In Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the narrator, Raoul Duke, and his attorney, Doctor Gonzo, set out from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in a rented red convertible they dub the Great Red Shark, blazing across the desert at 100 mph, hopped up on enough controlled substances to fill a shopping cart, in search of the American Dream. The novel’s Great Red Shark was not a Dodge (the text describes it as a Chevy, like Thompson’s own red Chevrolet Caprice convertible), but there would be few better choices for a fast run from L.A. to Las Vegas than this week’s subject: the 1960 Dodge Polara D-500.
To Mopar fans, accustomed to the no-nonsense solidity of later Dodge products, this car will represent something of a puzzle. Later Polaras were blocky things, well-suited to the police car duty that many of them fulfilled. This car is dressed for the Vegas Strip, with enough gleaming chrome, aluminum, and stainless steel trim to make a 1959 Cadillac seem vaguely under-dressed. If your experience with Chrysler products is limited to the late-sixties B-bodies and the square-rigged K-cars of the eighties, you may be saying to yourself, “This is a Dodge Polara?”
The 1960 Dodge Polara was Dodge’s top-of-the-line model series that year, replacing the previous year’s Custom line. All of Dodge’s model names were new for 1960, replacing the previous Coronet, Royal, Custom Royal, Sierra, and Custom lines.
If you’re mystified, you’re in good company, because the people who designed and built this car seemed a little uncertain themselves about what a Dodge was supposed to be. For many years — even before Chrysler acquired the company in 1928 — Dodge had a reputation for stolid, dependable, middle-class transportation, not unlike Pontiac before Bunkie Knudsen started selling the sizzle. In short, they were respectable, but not at all sexy.
Then, Chrysler put Virgil Exner in charge of design and Dodge, like other Chrysler products, got a heavy infusion of style. By 1957, Exner’s “Forward Look” had transformed the formerly stodgy middle-market brand into a low-slung, dazzlingly be-finned rocketship with power to match. It should’ve sold like mad, but too-hasty development led to disastrous quality control, which quickly soured buyer confidence. The 1957-1958 recession sent the entire middle-class market skidding, and Dodge’s 1958-1959 sales were the worst they’d been since before the Great Depression.
This 1949 Dodge Coronet is typical of pre-Exner Chrysler products: tall, conservative, and somewhat old-fashioned even for the late forties. With a 230 cu. in. (3,772 cc) straight six making only 103 gross horsepower (77 kW), it was also very, very slow, something not addressed until the appearance of the new “Red Ram” Hemi in 1953.
With its traditional niche in disarray, Dodge general manager M.C. Patterson decided to go after Plymouth, its corporate sibling. Up until the 1960 model year, most Dodge dealers had also sold Plymouths — Chrysler paired Plymouth with each of its senior divisions, to ensure that dealers always had cars to sell, even when the economy was down — but Dodge dealers had always resented the pairing and they had lobbied heavily to be independent. They finally got their way for the 1960 model year, but it was clear that Dodge dealers couldn’t survive without a smaller, cheaper model to sell. As a result, for 1960 Dodge introduced the Dart (not to be confused with the later compact), which was essentially a facelifted big Plymouth wearing Dodge badges. Offering nicer styling than the Plymouth but priced only about $20 higher, the Dart boosted Dodge’s volume by around 200,000 units, although many of those sales came at the expense of Plymouth, whose big-car sales dropped by a similar amount.
As with all ’60 Dodges, the 1960 Dodge Polara’s styling was all new (fitting, given the adoption of unibody construction) and its only real stylistic resemblance to its predecessor was in the toothy grille and the quad headlamps. V8 Darts had Chrysler’s smaller 318 cu. in. (5,204 cc) “A” engine, but all of the big Matadors and Polaras had the larger “B” engine, the 361 (5,913 cc) for Matadors, the 383 (6,276 cc) for Polaras. Some Darts had the older two-speed PowerFlite transmission, but most, if not all of the big Dodges had the superior three-speed TorqueFlite.
What about the Dodge Polara? The Polara was a new flagship model, intended to retrench Dodge’s traditional position in the middle-class market. Based on its list price, its primary target was probably the Pontiac Bonneville, which offered a similar combination of luxury and sporty flair for very similar money. A 1960 Dodge Polara convertible like our photo subject started at $3,416, which was within $60 of a ragtop Bonneville.
When it came to toys and glitter, the Dodge Polara almost made the Bonneville seem prosaic. It was laden with the sort of gleefully absurd gimmicks that makes cars of this era so much fun, among them a transparent speedometer, a marvelous “twin-turret” clock, and symmetrical arrays of pushbuttons on either side of the dash (one set for the radio, the other for the transmission controls.) A bench seat was standard, but you could order Chrysler’s swiveling front bucket seats, which swung outward when the doors opened. Naturally, a full array of power accessories was available, along with a “Highway Hi-Fi” record player that used unusual 7-inch, 16 2/3-rpm discs. Standard power was the corporate 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc) “RB” engine, part of a series that had replaced the older Red Ram Hemi in 1958. It made 325 gross horsepower (242 kW), which made the Polara a good match for even a Tri-Power Bonneville weighing over 300 pounds (135 kg) more.
If that wasn’t enough, you could pay an extra $395.20 for Dodge’s rare and fascinating D-500 engine. This was also 383 cu. in., but it had two big Carter carburetors, dual exhaust, and the wild-looking “Cross Ram” induction system. (Plymouth offered the same engine under the fabulous and fun-to-say moniker “SonoRamic Commando.”) Despite its drawbacks (see the sidebar below), the D-500 engine was ideal for long, fast runs down the open highway. The Polara was too heavy and geared too tall for really ferocious standing-start acceleration, but it offered freight-train surge at highway speeds. It thrived at speeds above 60 mph (97 km/h), and its top speed was in the 130 mph (210 km/h) range — well beyond the limits of its tires and suspension, but eminently attainable, given a good stretch of road.
Top to bottom: The 1960 Dodge Polara’s marvelously tooled door handles, with their subtle ribbing, would be too expensive for most modern cars, as would the complex side mirrors. “Tarantula” wheel covers (covering 14-inch steel wheels) were optional, but add a final bit of exterior dazzle. Owner didn’t have the keys to let us photograph the interior, but through the windshield, you can see the novel horizontal speedometer, which shows daylight through the cut-outs for each number.
The Dodge D-500 was originally a model, introduced in 1956 as Dodge’s answer to the Plymouth Fury, DeSoto Adventurer, and Chrysler 300B — and as a way of homologating the performance parts for racing use. It originally included special trim, a 260-horsepower Hemi engine, heavy-duty chassis and suspension, and oversize brakes. By 1960, it had become an option package consisting only of the engine hop-up pieces — the heavy-duty suspension and brakes had been dropped. The D-500 package was available only with Chrysler’s superb TorqueFlite automatic.
SIDEBAR: Cross-Ram Induction
A few months ago, we talked about supercharging: forcing air and fuel into the engine at higher than atmospheric pressure in order to boost power. In that article, we focused on mechanical supercharging, which uses an air compressor driven by the engine or the flow of the engine’s exhaust gases. There is, however, another kind of supercharging, which does not use a mechanical compressor, but rather a careful tuning of the engine’s intake airflow. It’s called resonance supercharging.
The stock 1960 Dodge Polara D-500 used 30-inch (760mm) ram tubes, giving maximum boost at 2,800 rpm. In 1960, a short-ram system (using 16-inch (406mm) tubes that gave their boost at higher speeds) was also available over the parts counter, mostly for racing use. Each air cleaner hides a 625 CFM Carter 4V carburetor. Maintenance for this system was a hassle, particularly changing the spark plugs, which were obstructed by the ram tubes.
To understand how resonance supercharging works, we must consider some basics about internal combustion engines. A typical four-stroke reciprocating engine draws a mixture of air and fuel from the runners of the intake manifold into each cylinder through one or more intake valves. The air-fuel mixture is compressed and then burned, either by firing a spark plug (in an Otto-cycle engine) or by adiabatic heating (in a diesel engine). The engine uses one or more camshaft(s), rotating at half the speed of the engine, to open the intake valve(s) once for every two full revolutions of the engine’s crankshaft (i.e., every 720 degrees of crank rotation). The profile of the camshaft determines how long the intake valve stays open (its duration). The duration is measured in degrees of crank rotation. For example, the Dodge D-500’s camshaft provided an intake duration of 268 degrees; that is, when the intake valve opened, it remained open for 268 degrees of crank rotation and then remained closed for the next 452 degrees before opening again.
When the engine is running, air is drawn into the cylinders by engine vacuum (the vacuum created by the downward motion of the piston during the intake stroke) and, for some engines, forced in by supercharging. As we’ve just seen, however, the intake valve is closed more often than it’s open. What happens if the valve is closed when the incoming air reaches it? In that case, the air will hit the closed valve and come to an abrupt halt. The air behind it piles up on top of the suddenly stagnant air like a multiple-car pileup on the freeway. The air becomes compressed and bounces off the closed valve, back up the intake runner. When that compressed reaches the other end of the runner, it bounces back toward the engine, creating a pressure wave moving at the speed of sound. If that pressure wave happens to bounce back toward the intake valve as the valve is opening, it will force air and fuel into the cylinder at higher-than-atmospheric pressure, just like a mechanical supercharger. This mild supercharging allows more air and fuel to be packed into the cylinder, producing more power.
Getting the pressure wave to return to the intake valve just as the valve opens is a matter of timing. The wave is moving very fast (the speed of sound is around 1,100 feet per second at sea level), but the intake also isn’t open for very long. (At 3,000 rpm, for example, the intake opens once every 2/100ths of a second, and stays open for only about 15/1,000ths of a second!) The key to producing resonance supercharging is imparting the proper frequency to the pressure wave.
If you stayed awake in high school physics, you may vaguely remember that the frequency of a wave is inversely proportional to its wavelength (that is, a short wavelength means a high frequency and vice versa). In this case, the wavelength of the pressure wave is equal to the length of the intake runner: When the wave reaches either end of the runner, it stops and reverses direction. Therefore, by changing the length of the intake runner, you can vary the pressure wave’s frequency. A short runner produces a high frequency; a long runner produces a lower frequency because it takes longer for the wave to travel up and down its length. If you match that frequency of the pressure with the frequency with which the intake valve opens at a particular engine speed, you’ll create a resonance supercharging effect at that speed.
THE CROSS-RAM ENGINE
The Dodge D-500 engine has two carburetors, one on each side of the engine. Each carburetor is linked to the intake ports on the opposite side via a long aluminum intake runner, or ram tube. The “cross-ram” arrangement allows each tube to be longer, providing resonance supercharging at lower engine speeds. In this case, each ram tube is 30 inches (762 mm) long, tuned to produce their maximum supercharging effect at 2,800 rpm. This is a useful speed for real-world driving. In most around-town and freeway driving, you normally cruise at or a little below 2,800 rpm. When you press the accelerator, the engine speed quickly rises to its resonance supercharging “sweet spot,” giving you a little extra kick in the back.
How much of a kick? According to Chrysler’s published figures, the supercharging provided by the 30-inch rams increased mid-range torque by about 10%, raising peak torque from 425 pounds-feet (576 N-m) for the non-ram engine to 460 pounds-feet (623 N-m) for the cross-ram. Since the resonance effect fades above 2,800 rpm, the long rams didn’t provide much improvement in peak power (Chrysler rated the cross-ram 383 at 330 gross horsepower (246 kW) compared to 325 hp (242 kW) for the non-ram engine), but the extra torque translated into about 20 additional horsepower (15 kW) at 2,800 rpm, providing a useful improvement in mid-range performance.
The cross-ram system had a number of drawbacks. As with any supercharger set-up, fuel economy was dire if you made frequent use of the boost. At 25 cents a gallon, that wasn’t a huge concern for most American buyers of the time, but there were other problems, as well. The induction system did not handle cold weather gracefully, despite heat risers for each carburetor. After a cold start, fuel tended to pool in the plenum chambers under the carburetors until the engine was thoroughly warmed up, causing flooding and stalls. The system thrived on heat, but in a cold climate in the winter, it could be highly problematic. In addition, the induction system complicated routine maintenance, since the ram tubes had to be removed to get at the spark plugs or the valves. Many frustrated owners had their cars converted back to the non-ram four-barrel setup, making surviving cross-ram engines fairly rare. Chrysler eventually abandoned it, although the same principle is used in most modern engines. Many modern engines actually have two sets of runners, one long, one short, with a butterfly valve that switches from one to the other based on engine speed.
A BEAR MARKET
Apparently, few Dodge buyers were Vegas-bound in those days, because the 1960 Dodge Polara didn’t sell very well. Part of it was price; the Polara cost over $400 more than an eight-cylinder Dart, which was itself a roomy, well-trimmed car and arguably better-looking to boot. Although the U.S. economy was starting to pick up, buyers were weary of rocketship styling. Roughly nine out of 10 Dodge shoppers opted for the cheaper, less showy Dart. Polara sales for 1960 totaled a meager 16,278, not enough to cause Pontiac managers any sleepless nights.
In 1960, all Chrysler products except the Imperial adopted unitized construction. It made them stronger and somewhat lighter than comparably sized body-on-frame competitors, but more prone to rust, something that was already a problem for Chryslers of this era. The cheaper Matador shared the body shell of the 1960 Dodge Polara, albeit with far less lavish trim.
The 1960 Dodge Polara shared its body shell with the DeSoto and the low-line Chrysler Windsor. It’s 212.6 inches (5,400 mm) long on a 122-inch (3,099mm) wheelbase; the Dodge Dart was exactly 4 inches shorter in both wheelbase and overall length. All Chryslers of this era had “Torsionaire” suspension, with torsion-bar springs in front (rather than the more typical coil springs). Rear suspension is a live axle on leaf springs, although the axle is staggered towards the front of the springs in order to reduce wheel hop on hard acceleration. Chryslers had a firmer ride than most competitors, giving them decent handling for their time, although the pronounced body lean and modest grip are disconcerting to modern drivers. As for braking, best not to ask — Chryslers had more braking area per ton than many competitors, but its drums were still marginal, particularly considering the speeds of which this car was capable.
The Dodge Polara survived in various forms through 1973. It was downsized for 1962 with unfortunate results, and then became progressively more stolid and dull as the decade wore on. Virgil Exner, whose position had been weakened following his 1956 heart attack (during the design of the ’61 models), was fired in 1961. He was replaced by former Ford stylist Elwood P. Engel, who traded the envelope-pushing style of the Forward Look for cautious imitations of two- and three-year-old GM and Ford products. As for Dodge, it never really reclaimed its respectable, middle-class niche. Byron Nichols, who replaced M.C. Patterson as general manager of Dodge in November 1960, continued the downmarket trend Patterson had begun, and Dodge would spend much of the next three decades stealing Plymouth’s lunch money. By the nineties, there was little difference between the two brands, except for trim and option packages. After the Daimler merger, Chrysler pulled the plug on Plymouth in 2001, leaving Dodge to cover the entry-level field.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is ultimately Hunter S. Thompson’s requiem for the sixties, for the energy of an era that had just ended. The same is true of the Polara. It represents the last gasp of a kind of fifties exuberance, a giddy futurism that was already close to its expiration date when this car originally went on sale. For better or worse, every subsequent Dodge has been more restrained, more down-to-earth. The Dodge Division has built faster cars, and a few that were more outrageous, but it has never produced another model as ostentatious as this one, and it never will.
The 1960 Dodge Polara’s stainless steel rear fender ribbing was dubbed “shark’s gill” trim. Polaras and Matadors had these curious, truncated fins, with slim brake lamps set into their trailing edges. They were intended to accentuate the elongated taillamp pods. Darts had full-length fins, which some observers (including the author) consider better-looking.
Which leaves our photo subject as a rare and wondrous artifact. Only 1,279 Dodge Polara convertibles were built in 1960 and this is one of only three equipped at the factory with the D-500 engine. Its present owner discovered it in a darkened warehouse full of cars bound for Australia, recognizing it as a D-500 when he cut himself on the pointed fins of its decklid emblem. It was in dreadful condition, but the new owners gave it a cost-no-object restoration, mostly with NOS (new old stock) parts; they went so far as to find a license plate bracket from the now-defunct dealership where the car was originally sold. Today, it probably looks better than it did on the showroom floor, nearly 50 years ago. It remains quite a car.
# # #
NOTES ON SOURCES
Background for this article came from Charles K. Hyde, Riding the Roller Coaster: A History of the Chrysler Corporation (Great Lakes Books) (Chicago, IL: Wayne State University Press, 2003) and Curtis Redgap’s “Insider’s History of Plymouth,” Allpar, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 31 October 2008. Information on the Polara and D-500 came from Bob Horvorka, “Blueprint: 1956 Dodge D-500,” Special Interest Autos #130 (July-August 1992); John Matras, “1959 Dodge Custom Royal Super D-500 Convertible: Bargain Basement Chrysler 300,” from Special Interest Autos #117 (May-June 1990); Arch Brown and Richard Carpenter, “1960 Dodge Polara: ‘Yesterday Once More,'” Special Interest Autos #164 (March-April 1998); and Arch Brown, “Finned Flyer: Dodge’s Distinctive 1961 Dart Phoenix,” Special Interest Autos #180 (November-December 2000), all of which are reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002). Information on this specific car came from the author’s conversation with Joe Machado at the Chrysler Performance West Fall Fling XIII show in Van Nuys, CA on 18 October 2008, supplemented in a subsequent revision by Matthew Litwin, “1960 Dodge Polara Convertible,” Hemmings Motor News 1 October 2008. Some additional data came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996) and the Dodge Polara Wikipedia® page (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Dodge_Polara, accessed 31 October 2008).
Our principal sources on the workings of the Ram Air system were “The Ram Induction System,” Chrysler 300 Club International, 27 October 2003, www.chrysler300club. com, accessed 7 November 2008; and Joe Godec’s “The Plymouth Sonoramic Commando Engine,” originally from the Plymouth Bulletin and reprinted at Allpar, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 7 November 2008.
As the introduction explains, this article’s title was suggested by the 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.