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Inside Chrysler, Part 6: 1956 Plymouth Fury and Daytona Speed Weeks

by Curtis Redgap

I am by no means an expert, and 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, and I nearly cringe each time I open them as they appear so fragile.

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Late in the spring of 1955, Dad made many harried overnight trips to various cities, including flying into Windsor, and then driving across the River into Highland Park. Then, he would drive back, and fly home from Windsor. I was insatiably curious, and the reason for all the intrigue became clearer as the introduction date for the 1956 models approached.

I was more car crazy than could be expected for a normal kid, but I always got to be a local hero since I had pictures to show of cars from all makers, way before the new models for any manufacturer came out. I would have all the data on new cars memorized as soon as I could get my hands on the materials. I didn't know how these photos and materials were obtained, but I presumed that it was all right. Dad never said not to show any of them or talk about them. What little I could spread around certainly would not have much impact.

There was one trip, late in the summer of 1955, that Dad came back from St. Louis. Plymouth sales were particularly high there. He was quiet. Usually he gushed out information about his trips. He sorta looked away, and said that his usual friends inside the Chrysler offices were acting oddly. They were not forthcoming in what was really happening, especially about Plymouth. He told me that he believed that the board had voted not to have Plymouth build a special performance model, along with, of course, Imperial. He also said that apparently the ChryCo "striped pants boys" also killed any chance of Plymouth building a car to compete against Thunderbird or Corvette. Yet, that everyone knew that Plymouth had been vigorously pursuing a special unit, code named "FA" to counter Chevrolet and Ford. (The code name may have stemmed from a project car of Virgil Exner called the "Fire Arrow.")

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My Dad said there was a big game going at Plymouth, with high stakes and careers on the line. No one was telling. He promised me that if he found out anymore, he would let me know right away. Dad always managed to make me feel like I was the most important person in his life.

It is not known exactly how the decision to make performance models for DeSoto and Dodge came about. It may have been badgering from the divisions, especially Plymouth; or perhaps a decision from the newly discovered, and muscular, Marketing Division, to build them because of the floor traffic the C-300 model had generated. When the first C-300 had arrived at our dealership, it got so much attention, that for a full week, you could not move freely around the sales floor! It just seemed that everyone wanted to get a look at the country's most powerful car. And it was the most powerful car built in America. And as Tom McCaHill from Mechanix Illustrated said in his test, it was "as strong as Grant's Tomb, and 130 times as fast."

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The people at Plymouth knew that if they could generate that kind of traffic with a super car of their own, their third spot in the production race would be guaranteed. The board of directors, though, was in chaos; and they felt that Plymouth was the "family transportation" and a performance model was way outside the image Plymouth had. Little did they know just how far and fast Plymouth had gone with the project.

In early February 1955, Dad and a bunch of Plymouth folks had met in Windsor, Canada. The Windsor plant had just completed a $29 million engine forge building expansion, and they had the engine that Plymouth wanted: a new 303 cubic inch polysphere head V-8 being readied for the Dodge Royal and the Plymouth Mayfair in Canada. It was, indeed, the 301 cubic inch engine introduced in 1955 in the Chrysler Windsor line as the "Spitfire." (The 1956 Chrysler Windsor's 301 was a de-bored
331, with poly heads replacing the Hemi. These engines shared crankshafts, while the 277 and 303 shared another).

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I don't know why, but it was common at Chrysler to fiddle with engine size between car lines and countries. Just enough so that it would be truly different. The Canadian 303 engine - which, though close in size to Chrysler's 301, was based on the 277 - was not available to Plymouth in the United States. Still, the NASCAR size limit for Plymouth's class was 305 cubic inches at the time, so Plymouth engineers wanted the 303 for the "FA" project. (In 1957, Chrysler used the 277 in the Plaza; they bored it out and made a different 301 for Savoy and Belvedere. The Fury would move to a 318, made from a stroked 301 - a bored-and-stroked 277.)

The negotiations to obtain the 303 engine from Canada weren't really negotiations at all. The sales folks in Windsor were practically drooling to have such a car, and the Chrysler Canada leaders were likely overjoyed to be able to sell more engines, given the small size of the Canadian market. It was all locked up and unanimous! The real deal was getting the engine to the production line in the United States, without the Board being alerte
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On the trip to St. Louis, he learned that the Board was onto the FA project, now renamed "Fury," and they intended to kill it. Many were angry, considering the upstarts over at Plymouth to be mutineers. They believed, probably rightly, that they had a secret den of plotters.

Dad received the first of many harried, hurried, whispered phone calls describing the quickly escalating scenario at Highland Park. He and grandpa went on many long walks together after Dad received some of those calls, some of them quite animated, revealing a lot of agitation.

A plan must have been set, because Dad took off, and was gone for a week. He didn't even give Mom his itinerary, as he usually did. My grandpa was tight lipped and concerned. Finally, Dad got home. He must have pulled in a lot of IOUs, favors, and hand shakes. He was exhausted.

He never said exactly what he did, but I believe he pulled together a powerful coalition of dealers, suppliers, and stock holders to back the project. The Board voted not to kill it, but to turn Fury into an "experimental" project - which was probably better than if it had been allowed to become a regular model, because it opened up cash that would not have otherwise been made available. Through Henry King, Virgil Exner gave the Fury his full backing; since Exner at the time was very highly regarded, that made the difference. Once the vote was taken, congratulations went all around, and the ChryCo board, somewhat reluctantly, but with increasing fervor, jumped on the Fury band wagon.

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Then, on January 10, 1956, the Plymouth Fury was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show. Dad had taken off on the 8th to make sure he got there. While it was being unveiled in Chicago, another Fury was streaking across the sand at Daytona Beach Florida. It blasted the timers for a two-way average of 124.611 miles an hours. Better, it took the standing mile at 82.54 miles an hour. Not bad for a sorta pudgy Plymouth that weighed 3,650 pounds, wet. The coup-de-grace for Chevrolet and Ford had been born, and what a delivery it had.

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Sadly, it was not to be. Plymouth was told that it could not compete in regular stock classes at Daytona Speed Weeks in February. The Fury had not been in production for 90 days. You cannot imagine the black haze that settled over the Plymouth division. Bill France was hung in effigy in several places at Plymouth dealers, assembly plants, and at the Chrysler Headquarters in Highland Park.

Some then pointed out that the Fury had come from an "experimental" project, so why not run it at Daytona as a Factory Experimental? There was serious competition in the class, but with a pure stock speed of 124 miles an hour, it seemed that the Fury could whip all comers. A car was secured, and its makeover began.

There had been no real idea about cam timing, lift or duration. My Dad knew that his nephew James had a wicked cam set up for a MoPar engine, but would it work for the Fury? The special cam was placed in the hands of Greyhound Bus Lines for delivery to Highland Park. In the meantime, the heads were milled to bring the compression ratio up to 10 to 1. There wasn't any time to test the ports for flow. Had there been, as later polysphere engines were, there might have been a substantial increase in power.

A special Chrysler intake manifold was fitted with two huge four barrel carbs. New exhaust manifolds were added to match the 180 degree firings of the engine, like an extractor system without the blower. The camshaft would not fit the 303 profile, but using its lobe pattern, they ground a new camshaft that would fit. James is still proud of that.

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Ten days before the February Speed Weeks in Daytona, a revamped Plymouth Fury rolled out into the Michigan Sunshine. The Chelsea Proving Grounds had never heard a Plymouth the likes of this one. It boomed as it went through some break in miles and full throttle run ups. The engineers were all agreed: no top speed runs until it hit the sand at Daytona. They knew it was a winner. The one-model-only Factory Experimental Fury was loaded inside the cargo bay of a chartered DC-7 and flown to Daytona Beach.

As expected, the big 1956 Chrysler 300B blew everything else off the beach, including the vaunted Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird. It set a two way record of 139.373 miles an hour.

DeSoto nearly committed the ultimate heresy by running the Adventurer faster than the 300B. It had a one way run of 144 miles an hour, but was far slower going back the other way. It went through the timer at 120 miles an hour, for an average speed of 132, probably all that the conservative management at DeSoto wanted. The big pride for DeSoto was that it had been chosen to pace the Indianapolis 500 race on Memorial Day.

The stock Dodge with the D-500 engine boomed out a two way average of 128 miles an hour
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Then came the moment that we all had really been waiting for. It seemed like it was forever, but suddenly, glistening in the sun, was the Fury. It seemed to just shine a little bit brighter than anything else on the beach that day.

The Plymouth engineers fussed over the car a few moments. Then the driver, Phil Walters, took the Fury slowly down to the start of the timing lane. The white Fury seemed to disappear into the sand; it screamed over the sand so fast, that to look at it was almost like a distorted picture. You couldn't quite focus fully on it. It was moving like the wind, the big engine roaring like a low passing DC-7. With a resounding boom and a flash of gold, it was gone, the engine pounding out its deep belly staccato tune.

The timers acted like they were in slow motion. Finally ... the numbers rolled over. A gasp went through the small crowd. Then it went into a loud cheer. One way... 143.596 miles an hour! The fastest Plymouth ever built in history. Even faster than the 300B.

Reporters and writers broke into the Chrysler engineer group and handshakes and congratulations were going all around. The corporate types from ChryCo's board were visibly upset over the Fury's high speed being better than the 300. All the divisions had been warned. DeSoto had nearly got its ears pinned, but DeSoto management made sure that its second run was slow enough to keep the speed below its brother Chrysler.

Then the big Fury started back. The Plymouth boys took note of the displeasure from the Board, and went right ahead anyway. This would be the run to beat all other runs. Plymouth people deserved this chance; but halfway through the run, approaching the timing lane, the engine started to die. Phil tried every trick he knew to get the engine to pick back up. It broke the timer at 129.119 miles an hour.

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Plymouth engineers hurried to examine the car when it came back to the pits, and discovered was that a defective fuel cap had caused a vacuum in the fuel tank and starved the engine for gas. The next day, with a new cap, and without NASCAR sanctioning, the big Fury roared through the timer on a third run at 147.236 miles an hour. On the return trip, it broke the lights at 149.124 miles an hour! It was an unofficial average of 148.180. It would have been good enough to set the record. [Officially, Bill Stroppe, in a Mercury, set the new 1956 FX record at 147.260.]

Plymouth's achievement was not advertised - nor was the Fury. Several dealers were set to put out their own advertising, but a friend from Highland Park warned them off. It was being said that anyone stepping up to show Plymouth in a performance light would begin to suffer delivery and parts shortages.

Even at that, 4,485 of the beautiful 1956 Fury models were sold - an achievement for a specialty car on a nine month run. It outsold the high-priced 300B, which only managed to move 1,103 units, and easily beat DeSoto, which managed only 996 Adventurer models. (Why DeSoto didn't just build four more for an even 1,000 is a corporate mystery.)

The TorqueFlite

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Before leaving the 1956 model year, we should cover the new Torqueflite transmission.

Though slow to get a fully automatic transmission on the market, Chrysler wasted no time in getting beyond its two-speed Powerflite. The Torqueflite was the best automatic transmission ever produced to that time, and, for many years afterwards. It was simple, reliable, dependable, quiet, efficient, economical, and gave Chrysler cars a performance advantage.

The Torqueflite centered on the simple Simpson planetary gear set (named after its prolific inventor); you could increase the torque capability by machining more "beef" into the gear set.

Late 1956 Chrysler 300Bs, Imperials, some other senior Chryslers, and possibly some DeSotos were given the three speed Torqueflite. Chrysler had even engineered a conversion kit for MoPar fans that wanted the flexibility and capability of the new Torqueflite.

Ford Motor Company attempted to quietly buy the rights to make a sort of "copycat." The story was quickly picked up by the automotive magazines, who claimed that Ford had paid Chrysler $7.5 million - a big chunk of change in 1957 - despite already having purchased the rights to the Simpson gears. The direct result was the 1958 Ford Cruise-O-Matic, heavier than the TorqueFlite, with more parts, keeping the Ford clutch band controls. Early ones, especially those put behind performance engines, liked to split the case right down the middle, until a new design for 1961. For the most part, though, the Cruise-O-Matic was reliable, and gave little trouble with regular maintenance. It certainly outshone Chevrolet's 1957 "Turboglide."

Pushing the Fury and getting pushed back

Shortly after the Plymouth Fury was pushed through, a new Zone Manager was appointed for our area. There had only been one spot of trouble over the many years that our family had operated this dealership, back in 1929. Since Dad was a direct factory outlet, he got what he needed or wanted. No Zone Manager or District Manager ever interfered; they didn't even maintain offices near us. My Dad kept his dealings so far above board that he was often called to write ethics lessons for other dealers. His was Chrysler's role model dealership.

This new guy showed up and swaggered around like he owned the place, starting on a Saturday, normally a relaxed time. The mechanics were cleaning up work they could not complete during the week, doing the hard jobs that needed extra care to fix things right the first time. (My dad went out of his way to make sure this happened. He knew no more frustration than to have something come back that was supposed to be fixed. He and the warranty team prided themselves on getting things right the first visit, and the car until they were satisfied it was correct. Most of them had over ten years experience.)

You can't imagine how quickly this manager got chased off the lot! He had no business there. Chrysler only owned the inventory, and they paid to keep it at Dad's lot. At any time, Dad could have pulled the plug and told Chrysler to take their cars and get off his property. That is one of the reasons that the relationship worked so well. One of the things Chrysler paid was transportation, allowing Dad to pass this saving along to his customers. They also didn't charge him inventory fees, interest on any of the cars, nor any back end fees. Given that advantage, Dad used it to keep his prices low on all the new cars and trucks. He didn't advertise that much because his business was repeat or word of mouth.

That all appeared to end when this new Zone Manager showed up. He was an insufferable man who intended to show Dad how to run a car dealership. When he got tossed out a couple times, he started to throw his weight around by interfering with deliveries, parts, and fleet cars. It took Dad awhile to figure it out, but when he did, he made several phone calls; finally, Grandpa went to our lawyer, Mr. Crossbridge, whose retainer had been a new DeSoto every year. To get some attention, a lawsuit had to be filed, and an injunction issued. The issues wound their way through the chicanery of a corporation in chaos, and finally, after several weeks of court room maneuvering and political bickering, the Zone Manager was gone, never to be heard from again. However, the wear and tear on Dad was terrible.

Just after school vacation started in the summer of 1955, Mom went home to find Dad collapsed at the kitchen table. Never will anyone convince me that there is no God in this world, for Mom usually never came back home after she left for work. She had forgotten her office keys. Dad, who never took a day off early, had not felt well most of the night. He had come home about 8:30. He had told his staff, and Grandpa, that he was going to a meeting, so they had no clue. Who knows what might have happened if Mom hadn't come back for her keys.

Mom called her brother-in-law, my Uncle Harlan, who had just been sitting down at his desk from his morning rounds. Uncle Harlan drove across town in a roaring, siren blasting, record time; he had radioed the city ambulance corp, and their big Packard ambulance was hot on Uncle's Patrol car bumper when he hit the end of our street. The ambulance was dispatched over the Fire Department radio, so they too knew who it was, and the entire 1st, and 3rd Fire battalion of 6 pumpers, two rescue trucks and the hook and ladder company also came screaming towards our house. I stood at the end of our block and watched, literally, almost the entire city emergency services roar by me heading for our house! I had arrived at the lot to play ball. Suddenly, I was overcome by an uncontrollable urge to get back home. I ran home, getting on the corner of my street just in time to see a city Police Unit with an ambulance virtually tied to its bumper, scream by me at speeds I had only seen at Daytona Beach! I froze as I recognized where the units had stopped. Just as I gathered my courage to move, police cars and fire engines all screaming with sirens, roaring engines, and guys yelling, came pouring onto our street, blocking the entire length off to any sort of traffic. One of the officers recognized me and took me home. When I rushed into the kitchen, Dad was on the emergency gurney all covered up. He was talking in his strong voice, and he smiled at me, and reached for my hand. He assured me he was going to be all right, and that I should look after my mother. Then he was gone.

Diagnostic techniques were nowhere as good as they are today. Since Dad did not exhibit any signs of a heart attack, it went undiagnosed. This was just attributed to the recent stress. After a week in the hospital, Dad came home. He was ordered not to work. Talk about a man lost for a couple days. But, then he had a session with Grandpa. I don't know what they talked about. Dad promoted his top salesman, a trustworthy gentleman that had been there since 1928 when Grandpa opened the doors, to General Manager. Gave him a hefty salary, and with that spent the entire summer becoming my best friend!

His calls were screened. The mail was screened. His visitors were screened. The funny part of it, as I recalled later, was that he seemed to truly enjoy being away from the hustle. He didn't quite give up everything, however. We made several trips to North Carolina that summer to visit. Mom never knew, or at least she never let on, that the trunk of the car was full of motor parts Dad bought with his own money for my Cousin's racing engines. We spent a lot of time watching James put some of those Plymouth and Dodge specials through their paces. He was establishing a working relationship with his down the road neighbors, the Petty clan. No, I was never lucky enough to meet Lee or Richard. However, their reputation was growing. They were kind enough to send a lot of work to James. He was awfully good, even if I do say so myself.

The summer ended, I headed back to school, and Dad was given a clean bill of health to return to work just before to the introduction of the 1956 Chrysler lines (in August 1955).

I hope you enjoyed this installment. I know it was a long one, however, 1956 was a defining year. Even better will be the 1957 models. You cannot imagine the excitement they generated when they were unveiled. Until next time, thanks for reading and please, send me your comments.

- Curtis Redgap

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