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The Glamour Car: Plymouth for 1938

by Jim Benjaminson; edited by Dave Allen and Lanny Knutson. Courtesy of the Plymouth Bulletin.

Nineteen Thirty-eight was very much a year like 1991 for the automobile industry; one most would just as soon forget ever happened.

The previous year, 1937, had been a record year for most of the industry. It was not as good as the (then current) all-time record year of 1929 had been, but following the terrible years of the Great Depression, it had everyone smiling. Plymouth had built and sold a record 566,128 vehicles in surpassing the previous year's (1936) record. The 1937 sales record would stand until 1950.

Sales for 1938 dropped to 285,704 units (counting commercial vehicles), nearly half the 1937 figure.

Reasons for the recession of 1938 remain unclear but its effect was very clearly felt in the auto industry. Just as today, with production down, workers were laid off and those who remained had a choice of pay cuts or being laid off. It was some choice!

Not helping matters at all was the 1938 Plymouth itself. A mildly facelifted version of the '37 car, it was a car with which the dealers and the public were not happy. The '37 had a "plump" sort of charm about it but, to many, the '38 looked downright pudgy. Its short, fat waterfall grille and the bug-eyed head lamps mounted high on the sides of the radiator shell did little for the looks of the car. Adding insult to injury were the twelve percent higher prices asked for the '38 models - this at a time when money was as hard to come by as it had been during the worst years of the depression. Heaped on top of all this was the fact that dealers' lots were full of used cars taken in during the bonanza years previous. As money got tight the buyers bought good used cars rather than new cars, again hurting Plymouth's new car sales.


Plymouth had lead a charmed life as far as increases in car sales were concerned. Even during the worst years of the depression Plymouth had posted sales gains each year; in 1932 it was the only car to post a sales gain over the previous model year. Walter Chrysler's magic spell seemed to break in 1938. However, despite its significant drop in sales, Plymouth remained the star performer of the Chrysler troupe for 1938 by registering the smallest loss of any in the family. Its drop of 42% still permitted Plymouth to safely hold its position as the industry's third largest producer as it slipped less than did either Ford or Chevrolet. Pushing its market penetration to 15.4%, Plymouth enjoyed its highest such ranking in four years.

The Jubilee Plymouth

Mildly promoted as the Jubilee model marking Plymouth's tenth year of production, the 1938 was also touted in the ads as "the car that stands up best." There may have been some truth in that boast judging from the large number of Plymouth taxi cabs that were seen in 1938.


The '38 Plymouth was was introduced in the fall of 1937 in two series: the cheaper Business line designated model P5 and the Deluxe line coded P6. As the economy worsened many of the people who were in position to purchase new cars picked the cheapest models available. However, they objected to having their cars termed "Business" models. After passing this complaint along to the factory, the dealers were notified in March that the P5 from then on would be named the "Roadking" instead.

Body styles in the P5 Business/Roadking series included a business coupe and two- and four-door fastback sedans. A four-door touring sedan (so called because of its built-in trunk) joined the line in February and a two-door touring sedan was added in March.

The Deluxe P6 series included business and rumble seat coupes, two- and four-door touring sedans, two- and four- door fastback sedans, a convertible coupe with rumble seat, the Westchester Suburban station wagon (which was returned to the passenger car chassis this year) and two seven- passenger sedans. The wheelbase for all models was 112 inches except for the 132-inch wheelbase seven-passenger sedans. Outwardly, the only noticeable difference between the P5 and P6 models was the lack of vent wing windows on the P5 cars.

1938 Plymouth cars drivetrain and chassis

Mechanically, the '38 Jubilee Plymouth was virtually unchanged from the previous years. The engine was still the tried and true L-head six displacing 201 cubic inches from a 3 1/8-inch bore and a 4 318-inch stroke. With a 6.7: 1 compression ratio, it remained rated at 82 h.p. at 3600 rpm. An optional high-compression cylinder head which would have raised the horsepower to 86 was planned. Although it appeared in the Dealer's Data Book, it was dropped early in the model year.

AU engines, whether mounted in the P5 Business/Roadking or P6 Deluxe lines, had P6 serial numbers. Rear axle ratios varied according to the model. Deluxe sedans had a 4.1 ratio; Deluxe coupes and all Business models used a 3.9 ratio; and seven-passenger sedans were equipped with a 4.3 rear axle.

Plymouth offered two different economy operating packages. Economy Group 1 consisted of a smaller intake manifold and carburetor (1-inch rather than 1 1/4-inch diameter) that brought the engine's horsepower down to 65 at 3000 rpm. This package included a 3.73 rear axle ratio on the Deluxe cars; 3.54 on the Business models. Economy Group 2 included, in addition the above mentioned items, manifold heat shields and a throttle stop that held the vehicle speed to 45 or 50 mph.

Floating Power engine mounts, directional water cooling, full-pressure engine oil lubrication, ventilated 9 1/4-inch clutch disks, hydraulic brakes and a safety all-steel body were carry-over items from years past.

The previous years' frame, boxed front and rear with a heavy X-brace as before, now had an oval center housing welded and riveted to the X-brace through which the drive shaft passed.


A new steering system provided quicker and easier response by means of roller bearings in the king pins and a new 14.6: 1 ratio. Standard tire size on Deluxe models was 6.00x16 while the Business/Roadking series was fitted with 5.50x16 tires. The larger tires could be ordered for the latter series at a cost of 15 dollars. Twenty-inch high clearance wheels, fItted with '35-36 hubcaps, were still offered at a cost of $18 for a set of five.


1938 Plymouth styling

According to Chrysler Design, the radiator shell, body and hood were "skillfully blended into one flowing unit." The strong horizontal lines of the hood, belt moulding, one- piece steel top and running boards blended with the down- sweeping streamline curves of the fenders, the trunk and the rear portion of the roof. The headlamps, which were mounted on the side of the radiator shell, flowed neatly into the chrome trim on the hood sides. In addition, the lower edge of each side window matched the height of the hood which, in turn, matched the height of the trunk lid. Plymouth's familiar waterfall grille of years past was replaced by a short, stout and nearly vertical version. Despite its well- integrated design, such as its fender beading melding neatly into the running boards, the '38 Plymouths stubby grille and high "bug-eyed" headlamps gave it a very awkward look. To many it was just downright ugly.

Chrome strips on either side of the lower grille panel and a massive wing-shaped ornament on the lower radiator apron did little to alleviate the car's awkward appearance. Nor did the hubcaps! Looking much like "Baby Moon" caps with the word "Plymouth" stamped on them, they were the plainest design ever offered by Plymouth.

Dealers complained bitterly about the car's styling shortcomings and the factory listened. By February subtle changes were made on the car in an effort to improve the car's appearance.

Sources vary in identifying which cars did or did not receive the changes. The only major change was to move the head lamps two inches down and four inches rearward. This simple move added much in streamlining car's appearance, much improving its looks. Some sources claim that AU cars manufactured after February received this treatment. Others state that only the Deluxe cars were so modified. (Plymouth was the only '38 Chrysler Corporation car to have its headlamps mounted on the side of the radiator shell. All the others had the lamps mounted on the fender.)

New ornamentation added a little chrome trim to an otherwise chrome-bare body. The Mayflower sailing ship radiator ornament was completely redesigned. Another Mayflower, attractively set in an oval shape, adorned the deck lid. (This was the only year that the ship, as such, graced the rear design of a Plymouth. Later models had more complex deck lid ornaments that incorporated the ship as part of the overall design rather than the ship being the entire ornament.) The front medallion was finished in red cloisonne, a departure from the familiar black medallions of years past.

The deck lid of the touring sedan had exposed hinges and a license plate lamp cleverly designed so the bulb could be pulled out when the lid was open and clipped to the interior panels to illuminate the trunk.

Along the back trunk wall of sedans the spare tire was vertically mounted. On coupe and convertible models it rode inside the passenger compartment behind the passenger seat. (Fender mounted spares had not been offered since 1936.1 Modern observers may be surprised that the lower-priced Roadking series came standard with two-toning. That is because all Roadking fenders were painted black no matter what body color was chosen. (Of course, if black was chosen as the body color, the whole car was black.) Roadking buyers had to pay an extra five dollars to get the fenders painted to match the body. All Deluxe models were painted with a single color.

Interior Design

The 1937 "Safety Styling" interior design was continued for 1938. The result of much research by Plymouth engineers, Safety Styling incorporated several features to make the passenger compartment safer in the event of an accident. The lower level of the dashboard was raised above the height of the passenger's knees and all protruding knobs were mounted in a recessed area located at the bottom edge of the center instrument panel. Door handles, both interior and exterior, were designed to curve inward towards the body making the accidental snagging of clothing less likely. The hand brake lever was mounted neatly out of the way under the dashboard; defroster vents were built into the instrument panel. Also for safety sake, the back of the front seat was heavily padded to protect rear seat passengers.


Other interior appointments included provision tor a radio to be mounted in the center of the dash which could be complimented by a rear speaker installed on the rear of the front seat back. The front seat itself was fully adjustable and would raise itself as it was slid forward. Additional features consisted of locking vent wing windows, two ash receivers mounted in the rear seat arm rests, a reading lamp located directly behind the rear seat passengers' heads and, in the sedans, assist and robe cords.

Bucket seats were standard in all two-door models but bench seats were optional. Dash panels featured woodgraining on P6 models; on the P5 they were painted. All cars had full instrumentation with high beam indicators built into the headlamp switch. The windshield, for the fIrst time, was fixed in place. Since it could not be cranked open for ventilation, the windshield didn't need an exterior frame, so such frames were found only on the convertibles and Westchester Suburbans. Safety glass was standard on all 1938 models.

Upholstery consisted of broadcloth or mohair on all enclosed cars. Convertibles featured hand buffed Colonial Grain leather interior seats as standard equipment and rumble seats done in moleskin imitation leather. Leather upholstery was optional in coupes and sedans at $13.50 and $22 each, respectively. Sedan rear seat floors were carpeted but the all front, and rumble seat, floors were covered with rubber mats. Convertible tops were available in either tan or black with the latter coming at an extra cost

1938 Plymouth Accessories

Accessory Group A consisted of a right hand taillamp, windshield wiper and sun visor as well as a cigar lighter and dual trumpet horns. It came at $ 19 extra; $ 13 for convertibles since they came standard with dual taillamps.

Accessory Group B, at a cost of just six dollars, offered only a right hand taillamp and windshield wiper.

Accessory Group C, costing the buyer $35, included all Group A items plus "pillow-type" seat upholstery, special door upholstery panels, front seat back trim, lighter instrument panel and garnish moulding wood graining, constrasting colors on the instrument panel, colored escutcheon plates on all handles, two front door arm rests, a color steering wheel with a chrome horn ring, a special gearshift knob and a glove box lock plus, on the outside, a front bumper grille guard, two chrome license plate frames, chrome windshield wipers, chrome strips on the running boards and five chrome wheel trim rings. Quite a package indeed for the low cost of Group C compared to the Group A price!

In an attempt to cash in on the lucrative taxi cab market, Plymouth offered a host of heavy duty items on both its five- and seven-passenger models, including an 11-inch clutch (91/4-inch was standard), a heavy duty transmission and heavy duty shocks and springs. An Ambulance Interior conversion package was also available for the P5 and P6 touring sedans. For the P5 coupe, a Utility Box could be ordered to significantly increase its trunk's carrying capacity.

Plymouth's Commercial Line

The 1938 PT57 lineup included express (pickup), panel delivery, and cab-and-chassis versions. (The station wagon, which had been part of the commercial line in 1937, was returned to the passenger car line.) Prices were increased substantially and, partly as a consequence, sales decreased by nearly 50 percent, following the trend caused by the 1938 recession. The pickup sold for $585 while panel delivery commanded a whopping $695. Built on a 116-inch wheel- base chassis, the PT57 was again powered by a 70 horsepower engine. Standard axle ratio was 4.1 and both three- and four-speed transmissions were available. Twenty-inch wheels were offered for those buyers who needed extra road clearance.

The panel delivery now had only one door at the rear. The spare tire was carried in the right front fender with a left spare mount optional. The 1937 truck options were continued with the additional new offerings of a speed governor, chromed radiator and headlamp shells, an oil-bath air cleaner and metal spare tire covers. A right hand taillamp was offered on the panel delivery only.

This was the final year that the commercial line would resemble passenger cars. Facelifted from 1937, these models, like the passenger cars, took a nosedive in sales.

Other years - including Dodge and Chrysler. | 1937 Plymouths

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