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An Inside History of Chrysler, Part 2 - 1954 and Plymouth Independence

by Curtis Redgap • This is the second article in a series. Part 1 (1946-53)Part 3 (1955)

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Hello, Plymouth fans.
Thanks for your kind support in regards to my writings. From 1954 on, I have strong recollections and can go into more detail.

When the dust settled after 1954, more than a few lips were trembling over at Chrysler's Board Room. It was an absolute disaster. Plymouth not only lost its traditional third spot, it fell all the way to fifth; Buick and Oldsmobile kicked Plymouth way out.

To its credit, Plymouth management had attempted to stem the slide with late introductions of the fully automatic transmission (April 1954) and power steering (around three weeks after the model year was introduced in October 1953). Power brakes remained unavailable, though.

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Before moving to the Powerflite automatic, Plymouth had used a semi-automatic transmission starting late in the 1953 model year. My father hated it. There was no way for a dealer to convert a standard model to the "Hy-Drive" option because under the sheet metal, it was almost a totally different car!
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The engine block was different, and the transmission required substantial changes to the cowl area and the front floor pans. The clutch, ratios, and linkage were different; it had a shorter drive line with a longer, heavier tail shaft. The radiator was larger to handle the extra heat from the transmission; and the carburetor had a dashpot to keep from stalling when the driver quickly lifted the accelerator.

Chrysler engineers chose to share the engine oil with the transmission, so eleven quarts were required when the filter was changed; the intervals were only once every six months, but the transmission and engine had to be drained separately. My Dad said, "It was a lot of engineering crap to make a one clunk transmission out of a fluid clutch stick shift. And talk about double trouble... the clutch and the automatic could go to hell at the same time! Try telling some customer about that! Thank God for the Powerflite!" [Really, the Powerflite was the one-clunk. Hy-Drive was a three-speed manual with a torque converter, which appeared in 1953 and went partway into the 1954 model year. The driver still had to shift manually, but they could avoid the clutch except when starting out, and one could start off in third gear - hence the name Hy-Drive - and not lift up the gas pedal when shifting. Thanks, Hemi Andersen]

Around 75,000 Plymouths were equipped with Hy-Drive, showing that customers wanted to leave manual transmissions behind.

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In one of its strangest applications, the Los Angeles Police equipped its 330-car 1960 Plymouth Savoy fleet and 303-car Dodge Dart fleet with the 318 V-8 and the Powerflite transmission. The superior Torqueflite had been around for three years, but the LAPD specified that the transmission had to share the oil with the engine! It was an odd demand that only Chrysler was able to meet, with virtually no changes to the transmission.

Not much credit is given to the Powerflite transmission, probably because it was overshadowed by the best three-speed automatic transmission ever built, the Chrysler Torqueflite. Yet, the Powerflite had a seven year run, lingering even after the TorqueFlite was launched. It was a simple transmission, not unlike the early Model T Ford; it was strong and simple, with far fewer parts than its competition from Ford, GM, Studebaker, or Packard. Powerflite was popular until Torqueflite appeared; over 60,000 Plymouths were sold with Powerflites in the first year, despite its late launch.

By January 1954, Plymouth was down to producing just 1,200 cars per day. In February, sales were down 40% from 1953. With the Spring, hope sprang up as sales surged, but a wildcat strike idled the Mack Avenue body shop for a week. Before the factory could get back into shape, Lynch Road went on a wildcat.

After the strikes, Plymouth sales still languished, due to the cut-throat Ford and GM practice of dumping cars on dealers. Congress finally stepped in, to a degree, requiring clearly posted window stickers from the factory to clarify prices. Nash, Hudson, Kaiser, Packard, Studebaker, and other independents could not stand the pressure of the price wars. Many would soon pass from the scene.

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Chrysler executives were worried. They did not have the capacity to compete with Ford and Chevrolet. Finally, someone woke up and said that Plymouth needed its own network of dealers.

Plymouth as an independent car brand

Plymouth had never had its own standalone stores. There were few dealers that had all the Chrysler brands, so it meant little whether you bought a Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, Imperial, or Dodge Truck. My father was one of these few; he endured a lot of questions from Highland Park during this period about how he functioned and how he would feel about having a separate Plymouth franchise competing against him. (Dad had a direct outlet, and not a franchise, so Chrysler was obligated to keep him ahead of the pack.)

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In late 1954, they finally decided to get Plymouth competing directly against Ford and Chevrolet instead of against all other Chrysler outlets. Plymouth had always been marketed incorrectly, competing not only against the competiton, but against its own company.

The specific proposal was that, if Plymouth regained its coveted number three spot in production in 1955, then, beginning in 1957, Plymouth would have its own standalone stores.

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My Dad wrote: It stunned the entire group, myself included. Marketing has finally come alive at Chrysler. But, there were a few big dealers crying "foul." Especially those whiney guys with the Dodge franchises. They got all the models they need, plus trucks, and they don't want Plymouth to have a damned thing. A bunch of us managed to shout them down, but it won't stop with a voice vote with those guys."

Finally, independence for Plymouth had been set out publicly. It caused quite a stir. There were 3,400 Dodge dealers across the country which would no longer sell Plymouths; they dealers were welcome to buy a Plymouth franchise, as long as it was separate from their Dodge franchise. The decision to let Plymouth have over 3,000 new franchises for sale to anyone that wanted to set up a Plymouth store was firm, and would not be rescinded.

I can remember Dad praising the new idea up and down to anyone that would listen. I was a favorite target, since just about anything my Dad said about cars was next to gospel for me. "bout time those market guys got with it. I've been saying it for years that Plymouth needed to get away from Dodge. Every good thing Plymouth had, Dodge stole from them. I never used Plymouth as a come on to move customers up to a Dodge like some of those guys. Hell, a lot of them hoped you would come in to look at a Plymouth for the price, and drive home in a Dodge because of the higher markup. Damn horse traders. Dodge is a good car, but the leadership is a bunch of bully boys, and they see Plymouth as a way to get something over on a customer. Makes for bad feelings about dealers all over. Just like Ford and Chevrolet, and Buick and Oldsmobile, shovin' stuff down peoples throats. Lyin' cheatin' and stealin' from 'em just to move units. Isn't no way to run a railroad."

- Curtis Redgap

Other parts of this series

More by Curtis Redgap:

Chrysler HeritageHistory by YearChrysler People and BiosCorporate Facts and History


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