by Lanny Knutson; transcribed by David Hoffman; courtesy of the Plymouth Bulletin
Early spring one morning in 1953, a boy, just out of bed, was looking out his upstairs window. He was checking to see for sure if his father had returned, as expected, from a business trip late the night before. He had. But the evidence of his return, the family car parked in the driveway, was not what the boy had expected to see. What was expected was the familiar rounded lines of the family '52 Cranbrook, or its 1949 Special Deluxe predecessor. What the boy saw was still a Plymouth, but that boxy shape that said "Plymouth" to him was not there. Instead there was a car with much straighter lines, much sleeker and more modern.
The boy ran outside and went up close. He noticed the gas cap in its new location, under the trunk lid. Perhaps it was a bit gimmicky of Plymouth to put it there, but such are the things that impress ten-year-olds. Rounding the car to the front, he again admired the one-piece windshield, impressed by the lack of an obstructing center post, he took hold of the door handle. It did not twist down like one on a shed door. It pulled out and, in one natural motion, he opened the door.
Once inside, he again marveled at the vast expanse of uncluttered glass. The he noticed the glovebox. It wasn't in the normal right-hand location, but in the middle, where it would be handy for the driver to reach too. And on the floor, in the middle on the hump, was a ship medallion embossed right in the floor mat rubber. Neat.
The boy slid behind the wheel, and basking in the new-car smell, he imagined himself the driver, the real driver of his own car, his very own Plymouth. A 1953 - it would have to be forever - for how could they make them any better?
Unfortunately, the car-buying public did not share the enthusiasm of that ten-year-old boy (who was none other than your author) for Plymouth's 1953 and look-alike 1954 models.
Despite Virgil Exner's limited hand in creating something a bit more exciting than its overly practical predecessors, the 1953-54 Plymouth still got stuck with a stodgy image. The cars seemed stubby and tall when "long and low" was what was selling. And so, when the final tally was counted at the end of the 1954 season, Plymouth suffered its greatest humiliation yet. It had been knocked out of its "rightful" third place in sales, down, not to fourth, but to fifth place in sales. Although Plymouth would regain third place several times in future years, it would never again put together the unbroken string it had, from 1931-1954, of third place in sales.
The 1953 model was a Plymouth that nearly didn't make it into the showroom. The U.S. government mandated restrictions of yearly model changes, to help conserve material for the Korean War effort, was lifted at the last minute, allowing the new car to enter production. Otherwise Plymouth would have been forced to push the very long-in-the-tooth 1951 model yet another year. But the new '53 did make it and actually reaped Plymouth an oft-forgotten 40% increase in sales over the previous year. In fact, it was Plymouth's biggest production year yet. Still, facts and figures cannot always influence general impressions. The general impression was, and is, that this car is a dog.
A major part of the problem came when Plymouth decided to simplify its line by eliminating the short-wheelbase models it had been offering for the past four years. The three-window coupe and fastback sedan were axed, and the suburban was moved up to the standard (and only) wheelbase line. As an apparent compromise, the 1953 wheelbase was set at 114 inches, less than halfway between the 111" short-wheelbase and 118.5" long-wheelbase models offered previously. It was downsizing when upsizing was popular. At that, Plymouth's wheelbase was only one inch shorter than those of Chevrolet and Ford. But the competitors had more overhang -- six and eight inches more, respectively, in overall length -- making them appear to be much larger cars and supposedly more for the money.
If that was not enough, Ford discovered a sales ploy that has been industry practice since. Beginning in July, 1953, Ford overstocked its dealers, pressing them to move the cars in whatever way they could. Having overtaken Plymouth in sales, Henry Ford II and the Whiz Kids were now taking aim at the top -- Chevrolet. The resulting sales blitz increased Ford's sales to the point that General Motors could not stand idly by, and the General began dumping Chevrolets on its dealers. In the resulting competition they took sales, not from each other, but from Plymouth. By the end of the 1954 season, the results spoke the obvious: Plymouth had lost nearly 40% in sales, and was sitting behind both Buick and Oldsmobile on the chart.
What Plymouth did have to offer for 1953 was new styling, featuring "Flow-Thru" fenders. The rear quarter panels were now all of one piece, eliminating the long-advertised Plymouth feature of easily repaired and replaced bolt-on rear fenders. Style, not practicality, was the order of the day. Likewise, the cheap windshield of two flat panes of safety glass was now replaced by an expensive one-piece curved unit.
Vestiges of separate rear fenders remained in the form of "pontoon" extensions that began ahead of the wheels and curved around the back of the car to form a valence under the trunk lid. The leading edge of this "pontoon" was left bare on the low-line '53 models, covered with rubber on the low-line ’54s, and covered with bright moulding on the higher trim lines of both years.
Also see Plymouth cars of 1953 and Plymouth cars of 1954 from Jim Benjaminson’s Plymouth 1946-1959
The rear "pontoon" was matched by a similar ridge on the front fenders that began at the leading edge of the door and ran forward, around the front of the car to become the primary grille bar, which was painted the body color, except for a chrome center section flanked by a pair of chrome teeth on each side. To some, this grille bar seemed to protrude out so unnaturally that they unkindly referred to it as "a mouthful of buck teeth." This "problem" was corrected for the following year's model by replacing the center section with a flat plastic piece bearing the Plymouth name.
The most criticized external feature was the gas filler pipe that exited on the rear valence panel under the trunk lid. Owners complained vociferously of gas spilling out when the car was being filled or surging out of a full tank when the car was under acceleration. Plymouth claimed to have corrected the problem by mid-year, 1953, with baffles, saying also that there should be no spilling during filling if the nozzle was inserted all the way into the filler pipe.
Unlike the four previous years in which Plymouth fielded two numerical series, all 1953 cars bore the P-24 designation. The lower-priced Cambridge line was listed as P-24-1, while the P-24-2 identified the higher trim Cranbrook line. Lowest on the price list was the Cambridge business coupe, which came without a back seat. For another $64.50, an easily removable back seat could be ordered to make the business car a weekend family vehicle. In the Cranbrook line, this body style-identified by a shorter roofline and one-piece rear side glass-was called a Club Coupe. A back seat was standard in this car. Another two-door model, called the Club Sedan, could be identified by its longer roofline and rear quarter windows. All two-door body styles featured a new 2/3-1/3 splint front seat that allowed a front seat passenger to slide to the center and sit upright while back seat passengers entered or exited. It was a highly advertised new Plymouth feature.
The Plymouth wagons continued in the two-door-only style introduced in 1949 as the industry's first all-steel station wagon. This year, however, its wheelbase grew from 111" to the 114" shared with the rest of the 1953 line. The Cambridge wagon continued to be called the Suburban, while the more deluxe Cranbrook model bore the name given to a higher trimmed wagon since 1951, Savoy. This name replaced the "Cranbrook" script on the front fender, even though sales literature called it the Cranbrook Savoy. Consumers Union gave this wagon a top rating because, among other features, it was the only low-priced wagon with a sealed spare tire well that wouldn't leak if the cargo compartment was hosed out.
By far the most popular body was the ever-practical four-door sedan, making up nearly two-thirds of the 1953 production. The higher trimmed Cranbrook four-door could be ordered with the extra-cost C-pillar trim and medallion designed for the Belvedere hardtop. For the first time, two-toning was available on all Cranbrook sedans and wagons, with the rain gutter acting as the color divider.
The flagships of the 1953 line were the Cranbrook convertible and Plymouth's second generation hardtop, the Cranbrook Belvedere. As with the Savoy, the Belvedere name replaced the Cranbrook script on the front fender. Two-toning was much simpler than that of the 1952 hardtop, but at least it extended beyond the rain gutter to cover the entire roof. But many felt that the hardtop's reverse-slant C-pillars, similar to those on the sedans, were not all that attractive. Yet the car did sell well.
High time had come to do something. Plymouth's long reputation for providing solid but staid, reliable transportation was drawing to a close. The time had come, like it or not, for high style. Others were offering it and, although Plymouth had an excellent car waiting in the wings for the 1955 model year, they needed something now. Hy-Style (their spelling) was their answer.
They couldn't change the basic car, freshly restyled for 1953. Moderately successful though it was, it needed some pizazz. Power, in the form of a V8 engine—though theoretically available—would have to wait until next year. What could be done was with paint and upholstery.
Bright and vivid colors replaced the previous prosaic blues and grays. Two-tone options abounded, even for mid-priced cars. Hy-Style was in.
Sales brochures showed the new Plymouth as the darling of the top hat and evening gown crowd. Truth be known, the new-for-1954 Cadillac, Buick or Oldsmobile would likely have been their first choice. But the association had been made and, although the typical Plymouth buyers would dress much more modestly, they might feel as if some of that high style were rubbing off on them and their Plymouths.
To some critics, the 1953 grille bar seemed to protrude so unnaturally that they unkindly called it "a mouthful of buck teeth." This "dental problem" was corrected for the 1954 model by replacing the center section with a flat plastic piece bearing the Plymouth name. Also for 1954, the parking lights were taken off the bar and mounted lower as circular units. Headlight rims were also changed to "deep dish" types that attempted to visually increase the length a car deemed by some to be" too stubby."
Another attempt at visually lengthen the car was to add a bright side moulding connecting those on the front and rear "pontoons," thus creating an unbroken horizontal line. However, it looked more like the pieced-together affair it really was. The leading edge of the rear pontoon that had been left bare on the low-line '53 models (and adorned with bright moulding on the higher trim lines of both years) was covered with rubber on the low-line 1954s.
Other external changes on the 1954 model, besides modifIed medallions and ornaments, included bright belt line mouldings under the window on the Savoy and Belvedere, redesigned taillights with round backup lens, a pushbutton rear deck latch, and four rear bumper guards on the upper two model lines. On all cars the license plate light became two lights and were mounted on the inner pair of bumper guards. The bumpers themselves were mounted on 4-3/8 inches further out to give the car more actual length so Plymouth could "truthfully" advertise that their new car was "longer."
For 1954, Plymouth went to three lines in its single P-25 series. The Cambridge and Cranbrook labels, introduced in 1951, were put to rest in favor of three new names, two of which had been used on specialty models during the past three years. Plymouth's hardtop name, Belvedere, now became the name of the entire P-25-3 top-priced line, which offered a four-door sedan, a Sport Coupe hardtop, a convertible coupe and a two-door suburban. The name of Plymouth's deluxe trim wagon since 1951, Savoy, became the label for the mid-price P-25-2 line, which offered a club coupe, two and four-door sedans and a suburban wagon. Ironically, the Savoy wagon was, at a mere 450 units, the lowest production 1954 Plymouth. The low-prices P-25-1 line received a name new to Plymouth, Plaza (though it was the name of a 1953 color). It offered business and club coupes, two and four-door sedans and a wagon.
There is conjecture as to the origin of these model names. It is thought that since Chevrolet named their 1950 hardtop after the exclusive California community of Bel Air, that Plymouth countered the following year with Belvedere, the name of another ritzy California town. Where "Savoy" and "Plaza" came from is not known, but perhaps it is not without coincidence that all three are names often seen on hotels. Not the most exciting, perhaps, but consistently logical, at least.
No less than eight matching interior-exterior color combinations were offered—the most vibrant ever seen on a Plymouth. By mid-year, a tapered beltline color contrast strip was added to hardtop and convertible coupes. The former was also given a one-piece backlight. Two-toning, available on all Savoy and Belvedere sedans and wagons, now extended past the rain gutters and down to the beltline. Convertible top colors were available not only in the common black and tan, but also green and blue.
Offered as factory-installed items for the fIrst time in 1953 were genuine wire wheels. Former Chrysler/DeSoto exclusives, these wheels could be ordered either chromed or painted the body color. For those who felt they couldn't afford the hefty price of these wheels, simulated wire wheel covers were offered on 1954. Another option, in vogue with the times, was a rear-mounted continental spare, offered as a factory option. However, it was not as popular on Plymouths as on other makes. Other options included turn signals, tinted glass, foam rubber seats, two-speed wipers and a clock. Unlike the competitors, Plymouth came standard with electric wipers. The clock, looking like an afterthought, was mounted in a pod on top of the dash.
Under the hood of the 1953 model was the same 117 cubic inch L-head six found in Plymouths since 1942. However, this years horsepower came at an exact 100, an increase of three, thanks to a 7.1 to 1 compression ratio (up from 7:1). Introduced-mid-year, 1954, was a 110-horsepower "Powerflow Six", a 230 cubic inch unit formerly exclusive to Dodge. The appearance of the new automatic transmissions, plus the V8 fever spreading in the car-buying public, probably dictated the move to a larger engine.
Plymouth entered 1953 with three transmissions, and exited 1954 with four. Standard was the normal three-speed manual. The first option was the overdrive transmission introduced mid-year 1952. Receiving high attention was the Hy-Drive transmission that became available in April, 1953. It was a manual gear box mounted behind a torque converter. Advertised as the transmission for those who wanted the ease of automatic driving yet the ability to select their own gears, it really was just a stop-gap measure to mark time until the new fully automatic Powerflite would become available during the 1954 model year. Basically the Hy-Drive was Chrysler's old Fluid Drive refined so that there was no need to lift the accelerator to shift gears. The clutch pedal -- in red rubber -- was necessary only for putting the car in gear. The transmission shared the engine oil, necessitating a full ten quart oil change. Fortunately, the recommended mileage between oil changes was doubled. Since the buying public was clamoring for automatic transmissions, Plymouth tried to make the "Hy-Drive" look as "automatic" as possible by placing an indicator quadrant on the steering column, even though the lever still shifted in the normal H-pattern.
The one additional advantage of the Hy-Drive was its price. At $145.80, it was much cheaper than any fully automatic unit. Highly touted in 1953, the Hy-Drive was seldom mentioned in 1954 once the new Powerflite automatic became available.
Though long in coming, it is an obvious example of the famed Chrysler engineering. The engineers had done their homework well in creating this two-speed planetary "gearbox" with a torque converter. It started in low, unlike the Fordomatic, shifting into high at eleven miles per hour. It could also be manually held in low, and the car could be push started without any damage to the transmission. Its one negative drawback was the lack of a Park position or a lock-up in Reverse. This made an effectively operating parking brake a necessity. Consequently, the latter was changed to an internal-expanding unit mounted on the transmission tail shaft as was the external-contracting brake on the manual gear box.
The quality of the Powerflite design is well attested to by the fine, long-lived reputation of its three-speed successor, the famous Torqueflite, arguably the best automatic transmission to come out of Detroit, if not the world, through the end of the rear-wheel- drive era.
Power steering became available in 1954 in the form of a full-time hydraulic unit that replaced the drag link and was run by a pump mounted on the generator. Although requiring much less effort than the power units of competing makes, it was the beginning of that infamous Chrysler "lack-of-road-feel" power steering. A number of 1953-54 cars were also retro-fitted with power brake kits that became available for dealer installation in 1955.
Magazine road testers touted Plymouth as the most comfortable riding car in its class. Plymouth called it their "Truly Balanced Ride," which was achieved by moving the body and engine two inches forward, thus cradling the passengers more centrally between the wheels. It was a refinement of the principle introduced by the 1934 Airflow, when it was called the "Balanced Ride." Also contributing to the ease of the ride were new non-parallel front suspension control arms and angled rear springs mounted inboard of the frame rails. However, for some it was too soft a ride producing too much sway and lean on curves and over bumps -- an early version of the infamous Detroit Boulevard Ride.
By the end of the 1954 season, Plymouth had lost nearly 40% in sales and was sitting behind both Buick and Oldsmobile on the chart. Those high-style folks had made their choice.
This year, for the fIrst time, Dodge front fenders were mated to the Plymouth body, thus avoiding an awkward attempt of matching the Dodge grille to the unique Plymouth "pontoon" fenders. Since this car was built on a Plymouth chassis, the new 241 hemi V8 was not available.
Canadian-built 1953-54 Plymouths featured the usual variations, most notably the long-block six. Manual transmission cars came with the familiar 218 cubic inch motor. When Hy-Drive, and later, Powerflite, transmissions were ordered, a new 228 cubic inch engine (formerly exclusive to the Canadian-built, American-style Coronet) was installed.
As was usual in Canada, Dodge sold a low-priced car which was basically a Plymouth. This year, for the first time, Dodge front fenders were mated to the Plymouth body, thus avoiding an awkward attempt of matching the Dodge grille to the unique Plymouth "pontoon" fenders. Since this car was built on a Plymouth chassis, the new 241 hemi V8 was not available.
Because the body was shared by both Dodge and Plymouth, there were some trim difference from the US-built cars. The small hubcaps were the same as those seen on the 1949-50 Plymouths or Dodges. The full wheel covers of 1953 were unique to Canada, being rather plain affairs bearing on the center either a Plymouth or Dodge logo on a red background. The mini chrome fins appearing on both 1954 Canadian Plymouths and Dodges did not bear the Plymouth flag logo, as in the US, but rather a ribbed design that made it possible to use interchangeably on both marques. On the 1954 Dodge Regent and Mayfair (equivalent to Savoy and Belvedere), the Dodge Coronet side trim spear was mated to the Plymouth rear fender chrome.
Also for these two years, Plymouth (and Dodge) in Canada did not offer a two-door sedan. Instead the close-coupled business coupe (with a back seat) filled that capacity, thus reducing the inventory necessary for servicing a market that was (and is) only ten percent of that in the United States.
Built in Detroit for export overseas was another Plymouth variant, the DeSoto Diplomat. As was the Canadian Dodge, it too was identical, model for model, to the Plymouth. Unlike Canada's Dodge, however, it used the full Plymouth body, including the front fenders, except for the grille which was full of the usual DeSoto teeth.
When the 1953 models were introduced, the Canadian Plymouth had the 218.0-cid engine. On May 15, 1953 Chrysler of Canada introduced a new Belvedere series (P-24-3) available in sedan and hardtop (special club coupe). With that, the old Cranbrook Belvedere hardtop was dropped. Hy-Drive was now an option and the engine was increased in size across the board to 228.1-cid. All imported models used the American engine and interiors.
On the outside, new taillights incorporated the back-up light in the bottom section of the lens. Previously the back-up lamp was circular on the side opposite to the gas filler. Backup lights were standard on the new P-24-3 Belvedere. A piece of trim was added to the front doors that basically extended the front fender trim plus rocker panel mouldings were added. Wheel covers were also standard.
Inside, the new Belvedere gained new two-tone interiors, in either blue or green, both with beige contrast. As well, the steering wheel matched in either blue or green.
The Cranbrook sedan sold for C$2,349 while the new Belvedere sedan went for C$2,451. The Belvedere hardtop now sold for C$2,693, compared to C$2,609 for the Cranbrook Belvedere hardtop. The convertible remained a Cranbrook model as the U.S. Plymouth did not offer the upscale Belvedere.
The Canadian Dodge (D-43) used the same body was the Plymouth but with Dodge front sheet metal. The 119" wheelbase Dodges (club coupe and sedan) had the extra length in the rear doors. Dodge offered the convertible, hardtop and 2-door wagon on the 114" wheelbase and this was the source of the D-43 Dodge front fenders. Checking the parts catalog reveals that all part numbers are the same for the front sheet metal of all 114" wheelbase Dodges, with the exception of the Dodge V8 which used a hood with a hood scoop. Also, the Canadian-built D-43 used Plymouth bumpers front and rear.
Dodge also introduced a new Mayfair (D-43-3) series in May 1953, with the same interior selections and exterior changes. The new D-43-3 Mayfair hardtop replaced the D-43-2 Regent Mayfair hardtop.
The Canadian Dodge, though, did not offer the imported business coupe or 2-door sedan in 1953-54 or the convertible in 1953 (bad news for the fellow on eBay recently offering a 'Canadian' 1953 Mayfair convertible). For 1954 Chrysler of Canada imported Dodge Kingsway Custom convertibles with "Mayfair" on the rear fender instead of "Kingsway Custom". As the latter nameplate was longer, a plug was used to fill the extra trim hole.
The D-43-3 Mayfair sedan sold for C$2,463, compared to C$2,367 for the Regent sedan. The Mayfair hardtop sold for C$2,704 while the previous Regent Mayfair hardtop retailed at C$2,601.
A total of 3,000 P-24-3 Belvederes were built - 2,240 sedans and 760 hardtops. The D-43-3 Mayfair saw 2,878 examples built, 2,149 sedans and 729 hardtops.
Colours offered in Canada were also different, with 19 single colours and 28 two-tone combinations. For 1954 only 12 colours were offered, but two-tone combinations increased to 49.
The export lines based on the Plymouth were the DeSoto Diplomat and Dodge Kingsway. Both were built in Detroit with both production and serial numbers included with the Plymouth. In Canada, the DeSoto Diplomat was built for export and the figures combined with Plymouth, while the Dodge Kingsway figures were included with the regular Dodge numbers.
Exterior differences of 1954 Savoy from 1953 Cranbrook:
1. Hood ornament ship more abstract
2. Hood medallion — no "Plymouth"
3. Deep-dish headlight rims
4. "Plymouth" on flat plastic grille center
5. Bright trim on leading edge of grille bar, flowing around to sides
6. Circular parking light mounted below bar
7. Bright time on leading edge of secondary grille bar
1. Bright trim on belt line, serving as color separation line on two-tone option
2. Bright trim line connecting front and rear trim
3. Redesigned larger leading edge trim on rear "Pontoon"
4. Redesigned wheel covers (not shown of Õ53)
5. Model name script moved to just ahead of door
1. Chrome fins on top of fenders
2. Push-button trunk latch
3. Trim surround for push-button
4. Redesigned "Plymouth" script
5. Four bumper guards, inner guards moved towards center
6. No dip in bumper center
7. License plate lights on bumper guards
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