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Plymouth cars of the 1940s (from the Illustrated Plymouth & DeSoto Buyer's Guide)

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Plymouth cars of the 1940s
(from the Illustrated Plymouth & DeSoto Buyer's Guide)

By Jim Benjaminson

When the "Low Priced Beauty With The Luxury Ride" made its showroom arrival on September 21, little did anyone realize this same basic body would still be in production nine and half years later.

The 1940 Plymouth had the same basic theme set down in '39, but nothing interchanged between the two. The body was all new, carried on a 117" wheelbase chassis for all body styles. The longer chassis allowed the engine to be moved four inches forward and the rear axle pushed back by over seven inches, providing ten cubic feet more passenger space and 18 1/2 cubic feet of trunk space; even with a one inch lower roof line, headroom remained the same.

Increased glass area (18% front windshield, 23% rear window) and a new one piece rear window gave the driver much better visibility. Flatter, squared-off fenders carried "speed lines" from the wheels up over the wheel cutout. Deluxe models could be easily identified by their bright windshield moldings and full length body molding.

The number of body styles was much smaller, with the demise of the flatback trunk sedans. The familiar humpback style trunk was now smoothly integrated in all sedan body types. Both P9 Roadking and P10 Deluxe included a business coupe and auxiliary seat coupe (although the P9 auxiliary seat coupe was built only for export), and two door and four door sedans; there was also a Deluxe convertible coupe with fold away auxiliary seats in place of the rumble seat, a station wagon with full glass enclosure, and 7-passenger sedans and limousines on a longer (137.5") wheelbase. A Roadking commercial utility sedan, panel delivery, and export-only station wagon were also built.

Oft times referred to as an "Opera" coupe or club coupe, the Auxiliary Seat Coupe was fitted with two small folding cushions that could be folded against the body sidewall when not in use, behind the main seat cushion.

Minor engine changes brought horsepower up to 84, the optional aluminum high-compression head raising that figure to 87. Other engines included the economy packages, small-bore 70 horsepower export engine (records indicate just one Roadking was shipped with this engine!) and the Canadian long-block powered cars.

A new transmission, with a blocker-type synchronizer, was standard on all models. Identified by its sidemounted cover, an extension case at the rear enabled the shorter 1939 driveshaft to be used despite the cars' increased wheelbase, and years later allowed the easy conversion to overdrive after Plymouth finally made it available - in mid-year 1952.

Rotary safety door latches, Safety Signal speedometer, concealed door hinges (except sedan rear doors and a few P9 business coupe deck lid hinges) along with an across the board switch to sealed beam headlights helped Plymouth garner its second Eastern Conference Safety Award.

1941-Models P11, P11D, and P12

Advertised as the "One For '41," Plymouth marketed three distinct series, for the first time since 1935. At the bottom of the totem pole was the P11 Plymouth, followed by the upgraded P11D, which now took the name of Deluxe, since the Roadking name had been discontinued. At the top of the line was the P12 Special Deluxe.

Unlike 1934, when the PF and PFXX shared different serial number sequences, the P11 and P11D had a common group of numbers assigned to them, yet the factory kept separate production records. P11s came in two- or four-door sedans or business coupes. A handful of auxiliary seat coupes were built, mostly in Canada, although a handful came from U.S. plants, of which all but 20 were exported. Slightly more than 200 P11 station wagons were also built; the commercial car line included a sedan delivery and utility sedan. Total P11 production came to 97,130 units.

P11D Deluxe production included the same body lineup, again with all auxiliary seat coupes sold in export markets. A single utility sedan and single panel delivery were also built as P11Ds-total production amounting to 94,542 vehicles.

With a booming economy, sales of the P12 Special Deluxe easily outstripped the combined P11 total, amounting to 354,139 vehicles. With a price difference of just $60 between the P11 and P12 four door, and only $20 over the P11D, it's easy to understand why buyers opted for the top-of-the-line model.

Special Deluxe came in two- or four-door sedans, business coupes, auxiliary seat coupes, convertible coupes with full rear seats (but the passengers had better have been friendly!), station wagons, and two long-wheelbase sedans, in seven-passenger and limousine form.

To the casual observer, the '41 was a mildly restyled '40-"with a chrome-plated bib." Underneath, there was also little mechanical difference except for a re-geared transmission; automatic shifting was still years away, although PowerMatic vacuum-assisted shifting (seldom seen) was still an option. The only major change was adoption of safety rim wheels, designed to hold the tire on the rim in case of flat or blowout. Without proper tools, the tires were miserable to get off the rim (a special tire tool was shipped with each car), but it was a major safety upgrade that it would take some in the industry decades to catch up to. Buyers could also get 18-inch high-clearance wheels (two inches less diameter than previous years).

1941 would mark the last year for the 201-cubic-inch six. Horsepower had increased slightly, up three from the previous year to 87, with 92 possible with the optional high-compression aluminum cylinder head. Buyers could still opt for the economy engine; the small-bore export engine was not cataloged. Canadian-built Plymouths continued to use the long-block engine.

A front opening, alligator-type hood replaced the butterfly type of years past, and at long last the battery was moved underneath the hood from its position under the driver's seat. A counter-balanced deck lid was a much-appreciated change for the better.

Continuing the design theme of '39-40, horizontal grille bars were employed, this year surrounded by a stainless "heart." Additional body-side trim provided a break line for two-tone paint schemes, a $10 option on two- and four-door sedans only-interiors now featured two-tone upholstery-even the wood-body station wagon could be two-toned, buyers choosing between Honduras mahogany or white maple side panels.

Front and rear fenders again had the speed line differing in the addition of three smaller speed lines embossed at the trailing edge of the fender. 1941 marked the first use of stainless-steel fender beading between fenders and body. Like 1940, running boards remained a "delete" option.

Cars built early in the year were fitted with a flush, 1940-style headlamp door replaced by the more commonly seen "bug-eye" parking lamp-the change made to apparently appease some state laws. The early flush-type headlamp door was used exclusively on cars built to order for the U.S. military, of which Plymouth delivered better than 2,000 units. Predating Federal law by 46 years, Plymouth pioneered a center-mounted stop light in its own housing on the deck lid-unlike 1987, there were no stop-lamp bulbs in the regular tail lamps. The four-millionth Plymouth, a Special Deluxe convertible, was built at the Los Angeles plant during the year.

Sales surpassed the half-million mark again, to 522,080 units-shy some 75,000 units of overtaking Ford for second place.

1942-Models P14C and P14S

Even though Plymouth began early production of the 1942 models (on July 25, 1941), it was becoming evident automobile production would be taking a back seat to military orders. Although the country was not yet at war, military buildup was beginning to take place. Customers and dealers alike were advised, "under Government allotment, Plymouth is building a reduced number of cars to serve the public's needs for automotive transportation." Wise indeed, was the consumer who "read between the lines" and took early delivery of a new car-of any brand!

Only two series were offered, retaining the same model names as '41: Deluxe (P14S) for the less expensive models, Special Deluxe (P14C) for the top of the line. The Deluxe line included a three-passenger coupe, five-passenger club coupe, two-door and four-door sedans. The utility sedan was still cataloged but would be discontinued at the end of the model run after only 82 had been built.

The Special Deluxe line included a three-passenger coupe, five-passenger club coupe, convertible coupe for five, two-door and four-door sedan, station wagon, and, new for the year, four-door Town Sedan (Town Sedans had been added to the other Chrysler lines in '41). The Town Sedan had rear doors that opened in the normal fashion (rather than suicide style), with rear vent windows built into the door frame. The rear quarter panel was scooped out for the extra width of the door. As a premium model, it also had stainless moldings around the exterior windows and a fully carpeted trunk. Selling for just $45 more than the regular sedan, less than 6,000 were built, regular sedans outselling it by a 13-to-1 ratio.

Built on the same body as 1940, the '42 Plymouths took on a more massive look. Running boards were concealed by the lower portion of the door, which flared out to cover them. Grille bars were still horizontal but reduced to just five heavy bars-the top bar containing the parking lamps at the outer edge, inboard of the headlamps. A more massive bumper with two large over riders protected the front license plate. Under the bumper was a sheet metal air scoop to provide "race track cooling."

The familiar sailing ship took on a different look as well, with the ship outline molded into a plastic insert.

At long last, major changes had taken place both under the car and under the hood. A new perimeter frame replaced the X brace frame of previous years, although wheelbase remained at 117 inches.

Motive power now came from a 95-horsepower, 217-cubic-inch six (formerly used by Dodge) with a bore and stroke of 3¼ x 4 3/8 inches (Canadian buyers got 218 cubic inches, with bore and stroke of 3 3/8 x 4 1/16 inches).

As demand for war material continued to siphon supplies of aluminum, cooper, chromium, steel, and tungsten, Plymouth's familiar aluminum pistons were replaced by cast iron-as were war-years replacement pistons. Prior to shutdown of assembly plants, dictated by the government, stainless-steel moldings and grilles were replaced by steel moldings and painted gray in color. Known now as black-out models, these cars have become highly collectible.

The last Plymouth rolled off the assembly line January 31, 1941, nine days prior to a Federal law prohibiting automakers from building any more cars. New cars in stock were shipped until the government froze, these, too-putting them into long term storage-or requisitioning them for military use.

Only 152,427 1942 Plymouths were built prior to shut down of the assembly line on January 31, 1942. New car sales had been frozen January 1st, awaiting regulations of a rationing program to be announced by January 15th (but postponed until February); an amendment to the sales freeze came on January 10th, when sales of new cars were permitted to the military and those holding an A-1-j preference rating. Cars shipped after January 15th were ordered into government stockpiles.

Sales to doctors, nurses, veterinarians, law enforcement, and mail carriers were allowed under a January 29th amendment to the original sales freeze order. On Valentine's Day 1942, all new cars in stock were put into long term storage; dealers were ordered to make the vehicles' tires and tubes available to the military when requested, due to rubber shortages; and owners were required by law to certify to the government they had only five tires and tubes for each vehicle they owned. Spare parts became nearly non-existent. Gasoline rationing (three gallons per week) and a 35 mile-per-hour "Victory" speed limit insured that most vehicles saw only minimum use "for the duration."

It would be four long years before new cars of any kind would available again.

1945-49-Models P15C and P15S

As the war in Europe came to an end and with the defeat of Japan imminent , the Government began letting the auto industry return to production of automobiles. Chrysler Corporation was late getting back into building automobiles (although production of civilian Dodge trucks had begun earlier), the first new cars not coming off the line until October 1945. Chrysler's total production for 1945 amounted to just 1,880 cars-420 Dodges, 368 DeSotos, 322 Chrysler Sixes, and 770 Plymouths. Plymouth production was so minuscule Nash recorded third in industry sales!

Before production could begin, 18,000 prewar machines had to be rebuilt, 20,000 machine tools set in place, along with 70 miles of conveyors, 3,100 linear feet of spray booths, and half a mile of drying ovens.

Pent-up demand and material shortages would see the postwar Plymouth built virtually unchanged until being replaced early in 1949. The 770 cars built in 1945 (684 Deluxe P14S and 86 P15C Special Deluxe) were considered to be 1946 models. Cars built after January 1, 1947, became '47s as those built after January 1, 1948, became '48s. Cars built after December 1, 1948, were considered first-series 1949 models.

Bodies for the P15 series were virtually the same as '42, with minor trim differences. The grille followed the same design motif used since '39, only now the bars were no longer divided across the front of the car, but fell in an alternating wide and narrow pattern. Parking lamps moved below the headlamps, incorporated in the third wide bar. A heavy metal casting now contained the Mayflower ship, cloisonné emblems going by the wayside. The front bumper wrapped around the fender to the wheel opening and most cars were fitted with a pair of bumper over riders.

Body side trim was wider and smooth, eliminating the groove found on '42s. At the rear, only the tail lamps and stop lamp were changed, the Mayflower emblem embedded into the stop light glass.

Few mechanical changes had taken place, the engine remaining a 95-horsepower, 217-cubic-inch six. The compression ratio was reduced to 6.6 from 6.8 (export cars were set at just 5.6). The economy engine package of years past was also continued. Material shortages found Stromberg supplying carburetors in place of Carter, Auburn clutches replacing Borg & Beck, and some engines built in '48 fitted with steel camshafts (these engines carried the letter "S" in their serial number).

Tires sizes remained at 6.00 x 16 inches on cars built through October of '47, when a gradual phase in of 6.70 x 15 inches began. Whitewall tires were not available at any time from the factory during this period, and early production cars were shipped with five wheels but only four tires.

Visual changes were non-existent although running changes were made-interior robe rails and engine splash pans were discontinued during 1946-externally only the cover on the door lock changed!

Prices, although controlled by the Office of Price Administration, continued to escalate to the point where the most expensive model of '46 was more than the least expensive model of 1948! Individual model year production totals were not kept-1,059,489 P15s were built during this time period, with Plymouth solidly holding its traditional third place in industry sales.

1949-Models P17 and P18

In '39, Plymouth had been the first of the low-priced three to unveil its new models. For '49, it would be the last. Entering its Silver Anniversary year, Chrysler spent $90 million bringing its first all-new postwar designs on the market. True to its heritage, Plymouth was conservatively styled in what would later become known as the "Keller three-box school of styling"-one box piled on top of two boxes laid end to end.

Riding on a longer 118½-inch wheelbase, the new cars were 4 3/16 inches shorter than the P15 it replaced. The concept of "larger on the inside, smaller on the outside" is again blamed on Chrysler president K. T. Keller-it would haunt the corporation for years to come.

Introduced to the public in March, the cars were referred to as the "second series" 1949 Plymouths. Plymouth again returned to offering three distinct series. At the bottom of the ladder was the P17 Deluxe built on a 111-inch wheelbase. Austere in terms of trim, bright work, and upholstery, it came in just three body styles-single seat three-passenger business man's coupe, five-passenger fastback two-door sedan, and a revolutionary two-door, all steel-body Suburban station wagon.

A second Deluxe series, this on the longer 118½-inch wheelbase, was also devoid of extra bright work but featured slightly better interior appointments. It was built in just two body styles-two-door notchback club coupe and four-door sedan. Why it and the P17 both bore the designation Deluxe was never explained.

At the top of the line was the P18 Special Deluxe, also on the long-wheelbase chassis. Enjoying more external bright work and sumptuous interior appointments, the Special Deluxe could be had in club coupe, four-door convertible club coupe, or four-door wood-body station wagon.

From the cowl forward all three cars shared the same sheet metal, grille, and bumper. Sedan doors were all hinged at the front and for the first time since the Town Sedan of '42, and rear quarter windows were placed in the door frame rather than the body. Not one single piece of sheet metal, glass, or trim was retained from previous years.

New bulls-eye headlamps sat higher and further apart, above a wider grille that was easily recognizable in terms of family resemblance. Three wide and two narrow grille bars alternated down the face of the car, with parking lamps set under the headlamps, surrounded by the edges of the widest middle and lower grille bar. The unique bumpers carried three horizontal ribs, giving a delicate but expensive look (they would prove to be popular with the custom car set!).

Hood and deck lids sat lower, yet still rose above the fenders; a heavy belt molding separated the rectangular greenhouse from the lower body. More glass area (windshield 37%, rear window 35%) and blind rear quarters all contributed to a formal look. Fenders blended neatly in to the doors-detachable rear fenders remained a Plymouth stalwart.

All series were treated to one of the most beautiful instrument panels ever placed in a low-priced automobile. Three circular white-on-black gauges sat on a rich, dark, wood-grain panel; near the center sat chrome-plated heater-defroster controls. Equally new was a key-start ignition switch replacing the key and push button of previous models; these would become nearly universal in the industry until the 21st century.

Mechanical changes for the second series 1949 cars were few, the box perimeter frame and double wheel cylinder front brakes continued from the P15. Engine displacement remained unchanged, although horsepower was increased to 97 by raising compression to 7.0. A most welcome upgrade was replacement of fuses with a circuit breaker electrical system.

The all-steel station wagon was an industry first (true, Jeep-a commercial vehicle-had an all-steel wagon earlier), literally the run-away hit of the year. Although expensive (exceeded only by the convertible and four-door woody wagon) it accounted for 3.7% of all '49 Plymouths sold-and its growth would only continue to climb. Years later Dell's Car Buyers Guide would call it "probably the most functional automobile built after the Model T." Its popularity would spell doom for all wood-body wagons.

Not getting as early a start because of its delayed introduction, sales of 520,385 second-series '49 Plymouths was slightly lower than those of 1941. To help meet postwar new car demands, an assembly plant at San Leandro, California, went on line, joining those at Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Detroit's Lynch Road, Los Angeles, California, and Evansville, Indiana.

This book is reprinted with the permission and cooperation of Jim Benjaminson, who holds the copyright to the text and to his photos. Also see his book Plymouth 1946-1959.




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