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Inside Chrysler: the 1961 cars

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

The model year 1960 closed on September 29, 1960, when the 1961 models hit the showrooms. They were another styling disaster. The Plymouth had an oddly pinched in massive grille that was said to have inspired 10,000 movie horror creatures. The rear looked like someone had tried to put a bustle on, and hung two flashlights on the sides of the car. But it was the Dodge that suffered the most.

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After Dodge's best year ever, the 1961 models were sad. They had a drooping hanging down front end, and reverse fin on the rear. They were just plain oddballs. As fast as people bought Dodge in 1960, they ran to Chevrolet or Ford in 1961. Both GM and Ford had restyles that had people running to their showrooms.

The 1961 DeSoto car was a styling disaster, but in any case, almost before the model run started, Chrysler put the nails in the lid of the coffin for DeSoto. On November 18, 1960, with a terse 165 word statement, DeSoto was gone. Just like that. 3,034 had been built in the 1961 model year. They were not pretty, with a sort of two tiered grill. We got stuck with three of them, when Chrysler backed out on the price guarantee. We sold them for pure profit, and Chrysler never pursued the matter.

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I did my best on opening night to not be available on the floor. To me the 1961s were just ugly, and I was not proud to be associated with them.

Opening night for the 1961 models was underwhelming to say the least. For the first time in years, Grandpa elected to stay in Florida. He said he just didn't feel up to it. Dad asked him what kind of car he wanted for 1961. Grandpa said that he was enjoying the 1960 DeSoto so much that he was going to keep it another year. Dad figured that when Grandpa was feeling better, he would get something else. He wouldn't.

We had a lot of tire kickers. The only thing that was selling was the Valiant. New for 1961 was a sharp two door hardtop (not pictured). We moved seven Valiants opening night, a good sign.

We also sold two Chryslers from the showroom. The big Chrysler had been heavily facelifted. Its grille had been turned upside down, and the headlights were canted, or "slanted," depending on how you choose to look at it.

Chrysler also elected to move a smaller model into the mid price range. Called the "Newport," it rode on the 122 wheelbase of the Dodge and DeSoto. With a base price of $2,960, it quickly became very popular, being some $200 cheaper than DeSoto!

We did sell two Plymouths. One was the Fury 2 door hardtop model and Dad's cousin, Harry bought it. His had the Sonoramic Golden Commando 383 engine in it. It flew! Mrs. Beacheum brought her 1960 Dart back, took one look at the 1961 Dart, and elected to return to Plymouth.

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Dodge had rushed a companion make into production that was largely a Valiant with Dodge cloning on it. The Lancer came off as being better styled. Pinning all its hopes on the success of the Dart and Lancer, the Corporation cut the large Dodge to just one model, the Polara.

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The Imperial had gotten rid of its "toilet seat" rear deck, but, had acquired some odd styling quirks like free standing headlights, along with taillights that looked like they had been stuck on the car as an afterthought. The fins soared higher than ever on the '61. They didn't resemble a luxury car. More like a garish testament to better times.

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Inside the design studio, there was a terrible state of affairs. The Newberg imposed downsizing, along with the weird gimmicks that Virgil Exner had tried to tie onto the Plymouth and Dodge cars for 1962, was causing great consternation. There was no time to change the tooling for most of the major components. As a result, the 1962s were as Exner himself said, like "plucked chickens." They were ugly, mud fence ornery ugly.

To complicate an already complicated multitude of problems came edicts from the head office. Design the car so that Plymouth, Dodge, Valiant and Lancer can all share the same body shell! It is a good thing that the guys at the studio were as good as they were because the 1962 models could have ended up looking even more ugly than they were. Curved side glass was ordered eliminated, along with subjecting the cars to a certain total for all the glass area. Bumpers were to be short and not wrapped around.

Things started to get ugly. Tempers went short, hours went long, problems were created when new ones were thought to be solved. For the first time in all of its history, Chrysler Design went to double shifts! Then someone up in the Ivory Tower decided to help save time, Plymouth and Dodge had to be merged. Hours of design were junked when the metal prototypes were brought in and then rejected, time and again. Then just like the 1961 models, time ran out. There wasn't any more time. They were forced to go with what they had.

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In July 1961, L.L. Colbert handed in his resignation. Apparently, he never looked back. This opened the way for Lynn A. Townsend, an accountant by trade, previously an administrative vice-president, and apparently a "car guy."

Townsend was horrified at the 1961 models, with Dodge sales heading for the basement. The reverse fin design was a disaster. Townsend half heartedly endorsed Exner, but still kept his options open. In the meantime, the 1963 models were fairly well locked up, at least in Exner's mind. A few preliminary designs for the 1964s were also on the walls.

Shortly after Lynn Townsend became President, he called for a national dealer meeting. His accountant sensibility was offended by the state of affairs. Model changeover was in progress for the 1962 models; a lot of franchise dealers had no clue what the 62s looked like. Townsend held them off until the very end of the meeting. He was attempting to inject some sense of control over the corporation and the dealers.

There was something wrong. The 1961 model Chrysler Newport had been a runaway success; over 96,000 Chryslers had left the factory, making it the highest total for Chrysler marques since 1957. However, it was at the expense of its own siblings and not the competition.

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Dodge sold 14,032 Polaras from a base price of $2,970 (lower than the DeSoto at $3,190), but the Newport Chrysler was based at $2,965! Smart shoppers grabbed the Newport in droves, wisely since the more prestigious name was less expensive. Plymouth dropped from its fourth place finish in 1960 to a level that it had never been before, sixth. Dodge plummeted down from fifth to ninth. I can't imagine what the totals would have made them look like if Valiant and Lancer had not been included in the figures.

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At that meeting, there had been a chance to restructure things and put it right for once. It was an opportunity missed. About 1,100 DeSoto dealers (now defunct) were up for grabs. There was a half hearted effort to reserve those dealers exclusively for Plymouth, as promised back in 1957. It never went anywhere. Instead the DeSoto franchises were invited into the Chrysler-Plymouth fold, a division that had continued until Daimler announced Plymouth's death in 2000.

Once that seemed to be settled, Townsend unveiled the pictures of the 1962 models. A roar of disapproval went through the meeting hall. Over twenty dealers threw their franchises in that day, never to return to Chrysler. To further make the matter worse, Dodge was entering 1962 without a car for the medium priced class. DeSoto was gone, leaving that niche open, and the only medium priced car on Chrysler's plate was the 122 inch wheelbase Newport. Due to Newberg's panic, Dodge was now riding on the Plymouth 116 inch wheelbase, not even considered a "standard" size car. How could Chrysler allow this to happen? From now on, Dodge was not looked upon as an upgrade from Plymouth, but an alternative to Plymouth, creating its own competition within its own corporation. In the end, both Dodge and Plymouth were hurt, and still are, to this day.

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