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The Powell: Carlike SUV Ahead of its Time

by Jim Benjaminson; via the Plymouth Bulletin. For more, see Plymouth, 1946-1959

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If you were looking for an economical, good looking pickup you could use for a second car, a hunting rig, or a utility workhorse - a vehicle with a fiberglass front end to resist parking lot damage, with custom wooden front and rear bumpers, with a pop-up camper option, and all priced and under $130... does it sound impossible? Maybe today, but such a vehicle was made and sold.

In the immediate post-war era, many cars were planned but only a few reached production, and few of those made any appreciable dent on automotive history, though some achieved limited success. The Powell Sport Wagon fits this category.

Hayward and Channing Powell, whose pre-War main business was making motor scooters, were faced with serious competition from Cushman and imports such as Vespa in the late 1940s, as well as material shortages. They decided to move to light pickups, and started with several clear guidelines. Their vehicle must be cheap to buy, ride like a car, drive like a car, and work like a truck, serving as a second car or as a sportsman's hunting and fishing rig.

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The Powells' first prototype, made in 1952, used a Chevrolet chassis and six cylinder engine to keep costs down. While they reportedly thought about using a Ford chassis, when they had to make final decisions for production, they chose to use Plymouth chassis and six-cylinder flat head engines. The chassis had an open driveshaft, better braking system, and more economical engine; the Plymouth was easy to obtain, cheap, and had a parts interchangeability across all Chrysler lines. They chose the 117 inch wheelbase chassis and engines from 1941 Q series Plymouths.

Their first Powell Sports Wagon was completed in 1954, weighing around 2700 pounds with a steel body (except the fiberglass front grille, varnished oak bumpers, and oak tailgate). The Powell stood 68" high with an overall length of 168". The Powells bought Plymouth chassis, without the bodies, from local wrecking yards for $45 and up, shipped them to their California factory, stripped down and reconditioned the chassis, and sent the engines to a Los Angeles firm for an exacting rebuild. The steel body was made in special jigs, with few complex curves that would have added expense. The fiberglass was molded by a boat shop; the chrome came from Fords in wrecking yards.

A unique feature of the Sport Wagon was a concealed tube built into the right rear fender, running lengthwise along the bed. This was designed for carrying long objects or fishing poles. Factory photos of a prototype station wagon show it equipped with a tube compartment on both sides.

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The all steel body was built in the Powell factory directly on the Plymouth chassis. Workmen stripped all unusable parts and pieces from the '41 chassis' to mount the new Sportman body. Upholstery was of heavy duty vinyl stretched over new foam (with no springs). The stock Plymouth instrument panel received a full compliment of gauges and two speed windshield wipers were standard. However, there was no provision for a window defroster. Side windows were of the sliding type and did not roll down. Options were few but included turn signals, two tone paint, and chromed wheel discs. The completed rig was rated as a 1/4 ton pickup, and initially sold for $999.

Walt Woron, Motor Trend Magazine's road tester, took a Powell Sport Wagon for a test drive in 1956. By that time the price of the Powell had bumped to $1095 for the standard version, with the deluxe selling for $1198. A factory built pop up camper option increased the price by an additional $295.

Walt was not completely impressed with the Powell's Plymouth motive power. In his test he averaged only 15 miles per gallon, but he figured the little rebuilt six should have delivered at least 17. He finally passed off the poor mileage on the added weight of the camper and the mountainous terrain over which he had conducted the tests. Oil consumption figures were dismal: the engine used over 2 quarts of oil during his test.

Overall, though, Woron was impressed with the vehicle when he considered the use the pickup was meant to take and which he had handed out to it.

By late 1956 the Powell had ceased production. Not because of financial troubles, or stock embezzlement problems such as those that had killed so many of the post WWII car ventures; the company had simply run out of raw material from which to build their product ... the local supply of 1941 Plymouth chassis in rebuildable condition was rapidly depleting. The company closed its doors with many hundreds of orders still on hand.

By the end of production the Powell Sport Wagon was not only offered in a pickup style but a very utilitarian station wagon was built as well. In fact, a close look at a mid-1960s International Travelall and a Powell Sport Wagon station wagon makes one wonder if the IH designers secretly copied the Powell's attractive lines, hoping that no one would notice (or remember).

The Powell was a local product, with most of the completed cars sold in California. Few found homes east of the Rockies.

In addition to the Sport Wagon the Powell Brothers experimented with another novel idea -a self contained motor home. They built three of them in 1953 but never went into serious production.

While the original Powell Manufacturing Company that made the Sport Wagons and Station Wagons was forced into bankruptcy (due to failure to pay excise taxes), with its assets sold in mid-1957, the Powell brothers created a new company to build motor scooters again. The Powell family owns one of the three motor homes as well as a Sport Wagon pickup. The brothers died in 1978 and 1988.

The Powell Sport Wagon was a unique idea, but it was just too early. Today many own a pickup as a second car; they ride and drive like a car and they are used for pleasure as well as business, and with a camper top they quickly convert into the perfect hunting or fishing vehicle. As for fiberglass to prevent corrosion or damage, look at all the modern cars around so equipped, and what custom pickup doesn't sport wooden bumpers?

Hayward and Channing Powell were just about 15 years ahead of their time .... and 15 years behind the times with their antiquated Plymouth chassis and engine!

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