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Plymouth cars of 1955: A Complete Turnaround

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Plymouth cars of 1955: A Complete Turnaround

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

Had Rip Van Winkle fallen asleep in a Plymouth dealer's showroom in August 1954 as the last of the P25 series Plymouths were still on the showroom floors and awakened on November 17 to see the new 1955 models, he would have been easily convinced that he had truly slept for twenty years.

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What sat on the showroom floor was, in the words of Plymouth Bulletin editor Lanny Knutson, "a Plymouth like none other." Plymouth called it "Startling New" - and rightfully so. Popular Science asked, "Do you think old maids will keep buying them?" referring to Plymouth's stodgy image.

If ever an automobile company had come full circle in its thinking, the 1955 Plymouth was proof of the turnaround. It was truly a car "For The Young in Heart."

For those who could resist change, there was still a venerable old flathead six with three-speed manual transmission and no-frills models to choose from. For those who wanted change there was much for which to rejoice. In addition to the new Forward Look design, there was V-8 power, air conditioning, power windows, and even power seats.

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Chevrolet and Ford also introduced all new models for 1955, the new Chevys making their appearance October 28. Ford's November 12 show date put it on the streets five days ahead of Plymouth.

Like Plymouth, Chevrolet's models were revolutionary new cars, introducing V-8 power for the first time since 1918, while Ford's "Y" block V-8 was in its second year. Whether anyone realized it at the time or not, the horsepower race had just launched. Neither Plymouth nor Chevrolet published horsepower figures for their V-8s in early sales catalogs, but as those figures started to appear, jockeying for the highest rating began.

Jeff Godshall, in the April 1982 issue of Special Interest Autos, reflected, "It's hard to say which was more important, the new styling or the new V-8." Without a doubt, both revealed the most complete model changeover in Plymouth's history.

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The 1955 Plymouths were the first cars in which Virgil Exner and his design teams were able to start from a clean sheet of paper. The "Hy-Style" 1954 Plymouth, while a vast improvement over the spartan 1953, had largely relied on ornamentation. The 1955, as Exner noted in Floyd Clymer's Catalog of 1955, " ... is based on the premise that styling must first be conceived as a unity. Ornamentation is then used to accentuate existing highlights rather than to create new ones."

From the outset Exner's designers had been instructed to "correlate form and function in every step," designing a car with motion as its basic styling theme. The result was a design Plymouth crowed "could well become a classic."

From the outset, everything was done to make the car look long and low. Roof lines were lowered by 1.35in and the wheelbase increased an inch to 115 inches. But it was the addition of 10.3 inches to the overall length of the car that was most noticeable. Front tread was increased by 2.56 inches, making it the same as the rear tread. The sharply canted front fenders nosed into the air, sweeping in a clean line to the rear of the car where the "fin-like" rear fenders canted toward the rear bumper, all adding to the illusion of greater length.

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The grille was a simple, single bar as before, only much bolder, rising above the bumper at the extreme ends of the grille cavity, forming a box over the park lamp lens before streaking across the width of the car to join a ribbed center section. Even the hood edge was trimmed in chrome. A massive bumper with a slight prow in the center swept from wheel opening to wheel opening aiding the illusion of extreme length. Like many Plymouths before, the bumper had no protected provision for a front license plate.

The deeply hooded headlamps sat in a chromed recess on all models except the Plaza. On top of the hood sat an abstract swept-back fin ornament that was passed off as a sailing ship and below that, on the peak of the hood, sat either of two new ornaments-one with the number eight centered in the valley of a V, with "Plymouth" vee'd at the bottom; the other a horizontal spear, with "Plymouth" in a straight line, signifying 6-cylinder power.

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The same design theme was carried over to the car's rear, the taillamps hooded by the cant of the rear fenders, vertical taillamp lenses sitting over round back-up light lenses on all models-even the stripped Plaza. The catch was there were no bulbs behind the lenses, unless the dealer checked the correct box on the order blank. The deck lid sat rather high, the lower lip matching a crease in the body sides, level with the bottom of the taillamp lens, creating a coved area beneath the deck lid and rear bumper. Original designs called for the cove to be painted black, a move that was squelched by the time the car had gotten into production.

It wasn't long before custom accessory houses began offering a $17.95 Sportsation rear grille featuring a square egg-crate pattern for all models except the wagons. Deck lid ornamentation included the 6-cylinder or V-8 designations as used on the hood, in addition to PowerFlite or Overdrive emblems on the lower right corner of the lid.

Roof lines were accented by a wrap-around "full-view" windshield that curved up into the roof and around the car's side. Unlike many cars that left passengers to contend with a dog-leg, Plymouth's version relied on a rearward slanting A pillar leaving an unobstructed door opening. The much maligned gas filler pipe problem of 1953-54 was solved by moving the filler door to the right side of the car, a curious location considering it put the gas filler pipe on the opposite side of the car when pulling into the local service station.

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With the introduction of V-8 power, Plymouth found it necessary to use two model designations; 6-cylinder cars were coded P26, V-8 cars P27. The three model names used in 1954 were carried over, with a corresponding number code added to the engineering code. Six-cylinder Plazas were P26-1, while a V-8 Plaza was a P27-1. For reasons unknown, the Belvedere (still the top of the line) became either a P26-2 or P27-2, while the middle Savoy series became the P26-3 or P27-3.

Plazas were sold in five body styles, including a 6-cylinder-only business coupe (which still lacked a back seat and roll-down rear windows), a two-door club sedan, four-door sedan, two-door station wagon, and, for the first time, four-door station wagon, Savoys could be had in just two body styles, either club sedan or four-door sedan, while the Belvedere offered club sedan, four-door sedan, sport coupe, convertible coupe (which mandated a V-8 engine), and a four-door station wagon.

Lanny Knutson reviewed the 1955 Plymouth:
This is the softest riding Plymouth you have ever driven, perhaps even a bit too soft. There's some lean as the car corners, though it doesn't seem excessive.
Upon checking the underside of this Plymouth, you will find that they set the rear leaf springs outboard of the new U-channel frame, lengthening them a half inch and increasing them to a width of two inches.

The front suspension looks not much different from that on a 1939 Plymouth you once owned, except that the shocks are now mounted inside the coil springs.
But there's a recalibration of the whole system that brings about better handling, as does the new symmetrical idler arm steering linkage.

These are the final changes to the proven coil-spring/king-pin system soon to be replaced by torsion bars and ball joints.

Identification of the various models was simple if you knew your body side trims. The bottom line Plaza entered the model year with no side trim whatsoever, though by mid-year it would gain the Savoy chrome spear that ran from the front fender to the trailing edge of the front door. A two-tone Savoy had a narrower strip running forward from above the rear fender crease to the middle of the front door, then curving downward to the rocker panel. This trim, too, would be offered mid-year on the Plaza.

Full dress trim for Belvedere and Savoy club sedans, four-door Suburbans, and four-door sedans consisted of exterior windshield visor trim, front door trim, a lower quarter panel medallion, and an extra-wide drip molding. Full dress trim for Belvedere sport coupes consisted of the windshield visor trim and extra wide drip moldings, in addition to the regular trim consisting of a fender-door spear like the Savoy, a chrome molding running forward from the taillamp and sweeping up (rather than down as on the Savoy) to join the door trim near the center of the door. A third trim strip angled from the front edge of the door, down from the fender strip to the rocker panel molding, Plaza two-tone paint saw the roof, but not upper door jambs, painted a contrasting color.

Belvederes were commonly painted with the roof and lower body from the front doors back in matching color, with the hood, trunk, upper body, and front fenders in contrast.

Aftermarket manufacturers began offering various trim packages for the Plaza and Savoy models. The same company that offered the "Sportsation" rear grille package offered not only a Belvedere-style trim package (the angles were much sharper than original MoPar trim) but a Dodge Lancer-style trim. The Lancer trim began at the base of the windshield post, angled back across the doors where it swooped up from a "Darrin Dip" (named for a design cue used by Howard Darrin on some Packard models) to run back across the rear quarter of the car, coming to a stop even with the top of the taillamp. At under $20, the trim packages weren't overly expensive but how popular they proved to be is another matter. Not to be outdone, MoPar Parts Division released their own "Sportone" molding packages, ranging in price from $19 to $33, for Plaza, Savoy, and Belvedere four-door sedans and club coupes.

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Interiors were as restyled as the exterior. Getting into the car was a matter of pushing a button on the door handle-Plymouth's first, and last (until 1962), push-button door handles. Once inside, the driver was greeted by a "Flight Deck" instrument panel. Immediately to the left of the steering wheel sat a large round speedometer, flanked on the right by smaller amp and gas gauges. In the name of symmetry, and much cursed by owners, was the placement of the temperature and oil pressure gauges in front of the right seat passenger. Dividing the two instrument groups was provision for a radio above the center-mounted glove compartment.

Matching the size of the speedometer on the passenger side of the car was the radio speaker grille. The large speedometer dial on early cars reflected into the windshield and windows, a change remedied early in December by painting the outer edge of the speedometer housing and inner rim of the bezel flat black. Instruments were indirectly lighted (a Plymouth feature since 1928). The light switch and heater controls were located to the left of the speedometer, with the windshield wiper knob and the shift lever, on automatic equipped cars, located to the right of the steering column. Instrument panels were painted to match the seat upholstery (the tops finished in no-glare scotch grain) with the center island matching the seat bolsters.

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"Flite Control" shifting may have been a novel idea, but it raised many eyebrows - the shift control lever stuck right out of the dash! "It puts PowerFlite transmission range selection in a class with such simple operations as turning on the lights," read the brochures. Flite Control's gated shift pattern allowed shifting by feel, and to soothe safety concerns, the protruding lever was designed to snap off with as little as 10lb of pressure.

Flite Control lasted just one year, and was replaced by Chrysler's famous-and equally controversial-push buttons for 1956. [Editor's note: the dash-mounted, gated shifter would remain on Dodge A100 trucks, and be resurrected in the 21st century by Toyota for its minivans, quickly becoming a minivan industry standard and appearing on the Dodge Caliber/Jeep Patriot/Compass (thanks, Nick Taylor).]

Once again, all interior trim was color-coordinated to the exterior. Belvedere interiors were, of course, more luxurious than Savoy or Plaza. Black interiors featured "Black Magic" Boucle with an interwoven silver Lurex thread; upholstery in other colors featured a "Ship & Shield" tapestry-like Jacquard cloth, again highlighted with silver Lurex threads, the Plymouth Mayflower embedded throughout the cloth. Savoy buyers were given four choices of interior trim, Plaza buyers three.

Fresh air was still drawn into the interior of the car from a cowl-mounted ventilator. Plymouth also continued to offer electric windshield wipers as standard equipment (with an optional, foot-operated "Jiffy Jet" windshield washer) along with optional Solar Tint glass. Seats were built with forty-four coil springs and eleven jack springs, and all two-door models fitted with forward-folding seatbacks divided in a one-thirds, two-thirds configuration. Newly available were several dealer- or owner-installed seat belt packages.

A major improvement with the 1955 models was the switch to suspended brake and clutch pedals, eliminating the drafty through-the-floor-type pedals used since 1928. The longer sheet metal boosted trunk space to 33.8 cu-ft (up 3 cu-ft from 1954), with a counter-balanced deck lid held in the open position by parallel torsion springs. Spare tires were mounted at an angle along the right trunk well, concealing the gas filler pipe that was housed within its own compartment to eliminate gas fumes from entering the car through the trunk.

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The new body rode a longer, boxed frame fitted with two additional body mounts, located both inside and outside of the frame rails.

Front suspension changes included non-parallel "A" arms with Oriflow shock absorbers mounted inside the coil springs. Splay-mounted rear springs were widened to 2.5in with four leaves on sedans (six on wagons) and Oriflow shocks mounted "sea leg" fashion to prevent side sway.

As had been Plymouth's practice since the late 1930s, spring leaves were tapered for quiet operation. Standard equipment on all models was a one-piece, spring steel torsion-type sway eliminator bar. V-8-equipped cars introduced Plymouth buyers to a new type of steering using an idler arm-type linkage with equal length tie rods. Unlike most of its competition, Plymouth continued to build cars with Safety Rim wheels, now fitted with tubeless tires.

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Reflecting the need for more stopping power, V-8 sedans were fitted with 11 inch brakes up front, and 10 inch brakes out back. Six-cylinder cars featured 10 inch brakes all around, while V-8 station wagons wore 11 inch brakes on all corners. Front brakes continued to be serviced by two-wheel cylinders. With the switch to suspended pedals, the master cylinder was moved to the firewall. Parking brakes continued to be mounted on the driveshaft.

Despite its coming of age, Plymouth still clung to a few remnants of its past. Electrics were still 6-volt, now protected by three sets of circuit breakers. Bull's-eye headlamps continued to be used.

For fleet buyers and those glued to tradition, the Power Flow six remained available, now pumping out 117hp from 230ci. The six could be coupled to any of Plymouth's three transmissions, including PowerFlite, overdrive, or standard three speed, At 30mph in high gear, the old six turned 2790 rpm when equipped with either PowerFlite or the standard transmission; overdrive equipped cars employed a 4.1 axle ratio and dropped this figure to 2147 rpm. Both the V-8 and six continued to be mounted using Plymouth's famous Floating Power three-point engine mount.

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The biggest news of the year was the "new" V-8 engine. The engine was not really new and was supplied to Plymouth by Dodge division until a new engine foundry could be completed to supply Plymouth with its own engines. The Dodge V-8, introduced in its B-series of light-duty trucks, delivered 145hp from a displacement of 241ci. Although a Plymouth V-8 had been rumored for several years, it had been held up by the Korean War (as were V-8 engines for Dodge and DeSoto) and Plymouth's lack of manufacturing capabilities. Plymouth's first true V-8 would not appear until 1956, and then only slightly changed from the Dodge version.

At first the Plymouth V-8 was offered in two displacements-a 241ci rated at 157hp with a bore and stroke of 3.44x3.25in and a 167hp, 260ci engine with a larger bore of 3.563in, both using a compression ratio of 7.6:1. Shortly after introduction, a four barrel 177hp version of the 260 hit the streets. Maximum torque was achieved at 2400rpm on all engines, the 241 pumping out 217lb-ft and the 260 claiming 231lb-ft whether two- or four-barrel-equipped. Called the Hy-Fire V-8, the Plymouth version differed from other corporate V-8s in that the engine was not a "Hemi."

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The Hemi, which would go on to fame and glory both on the drag strip and race tracks during the late 1960s, was, despite its achievements, an extremely expensive engine to build. The Hy-Fire engine achieved some of the Hemi's free-breathing characteristics by placing intake and exhaust valves diagonally opposite each other in the combustion chamber. This provided better breathing while not restricting valve size as was the case in some other small block engine designs. The design also allowed the exhaust valve to open further into the combustion chamber to exhaust the spent gases.

Low-friction, free-turning valve keepers allowed the valves to rotate freely, minimizing warping, sticking, and wear. Heads were cast of high-alloy material providing integral valve guides and seats. Hydraulic tappets provided adjustment-free operation, the camshaft (also made of high-test alloy cast iron) mounted in five bearings, driven by a heavy-duty silent chain drive. Carburetion came from a dual down-draft carburetor, each throat feeding four-cylinders through a double-deck intake manifold. Automatic choke, automatic manifold heat control, and a heavy-duty oil bath air cleaner were standard equipment, as was the fuel tank mounted Oilite fuel filter.

The V-8, like the six long before it, relied on aluminum-alloy pistons, featuring a slipper skirt design. Unlike the six, only three rings were fitted to each piston. Borrowing a page from the racing fraternity, Plymouth V-8s featured two breaker points in the distributor delivering a hotter spark to special resistor spark plugs.

1955 Plymouths and Australia (by Andrew Ross)

As an Australian, I was unaware that twenty Plymouth Belvedere V8s were imported into Australia in 1955, let alone that they were a sales disaster, setting the scene for the 1957 Chrysler Royal.

In 1955, GM released the Chevrolet 210 and Ford launched the Customline V8. The Chev was only offered in 6 cylinder form but also available was the 1955 Pontiac V8. These were the sole American cars from GM and Ford in Australia. Although priced in the upper bracket, they sold fairly well.

I find it not surprising to learn that the Plymouth failed to take off as I never saw any advertising for them, while the 1954 Plymouth, Dodge and DeSoto cars continued on sale until the Chrysler Royal was released in early 1957; and they were extensively advertised. Given that only twenty 1955 Plymouths were imported I think it reasonable to conclude that any potential buyers were simply unaware that they existed.

In 1958 and 1959, Chrysler Australia imported the Plymouth Belvedere hardtop, the Dodge Custom Royal sedan, and the De Soto Firesweep sedan. These cars were among the most expensive, but were advertised across the country and all dealers carried stock. They could only be described as a sales success. From 1960, when only the Dodge was imported, they began to surpass the numbers of Chrysler Royals sold, and the 1962 Valiant drove the last nail in the coffin of the Royal.

An anti-kickout device on the starter prevented "false starts," cutting off the flow of electricity to accessories while the combination ignition-key/starter was being held open. A 45amp generator, with thermostatic control from the regulator upping output to 57amps during cold weather starts, was deemed adequate for all 1955 models.

A bypass system to circulate water inside the engine while the thermostat was closed was a feature borrowed from the six, but new to the system was a special Pressure-Vent radiator cap. Under normal operating conditions a vent remained open allowing the engine to operate at atmospheric pressure. As coolant approached the boiling point, the valve closed, putting the system under pressure (thus raising the boiling point) and preventing loss of engine coolant. A radiator fan shroud allowed the fan to draw more air through the radiator (Plymouth was the only car in the low-priced field so equipped). A replaceable oil filter element and crankcase ventilation completed the V-8 package.

Continuing the transmission options of the year before, both the six and V-8 could be coupled to the two-speed PowerFlite automatic. Several improvements, including a different transmission input shaft and reaction shaft and seal, were made to the PowerFlite unit for 1955, requiring transmission rebuilders to follow the transmission date codes when replacing parts.

Leading Plymouth's accessory list this year was co-axial power steering, a $96.50 option. Requiring only four turns lock-to-lock, the Plymouth system was an integral part of the car, not an added-on unit like most of the competition, the power steering unit contained within the steering column (only the pump was mounted outside of the steering column). Like its corporate brethren, Plymouth's power steering was oft criticized for its lack of "road feel."

Other accessories included power brakes (MoPar Parts released a dealer-installed power brake unit in November 1954 that could be retrofitted to all models back to 1951 as a $46.75 option.), a power two-way seat providing 5 inches of forward movement and 1-1/8 inches of lift (of the low-priced three, only Ford offered a four-way power seat), power windows on all models (Chevy offered them on its Bel Air and 210 models only, Ford only its Fairlane and Custom), and Airtemp air conditioning.

The Airtemp system mounted the condenser and compressor under the hood, the receiver under the floor of the car, and the evaporator beneath the package shelf in the trunk. Two outside air scoops, located just aft of the rear window, drew fresh air into the system. Vents mounted on the package shelf inside the car forced air up and over the seat to the front of the car, circulating fresh air through the car every 30 seconds.

Sales of the 1955 models took off like a rocket. From the doldrums of late 1954, production leapfrogged to 2,400 cars per day, running three shifts (although the third shift was manned by a skeleton crew) including Saturdays. Chrysler Corporation sales (all lines enjoyed the new Exner styling) jumped 40% over 1954, the corporation grabbing 18.5% of the new car market (compared to just 13% during 1954).

Jack Mansfield, Plymouth's president, told Motor Trend magazine in February that he had never seen anything like it in thirty years in the automobile business. Production during December (1954) was 78,000 units, the biggest single month in Plymouth history, Mansfield set his eyes on 726,000 cars for 1955, a record if it were to happen and double the last year's sales. In the same issue of Motor Trend, L.L. Colbert, Chrysler's president flat out claimed, "We're very serious about putting Plymouth back in third place." The corporation had a quarter million backlogged orders for cars!

Buick remained in the fray, and by the end of January 1955 Buick remained ahead of Plymouth by a scant 1,800 retail deliveries. Both manufacturers were running at all-time highs.

By May, dealers were being told to steer prospective customers toward 6-cylinder cars as Dodge was unable to keep up with demand for V-8s; likewise, buyers wanting PowerFlite were discouraged for the same reason.

Taking Walter Chrysler's 1932 sales slogan to heart, Detroit's largest Plymouth dealer, Petzold Motor Sales Company asked customers to "Look At All Three," boldly displaying, side by side on the showroom floor, a 1955 Plymouth, 1955 Ford, and 1955 Chevrolet sedan. Outside, a fleet of demonstrators comprised of all three makes awaited test drives by prospective customers. When asked the results of this method of selling, Tom Petzold claimed buyers chose Plymouth by a wide margin.

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(Motor Trend)
Quarter mile20.3 @ 98.419.7 @ 9419 @ 97.319.4 @ 95.2
Gas mileage @ 6015.2n/a15.814.0

Road testers had a field day comparing the new models. Motor Trend named Plymouth (when equipped with power steering) the "Easiest Car To Drive" of all the 1955 models. Motor Trend pitted a $2,260 Belvedere V-8 equipped with PowerFlite against a $2,096 Chevrolet 210 V-8 sedan with Powerglide and a $2,123 Ford Customline V-8 with Fordomatic. In the 0-60mph contest Chevrolet racked up top honors at 12.3 sec, compared to Plymouth's 13.2 sec and Ford's 14.5 sec runs. Quarter mile times for the trio saw Plymouth (with the longest elapsed time) take top speed honors with a run of 20.3sec at 98.4mph, compared to the Chevy's 19sec 97.3mph and Ford's 19.4sec 95.2 mph dash.

Gas mileage tests at a steady 60mph put Plymouth in the middle with a reading of 15.2mpg; Chevrolet took top honors with a 15.8mpg reading, Ford placing third at 14mpg. Later in the year Motor Trend tested a 167hp V-8 Belvedere sedan against a Belvedere convertible fitted with the 177hp engine. Despite the convertible's weight disadvantage (due to its header frame) it still outperformed the sedan. The convertible managed a 13.1sec 0-60mph time compared to the sedan's 13.2sec run. Quarter mile times showed similar results-the convertible hitting 94mph in 19.7sec, the sedan 69.5mph in 20.3sec. Mileage (figured on a trip basis rather than steady speed) showed the sedan averaging 15mpg over 1,134mi vs. the convertible's 14mpg reading for 609mi.

By the time the 1955 model year drew to a close. Plymouth had nearly met Jack Mansfield's 726,000 car prediction - ending the year with 705,455 cars (including 1,000 Canadian-built 6- cylinder Belvederes). The 1950 production record had been broken, but Buick still remained in third place. Nearly 48% of Plymouths built had been V-8 equipped. Thirty-nine percent of buyers had chosen the top line Belvedere series (61% with V-8s). Savoy sales amounted to 34% of production (41% with V-8s). The bottom-line Plaza accounted for 27% of total sales, with 70% of all Plazas sold equipped with the 6-cylinder engine. Station wagon sales had risen to nearly 10% of production.

Nineteen-fifty-five proved to be a high water mark for the entire industry, with calendar year sales amounting to better than 7,920,000 cars. The only question that remained now was what could Plymouth do for 1956?

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