. 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 cylinder cars while the Plymouth remained the Corporation's lone four cylinder line. The "big car" looks did much to disguise what was under the Plymouth's hood- nonetheless; the PA Plymouth was easily the largest car in the low priced field.
Despite being styled by engineers, the new Plymouth was advertised as the, "most beautiful low priced car in the world." Other makers may have disagreed with that statement, but the new Plymouth was indeed a handsome offering. The cars bore new all steel bodies, replacing the metal over wood construction used on the Q, U and 30U. Each body was made of five steel sections, beginning with a full steel floor pan. Each panel was then electrically welded together to create a solid, one unit structure. Even the doors were made up of five steel stampings welded together.
Use of wood was kept to a minimum (most of it going into the roof as a support for the fabric roof covering). The car was "fire and crash proof," according to the factory, and to prove their point, Plymouth engineers took a PA sedan to nearby Bald Mountain and pushed the car over a cliff. The car came crashing down, overturning several times on its downward descent, 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? $50! Without a doubt, Plymouth engineers felt they could easily call this all steel body a "Triumph of Engineering."
Several interesting prototype body styles were built but never put into production. These included a two door convertible sedan and a 7 passenger, auxiliary seat sedan on an extended wheelbase- both of which would see production on the PB model lineups.
Although the taxi cab business had never been a big item with Plymouth, an initial attempt was made to break into the market with a specially prepared model. Selling for $665, only 112 of these special cars 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. To his right was a divider and where the passenger seat sat was a rearward facing seat opening into the back compartment. Directly behind the driver was another rearward facing seat. This arrangement allowed the cab driver to seat 5 passengers, over the normal sedan's 4 passenger (plus driver) configuration.
Dealers could also purchase the first of a series of unique demonstrators called "Flame Cars." These cars were all four door sedans, painted Flame Red in color. Many were fitted with one way mirrored windows, which allowed the driver and passengers to look out, but the viewer could not see inside, giving the impression that the cars were being driven by remote control. Many of these cars were fitted with public address systems to help draw more attention to them. 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 production continued of a special PA model, known as the Thrift. The Thrift was an attempt to reach another segment of the market by placing a lower priced car on the market. Built in only two body styles, a four door sedan selling for $575 (compared to $635 for the regular four door) and a two door, which sold for $495 (compared to $575). Initially the PA Thrift models were 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 instrument panel temperature gauge. At the rear was a two piece bumper planking a fabric covered rear mounted spare rim and tire.
Production of the Thrift began January 1, 1932 (a true '32 model) and continued through September 23rd- 73 days after production of the regular PA had ended. PA Thrifts built after April 4th were greatly upgraded, first by the addition of wire wheels (from this point on in its history, Plymouth would only offer wood wheels as an option and then only for the 1932 and 1933 models). Also added was the free wheeling transmission and bodies were now offered in a series of color combinations. Other missing equipment items from the earlier Thrifts also found their way into production (and advertising) for the Thrift models. One can only guess why the Thrift was upgraded- perhaps buyers were hesitant purchase such a stripped car- or perhaps it became apparent the factory would be overstocked with unusable pieces as production of the new '32 PB models had already begun.
Despite its lower price, the PA Thrift was not a great seller (sales were no doubt hurt by the fact that the new PB models were already on sale and the Thrift bore no resemblance to the new models). Combined production total for the Thrift models was only 4,892 cars.
At the other end of the scale, Plymouth offered an upgraded four door sedan under the "Deluxe" label, making it available in the fall of 1931. The Deluxe sedan sold for $690, $55 higher than the regular sedan. For the extra money, the buyer got a chrome cowl band and cowl lights (which necessitated a special cowl on the car, 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 solid one piece rear bumper.
On the interior, the Deluxe featured broadcloth upholstery with no pleating, three pull down window shades (on the rear and side quarter windows), a rope type robe tail, two assist pull straps and two rear seat ashtrays.
Production of 4,384 Deluxe sedans was some 500 cars less than the PA Thrift models at the opposite end of the price scale, yet it indicates that there were buyers for more "upscale" cars than the Thrift, even during the bleak months of 1931-1932.
Historians have been quick to point out Plymouth's meteoric rise to the number three spot, but few have failed to analyze the reasons behind the move. True, Walter Chrysler's decision to sell the Plymouth (in 1930) through all his dealerships (increasing the number of Plymouth dealerships from around 3,000 to over 10,000- Detroit alone would end up with over 60 Plymouth dealers) but the nation's economy had much to do with the new car's rise as well. With a tight economy (1931 and 1932 would see the nation in the worst depths of the Depression) many buyers abandoned the medium and upper priced cars for cheaper transportation. Clearly, these people were used to the best that was offered in the automotive world and, with little doubt, when these people looked for a less expensive car, they looked for one that gave them more of the things they were used to. Compared to Ford, Essex, Whippet or Chevrolet, the Plymouth was their choice.
The close relationship between Plymouth and the higher priced DeSoto did not go unnoticed- and may have been a detriment to the DeSoto in the long run, as many people referred to it as, "merely 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 off by nearly 50%. Willys would drop the Whippet line early in the year, and the last car of William Durant's third (and final) automotive empire would be out of business entirely. Other independents like Studebaker, Nash and Hudson would be in serious financial trouble.
In addition to regular magazine and newspaper advertising, Plymouth gained a lot of mileage from several publicity stunts held throughout the year. To test the new cars under the most extreme weather conditions, a fleet of PAs, driven by factory drivers, first traveled to the Death Valley desert. In 134 degree heat, the cars were driven over every imaginable condition possible- this, in turn, was followed by near zero temperatures encountered on Mt. Wilson. But the biggest publicity stunt of all was an attempt to break the transcontinental speed record set by professional driver "Cannonball" Baker driving a Franklin car. Chosen for the attempt was 57 year old Chrysler employee Louis B. Miller.
With the aid of two co-drivers, Miller was successful in smashing all existing records in a San Francisco to New York and return run. The complete story of this run, written by co-driver Earl Pribak, originally appeared in the Plymouth Bulletin in 1966. While the feats at Death Valley, Mt. Wilson and the Transcontinental Record Run were factory sponsored, many dealers were not to be outdone in promoting the cars. One such event, sponsored by the HB Leary, Jr. & Brothers Dealership in Washington, DC drew more attention than it planned when tragedy was narrowly averted.
HB Leary set aside the week of August 17 to August 23, 1931 as "Floating Power Week." Their plan was to have a fleet of demonstrators on hand at the Washington-Hoover Airport. The kicker to get customers to come was the promise of a free airplane ride, either daytime or nighttime, over the nation's Capitol. Tickets for the plane rides were free to women and children under the age of 15, 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. Loudspeakers at the terminal reminded visitors of the Plymouths on hand and the plane rides, at 20 minute intervals. The grand finale was planned for 9pm Saturday, August 22nd, when a special fireworks display and a nighttime parachute jump were scheduled.
Traffic congestion was so heavy Saturday night that an army cavalry unit had to be called to clear the streets. As the lone parachutist leapt from the plane, his suit lighted to show the crowd his descent, it appeared that something was wrong. The chute at first failed to open- when it finally did, strong winds pushed the skydiver toward the murky waters of the Potomac River, where he could easily drown should he become entangled in the chute in the water. For 40 minutes, the crowd awaited word of the fate of the skydiver before it was announced that he had landed safely on a small patch of land in the middle of the river known as Columbus Island- as the papers put it, "only a few feet from water on either side." The incident made front page headlines of the Sunday edition of the Washington Post for August 30th. The parachutist, Harold Annas of Suffolk, Virginia was the first ever to make a nighttime jump over Washington. The concern for his safety had been very real that night, as three search teams, an airplane and a motorboat were dispatched to locate him. He was finally located by I.W. Thompson, a Memorial Bridge guard, who climbed down to the island to help the entangled man release himself from the parachute. Word of his safe landing was delayed, as it was necessary for Thompson and Annas to walk half a mile to get a car to drive back to the airport with.
News reports of the events kept the HB Leary name in the public eye for better than a week after the jump and the record was set for the largest number of people taken aloft in one night- 150 people- to beat a previous record held by the City of Chicago. Unfortunately, no record was kept of the actual number of PA Plymouths sold as a result of "Floating Power Week."
In the giant poker game that is the automotive industry, Chrysler held a handful of aces with the PA. Although the PA could not- and would not- match the production capacities of either Ford or Chevrolet, the year was still a good one 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 much sought after vehicle- solid proof that Walter Chrysler had a winner- then and now!