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Plymouth lost in the chaos at Chrysler, 1957-1960

by Curtis Redgap

I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles. In some cases, the journals go back 50 years. - Curtis Redgap

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Summer 1959 was hot, and awful for sales. There was no real sense of leadership at Chrysler Corporation. Each Division sailed along more or less like it was a captain of its own ship. Things promised had gone awry, and things that didn't need to happen were about to explode.

Dealers were getting nervous. They could see that the handwriting was getting pretty big on the wall, and Chrysler needed to do something, and something in a big way. "Poor quality control" had been tagged onto anything that Chrysler built. It would take many years to shake it off. A lot of that problem could be blamed directly on marketing.

Dad had been flying around, visiting dealers, OEM suppliers, truckers, and vendors of aftermarket parts. He was not pleased with some of the things he was finding out. Politically, he told us, he had the fuse to tons of TNT. It appeared that many of the top Chrysler brass had arrangements with vendors; instead of the usual maximum fail rate of 4%, some suppliers were getting top bucks for junk that was failing at 20% or higher! Warranty claims were through the roof on things like windshield wiper motors, switches, knobs, cigarette lighters and ash trays.

Auto part

He had not been intending to find out any of this. He had been talking with people to drum up support for letting Plymouth go, as per the agreement that the board had made back in 1954.

The stuff that my Dad had learned kept him awake on more than one occasion. He even contemplated selling out to his General Manager a couple of times. However, some of the things he saw that were going to happen convinced him that Chrysler was moving to correct things, and that quality was the top priority.

The creation of an independent Plymouth

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Starting in 1957, Dad went on several trips to conferences where the promise of putting Plymouth back into its own division, with its own dealerships, was openly discussed. The politics were hot and heavy; no one wanted to give up any turf.

There were close to 700 open franchises. It would have been a good chance to start Plymouth on its own without hurting anyone else. The Board vacillated, and the chance fizzled away.

Plymouth was on the right track, holding third place for 1957 and 1958, and it looked to be on track to hold third place for 1959. It was tough, though; Dodge always held sway, and rest of the Divisions depended upon Dodge for their engines, axles, and other major components.

With the resurgence of Plymouth in 1957, some experimental Plymouth-only stores were set up, scattered around the country, perhaps four or five of them. That was a small bone being tossed to a large dog to keep it quiet while the next move was planned.

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The promise that Plymouth would be set free after it had put itself back into third place was mumbled for a couple of years. In the background, Dodge dealers were playing hard, heavy, and fast with politics in the smoky back rooms. They argued that it was their dealerships that "made" Plymouth. Of course, most of the Dodge dealers would never have survived the 1930s depression if they hadn't had Plymouth cars to sell.

Members of the Dealers' Association that leaned towards putting Plymouth out on its own argued that Pontiac never cried about Chevrolet being a separate make. They also pointed at Mercury, which was actually a Ford; Mercury dealers never cried for Fords in their showrooms!

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Some Dodge dealers were adamantly opposed to letting Plymouth go. They cried that they needed Plymouth, or a car like it, to "lead" customers in. Most Dodge dealers hoped that they only had to sell a customer one Plymouth, because of the lower markups. When that customer came back in for their next new car, the dealers moved him right into a Dodge, which paid them better.

I am sure K.T. Keller would have gone along with that, if it had become an outright game plan. More likely, it was a smooth move by some elements to keep the price niche for Dodge, while putting Plymouth slowly into retirement.

Many car dealers had their income figured out to the dime. They knew the future in marketing the mid-sized cars. Dodge was left with nowhere to go.

  • DeSoto had already moved down a notch with the Dodge-sized Firesweep.
  • Chrysler had moved down a notch into DeSoto territory with the Windsor.
  • Edsel tried to part the waters, but had become an obvious failure.

Some smart people - big names - had taken a good look at the penetration levels in the price niches. It was obvious to them that Chrysler's marketing, so focused three years ago, had fallen flat on its face. The death throes of DeSoto had been heard far and wide, yet Chrysler went on insisting that nothing was out of the ordinary.

Meanwhile, a critical wound for Plymouth was being wrought in the back rooms, and no one said anything.

The Dodge Dart: a bullet for Plymouth

What truly upset Dad was the plans he saw in 1958, marked "experimental," for a Plymouth-sized, Plymouth-priced Dodge car. He began a quest to get that experiment killed, or to get Plymouth out on its own. Dad just couldn't see how the Board could let it happen. He had plenty of evidence of collusions with outside suppliers, with the production numbers of failed parts from those same suppliers, but he didn't have enough stuff to be able to stop the Plymouth-kicking Dodge.

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K.T. Keller was put in charge of Dodge by Walter P. Chrysler; and took over the company when Walter Chrysler retired. Because Keller was Walter Chrysler's hand-picked man, some people may not have attacked him, out of respect to Walter P. Chrysler. Keller was a decent man, but a delegator who was probably unaware of problems. He would never consider dishonesty, so he never looked for it in his people.

As for who made the decision to give Dodge a Plymouth size car, Keller seemed to view Plymouth as a "kid brother," not the one you wanted to tag along with you.

Bill Watson added: When K.T. Keller was promoted, Chrysler
lost Joseph Washington Frazer, who went to Willys and brought in Jeep, then went to Graham-Paige and created the Kaiser-Frazer. Frazer was no engineer, but he respected them; and he had an eye for style, and what would, or would not, sell. I have often
wondered what would have happened if Fraser had become president
in 1935.

Whenever he started to get close to the source to the rumors of that Dodge, it always turned back around that it was a deal made by the board to Dodge in exchange for letting Plymouth compete on its own. They said that, after all, the new small car, Valiant, was going to be sold by Plymouth dealers.

There was a contingent of vociferous and contentious Dodge dealers. Yes, horrors of horrors, car dealers that openly flaunted themselves. The public accepted it, and they made money and sold a whole lot of Dodges. When they spoke, everyone listened. This group may have lead the board down the primrose path.

It would explain why the board approved huge sums of money in design, production, and tooling for a new small Dodge car, rather than cutting Plymouth loose to have their own outlets. Once again the mentality had set in that Plymouth would go on forever, like some sort of self fulfilling entity.

The decision to produce the 1960 Dodge Dart, the Plymouth-sized Dodge, had to have been made in 1957; it took three years of design and development to get a car to the production line (even one so clearly based on an existing car). Yet, 1957 was the year that Plymouth had come charging back, hard! How Dodge accomplished it has never been revealed in any history that I know of. K.T. Keller had run Dodge, though (see sidebar), as had L.L. ("Tex") Colbert - president of Chrysler from 1950 to 1960, and from 1946 to 1951, head of the Dodge Division.

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Since the board was not forthcoming in its intentions, most dealers thought that, with the creation of a Plymouth-sized car for Dodge, and the introduction of a small car for the independent Plymouth stores to sell, the move to put Plymouth into its own stores was moving along.

Dad went to the big dealer show at Detroit in August of 1959. The following announcements were made:

  • The 3,230 Dodge dealers would stand alone.
  • Plymouth would not be getting any outlets of its own.
  • Plymouth would form a group with Chrysler, and another with DeSoto. The Dodge dealer outlets would no longer carry Plymouths.
  • The new Valiant would not be a Plymouth; it was a new brand with its own outlets in the future (the sign at right is an unretouched 1960 Chrysler illustration).

It stunned a great many dealers; over 300 franchises quit right on the spot. This many at once was unprecedented.

Dad was so stunned that he left that very night and came home. All the things he had been arguing for the past two years were for nothing. They had bastardized his concepts, and let Dodge, again, run the show. Poor Plymouth had to struggle along with whatever Dodge handed it.

The marketing dolts even attempted to cut off their direct sales outlets from selling Plymouth and Dodge together! Dad was one of the first who was informed. He knew that his agreement covered just such a contingency, but he had to start a lawsuit to stop the foolishness.

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I still do not understand the Chrysler Corporation board's reasoning. They let Dodge go on its own, but only when it had a Plymouth-sized car of its own. I believe that they made a conscious decision to make Dodge the biggest division. Otherwise, why would they have given the Plymouth size car to Dodge?

Supposedly, Plymouth was moving with a new car in a new market. It wasn't that way in August 1959, though.

On October 9, 1959, the new models rolled out nationwide. I suppose it was a shock for some people to head down to their local Dodge dealership, and find no Plymouths there - but Dodge dealers had their Plymouth-sized car in production in the summer of 1959, so the Dodge Dart was there to take the Plymouth's place.

It was a deliberate move on Plymouth. After 1960, things could never be the same. It was a conniving thrust to put Dodge into the low-priced niche that it had to be in to survive, displacing Plymouth. After over 30 years at the helm, K.T. Keller was going to insure Dodge's survival, no matter what.

Editor's note: The decision not to set Plymouth on its own at this point was odd, because with just the Valiant and one "regular sized" Plymouth, the brand would have done well and supported independent dealerships. Indeed, even with just the Valiant and its variants (Barracuda, wagon), eventually adding modified small cars from SIMCA and Rootes, Plymouth would have been a success. But for 1960, Valiant was launched as a brand in itself, ignoring the long-standing Plymouth. It was an odd decision - creating a new brand while letting the existing brand with the highest sales volume fail.

Go back to the prior sectionComment on this page in the forumsEnd of Plymouth: Editorials

Other parts of this series

More by Curtis Redgap:

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