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Catching up quickly: Plymouth cars, 1955-59

by Jim Benjaminson • Part of the Illustrated Plymouth and DeSoto Buyer's Guide

1955-Models P26 and P27

1955 was a year of magic for the automobile industry. Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth introduced all-new cars for the season, the economy was booming, and automobile sales set all-time records. Chevrolet hit the boards on October 28, Ford November 12. The new Plymouth made its debut five days later-if ever an automobile had come full circle in its thinking, the 1955 Plymouth was proof of the turnaround.

Truly a clean-sheet-of-paper design, these were the first cars in which Virgil Exner and his design teams were able to influence from start to finish. From the outset Exner dictated form and function be correlated in every step of the design-a car designed with motion as its basic styling theme. It had no sooner hit the streets than the automotive press began writing it "could well become a classic."

Gone was the "bigger on the inside, smaller on the outside" concept K. T. Keller had so dearly loved. Everything that could be done to make the car look long and low was done. Roof lines were lowered by 1.35 inches, wheelbase increased to 115 inches, and a full 10.3 inches was added to the overall length. Even the front tread was increased by 2.56 inches so the front wheels tracked the same as the rear.

Sharply canted front fenders nosed into the air, forming a clean sweeping line to the rear where a reverse cant undercut the tail lamps. The grille was a simple bar, only bolder, running from side to side before forming a box over the park lamps. A massive front bumper with slight prow swept from wheel opening to wheel opening. On the hood rode an abstract form of the good ship Mayflower. Tail lamps were hooded by the reverse cant of the rear fender. A lip along the trailing edge of the deck lid rode above a pronounced cove running across the rear of the car. Rooflines were accentuated by a wraparound full-view windshield that curved up into the roof and around the A pillars.

But there was more to the car than just looks. Engineering had been busy, and underneath the hood sat a real, live V8 engine. Creating this engine was not easy; the Hemi V8 engines the corporation had relied on were too expensive and slow to build for mass-market Plymouths, and the same could be said for the polysphere V8s meant to cut costs.

In the end, engineers went with the wedge-head designs favored by other manufacturers, making numerous other changes to boost production speed. The end result was a series of engines that were still more than competitive against GM and Ford.

With the introduction of a V8 Plymouth, started to code cars according to engine type-either six or V8. Six-cylinder cars all became the P26 series. V8s were coded P27. About the only thing carried over from 1954 was the model names-Belvedere, Savoy, and Plaza, each again assigned their own code number. A six-cylinder Plaza was a P26-1-a V8 Plaza P27-1. The Belvedere was coded as 2, the Savoy as 3.

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Plazas were sold in five body types including business coupe (no rear seat and fixed rear quarter windows), club sedan (two door), four-door sedan, two-door station wagon-and for the first time since the last woody wagon of 1950, a four-door wagon. The Savoy could be had in just two body types-club sedan or four door, while the Belvedere came in club sedan, four door, sport coupe (two-door hardtop), convertible coupe-available only with V8 power-and a four-door station wagon.

The new body rode on a longer, boxed frame fitted with two additional body mounts, located both inside and outside the frame rails. Front suspension changes included non-parallel A arms, Oriflow shocks inside coil springs, splay-mounted rear springs widened to 2.5 inches, and "sea-leg" mounted rear shock absorbers. Standard equipment on all models was a one-piece, spring-steel, torsion-type sway eliminator. V8 cars had idler arm steering with equal length tie rods. Safety Rim wheels, introduced back in 1941, were standard, and all cars received larger brakes.

Fleet buyers and old-maid school teachers could still order the 230-cubic-inch, 117-horsepower PowerFlow six, coupled to any of Plymouth's three transmission offerings, manual, overdrive, or PowerFlite (Hy-Drive had been discontinued).

For those who demanded change, the choice to make was one of the Hy-Fire V8s. First offered in 241-cubic-inch, 157-horsepower or 260-cubic-inch, 167-horsepower form, it wasn't long before a 177-horsepower 260 equipped with four-barrel carburetor was available. While new to Plymouth, the engine was supplied by Dodge and had been used in their B series truck line earlier. Unlike the other Chrysler V8s, Hy-Fire was of a polyspherical design, rather than hemispherical such as used in Chrysler, Dodge, or DeSoto. Like the six, any of Plymouth's three transmissions could be coupled to the new V8.

And at long last, Plymouth owners could order power steering as a $96.50 option, power brakes (released as a service package to be retrofitted on all cars back to 1951), two-way power front seat, power windows on all models, and AirTemp air conditioning.

Sales of the '55 took off like a rocket. Demand far outstripped supply of V8, PowerFlite-equipped cars, with dealers being told to steer customers to sixes with straight sticks! Sales jumped 40% as the factory began working three shifts to keep up. At the close of the model run, Plymouth had broken its 1950 production record, delivering 705,455 cars-still not quite enough to dislodge Buick from third place. Which had been most important-the new styling or the new V8-is hard to say, but V8 sales accounted for 48% of all cars sold.

1956-Models P28 and P29

For 1956 Ford and Chevrolet were content to offer minor restyled product-of the low-priced three, Plymouth would change the most radically with the addition of new rear quarter panels, giving a hint of what would come in the future. Exner called it "airfoil" styling.

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Longer (by an inch), slimmer, and taller, the airfoil fenders trailed off into space, "leaving no question that the car is racing forward." Slashed at a steep angle, the fenders gave a "flying away" look when viewed in profile. Airfin taillights, slim and tapered to emphasize height over a jet-tube back-up lamp housing, all emphasized the flight sweep styling of the car.

With this emphasis on the rear of the car, the front was little changed-a slightly revised grille bar featured a grid pattern in the center of the bar, adorned with a gold "V" if the car was V8 equipped. What had once been the Mayflower ship on the hood had now sprouted wings and became a jet plane.

Model designations again remained the same-Belvedere, Savoy, and Plaza-engineering codes bumped one number to differentiate over the previous years; six-cylinder cars were coded P28, V8s P29. Plazas carried the additional code of 1, but this time the Savoy and Belvedere swapped numbers, Savoys becoming 2 and Belvedere 3.

Leading the charge was the Belvedere, in four door, club sedan (two door), sport coupe, or convertible coupe (the convertible again required V8 power). New this year was Plymouth's first Sport Sedan, a true four-door hardtop. Stressing it was a full sedan four door, engineering had devised a clever, but complicated, method of rolling the entire side window into the rear door. Two window glasses were employed, the rear-most window moving forward and down alongside the forward window which moved slightly rearward and down, all controlled by a single handle.

The Savoy line gained a sport coupe in addition to the club sedan and four door; Plazas came in four door, club sedan, or business coupe.

Station wagons continued to grow in popularity (14% of production) and were given their own model names. Corresponding to the Belvedere was the Sport Suburban four-door wagon. What would have been a Savoy, became the Custom Suburban, in either two or four door, with the Deluxe Suburban, corresponding to the Plaza, available only as a two door. All wagons were sold with six or V8 power.

Chassis changes were minimal, but there was a new V8 under the hood. Looking like its predecessor, the new V8 was Plymouth's own, slightly longer in block length, with more meat between the cylinder bores and larger bearings on the crankshaft. Enlarged valve ports helped the new engine breathe better. Many other changes were made to allow the engine to be mass-produced in numbers never needed by Dodge, Chrysler, or DeSoto.

At 277 cubic inches, producing 187 horsepower, the new V8 was found exclusively in Belvederes and Sport Suburbans. The old Hy-Fire 270 was carried over in Plazas and Savoys. A four-barrel carb brought the new V8's horsepower up to an even 200. Fully 60% of 1956 production would be built with V8 power.

For the 40% staying with the PowerFlow six, horsepower was bumped slightly, to 125. For the first time, an optional Power Pack utilizing a dual-throat Stromberg carburetor, special intake manifold, larger air cleaner, and higher rear-axle ratio could be ordered, raising horsepower of the six to 131.

Other engineering changes included a switch to 12-volt electrics and push-button shifting. Virtually trouble free, the mechanically controlled system had the shift buttons in a pod to the driver's left, out of reach of curious children. Typewriter shifting would be a Chrysler Corporation hallmark through 1964.

If the imagine of an old maid's car had tarnished in '55, it went completely out the window with introduction of the hairy-chested Fury announced in January. Based on the Belvedere Sport Coupe, the similarities between the two cars ended there! Just days before a Fury running on the sands at Daytona Beach, Florida, set a record at 143.598 miles per hour. This was no old maid's car.

Under the hood sat a Canadian-sourced 303-cubic-inch V8 pumping out 240 horsepower. Fury was not for the timid; the engine ran 9.25 compression with a single Carter four barrel, reinforced dome-type pistons, high-performance camshaft, high-load valve springs, balanced connecting rods, high-speed distributor, heavy-duty Borg & Beck 10-inch clutch, and running on 7.10 x 15-inch high-speed Nylon-cord blackwall tires fitted to 5½-inch rims held down by heavy-duty springs and brought to a halt by 11-inch brakes. If that wasn't enough go-power, a $746.90 install-yourself package included dual four-barrel carbs, special air cleaners, an aluminum intake manifold, high-performance camshaft and tappets, and hand choke, raising the Fury's horsepower to 270. The same kit could be installed on the 277 V8, raising its horsepower to 230.

Looks were also part of the package. Finished only in eggshell white, with gold-anodized side trim, gold grille, nameplates, and hubcaps, even a gold-and-white interior, there was no mistaking the Fury.

With an industry wide downturn, Plymouth production was off 37%, sales dropping to just 571,634 for the year-and Buick was still third.

Plymouth for 1957

At the hallowed halls of General Motors styling, a bomb shell called Flight Sweep Styling had scored a direct hit. The only problem was, Chrysler had it and GM wasn't happy! How unhappy were they? Unhappy enough to spend millions scrapping a one-year-only body, in an attempt to catch up.

In an unprecedented move, Chrysler Corporation had completely redesigned all five of its cars lines after just two years (the normal industry practice was three years). Rubbing its nose into GM Styling's face, Plymouth ads cooed "Suddenly-It's 1960!" And this was only 1957...

Nowhere was the Forward Look of Motion more evident than in the wedge-shaped silhouette of Plymouth. Low front fenders and hooded, gently sloped windshield, razor-thin roof with tapered rear window, and rising fins created the wedge effect. Convertibles and hardtops naturally complimented the style best. Station wagons, which usually adopted worst to a design came off looking even sleeker than sedans. From the eye-browed headlamps to the unobstructed greenhouse, to the smooth clean-sculptured sides, the effect of an earth-bound space vehicle was everywhere.

Redesigned from the frame up (the frame was flatter, lower, and wider) along with a switch to 14-inch wheels, helped lower the '57 Plymouth five inches from comparable '56 models. A longer wheelbase-118 inches on sedans, 122 inches on wagons-was still half an inch shorter than the 1949-52 Plymouths, but who would have believed it? And the '57 was one inch shorter than the '56! Looks could be deceiving.

The car was designed with dual headlamps in mind, but final approval of all 48 states for such a setup had fallen short by eight states. Placing the parking lamp alongside the headlamp gave the illusion of dual lamps (some Cadillac and Mercury models actually got by using duals in '57). A massive front bumper split the grille in two, the bumper bar rising as it crossed the middle of the car, giving a barbell shape to the grille. Above the bumper sat the regular grille of thin horizontal bars adorned with an abstract version of the Mayflower ship. Under the bumper, the grille took on an ungainly appearance with vertical slots breaking up the wide expanse of the upper grille. By mid-January the lower pan had been modified, dividing the vertical slots with thin vertical stainless trim strips.

The tail lamp lens completely filled the slightly canted rear fin. Between the lamps only an unbroken expense of deck lid appeared. As on the hood, the name Plymouth appeared in separate letters stretching across the deck lid. Round back-up lamps sat below the tail lamps. A grooved center bumper section with chrome extension cascaded down over the rear body pan. Side trim was restrained, model names appeared on rear fenders, and a gold V on the front fender if the car was V8 equipped.

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Engineering had been just as busy as Styling. Gone was the old style front suspension of years past, trashed in favor of torsion bars and ball joints. Called "Torsion-Aire Ride" (there was no air to the system at all, unlike GM's experiments with air suspensions), the suspension would garner Plymouth the title of best-handling car by Motor Trend magazine. Eventually the entire Chrysler Corporation would receive Motor Trend's Car Of The Year Award based on "superior handling and roadability qualities."

Torsion-Aire was more than just torsion bars; everything had been re-engineered, including the frame, wheels, tires, suspension, and steering linkage. The center of gravity had been lowered and the car sat on a wider stance.

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Torsion-Aire used two chrome steel bars mounted parallel to the inner-front frame rails, the front portion of the bar mounted to the lower control arm with the opposite end anchored to the frame. Twisting motion of the bars, rather than compression of springs, provided the cars with soft but stable suspension. Even the rear springs had been redesigned to work in context with the torsion bars up front. Plymouth brakes, always a high spot, were increased in size.

With all the design and engineering changes, there was little need to change names. Buyers had their choice of Belvedere club sedan, four-door sedan, Sport Coupe, Sport Sedan, and convertible-the ragtop again commanding eight-cylinder power. Six-cylinder cars were coded P30, V8s P31. Savoys came in club sedan, four-door sedan, Sport Coupe, and a newly introduced four-door hardtop Sport Sedan. Plaza soldiered on with a four door, club sedan, and business coupe.

Wagon buyers could choice between six- or nine-passenger four-door Sport Suburban, Custom Suburban six- or nine-passenger four-door, and six-passenger two-door wagon, or the six-passenger two-door Deluxe Suburban.

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The Fury didn't make its debut until December. Like the first Fury, it was a high-performance, personal luxury car, again available only in eggshell white with gold-anodized side trim. Under the hood sat the most potent Plymouth engine ever, a 290-horsepower, 9.25 compression ratio 318 fed by dual Carter carburetors. "Heavy-duty everything" best describes its mechanical equipment. Drivers got a firsthand view of its 150-mile-per-hour speedometer-and many of them easily reached that mark.

Added to the option list was a second automatic transmission, the three-speed TorqueFlite. Aptly named, the transmission was up to its name, easily handling even the awesome Street Hemi of the next decade. TorqueFlite was optional on all V8-equipped Belvederes and could be had on V8 Plazas and Savoys equipped with the V800 engine option. Having been a late comer in offering automatic transmissions, Plymouth was now in the forefront, selling more automatic-equipped cars than either Ford or Chevrolet. Plymouth would sell a higher percentage of V8 powered cars as well.

Engine options for '57 included the tried and true 132-horsepower PowerFlow six (no longer offering the power pack), the 197-horsepower 277 (available only in the Plaza), or the one-year-only 215-horsepower Fury 301 as standard V8 in Savoy or Belvedere (optional in the Plaza). A second Fury engine, the Fury V800 was a $245 option in any model. Unlike most power pack options, the Fury V800 included heavy-duty transmission-either manual or TorqueFlite-heavy-duty torsion bars, springs, shocks, and 14 x 6-inch wheels.

With sales of 726,009 cars, 1957 would prove to be Plymouth's best year ever, bettering the record set in 1955 by more than 20,000 units. In the process Plymouth marched smartly ahead of Buick, reclaiming its traditional third place in sales. The ten-millionth Plymouth came off the line January 24, 1957; Plymouth sales accounted for over half of Chrysler Corporation's 1957 sales.

But it all came at a terrible price. Without doubt they were the best-styled Plymouths turned out by Virgil Exner's stylists. But in the rush to production, with break-neck schedules to meet demand, quality control rode straight into the sewer. The cars leaked dust and rain water vociferously-paint faded and flaked in chunks while upholstery materials disintegrated in the sun. Torsion bars, deprived of rubber boots during early production, rusted and snapped like match sticks-thankfully usually only at slow speeds. Despite its killer good looks, the '57 Plymouth-and its stable mates-gave Chrysler a long standing reputation for poor quality.

Plymouth for 1958

In an era when change for the sake of change was prevalent, some complained the '58 Plymouth hadn't changed enough. What few changes had been made, were mostly for the better. Again, it would take an observant passerby to notice the differences.

Most evident was the front grille-the much maligned lower pan on the '57s gave way to a grille matching the upper grille and looking somewhat like that of the Chrysler 300. Real dual headlamps replaced the headlamp-park lamp of the previous year, park lamps cleverly hidden above and between the lamps. A new winged hood ornament replaced the individual letters used to spell Plymouth on the '57s. And for the first time since 1928, the good ship Mayflower was nowhere to be found.

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At the rear, simple round tail lamps capped by a "Reflecting Tower" blade replaced last years' fin-filling tail lamps. A single backup lamp was centered in the rear bumper (except on station wagons).

Belvederes all sported a Fury-like side trim, using silver-anodized aluminum rather than the Fury's familiar gold. Body choices remained the same as '57 in all three lines, except for the addition of a four-door wagon to the Deluxe Suburban line, all available with choice of six or V8 power, with the exception of the Fury and Belvedere convertible which mandated the V8.

Engine options included the 132-horsepower PowerFlow six or base Fury V-800 225-horsepower, 318-cubic-inch two barrel. The Dual Fury V-800 was exclusive to the Fury, but for those wanting more power, there was the one-year-only Golden Commando 350. Based on the Chrysler B block, it was optional on all models. Last-and in this case, least-was the rarely seen Golden Commando with fuel injection.

Designed and built by Bendix, the Electrojector fuel injection system, which was to have been optional in all models except station wagons, was rated at 315 horsepower, and in theory should have boasted the ultimate in reliable driveability. Touted as a "limited-production, optional engine designed for and offered to a select group of high-performance enthusiasts who demand an engine that's truly out of the ordinary, mating fuel injection with the most advanced high-performance engine available in the field," the Electrojector was installed on a handful of cars before being withdrawn from the market. Unreliable sources claim just two Plymouths were sold with the option along with a dozen or so Chrysler 300s and even fewer DeSotos.

As the "Star of The Forward Look," Plymouth's factory hot-rod Fury made its final appearance, with the choice of two V8 engines-the standard 290-horsepower Dual-Fury V-800 318 or the new 305-horsepower Golden Commando 350-both sporting dual four-barrel carburetors and heavy duty everything. Unlike earlier Furys, this one came only in Buckskin Beige.

In the midst of a deep economic recession hit the industry, Plymouth found itself in need of a price leader; enter the Silver Special, a specially equipped Plaza in either two or four doors. The Silver Special had Sportone trim with anodized aluminum insert, front fender, and door moldings, special metallic silver roof paint, full wheel covers, whitewall tires, directional signals, electric wipers, and "Forward Look" emblems pirated from the '56 Plymouth, with choice of six or V8 power, the Silver Special was to retail for $1,958 in 1958.

Despite sharply curtailed sales of 443,799 units, Plymouth still managed to maintain its hard-won third-place standings.

Plymouth for 1959

Both Chevrolet and Ford entered the year with completely new automobiles; Chrysler Corporation was at a disadvantage, forced to rely one more year on its current body shell. General Motors' answer to Chrysler's 1957 styling coup was a wild, bat-wing affair, while Ford took on a more traditional and formal look. The '58 Plymouth had been less than a mild restyle of the trend setting '57 (most of the work was devoted to reliability and rust prevention); this time Exner would be called on to do a major revamping, to the tune of $150 million, most directed at Plymouth.

The restyle included a new anodized aluminum egg-crate grille with wrap-around park-turn signal lamps, the grille split by a black-screen center where the Mayflower ship once again made its appearance-albeit shared with a rocket ship. For the first time in its life, the ship was seen from the forward profile-it wouldn't be seen again on a Plymouth until the 1996 Breeze!

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Double-barreled fenders drew attention to the sculpted eyebrows and dual floating headlamps. An under bumper jet intake filled the space above the lower body pan. Fins began to rise at the C pillar in a smoother upsweep than previous years, making the car look longer than it really was. The hood and deck lid were sculptured, the hood having a center windsplit. Back-up lamps moved back to the tail lamp cluster, now found in an oval beneath the deck lid.

Gone from the model lineup was the Plaza, with the Savoy slipping down to take its place. Next in line came the Belvedere, also lowered one notch in rank. Taking the Belvedere's place was the Fury line, the Fury name now being a series, rather than a high-performance specialty vehicle. At the top of the line rode the Sport Fury.

Body styles remained the same as years past, the Savoy coming in club sedan, four door, or business coupe-Belvederes in club sedan, four door, sport coupe, sport sedan, and convertible. Fury offerings included a four door, Sport Sedan, and Sport Coupe. Sport Fury buyers could choose between sport coupe or convertible-marking the first time Plymouth offered two convertibles at the same time. Station wagon choices were unchanged.

An era had ended with the loss of the Fury. Sport Furys were powered by the Fury V-800 with Super Pack, a 260-horsepower 318, with single high-performance carburetor, high-performance cam and intake manifold, and low-restriction exhaust-an engine available on everything else Plymouth built except the Savoy business coupe.

Standard V8 was the 230-horsepower 318 with two-barrel carb (not available on the Sport Fury or Savoy business coupe). Optional was the Golden Commando 395 B block, now bored out to 361 cubic inches rated at 305 horsepower. It took its name from its stump-pulling torque rating of 395 foot-pounds at 3000 rpm).

For the fleet buyer, the 132-horsepower PowerFlow six soldiered on for its last and final year.

Chassis changes were non-existent with the exception of the addition of "Constant Level" Torsion-Aire-with an under-hood air compressor supplying high-pressure air to a reserve tank distributing air to rubberized nylon air springs mounted between the body and rear leaf springs.

The 11-millionth Plymouth was built in March, but the Corporation was in the midst of a shakeup, trying hard to keep Plymouth in third place and not quite knowing how to do it. Year-end sales were up slightly, to 458,261 units. Plymouth managed to remain in third, despite the fact half the new cars sold in 1959 had been Fords or Chevrolets. It would be eleven years before Plymouth would again see third place. Was Chrysler Corporation in danger of falling by the wayside, suffering as one of the small independents?

This book is reprinted with the permission and cooperation of Jim Benjaminson, who holds the copyright to the text and to his photos. Also see his book Plymouth 1946-1959.




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