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Plymouth cars of
1954 - Disaster Strikes

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

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Plymouth debuted its 1954 models October 15, 1953, with a slightly warmed-over redesign and high hopes for another successful year; after all, the 1953 Plymouth had set an all-time record for new car sales. Besides, the Korean War was history, government restrictions had been lifted, the economy was solid, and people had money to spend, so there was little reason not to be optimistic.

Content with a mild restyle for 1954-"refreshing newness" Plymouth called it-only a new grille and taillamps plus the addition of body side chrome (which had been offered by outside suppliers for 1953) served to differentiate the 1954 Plymouth from the 1953.

Plymouth once again offered three distinct series, pirating the model names from body styles of the past. At the top of the line was the Belvedere (engineering code P25-3), which previously had been the name of Plymouth's two-door hardtop convertible. The Belvedere line consisted of a four-door sedan, a sport coupe (formerly the Belvedere hardtop convertible), a convertible coupe, and the two-door all-metal Suburban station wagon.

Next in line was the Savoy series (coded P25-2), a name formerly reserved for the deluxe Suburban station wagon. Savoys came in four-door sedan, club sedan, or club coupe body styles, At the bottom of the pricing ladder sat the Plaza series, code P25-1. Plazas could be had in four-door sedan, club sedan, business coupe, or Suburban station wagon format.

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Restyling the front grille work did away with 1953's buck-toothed look. The main grille bar was chromed across its width, extended across the entire forefront of the car, and acted as a beveled cap for the rub rail contour line on the front fender. In the center of the grille bar Plymouth was spelled out in red block letters against a gold plastic background. Above the nameplate and centered on the sloping face of the hood was a new hood medallion bearing a chrome Plymouth crest on color with the Mayflower floating proudly on stylized waves. The outer arms of the medallion pointed outward to the newly designed headlamps set inside extended bezels on Belvedere and Savoy models. The Mayflower sailing ship was again redesigned, a "stylized ship in gleaming chrome, streamlined and properly positioned to enhance the overall feeling of sleekness."

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Belvederes were treated to a full-length chrome sill molding and full-length side moldings running from the front fender rub rail back to the rear fender stone shield, then dropping slightly to extend rearward on the rear fender rub rail. On all models a chrome belt molding running beneath the windows and above the deck lid provided the color break line for two-tone paint combinations, Belvederes were also graced with a chrome rear fender molding, which gave just the slightest hint of a fin and added the illusion of extra length to the car.

The 1954 Plymouth was longer than its 1953 sibling by 3 5/8 inches, accomplished by moving the bumpers outward. This subtle change of bumper position suggests that Plymouth was responding to dealer complaints that the cars were just too stubby and looked cheap. Plymouth referred to the bumper move as "not enough to affect Plymouth's compactness-[but] does strongly reinforce the lengthening effect of the new, swift-flowing chrome lines."

Styling changes at the rear of the car were evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. A new deck lid handle, with integrated push-button lock and latch, highlighted the only deck lid change. Cars fitted with Hy-Drive or overdrive had a chrome script on the lower right corner of the deck lid, with the word "Plymouth" in the lower left comer of the lid as before. With the addition of PowerFlite later in the year, a small stick-on nameplate signifying that transmission was placed directly above the deck lid lift. Taillamps and back-up lamps were united in distinctive chrome housings, while redesigned bumper overriders contained the lights for the rear license plate. Belvedere Sport Coupes now boasted a one-piece rear window.

"It is fitting indeed that these dashing-almost daring-1954 Plymouths should be introduced to the public in the autumn-most brilliant season of the year," read the dealer data book, "for in these new cars it's color that packs the new styling with extra impact-color that enlivens the car from rubber to roof. Plymouths take their cue from the rainbow."

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Belvedere buyers had the choice of several two-tone combinations, each utilizing either San Leandro Ivory or black for the color of the top, while Suburban purchasers could order two tones with the top in San Mateo Wheat.

Plymouth interiors took on a new look as the familiar pin stripes were discarded. In Belvedere models, all interior hues matched those found on the exterior. Seats in the four-door and sport coupe were finished in damasklike, man-made patterned fabrics in blue, gold, red, or green to match the outer body color. Bolsters were finished in pleated, soft, Doeskin vinyl in ivory or black, to match the car's roof color. Door trim panels carried the same two tones; an insert of patterned vinyl matching the seat fabric was enclosed above and below trim panels of solid, upholstery-color vinyl. Slender, chrome moldings highlighted the lines of separation.

A spear-like, fluted band of chrome swept forward from the rear armrest to intersect both colors. The front seat base was also highlighted by a fluted band of chrome. Floor coverings were integrated into the picture with genuine wool carpeting in body color (marking Plymouth's first use of carpet on front compartment floors), highlighted by aluminum door sill plates. Headliners of finely woven fabric matched the primary body color. Exterior body colors continued on the inside across the top, sides, and bottom of the instrument panel with the instruments and radio set in a long central island, finished in either ivory or black to match the outside top color, or San Mateo Wheat in convertible and Suburban bodies (at the federal government's request, this would be the first year that Civil Defense markings, at 640kc and 1240kc, would appear on radio sets ). The top of the instrument panel was painted in a No-Glare finish. Even the three-spoke steering wheel with full horn ring was finished in the body top color.

Belvedere convertible and Suburbans used Woodweave-a wheat-colored vinyl material with a realistic woven reed finish in conjunction with leather-like vinyl in seats and door panels. Woodweave inserts surrounded by a dipped belt line molding were additions to exterior trim on Belvedere convertibles later in the year. Convertible buyers were also given the choice of convertible tops in green or blue in addition to the traditional tan or black.
Savoy interiors were available in three two-tone color combinations: deep and light green, dark and light blue, or brown with beige. The lighter tone was found on the ladder-pattern fabric of the seat cushions and the pleated tufted seatbacks, the contrasting darker tone in the solid color bolsters. The seat pattern carried over to the door panels, bordered above and below in bolster color, with chrome moldings separating the color lines, A fluted chrome band highlighted the front seat base while the deep colors carried over into the instrument panel, garnish moldings, headliner, and the carpet-like rubber Door mats. The instrument panel island and steering wheel were finished in harmonizing lighter tones.

As the price leader, Plaza buyers found a fabric interior carrying a blue or green pattern on a gray background. This color and pattern was carried over to the door panels that were bordered top and bottom in a darker shade of plain vinyl. The headliner, garnish moldings, instrument panel, and steering wheel blended into the color scheme. In the Plaza Suburban, seats and panels were trimmed with vinyl simulating leather in two-tone combinations of deep blue and light gray or dark and light green.

Plymouth continued the use of a cowl ventilator on all models. Belvedere and Savoy sedans had lockable, manually controlled vent wings on rear doors as well as the front, and Plymouth's famous high geared 2-1/2-turn window risers were retained.

As the production run began, Plymouth retained the same mechanical features as the 1953 models. Wheelbase remained unchanged at 114in for all models. Only one engine was available, with the choice of three-speed manual, three-speed with overdrive, or Hy-Drive semi-automatic transmissions, Plymouth still didn't offer power brakes, but power steering was finally added to the options list.

At $139.75, Plymouth's power steering was not cheap. Unlike many add-on power steering systems, Plymouths version was built as a complete factory unit. The hydraulic pump and oil reservoir were built as part of the generator and mounted on the engine's left side. The system was fairly simple, with a power link replacing the conventional drag link in the steering linkage. Because the power steering was an integral part of the steering linkage, the car could be safely steered when the engine was not running or when the unit was not functioning.

PowerFlite: an automatic transmission at last

April saw the addition of the PowerFlite automatic transmission to the option list-at long last Plymouth could compete head to head with Chevrolet and Ford. With PowerFlite came a more powerful engine as well, a 110hp 230ci six borrowed from Dodge. Even at 110hp, Plymouth still trailed Ford by 5hp and a Powerglide-equipped Chevrolet by 15hp. In addition, Ford had a new overhead valve V-8 to crow about.

At $189, PowerFlite was only slightly more than the $146 Hy-Drive option. Like Hy-Drive, PowerFlite was a two speed using essentially the same torque converter. The main difference was that the PowerFlite converter was supplied with oil from a reservoir in the transmission rather than sharing oil from the engine. Integrated with a planetary gear seat, PowerFlite multiplied engine torque 4.47 times compared to Hy-Drive's 2.6 multiplication.

Unlike Hy-Drive, PowerFlite eliminated the need for a clutch pedal. Shifting was normally required only to get under way or to go into reverse. Engine braking could be accomplished by pulling the selector lever into the low range, which locked the transmission in low gear. Unlike many of the GM automatics, which required a shift through all the gears to get into reverse, PowerFlite's quadrant put reverse at the top of the sequence, followed by neutral, drive, and low.

As would be common practice for Chrysler automatics, no park position was provided, necessitating the use of the hand brake when parking. Because of the difference in the PowerFlite transmission itself, the parking brake was a special, heavy-duty internal-expanding type rather than the external contracting type used since 1928.

Running changes made build-date identification necessary on PowerFlite transmissions, with each transmission having a date code stenciled on the right front corner of the transmission case. The date code consisted of a letter and two sets of numbers. The letter was an alphabetic code corresponding to the months of the year-the letter "A" signifying January, "B" February and so on. Only the letter "I" was skipped (being replaced by "I" for September) to avoid confusion with the number one. The second set of numbers indicated the day of the month, with the final two letters signifying the year (thus a transmission built on September 14, 1954, would have a code date of J-14-54).

By the end of the year PowerFlite would be installed in 61,000 cars, The slightly less expensive Hy-Drive (which would disappear at the end of the model run) was installed in 75,000 cars.

1954 Plymouth engines: borrowed from Dodge

Plymouth again followed its tradition of borrowing a larger engine from its sister division Dodge, in offering the 230ci, 110hp engine. Dodge's engine had been in use since 1942, when Plymouth moved up to the Dodge 217. Over the years the 230's horsepower ratings had fluctuated, from 102 after World War II to 103 during the early 1950s, to 110 for 1954. At 230ci, the venerable old six had reached its "safe" limits as far as its 3 ¼ x 4 5/8in bore and stroke were concerned. In years past when Plymouth claimed a Dodge engine, Dodge had simply increased its engine size to compensate. Now Dodge would have to be content with sharing the same dimensions-though through the magic of engineering (or an ad writer's pen) Dodge's rated horsepower would always be slightly more than Plymouth's.

Strangely enough, Plymouth chose to use the same engineering code, P25, for the larger 230ci engine as it had on the 217. To differentiate between the two, the 230 engine serial number was prefixed by a "diamond" before the code number. Engine numbers also ran in different numerical sequences, the change occurring at engine number P25-243001. In addition, a diamond was cast into the left rear comer of the cylinder head on the larger engines.

Rear axle ratios on all body styles equipped with standard transmission, Hy-Drive, or PowerFlite were the same, using 3.73 gearing. Overdrive cars were the only ones to use a 4.1 rear axle.
Tire size on all body styles was 6.70x15in mounted on 4-l/2x15in safety rim wheels.

Plymouths continued to be the most popular taxi cab choice in America. The taxi package offered commercial duty chassis springs, heavy-duty shocks, heavier gauge springs in seats and seatbacks, a 10 inch clutch on manual transmission cars (8-1/2 on Hy-Drive and 9-1/4 on overdrive-equipped cars), battery heat shields, and a heavy-duty 125 amp-hour battery.

Plymouth managed to score only a fourth place in the 1954 Mobil Gas Economy Run, which was again run between Los Angeles and Sun Valley, Idaho. Averaging 22.44mpg (47.71ton/mpg) the overdrive-equipped Belvedere sedan followed a Studebaker Champion, Ford Mainline 6, and Ford Mainline V-8 (all overdrive equipped) in the standings, besting only a Chevrolet 210. It should be noted that the Mobil Gas Economy Run was driven by professional drivers using every trick in the book to eke out top mileage figures and did not truly represent "real world" driving conditions.

Both Motor Trend and Hop Up & Motor Life magazines road tested a Hy-Drive-equipped Belvedere sedan in their respective January and March issues with amazingly similar mileage results.

Gas mileage (US mpg)Motor TrendHop Up & Motor Life
Steady 30 mph22.422.8
Steady 45 mph20.720.9
Steady 60 mph16.516.0
Steady 75 mph13.4Not reported
Total mileage1,215 miles; 16.0 mpg812 miles; 15.2 mpg
Top speed86.1785.96

Performance tests by the two magazines also netted similar readings. Motor Trend covered the quarter mile in 22.7 sec, Motor Life in 22.4. Accelerating from 0-60mph took Motor Life drivers 24.5 sec to Motor Trend's 24.7sec.
Motor Trend later road tested an overdrive-equipped Belvedere Suburban in its September station wagon issue, recording a 17.3 mpg average with a top speed of only 72mph.

Twenty-six years later Joe Suminski, Paul Curtis, and Jim Fiori of the Plymouth Owners Club road tested a similar Belvedere sedan for the Plymouth Bulletin. Borrowing an electric fifth wheel from Chrysler Corporation, the then-twenty-six year-old car, showing 33,000 miles on the odometer, zipped through the quarter mile in 22.5 sec at 66 mph. Considerably lower was a 0- 60 mph time of 18.5 seconds.

The Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevils switched, briefly, from Ford to 1954 Plymouths in their show (before switching to Chevrolet the next year). The Chitwood shows had evolved from the late Lucky Teter's Hell Drivers, which had used Plymouth exclusively in the late 1930s. After the switch to Chevrolet in 1955, the Chitwood cars bore a take off of Plymouth's old familiar "Look At All Three" slogan reading, "I've tried all three, comparison proves Chevy for me."

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Despite its attempts at righting the wrongs committed with the 1953 cars, Plymouth soon found itself in deep trouble in the sales arena. By December 1953, two- and three-day work weeks were common during the holiday season as sales began to tumble. January sales slumped 29% below that of the previous year, causing Chrysler President L. L. Colbert to call in 1,700 field men for a full week's "skull session." Plymouth's second shift was eliminated on January 11, idling 2,350 workmen. January 25 saw production schedules cut from 2,100 to just 1,200 cars per day, By early February sales were down 40% from 1953, with the factory building sold orders only.

The first week of March saw an upsurge in sales, resulting in 2,000 Plymouth plant workers and 5,700 body division workers being called back. This euphoria was short-lived, however, as workers in the Mack Avenue body plant staged a wildcat strike on March 10, idling 8,200 workers including 3,000 at Lynch Road.

March 26 saw 900 workers at Evansville laid off, Evansville car output schedules rose forty cars per day on May 3, but on that very same day a week-long labor confrontation was launched in the body division ultimately idling 16,000 workers.

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Four-day work weeks were the norm in July, when a July 19-23 strike at Dodge Main, which supplied engines and transmissions, held final assembly to just two days per week. Then the lines shut down for changeover on August 13, 5,200 of 7,400 additional workmen were laid off. Model year changeover also signaled the end of production at the San Leandro, California, plant (which had been building Plymouths since 1949).

As the final tallies were made, Plymouth discovered that 1954 had been the first year the top line series had not outsold the less expensive models. Belvedere sales had accounted for only 32% of total production, a far cry from the record of 86.7% Deluxe models sold in 1937. By 1958 the number would slip even further to just 26.5%.

Motor Life had predicted that "more than half a million motorists will become owners of 1954 Plymouths during the coming months." When the final tally was in, Plymouth found that it had not only slipped from third place, but had tumbled all the way to fifth. Buick had finally made good on its challenge to take over the number-three spot, and Oldsmobile had followed closely on its coattails to claim fourth.

R.L. Polk registrations for 1954 showed Chevrolet in the lead, selling 1,417,453 automobiles to Ford's second place 1,400,440. Buick sales were up 59,000 cars from 1953, placing it third with sales of 513,497 cars. Oldsmobile jumped from seventh to capture fourth place with 407,150 units. Plymouth managed to surpass only Pontiac, which slipped from fifth to sixth.

In one short year, Plymouth had slipped from its all-time production high of 600,447 cars to just 381,078 actual sales (production figures showed 463,148 cars built as 1954 models).

Second Chance: The Secret Life of the 1953-54 Plymouth as a Chrysler

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Despite its poor showing in U.S. sales, the 1953-54 body would remain in production in Australia until early 1964. The 1955 Plymouths, while an outstanding success in the United States, were a dismal flop in the Land Down Under. Twenty V-8 Belvederes were imported, but sales were so slow no more cars were brought over. In an attempt to build an "all-Australian" car like General Motors' Australian-built Holden and Australian-built Fords, Chrysler-Australia secured the body dies and began building one line of cars, under the Chrysler Royal nameplate, replacing the previous Plymouth, Dodge, and DeSoto models.

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Introduced in 1957, the Royal was available as a four-door sedan only, engineering coded AP1 (sources argue whether AP stood for Australian Plymouth or Australian Production). The Royal-at around £2,000 Australian-was an expensive car.

Later the Royal four door was joined by the Plainsman station wagon and still later by the Wayfarer coupe-utility. Updated versions known as the AP2 and AP3 were built until the Royal was phased out of production; the last cars sold early in 1964. Utilizing the 1953 American body, Chrysler Australia added front and rear fenders from the U.S. version 1956 Plymouth, complete down to the 1956 taillights. The AP2 fitted a second fin atop the 1956 style fin and adapted a 1957 DeSoto-style front bumper and grill. Side trim was a clone of the U.S. DeSoto Fireflite.

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Early cars were powered by a 230ci engine when mated with a standard transmission and a 250ci six when equipped with the two-speed PowerFlite automatic. Later cars got V-8 power (based on the Canadian 313ci engine) and TorqueFlite three-speed automatic. Standard equipment included vinyl upholstery, carpeting, radio, heater-defroster, and tinted glass in all windows. Options included power brakes and power steering, as well as overdrive in addition to the automatics.

During its seven-year production run in Australia, slightly more than 13,000 1953 Plymouth-bodied Chrysler Royals were built.

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