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1952: Subtle Changes Before the All-New '53

by Jim Benjaminson. Copyrighted by Jim Benjaminson. Reprinted by permission.
Originally published as a printed book by Motorbooks International.

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Despite continued shortages and threats of a nationwide steel strike (averted by President Truman's seizure of the steel industry on April 8, 1952), cars built to 1952 specifications began rolling off the lines in November 1951 though the official announcement wouldn't come until January. The 1952 Plymouth boasted "forty-six advances" though few were readily apparent. To the casual observer, the 1952 Plymouth looked identical to the 1951 models. The grille, headlamps, parking lamps, bumpers, and overriders were identical to previous models; taillights, rear bumper, and overriders were carried over from 1951.

Unlike the 1946-1949 P15 Plymouth, which had been virtually unchanged for three years, there were external trim changes to differentiate the 1952s from the 1951s. From the front, the hood medallion was the most obvious change, now round instead of shield-shaped. The Mayflower ship hood ornament sat lower and looked more like a ship than a plane, the "bow waves" from 1951 having been eliminated. The front fender name plates were in script, rather than block lettering, providing the only clues as to the model year when the car was viewed in profile. Around back, the Plymouth nameplate was moved down with the letters becoming part of the license plate light ornament.

These changes were considered so minimal that Plymouth chose to carry over the same engineering codes and model names. Serial number sequences were not consecutive as with the P15s, although the numbers were bumped only slightly to provide positive identification between the 1951 P22/P23 cars and the 1952 versions.

Ten body styles were again offered-the 111 inch wheelbase Concord available in three-passenger business coupe, two-door fastback sedan, or all-metal Suburban station wagon. The Savoy continued as the upscale version of the wagon. Cambridge buyers were offered the club coupe and four-door sedan on the 118-1/2 inch chassis, with Cranbrook buyers opting for a club coupe, four-door, convertible club coupe, or the Cranbrook Belvedere convertible hardtop.

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The Cranbrook Belvedere, although basically the same car as before, was the only body style different enough to recognize at a distance by virtue of its new roof and paint treatment. The side window drip molding, rather than stopping at the belt line molding, swept down behind the quarter window, crossed over the belt line, then flowed down the fender-body seam (rear fenders were still detachable) to the rear bumper. When two toned, the color of the top cascaded across the deck lid as well, the moldings serving as the dividing line between the two colors. A "Belvedere" script was placed between the molding and belt line. The Cranbrook Belvedere was painted in one standard color, a metallic "Belmont Blue." Two-tone combinations, of which there were three, were optional. Cranbrook Belvedere upholstery combinations included blue, black-gray, or beige textured weave fabric with gray, green, or tan vinyl trim.

Two-tone paints were still available by special order on Cranbrook club coupe and four-door sedans, although few cars seem to have been sold with the option. Only one color-Dawn Gray-was used on the upper body, with choices of Belmont Blue, Wedgewood, or Lido Green on the lower body.

Interior changes for 1952 were limited to new upholstery materials in closed cars, the instrument panel now finished in a solid "Lustre Tone" (Alaska Gray Metallic) finish instead of woodgraining. The speedometer face was slightly different, the gauges using a black on white (versus white on black) background. A larger speedometer needle drew complaints from various road test personnel when it was found the needle obscured several numerals at one time, making it hard to distinguish the exact speed at which the car was traveling.

Marking one more difference was the steering wheel ship ornament, which was set against a black background instead of red. Signal lights were optional, and on cars so equipped a single green indicator did not distinguish between right or left.

Cambridge and Concord cars were upholstered in a neutral textured fabric weave, while Cranbrook closed cars had blue or green textured weave, depending on the outer body color. Suburban wagons continued to use vinyl except in the upscale Savoy wagon, which had blue or red striped Bedford Cord with matching vinyl trim in a style similar to the convertible club coupe. It offered Bedford Cord with blue or black vinyl trim or maroon Bedford with maroon vinyl bolsters.

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Radio grilles were installed in all Cranbrook body styles and the Savoy from January 1952 on, with the grille painted in Alaska Gray Metallic to match the instrument panel. Radio installations in the Cambridge, Concord, or Suburban required that a speaker grille package be installed in addition to the radio. Although the speaker grilles were the same for both years, the 1951 grille was wood grained and had to be painted before being installed in 1952 cars.

An unseen but appreciated change was higher-speed electric windshield wipers; owners had complained that the slow sweep of the earlier wipers was hypnotic.

A new cylinder head provided a change in combustion chamber design, resulting in improved performance, though the 97 hp rating remained the same as the 1949-51 cars. This head (with part number 1405849 embossed on it) could be retrofitted back through the P15 models. Motor Vehicle Research drivers, testing a Cranbrook four door in the June 1952 issue of Science and Mechanics, reported they had tried in vain to make the engine ping, starting up a hill in low gear, then quickly dropping the car into high and loading it.

Motor Vehicle Research wanted to find out why "cost-conscious cab fleet owners favor a car whose initial cost is not the lowest in its class" (according to a survey, 57% of all standard taxi cabs registered were Plymouths). Conducting their tests in 40 degree January weather, they recorded gas mileage figures of 21-22 mpg in the 20-30 mph range, dropping to 19-21 mpg at 30-40mph. At 70mph, mileage dropped to a dismal 12.75 mpg. Other tests recorded attainable top speed as 92 "uncorrected" mph, with 0-60mph "through the gears" in slightly better than 21 seconds.

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Plymouth hydraulic brakes were a shining spot of the test, achieving 96% efficiency at 40mph, 80% at 50mph, and 67% at 60 mph-all panic stops. One of Plymouth's unseen changes for 1952 was Cyclebond brake shoes, which eliminated the use of rivets in securing the linings to the shoes. Motor Vehicle Research testers concluded that Plymouth offered rugged (rather than rapid) performance, ease of serviceability, comfortable seats, and excellent vision in all directions.

April 1952's Motor Trend called it "a remarkably honest piece of merchandise, but high-priced for what it has to offer the buyer." Best ride of the economy cars, fine brakes, plus top economy were among the finest traits noted by Motor Trend. Their test car hit a high speed of 88mph with fuel consumption figures of 23.2 mpg at a steady 30mph, 20.9mpg at 45mph, and l7.3mpg at 60mph. Motor Trend drivers ran the 0-60mph test in 22.54 seconds, considerably slower than the 18.56 seconds for the 1950 Plymouth they had tested.

Drivers Eddie Bishop and Bill Cameron piloted a Cranbrook and Concord in the 1952 Mobil Gas Economy Run, with Cameron's Cranbrook edging out the Concord by nearly a 1/2mpg-23.522 mpg vs. 23.079. Neither mark was good enough for top honors-the two Plymouths placing ninth and tenth behind two Studebaker V-8s, a Ford Mainline six, a Mercury Monterey (declared the overall winner by virtue of its 59.7 lton/mpg rating), a Kaiser, and a pair of Henry J Corsairs, one a six and the other a four (and overall gas mileage champ at 30.555 mpg). In the ton-mile rating the Concord placed fifteenth to the Cranbrook's nineteenth place finish.

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Motor Vehicle Research drivers found the 1952 Cranbrook to be tight and quiet while Motor Trend complained of excessive wind noises that had to be repaired by the dealer. Motor Trend also complained of quality control, citing items as the steering wheel spokes not sitting "square" when the car was driven in a straight line. Quality control complaints were not common with these cars; one explanation may be that the Motor Trend car could have been built in one of the two California assembly plants, Los Angeles or San Leandro, while the Motor Vehicle Research car (whose tests were conducted in New Hampshire) was probably built in Detroit.

Plymouth was the only one of the three low-priced cars to offer the ubiquitous three-speed manual as the only transmission. Chevrolet had a choice of manual or (since 1950) Power Glide automatic while Ford offered manual, manual with overdrive, and (since 1951) Ford-o-matic automatic transmissions. Chrysler Corporation engineers, working with Borg-Warner, had developed an overdrive transmission in 1934, installing it in Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows. Having pioneered the use of overdrive, Chrysler made little use of it; Chrysler and DeSoto offered it through 1940 on 6-cylinder cars and in 1941 straight-8s. Between 1935 and 1942 eight other automakers jumped on the overdrive bandwagon using the same Borg-Warner unit, but it wasn't until mid-1952 that Chrysler saw fit to make it available on Plymouth and Dodge, and reintroduce it on the DeSoto. Dodge and DeSoto would offer overdrive through 1956, while Plymouth would retain it through 1959. In contrast, Ford and Mercury offered overdrive from 1949 through 1963 and Chevrolet (the only GM user) from 1955 to 1963.

The overdrive unit was essentially a small case bolted behind the standard three-speed transmission, having a planetary gearset that, when engaged, reduced engine revs by 30%. Fully automatic, electrically operated overdrives were first introduced in 1939 and appeared in their final, simplified, and less bulky form in 1946. The Plymouth overdrive provided "fourth gear" performance at speeds above 25mph. The overdrive unit drove the propeller shaft ten revolutions for every seven revolutions of the engine. (Plymouth cars shipped to overseas markets had been fitted with overdrive transmissions from Detroit as far back as 1936.)

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Operation of the overdrive was simple, being controlled by the accelerator pedal. To achieve "kick down" to obtain added acceleration the driver depressed the accelerator pedal to the wide open position. This de-energized the electric solenoid, releasing engine torque brought about by a temporary interruption of ignition allowing the control pawl in the overdrive to release, placing the unit in direct drive. Engagement could be done at any time by lifting the foot from the accelerator pedal. The overdrive unit could be disengaged permanently by following the same procedure and pulling out the control handle located on the dash. Under 20mph lock out could be accomplished simply by pulling the handle out without having to lift off the accelerator. Despite being made available midway into the model year, overdrive found its way into only 17% of Plymouth's production.

Overdrive proved popular enough that Plymouth offered it as a complete service package to be installed in the field on P22 and P23 series cars. Net dealer price, which included the overdrive and mainshaft assembly, clutch disc, hand brake drum, wiring harness, and necessary controls was $142.25. First shipments of the kit were not scheduled until mid-May 1952. For owners of earlier Plymouths, the unit was virtually a bolt-in swap for cars dating back to 1940. As early as 1940, Plymouth had used a long tailshaft assembly on their transmissions. Removing this tailshaft allowed the overdrive unit to slip into its place, allowing the original drive shaft to be used.

Standard tire size on the Suburban and Savoy station wagons was changed to 6.70x15in and the rear axle ratio to 3.9 like the full-size Cambridge and Cranbrook models, The Concord continued to use 6.40x15in tires and a 3.73 axle ratio. When equipped with overdrive, rear-end ratios were changed on all models: to 4.1 on the Concord coupe and two door, and 4.3 on all Cambridge, Cranbrook, Suburbans, and Savoys. The Suburbans, when equipped with the 18in high clearance wheels, received a 4.78 ratio.

Korean War restrictions continued to plague the production lines; copper head gaskets continued to be replaced by steel and "steelbestos" gaskets, and fuel pump heat shields were eliminated after the fuel pump was redesigned. Surprisingly, despite these material restrictions, whitewall tires became available in May.

Government restrictions controlling the amount of nickel used in chrome-plating were still in effect and owners found a one-page leaflet in the glove compartment advising them to read the owners manual for instructions on how to protect the colorless, baked-on enamel protective coating on these pieces. Even paint colors continued to be affected; Sable Bronze (used in Belvedere two-tone combinations) was lightened, just as Empire Maroon had replaced the slightly darker Mecca Maroon in July 1951. Nineteen-fifty-one also saw two shades of Niles Green, one metallic, the other non-metallic.

New to the accessory list was tinted "Solex" glass. One of Plymouth's more popular accessories did not debut until spring 1952, when MoPar door handle guards came on the market. Made of polished stainless steel, the guards fit under the door handles (which had to be removed to install them) and protected the paint against ring and key scratches. These guards interchanged between all Chrysler lines, back to the 1949 models, and many cars were retrofitted with them.

An answer to Studebaker's popular "Hill Holder" was MoPar Autostop, introduced in June. With a flick of the finger, the gearshift lever-mounted control switch semi-automatic service brake lock held the car still, releasing automatically when the accelerator pedal was depressed. Autostop was ideal for hilly areas, to prevent backsliding or rolling forward whether sitting at a stop or when parking. Like most MoPar accessories, Autostop could be retrofitted to earlier models and to other Chrysler car lines.

Plymouth's first racing era came to an end in 1952. Plymouth managed a third place in the final points standing, behind Hudson and Oldsmobile, respectively. Plymouth scored three first-place finishes (as did Oldsmobile, in comparison to Hudson's twenty-seven), in addition to five second-, eight third-, seven fourth- and six fifth-place finishes. Lee Petty continued to campaign a Plymouth, having traded his 1949 coupe for a 1952.

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Petty's usual strategy paid off in a 150-mile race at Macon, Georgia, September 7. The race had been led by a Hudson Hornet, which blew its engine on the last lap allowing Petty to slip the little Plymouth into the winners' circle one more time. One week later Petty scored another win in a 250-mile race at Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

Plymouths would continue to compete but were finally being outclassed. As the next racing season approached, Lee Petty switched to a V-8 Dodge.

National Production Authority guidelines continued to define both how many cars the industry could build and how they could be equipped. DeSoto, for example, could only build 65% of its cars with automatic transmissions! Chrysler's allocation of 936,486 cars for 1952 was down (from 1.2 million cars the year before), a figure Chrysler exceeded by slightly better than 20,000 units. Ford exceeded its allotment of 918,885 by 83,953 cars, while GM was cut to 1,790,85-a target they missed by 9,765. Total industry sales were down a million cars, Plymouth losing 0.6% of its market share from 1951.

As the 1952 model year drew to a close, so too did the career of Dan S. Eddins, long-time head of the Plymouth Division. Eddins had jumped General Motors' ship in 1933, becoming Plymouth's general manager late in 1934. His career guiding Plymouth's growth had been long and distinguished, setting all-time sales records in 1936, 1937, and 1950. When he handed over the reigns to J.P. Mansfield, Plymouth Division was as strong as it had ever been and for the time being, at least, it appeared Plymouth's star would continue to rise.

The final P22 Concords, P23S Cambridges, and P23C Cranbrooks came off the line October 3, 1952, twenty-two months and 1,007,662 cars since production had started. At long last, the new model originally planned for 1952 would finally see the light of day-for better or for worse.

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