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An Inside History of Chrysler - Part 4: 1956, Plymouth Belmont and more

by Curtis Redgap

I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles (the journals go back 50 years). This is not an exact account of events, living persons, places or times. Return to Part 3

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For the 1956 model year changeover, Plymouth worked hard to avoid disrupting production of the popular 1955 models. They built up a huge parts inventory, and programmed the change to allow as much of the assembly line to operate during the switch. The 1955 models would stop when they ran out of parts, or the demand for keeping on the time line for the 1956 models became urgent, whichever occurred first.

Since the 1955 models had sold so well - production could not keep up with demand, especially for the Plymouths - my Dad's dealership took on new sales people to take orders. My grandfather unretired himself from Florida in January 1956, and came back to take orders for cars. People knew what they wanted, and even if the car wasn't exactly equipped with what they had hoped to get, they bought them anyway.

Still, time marches on. The 1955 models were gone, and the 1956 models were on their way.

Dad had gotten to knew Henry years before when they were students at the Chrysler Academy. Henry sent Dad lots of styling proposals to get a reaction, and always listened to my Dad's critiques. Usually, Dad would ask me what I felt about some of the styling "starts." I learned never to make a snap decision, though I nailed public feelings with my first look at the 1962 cars.

The 1956 car chassis were the same as in 1955, though a brilliant re-skinning by Virgil Exner and one of Dad's acquaintances in the styling department, Henry King, made the 1956 models look all new. Dad and Henry had been fellow students at the Chrysler Academy. Henry sent Dad many styling proposals to get a reaction, and always listened to my Dad's critiques. Dad would ask me what I felt about some of the styling "starts," and I learned never to make a snap decision, though I nailed the public feelings on my first look at the 1962 models.

The 1956 Chryslers were beautifully face lifted. The super 300 became the first of the so called "letter" cars, the 300B, following the C300. It had a 354 cubic inch Hemi head V-8 that pushed out a stunning 340 horsepower. There was also an optional 354 cubic inch Hemi V-8 that put out 355 horsepower.

Plymouths finally got a V-8, the result of years of work by Chrysler engineers; this engine needed to be inexpensive to make in large quantities, unlike the specialized Hemis. After experimenting with different head shapes, the engineers discovered the inexpensive wedge head worked nearly as well as the polyspherical shape; the result was the 277 cid A-engine. It would, in its lightweight-casting form (LA), be used through some 40 years in various displacements.

DeSoto had responded to the makeover in a stunning array of fins and lines, and had a new Adventurer Hi-Performance model. My Dad's cousin Harry, who usually traded every three years, brought his '55 Plymouth down to order a 56 DeSoto Adventurer. He wanted the black on white model with a minimum of gold. When it came in, Dad kept it on the show room floor for two weeks before he let Harry have it.

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Dodge showed the genius touch of Virgil Exner and Henry King. Maury Baldwin, a contemporary of Henry King, had been responsible for designing the 1955 Dodge and Plymouth cars; he was reassigned to special projects (the Fury). Ostensibly, he was designing interiors and dashboards. He came up with some fantastic dashboard designs, and is not given enough credit for his work.

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Some corporate-wide changes for 1956 were center plane brakes with the duo-servo setup; a larger vacuum booster for the power brake system made brake lockups a matter of fact on all lines. All the cars got 12 volt electric systems.

Pushbuttons replaced the dash lever for control of the Powerflite transmission; a simple, trouble-free system, they moved a cable that directed oil flow in the transmission. Still, one just couldn't seem to convince some people that the push buttons gave them more direct control over the transmission than the convoluted contraptions used by some competitors - levers and ball jointed bell cranks that got full of dirt and bound up to the point you couldn't move the stick on the column.

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Over at Chrysler, there was a new V-8 for its lower priced line this year - the 188 horsepower, 301 cubic inch "Spitfire" polysphere head V-8 cylinder. According to Bill Watson: In Canada, when the 1956 model year started, the Plymouth and Plymouth-
bodied Dodges (Crusader, Regent, Mayfair) all used the 270 engine; in mid-year, it was
replaced by the American-made 277, which cut costs by sharing crankshafts and piston rods with the bigger 303. The Dodge Custom Royal, being bigger that its siblings, needed
a bigger engine. In Canada, the 303 V8 was used, based on the
270-277 V8 block.

Dodge's Golden Lancer, which was supposed to showcase the D-500 option, was lost in the shuffle because the D-500 was available on any Dodge, even the cheapest, and its late introduction was overshadowed by the new Plymouth Fury. The D-500 option was a 315 cubic inch hemi head V-8 that spun out 260 horsepower; there were mandatory heavy duty suspension pieces, with bigger brakes, larger wheels, and tires, and the recommended transmission was the Powerflite automatic.

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There was also a 315 cubic inch Polysphere engine with 230 horsepower, with a four barrel carburetor and dual exhausts; it powered cars that won numerous land speed records at Bonneville. Dodge broke, reset and made, all told, 196 records at the Bonneville salt flats with the 1956 Dodge. This engine went 14 days at 92.86 miles an hour for a distance of 31,224 miles! It was, however, not the vaulted Hemi, but the poly that was used. MoPar fans take pause. 315 cubic inches? 230 horsepower? It was not the famous 318, but a different block.

From acquiring Dodge in 1928, Chrysler had a myriad of engines, all nearly alike, except for cubic inch size - and even had two separate 383 engines, both launched in 1959 (the Chrysler 383 and the Dodge 383), which were separately produced (the Chrysler version was later dropped). Corporate finally recognized how costly it was to have each division forging its own particular engine.

Meanwhile, Virgil Exner used the corporate chaos to swiftly move into his own designs. He scrapped three years of work on the 1957 models, going right to designs that were said to be planned for the 1960 model year. The dealers were told to be ready for the most powerful set of car model designs that Detroit had ever seen. Each line was to have a strong, separate identity. But that would come later.

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My Dad always had some inventory since he was a factory outlet and not a franchise. He was also the Western Regional Dealership for distribution of, parts, fleet sales, and vehicles going to smaller dealers. More than one car that was being shipped as an "inventory unit," and didn't have a customer waiting for it, never got onto Dad's lot, except in the hands of a satisfied customer.

Then there was the 1956 Plymouth. New car time in the 1950s was a big affair. Dealers planned parties and entertainment to draw attention to their new models. Dad breathed a sigh of relief when the 1956 Plymouth pictures showed up, assuming it would be just as popular as the 1955s.

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My Dad noted, "This has been the best year ever for the entire corporation. But Plymouth just seems to keep going. I have never seen anything like it. No matter how many I get in, the demand for them still exceeds the amount I have. I got a backlog now of over 100 customers. I hope they will take 1956 models, or I may get skinned alive. What a business! Last year I couldn't seem to give 1954 Plymouths away. Now, I don't have enough 1955s to make everyone happy. I just hope Exner [Virgil Exner, hired by K. T. Keller in 1953, soon to be Vice-president of Style and Design for ChryCo] keeps his head and doesn't go the way of those other striped pants boys in Highland Park. I swear they seem to forget who they were building cars for!"

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New car time in the 1950s was a big affair, and dealers had parties and entertainment to grab attention. Floor traffic was heavy on introduction night. We were ready for a big dance, but we didn't have one partner for the entire night!

The 1956 introduction night at our place was a bust. How do you figure it? The 1956 Plymouth was every bit as good looking, even better in some ways than the '55. It should have taken off like a rocket. But it didn't.

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Dad had expected another blowout year: the chassis and models were the same. Still, even after the 1956 models were on the showroom floor, people wanted new 1955 Plymouths! Demand for the 1955 kept right on going, even after deliveries began to get spotty. Dad swore that he could have sold the 1955 model Plymouth for the next three years without changing a single thing, that was how great the demand became.

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For 1956, Plymouth division had a total run of 571,634 units, a 20% loss from 1955. Fleet sales were up at our store, so overall, the downturn didn't hurt us. Dad sold 338 retail 1956 Plymouths, not including 11 Fury models. Imperial sales were up slightly, 73 finding new homes from our store. Chrysler sales were down by nearly 30% and only 88 went out the door. DeSoto however, seemed not to be affected by the national downturn in sales, with 98 sales. Dodge, although down, still managed a creditable showing with 154 new units. Adventurer sold only 3 units, one of which Grandpa bought, and my Dad's Cousin. The 300B only moved two units through our store. Three more were still there when the 1957 models started to arrive. Dad shipped them back for distribution to other dealers. All together, in 1956, the store sold 767 cars. But, it represented a 23.5% down turn from 1955, which was echoed in the national sales figures.

As for the independence of Plymouth: the deal had been that, if they came in at #3 in U.S. sales in 1955, they would get their own independent franchises starting in 1957. Such great bravado should have been rewarded, but as we know, Buick beat Plymouth to third place by 1,800 units. Years later, when GM's Roger Smith closed down the Flint Buick plant, some unhappy Buick employees produced memos showing that GM had fudged their records way back to 1950. Using their many corporate spies, GM knew how many units they needed. The 1,800 cars that beat Plymouth were reportedly parts of cars set aside for the 1956 model run!

- Curtis Redgap

Part 3 Comment on this page in the forumsThe 1956 cars, inside and out
Next week: 1955-56 police packages and CHP testing

Other parts of this series

More by Curtis Redgap:

Chrysler HeritageHistory by YearChrysler People and BiosCorporate Facts and History

Chrysler 1904-2018

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