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Inside Chrysler: the 1961 cars

I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles. In some cases, the journals go back 50 years. — Curtis Redgap

The model year 1960 closed on September 29, 1960, when the 1961 models hit the showrooms. They were another styling disaster. The Plymouth had an oddly pinched in massive grille that was said to have inspired 10,000 movie horror creatures. The rear looked like someone had tried to put a bustle on, and hung two flashlights on the sides of the car. But it was the Dodge that suffered the most.

1961 dodge dart

After Dodge’s best year ever, the 1961 models were sad. They had a drooping hanging down front end, and reverse fin on the rear. They were just plain oddballs. As fast as people bought Dodge in 1960, they ran to Chevrolet or Ford in 1961. Both GM and Ford had restyles that had people running to their showrooms. I did my best on opening night to not be available on the floor. To me the 1961s were just butt ugly, and I was not proud to be associated with them.

Opening night for the 1961 models was underwhelming to say the least. For the first time in years, grandpa was not there. He elected to stay in Florida. He said he just didn't feel up to it. Dad asked him what kind of car he wanted for 1961. Grandpa said that he was enjoying the 1960 DeSoto so much that he was going to keep it another year. The 1961 DeSoto car was a styling disaster. Dad figured that by the time grandpa was feeling better, he would get something else. He wouldn't. Almost before the model run started, Chrysler put the nails in the lid of the coffin for DeSoto. On November 18, 1960, with a terse 165 word statement, DeSoto was gone. Just like that. 3,034 1961 models had been built. They were not pretty, with a sort of two tiered grill. We got stuck with three of them, when Chrysler backed out on the price guarantee. We sold em for pure profit, and Chrysler never pursued the matter.

We experienced a lot of tire kickers. The only thing that was selling was the Valiant. New for 1961 was a sharp 2 door hardtop. We moved 7 Valiants opening night. A good sign.

We also sold 2 Chryslers from the showroom. The big Chrysler had been heavily face lifted. its grille had been turned upside down, and the headlights were canted, or "slanted," depending on how you choose to look at it. I didn't care for it particularly, but, other people really liked it.

Chrysler also elected to move a smaller model into the mid price range. Called the "Newport," it rode on the 122 wheelbase of the Dodge and DeSoto. With a base price of $2,960.00, it quickly became very popular, being some 200 dollars cheaper than DeSoto! We did sell two Plymouths. One was the Fury 2 door hardtop model and Dad's cousin, Harry bought it. His had the SonOramic Golden Commando 383 engine in it. It flew! Mrs. Beacheum brought her 1960 Dart back. She took one look at the 1961 Dart offering, and elected to return to Plymouth!

Dodge had rushed a companion make into production that was largely a Valiant with Dodge cloning on it. The Lancer came off as being better styled. The Imperial had gotten rid of its "toilet seat" rear deck, but, had acquired some odd styling quirks like free standing headlights, along with taillights that looked like they had been stuck on the car as an after thought. The fins soared higher than ever on the 61. They didn't resemble a luxury car. More like a garish testament to better times.

The State Police rolled in with their usual request. Chrysler sent off a half dozen different cars to test. Mainly Plymouth and Dodge Darts. After 10 days of tearing up the cars, the Troopers elected to stay with Plymouth again for 1961. These were the Savoy model 4 door sedans. They were equipped with the Dodge based 383 4 barrel V-8 and dual exhausts. The listed horsepower was 325. They had heavy duty suspension packages, that included sway bars, and 15 inch tires, along with the 12 inch brakes and non-organic lining.

[Dodge finally elected to put 12 inch brakes on its Pursuit models this year, having used 11 inch drums since 1956. Probably because in 1960, the Dart with the Plymouth sized 12 inch brakes could outbrake the smaller 11 inch brake drums of the larger Polara Pursuit. It was just another oddity that existed at Chrysler. As well, they continued with the "center plane" brake system that was also a 1956 innovation, but now well outmoded for the speed of the cars. Valiant and now the new 1961 Dodge Lancer were the only Chrysler cars equipped with the far superior Bendix brake system. Not only did the Bendix brake use one wheel cylinder per brake, it eliminated the drive shaft parking/emergency brake that Chrysler had been using since the 1930s, as well as giving far more effective brake performance.]

The Torqueflite equipped Savoys had a 3.21 sure-grip rear end. With the 383, this package lit out on a 8 second 0-60 time, broke the lights in the quarter mile at 15.2 and 89 miles an hour. Top speed was a touch over 125 miles an hour.

Somewhere in the Trooper cars model run, the factory slipped in some Chrysler RB 413 engines. These were the passenger car engine 383 cubic inch model, and were bored out with an out put of only 350 horsepower. Yes, the Pettys had already slipped the 413 engine into their 1961 Plymouth 2 door hardtop Fury models. However, it wasn't going to be a very good year at Level Cross, North Carolina. The 383 V-8 was just not adequate in face of the Super Duty 421 cubic inch V-8 being fielded by Pontiac. Nor was it a match for the 409 cubic inch Chevrolet V-8. Ford wasn't doing so well with its 390 cubic inch engine, although the slippery shape of the Starliner let the Fords run well in the draft.

To meet NASCAR requirements, Chrysler let Plymouth have the 413 engine, as an option, without restriction, and in all horsepower ranges. The 61 Petty built Plymouths were strong, however, they weren't always the best of handlers, and instability sometimes made for problems. Even equipped with a Maurice Petty tuned 413, the Plymouths just did not have the top end speed to stay up front in a long race, and were nowhere at a place like Daytona.

In the 1961 100 mile qualifying race, Richard Petty got hit by Junior Johnson's out of control Pontiac in turn 1 at the Daytona race track. The impact sent Petty's #43 to riding along on the guard rail, when suddenly the Plymouth went airborne and catapulting skyward. Just that quick it went out of sight and slammed into the parking lot below the turn. The crash completely demolished the car. Richard intent on scrambling out of the tangled mess, twisted his ankle while running away from the car. That was his only injury, except for bits of broken glass in his eyes that he didn't notice until later.

As he was exiting the Infield Care Center from having the glass fragments removed, he heard the track loud speaker announce that #42 Plymouth, with driver Lee Petty, had gone over the guard rail in almost the same spot as Richard had done, after being tagged by John Beauchamp in a Chevrolet. Lee was at full throttle, whereas Richard had been partially slowed down. #42 Plymouth vaulted the guard rail and leapt out into the air. It slammed down into the parking lot, compressing the roof downwards, and the chassis upwards. The car looked like it had been placed in a crusher. Smoke curled up from several places under the hood. By the time rescue crews reached him, the three time NASCAR champion Lee Petty was very near death.

To this day, neither Lee nor any member of the Petty family have discussed the extent or circumstances of Lee's injuries. However, they were certainly extensive as well as critical as he lay in the hospital for months. His first public appearance was over a year later in a race in April at Martinsville, Virginia. Lee immediately asked his son Maurice for relief. He made no more attempts in 1962. He was smart enough not to delude himself. He competed in some small races or drove relief a couple times in later years, however, his career effectively ended in February 1961 at Daytona.

That meant that Plymouth was down to being represented by one car in 1961. It also meant that now the executives in Detroit had to deal with the new boss, Richard Petty. To the extent that Richard took over, it is a credit to him that he finished 8th in NASCAR points that year. By the way, a very nice gentleman won the NASCAR series that year, named Ned Jarrett. It was his first title. While the Petty operation wasn't exactly rolling in money for 1961, it survived.

Inside the design studio, however, there was a terrible state of affairs going on. The Newberg imposed downsizing, along with the weird gimmicks that Virgil Exner had tried to tie onto the Plymouth and Dodge cars for 1962, was causing great consternation all around. There was absolutely no time to change the tooling for most of the major components. As a result, the 62s were as Exner himself said, like "plucked chickens." They were ugly. Butt ugly. Mud fence ornery ugly!

But, to complicate an already complicated multitude of problems came stupid edicts from the head office. Design the car so that Plymouth, Dodge, Valiant and Lancer can all share the same body shell! It is a damned good thing that the guys at the studio were as good as they were because the 1962 models could have ended up looking even more ugly than they were. Curved side glass was ordered eliminated along with subjecting the cars to a certain total for all the glass area. Bumpers were to be short and not wrapped around.

Things started to get ugly. Tempers went short, hours went long, problems were created when new ones were thought to be solved. For the first time in all of its history, Chrysler Design went to double shifts! Then someone up in the Ivory Tower decided to help save time, it was decreed that Plymouth and Dodge be merged, and thereby canceled the body program for Chrysler, DeSoto and Imperial. Hours of design were junked when the metal prototypes were brought in and then rejected, time and again. Then just like the 1961 models, time ran out. There wasn't any more time. They were forced to go with what they had!

Finally in July 1961, L.L. Tex Colbert had been battered enough. He handed in his total resignation. Apparently, he never looked back. This opened the way for Lynn A. Townsend to become President. Townsend was an accountant by trade, however, he was also an administrative vice-president, and he was a "car guy."

Townsend was horrified at the 1961 models. As well, Dodge saw its sales heading for the basement. The reverse fin design was a disaster. Townsend was disgusted. Virgil Exner elicited a sort of arrangement from Townsend not to be held responsible for the 1962s nor the back half of the 1961 Dodges. Townsend, who was an Exner supporter, half heartedly endorsed Exner, but still kept his options open. In the meantime, the 1963 models were fairly well locked up, at least in Exner's mind. A few preliminary designs for the 1964s were also on the walls.

Marketing too, played another dumb role with the Dodge. Pinning all its hopes on the one year success of the Dart, the Corporation cut the large Dodge to just one model, the Polara. As well, there was only one Police Pursuit package offered in the Dodge line for 1961 and that was on the 118 inch wheelbase Dart. Essentially the Dart chassis was just a copy of the Plymouth, which Dodge finally offered the 12 inch brakes on the 61 models. Dodge was also catching on to Plymouth's marketing techniques and offered different packages for different areas of police functions. One area that they hadn't counted on was the enormous pressure for a 122 inch wheelbase Police Pursuit. Officially, there was none.

Chrysler stepped up in 1961 by offering a Police Pursuit Pak on its 122 inch wheelbase Newport model. Called the "Enforcer," it had all the good trappings of the Plymouth and Dodge Pursuit units and was big, brawny and fast! There was only one engine offered, and that was the 383 RB hi performance V-8. It hauled the 4,400 pound Chrysler from rest to 60 miles per hour in 8.3 seconds. It romped through the 1/4 mile in 16.9 seconds with a terminal trap speed of 86 miles an hour. With full gear, a 220 pound police officer, and fuel on board, it hit 131 miles an hour top speed. Equipped with 12 by 2.5 inch non-fade metallic lined brakes, the Enforcer maintained its composure, stop after stop, abuse after abuse, with no whimpers, and no brake fade. And, this was the ONLY Police Pursuit that was advertised at 122 inch wheelbase. Dart and Plymouth were both at 118 inches.

Some state Police agencies accepted the Chrysler, such as Missouri, which now had been using Dodges since 1953. However, Missouri bought a large quantity of Ford Interceptor 390s in 61, as their primary Enforcement class vehicle. Where the Chryslers went or what quantity is unknown. There were not many. However, some other State Policing agencies, convinced that only a 122 inch wheelbase vehicle makes for consideration as a Patrol Class accused Dodge of selling them out. Why after Dodge had got done switching in 1957 to 122 inches of wheelbase would you suddenly NOT offer a Pursuit package on the ONLY 122 inch wheelbase model that you have? HELLO!

Then again, have you ever faced a panel of publicly elected servants, each convinced they can hang onto the tax dollar better than the next guy, in an effort to sell them a fleet of Chryslers where they have seen only Dodges previously? Like trying to find heat in the middle of an Arctic glacier with a howling blizzard going on. So, enter the Leviathan. The Golden State. They wanted Dodges. They wanted 122 inches of wheelbase. They wanted their usual Pursuit Package. Guess what? They got'em! 1,220 of the 1961 Dodge Polaras became CHiPS. They were powered by the 383 low block Dodge V-8 which was supposed to have 330 horsepower. If you could find one, (one has been restored for the Police show car circuit) you would have one of the rarest MoPars ever built. It would not be the last time that CHP got Dodge to build cars that they didn't have!

Shortly after Lynn Townsend became President, he called for a national dealer meeting. His accountant sensibility was offended by the current state of affairs within the corporation. Model change over was in progress for the 1962 models. My Dad had many stills of the 62 models taken from the studio, however, a lot of franchise dealers had no clue what the 62s looked like. Townsend held them off until the very end of the meeting. He was attempting to inject some sense of control over the corporation and the dealers.

Clearly, there was something wrong in the scheme of things. The 1961 model Chrysler Newport had been a run away success. Over 96,000 Chryslers had left the factory, making it the highest total for Chrysler marques since 1957. However, it was at the expense of its own siblings and not the competition! Dodge Polara sold 14,032 cars. At a base price of $2,970, Dodge was lower than its former cousin the DeSoto which was based at $3,190, however, the Newport Chrysler was based at $2,965! Smart shoppers grabbed the Newport in droves, wisely since the more prestigious name was less expensive! Plymouth dropped from its fourth place finish in 1960 to a level that it had never been before, 6th! Dodge plummeted down from 5th to 9th! I can't imagine what the totals would have made them look like if Valiant and Lancer had not been included in the figures!

However, at that meeting, there had been a chance to restructure things and put it right for once. It was an opportunity missed. About 1,100 DeSoto dealers (now defunct) were up for grabs. It was a half hearted effort to reserve those dealers exclusively for Plymouth as had been promised back in 1957. Given the chaotic mess of the front office, along with the ChryCo board's relief at departure of both Newberg and Colbert, it would have taken very bold action to press on with Plymouth's independence. It never went anywhere. Instead the DeSoto franchises were invited into the Chrysler Plymouth fold, a division that had continued until Daimler announced Plymouth's death in 2000.

Once that seemed to be settled, Townsend unveiled the pictures of the 1962 models. A roar of disapproval went through the meeting hall. Over 20 dealers threw their franchises in that day, never to return to Chrysler. To further make the matter worse, Dodge was entering 1962 without a car for the medium priced class! DeSoto was gone, leaving that niche open. The only medium priced car on Chrysler's plate was the 122 inch wheelbase Newport. Due to Newberg's panic, Dodge was now riding on a 116 inch wheelbase, not even considered a "standard" size car! Plymouth as well rode on the same chassis as the Dodge, 116 inches. How could Chrysler allow this to happen? For now and forever in the future, Dodge was not looked upon as an upgrade from Plymouth. Oh no. From now on, Dodge would be considered as an alternative to Plymouth, creating its own competition within its own corporation. In the end, both Dodge and Plymouth would be hurt, and still are, to this day.

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Other parts of this series

  1. 1946-1953: The story through 1950; Hemi engines and Virgil Exner.
  2. 1954 and Plymouth’s independence, and automatic transmissions.
  3. 1955 — hot cars, NASCAR’s roots, Daytona, and more
  4. 1956 and the Plymouth Belmont
  5. 1955-56 police packages and CHP testing
  6. 1956 Plymouth Fury and Daytona Speed Weeks
  7. The stunning and disastrous 1957 cars
  8. 1957 engineering, Daytona, and pursuit cars
  9. The much more reliable 1958s
  10. The Pettys and Bill France; creating the ’62s
  11. The 1959 Chrysler Corporation cars
  12. NASCAR and the Pettys; Engineering vs Marketing
  13. Losing DeSoto, 1957-1960
  14. Dodge and Valiant clobber Plymouth, 1957-1960
  15. 300 and 300X; personal notes
  1. The hot new 1960 Valiant
  2. The new unit-body 1960 cars
  3. 1960 Chrysler fleets and squads
  4. Chrysler racing, 1960
  5. The hot Chrysler 300F
  6. Corruption and incompetence
  7. The 1961 cars
  8. 1961 police cars and racing events
  9. The 1962 cars
  10. 1962 Police Pursuit cars
  11. 1962: Hot Performance
  12. The 1963 cars
  13. The 1964 cars
  14. NASCAR racing — 1964
  15. End of the series

More by Curtis Redgap:


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