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Inside Chrysler: the 1959 Cars and the two 383s

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

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The 1959 cars arrived at the end of October 1958. Introduction day was similar to that of 1958, except we scored a couple hits that night, which was a good sign.

The quality control methods were clearly better on the 1959 cars. Seats, interior materials, paint, trim match, and other visible items were all far better than the previous two years. They should have been. Engineers had worked their hearts out making running line changes to get quality back under control. The 1959 models were heavily face lifted remakes of the 1957-58 models; the chassis were the same, and the body shells were the same. There were improvements throughout the entire line, but to call them "new" stretched it a bit.

The twin 383s

Hemi Andersen wrote that there were 383 two-barrels on the 1959 Windsor and Saratoga... the only RB two barrels.

As an example of Chrysler's chaotic bureaucracy, 1959 saw the introduction of the 383 cubic inch V-8 - one for the Chrysler line, and another for the Dodge line. Did you hear me say two? Yes, two different engines with the same displacement, for the same company (GM and Ford, in fairness, would later confuse owners with multiple 350s and 351s).

The Dodge boys had bored out the 361 "B" block to 383 cubic inches for more torque. The 383 soldiered on until 1971, a mainstay of the larger cars, and then was rebored to 400 cubic inches, continuing for some time in that size.

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Chrysler had called for one line to be devoted to its new, highly potent raised-block 413 engines, used only in the top of the line cars: New Yorker, 300, and Imperial. The Trenton plant, according to engine man Willem Weertman, simply could not produce enough B-engines for everyone, with one line devoted to the RB; they could run 413s and then alter the line to run 383s, but the time wasted would destroy production schedules. Engineers quickly went to the drawing boards and cut the bore on the 413, creating the same 383 cubic inch displacement as the regular B-engines, as a temporary fix until capacity could be addressed.

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As for why they created the new RB engine with 383 cubic inches, that remains a mystery, when it would have been easy to drop it down to (say) 380, or up to (say) 386. Was anyone paying attention at the forge plant? At the Production level? At the Board Room? If they were, did anyone care?

Hemi Anderson wrote that Canadian Chryslers used the Dodge 383, not having the same production constraints. DeSotos also used the Dodge engine.

The mechanics definitely cared; Mr. Greene, our warranty administrator and chief mechanic, cussed every time a new 383 Chrysler went out the door. (Fortunately, like all Chrysler engines, it was extremely reliable). So, today, if you get a 1959 or 1960 Chrysler with an original 383, many of the parts will not match the Dodge or corporate 383. My advice is to just switch to the Dodge engine. Even though purists may howl, it will be much cheaper to rebuild the (lighter) corporate 383 as opposed to the RB Chrysler-only, two-year-only 383.

The fins run wild

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Other than facelifts and the wedge engines, Chrysler stayed pat in 1959. Virgil Exner's tailfin influence had run amok on other car lines, outside of Chrysler. The most garish, and outright stupid, finned theme was the 1959 Chevrolet. Whoever was responsible for that should have never been allowed to draw another line for a car design. It was outrageous! Yet, somehow they managed to convince 1,428,962 people to buy one!

Chevrolet wasn't alone in absurd fins in 1959. It had a brother in Cadilliac and a close cousin in Buick. Over at Studebaker, the Hawks were spreading some funny looking tail feathers of their own, and American Motors Ramblers needed help.

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Everyone that was aware of trends, was just about "finned" out with the 1959 models. Still, Virgil Exner's 1960 models were already approved with the machining being built to hammer them together. But we had to get through the 1959 cars yet.

300D Hemi vs 300E Wedge

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Grandpa had come up from Florida to help with the introduction, hoping for another start like we had in 1957. He drove his 1958 300D, and had people standing in line asking if he was going to trade, and when they could buy it. He wasn't quite sure yet. He thought he would give up his performance image for the Imperial two-door hardtop we had on the floor. It was the lower priced Southampton model, but it had every gadget on it that Chrysler built. It was obvious that DeSoto had broken his heart, and would no longer be his car of choice after many years of driving DeSotos.

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Just prior to the January introduction of the 300E, Grandpa decided on the Imperial. He said of the 300E, "Chrysler took its balls away." He was referring to the replacement of the 392 Hemi with the 413 cubic inch wedge head V-8; even some car magazines panned Chrysler for discontinuing the Hemi, though the 413 was a stupendous engine in its own right.

With a short 18-month development-to-production time, it is a testament to the enginers that the 413 was not laden with problems. It proved to be one of Chrysler's best, powering luxury cars with smooth, efficient power, and becoming a national terror on race tracks and drag strips.

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Motor Trend put a 1959 300E against the 1958 300D. It was no match; the new 413 put out more torque in the lower end of the scale, where you needed it and felt it. The engine was also 120 pounds lighter, and less costly to make. The 300E was quicker in all tests at any speed except absolute observed top end; it ran to 60 in 8.2 seconds, pulled the 1/4 mile in 17.2 seconds at 92 miles an hour. Top speed, flat out, hair on fire, balls to the wall, was 142 miles an hour. Not bad for a 5,400 pound sumo type.

The 300D, in contrast, took 9.6 seconds to 60 and 17.9 seconds at 89 miles an hour for the 1/4. It had an observed top speed of 145 miles an hour. Andy Granatelli, in the only bright spot for the 300D, had set a Bonneville Salt Flat record of 157 miles an hour in a specially prepared 1958 model.

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Fleet and retail sales

Fleet sales in 1959 were good. Word was getting around. The State Police, Sheriff, and the City all choose the Plymouth for 1959. Several other sheriff departments also choose Plymouth this year.

One of the southern counties had chosen Dodge Pursuits for 1959. It was one of the first Dodge Pursuits to come through our store. Poor Plymouth. Selling thousands of their Police Packages, and a dozen Dodge Pursuits were still the talk around the store for weeks.

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The Plymouth state bid was the 4 barrel 361 engine with dual exhausts, Torqueflite, heater/defroster, 12 inch brakes, heavy duty chassis, heavy control shock absorbers, sway bars, and upgraded 15 inch wheels from the Dodge package. So equipped, the 1959 Plymouth Pursuit would run to 60 miles an hour in 8 seconds (incidentally, beating the larger-engined but much heavier Chrysler 300E). The 1/4 mile was 16.4 seconds and 84 miles an hour. Observed top speed was over 125 miles an hour.

The Plymouth easily kept up with, and beat, its big brother Dodge. The 383 equipped Dodge Pursuit needed 9.3 seconds to 60. It pulled the 1/4 at 17.1 seconds at 88 miles an hour. Top speed for the Dodge was higher, at 131 miles an hour.

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Christmas 1959 was good for us, though nowhere near the record levels of 1957. The bonus checks were big enough to put smiles on everyone's faces. For 1959, we sold 86 Imperials , 140 Chryslers, a bare 46 DeSotos, 157 Dodges, and 458 Plymouths - the latter, a little short of last year. There were no Adventurers, only 300Es, and the Fury was now just another model. Total cars: 887, up slightly from the 871 of 1958.

Other parts of this series

More by Curtis Redgap:

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