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Reflections on the Fleet - Part 2 - 1933 and more: Taxis, Squads, and Fire Vehicles

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Copyright © 2002 Curtis Redgap @ Orlando, Florida 2001

I am not an expert. Certain claims contained in my articles are based on materials gained from many different sources. While much of my time is spent on research and verification of the articles no claim for accuracy is made. Overall time and memory are the only things that count. Both can fade as well as never be repeated again.

I wish to thank Jim Benjaminson, author and former Deputy Sheriff, as well as Plymouth Owners Club driving force and acknowledged Plymouth expert, for his overwhelming support in contributing a huge amount of research material to these articles. If you own a Plymouth, used to own a Plymouth, want to own a Plymouth, dream about a Plymouth, or someone you know, or a member of your family going back to 1928 owned or even rode in a Plymouth, you owe it to yourself to subscribe to the Plymouth Owners Club so that you can receive their highly informative magazine. Do not hesitate to contact them!

1933 was quite a year. The United States was deep in the grip of a world wide economic depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt, President elect in November1932, had not yet been sworn into office. Traditionally, the ceremony was in March. FDR swept the election with a 58% margin of the popular vote. In the electoral college, he won handily, 472 to 59. His success was largely based on a brilliant concept that occurred with an unprecedented acceptance address at the nominating convention! In that speech, FDR declared that; "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a 'new deal' for the American people." The "new deal" became the rallying cry for the Democrats. It still is one of the most recognizable slogans to date. His first two administrations were earmarked by the phrase, from 1933 to about 1938.

For business companies, the depression was an enigma surrounded by a puzzle bound by riddles. There was money, yet, there was not. In the succeeding months prior to Roosevelt's inauguration, the country was paralyzed by lack of action through the President Herbert Hoover administration and Congress. Most of the banks of the United States were closed. Lack of confidence, consumer runs on financial institutions, stock value plummets, no loans, no business to be had, and outright fear. The United States of America had a population of 122 million with an estimated 14,000,000 people out of work. Roughly half of that number, or 61 million, were males. Women by far were homemakers, and not laborers. Of 61 million, about 30% were males that were considered as "children" and not included in the labor force. Approximately, then, 39 million men were considered "labor." This translates to an unemployment rate of 35%! There were no jobs. No unemployment existed at that time. No benefits, no anything. Just plain no money.

Yet, to car manufacturers, 1933 was not a bad year. Due to Roosevelt's leadership, where he acted with conservative measures, 75% of the Federal Reserve Banks were open inside of two weeks of his March 4th assumption of the Presidency. Granted, business was nowhere near what it had been, yet thousands of new cars were sold. Gripped with the new found optimism of the Roosevelt administration, companies forged ahead with solid projects, shelving some things for the future, and finding new creative ways to make money.

Plymouth introduced its first, and very own, 6 cylinder engine. It consisted of the flathead design, with a cylinder bore of 3.13 inches, and a long stroke of 4.14 inches which made a displacement of 189.8 cubic inches. It produced 70 horsepower, which was 5 more than the exalted (undeservedly so) Ford V-8 of 1932. However, not to be undone, in the 1933 model year, Ford bumped the 221 cubic inch V-8 to 75 horsepower by bolting on aluminum heads and kicked up the compression ratio to 6.3:1 from 5.5:1.

Chevrolet recognized the huge popularity of the Ford V-8 and modified its "stove bolt" 6 cylinder to a "square" engine with a bore and stroke of 3-5/16ths. This raised the horsepower to 65. Still less than the Plymouth or the Ford. However, Chevrolet was not going for the top speed award. Instead it sought a smooth application of smoothness and lugging power that a whole lot of people appreciated. The Ford V-8 really didn't have that sort of "stump pulling" torque at the low engine speeds. Still, it was not advisable to push a Chevrolet to top speeds for any length of time. The engines did not have adequate oiling with its "splash" lubrication for its internal crankcase workings.

As far as fleet cars go, all the major manufacturers competed in the area to land sales to police, fire, business and taxi fleets. It is just that they went about it in different ways. Ford and General Motors viewed fleets as an area outside their core business, which was, of course, sales to private individuals. The two companies farmed out fleet work to other vendors. As an example, Ford furnished bare chassis to the Bonne and LeBaron coach builders to make into taxis. The Bonne sold for an even $1,000 and the LeBaron style was listed as $995. Some private business may have picked up some of these for their fleet use, however, there would be no way to verify that, unless someone from the past had knowledge of such vehicle or vehicles.

For police work, the standard Ford was available without any sort of modification or consideration to longevity. The same for fire chiefs, although Buick seemed to have gained some notoriety as the car of choice for fire departments.

General Motors adopted the same philosophy as Ford. They sent most all their fleet work out to coach builders. The price range for such cars was similar to that with an adopted Ford chassis. At the time, however, Chevrolet, due to its lack of pressurized lubrication and its archaic brake system was not really the vehicle of choice for fleets. Ford had finally conceded to his frustrated engineering staff to allow full pump lubrication. However, the Ford mechanical brakes, with its long rods and wires, were totally inadequate for the job.

In that area, Plymouth shone with its all wheel hydraulic brakes that were linear and powerful. As well, its 6 cylinder engine had the low speed torque exhibited by the Chevrolet, and the high top speed to match the Ford. That had the built in advantage of being able to sustain top speeds for long periods of time without worrying about the engine, thereby giving Plymouth a unique place in fleet sales. Many departments around the country by 1933 had started to view Plymouth as the car of choice for Police Service for those reasons. taxi companies in a lot of areas, used to (and still do) pick up the used police fleet vehicles and adopt them as taxis.

By 1933, word had started to spread about the longevity of the engine and related running components for Plymouth in the taxi markets. Some taxi fleet owners, getting used police cars with 80,000 to 150,000 miles on them, were gratified to still get 18-21 miles per gallon of gasoline in fleet use! As well, the brakes needed way less attention in adjustments and replacement, adding another cost saving factor in Plymouth's reputation. Still at the corporate level at Chrysler there was no actual "fleet" department or section. Largely, engineering took most of the credit for the longevity of the cars built and put into fleets.

Plymouth sought to capitalize on the Police business through the application of some very special equipment. The public again was outraged at an event that occurred in Kansas City on June 17, 1933. A member of the notorious Barker bank robbery gang had been captured. Since he had escaped from a Federal facility, he was being escorted back to Leavenworth prison by 4 FBI agents, two Kansas City police detectives and the Police Chief of McAlister Oklahoma. As the group entered vehicles at the train station for the trip to the prison, they were ambushed by three men with .45 caliber Thompson machine guns. In the aftermath, the robber, and 4 officers were dead. The other officers were wounded. One of the cars was a 1928 Plymouth. As a footnote, 21 years later, it was revealed that the massacre was a contract hit on the bank robber. His criminal associates feared he knew way too much which would lead to his exchange of information for a lighter sentence. The unfortunate cops just got in the way. Then, as in modern day drug situations, the police were, and still are, way outgunned.

Public response to the "Kansas City Massacre" was loud and fast. By October of 1933, Kansas City had taken delivery of a very "special" Plymouth 4 door sedan. The body was fully armor plated. It also had bullet resistant glass in the windshield. There was a gun port built through the windshield on the right side. A steel radiator deflector shield covered the front of the Plymouth. Front tire shields were built into the fenders. Not much else is known about this conversion. It was not done by Chrysler. Jim Benjaminson of the Plymouth Owners Club believes that the job was done by the Perfection Windshield Company. They did take credit for other such conversions in subsequent years. A couple of drawbacks to this design would be the added weight of the conversions. They were estimated to be about 750 pounds! Handling and performance would surely be adversely affected unless the suspension were modified to accept the extra poundage.

This was an era of the United States history when depression induced poverty drove many small time crooks into bank robbery. Unfortunately, anti-government sentiments made them popular anti-heroes in the eyes of many. Law enforcement did not have the reach as it does now with telecommunications, extended jurisdictions and computerization of shared information, thus allowing certain killers to evade capture for a long time as they continued in their murderous pursuits. This most likely contributed to the lack of popularity of such bullet resistant vehicles. Having them is implicit admission that the law breakers were still out there and not subject to capture! Additionally, such specialized equipment would be rendered useless with the introduction of a new body style every model year. Thereby, causing trade in value to be nothing at all.

Chevrolet had a great year in 1933. In mid year the company introduced a new model called (ready for this??) MERCURY. Beating Ford for the name by some 6 years. No, it did not last long, just until the next model year in 1934. The 1933 Chevrolet Mercury rode on a 107 inch long wheelbase as opposed to the Eagle or "Master" series which had a 110 inch long wheelbase. There were also two different engines, although they were built exactly the same. The only difference was the length of the stroke. The Mercury used a 3 5/16 bore with a 3 _ inch stroke. It was rated at 60 brake horsepower at 3000 rpm. The Master series used the very same engine with its 3 5/16 inch bore but had a 4 inch stroke. It was rated at 65 horsepower at 2800 rpm. The Mercury was not widely accepted with only 35,845 produced for the model year. Percentage wise the Mercury's contribution of only 7.9% was enough to convince company officials to change for the next model year in the face of the Master series production of 450,435. No figures are available to comprehensively designate how many cars went to Chevrolet fleet vehicles. However, by extrapolating a constant estimate of all production, perhaps about 5500 cars went for police, fire, taxi and other various fleet services from Chevrolet in 1933.

Ford as well had two models to choose from in 1933. The Model 46 which was a 4 cylinder job, and of course the Model 40 which was the Famous Ford V-8. Horsepower in the V-8 was raised to 75 from 65. This was accomplished by using aluminum heads and a bump in compression ratio to 6.3 to 1. Under the guidance of Edsel Ford, Henry's son, engine reliability had come a long way. The initial 50% scrap rate for the engine block castings had dropped dramatically through trial and error. As well, most of the bearing failure and engine lubrication, while not exactly the best engineering effort, had improved dramatically. With that effort, of course, the piston melt downs stopped too. Ford was again the most popular car for the use of Police departments. Approximately 7500 Fords went into police service in 1933. With an improved frame, different body style, and a more dependable engine, Ford production shot up over 100,000 units from 1932. However, at 334,969, it was still far behind Chevrolet.

The 1933 Plymouth shot its production to the area where Henry Ford was concerned. It closed out the year with 298,557 units. That amounted to 89.1% of Ford's total. Indeed that it made Henry's prediction to Walter Chrysler that he would go broke in the low price field appear to be totally incompetent.

The big news was the introduction of Plymouth's own 6 cylinder engine. It was the F-head type with a bore of 3.13 inches and a stroke of 4.14 inches. The important part is the horsepower rating of 70. That placed squarely between the Ford V-8 and the OHV design Chevrolet. With its exclusive availability in the low price big "3" of 4 wheel hydraulic brakes, the Plymouth impressed a lot of fleet folks. It also impressed the new President of the United States who purchased a 1933 convertible for his wife.

As a good example of just how much stock Walter Chrysler put in Plymouth, the new 1933 PC sales took off very well, then suddenly dropped dramatically. Reacting quickly to the public's vote by their pocketbook, Chrysler made a totally new model within days. The 112 inch wheelbase Dodge frame was covered by Plymouth sheet metal, with a redesign for the front fenders, hood, and grill. Sales recovered quickly to better than former levels. It should be noted that this marked a first in that Plymouth offered two distinct models. History re-writers should take a note here. Walter Percy Chrysler knew that Plymouth was the bread and butter entry level vehicle that his corporation needed to prosper and indeed, survive. That the division was allowed to languish was NOT the fault of the car after Walter left in 1935. Anytime that Chrysler had a good year, Plymouth had a fantastic year. Those that do not know history are doomed, period. So, I see it with the entire Chrysler Corporation.

The 1933 Plymouth in good tune could wax the V-8 Ford in top speed, as well as stopping ability. A lot of fleet managers were reporting very high mileage reliability with the new 6. Some went easily over 50,000 miles without problems. It is estimated that Plymouth sold about 4400 cars to fleets. That would put the total of all three major car production companies to about 17,400 cars into fleet service for 1933. It should be remembered that not all went to police.

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