1929 Plymouth
1929 Plymouth. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Walter P. Chrysler was a man on the move in the automobile industry of the 1920s. He had risen from railroad roundhouse sweeper to president of Buick, before resigning over GM founder William Durant’s mercurial management. He was then hired by the banks to rescue failing Willys-Overland, did the same for Maxwell-Chalmers, and by 1925 had turned Maxwell-Chalmers into the Chrysler Corporation and organized Chrysler Canada. His fame was second only to Henry Ford’s.

Within two years the young Chrysler Corp. was fourth in industry sales, and by 1928 Walter Chrysler was ready for his blockbuster move. That year he added three nameplates by purchasing the larger Dodge Brothers, and created the low priced Plymouth (formerly the Chrysler 52) and mid-priced DeSoto.

Chrysler was ready to take on the Big Two (Ford and General Motors) with the Plymouth as his main weapon. It was named after Plymouth Rock where the Pilgrims landed (it had a sailing ship badge) to symbolize sturdiness and reliability.

The Plymouth was introduced in Madison Square Garden in July, 1928, and reflected Chrysler’s engineering prowess with such features as full pressure lubrication and hydraulic brakes, a first in the low priced field. By May 1929 production reached 1,000 a day.

The stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent economic Depression hurt all automakers, but by 1931 Plymouth stood fourth in industry sales. Chrysler was now one of the Big Three.

The 1931 Plymouth got rubber “Floating Power” engine mounts, claiming “the economy of a four with the smoothness of a six,” and “Free Wheeling,” a feature of dubious merit that allowed the car to coast by disengaging the engine from the driveshaft. It was hard on brakes and soon disappeared.

1997 Plymouth Prowler
1997 Plymouth Prowler. Click image to enlarge

By 1932 Plymouth was third in industry sales after Chevrolet and Ford. For 1933 it got a six-cylinder engine, and the following year brought independent coil spring front suspension, which would be discontinued in 1935 for a few years. A vacuum actuated clutch became available. The millionth Plymouth was built in 1934.

The restyled 1935 Plymouth shared many body panels with the Chrysler “Airstream,” a conventionally styled model produced to counteract poor sales of the controversial Chrysler “Airflow.” In a recovering 1936 economy, Plymouth reached a half million annual production, though still behind Chevrolet and Ford.

Plymouth got more rounded styling and an all-steel top for 1937, then moved toward full-width bodies for 1939, with fender-mounted headlights and column shift. Independent front suspension returned, and there was a last and a first: the last American rumble seat, and the first power (vacuum) assisted convertible top. A nagging feature was the corporation’s “Safety Signal” speedometer that glowed green from zero to 30 miles per hour, amber from 30 to 50, and red above 50.

Plymouth went to full-width styling for 1940-’42 with “alligator” hood and concealed running boards. The Second World War shut down auto production in 1942, and when post-war models arrived in 1945 they would be slightly face-lifted pre-war designs.

Chrysler Corp.’s new post-war models appeared in mid-1949, with less stylish profiles than rival GM. They were dictated by company president K.T. Keller who believed a man should be able to enter a car while wearing a fedora. The popular Plymouth Suburban all-steel station wagon also arrived in 1949, along with key-turn starting, two developments that soon swept the industry.

Chrysler Corp.’s styling broke out with the 1955 “Forward Look,” and Plymouth got its overhead valve V8. Push-button operation of the “Power-Flite” two-speed automatic came in 1956, and Plymouth joined the performance club with the 240 horsepower Fury hardtop.

1957 brought big “Flite Sweep” fins, torsion bar front suspension, and a new three-speed “Torque-Flite” automatic which would develop a strong reputation for reliability. The venerable side-valve six was finally replaced by Chrysler’s famous overhead valve “Slant Six” which bowed in 1960 models. The corporation’s cars, except Imperial, adopted unit construction.

In 1964 Plymouth introduced the radical Valiant-based “glassback” Barracuda but it was overshadowed by the sensational new Ford Mustang. The 1966 Fury VIP model competed with the top line Ford LTD and Chevrolet Caprice, and Plymouth would join the Muscle Car craze with its Satellite, Belvedere GTX, Road Runner and high-wing Road Runner Superbird; some were Hemi powered. Richard Petty’s number 43 Plymouth tore up the NASCAR tracks.

Plymouth and the industry suffered through the 1970s with lower compressions, and safety, emissions, and fuel economy concerns. It responded with the 1976 Volare compact.

Then in 1978 Plymouth (and Dodge) lead the industry with the first American front-drive, cross-engine subcompact car, the Plymouth Horizon (and Dodge Omni). It was Volkswagen influenced and powered by an enlarged VW engine.

Chrysler Corp. was financially stressed by the late 1970s, and Lee Iacocca, recently fired from Ford, took over as Chrysler chairman in 1978. His charisma, some government loan guarantees, and the sturdy front-drive K-cars, Plymouth Valiant (and Dodge Aries) saved Chrysler.

In 1984 the new, industry-leading Plymouth Voyager (and Dodge Caravan) front-drive minivans revolutionized the market. The front-drive Plymouth Acclaim came in 1989 as its family sedan for the next decade, but perhaps ominously, there was no Plymouth among Chrysler’s “cab forward” 1993 LH cars (Chrysler Intrepid, et al).

Since every Plymouth was matched by a Dodge or Chrysler model, the marque seemed to be somehow redundant. Thus it was not that surprising when DaimlerChrysler AG, formed through Daimler Benz’s takeover of the Chrysler Corp. in 1998, announced Plymouth’s demise. The last Plymouths, before it sailed off into the sunset, were the 2001 hot-rod inspired Prowler and the subcompact Neon.

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