The History of Plymouth

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 1928 - 2001

Walter P. Chrysler

Turn the clock back to 1928 and you would find the leading light of the American motor industry was Walter P. Chrysler. Having brought the company which bore his name to fourth position in the sales charts within two years of its founding, he was in the process of buying the Dodge Brothers Company for $170,000,000 in stock and $59,000,000 in assumed interest payment on Dodge bonds. And even before the deal had been formalised, Chrysler was already planning to bring out a new low-priced model to try and gain a foothold in the lucrative Ford/Chevrolet market sector.

The first production example of this car, which was to replace the old four-cylinder Chrysler 52 (itself based on the Maxwell, the Chrysler's progenitor) rolled off the production line in great secrecy on 11 June 1928: on 16 June the news was leaked in a newspaper article, which stated that the car was to be called 'Plymouth'. What's in a name? 'Plymouth,' claimed the article, 'symbolises the endurance and strength, the rugged honesty, enterprise, and determination . . . of the Pilgrim band who were the first American colonists.'

The car's first public showing was at the Madison Square Garden in New York the following month. 'Give the public something better, and they will buy,' said Waiter P. about the new car. His publicity department was not so restrained: 'An absolutely new development in motor car style ... new slender profile chromium-plated radiator long low bodies ... new type beaded crown fenders moulded edge running boards ... generous room for 2 to 5 passengers, according to body model ... luxurious deep upholstery and appointment detail such as you expect only in cars of far higher price beautiful bowl-type head lamps ... new 'Silver Dome' high-compression engine, for use with any gasoline smooth speed up to 60 and more miles an hour characteristic Chrysler acceleration ... unbelievable smoothness of operation-at all driving speeds ... new type Velvet-Power engine mountings ... body impulse neutraliser ... new type shock-absorbing spring compensators give exceptional riding comfort ... New type spring shackles-reduce noise, wear, attention. Chrysler light-action internal expanding hydraulic four-wheel brakes - no other car of this price possesses this feature.'

Into the Low-Priced Field with the Throttle Wide Open

The car's price range - $670 to $725 - though not earth-shatteringly low, was attractive enough to lure 58,000 buyers before the year was out. The new car created attention wherever it was shown in Chicago, 30,000 people crowded into the Coliseum to see the Plymouth - and demand was so much above expectation that a new factory had to be hurriedly erected on a 40-acre site in October, to be ready for use early in 1929. The new plant had a daily capacity of 1800 cars, and by May 1929 a total of 1000 cars a day was leaving the factory. Small wonder that Time magazine claimed that Chrysler had 'gone into the low-priced field with the throttle wide open'.

Not unexpectedly sales of the 1929 Plymouth U, which had a slightly larger engine than its predecessor, were up on 1928 figures, though by only 50 per cent, not quite such an advance as one would have expected, considering that the 1928 figures were based on just five months' trading. Prices were down - $655 for the coupe, $695 for the sedan - a trend which continued as the Depression began to hit car sales. As the low-priced model in the Chrysler/De Soto/Dodge/Plymouth range, the marque led group sales, and in 1930 it was announced that the marketing activity was to be rationalised, and that in future dealers selling other Chrysler makes would also sell Plyrnouths, instead of there being four separate dealer organisations.

The 1930 Plymouth U

This gave Plymouth extra sales outlets, while continuing price cuts brought the marque within striking distance of its two rivals Ford and Chevrolet. In March 1930, sweeping price reductions were announced, with the four-door Plymouth sedan now $625, the same as its Ford and Chevrolet equivalents, though the coupe, at $590, was $90 more than the Ford, $25 more than the Chevrolet (the Willys Whippet was cheaper than all of them, but somehow it didn't seem to count). The 1930 Plymouth U was a well-equipped car, with the option of a radio - it was only three years since Philco had manufactured the first commercially-produced car radio - as well as an electric fuel gauge, hydraulic shock-absorbers and a fuel-pump replacing the old vacuum-tank feed.

1928 Plymouth
1928 Plymouth - the first model of the new marque, it was powered by a four-cylinder engine and was available with a variety of body styles.

1931 Plymouth PA
1931 Plymouth PA Sedan.

1897 Olds Motor Wagon
1934 Plymouth two-door tourer. It was powered by a six cylinder engine, and was exported as a Chrysler Kew.

Chrysler Kew / Plymouth 6 cylinder
Front view of a Plymouth 6 cylinder. It was exported as a Chrysler Kew.

1939 Plymouth P8
1939 Plymouth P8 4 door sedan.

1940's Plymouth Advertising
1940's Plymouth Advertising.

1966 Plymouth Signet
1966 Plymouth Signet.

1971 Plymouth Satellite Sebring
1971 Plymouth Satellite Sebring.

1978 Plymouth Sapporo
1978 Plymouth Sapporo, a re-badged Mitsubishi Colt.

Fred M. Zeder

Meanwhile, at the Chrysler Corporation's new Highland Park research centre, Fred M. Zeder and his technicians were working on an all-new Plymouth. The two-year programme of research, testing and re-tooling culminated in the appearance, in June 1931, of the Plymouth PA, available in eight different body styles ranging from ssss to $645, and boasting such advanced features as free-wheeling, a double-dropped frame giving a low centre-of gravity, 'floating power' engine mountings, constant-mesh transmission for easy gear-changing and automatic vacuum-operated ignition advance and retard.

When the third car came off the line, Waiter Chrysler climbed into the driving seat and set off for the Ford office in Dearborn. He spent a couple of hours touring the Engineering Laboratory with Henry and Edsel Ford, then took them out to see the new car. The Fords, it was said, were 'delighted' when Chrysler took them for a demonstration run, then presented them with the car and went home in a taxi, but you have to wonder whether the delight remained as the Plymouth began to take sales from the Model A Ford, especially in prestigious areas like the environs of New York.

The new Plymouth with Floating Power

By now Plymouth was headed by an ex-Ford man, Fred Rockelman, who had been summarily dismissed in March 1930 because he had disagreed with the cavalier treatment which Ford's right-hand man, 'Cast-Iron Charlie' Sorenson, was affording the company's dealer force. Under Rockelman's leadership, Plymouth began an aggressive advertising campaign which emphasised the marque's advantages over its price rivals: 'Look at all three! But don't buy any low-priced car until you've driven the new Plymouth with Floating Power'. It was dog-eat-dog with a vengeance; but times were desperate.

The Chrysler Corporation had its own special formula for beating the Depression: a bank building in Detroit was hired, and staffed with unemployed tellers, then Chrysler transferred its own cash from other banks to meet its own cheques written for employees and suppliers. Salaries and expenses were cut and cut again in the 1931-1932-1933 period, though one thing that Waiter Chrysler would never stint was finance for research. Thus, in 1932, the new Plymouth PB was endowed with a rigid X-braced chassis, an oil filter and 'centrifuse' brake drums with cast iron fused to rims of steel to dissipate heat.

The 1933 Plymouth PD

Then, following a $9 million research and development programme (the largest research budget Plymouth had yet allocated to one model), the 1933 Plymouth PD was launched. It featured a 70 horsepower six-cylinder engine but sold for just $495, which represented remarkable value. It was so popular that output was boosted from 1000 to 1200 cars daily. Plymouth accurately foresaw the market swinging towards dependable cars of quality and filled that need with the PD. During the 1930s the Plymouth name was not used on the British market, where the cars were normally known as Chrysler Kew or Wimbledon sixes, the Kew being a small-bore export-only model.

A novel feature of the 1933 models was the Chrysler automatic clutch, which was equipped with a vacuum servo which withdrew the clutch whenever the throttle pedal was released. 'The mechanism embodies what is known as an inertia compensator,' claimed The Motor, 'which ensures that there is no Iag in operation, and that the clutch takes up without delay. The free wheel is controlled by a lever on the dash, which may take up anyone of three positions. In one the car is controlled in the normal manner. In the second position the free wheel is in operation, and in the third both automatic clutch and free wheel operate.'

The Millionth Plymouth

By now, Plymouths had a more streamlined radiator grille, but styling was always more conservative than on the Chrysler and DeSoto marques, and the Plymouth was never infected by the controversial Airflow styling of its big sisters. The millionth Plymouth was produced on 10 August 1934: it had taken just six years to reach this impressive total, despite the Depression. By now, the marque had acquired coil-spring independent front suspension: the more radically-styled PJ of 1935 also had the improved weight distribution, anti-roll bar and 'Chair-Height' seating which had been introduced on the previous year's Chryslers.

For 1936, the Plymouth P-2 also offered rubber-insulated body mountings and a choice of ten different coachwork styles. For only $40 more than the standard sedan, you could buy a curious model which was, perhaps, designed for unsuccessful doctors, as it could be converted from passenger car to ambulance to hearse in a matter of seconds. Styling for safety was a feature of the 1937 P-4, whose instrument panel incorporated recessed controls and a rounded lower edge raised well above knee height. There was a well-padded roll across the top of the front seats to cusion back-seat passengers in case of an impact, and door handles curved inwards so that clothes could not catch in them. There were now blower units and defroster vents to direct air over the windscreen.

So far, the radiator grille of the Plymouth had been gently raked backwards: for 1938, the trend was reversed, and the fencers' mask grille now stood aggressively erect, giving the cars a somewhat fore-shortened look, as it was set well ahead of the axle. Among the body styles available was a rumble seat coupe, and rear seat passengers could now elect to have a radio loudspeaker all their own, fixed to the back of the front seat, which presumably nullified the effect of all that safety padding. The front end of the 1939 Plymouth was different again, with horizontal slots and headlights in the wings representing the first step towards the 'full-width' styling of a couple of years later.

The Plymouth 'Safety Signal' Speedo

The concealed scuttle ventilator now incorporated a rain trap to prevent the interior of the car steaming up in wet weather, while other aids to the good life included a steering-column-mounted gearshift and power-assisted convertible hoods. Still on the accident-prevention trail, the Plymouth management must have been convinced that, if you could not persuade drivers to keep to arbitrary speed limits voluntarily, you could at least irritate them into complying with the law. To which end, the 1939 Plymouths were fitted with a 'safety-signal' speedometer, a device which sounds capable of reducing the most rational driver to gibbering insanity within a fairly short distance.

At speeds up to 30 mph, the Safety-Signal flashed a green light, between 30 mph and 50 mph it flashed amber, and over 50 mph it flashed red. Anyway, this preoccupation with safety won Plymouth their second design award in 1940, in which year 'rotary door latches' and sealed-beam headlamps became standard; the vacuum-operated windscreen wipers now pivoted from the bottom, rather than the top, of the screen, the better to cope with the divided vee-screen which had made its debut on the 1939 models.

The War Years

Plymouth were also proud to announce that they were the only low-priced car producer to offer a seven-passenger sedan in their model line-up. Apart from minor styling changes, the main new features of the 1941 Plymouths were directed at improving the convenience of operation. Thus the battery was relocated under the bonnet, where it was easier to check its condition, the boot had a counter-balanced lid so that it was possible to use both hands for loading and unloading, and door stays were fitted. More radical changes were made on the 1942 models, which were destined for a short production life as Plymouth switched over to war work.

The 1942 Plymouth 14C had full-width styling, with bonnet and wings an integral whole; the doors curved outwards at their base to cover the vestigial running boards, and now the interior light came on. automatically when the doors were opened. It was a modified version of this model, the 15S, which formed the basis of production immediately after the war; in 1945 the car acquired the new low-pressure 'super-cushion' tyres to add to ride comfort. Station Wagons were part of the 1949 Plymouth line-up: there was a nine-passenger model called the Special Deluxe Station Wagon, with external wood trim and the second and third rows of the stalls removable to increase load space.

The new six-seater Deluxe Suburban had all-steel coachwork, and a clear load space of four feet before the back seat was folded down. Plymouth's description of a feature common to all the 1949 models read as follows: 'Automatic turn-the-key ignition was born to a low-priced car'. For the first time three different Plymouth series were offered: the P-17 Plymouth DeLuxe on a 111-in wheelbase, the P-18 DeLuxe on a 118.5-in wheelbase and the P-18 Special DeLuxe, also on the 118.5-in wheelbase, a range which continued through 1950. That year, an automatic choke was standard, said to be unique among low-priced cars: the 1950 Special DeLuxe, with amendments to the brightwork, was also available in some export markets as the DeSoto Diplomat or the Dodge Kingsway.

The Plymouth Concord, Cambridge and Cranbrook

But in 1951 the old order suffered a shake-up. Plymouth had lost their third place in the US market to Buick, largely, it seems, because of their conservative styling, and the new models were given a mild face-lift and named Concord, Cambridge and Cranbrook. Minor technical changes included electric windscreen wipers in place of the contrary old vacuum wipers, plus Oriflow shock absorbers with 'sea-leg' mountings. This range continued throughout the 1952 model year, with the addition of overdrive as an optional extra plus new two-tone paint schemes. Flush-sided coachwork and one-piece wraparound windscreens were adopted on the 1953 Cambridge and Cranbrook - the Concord was dropped from the model range.

The Plymouth Plaza, Savoy and Belvedere

Hy-Drive torque convertor transmission became available, and two-door hardtops acquired a curious design of front bench seat divided a third of the way across, instead of down the middle so that two people could be seated in the front yet still allow access to the rear seats. There was a further change of image for 1954, with restyled Plaza, Savoy and Belvedere models forming the lineup, with the options of power-assisted steering and two-speed PowerFlite automatic transmission. On 25 March, the Chrysler Corporation revealed that an experimental gas-turbine engine had been successfully tested in a Plymouth hardtop. Larger engines were fitted to the late 1954 Plymouths, but a more fundamental power unit change was on the way.

The Flying Mile Stock Car Record

The 1955 models could be had with a new Hy-Fire V8 engine, which was available in two displacements, with power outputs of 157 bhp and 167 bhp; the larger engine could also be ordered with a four-choke carburetor, which boosted output to 177 bhp. Air-conditioning was now available as an option. Power units were larger still on the 1956 models, which featured push-button operation for the Power-Flite automatic transmission, plus vacuum-servo braking. The biggest engine of all was fitted in the new two-door Fury hardtop, with its gold-anodised aluminum side trim: one of these cars took the flying mile stock car record at Daytona with an officially-timed speed of 124.01 mph.

The Plymouth Sport Fury

Experiments with gas turbine engined Plymouths continued too: in 1956 a jet sedan made the first trans-American crossing by a vehicle of its type. The new year was only a few days old when, on 27 January 1957, the 10 millionth Plymouth rolled off the lines: sales that year were among Plymouth's best, with more than 600,000 cars produced, an output rate which contributed to the building of the 11 millionth Plymouth little over two years later. Now three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission was available as an option, while new torsion-bar front suspension was introduced, along with quadruple headlamps. Topping the range for 1959 was the new Plymouth Sport Fury, which could be bought with electronic fuel injection; its front seats swivelled outwards to facilitate entry and exit, a Plymouth feature of that year, which also saw the demise of the old sidevalve six after 26 years.

The Valiant Compact

Walter Chrysler had launched his first car at New York's Hotel Commodore in 1925; now Plymouth used the same venue for the debut of their all-new V-200 Valiant compact, on 27 October 1959: this unit-construction model featured the latest Slant Six ohv power unit, and had an alternator as standard equipment. There was a new Fury, too, the result of a multi-million dollar modernisation programme at the Plymouth factory. Its huge tail fins marked the end of an era: the following year's Furies would be shorn of these appendages, fitted instead with tail lamps which 'were unique pods, which appeared to float within concave depressions in the rear fenders'.

The Society of Illustrators' Styling Award

There were nine V8 engine options available on the 1961 Plymouth Furies, while the Valiant was now offered with power steering, servo braking and a four-barrel carburetor 'Hyper Pack', raising power from 101 to 148 bhp. A new variant of the Valiant, the sporty-type Signet 200, appeared in 1962, with the option of a die-cast aluminum cylinder block, and won the Society of Illustrators' styling award for design excellence, a fact which did not prevent Plymouth introducing an all-new bodyshell for the 1963 on Valiant and Signet.

Introduced in 1964 was the fast-back Barracuda, followed by V8 Valiants, an intermediate-sized model called the Belvedere and a redesigned Fury, which in 1966 was available in luxurious VIP form. Plymouth's increasingly wide coverage of the market continued into the 1970s with the announcement of the Valiant Duster Coupe and the sporty Road Runner variant of the Satellite (nee Belvedere), as well as the importation of the British-built Hillman Avenger as the Plymouth Cricket. The Satellite designation lasted until 1975, when it was replaced by the Fury nomenclature.

The Plymouth Celeste and Sapporo

The Volare superseded the Valiant in 1976 to become Plymouth's top seller. More interesting was Chrysler's decision to import two Colt models from Japan - the Celeste and Sapporo, both four-cylinder models offering excellent economy.

But in doing so, it seemed Chrysler were intent on badge-engineering the Plymouth marque - and through the late 1970's that was exactly what they did, selling models such as the Volaré, Acclaim, Laser, Neon, and Breeze - cars that were in reality either Chrysler, Dodge or Mitsubishi models. By the 1990s, Plymouth had lost much of its identity, as its models continued to overlap in features and prices with other Chryslers and Dodges.

Rather than let the marque suffer an ignominious end, Chrysler tried to reposition Plymouth in its traditional spot as the automaker's entry-level brand. Part of this marketing stategy included giving Plymouth its own new sailboat logo and advertisements that focused solely on value. However, this only further narrowed Plymouth's product offerings and buyer appeal, and sales continued to fall. Chrysler considered giving Plymouth a variant of the highly successful new-for-1993 full-size LH platform, which would have been called the Accolade, but decided against it.

The Plymouth Voyager

By the late 1990s only four vehicles were sold under the Plymouth name: the Voyager/Grand Voyager minivans, the Breeze mid-size sedan, the Neon compact and the Prowler sports, which was to be the last model unique to Plymouth, though the Chrysler PT Cruiser was conceived as a concept unique to Plymouth before production commenced as a Chrysler model. After discontinuing the Eagle brand in 1998, Chrysler was planning to expand the Plymouth line with a number of unique models before the corporation's merger with Daimler-Benz AG. The first model was the Plymouth Prowler, a hot rod styled sports car. The PT Cruiser was to have been the second. Both models had similar front-end styling, suggesting Chrysler intended a retro styling theme for the Plymouth brand. At the time of Daimler's takeover of Chrysler, Plymouth had no unique models besides the Prowler not also available in the Dodge or Chrysler lines.

From a peak production of 973,000 for the 1973 model year, Plymouth rarely broke 200,000 cars per year after 1990. Even the Voyager sales were usually less than 50% that of Dodge Caravan. In Canada, the Plymouth name was defunct at the end of the 1999 model year. Consequently, DaimlerChrysler decided to drop the make after a limited run of 2001 models. This was announced on November 3, 1999. The last new model sold under the Plymouth marque was the second generation Neon for 2000-2001. The PT Cruiser was ultimately launched as a Chrysler, and the Prowler and Voyager were absorbed into that make as well.

Following the 2001 model year, the Neon was sold only as a Dodge in the home market, though it remained available as a Chrysler in Canadian and other markets. The Plymouth Breeze was dropped after 2000, before Chrysler introduced their redesigned 2001 Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Sebring sedan.

1957 Plymouth Fury 2 door Coupe
1957 Plymouth Fury 2 door Coupe. It was powered by a 5720cc V8.
1962 Plymouth Valiant 4-door
1962 Plymouth Valiant 4-door - the first Plymouth compact.
1974 Plymouth Fury Lusso
1974 Plymouth Fury Lusso.
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