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Chrysler 1957: Lovely Lines, Quality Qualms

The 1957 Chrysler Corporation cars had almost everything they needed to be home runs. Their Hemi V8 engines were outperforming (or at least staying even with) GM and Ford; they had new suspensions that boosted handling well above GM and Ford; and the fine Torqueflite automatic, sold on some premium cars in 1956, was now available across the line.

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All that engineering was all wrapped in state-of-the-art styling, garishly chrome-laden, long, sleek, and low - what buyers wanted in the 1950s. The latest rendition of the Forward Look boasted a wide range of fins (or, as Chrysler called them, rear stabilizers).

With just two basic engine families, both tried-and-true (straight-six and V8), and time-tested engineering (rear wheel drive, conventional rear leaf-springs, body-on-frame design), coming from a company known for its engineering, everything should have been fine. The one big risk was launching a new torsion-bar suspension (never before used on such a wide scale) across the board.

So what went wrong? The bodies rusted out and fell apart, surprisingly quickly.

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Product planner Burton Bouwkamp told us in 2017,

Our worst year was 1957. One customer wrote in, "Thank you very much. I slammed the door on my fingers and didn't hurt at all." ... The main problem was that management took a year out of the '57 program. It was a whole new car; and when we went into production we absolutely weren't ready.

We had to stop the line. Those were the days when you never stopped the line, but we did stop it, shut down for a week while we refurbished things, and started up again. The cars were so bad, we had to relaunch the product with the dealers, reassure them that we were aware of the problem, that it was under control, we'd fixed it.
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I was at a dealer meeting in Lubbock, Texas, and the general sales manager, Bill Braydon, was telling them, "Look, we're serious about this. When the Imperial goes through water tests, we put a guy in the trunk to see if it's leaking. That's how serious we are." And a dealer yelled out from the back of the room, "Let the guy out! He'll drown."
by Curtis Redgap

The 1957 cars started to rust within several months of being built - all models, Plymouth to Chrysler. They leaked water on both sides of the windshield posts. Torsion bars broke, leaving cars looking like fallen over Towers of Pisa. Upholstery split, seams tore, seat springs popped through, paint flaked off in huge chunks, hubcaps wouldn't stay on, rear view mirrors vibrated, door handles broke with ease, locks froze easily, and interior appliances fell off.

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In all fairness to Chrysler, they were no worse than Ford or Chevrolet in that era. Ford quality was just as bad, if not worse.

The engineers charged right in and began to get on the line fixes to areas that truly needed help. By the time the 1958 models came out, a lot of the areas were fixed. The windshield leaks had been rigged with plugs, nipples and small rubber hoses in a kit. Likewise, the rear window had been rigged. Leaks had not been stopped, but at least the water, for the most part, ran out into the wheel wells instead of on your feet or your luggage in the trunk.

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Extra braces were fitted, and they switched to heavier-gauge sheet metal and larger rivets, with extra sound deadening, especially in the floor pans and rear trunk. Seat springs and materials were completely changed. They quickly added a rubber boot to cover the end of the torsion bars, stopping dirt that would cause the rear of the bar seat area to bind; and the metal used in the bars was changed. The 1958 models were discernibly better, except for rust. [The torsion bars suspension did give every car,
from Plymouth to Chrysler, a major ride-and-handling advantage over GM and Ford.]

The 1957 Chrysler cars

by the Allpar staff

Chrysler sold the Windsor, Saratoga, New Yorker, and, starting in January, the famed 300C. All Chryslers had V8s, and most had the famous Hemi V8s.

Chrysler sales were a fraction of other vehicles, but they also sold for much more - $3,088 to $5,359, topped by the convertible 300C. Only 484 300C convertibles were made, compared with 17,639 Windsor four-door sedans. All told, Windsor was clearly the biggest seller, with about 47,000 sales.

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Some of the cars came with a polyspherical head engine, Chrysler's first single-rocker-arm overhead valve design: cheaper to make, lighter, and easier to service. To quote Lanny Knutson of the Plymouth Owners Club:

It still had a rounded, circular combustion chamber that could be served by a single rocker arm by putting the intake valves on the top side of the rocker arm and the exhaust valves on the bottom side. The bottom side of the new engine's valve covers were scalloped to leave the spark plugs accessible from the top... both Ford and Chevrolet [made one] reach under hot exhaust manifolds to get at the spark plugs.
Dodge made nearly 161,000 Coronets - once the highest car, now the base model. Above the Coronet were the Royal and, at the top, the Custom Royal - the same car in different levels of trim. Together Dodge sold 257,488 of them, including the hot new D-500 - technically a separate model/engine option.

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Dodge engines started with a base 138-hp (gross) six; the Red Ram V8 ramped that up to 245 hp, and the D-500 was well above that, with 285-310 hp.

Canadians could buy the Plymouth-based Dodge Mayfair, Crusader, and Regent; Mayfair was 303-cid-V8 only, while the others could be equipped with the flat-head six or a V8. The 303 was 1957-only.

DeSoto had impressive names: Firesweep, Firedome, Fireflite, and, for midyear, Adventurer. The midrange Firedome was most popular, with about 45,000 sales, while Firesweep reached about 40,000. They made fewer than two thousand Adventurers, a special high performance edition.

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Plymouth was always Chrysler's big seller, and 1957 didn't disappoint. The bread and butter was the Plaza / Deluxe Suburban, with the four-door sedan selling for just over $2,000 and moving over 70,000 units; the two-door club sedan gained nearly 50,000 US sales. There was also a far less popular two-door business coupe, and the two-door Deluxe Suburban wagon.

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Similar in design and trim was the Savoy, whose four-door sedan and two-door club wagon sold in similar numbers, both over 50,000 units; there was also a popular two door hardtop coupe, and a somewhat less popular four-door sport sedan. The Custom Suburban was the wagon version.

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Then came the Belvedere, with higher trim and tuning, and more standard features; it too was surprisingly popular, but this time the two-door hardtop was the most popular variant with over 67,000 sales. The four-door sedan was the least popular - save for the convertible, with just over 10,000 cars sold. Others were a popular four-door sport sedan, and a popular two-door club coupe. The Sport Suburban wagon was the most popular Plymouth wagon.

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The hot Plymouth Fury was only made as a hardtop coupe, and had a unique optional 318 cid engine with two carburetors.
It was a late launch, and only accounted for 10% of sales; but it grabbed headlines and made "buzz."

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The advertising campaign around the Plymouths would be referred to in other contexts - "Suddenly, it's 1960" - as the new Plymouths appeared to be far ahead of any other cars in styling.

Styling and engineering

Curtis Redgap wrote, "The 1957 models were Virgil Exner at his absolute genius best. He was awarded the new position of Vice-President of design and fashion. In 1957, they sold 1,296,063 units, the absolute best year in Chrysler's history for sales."

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The strong sales in 1957 were a double-edged sword - many buyers were permanently lost due to the poor quality. The company may have been better off selling fewer cars in 1957; they may have had a better 1958 if so many hadn't experienced their gaffes.

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Before the rust started, the cars were generally hailed as being very good; Motor Trend even named Chrysler Corporation the Car of The Year for superior handling across the board, and Plymouth was touted as the most "roadable" car ever built in America.

Air conditioning was still unusual, and still had some components in the trunk. In 1958, the company moved to a more modern under-hood setup.

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Performance

The most exciting cars arrived in January - the hot Chrysler 300C, the powerful DeSoto Adventurer, and the quick, light Plymouth Fury. They caused nearly as much excitement as the rest of the line had.

At Daytona Beach, the new 300C set a two-way speed of 134.108 miles per hour, 5.5 mph down from 1956. It was still the fastest car on the beach, but the loss was confusing, because the Hemi option in the test car was bored to 392 cubic inches and reached 390 horsepower.

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The problem turned out to be the trim above the windshield, catching the air at high speeds and acting like a break.

In 1956, the 300B's 355-horse 354 had reached one horespower per cubic inch, but Chrysler didn't advertise it. In 1957, the DeSoto Adventurer had that engine standard - but Chevrolet still gets credit for hitting one horsepower per cubic inch, even though their 1957 engine (a 283) was a $500 option, not standard.

They were the first to advertise the achievement.

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Dodge's D-500 option was a 325 cubic inch Hemi engine that had 310 horsepower; less well known was the D-500-1. Around 100-150 were made, the lightest, cheapest Dodge bodies with the 354 cubic inch Hemi, and sold at retail for NASCAR racing compliance.

The Plymouth Fury had a dismal showing at Daytona. The 318 cubic inch engine, dubbed the "V-800," developed 290 horsepower with dual four barrel carburetors, a high lift camshaft, and low restriction dual exhaust. Magazines claimed that the 318 lacked low-end torque. It hit 60 miles per hour in 8.5 seconds, with an observed top speed of 120 miles an hour.

Squad cars

by Curtis Redgap

Keeping its eye on Dodge, Plymouth had come up with a Police Pursuit package on its own. It was as tough as the Dodge, and if you equipped it with (if you wanted it) the 318 cubic inch 8 barrel, 290 horse V-8, faster than a D-500 Dodge.

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Multiple carburetors were hard for fleets to keep in tune, so the most popular engine was the single-four-barrel 301. Plymouth put 12 inch brakes on all its Pursuits, where Dodge stayed with the 11 inch drums until the 1961 Polara.

Plymouth targeted three areas of police work. Their Sentinel package addressed city operations, with a six cylinder. Their Metro Patroller focused on sheriff's departments, which usually had city, suburbs, and wide open spaces to cover, featuring the 301 V-8 with the four barrel and dual exhausts. The State Police/Highway Patrol Pursuit Special centered on the 290 horsepower Fury V-800.

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Putting the most popular options in the packages not only allowed for lower bids, it made the fleet manager's job easier.

The Torqueflite automatic

Slow to get a fully automatic transmission on the market, Chrysler wasted no time in getting beyond its two speed Powerflite. The Torqueflite was quite simply the best automatic transmission produced for decades. It was simple, reliable, dependable, quiet, efficient, economical, and gave Chrysler cars a performance advantage.

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The Torqueflite centered on Simpson planetary gear set, named after its inventor, Howard Simpson, who had licensed it to Ford in 1953 and Chrysler in 1955. Launched on some high-end 1956 Chryslers, it was spread across the entire lineup on the 1957s; and it was one part of the car that was generally trouble-free.

Past and present: McKinsey & Company reviews Chrysler Corporation

In 1956, Chrysler engaged consultants McKinsey & Company; the report came in 1957, and found two key problems - a climate that "prevented the development of trained replacement management" and failure to keep up with new ways of working.

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The dawn of Chrysler, the report noted, included "skilled engineers, a canny financial analyst, an imaginative factory manager, and, perhaps, a showman. ... they operated by expediency. Every business problem was an individual challenge to be... solved by ingenuity." Below this level, the report claimed that people simply carried out orders, and did not gain leadership skills.

The report claimed that the second generation of Chrysler leaders, having had no chance to lead, were unsuited to train their own successors. "An echelon removed from the founding group, you [Chrysler's leaders in 1957] had to operate under the direction of leaders that had limited capability... they permitted problems and competitive lapses to occur and accumulate..."

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The problems faced by the 1950s executives when they took over were, according to McKinsey:

  • Few trained executives despite a vastly larger (than in the 1920s and 1930s) corporation
  • Nonexistent or weak management staffs
  • No clear plan of organization and little managerial control
  • No sound financial facts
  • More direct-labor hours to build the cars
  • An obsolete distribution system and behind the times styling
  • Antiquated personnel systems
  • Long lead times with poor vendor relations and major quality lapses
  • Lack of financial controls
  • A weak dealer body
  • Poor product planning without enough programming or scheduling

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The writers slammed Chrysler for its 1953 move to divisionalization, which they said was merely copying General Motors, but without giving divisions enough control or staff. The company had started to add to the corporate staff and financial controls in 1956, but the report said it was not enough - and blasted them for doing little to help "your most important product - Plymouth."

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The divisions lost profit responsibility and scheduling; instead, they were to reduce costs, and plan and launch products (with corporate planners and schedulers). The report complained that they "still aggressively meddle in dealer operations," and "believe that it will only be a matter of time before full divisionalization is restored." The report suggested that management was working on more single-line Plymouth and Chrysler dealerships, which would help both brands.

The consultants suggested having decision-making revolve around facts, not personalities; preventing coverups of mistakes; imposing penalties on subordinates who did not carry out plans or policies; keeping marketing and dealer relations on a corporate level, but customized for local regions; and controlling advertising and sales-promotion expenses.

The future

In May, 1957, Chrysler president Tex Colbert set up a committee to come up with a competitor for the increasingly popular small imports. Headed by Plymouth General Manager Harry Cheseborough, the Special Car Committee spawned "Project A901," a task force of 200 engineers in a rented building down Midland Avenue, with security so tight many thought it was a government project. The result would be the Chrysler Valiant.

Specifications for 1957 Plymouth engines

P-30 (Straight Six)P-31: 277 V8P-31: 301 V8P-31: 318 V8
Brake Horsepower (gross)132 @ 3,600197 @ 4,400215 @ 4,400290
Torque205 @ 1,600270 @ 2,400285 @ 2,800
Bore x Stroke3.25 x 4 5/83.75 x 3.1253 29/32 x 3.1253 29/32 x 3 5/16
Compression8:18:18.5:19.25:1
Compression pressure120-150 psi125-165 psi
Max variation 10 psi15 psi
Connecting rod bearingsSteel backed babbit; desired clearance, .0005 to .0015 inch
Main bearingsSteel backed babbit; 4 on six, 5 on V8;
.0005 to .0015 inch clearance desired;
2.5 inch diameter (nominal)

Also see Jim Benjaminson's chapter on the 1957 Forward Look Plymouths and Virgil Exner's justification for fins; and move forward to 1958

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I have read a lot about the issues with the 1957 Chrysler quality controls issues. I have some questions for all of the experts out. 1) The 1957s I see to day, I assume have had all of the problems corrected by the restorer, or was it done by the dealer? 2) I am trying to get a cost of all of the options on 1957 Chrysler Windsors and Saratogas. 3) What was standard on the Saratoga, that would want to make you upgrade from a Windsor, which, I believe, everything was an option.
Thx
Jim
 
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