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Plymouth cars of 1959: The end of an era

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

Plymouth's thirtieth anniversary models sat on the edge of change. When the last of these cars came off the assembly lines, the end of an era had been reached. The cars replacing them would be radically different, both in their mechanical attributes and the way they were built.

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The year 1959 would see the closing of one plant and the opening of another, and sadly, Plymouth would bid a long farewell to its coveted number-three spot on the sales charts.

Plymouth's competition entered the market year with completely new cars. The Ford had a more traditional look. Chevrolet-indeed, all of General Motors-had been so taken aback by Chrysler Corporation's 1957 models that a whole new series of cars had been ordered for 1959, despite the fact GM cars had been all new in 1958.

General Motors took a page from Chrysler in designing all of its 1959 bodies around one shell (Chrysler built all of its 1957 wagons on one shell). Chevrolet's entry was a wild-looking, bat-winged affair with huge horizontal tear drop taillights. As rumors floated in the trade press that Chrysler would soon go to unit body construction, Plymouth, in the last year of its three-year styling cycle, would have to make due with the 1957 body shell one more year. To combat the competition's all-new cars, Exner's redesign would have to be more radical than 1958's had been. The cost of retooling the 1959s ran $150 million, with most of that directed at Plymouth.

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The restyling included a new anodized aluminum egg-crate grille with wrap-around parking/turn signal lamps, split by a black screen in the center where the Mayflower sailing ship once again made its appearance. This time the ship shared space with an upward pointing arrow (half of the former horizontal Forward Look emblem). And for the first time since 1928, the ship was seen from the front rather than from the back.

Factory literature proclaimed "Plymouth's bright new emblem symbolizes the spirit in which the 1959 models have been created. A stylized representation of the Mayflower reflects Plymouth's great tradition. The missile poised above it portrays the pace-setting styling and engineering features that set Plymouth ahead in the new Space Age." Perhaps some of Chrysler's space program people had a hand in writing the prose? For Plymouth traditionalists, the good ship Mayflower sailed off into the sunset.

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"Double-barreled" fenders drew attention to the sculpted eyebrows and floating dual headlamps. Taking a styling cue from the 1942 Plymouth's under-bumper air scoop, the 1959 version was designed to give a "jet-intake effect" (1942's had been inspired by race cars). The area beneath the bumper and stone shield were void of any grille work. Fins began to rise at the "C" pillar in a smoother upsweep than previous years, lending the car's rear an illusion of greater length than there actually was. The fin was capped by fluted stainless trim, which cascaded down the fin to the deck lid.

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The hood and deck lid were sculpted, the hood receiving a center windsplit, the deck lid cut from rear window to the body crease molding. This body crease was adorned with stainless trim on Fury and Sport Fury models. Back-up lamps moved back to the taillight in an oval cluster, rear bumpers indented in the middle to frame the license plate. Sportone trim was changed slightly and came standard on the Sport Fury and optional on other models. All Sportone panels featured inserts of textured anodized aluminum. A new Plymouth monogram rode on the left corner of the hood and deck lid, with model names in the same style script appearing at the rear edge of the fin.

Plymouth revamped its model names for 1959, dropping the price leader Plaza series. Taking its place was the Savoy in three body styles-four door, two door, and business coupe. One step above the Savoy was the equally demoted Belvedere series, offering a two-door, four-door, two-door hardtop, four-door hardtop, and convertible.

Taking the Belvedere's place was the Fury, which now became a series of cars rather than just a high-performance specialty vehicle. Fury models included a four-door, four-door hardtop, and two-door hardtop. At the top of the line was the Sport Fury, which included two models, a convertible and a two-door hardtop. Nineteen-fifty-nine marked the first year Plymouth offered two convertibles.

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Station wagons continued their familiar nameplates. Leading the group was the four-door Sport Suburban in either six- or nine-passenger form; next in line was the Custom Suburban four-door in six- or nine-passenger configuration. A Custom Suburban was also offered with two-door, six-passenger seating. Rounding out the wagon lineup were the six-passenger Deluxe Suburbans with either two or four doors.

Plymouth Fury steps down; Sport Fury appears

For the purist, an era ended when the Fury name was degraded to include a full range of body styles. In later years the Fury name would be diluted even further, models being assigned Fury I, Fury II and Fury III nomenclature depending on price status. Why Plymouth decided to downgrade the Fury name is unknown. According to Jeff Godshall, obscure corporate records show model names considered for 1959 were Savoy, Wilshire, Belvedere, and Fury. While the first Furys had been all-out performance cars, the car replacing it was a more docile, and it was hoped, more salable unit.

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"Combining Ivy League smartness with Big Ten performance" was Plymouth's description of the Sport Fury series. Powered by the Fury V-800 with Super Pak, the Fury concept had been carried to two body styles, adding a convertible to the already familiar two-door hardtop. Sport Furys were easily distinguished by their special trim, which included a new rendition of the upswept spear used since 1956, only this time the end of the spear formed a cove where a special "Tiffany touch" medallion rode. This circular medallion was finished in black and gold with the grille ornament repeated in the center. A fake spare tire cover was bolted to the deck lid, and the medallion was repeated in the center "hubcap." The continental tire look was a favorite of Exner, but most detractors simply called it the "toilet seat."

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1959 Plymouth engines and transmissions

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It was under the hood where the biggest change could be seen between the old Fury and Sport Fury. Standard in each Sport Fury was the 260 hp 318, still with high-performance carburetor, though now there was just one. A high-performance camshaft, low-restriction exhaust, high-performance intake manifold, and distributor rounded out the engine package. This same engine could be ordered for any car except the Savoy business coupe. Transmission choices ran to everything Plymouth offered, three-speed with or without overdrive, PowerFlite, or TorqueFlite.

Optional (at extra cost) was the Golden Commando 395 "B" block V-8, which replaced last year's 350. With a slightly bigger bore (4.12 inch to 4.06 inch) and the same stroke (3.38 inch), displacement jumped slightly to 361 cid. The new engine was rated at 305 hp at 4600 rpm, virtually the same rating as the 350. Both shared the same 10:1 compression ratio. Like the Fury V-800 engine, the 361 used just a single carburetor; the engine took its name from its stump-pulling torque - 395 lb-ft at 3000rpm.

Special features included a high-performance camshaft, high-performance dual breaker distributor, and high-performance intake manifold and carburetor. This engine, too, was available on all models except the Savoy business coupe but could be coupled only to the three-speed transmission without overdrive or TorqueFlite.

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For those whose horsepower needs were more mundane, the standard V-8 was the 230 hp 318 with two-barrel economy carburetor. Only two models were restricted from using this engine-the Sport Fury and the Savoy business coupe.

Transmission options included the three-speed with or without overdrive, PowerFlite, or TorqueFlite. Fleet buyers or those bent on economy still had the choice of the tired but faithful PowerFlow six. The six hadn't changed any in the last few years, and even the ad writers stopped twisting the figures.

Horsepower was still 132 at 3600 rpm. All the longstanding 6-cylinder attributes were still in place including four-ring pistons and hardened valve seat inserts; new for 1959 were heat-resistant exhaust valves. The six could be had in any Belvedere except the convertible, all Savoys, the Deluxe Suburban, and the four-door six-passenger Custom Suburban, coupled to the standard transmission with or without overdrive or PowerFlite.

Economy and compact cars

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Making it three wins in a row, an 8-cylinder Plymouth copped top honors in the 1959 Mobil Gas Economy Run, squeaking out 21.15 mpg - bettering the mileage of a 6-cylinder Ford by nearly a full mile per gallon on the 1,899-mile trial from Los Angeles to Kansas City. An 8-cylinder Ford came in second with 19.67 mpg, and Chevrolet picked up third with 19.26 mpg.

Chassis remained much the same as the 1957- 58 cars except for the addition of "Constant Level" Torsion-Aire.

Air suspension systems were big news in the industry; General Motors particularly pushing them. The GM system was complex and trouble prone, leaving many a motorist stranded when his air-suspended car sank to the ground.

Acting on the same principle, but applied only to the rear of the car, Constant Level Torsion-Aire worked in conjunction with the five-leaf spring package. The system utilized an under-hood air compressor supplying high-pressure air to a reserve tank that distributed air to rubberized nylon air springs mounted between the body and rear leaf springs. A height control valve automatically charged the air springs with more air to raise the rear end of the vehicle whenever a load was applied, allowing the car to sit level at all times. In case of a system failure, the rear springs (lighter duty units than cars without Constant Level) would still allow the vehicle to be driven.

Interiors featured a "Jet-Age Control Center" instrument cluster featuring an aircraft-style housing and enough buttons to keep the most ardent button-pusher happy. To the left of the speedometer in an angled panel were the transmission controls-four buttons for PowerFlite, five for TorqueFlite. To the right, were another five buttons to control the heater, defroster, and air conditioning. Gauges included fuel and temperature with red lights monitoring oil pressure and amperes. Every control except the radio sat directly in front of the driver and was within easy reach (only the clock could be considered to be out of the driver's normal range).

Riding directly above the steeling wheel was the Mayflower emblem. Dash panels were color keyed to the interior and finished in No-Glare Royalite. Safety padding was optional. A change appreciated by all drivers were the left and right turn signal indicators placed on either side of the speedometer in place of the single-light indicator used for nearly a decade.

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Sport Fury interiors featured viscose metallic cloth in blue, green, brown, or red with bolsters of red and metallic-hued vinyl. Door panels were four toned with seat and bolster materials, ivory vinyl, and a carpeted base strip. The coupe's headliners were ivory hardboard, using a perforated center section, scored side sections separated by ivory bows running from front to back. The front seat wasn't your ordinary bench, nor was it a bucket. Split in three pieces, the outer sections swiveled out at the touch of a lever to aide easy entry and exit. Separated by a folding center armrest, the front could seat two, or with the armrest folded up, three. Swivel seats were standard on the Sport Fury (and DeSoto Adventurer and Chrysler 300E).

Completing the Sport Fury package was the custom nameplate shipped with each car reading, "Sport Fury Built Especially For By Plymouth." Upon delivery the nameplate was to be engraved with the owner's name, then mounted on the glove compartment door. Topping off the interior was a special Sport Fury steering wheel with full-circle horn ring. The Fury and Belvedere wheels had a half ring, and the Savoy a horn bar integral with the spokes.

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Fury interiors were as varied as the body styles. Hardtops got ivory hardboard headliners with ivory bows, sedans color-keyed cotton fabric. Sedan floors were covered in blue, green, brown, or gray carpet while hardtops had the additional choice of red carpeting. Hardtop seats received viscose-nylon Jacquard cloth in blue, green, brown, or gray with bolsters of color-keyed vinyl with pleated inserts. Sedans received the same seat upholstery with bolsters of harmonizing colors-door panels on hardtops simulated the seat fabric with Mylar and grained and pleated vinyls forming a five-tone pattern. Sedans used the same pattern with random-dot vinyl replacing the simulated fabric in the large panel.

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The Belvedere convertible came in blue, green, brown, or gray ventilating vinyl with color-keyed bolsters of metallic-hued vinyl. Convertible door panels were also five-toned in grained and pleated vinyl and Mylar. Belvedere sedans and hardtops shared fabric-viscose Jacquard cloth in blue, green, gray, or tan with color-keyed bolsters; doors were finished in a three-tone pattern of grained and pleated vinyl. Savoy buyers had three two-tone color choices in nylon-viscose fabric, doors finished in block and grain sculptured vinyl forming a three-tone pattern. Savoy floors were covered with black rubber mats.

Even as the price leader the Savoy was dressed up much like its more expensive sisters. "There's no such thing as a 'Plain Jane' in the Plymouth line-up for 1959!" crowed the dealer data book. Standard equipment included the same front-end chrome, chromed taillights, windshield, and rear window moldings as top-line models. Also included were three-quarter length side moldings, two-tone instrument panel, turn signals, foam front seat cushion, dual sun visors, dual horns, and dual front door armrests. Optional Sportone trim was the same as used on the 1958 Silver Special, only now the spear rode higher on the body side. The Sportone trim provided a panel for a second color (painted to match the roof) in two-tone applications. Fury and Belvedere Sportone trim could be had with an anodized aluminum panel or be painted to match the roof.

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Space age gadgetry added to the option list included an automatic headlight beam changer and "Mirror-Matic." The headlight changer, whose sensitivity was controlled by the driver (and overruled by the foot dimmer switch) automatically dimmed the headlamps when an approaching vehicle was 900-1200ft away. The system could also dim the lights when following another car. Working on the same photoelectric principle, Mirror-Matic would adjust the inside rear-view mirror when a following vehicle's lights hit the photoelectric cell. Mirror-Matic was also driver controlled, choosing between "City" or "Highway" settings or "off."

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Heavy-duty options for police and taxi fleets continued to grow. Such standard items as a 50 amp generator, larger fuel tank (23gal capacity), Handy governor, heavy-duty clutch, springs, shocks, heavier seat springs, and high-compression economy head for the 6-cylinder continued to be offered. This year's package included special interior trim for the Savoy business coupe and all Savoy and Belvedere two- and four-door sedans, including two-tone gray vinyl upholstery with heavy-duty interior hardboard backing and heavy-duty floor mat. Taxis could also be ordered with dome lamp switches on all four doors, assist straps on "B" pillars, trip card for the left front door, rear door pull handles, Herculite side window glass, and floor pan sill ramps. Police vehicles could be factory wired for a roof light, including a pre-drilled hole in the roof. With its wide range of heavy-duty suspension and power options, Plymouth was clearly after the police car market. It had begun issuing special police car sales catalogs in 1957; by 1974 Plymouth would dominate the market, selling more police cars than any other auto maker.

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The 1959 models ushered in a new serial numbering system, the second in as many years. Adopted corporate-wide, the system used ten digits. The first digit was the code letter "M," signifying the 1959 model year. The second numeral, using "1" for 6-cylinders and "2" for V-8s, indicated the type of engine (but did not designate which V-8 was installed). The third number in the sequence indicated model series, "3" signified Savoy, "5" Belvedere, "6" Fury, "7" station wagons (without designating series or differentiating between two- or four-door wagons). The fourth numeral indicated assembly plant, using "3" for Evansville, "4" for Los Angeles, "5" for Newark, "6" for Detroit, and "8" for Valley Park (St. Louis). The remaining six digits-all numerals-made up the sequential serial number, all beginning at 100,001.

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Since 1946 the serial number plate had been riveted to the left front door post, but this, too, was changed for 1959. A new plate containing the serial number and other pertinent information including model number, body number, paint code, and schedule (build) date was mounted on the left side of the top cowl panel under the hood. Commonly known today as "fender tags," the data plate has since grown to include information on accessories in addition to the previous named data.

Road test results continued to put Plymouth in the forefront of the performance field. Hot Rod; Mechanix Illustrated, Motor Life, Motor Trend, Speed Age, and Science & Mechanics all tested cars equipped with the Golden Commando 395. In the popular 0-60 mph dash Hot Rod, Speed Age, and Science & Mechanics all recorded a time of 8 seconds flat. Mechanix Illustrated did it in 8.2 seconds, and Motor Trend in 8.5 seconds. Motor Life's lead feet accomplished it in 7.8 seconds. The best any of the testers could do with the competition was a 9.9 second reading for a 352 Thunderbird-powered Ford and 10.1 second for Chevrolet's Super Turbo-Thrust 348 cid triple-carbureted engine.

The Fury V-800 with Super Pak also put the competition in the weeds. Motor Life, testing a station wagon in its February 1959 issue, recorded 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds (top honors went to a 250 hp Chevrolet Turbo-Thrust 348 V-8 at 10.3). Standard engines held their own as well. Science & Mechanics ran a Fury V-800 two-barrel 318 to the magic 60 mph mark in 1l.2 seconds. Chevrolet's 185 hp 283 got there in 13.2 seconds. Ford's Thunderbird 292 arrived 1 second later.

Ride and handling continued to be strong points as noted by the same road test magazines. Motor Life, writing in the January issue: "Great handling car. Probably the best-handling sedan put out by Detroit since before World War II. May even surpass some sports cars." Hot Rod tested two cars for its November 1958 issue, one with air-level suspension the other with standard suspension, commenting, "ride and handling were excellent on both the test cars." Motor Trend's January 1959 issue echoed the others saying, "Its firm road feel is comparable to a good sports car, an unheard of achievement with power steering."

As they had many times in the past, the federal government again passed legislation aimed at the auto industry. The Federal Automobile Information Disclosure Act took effect in 1959, requiring price stickers on all new cars. The window sticker had to show a vehicle's suggested retail price plus options and freight charges. Like the NADA used car price book, the window sticker changed the way dealers did business, remaining in effect to this day.

The 11 millionth Plymouth was built in March at Lynch Road, but the corporation was in the midst of a shake up, trying hard to keep Plymouth in third place and not quite knowing how to go about it. With 458,000 cars built during the model run, Plymouth had managed to hang onto its coveted third place. Ford and Chevrolet sales accounted for nearly half the new car sales in 1959. "A big reason is Plymouth's production and sales difficulties," commented Motor Life. In the same issue it also noted Plymouth's "quality is its weakest point-materials (are) not as good as competitors and assembly is inferior ... " Despite the company's difficulties, Motor Life also commented, "The 1957-59 Plymouths will be pointed to in the years to come as 'great cars.' Unfortunately, consumers also had concerns about Plymouth quality, and it would be eleven long years before the company would again see third place.

The pilot program begun earlier to separate Plymouth dealers continued. As the 1960 models began production, the number of Plymouth dealerships dropped from 6,308 to 4,138 mostly due to Dodge dealers giving up (many reluctantly) their Plymouth franchise. For the customer who was accustomed to visiting his local Dodge dealer to buy a new Plymouth, the move came as a surprise; few were the dealers who would let the customer walk out the door to visit another dealer. The instantly successful, low-priced 1960 Dodge Dart also hurt Plymouth sales.

Early in 1957 work had begun in the back rooms of Chrysler to prepare a compact car for future sale in the U.S. This project had resulted in several engine designs including both in-line six and V-6 configurations. The in-line six design was chosen May 1, 1958, for an engine displacing 170 cid. Realizing the need to replace the outmoded six in full-size Plymouth and Dodge passenger cars, the same group of engineers were asked to design a suitable larger displacement engine. What followed was the famous Slant Six engine.

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When the last 1959 Plymouths came off the line, the old reliable flathead six was put out to pasture (it was still used through 1968 in some Dodge trucks). It had served long and faithfully, powering millions of Plymouths, Dodges, and small Dodge trucks for twenty-six years. Its replacement would last until 1992, finding its way into 12.5 million vehicles.

A realignment of divisions July 1 found Plymouth and DeSoto combined into a single division (Chrysler and Imperial were combined into a second division, Dodge into a division of its own). This arrangement wouldn't last long. Having denied rumors of a compact car program for the past several years, Chrysler confirmed its existence May 21. Before the first car was built, Plymouth found itself with a new division name and a new mandate. August 8, 1959, saw the Plymouth-DeSoto division renamed Plymouth-DeSoto-Valiant Division of Chrysler Corporation. Powered by a tilted, overhead valve, in-line six, the Valiant would also rob sales from Plymouth.

Valiants began coming off the Dodge Hamtramck assembly line September 21. A "corporate" vehicle (ads boasting "It's Nobody's Kid Brother"), the first Valiants were not exclusive to Plymouth dealers; as late as January 1, 1960, less than half of Plymouth's 4,100 dealers were franchised to sell the car. It wouldn't be until 1961 that Valiant would become a "Plymouth."

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The Valiant and Slant Six spelled a new era for Plymouth. As the last 1959 models were built, the doors at Evansville were closed for good, as it was replaced by the St. Louis plant, which hadn't quite made it on-line for the 1959s. There were other changes in the works as well. The Mayflower emblem, seen on every Plymouth except the 1958s, sailed off into the sunset, to remain unseen until 1994. The Slant Six replaced the venerable old flathead, ads for the new engine reading, "Out Of The Old Maid Class." An equally new method of building cars began as Plymouth-and Chrysler Corporation-switched to "Unibody" construction, in which the frame and body were one integral welded component, replacing body-on-frame construction used since the first Plymouth was built back in June 1928.

A new engine, a new method of construction, a new assembly plant-suddenly it was 1960, and the end of an era.

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