The 1949-52 Plymouths remain an enigma to Plymouth fans. While they were and are popular, they are considered by many to be rather unexciting and certainly less than they could have been. It was the dictum of Chrysler's president at the time, K.T. Keller, that his company's cars be practical transportation pieces in which one could sit bolt-upright wearing a hat. Styling based on such a philosophy ran counter to the sleek, straight lines seen on the competition. Although many buyers did appreciate the common sense practicality of these cars and bought them for that, (and a well-deserved reputation for reliability), there were countless other people who abandoned or avoided Plymouth showrooms in favor of those offering more spectacular wares. One can only speculate on how different automotive history might have been had Chrysler offered cars as up-to-date in styling in 1949 as they did in 1955 and 1957, yet with the quality and reliability of the 1949-52 Plymouths.
Be that as it may, these are the cars that were produced at the time, and today they are relatively plentiful and therefore less expensive and easier to restore than many others. And judged on their own merits, they -- especially the 1949s -- can be considered well-styled automobiles. More than one of the uninformed have mistaken my '49 for a vintage Mercedes!
But above all, these cars do have charm. I never cease to be amazed at people attending shows where my '49 is on display. They will "ooh" and "aah" over the classics and the sporty roadsters and convertibles, but at what cars do they spend the most time? It's a four-door Plymouths such as my own! "Grandpa had one just like it!" "It was the first car I had already old by then and I drove the____out of it and it still wouldn't quit!" "Oh, I remember that wood-grained dash!" "Uncle Bill had one he always took me fishing in." "I thought it was just an ordinary car back then, but this is nice!" It was the car of the common person. A true people's car. A car of memories. And that's what really makes these cars great.
When Plymouth abandoned the prosaic practice of "Deluxe/Special Deluxe" nomenclature in 1951 for something slightly more imaginative, they went to Massachusetts. In that state, Plymouth itself is a major city and there are towns called Concord and Cambridge. But what of the third '51 Plymouth name, Cranbrook? There's no Cranbrook in Massachusetts. Where is Cranbrook anyway? The atlas reveals but a single city in all of North America named Cranbrook, and that is in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Now why would the Plymouth product planners, in choosing a name for their top-of-the-line car, abandon New England with its Mayflower heritage for far-off British Columbia? Perhaps it was because Cranbrook was not named after a city at all, but, possibly, a home or an estate which, like Matilda Dodge's Meadowbrook or Henry Ford's Fair Lane, found it way onto an automotive nameplate. Or, was the appearance of Cranbrook in chrome really the work of the mysterious Canuck?
Evidence of the mysterious Canuck had shown up on the 1949 American Plymouth paint chart where no less than four colors bore Canadian place names: New Brunswick Blue, Kitchener Green, Yukon Gray and Edmonton Beige. (Do Edmontonians know they have a claim to fame other than Wayne Gretzky?) There must have been a mysterious Canuck somewhere suggesting, if not insisting on, such names.
By 1950, three of the colors had gone, two heading for sunnier climes -- Channel Green and Palm Beige. Only New Brunswick Blue remained.
Here the Mysterious Canuck must have sprung into action again. If they can take the colors out of the Great White North, then, in fair exchange, they should give something back. That "something" turned out to be the name of an entire model line of Plymouths, the top-of-the-line model at that! In keeping with the lower-line Concord and Cambridge, it would have to have "C" as its initial letter. "Let's see now, that leaves out Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Calgary's cowboy image is not quite right for a top-of-the-line car. Why not 'Cranbrook'!" (perhaps it was even his home town?)
So it was (or wasn't it?) that the name of this small interior B.C. city came to grace the fenders of Plymouths to be found throughout the world. It only lasted three short years, then Cranbrook itself was to be replaced by a name from sunnier climes -- Belvedere, a ritzy California community. But it was good while it lasted.
Many people think that the 1949-'52 Plymouths are all the same. They are similar, having come from the same drawing boards, but carefully monitored by K.T. Keller. But as the years progressed, changes were made to reflect the styling trends of the era. The Korean Conflict caused the '52s to retain the 1951 design, so, although there are about twenty minor differences, these two years are the most similar.
The fantasy starts this way: In front of you on your shop floor are four completely disassembled cars: a '49, a '50, a '51 and a '52. Just to prove that there is a joker in the deck, one of them was built in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. All the parts have been reconditioned and painted. Since, as often happens, the party who disassembled everything has lost interest, it is your job to put them all back together. Here you may either awaken from the dream screaming, or you will read on.
Lining up the four frames, you will notice that one has an extra two inches between the engine mounts so that it might accommodate the 3 3/8 bore Windsor engine. Closer inspection reveals that the steering box mounting holes are farther forward on this frame too, thus enabling the tie rods to clear the oil pan of the longer engine. A longer steering column is also needed for the Canadian car.
Assembling the frames to the rolling chassis stage will reveal a few more differences. One of the rear axles is narrower than the others. This is the '49, with axle lengths unique to that year. Another differential has the Spicer cross-and-yoke universal joint, which was used in Canada from 1946 through 1951. Some minor changes in the shock absorber mounting pins were made when Oriflow shocks were introduced in 1951.
One frame does not have the over-center spring on the clutch linkage, since it was deleted for the 1952 model. If an overdrive transmission is included in the pile of parts, it properly belongs to the '52, as it was introduced as an option in June of that year.
Wheels and tires are all the same, but striping went out of fashion in 1951.
Now that the chassis will roll around, it is time to install the engines. The preface to the engine number identifies the year (e.g. P.20 for 1950) but there are some other readily visible changes as well. The '49 and '50 engines are virtually identical, except for a new distributor introduced halfway through the 1950 model run. A new water passage in the head eliminated extra plumbing from 1950 onwards. A narrow fanbelt completed this modernization. Another change, though not visible, is quite noticeable to the ear. An improved started drive for 1952 changed the sound of the starter. It was designed to stay positively engaged until the engine started, preventing annoying spin-out and delays in starting.
The 3 3/8" bore engine is obviously longer than the 3 1/2" engines. Another difference is the location of the choke unit. It is located behind the carburetor on the former engine. While this may seem trivial, try substituting a carburetor top from the other engine and see how well the choke works! Air cleaners on the Canadian engines are of a different shape from their U.S. counterparts, becoming much wider in '51, even though hood clearance was not a problem.
Bell housing vents were simplified in 1951, but the structural dimensions of the housing are identical to those of the other years. The transmissions are interchangeable, making retro-fitting of the overdrive a very easy modification. Short wheelbase models had no tailshaft on their transmissions, thus eliminating 7 1/2 inches. This makes it necessary to shorten the driveshaft if an overdrive is fitted to one of these cars (station wagon, three-passenger coupe, or fastback two-door sedan).
Now let's sort out the bodies!
The '50 is easily distinguished from the '49 because of the wider rear window used in 1950. Other differences include the arrangement of the openings in the firewall, and the manner in which the spare tire is secured. These changes the '50 shares with the '51 and '52 cars. Also, about halfway through 1950, a rubber plug was substituted for the metal cover over the gas tank sending unit.
The 1951 and '52 bodies are much wider across the windshield. This is most noticeable at the front door openings. Windshield wiper pivots are different for '51-'52, as is the cowl vent and top section of the firewall. The easiest way to distinguish a '51 body from a '52 is by looking at the hole in the firewall for the main wiring harness. It had been moved over to the side for 1952. The only distinction seen on the Canadian car is on the inner surfaces of the trunk, which is the same color as the body rather than a medium gray. (Editor's note: Chrome vent window frames and a model identification plate on the firewall will also identify a Canadian car.)
With the bodies in place, front end sheetmetal can be installed. The '49 and '50 noses are interchangeable as units. Hoods and fenders will interchange, but a number of differences and trim modifications will make substitution of '49 components for those of the '50 difficult. The '49 is the only one with a cable-operated hood latch. The '51 and '52 front ends are identical to each other, but no parts from these will fit the '49 or '50 cars. Canadian-built cars are slightly different since the radiator is mounted two inches further forward. Different horns, cowling and a shorter gravel pan are also used on these cars. The upper tank of the radiator is different, too.
Now that the four cars are starting to take on their proper identities, let's go around to the rear and install the back fenders. The '49's fenders are easy to spot, but the '50, '51 and '52's all look the same! Be careful here! Closer inspection show that the row of holes for the fender molding gets lower each year. From the center of the taillight in 1950, it drops to the bottom edge by 1952. (I know you can only look at one side of the car at a time, but it would be a silly mistake to make, putting a different one on each side, wouldn't it?!)
As for the trunk lids, the '49 is quite unique with its license plate recess located higher up than the others. It will fit the other bodies, however. The '50 and '51 lids are identical in every respect. The '52 lid has no holes for the PLYMOUTH nameplate, and uses a "push-to-shut" latch.
Doors are the next item on the agenda. The '49 and '50 doors are identical. The rear doors will fit '51 and '52 bodies, but the '51 and '52 front doors are thicker at the front edge. Also, the character line is not as deep, due to the extra width of the '51-'52 bodies. The hardtop and convertible doors for '51 and '52 are interchangeable, but since they are thicker than the conventional Club Sedan doors, their handles and locks have longer shafts.
Glass is next. The side glass is all interchangeable, as are the '49 and '50 windshields. The rear windows are unique to each year, 1949 and 1950. The '51 and '52 rear glass will interchange, but the rubber seal is different. Tinted glass first became available in 1952. Canadian cars used tempered side glass, while American cars generally came with laminated glass. Convertible windshields are unique, but convertible and hardtop side windows will interchange with the exception of the vent panes which are squared off on the convertible.
Dashboards are similar in 1949 and '50, but there are minor changes in control knobs and instrument faces. The '51 and '52 dashboards differ in the color of the instrument face. The '52 dash is no longer woodgrained and the nameplate is no longer on the glove box door. Most people agree that the '49-'50 dash was one of the most attractive designs ever used on a low-priced car.
Other differences include a switch to a tee-shaped parking brake handle. It was chrome plated in 1951, ivory colored plastic the next year. Horn rings and medallions vary slightly each year. After 1950, the steering column was designed to accept turn signal units.
Minor differences in horn rings and the color of the medallions distinguish one year from the next. Rear view mirrors are wider in '51-'52 to "reflect" the wider rear windows. Gear shift levers are slimmer for '51-'52. And, what was the hood release handle in 1949 became the overdrive control in 1952.
The cars are now approaching completion, so it is time to sort out all that polished stainless trim, and the bumpers. The 1949 bumpers are easy to spot, with their rippled cross section. The '50's are much plainer, but do have an attractive character line near the bottom edge. The '51 and '52 bumpers are identical, but the '52 bumper has two slots for the license plate bolts, replacing the previously used bracket.
Fender spears are different for '49 and '50, but the '51 and '52 spears are the same. The fender lettering in 1952 is script instead of the block letters found in 1951.
Sill mouldings differ slightly. The rippled moulding was used from 1949-1952 in Canada, but for 1951-52 it was changed to a plainer moulding on U.S. cars. Canadian-built '51 and '52 models share the same rear fender stone shields as used in 1950.
Getting down to the final stages of assembly, you will find that staggered-pin tail/stop light bulbs are new for '51.
Hood ornaments and lettering are unique to each year, but there seems to be some overlap in the design found on hub caps and wheel covers. The '49s had PLYMOUTH block letters on both the hub caps and the wheel covers. The '50s had block letters on the hub caps, which continued to be used on the '51s and '52s in Canada. The wheel covers, however, on the 1950, '51 and '52 had a sail boat in a red circle, as did some of the '51-'52 U.S. hub caps. There are some variations in design here as well. (I have never seen a Canadian-built car originally equipped with wheel covers in the 1949-1952 period. Maybe it was the neighborhood I grew up in.)
I hope you have enjoyed this trip into fantasy land. Now that you can envision four authentically restored Plymouths, perhaps some of you will be inspired to make the vision a reality.
Bill Watson wrote: for the 1949 to 1952 U.S.-built Plymouths (P-17, P-18, P-19, P-20, P-22, P-23)
Interested in reading about more historical Plymouths? Visit our main history page or the Plymouth Owners' Club.