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Plymouth cars of 1957: Three Years Ahead

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Plymouth cars of 1957: Three Years Ahead

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

The ads trumpeted: "Suddenly - It's 1960!" and "1960 - Now, Plymouth is three full years ahead."

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"In one flaming moment," read another, "Plymouth leaps three full years ahead-the only car that dares to break the time barrier! The car you might have expected in 1960 is at your dealers today!"

If the hyperbole was to be believed, the new Plymouths sitting in showrooms were originally intended to be 1960 models. In an unprecedented move, Chrysler Corporation had completely revised all five of its car lines, scuttling - after just two years - the new 1955 bodies. What the corporation trotted out in its place were Virgil Exner's best designs ever, not just catching up with perennial styling giant General Motors, but leaving "the General" far behind.

The effect of the new Plymouth sent shock waves through the styling halls of both GM and Ford. One story told of GM styling boss Harley Earl walking into the office of Chevrolet exterior designer C.J. MacKichan, throwing a 1957 Plymouth catalog on his desk and asking bitterly, "Why don't you quit?"

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Dave Holls, now retired from GM design, recalled in a June 1992 Collectible Automobile interview the effect the 1957 Chrysler lineup had on GM. "I never thought we beat the Plymouth. I don't think anybody appreciated these cars as much as we did at GM." The effect of Exner's "Flite Sweep" styling caused GM to drop, after just one model year, its 1958 bodies and redesign an entirely new line of cars for 1959.

1957 Plymouth styling and trim

"The Forward Look of Motion," trumpeted the dealer data book in describing the new look. And nowhere was the forward look more evident than in the wedge-shaped silhouette of the car. Low front fenders and hood, gently sloped windshield, a razor thin flat roof with tapered rear window, and rising fins created the wedge effect. Convertibles and hardtops complemented the styling best, four door sedans probably compromising it at its worst. Station wagons, which usually adapted worst to a design, came off sleeker looking than the sedans.

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If the 1956 Plymouth had been airplane inspired, the 1957 clearly took its cues from space ships. From the eye-browed headlights to the unobstructed greenhouse to the smooth clean sculptured sides, the idea of an earthbound space vehicle was everywhere. A redesigned, flatter, wider, lower frame and a switch to 14 inches wheels helped drop the 1957 Plymouth 5 inches lower than comparable 1956 models. A longer wheelbase, up 3 inches to 118 inches (122 inches for station wagons), was still ½ inch shorter than the 1949-52 cars, although few would have believed it when comparing the two cars side by side. Likewise the 1957 was actually shorter than the 1956 it replaced.

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Later in the year (during May production) the frame was changed, the inner side of the box section on both rails discontinued at a point beginning at the rear spring hanger and extending forward about 18 inches to the frame kick-up section.

Everything had been done to make the car look long, low, and wide. The hood effectively split the headlights at their center line. Original plans had called for real dual headlamps, a move that required approval from each of the forty-eight states. Eight states failed to ratify the change in time, causing Plymouth to mount a parking lamp inboard of each single headlamp.

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A massive front bumper split the grille into two parts, the bumper bar rising up slightly as it crossed the middle of the car, giving a slight barbell shape to the grille. Above the bumper sat the regular grille of thin horizontal bars adorned with a rather abstract version of the Mayflower ship. Under the center part of the bumper was an ungainly looking vertically slotted underpan. If there was an Achilles heel in the Plymouth design it was this underpan; dealers and customers alike complained, and by mid-January the pan, originally sporting six vertical slots, was changed, dividing each slot with a thin vertical bar. An optional bumper guard also helped hide the offending pan.

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It was at the rear of the car that Flite Sweep styling really came into its own. Taillamp lenses completely filled the slightly canted, finned rear fenders; between the lamps was a large expanse of smooth deck lid broken only by the deck lid ornament. Once again the name Plymouth would only appear at the front of the car.

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Round backup lights again sat below the taillamps, reminiscent of the 1956 "jet pods." Rear bumper underpans swept up from beneath a split-level rear bumper that repeated, much more smoothly, the design of the front bumper. The center of the rear bumper was grooved, with a chrome extension cascading down over the rear body pans.

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Side trim was kept to a minimum. Model names appeared on the rear fenders, a V on the front fender signified V-8 power. Even the hubcaps were smooth, coming to a peak at the center. These hubcaps would prove to be popular with the custom car crowd and saw use on many other makes than Plymouth.

Belvedere models were generally adorned with a single spear of stainless running from the front fender's tip to the rear of the car. A double set of spears provided a wedge for color contrasts that were usually painted the same color as the roof in two-tone applications; Savoys had to settle for a stainless strip beginning at the forward point of the front door, running back to a level point with the rear bumper.

On two-tone applications, a canted strip of stainless fell back from this horizontal molding to the rocker panel midway on the front door. The lower body area was painted to match the roof color in two-tone applications. The Plaza, reflecting its low-level status, was usually found without any body side moldings, although the Savoy trim could be added for two toning. Station wagons followed the same patterns as the car lines, the Sport Suburban getting Belvedere trim, the Custom Suburban Savoy trim, and the Deluxe no trim.

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First year of the famous torsion-bar suspension: "the best handling American cars"

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There was more to the new Plymouth than just style. Engineering had been busy as well, dropping the old independent coil-spring front suspension in favor of a torsion bar setup with ball-joint steeling. Torsion bars were not new (Packard had a complex four-wheel torsion bar setup in 1955 and 1956), but the Chrysler switch to the torsion system marked a first for a major American manufacturer.

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With its new Torsion-Aire Ride (there was no air in the system, but with GM and others ready to launch true air-bag suspensions it was obligatory to include the word "Aire"), Plymouth (and its Chrysler stable mates) became the best handling cars on the American roadways.

Racer Brown, writing in the May 1957 issue of Hot Rod magazine, said, "The [weight] distribution figures closely approach some theoretical ideals of sports cars, but set a new standard for fullsized American passenger cars. After thoroughly wringing out the standard Plymouth on all types of road and under nearly every conceivable condition, I was ready to take on all comers and prove the Plymouth was the most road able passenger car ever built in this country."

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Motor Trend went one step further and named Plymouth the best handling car in the country-eventually awarding the 1957 Motor Trend Car Of The Year Award to Chrysler Corporation's five divisions based on "Superior Handling and Roadability Qualities."

Torsion-Aire Ride was a combination of several re-engineered components, including the frame, wheels and tires, suspension, and steering linkage; it included two chrome steel bars mounted parallel to the inner walls of the front frame rails. The front portion of the bar was mounted to the lower control arms while the opposite end was anchored to the car's frame. As the suspension moved up and down the bars twisted, providing springing action.

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Plymouth's superb handling also owed much to the redesigned rear leaf springs. Called "levelizer springs," they were designed with short, stiff leaves in front of the axle and long, soft leaves at the rear. The rear axle was also moved forward of center. This arrangement controlled rear-end "squat" under acceleration. Changing from the splay mounting used since 1953, the springs were now outboard of the frame at both the front and rear of the spring. This helped lower the car's center of gravity and improve rear stability. All models received four springs per side with the exception of heavy-duty suspensions and Suburbans, which had six leaves.

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Plymouth brakes, which had always been a strong point, were redesigned and increased to 11 inches on all models (12 inches late in the year on police cars). Called "Total Contact" braking, a full floating shoe contacted the drum along its length and width for greater braking power. The shoe moved between two rigid steel center plane support plates to guide it evenly to the drum and prevent the twisting found in ordinary brakes. The flexible shoes conformed to the drum even if the drum was temporarily distorted by hard braking. Plymouth continued to be the only car in the low-priced field with two brake cylinders on the front brakes.

Plymouth cars - models and options

Plymouths remained model coded based on status and engine. Six-cylinder Plymouths were coded P30, the V-8 cars P31. Again a numerical designation indicated the series, 1 being a Plaza, 2 a Savoy, and 3 a Belvedere.

Belvedere buvers had their choice between a club sedan (two-door), four-door sedan, Sport Coupe (two-door hardtop), Sport Sedan (four-door hardtop), and a convertible, all with a choice of 6- or 8-cylinder power except for the convertible, which mandated a V-8.

Savoy buyers found one more model to choose from in 1957 with the addition of a Sport Sedan four-door hardtop, which joined the more familiar offerings of a club sedan, four-door sedan, and two-door hardtop Sport Coupe. Plaza buyers were still given three choices, a four-door sedan, club sedan, and the club sedan-based business coupe. True to tradition, the Plaza business coupe saw the least production of any 1957 Plymouth.

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Station wagon buyers continued to be a growing segment of the market (14% of Plymouth's 1957 production), and Plymouth gave these buyers just what they wanted in the form of six different models. At the top of the line was the four-door Sport Suburban, available with either six or nine-passenger seating. The four-door Custom Suburban could also be had with six- or nine-passenger seating, while the two-door Custom Suburban and Deluxe Suburban offered only six-passenger seating.

The hot 1957 Plymouth Fury

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The Plymouth Fury didn't make its public debut until December 3, 1956. Like the first Fury, the car was designed as a high-performance, personal luxury car much in the vein of the Chrysler 300s and was available only in eggshell white with gold accents. Interior appointments included an exclusive combination of cocoa and beige vinyl with coarse, woven cloth inserts; chrome moldings; a 150 mph speedometer; special steering wheel; two interior dome lights; glovebox lock; safety padding package; and airfoam seat cushions.

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Under the hood was Plymouth's most potent powerplant ever, a 290 hp 318 cid engine pumping 9.25:1 compression fed by dual Carter carburetors. Spent gasses flowed out low-restriction dual exhausts. Helping get the power to the road was a complement of heavy-duty equipment, including a 10-1/2 inch clutch plate for standard-equipped cars, heavy-duty shocks, heavy-duty 120 lb-in rear springs, and special 8.00 x 14 inch nylon black sidewall tires mounted on 6 inch rims. Chrysler's new three-speed TorqueFlite automatic was also available.

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Torqueflite automatic debut

Chrysler may have fallen to the back of the pack before it finally offered a fully automatic transmission, but once in the fray, nothing held them back. Derived from the two-speed PowerFlite, the three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission would go on to fame and glory. During the drag racing wars of the early 1960s many racers were astounded to find MoPar drivers using an automatic, rather than the obligatory four-on-the-floor. Coupled to the Fury's dual quad 318, TorqueFlite proved to be a popular option.

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This is an aluminum-cased Torqueflite from a later year; in 1957 it would have had a cast iron case and tailshaft brake

TorqueFlite was optional on all P31-3 models and could be had on P31-2 or P31-3 cars if they were equipped with the optional V-800 engine. PowerFlite remained on the option list for all P30 and P31 models except those with the V-800 option (the V-800 option came on line one week after introduction of the Fury, essentially providing Fury power for any Plymouth body style). By the end of the year, Plymouth had sold a higher percentage of cars equipped with automatics than either of its two low-priced competitors.

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V-8 buyers (Plymouth would also sell a higher percentage of V-8 cars in 1957 than Chevrolet or Ford) could choose between the 277 cid engine, which now developed 197 hp, an additional 10 hp over 1956 thanks to a different camshaft and carburetor, or the Fury 301. The 277 was available only in the Plaza. The Fury 301 was the standard V-8 in Belvederes and Savoys and optional in the Plaza. Looking much like the later 318, the 301 made a one-year-only appearance in 1957. The 301 was based on the 318 block, but had the same 3-1/8 inch stroke as the 277 (the 301's bore was bigger, though). Like the Plaza's 277, the 301 could be had with dual exhaust.

P-30 (Straight Six)P-31: 277 V8P-31: 301 V8P-31: 318 V8
Taxable HP25.44548.948.9
Gross Brake Horsepower132 @ 3,600197 @ 4,400215 @ 4,400290
Torque205 @ 1,600270 @ 2,400285 @ 2,800
Bore x Stroke3.25 x 4 5/83.75 x 3.1253 29/32 x 3.1253 29/32 x 3 5/16
Compression pressure120-150 psi125-165 psi
Max variation
between cylinders
10 psi15 psi
Cylinder numbering
from front of engine
1-2-3-4-5-6left, 1-3-5-7; right, 2-4-6-8
Firing order1-5-3-6-2-41-8-4-3-6-5-7-2
Connecting rod bearingsReplaceable steel backed babbit; desired clearance, .0005 to .0015 inch
Main bearingsReplaceable steel backed babbit; 4 on six, 5 on V8;
.0005 to .0015 inch clearance desired; 2.5 inch diameter (nominal)

Pumping out 215hp in standard form, an additional $36.20 would add a Fury 301 Quad package consisting of a four-barrel carburetor, special distributor, and dual exhausts, raising horsepower to 235 at 4400 rpm. Adding some confusion to this engine was the use of the term "Fury." The Fury 301 V-8 could be had in all car lines except the Fury itself, which came with the 318 as its only powerplant.
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The Fury V-800 engine option, which could be had in any body style, added $245 to the price of the car. Unlike "power packages" offered by Chevrolet, Ford, or even Dodge, the buyer got more than just a hot engine; the package including a heavy-duty transmission (either manual or TorqueFlite), heavy-duty torsion bars, springs, shocks, and 14x6 inch wheels. Plymouth also offered an "uninstalled engine high-performance package" for 277 and 303 engines-what some considered to be an update for last year's Fury. Retailing for $243.45, this package included a dual-quad intake manifold with carburetors, linkage, air cleaners, special tappets and camshaft, gaskets, and a hand choke.

For fleet buyers or the staid set, the old, reliable 6-cylinder soldiered on. A slight boost in power to 132 hp at 3600 rpm was achieved through an increased compression ratio of 8:1. The 6-cylinder power pack was discontinued.

Sixes could be had in any model except the Fury and Belvedere convertible and proved to be popular with taxi cab buyers. Sixes in taxis ran an 8.2:1 compression ratio using a special cylinder head (part 1821845 with casting 1821682-the standard head had part 1731545 with casting 1676337).

Standard axle ratios for 6-cylinder cars at the beginning of the year were 3.73 for manual transmissions (4.1 in mountain areas), 4.1 with overdrive, and 3.73 with PowerFlite (3.9 in mountain areas). V-8s came with 3.54 on standard shift cars, 3.9 for mountain driving and overdrive cars, 3.54 for PowerFlite (3.73 in mountains), and 3.36 with TorqueFlite. Beginning with cars built after February 15, these ratios were changed to 3.36 for PowerFlite V-8s and to 3.18 for TorqueFlite V-8s. A 2.93 axle was offered as an option for TorqueFlite cars beginning in May. The 3.36 ratio was dropped entirely at the end of June, being replaced by a 3.31 ratio.

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As Plymouth's reputation for building hot cars grew, it would only seem logical that gas mileage would take a back seat to performance. Still, Mary Davis, driving an 8-cylinder Belvedere Sport Sedan in the 1957 Mobil Gas Economy Run, proved Plymouth could hold its own. Her car, with a 3.18 axle ratio and 200 "break in" miles on it, scored a first-place in the low-price field, with a winning average of 21.3907 mpg. A second V-8 Belvedere, driven by Richard Griffith, attained a reading of 20.8968 mpg.

Air conditioning continued to grow in popularity. For the first time, all system components were moved under the hood and incorporated into the heating unit, making more room in the trunk where previous components had lived. Hiway Hi-Fi continued as a rarely seen option, as was the Benrus steering wheel watch which incorporated a clock in the center hub of the steering wheel.

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A "Flight Type" instrument panel placed all instruments and controls within reach of the driver. The speedometer, fuel and temp gauge, oil pressure, and amp warning lights (and an optional clock) were mounted in an oval pod on top of the dash panel. Push-button controls for the automatic transmission continued to reside on the driver's left side.

Another of the Plymouth Achilles Heel design features was the interior rear-view mirror mounted to the forward windshield molding atop the dash. Why anyone thought this was a better place than hanging from the upper windshield molding remains a mystery.

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Belvedere interiors offered five choices of Flite Wave cloth and vinyl along with bright gold or silver mylar inserts on door panels, Belvedere convertibles were available with standard Belvedere coupe interiors of five two-tone vinyl designs. Tops continued to be available in black, white, blue, or green, Savoy models could be ordered in any of four Mosaic Weave cloths and vinyl combos while the Plaza limited buyers to three colors of Fleck Cord and vinyl. Sport Suburban interiors were available in three combinations of Sport Tweed cloth and vinyl, while the Custom Suburban (a mid-class vehicle) offered four of the five all-vinyl interior combinations offered on the Belvedere convertible!

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Deluxe Suburbans offered a single interior choice-white Velva-Grain and tan Linen-Texture vinyl. Sport Coupes, Sport Sedans, and Suburbans used multi-piece headliners of pressed board, the sedan models using three pieces per vehicle, Suburbans six. Originally offered in white, blue, or green, the latter two colors were discontinued when supplies ran out in May, leaving white headliners as standard for all three body styles.

1957 Plymouth sales and production

The year 1957 would prove to be Plymouth's best ever, bettering the 1955 record by more than 60,000 cars. Detroit, Evansville, Los Angeles, Windsor, and a new (April 957) plant at Newark, Delaware, churned out 762,231 cars for a market that just couldn't get enough 1957 Plymouths. In the process, Plymouth marched smartly ahead of Buick, reclaiming its traditional third place.

Plymouth accounted for over half of Chrysler Corporation's 1957 sales, as the corporation grabbed 20.4% of the market; the 10 millionth Plymouth rolled off the lines January 24, 1957. Reports of Los Angeles Ford and Chevy dealers discounting cars up to 15% to get customers into showrooms were commonplace; still there was no way Plymouth could compete head-to-head with production from either Ford or Chevrolet. And for the first time since 1935, Ford would find itself the number-one seller with final registrations of 1,493,617 cars. The 1957 Chevrolet, so highly revered in today's collector market, found itself bumped to second place.

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Chrysler had spent $300 million to bring the 1957 models to light, but in the long run they paid a terrible price for their victory. The cars, without a doubt, were some of the best designs turned out by Virgil Exner and his stylists. If they had truly been intended as 1960 models, they hit the showrooms without a full complement of testing. This, combined with breakneck schedules to meet demands, saw quality control take a horrendous slide.

The cars leaked dust and rain water like a sieve, paint faded and flaked off in chunks, and upholstery materials disintegrated in the sunlight. To find a Plymouth (or other Chrysler product) without a tear in the seam of the driver's seat became a near impossibility. Plymouth's highly touted torsion bar suspension wasn't without its share of troubles; a rubber boot originally intended to keep dirt and moisture out of the hex end of the bar had been deleted by "bean counters," As moisture, dirt, and rust began to build up, the bars began to bind and then snap, sending the car nose-diving to the broken side. Fortunately this usually happened at slow speeds. The rubber boot was quickly resurrected, but not without cost to Chrysler's reputation - and a surprise $40 million loss for 1958.

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Quality control was little more than a laughing matter around Detroit in 1957; after all, they were selling cars as fast as they could build them. With 1957 sales reaching 6.1 million cars, Detroit was equally content to shrug off reports that 1957 marked the first year the U.S. imported more automobiles (259,343) than it exported (141,381). The foreign invasion had begun and in the long run the American automobile industry would pay dearly for its mistakes.

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Despite its killer good looks, the 1957 Plymouth and its stable mates gave Chrysler Corporation a longstanding reputation for poor quality. Dave Holls' words ring true, again commenting in Collectible Automobile, "The biggest problem is that [the 1957 Plymouths] were the worst cars Chrysler ever made. Quality was terrible, so every car they sold made an enemy instead of a friend." It was an image still haunting the corporation as late as 1980 when Lee Iacocca went before the U.S. Congress to plead for a billion dollar loan to keep Chrysler Corporation alive.

In the boardroom, an important but unheralded program to establish single-line Plymouth dealerships was being undertaken; during the year 200 exclusive dealerships, free of Chrysler, Dodge, or DeSoto influence, were set up - with more expected in 1958.

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For the next few years Plymouth would find itself on a roller coaster ride of corporate changes. Recognizing the need to modernize, plans were made to phase out Evansville as soon as a new plant in Fenton, near St Louis, Missouri, could be completed. The St. Louis plant, covering 1.3 million square feet of floor space, would service 1,400 dealerships in the southern U.S.

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