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Inside Chrysler: NASCAR and the Pettys, Creating the '62s

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

NASCAR and the Pettys

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In 1958, my cousin Jimmy was struggling at his racing engine building business. The AMA ban had hurt stock car racing, and a crash at the Martinsville Speedway had killed several spectators when a car went over the retainer wall, into the crowd. The publicity kept people away in droves.

At our family reunion in North Carolina, Jimmy told us that NASCAR was hurting. NASCAR's leader, Bill France, had been visiting places like Jimmy's, saying that things were about to change. He was building a big 2.5 mile track outside Daytona Beach, to open early in 1959; it was high-banked so cars would be able to run safely at flat-out speeds. France said that independents like Jimmy were the backbone of his business, and that he would personally try to see that they all got taken care of. Jimmy said that he couldn't say for sure if France had anything to do with it, but a few weeks after that visit, Jimmy had gotten enough business over the phone, with cash payments, to take of things until next year.

The Pettys down the road had their share of problems. In late 1956, Lee Petty had signed a deal with Oldsmobile. No one stepped up for the 1958 year, including Olds, so Lee made the 1957 models continue. He did all right either way, and won his second NASCAR championship with them. Richard Petty, in his first race, won sixth place in a 1957 Oldsmobile convertible.

Jimmy also said that a fella had shown up at his shop driving a 1958 Plymouth Fury, and wantin' to know if this was the Petty's place. The guy was interested in all the development work Jimmy had done on the Dodge and Chrysler engines. The guy had no motel, so Jimmy invited him to stay the night, and the next day at breakfast, the guy explained that he was from Chrysler's Plymouth division and he was on his way to see the Pettys about running Plymouths in 1959! Dad looked away. I wonder to this day if he knew something about it.

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The fella had said that with Jimmy's permission he was going to have a couple engineers stop by and talk about his engine building program. Said maybe Plymouth could help him out with ideas and some money, or vice-versa! I still wonder if wily ol' Bill France hadn't put that guy onto Jimmy. After several years in the circuit, even if his engines were higher priced than most, they also stayed together and usually won. That sort of reputation gets around. I just wonder... there just seems to be little chance of mistaking Jimmy's little ol' town for Level Cross.

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Creating the 1962 cars

Dad flew out to Detroit for a Dealer Association Meeting in late August of 1958, while the new 1959 lines were being set up. It took three years, then, to design a new car, so while the 1959 models were coming into production, the 1962 models were being sketched out. Thus, the 1960 models were pretty much set, with most of the car lines built into steel models. The 1961 cars were largely set into clay models, with steel models being readied in several months.

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Dad got a good look, somehow, at what Virgil Exner had proposed for the 1962 cars. He wasn't displeased, more like puzzled about the direction that Virgil Exner appeared to be going. Dad was not all that certain about the 1961 design clays that he saw. He said they were oddballs.

One thing that has to be said now about Mr. Exner: he was not, nor ever will be accused of, being conventional. Further, he was on his own, with the blessings of the President and Chairman of the Board. Virgil Exner had knocked the pins out of Detroit's conventional way of thinking.

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Dad also got a real good look at the 1960 Valiant, which he likened to a strange symmetry of jumbled lines and mixture of design themes. He also saw the XNR on which the 1960 Valiant and the future 1962 models were based. He also was sort of excited because all the lines were going to built on "unit bodies," except for Imperial. He felt that should solve the squeak, rattle, rust and cheap appearance quality control problems.

Other parts of this series

More by Curtis Redgap:

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