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Inside Chrysler: 1957 Engineering, Daytona, and Fleets

by Curtis Redgap

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

In January, the Chrysler 300C finally arrived, along with the DeSoto Adventurer, and the first of the new Plymouth Furys. It was almost as mobbed as it had been on introduction day. [Chrysler billed every one of their cars "The Mighty Chrysler: Most glamorous car in a generation" in a series of ads.]

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I had ordered twelve Furys, five 300Cs, and six Adventurers. I got the Furys, but only one 300 showed up, a sharp-looking red hardtop. The new Furys did not stay on the lot for more than two days.

The Adventurers were the smash attraction of the January introductions. One Adventurer got sold the very first day. Grandpa took one look at a black on white 2 door hard top, and that was the end of his hold out. Dad finally got to keep a Fury for his own. They seemed to sell themselves.

As much as I don't want to admit it, out in back in the warranty area, Mr. Greene was very busy. The seeds of discontent were blossoming.

Chrysler at Daytona Beach

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Chrysler's highly touted 300C set a two way mark of 134.108 miles per hour, 5.5 mph off the 1956 mark, at Daytona Beach. It was the fastest car on the beach, but the loss was confusing when the Hemi engine was bored to 392 cubic inches for an output of a standard 375 horsepower; the mystery would be resolved with a closer look at the body. A 390 horsepower 392 was also available, though not recommended for street use.

DeSoto made a good showing, but the body held its speed down as it had the 300. Both DeSoto and 300 had a metal strip at the top of their windshields, which had acted as an air brake.

Chrysler missed the opportunity to assert that DeSoto's engine had reached the engineer's dream of one horsepower per cubic inch displacement. They also had not taken advantage of that opportunity in 1956 with the 300B, feeling that since the 355 horsepower 354 was an optional engine, that it didn't meet the exact criteria to stake the claim. DeSoto's top engine was 345 cubic inches, and its output was 345 horsepower. Over at GM, Chevrolet ads were touting their 283 cubic inch V-8 making one horsepower per cubic inch! Who was right? DeSoto's was the standard engine, available across the board, in a standard model. Chevrolet's 283 horse engine was an expensive (500 big 1957 dollars) option, and not standard at all!

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Dodge did well for its class, thanks partly to the D-500 option, a 325 cubic inch Hemi engine that had 310 horsepower. The Dodge boys had another option that was not widely known, the D-500-1; around 100 to 150 of the lightest, cheapest Dodge bodies had the 354 cubic inch Hemi installed in them for NASCAR racing compliance. These cars should have been formidable contenders in any contest.

The Plymouth cars did not do well at Daytona. Fury was dismal in its showing, winning nothing at all. The Canadian 303 engine was bored out, resulting in the ubiquitous 318 cubic inch engine that soldiered on in various corporate applications until 1967. In the 1957 Fury form, the "V-800" developed 290 horsepower with twin four-barrel carbs, a high lift camshaft, and a low restriction dual exhaust.

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Despite the great potential, several testing magazines were critical of the 318 for its lack of low end "punch." It was fairly quick, running out to 60 miles per hour in 8.5 seconds, with an observed top speed of 120 miles an hour. However, torque wins races, and the 318 lacked that at the low end of its operating range. In an interesting move, however, Plymouth made the Fury V-800 available through all its car models! For high-speed testing, the extra body flourishes on the Fury may have hurt it just as the DeSoto and Chrysler's top speed were damaged by their own extra trim.

All in all, a wash for Chrysler at Daytona. It was just as well. The American Manufacturers Association banned advertising that showcased horsepower, performance, and racing, right after the close of Speed Weeks. There would be no more formal gatherings of horsepower festivals. 1957 was the last run at Daytona's famous beach.

The 1957 cars: engineering and styling

The 1957 models were Virgil Exner at his absolute genius best. He was awarded the new position of Vice-President of design and fashion. He deserved it! Chrysler took an awful risk that year on the engineering side. It was a taboo to make design and engineering breakthroughs in the same year. However, 1,296,063 units represented the absolute best year in Chrysler's history for sales. Plymouth alone counted for 752,874 of that over 1 million units. Fury sold 7,438.

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The engineering included the standard Torqueflite across the board for all engines and the single most significant contribution to American car handling ever, the Torsion-Aire suspension system. General Motors had an ill fated air bag system for some of its top models, so the "Aire" part was obligatory, even if there was no air involved in the Torsion system.

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Simply put, a torsion bar was like a spring that had been straightened out. It was remarkably simple, and unbelievable in application. No nose dive in hard braking. A standard Plymouth could out handle any car in its class on a twisty road. Award after award was given to Chrysler. Motor Trend, (which they do not mention in their anniversary issue by the way) named Chrysler Corporation the "Car of The Year" for superior handling and roadability in all its cars. Plymouth was touted as the most roadable car ever built in America. Imperial was awarded the "easiest handling car weighing over 2500 pounds."

The only failure point was the obvious lack of quality control. The 1957s started to rust within months of being built. 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, hubcaps wouldn't stay on, rear view mirrors vibrated, door handles broke, locks froze, and interior appliances fell off. In fairness, Chrysler cars were no worse than Ford or Chevrolet in that era; Ford quality in particular was just as bad, if not worse. They managed to survive because they were bigger and could absorb the costs.

1957 Fords outsold 1957 Chevrolets. There is a dispute of 131 cars, but for that amount when put beside over a million and a half, who is counting? The Chevrolet dealer down the boulevard from our store had taken to offering TVs, stoves, washers, and other devices to lure customers.

Christmas in 1957 was a time of rejoicing. It was absolutely the best year we ever had. Dad was shining that year, paying out the biggest bonus checks ever. We more than doubled 1956 sales figures. Plymouth alone accounted for more cars than we sold totally in 1956!

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We moved 771 1957 Plymouth models to new homes. 101 Imperials went through the books. 291 Dodges found owners. 251 DeSotos, (including the one that my Grandpa said he wouldn't get)! And Chrysler with its smashing looks moved 255 models. We also sold 5 of the tremendous Chrysler 300C cars, for a grand total of 1,674 units. It contributed in a small way to Plymouth being able to claim third in the overall production race, displacing Buick quite handily. That total does not include the fleet units. I never added those up because in a lot of cases, they were just units going through our store like a "depot," and at times, in later years, we did not make any profit on some of them. Still, Dad truly was a large frog in a small pond.

The fleet cars arrive

The arrival of the fleet cars started at the end of January. Most manufacturers ran their fleet line early, and then again about its halfway mark. That way, fleet customers can choose to change with the model year, or change with the seasons. Police departments in the North, where winters are tough on cars, usually waited until Spring to put their new cars in service, so they would be just about broken in and ready for full performance over the summer months. No one is going to run a car at 100 miles an hour on a snow covered road... unless they are nuts.

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Chrysler had shipped down several cars for the State Police to test. I expected them to come back thrashed; they had been using Fords since 1917. I knew something was up when they didn't come back after three days... then a week... then on the tenth day, a truck carrier arrived from the State Capital with all the tested Plymouth cars on it. They were stunningly clean! In fact, they had been polished to a high sheen of clean with a nice wax coating.

The last one that backed off the carrier had a big sign in the back window, made up like a Christmas present sticker. It read: "Dear PLYMOUTH CLAUSE, can we have about 1,150 stocking stuffers just like this one?" I thought I was going to faint! Dad made me go home and get the Brownie so he could take a picture. Yes, it was in the local paper.

The state bid on the Plymouth Savoy, with the Torqueflite, a 3.36 rear axle ratio, and the four barrel, dual-exhaust 301 cubic inch engine (235 horsepower). Plymouth's new Police Pursuit package for the 1957 models was every bit as tough as the Dodge, and if you equipped it with the 318 dual-four-barrel, 290 horse V-8, it was faster than a Dodge D-500. Plymouth had also put together a series of packages that appealed to a cross section of police work, not just focusing on the high end pursuits.

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Dodge execs must have wondered what was happening when Plymouth started grabbing orders that they had expected to get. Most fleet managers are leery about multiple carburetors; they tend to be difficult to keep in tune. For that reason, Plymouth's most popular package for 1957 was the single four barrel on the 301.

There was one other advantage: Plymouth put 12 inch brakes on all its Pursuits, where Dodge stayed with the 11 inch drums until the Polara model of 1961. If you thought the Dodge brakes were tough, the ones on the Plymouth were formidable!

A Nevada Highway State Trooper, while patrolling in the mountains near Sparks in his 1957 Plymouth, spotted a tractor-trailer going down the mountain. The driver signaled wildly that the air brakes had gone out. The Trooper wheeled around in a "bootlegger's turn" at 40 miles an hour. He then accelerated to over 120 mph to catch the run away truck.

Momentarily blocked by on coming traffic, the Trooper had to stay in line behind the free wheeling 18 wheeled monster. He clocked it at 85 mph, as it was accelerating climbing towards 90. As soon as he got clear, the Trooper accelerated past the roaring 60 tons of rolling menace. Once in front of the tractor, he backed off the throttle, slowly allowed the tractor's front bumper to contact the rear of the Plymouth. Using his service brakes, the Trooper steadily pumped the brake pedal, keeping the front bumper of the truck against his car. At first, it didn't seem to have much affect. However, with smoke coming from all four of the Plymouth's service brakes, the speed began to steadily decrease. Slowly, then more rapid. 80...75...65...60...50...then 40...30...and finally down to 20 miles per hour where the tractor driver was able to stop by using his transmission downshifting, and the soft edge of the road.

It was a good thing because the Plymouth had precious little left to give. As the Trooper stopped the two front tires explosively blew out from the tremendous heat. The fins and truck area were bashed in, as well as pushed downwards from the force of the weight of the truck. However, once again, MoPar engineering had saved lives! Had that truck entered the small town at the base of the mountain, who knows how many could have been injured or killed. It would have easily surpassed 120 miles an hour on the 25 mile long grade, becoming a 60 ton road rocket with disastrous destructive potential. Bashed, bruised, and burnt out as it was, after the tires were changed, the Plymouth brought the Trooper safely back to his station.

Plymouth had a bit of brilliance when it put its Pursuit on the market. Instead of offering a whole gamut of mix and match hardware, Plymouth targeted three specific areas: the Sentinel package revolved around economical city operations, like a taxi, and featured the six cylinder engine. The Metro Patroller concentrated on the Sheriff's Departments, which usually city, suburbs, and wide open spaces to cover; their featured engine was the Hi-Po 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.

By 1959, Plymouth's strategy set the tone of fleet purchases that still lasts into today's markets. You could buy whatever you wanted, but with the most popular options on the packages, it allowed for lower bids, making the fleet manager's job a whole lot easier. Dodge was making the headlines, but Plymouth was making the sales orders by out delivering Dodge at a 4 to 1 unit rate.

Uncle Harlan came in with his set of specifications. He really liked the way those Plymouth models handled. He was also impressed that the State had chosen Plymouth after 40 (forty) years of Ford products. It was a relationship that would last in my state, up until the plug was pulled on ChryCo's police units in 1989.

Uncle Harlan wanted a new fleet, period. In the usual bid for the city, they bought about 20 to 25 units every year. As it was, it was a mixed bag of cars, with about a third of the fleet rolling over into new models. The oldest were then turned over to the detective bureau and support units.

Uncle Harlan wanted the city to buy 80 (4 shifts, 20 units apiece) brand new Plymouth Pursuits. He was tired of all the maintenance headaches older cars made when they broke down. He had 1954 Fords, 1955 Chevrolets, and 1956 Fords. The 1956 Fords had been good cars, since Ford had designed them to be a police package. They withstood an inordinate amount of abuse. The only problem was Fords brakes. They were just abysmal.

My Dad, Grandpa, and Uncle Harlan got together and put a bid package up that centered on the state bid specifications, just like the Troopers. Along the way, they brought in the County Sheriff. He was looking for a buy of 100 cars this year. He too liked the state bid, and wrote his specifications around the 301 Plymouth. Between them all, they finally persuaded the City Board to accept the Plymouth Bid.

Uncle got his new fleet. 60 came in, all black, and we painted the roof and doors white, just like the Sheriff's department. The remaining 20 were various colors and he distributed them to himself, the detectives, and the support bureau. The Sheriff got his 100 units.

For the first time, the entire world seemed dominated by Plymouth Police Pursuits. I was one busy young man with all the fleet sales we had that year. I made some pretty good money too. It wasn't always easy since I couldn't play baseball as much as I had before. I also had a lot of pressure to keep my school grades up. Dad felt that was more important than working at his store. I did manage to stay on the honor roll. It wasn't the high honor that I had been on, but Dad was satisfied enough with my 88 average.

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