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Inside Chrysler: the 1961 police cars and NASCAR

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 (retired) Sheriff's Department Lieutenant Curtis Redgap

The State Police rolled in with their usual request, and Chrysler sent off a half dozen different cars to test, mainly Plymouths and Dodge Darts. After ten days of tearing up the cars, the Troopers elected to stay with Plymouth again for 1961, using Savoy four-door sedans with the Dodge-based 383 4 barrel V-8 and dual exhausts, and 325 horsepower. They had heavy duty suspension packages that included sway bars and 15 inch tires, along with the 12 inch brakes and non-organic lining.

The Torqueflite equipped Savoys had a 3.21 sure-grip rear end. With the 383, this package lit out on a 8 second 0-60 time, broke the lights in the quarter mile at 15.2 and 89 miles an hour. Top speed was a touch over 125 miles an hour.

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Dodge finally put 12 inch brakes on its Pursuit models this year, having used 11 inch drums since 1956 - probably because in 1960, the Dart with the 12 inch brakes could outbrake the smaller 11-inch drums of the larger Polara Pursuit. It was just another oddity that existed at Chrysler. They continued with the "center plane" brake system, innovative in 1956, which was now outmoded for the speed of the cars. Valiant and Lancer were the only Chrysler cars with the far superior Bendix brake system, so far; in addition to having more stopping power, it used one wheel cylinder per brake, and eliminated the drive shaft parking/emergency brake.

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With Plymouth drivers unable to match bigger Chevy and Pontiac engines in NASCAR requirements, Chrysler let Plymouth have the 413 engine, as an option, without restriction, so that the Pettys could switch to the bigger 413s. Somewhere in the Trooper cars' run, the factory slipped in some Chrysler RB 413 engines, bored out with an output of only 350 horsepower.

There was only one Police Pursuit package offered in the Dodge line for 1961 and that was on the 118 inch wheelbase Dart; the Dart chassis was just a copy of the Plymouth, for which Dodge finally offered the 12 inch brakes. Dodge was also catching on to Plymouth's marketing techniques and offered different packages for different areas of police functions.

One area that they hadn't counted on was the enormous pressure for a 122 inch wheelbase Police Pursuit. Chrysler stepped up in 1961 by offering a Police Pursuit Pak on its 122 inch wheelbase Newport model. The "Chrysler Enforcer" it had all the good trappings of the Plymouth and Dodge Pursuit units, and was big, brawny and fast! There was only one engine, the 383 RB high performance V-8. It hauled the 4,400 pound Chrysler from rest to 60 miles per hour in 8.3 seconds, and romped through the quarter mile in 16.9 seconds, with a terminal trap speed of 86 miles an hour. With full gear, a 220 pound police officer, and fuel on board, it hit 131 miles an hour top speed.

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With its 12 by 2.5 inch non-fade metallic lined brakes, the Enforcer maintained its composure, stop after stop, abuse after abuse, with no whimpers, and no brake fade. This was the only Chrysler Corporation police pursuit with a 122 inch wheelbase. Dart and Plymouth were both at 118 inches.

Some state police agencies accepted the Chrysler, such as Missouri, which now had been using Dodges since 1953. However, Missouri bought a large quantity of Ford Interceptor 390s in 1961 as their primary enforcement class vehicle. Some other state policing agencies, convinced that only a 122 inch wheelbase car is worthy as a Patrol Class, accused Dodge of selling them out. Why, after Dodge had got done switching in 1957 to 122 inches of wheelbase, would you suddenly not offer a Pursuit package on the only 122 inch wheelbase model that you have?

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Have you ever faced a panel of publicly elected servants, each convinced they can hang onto the tax dollar better than the next guy, in an effort to sell them a fleet of Chryslers where they have seen only Dodges previously? It was like trying to find heat in the middle of an Arctic glacier with a howling blizzard going on. So, enter the Leviathan. The Golden State. They wanted Dodges. They wanted 122 inches of wheelbase. They wanted their usual Pursuit Package. Guess what? They got 'em!

1,220 of the 1961 Dodge Polaras became CHiPS. They were powered by the 383 low block Dodge V-8 which was supposed to have 330 horsepower. If you could find one (one has been restored for the police show car circuit), you would have one of the rarest MoPars ever built. It would not be the last time that CHP got Dodge to build cars that they didn't have.

Lee Petty and Richard Petty: Plymouth at NASCAR

It wasn't going to be a very good year at Level Cross, North Carolina. The 383 V-8 could not match the Super Duty 421 cubic inch V-8 fielded by Pontiac, nor the 409 cubic inch Chevrolet V-8. Ford wasn't doing so well with its 390 cubic inch engine either, although the slippery shape of the Starliner let the Fords run well in the draft.

The 1961 Petty-built Plymouths were strong, but they weren't always the best of handlers, and instability sometimes made for problems. Even equipped with a Maurice Petty tuned 413, the Plymouths just did not have the top end speed to stay up front in a long race, and were nowhere at a place like Daytona.

In the 1961 hundred-mile qualifying race, Richard Petty got hit by Junior Johnson's out of control Pontiac at the Daytona track. The impact sent Petty's #43 to riding along on the guard rail, until the Plymouth went airborne and catapulting skyward. Just that quick, it went out of sight, and slammed into the parking lot below the turn. Richard, intent on scrambling out of the tangled mess, twisted his ankle while running away from the car. That was his only injury, except for bits of broken glass in his eyes that he didn't notice until later.

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As he was exiting the Infield Care Center to have the glass fragments removed, he heard the track loudspeaker announce that #42 Plymouth, with driver Lee Petty, had gone over the guard rail in almost the same spot as Richard had done, after being tagged by John Beauchamp in a Chevrolet. Lee was at full throttle, whereas Richard had been partially slowed down. Plymouth #42 vaulted the guard rail and leapt out into the air. It slammed down into the parking lot, compressing the roof downwards, and the chassis upwards. The car looked like it had been placed in a crusher. Smoke curled up from several places under the hood. By the time rescue crews reached him, the three time NASCAR champion Lee Petty was near death.

To this day, neither Lee nor any member of the Petty family have discussed the extent or circumstances of Lee's injuries. However, they were certainly extensive, as he lay in the hospital for months. His first public appearance was over a year later in a race in April at Martinsville, Virginia. Lee made no more attempts in 1962. He was smart enough not to delude himself. He competed in some small races or drove relief a couple times in later years, but his career effectively ended in February 1961 at Daytona.

That meant that Plymouth was down to being represented by one car for most of 1961. The executives in Detroit had to deal with the new boss, Richard Petty. It is a credit to him that he finished 8th in NASCAR points that year. (A gentleman named Ned Jarrett won the NASCAR series that year, his first title.) While the Petty operation wasn't exactly rolling in money for 1961, it survived.

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