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Inside Chrysler: NASCAR and the Pettys; Engineering vs Marketing

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

by Curtis Redgap

After some hesitant first moves, Plymouth finally committed to the Petty Organization. Chrysler was keeping one eye on the AMA and their racing activity ban, while keeping the other on Ford, whose back door to the NASCAR community had never closed. It was even rumored that Ford had engineered the AMA ban to keep General Motors out of racing (Henry Ford II was the president of the AMA). To Ford's credit, he also announced in 1960 that he was going to ignore the AMA ban.


At least three, and possibly four, stock 1959 Plymouth Sport Furys were shipped to Level Cross, North Carolina. Sponsorship ostensibly came from local dealers, but Ronnie Householder, who headed the racing division at Chrysler, had named the dealers so that true factory support would not be shown outright!

Lee Petty put his new 1959 Plymouth hardtop into service on June 14, 1959, at a dirt race track near Atlanta. His son Richard, driving a two year 1957 Oldsmobile convertible, a Lee Petty cast-off, was also entered. After 150 trips around the one mile track, young Richard crossed the finish line ahead of his father. A few minutes later, a protest was filed. Lee protested against his own son!


As it turned out, he was right. Lee knew that a series of pit stops had put Richard at least one lap down to him, so there was no way he could have crossed the finish line first. Plymouth had their first win in over 2 ½ years! I knew a lot of State Troopers that suddenly sat up a lot straighter in their patrol cars, and a lot of lead footed kids that decided that whenever a Plymouth squad car was around they would adhere to the law.

Lee went on to garner his third NASCAR championship with Plymouth power. Sadly, it turned out to be his final champsionship.

The Pettys' 1959 Plymouth cars were the "big block" 361 cubic inch V-8, with a single four barrel carburetor producing a factory-advertised 305 horsepower. It was widely believed that, by the time Lee, and his engine-building son Maurice got done, the engine was kicking out about 350 horses.

Richard's 1959 Plymouth was finished just in time to enter it in the Firecracker 250 (not 400 yet) at Daytona. He put the number 43 on it, only because it was one below his father's number 42. That number has become the most famous race car in all of stock car history, and it was on a Plymouth first.


Richard lasted 78 laps before a faulty fuel pump put him out. Lee had expired one lap earlier with an engine failure.

A week later, Richard scored his first career victory. While this was a NASCAR sanctioned event, it was not a Grand National race. There is always some confusion as to when his "first" victory occured; but it was clearly in July 1959, at a half-mile 200 lap event at Columbia, South Carolina. Richard was driving the convertible version of the 1959 Sport Fury. His first Grand National victory came in February 1960, while driving a 1959 Fury hardtop at the half-mile dirt track in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lee earned $49,219 for all of his 1959 efforts. Richard, quickly turning into a star in his own right, was named NASCAR Rookie Driver of The Year. He earned $250 for that.

Why am I bothering to go into NASCAR history, you might ask? Because Plymouth didn't! They should have, but marketing missed a sure bet, especially when Lee won his third, and consecutive, NASCAR championship.

To this day (written in 2001), I am convinced that Chrysler still doesn't know how to market its cars. As Allpar's Dr. Zatz wrote, "Chrysler must build some good cars because with all their shooting themselves in the foot, they are still in business."

From 1960 on, Chrysler's build quality was just as good as anything Ford or GM was putting out. Remember that Chevrolet made 1,393,833 of those modified bat wing marvels, and Ford contributed 910,871 sleepy faced wonders to the year's production. Plymouth in 1960 only built 253,330 full sized cars. That amounted to about 18.5% of the total for Chevrolet and 27.75% of the total for Ford.

The Chrysler philosophy: engineering vs marketing vs styling

We cannot forget the basic philosophy, still bred into the corporation, by Walter P. Chrysler, a talented mechanic and engineer. He would have never been able to get started without the help of his three engineering partners, the "Three Musketeers." From the first car that Chrysler introduced, engineering was king. Styling was something to do with color and interior cloth.

An excellent example is the AirFlow series, launched in 1934; the design came out of an engineer's concept, not the other way around. That is not bad, but many designers told them that the look was too advanced for a regular production car. Chrysler didn't listen. He wanted the AirFlow on the street. Production was rushed, assembly line foul-ups created delays, and orders evaporated. General Motors contributed by engaging in one of the most malicious rumor generations ever experienced by Detroit.

While Chrysler was always considered the "engineering company," since 1955, engineering had taken a back seat to Virgil Exner and his design group. The lackluster appeal of the Airflow had dampened the entire corporation. Virgil Exner's genius turned it all upside down. The public looked for styling, not engineering.

Still, for the 1960 model year, engineering had some stupendous "firsts."

  • alternator-small.gif
    First: AC alternator instead of a DC generator that kept electrical current flowing, even at idle, in a standard-production car.
  • First: Ram tuned regular production engines that got a "supercharged" effect without having an engine-driven blower.
  • First: A pair of overhead valve six cylinder engines that were canted 30 degrees to lower the hood lines.
  • First: Mass-produced unit bodies that were designed by use of computers; and outside sheet metal didn't have to be part of the overall structure for strength of the unit body.
  • First: A seven step series of body structure rust proofing bathes that employed the use of electrostatic charge to insure sealant bonding to the structure metal. About the only component of the body that wasn't dipped was the top of the roofs!

Yet, Virgil Exner again stole the thunder. For the third time, Virgil Exner had a clean sheet of paper that allowed him to redesign the entire corporate line of cars.

Was there jealousy, political chicanery, foul mutterings, and threats between departments, let alone the seperate divisions? Of course there was! Virgil Exner was not everyone's hero. Some felt he held far too much power. He was much like an 800 pound gorilla... he could sit wherever he wanted!


If I was able to look at some of the "stills" for the new designs being sent out from Highland Park, a whole lot of other people had seen them as well. If Exner had been able to stick to his "S" series designs, they might carried over with the public. The first of the "S" series style was the 1960 Valiant. It didn't look like anything else that had ever come out of Detroit. However, the public accepted the Valiant's looks, putting some 194,292 first year models on the road!

I had seen the 1962 proposal for the standard Plymouth. It looked about the same as what was wrought, except it was based on a 119 inch wheelbase, and had some styling techniques that would have carried the car differently.

In the late summer of 1959, Dad was flying to two or three meetings a week, bringing back a materials, phamplets, and pictures of the 1960 models. He also had some photos of the proposed 1961 and 1962 cars.


One brand new model in particular had everyone talking: the Valiant. It was going to be marketed as a stand alone brand to compete against the Ford Falcon and Chevrolet Corvair. As we saw in 1958, the Valiant was based on Virgil Exner's XNR; out of that special was developed the "S" series of cars.

Exner was under the gun now. Like everyone else, he knew that the tail fin was a styling gimmick. It was also dead. He had to totally restyle the entire line. Most of the cars were 70% finalized for 1962, based on this "S" series; in many ways, the line took its cue from the Valiant. As my Dad had said, the Valiant was odd in its lines. It lacked symmetry. While it was a good car, the design took some getting used to. The 1962 "S" cars would have taken a whole lot of getting used to as well.

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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