Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Chrysler’s Fifties Hits and Misses

1956 DeSoto Fireflite Sportsman 

A few are famous, many are overlooked and most are affordable

Forward Look, Adventurer, Fire Sweep, Firepower, Golden Lion, Letter Car and Hemi: As I wrote those names, a series of images flashed past, each one a pure evocation of a moment in the Fifties. But even with these icons, not to mention NASCAR Grand National titles, world speed records and a Car of the Year award, Fifties Chryslers were at best a distant third place in sales. And how many 1957 Chevrolets do you see for each ’57 Windsor spotted? While Ford and Chevrolet could sell a quarter-million of not just one model, but a single bodystyle, Chrysler or Dodge divisions would have been thrilled with those numbers for the whole lineup, especially considering how many unsold cars they sometimes had at the end of the calendar year.
Aside from a few bright spots such as 1957, the Fifties were a decade of decline for Chrysler. They barely sold half the cars in 1959 that they did in 1950. The worst damage was, arguably, self-inflicted. If they were known for anything, it was as makers of dependable, reliable cars. But all those 1.35 million cars they built in 1957—for one year darn close to the Ford and Chevrolet totals—came back to bite them, because many of them weren’t very good. A combination of poor design and low quality materials had them rusting, vibrating and breaking at unacceptable levels. Hoping to hold onto sales from that year, Chrysler largely reused styling while working on fixing the cars, which made things worse—dealers were unhappy about not having new-looking models, especially when they had to sell, say, a Dodge Lancer against the Impala. Customers saw them and thought of the ‘57s. Sales dropped almost in half and continued to fall, with company finances going into the red for the next two years.
Chrysler started the decade at a disadvantage, with lightly restyled ‘49s for their 1950 lines. They were efficient, modern, dependable and sensible, and desperately unappealing to the style conscious buyers of the dawning decade. Still, those sold on their quality were enough that Chrysler was again looking at being the Number Two automaker, until a 100-day UAW strike cut the legs out from under the company. In some ways, it took close to 20 years for them to recover from that three-month interruption, which says less about how disruptive it was and more about their razor-thin margins. New styling in 1953 pulled them briefly out of a three-year decline in sales, but it didn’t last long and they were falling into a hole by ’54. Earlier, with the American public buying anything on wheels after the War, Chrysler had little incentive to innovate and had even gone to Number Two in sales. As soon as the fever began to wane, though, their weakness was revealed. Ford took over second place in 1952, and the whole economy got particularly cool. According to Allpar, WPC News once reported that in 1954, Chrysler sold new cars to used car lots just to keep the numbers up.
They were in trouble borrowed a quarter-billion dollars from Prudential, while essentially turning the fate of the entire company over to one man: stylist Virgil Exner. Exner wasn’t able to do much on the ‘54s, but his Chrysler and Imperial Forward Look/Million Dollar Look (Two Hundred Fifty Million Dollar Look doesn’t roll off the tongue) was universally acclaimed, and Chrysler’s 1955 sales weren’t topped again until 1964! Exner protégé Maury Baldwin took the 1956 Dodge and Plymouth lines further, although they couldn’t quite recapture the magic of the previous year.
With the phenomenal successes of the ‘55’s empowering his position, Exner went all out on the 1957 line-up. Advancing designs that were supposed to be in the pipeline for years later, he introduced the utterly distinctive quad-headlamp front end and tower-style tailfins and the company set an absolute record for single year sales. But as I mentioned, it was too much at once, and Chrysler product buyers were shocked by unfamiliar quality control problems. The facelifted ‘58s were better, but still not good enough, not when there was an Impala at the dealership across town. By 1959, after two years of Chrysler engineers working to address the failings if the ’57, the cars were right again, if still using the 1957 chassis.
Plenty of Chrysler Corp. models sold more than 100,000 copies in a year, primarily Plymouths, but it was a rare that a single body could reach that mark. Through the decades, fleet sales were a big part of the mix for Dodge and Plymouth, and like today, many departments turned their cars over every other year. Chrysler was generally ahead of the curve in developing police package models, so those can be very interesting, high-performance choices for collectors today. The other big piece of Chrysler production in the Fifties was wagons, as much as 25 percent in some years. They’re lot less than a quarter of the cars for sale today, well under one in 10, with Plymouths making the highest proportion, followed by Chrysler. You’ll find a few Dodge and almost no De Soto wagons for sale, but unless they’re woodies, they’re not likely to be overly expensive.
So Chrysler finished the Fifties with bad news, plus a tarnished reputation which would dog them for years. And it’s a funny thing about an episode such as that: long after it shouldn’t matter, people can still have a bad taste. Maybe the idea that Chryslers weren’t much good was baked in when you were growing up; or maybe it was your dad who had the bad experience, but notions like that can work their way into the national consciousness. For collectors who aren’t so prejudiced, though, that leaves the cars themselves with less love than they really deserve.
Chrysler often seemed to be building cars for the previous year, or maybe somewhere else, making them tall when Ford and Chevrolet went low and wide; or abandoning a long wheelbase while everyone else got a stretch. But the great thing about buying one now is that you don’t have to care if a ’53 Plymouth doesn’t look as cool as the ’53 Pontiac in your neighbor’s driveway. You can like it, or not, strictly on its own merits. You’re not also buying a blue blazer and white flannels—whether it’s in fashion no longer matters.
Nevertheless, some Fifties Chryslers are more fashionable than others and correspondingly expensive today. You know all about the Chrysler 300 series and DeSoto Adventurers; or if you need a refresher, browse through the archives of this magazine. If you own one, I salute you and your IRA on wheels. But looking through the dozens of Fifties Plymouths listed in Hemmings at press time, not one was over $100,000, and there were 48 under $50,000. The top of the Plymouth market is dominated by variations on the Fury theme.
 The Dodge scene was almost exactly the same, with a similar number of cars—just a few D500s over $50,000, but drivable Coronets for $7,000. As you move up the ladder, DeSotos, Chryslers and Imperials are more expensive, but never do you run out of affordable options. In fact, very good quality cars from all five lines are easy to find under $25,000, although I admit that the closest Imperial for sale that meets those criteria (a 1956 Imperial Southampton four-door hardtop) was about 1,500 miles from home. But that’s just an excuse to get familiar with a series of local Chrysler clubs.
You will also find your best deals in the 1950-’54 era. There were dozens of Mopars from those years in Hemmings, but only a few were over $20,000. Most of those were convertibles. The flip side is that those early Fifties Mopars are not often restored, so don’t expect the reproduction parts supply to be wonderful. Fortunately, if you’ve been intrigued, among those reasonably priced cars you can still turn up relatively unmolested, unrestored examples. If you’re looking for a distinctive, well-built and comfortable Fifties car, it almost doesn’t matter which Chrysler Corp. product you choose. Outside of WPC Club meets, the odds are slim there will be another at any show. You’ll have the satisfaction of having people walk past better-known and more expensive models to talk to you about your rare Mopar; the satisfaction of helping to keep a heritage that’s too-often overlooked alive; and the fun of driving these great cars that were such a big part of our landscape in the 1950s.

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