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1951: The Year that Almost Wasn't

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

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For Plymouth, 1951 could have been the year that almost didn't happen. Korea may have been termed just a "police action," but its effect on the automobile industry nearly rivaled that of World War II. What had started as a record-breaking production pace led to fears fueled by National Production Authority warnings (which never materialized) that by mid-year a 50% production cutback-or even total shutdown-might occur. All manufacturers were affected by restrictions on steel, aluminum, copper, nickel, zinc, cobalt, and cadmium. Strikes, both real and threatened, along with unclear government policies helped keep the industry in turmoil throughout the year.

As one of the nation's prime government contractors, Chrysler Corporation was committed to providing technical personnel and production facilities for military purposes at the expense of domestic automobile production.

How did they get those names?
Lanny Knutson wrote: You can find a Cranbrook Drive, Concord Street, and Cambridge Avenue between 7 Mile Road and 8 Mile Road (West). Rod Miller added "Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, MI is a private day and boarding school founded in the early 1900s. Many of the auto executives' children went there." A related girls school is significantly named Kingswood. (Added by Allpar)

Despite these obstacles, Plymouth entered the 1951 market with, if not three completely new models, at least three new model names. Abandoning the term "Deluxe" (which had been used since 1933) and "Special Deluxe" (used since 1941), the new models were called Concord, Cambridge, and Cranbrook. Engineering codes continued to add confusion to the line-up; the Concord, which replaced the 111-inch wheelbase Deluxe cars, was known as the Model P22. Why the numbers didn't increment in numerical order (using P21) has never been explained.

The Cambridge, engineering code P23S, replaced the 118-1/2 inch wheelbase Deluxe line, with the Cranbrook, model P23C, replacing the Special Deluxe. The first Cranbrooks rolled off the line December 11, only nine days after the last P20 Special Deluxe. The first Cambridge followed the next day, with Concord production starting a day later. The names may have been new, but body styles were unchanged. Concord buyers had a choice of a three-passenger business coupe, a fastback two-door sedan, or an all-metal two-door Suburban station wagon (the upscale version was called Savoy).

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The Cambridge had only a club coupe and four-door sedan. The Cranbrook was offered in club coupe; four-door sedan; convertible club coupe; and, new for the year, Cranbrook Belvedere "hardtop convertible" body styles. Unlike the real convertible with folding top, the "hardtop" convertible had a fixed roof with pillarless side windows like those used on the convertible.

The Cranbrook Belvedere was Plymouth's answer to Chevrolet's successful Bel Air hardtop, introduced the year before. Chrysler Corporation had originated the first two-door hardtop bodies back in 1946, building a handful of Town & Country hardtops. The body style was shelved, only to be resurrected in 1949 by both Buick and Cadillac; Chevrolet's version, the Bel Air, forced both Plymouth and Ford (with the Victoria) to enter the market with similar body styles for the 1951 season.

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Distinguishing the 1951 Plymouth from its predecessors was a new front end ensemble, marked by a sloping hood and new grille. The grille was lower and wider, with the upper bar sloping out further under the headlights before turning down to meet the smaller parking lamps that were now mounted on the bar, rather than being surrounded by it. A heavy center bar floated across the middle of the grille cavity and carried three massive vertical teeth, the two outer teeth riding behind similarly shaped bumper overriders. The lip that had previously run along the bottom of the bumper face plate was eliminated.

The hood front sloped back sharply, in contrast to the vertical hood fronts of 1949-50. The familiar Mayflower sailing ship sat further back on the hood, "speed waves" flowing outward from the ship's base. The shield-shaped medallion was restyled and located above the lower hood plate, which now contained the word "Plymouth" in red on a chrome lip. Wheel opening cutouts were squared off, accentuated by a spear of stainless trim running from the headlamp back to the front door. A similar stainless spear and "gracefully simple" stone shields adorned the rear fenders. Front fender ornamentation included name badges signifying the model series. As restrictions on chrome became more stringent, many normally chrome-plated trim pieces such as parking and taillight bezels, headlamp rims, name plates, and license plate housings were all coated with a colorless enamel.

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The deck lid was revised only slightly, with the ornamentation rearranged to distinguish the 1951 from earlier cars (the deck lid itself interchanged with 1949-50 cars). The windshield size was increased by narrowing the front "A" pillars-windshields were still two pieces of flat glass, a much ballyhooed economy measure in Plymouth advertising, as were the bolt-on rear fenders that had long since been abandoned by the competition.

The most dramatic changes were made to the instrument panel. The modernized panel located all the gauges directly in front of the driver in one grouping, the dark horizontal wood grain replaced by a lighter, vertically-grained finish that did little to accentuate the car's interior. The radio nestled at the top center of the dash, with the speaker grille following the downward slope of the panel and stopping just short of the heater control panel. A removable medallion to the right of the radio allowed for installation of a clock, with a sliding-drawer ash tray located directly beneath.

Other changes included a larger steering wheel hub to house "built-in" turn signals, moving the combination ignition starter switch to the right of the steering column, and changing the emergency brake handle from a pistol grip to a "T" handle. Plymouth buyers finally got electric windshield wipers as standard equipment, something the other Chrysler lines had for many years.

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Upholstery patterns were new, with broadcloth standard on the Concord business coupe as well as the two-door sedan. Regular Suburbans continued to use vinyl, although the Savoy came in Bedford cord with vinyl trim like the convertible. Cambridges were upholstered in broadcloth with Cranbrooks offered in either broadcloth or Herringbone Weave to harmonize with the body color.

Suburban sales continued to soar, despite the lack of a four-door station wagon, but the big news for the year was the addition of the Cranbrook Belvedere hardtop convertible. The Belvedere buyer had his choice of blue or green striped broadcloth or striped Herringbone weave with vinyl resin trim to harmonize with the exterior body colors. The Belvedere could be had in any of eight solid colors, and for the first time since 1941, four two-tone combinations (Cranbrook club coupe and four-door sedans built after June could also be two-toned.) Like other hardtops of the period, the body structure of the Belvedere was pure convertible, sharing the same doors, deck lid, and trim items-only the fixed roof and three-piece rear window were different.

Before the end of the model year, Plymouth would celebrate building its 7 millionth automobile.

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Under the sheet metal the 1951 Plymouths were boringly the same-the engine was still a 217 cid flathead six fated at 97 hp. In mid-April, steel asbestos cylinder head gaskets replaced copper gaskets, and engines that had traditionally been painted aluminum were painted gray due to a scarcity of aluminum paint. The only transmission was a three-speed manual, running through a single-plate clutch to a Hotchkiss rear end. Centrifuse brake drums, Oilite fuel tank filter, automatic electric choke, boxed perimeter frame, tapered rear leaf springs, and other mechanicals were carryovers, with the exception of pressurized radiator caps and "Safety Flow Ride" Oriflow shock absorbers.

Oriflow shocks were designed to vary their resistance, by hydraulic flow control, in proportion to the severity of the impulses to the suspension. Off the car, if the rod was pulled slowly the shock would extend quite easily; try to do it fast and it became an impossible task. Motorists not familiar with how Oriflow shocks worked were suckered into purchasing new shocks by unscrupulous service station owners who would slowly and easily push the bumper of the car in the "standard" shock absorber test; the Oriflow shock would allow the car to bounce up and down, just as a normal worn-out shock would do.

Plymouth continued to be a major supplier to taxi cab fleets, offering a package that included a 10in clutch, commercial duty chassis springs, firm ride shock absorbers, heavier gauge springs in seats and seatbacks, battery heat shield, and heavy-duty 100amp-hour battery. The taxi package was also recommended for Suburban models if they would be expected to carry heavy loads like power tools or be used as delivery vehicles.

Standard tires on the Suburbans (and other Concord models) were 6.40xl5in Goodyears. For the first time, 6.70x15in Super Cushion tires were offered as options on Suburbans and were recommended when carrying heavier loads. When fitted with the 6.70 tire, the normal axle ratio of 3.73 was replaced by 3.9 gearing. High-clearance 18 inch wheels remained an exclusive Suburban option.

Plymouth's 97 hp "weaklings" continued to be the scourge of the NASCAR tracks, muscling their way in among the more high-powered "Twin H Power" Hudson Hornets and V-8 Oldsmobiles. Fifty-two Plymouth race cars were registered with NASCAR (second in number only to Ford); at the end of the year, Plymouth came second in the standings, behind Oldsmobile, with two first-, nine second-, twelve third-, ten fourth- and eleven fifth-place finishes.

Plymouth didn't fare as well in the 1951 running of the Mobil Gas Economy Run, with a Cranbrook placing fourth (of five entries) in Class A, scoring 22.99 mpg. The class champion was a Ford V-8, followed by a Studebaker Champion and a Ford six. In the "Special Lightweight 6-cylinder Class" a 1951 Concord managed only 24.145 mpg, the lowest actual mileage recorded by any of the four cars in the class; but it was declared second-place winner for its ton/mpg rating of 48.954. The winning car, a Nash Rambler, scored 31.05 mpg and 53.489 ton-miles.

As the war in Korea continued to divert needed materials from the industry, the cars' quality began to suffer. Chrome plating took on a dingy look, as first copper and then nickel were eliminated from the plating process by government regulation (quality chrome plating consists of three layers, first copper, then nickel, and finally chromium). Copper shortages also affected the availability of radios and heaters. Interestingly, all cars were still being shipped with five tires, though whitewalls were not available.

Steel production in the second quarter was 20% below that of the first half of 1950, forcing most manufacturers to cancel or delay introductions of their 1952 car lines. Those who had planned new models, like Plymouth, were forced to make do with what they had for one more year. For a time it appeared that rationing of new automobiles or curtailment of production altogether was possible if the industry was called back into service.

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As fears of all-out war spread, the automobile industry looked to the federal government for advice. Washington politicians felt Detroit's giant manufacturing plants should be dispersed around the country, fearing that an atomic bomb strike would cripple U.S. war efforts. Steel shortages forced all manufacturers to cut back, yet the government refused to release orders for military production. Only Chrysler's Newark, Delaware plant was committed to military production, building tanks.

A fourteen-week strike early in the 1951 model year added further to the industry's misery, and it wasn't until a threatened national railroad strike in May that the government stepped in to intervene. Chrysler Corporation testified before the U.S. Senate in September that if it didn't get more steel, there was a distinct possibility it would have to shut down entirely. Fears of massive unemployment due to industry layoffs went unheeded as the government refused to provide the industry with guidelines. For a time it appeared 1952 models would be canceled entirely. It was January 1952 before they did make their appearance; V-8 engines for both Dodge and DeSoto were early casualties of production cutbacks.

The National Production Authority was charged with allocating how many cars each manufacturer would be allowed to build during this period. Chrysler Corporation's allocation of 1,242,256 vehicles was well above that of Ford (1,115,440) but far below GM's allocation of 2,121,980 cars for 1951. At year's end Chrysler had built 1,227,475 vehicles, while Ford and GM exceeded their allocations by 50,700 and 145,000 vehicles respectively.

The industry was further rocked by Federal Regulation W, which required new and used car buyers to put down one-third cash and pay off the remaining balance on automobile loans within 15 months. Regulation W requirements meant monthly payments averaging $80 to $110, far beyond the reach of most potential customers. Production, which had been running at near record levels until W took effect, took a nosedive. During the first seven days of its implementation, sales of new cars fell more than 50% in the Detroit area alone. Used car sales fared even worse, with a 60% drop. During the first month of Regulation W, orders for 2,375 new cars and 865 used cars were canceled just in the city of Chicago.

Hardest hit by Regulation W were medium- and high-price car manufacturers, such as Kaiser-Frazer, who were forced to completely revamp production schedules to build more inexpensive (and less profitable) models-exactly opposite of what Kaiser needed to do if it was to remain a viable competitor.

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Despite war jitters and Regulation W, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors all marched ahead with plans to expand. Ford's plant construction would increase its capacity by 50%, a move that would prove disastrous to Plymouth as Ford and Chevrolet engaged in an all-out sales war during 1953 to 1954. Buick reached an all-time high of more than 500,000 cars and had tooling in place to better that figure, openly announcing its goal "to supplant Plymouth as the third largest producer."

Chrysler purchased 3,800 acres of land fifty miles west of Detroit, near Chelsea, Michigan, where it began building, under the direction of A.B. "Tobe" Couture, its own proving ground. Ground was also broken for a 650,000 sq-ft factory in Indiana where it was correctly rumored that Chrysler would begin building automatic transmissions for Plymouth. More than half the new cars sold in 1951 were equipped with automatics, a fact not lost on Plymouth marketing (Chevrolet and Ford offered an automatic). Rumors throughout the industry saw Chevrolet and Plymouth bringing out V-8 engines as soon as possible-the unavailability of machine tools prevented either from achieving this goal for at least three years-nonetheless Chrysler began construction of a new engine plant twenty-five miles east of Detroit.

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In the Chrysler board room, K.T. Keller resigned as president to move up to the board of directors and chairmanship of Chrysler's guided missile program for the Armed Forces. Keller-and Chrysler-had been deeply involved in the Manhattan Project during WWII, which resulted in development of the atomic bomb (how involved the corporation had been has never been completely revealed). Replacing Keller at the helm of Chrysler was L.L. Colbert, a long-time corporate executive. J.P. Mansfield, who would later head the Plymouth Division, was elected a vice-president of the corporation and director of Plymouth. (Death claimed two Chrysler Corporation pioneers during the year, Fred Zeder passing away in February and Joseph Fields in March.)

K.T. Keller had been many things to Chrysler, and a man on whom much blame has been laid over the years for the solid, but rather stodgy, products turned out by the corporation in the early 1950s, Keller has been sorely overlooked as the man who hired a young Studebaker stylist named Virgil Exner to turn the corporation's styling fortunes around. Plymouth-and Chrysler-would face some rocky times in the near future, but a new era was dawning for the nation's number-three automobile.

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