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Inside Chrysler: The Much-Improved 1958 Cars

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

The 1958 Chrysler models were largely just facelifts. Given Virgil Exner's brilliance, it can be taken that he planned it that way. Since the 1957 were gorgeous, the 1958 cars were evolutionary and cleaned up some of the '57 questions.

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Just a few weeks into production of the 1957 cars, the quality problems had become obvious. To Chrysler's credit, the engineers charged right in and began to get on-the-line fixes to areas that needed help. Even before the 1958 cars came out, there had been many fixes. The windshield leaks had been rigged with plugs, nipples, and small rubber hoses in a kit. The rear window had been rigged in the same way. The actual leaks had not truly been stopped, but at least the water, for the most part, ran out into the wheel wells instead of on your feet or your luggage in the trunk.

Extra braces were put into the structure, and the body was built with larger rivets and heavier gauge sheet metal; longer posts were tried for the rear view mirrors but the vibration never truly went away on any of the dash mirrors. Extra sound deadening was liberally applied, especially in the floor pans and rear trunk, and seat springs and materials were completely changed.

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The $2 rubber boot that had been taken away by the "bean counters" to cover the end of the Torsion Bars was quickly reintroduced. It prevented dirt from entering the rear of the bar seat area and causing it to bind and break. It certainly did not prevent quality control complaints from occurring, but it did help. The 1959 models were also discernibly better, except for rust.

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The engineering of the car bodies, with rapidly changing designs and little time for testing, greatly contributed to the problem, along with the lack of anti-rust treatments. The net result was that Chrysler garnered a poor reputation.

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Editorial note: 1958 was also the first year for several advancements:

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    The Sure-Grip differential, which, when one wheel slipped, redirected power to the other wheel, to avoid swerving when traction was regained. Sure-Grip could be ordered with any engine from the six to the Golden Commando and with any transmission combination except overdrive.
  • The Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor, with reduced height, aluminum castings, and a throttle body integral to the main body. The step-up rods, pistons, and springs were also more accessible, and could be serviced without removing the air horn. On Plymouth, Dodge, and DeSoto cars, they used crossover automatic chokes; on Chrysler and Imperial, they used integral automatic chokes. The venturis were replaceable.
  • A new, compact full-time power steering system
  • The B-engines, with full-length water jackets and a more accessible distributor, were launched; Chrysler's 350 has helped many Mopar fans to win bar bets.
The 1958 cars go on sale

1958 was underwhelming on introduction day. So it was also over at Ford, which had undergone a considerable facelift and was in trouble for the styling of the rear of the car. Ford loyalists said that the 1958 models did not look like Fords. The hot ticket that year was the brand new 1958 Chevrolet. The two-door Impala was a rich looking automobile, which helped sales considerably.

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While I still say that the 1958 Plymouth Fury 2 door was every bit a champion as the Chevrolet, sales figures show which was the true winner. Our big night amounted to a bust. No sales on introduction day. It was not a good sign. After two very slow months, Grandpa headed back to Florida for a long needed rest. We didn't see him again until Spring.

Fleet sales were excellent, running much like the 1957 models, but retail had nose-dived.

The big Chrysler 300D, along with the DeSoto Adventurer and new Plymouth Fury, were all introduced in January of 1958. They drew curiosity seekers, but not as many as last year.

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My Dad switched his 1957 Fury over to a 1958 Chrysler New Yorker. It had a price tag of $4,538 including that rare option, air conditioning. Chrysler owned AirTemp, and capitalized on that by introducing air conditioning across the entire car line in 1955. Prior to that, it had been an option on the Imperial in 1952, coming in the Chrysler line in 1953 (it had been planned for 1943 but only made it as far as the brochures). The 1958 air conditioner was significant because everything was now under the hood instead of having some components in the trunk.

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The 392 cubic inch Hemi with a 4 barrel and dual exhausts was standard and cranked out 345 eager horses. After the excitement of the Fury, the Chrysler seemed like a tank. Grandpa took a Chrysler 300D to Florida with him. He was not pleased at all with the 1958 Adventurer DeSoto, and its "gutless" 361 cubic inch wedge-head V-8 engine, even though later tests showed that the 361 wedge was marginally quicker than the 345 Hemi due to higher torque.

The standard DeSoto engine was the big block 350 cubic inch V-8s. The Dodge lines had also lost their Hemi. With the AMA ban on anything to do with racing, Chrysler didn't even bother to make any special models for NASCAR qualification.

The facelift helped on the Dodge cars. The base engine was a 325 cubic inch V-8 with polysphere heads and a two-barrel carb. Then you could move up to a pair of new big block V-8s of 350 cubic inches, one with a two-barrel and the other with a four-barrel and dual exhausts, good for 285 horsepower.

This is where Dodge began to blur its quickly narrowing mid-price niche. The DeSoto 361 cubic inch wedge engine was also offered on the Dodge. In the D-500 form with 8 barrel carburetion, it had 333 horsepower. Now Dodge was the darling of large state Highway Patrol Departments, including California, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio and Texas.

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Plymouth's new facelift did help the grill area, correcting the pan. Models were unchanged. The Fury came in a color they dubbed "Buckskin" instead of eggshell white. Under the hood came the 318 cubic inch, 290 horsepower V-800 as in 1957.

This engine was unique to the Fury. I still don't understand why, since the optional engine option was a big block 350, a la DeSoto and Dodge. Only on the Plymouth, this 350 had 8-barrel carburetion, high lift cam, high compression, special valve springs, and a special distributor. For the first time, Plymouth broke the 300 horsepower barrier.

The Golden Commando (who thought of these names...?) 350 put Plymouth slightly ahead of Ford's 305 horses. Plymouth also outgunned the Ford because the Golden Commando 350 could be purchased in any car that Plymouth built! A Plaza with this monster under the hood would easily embarrass its big brother Dodge, anywhere, any time. Chevrolet's 348 claimed a mere 280 horse rating.

While Dodge may have again been the darling of the Highway Patrols, it was the Sheriffs and local police that were buying cars. That meant Plymouth again, by almost 4 to 1 over Dodge. In addition, not all states wanted big cars. Our State Police again ordered Plymouths for 1958. Their engine of choice was the big block 318 cubic inch "Super Pak." It was the same engine as the V-800 except it had a single carburetor (for easier maintenance). It put out an honest 250 horsepower.

The City came back, acting on Uncle Harlan's plan that he and Dad had set up in 1957. The complete Police Fleet was turned over. The accepted bid was the Plymouth with the 1958 State bid specifications. The 301 cubic inch was no longer in production, so like the Troopers, the City Police got the 4 barrel V-800 318 ci V-8. As predicted, the year-old '57s went off the lot fast, offsetting a lot of the cost to the city. It was a good plan.

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Chrysler also offered fuel injection on its top high performance engines. It was designed and built by Bendix. It was terribly troublesome, and was recalled and replaced with carburetors in nearly every car it had been installed in. For whatever reasons, no further development occurred, and it was a single-year phenomenon.

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Christmas 1958 was not too bad at our store. Oh yes, sales were down far from where they were in 1957. Plymouth lead the way with 443,799 units produced for 1958 - 41% lower than 1957. Our store contributed 478 cars sold, and only ten were the Fury; Plymouth sold 5,303 Furys in 1958, which was a 30% drop from 1958.

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We found homes for 62 Imperials. Along the way, customers took 137 Chryslers home. Only one 300D model was taken from our store, and we know who took it to Florida already.

DeSoto was a sad case in 1958. They looked too much like a Chrysler, and their price wasn't much different, so many customers spent a few more dollars and drove out with the more prestigious Chrysler car. We could only find garages for 63 of them.

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Dodge also did not account for itself well in 1958. Our sales were only 131, a big drop from the previous year where 291 left the lot. I don't recall whether there were any D-500 models sold, and Dad's books don't indicate any. Total 1958 sales: 810 units.

Dad had finally followed his Dad's recommendation and bought an undercoating machine. By the end of July 1958, every single car that we handled on our lot had been thoroughly and correctly undercoated with the machine. Dad also opened something else based upon an idea one of the men that he trained to do the undercoating had given him - his first on-site body repair shop.

Also see our Chrysler Corporation: 1958 and 1958 Plymouth pages.

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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