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, hopped up on enough controlled substances to fill a shopping cart, in search of the American Dream. The novel’s Great Red Shark was a Chevrolet, not a Dodge, but there would be few better choices for a fast run from L.A. to Las Vegas than this week’s subject: the rare and rocket-like 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?”
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.
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 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.
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 simply 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, as was a novel “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 of wedge-combustion that had replaced the older FirePower/Red Ram Hemi in 1958. The 383 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 the rare and fascinating D-500 engine. This was also 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc), 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” while De Soto called the engine “Ram-Charge.”) 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.
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 Wurlitzer jukebox styling. Roughly nine out of every 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.
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, who end up bearing the blame for the mess (although he’d railed loudly against it) was fired in 1961 and 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, so 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. Much 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, almost every subsequent Dodge has been more restrained and 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.
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 the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); James M. Flammang and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Chrysler Chronicle: An Illustrated History of Chrysler – DeSoto – Dodge – Eagle – Imperial – Jeep – Plymouth (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1998); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Charles K. Hyde, Riding the Roller Coaster: A History of the Chrysler Corporation (Great Lakes Books) (Chicago, IL: Wayne State University Press, 2003); John Katz, “1967 Dodge Coronet R/T: Much More Than a Plymouth,” Special Interest Autos #156 (November-December 1996), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000); and Curtis Redgap, “Insider’s History of Plymouth,” Allpar, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 31 October 2008.
Information on the Polara and D-500 came from Arch Brown and Richard Carpenter, “1960 Dodge Polara: ‘Yesterday Once More,'” Special Interest Autos #164 (March-April 1998), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); Terry Boyce, “Fury,” Special Interest Autos #10 (April-May 1972), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars; Arch Brown, “Finned Flyer: Dodge’s Distinctive 1961 Dart Phoenix,” Special Interest Autos #180 (November-December 2000), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges; “SIA comparisonReport: Improbable Competitors: 1960 Chrysler 300F vs. Pontiac Tri-Power,” Special Interest Autos #127 (January-February 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars; and “1960 Dodge Polara: ‘Yesterday Once More,'” Special Interest Autos #164 (March-April 1998), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges; Ray Brock, “Chrysler 300F,” Hot Rod April 1960, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1992); “Car and Driver Road Test: Chrysler 300-J,” Car and Driver April 1963, reprinted in ibid; “Chrysler 300-J,” Car Life May 1963, reprinted in ibid; “De Soto,” Motor Life March 1960, reprinted in ibid; “De Soto booms into ’60 in a hot new package,” Motor Life December 1959, reprinted in ibid; Ken Fermoyle, “Driving Chrysler’s Stick-Shift 300F,” Popular Science April 1960, reprinted in ibid; Joe Godec, “The Plymouth Sonoramic Commando Engine,” originally from the Plymouth Bulletin and reprinted at Allpar, n.d., www.allpar. com, accessed 7 November 2008; Bob Horvorka, “Blueprint: 1956 Dodge D-500,” Special Interest Autos #130 (July-August 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges; Mel Jackolow, “Luxury in a Limited Edition: Chrysler’s 300G,” Cars March 1961, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970; Matthew Litwin, “1960 Dodge Polara Convertible,” Hemmings Motor News 1 October 2008; John Matras, “1959 Dodge Custom Royal Super D-500 Convertible: Bargain Basement Chrysler 300,” from Special Interest Autos #117 (May-June 1990), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges; “Road Test: 400-HP Chrysler 300-F,” Motor Life June 1960, reprinted in Chrysler 300 Gold Portfolio 1955-1970; “The Ram Induction System,” Chrysler 300 Club International, 27 October 2003, www.chrysler300club. com, accessed 7 November 2008; and the Dodge Polara Wikipedia® page (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Dodge_Polara, accessed 31 October 2008). Additional Information on this specific car came from the author’s conversation with the owner at the Chrysler Performance West Fall Fling XIII show in Van Nuys, California, on 18 October 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.