Originally a flashy, limited-edition image leader, by 1961, the Plymouth Fury had become a bread-and-butter big car, the mainstay of the line. Starting in 1962, it began a bizarre odyssey, going from small to large and back to small again.
This week, we take a look at the strange incarnations of Plymouth’s big cars in the sixties and seventies, including the Plymouth VIP, a short-lived luxury version that the ads once dubbed the “Very Important Plymouth.”
PLYMOUTH IN THE EARLY SIXTIES
The early sixties were a time of both promise and turmoil for Chrysler’s low-end Plymouth brand. Styling VP Virgil Exner, Sr.’s dramatic “Forward Look” design themes of the late fifties had sent shock waves through Detroit, leading to a veritable palace coup among GM’s design staff.
The rakish Plymouth Fury, a performance-oriented model first introduced as a 1956 special edition, made a great showing in Daytona Beach speed trials, becoming a sort of budget version of Chrysler’s fearsome 300 “letter series” cars. Plymouths were the most sophisticated of the Low-Priced Three, with torsion bar springs, pushbutton transmission controls, and, starting in 1960, unitary construction. And after 30 years of being paired with other Chrysler divisions, there was serious talk of giving Plymouth its own separate dealer network.
At the same time, though, Chrysler was suffering through crisis after crisis, from notoriously poor assembly quality to allegations that company executives had taken kickbacks from suppliers. While Plymouth was separated from Dodge in 1960, it remained paired with Chrysler, while the newly independent Dodge Division received clones of Plymouth products, cutting sharply into Chrysler-Plymouth sales. Virgil Exner’s outré 1961 styling went over poorly with the public, which allowed Rambler to unseat Plymouth from its traditional number-three sales position. Then, faulty intelligence led Chrysler president William Newberg to order a hasty and expensive downsizing of Plymouth and Dodge big cars for 1962 in the mistaken belief that Chevrolet was about to do the same thing. The result was a sales disaster, as Dodge and Plymouth dealers were stuck with awkward-looking midsize cars with full-size prices. Plymouth slipped from fourth place in total sales to eighth, Dodge to ninth place.
Bill Newberg was already gone when the ’62 cars went on sale, implicated in the kickback scandal, and by July 1961, Chrysler administrative VP Lynn Townsend had become president. Townsend fired Virgil Exner, making Exner the scapegoat for the downsizing debacle, and imposed draconian cost-cutting measures to stem the corporation’s flow of red ink. Fortunately for Townsend, Exner’s restyled ’63 models (tweaked only mildly by new styling VP Elwood P. Engel) were much more successful, enabling Chrysler to quickly reclaim some of its lost ground. Townsend took the lion’s share of the credit, earning him an appearance on the cover of TIME in November 1962.
The arrival of Lynn Townsend and Elwood Engel marked the end of Plymouth’s most innovative period. Although Chrysler’s technological and styling advances had won critical acclaim, those innovations had not translated into commercial success. Townsend made a conscious decision to steer the company down a more orthodox path in both styling and engineering.
SALVAGING THE B-BODY
Saying that Chrysler downsized its big Dodge and Plymouth lines in 1962 is slightly misleading. The company’s full-sized body shell — known from 1965 on as the C-body — survived in the Chrysler line and was hastily reintroduced to the Dodge line midway through the model year. From a technical standpoint, what Chrysler had actually done was to create a new midsize body by stretching and widening the shell of the compact Valiant and Dodge Lancer (later known as the A-body). Although the dimensions of the new “B-body” split the difference between the A-body and C-body, structurally, the B-body had more in common with the Valiant. Like all contemporary Chrysler products (except the big Imperial), the B-body was unitized, but its front end was welded to the cowl, eschewing the bolt-on front subframe of the C-body. Omitting the subframe meant somewhat higher levels of noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH), but made the B-bodies substantially lighter (by as much as 420 lb/190 kg) than the previous year’s C-body Dodge and Plymouths.
Chrysler was not in a position to discard an all-new body after only a year, so both Plymouth and the standard-size Dodge retained the B-body for 1963 and 1964. Both were heavily facelifted, however, with new front and rear clips that made them somewhat bigger than before, albeit to no particular benefit in usable space. The wheelbase of the standard Dodge was stretched 3 inches (76 mm), although Plymouth retained the shorter, 116-inch (2,946mm) wheelbase of the ’62s. Because these cars could be ordered with any of Chrysler’s big engines, Plymouths became popular at the dragstrip.
We’re not entirely sure why Chrysler didn’t immediately add a C-body Plymouth as they did with Dodge. In response to desperate cries from dealers, Dodge had added the full-size Custom 880 midway through the 1962 model year, which ended up accounting for about 10% of Dodge Division’s admittedly dreadful ’62 sales. Chrysler would not have been to do the same for Plymouth immediately (the corporation created the Custom 880 using designs developed for the abortive 1962 DeSoto line), but that presumably would have been possible for 1964, if not ’63. It may have been a cost issue, or perhaps a desire to reduce the overlap between Dodge and Plymouth that had been such a problem in 1960 and 1961. Whatever the reason, Plymouth had to make do with stretched B-bodies until 1965.
Although the B-body remained about 5 inches (127 mm) shorter than a full-size Ford or Chevrolet, Plymouth sales recovered nicely in 1963 and 1964. Sales for the 1964 model year were just under 600,000 units, the best Plymouth had done since 1957. Still, Chrysler-Plymouth management remained self-conscious about its size; Plymouth advertising heavily emphasized passenger and interior room.
THE C-BODY FURY RETURNS
For all the growth in the compact and intermediate segments since 1957, full-sized cars were still Detroit’s bread and butter in the mid-sixties. Even with the Chevy II/Nova, Chevelle/Malibu, and Corvair, Chevrolet still sold about 1.4 million full-sized models in 1964, while full-size Ford sales totaled almost 925,000. The B-body Plymouths were not doing badly, but there was clearly a thriving market for bigger cars and Plymouth was not getting its share.