Advertised as “Nobody’s Kid Brother,” Chrysler’s compact Valiant was originally intended to be its own marque. The story of how it became the Plymouth Valiant is a complicated one, going back to the origins of the Plymouth brand and its relationship with other Chrysler divisions. This is the story of the original Valiant, its little-known Dodge twin, the Lancer, and the long and contentious relationship between Plymouth and its sister divisions.
If you hang around Plymouth fans, particularly since Daimler-Chrysler opted to kill the brand in 2001, you will discover a remarkable level of bitterness. Surprisingly, that animosity is primarily directed not at Plymouth’s rivals or even Daimler-Benz, but at the Chrysler Corporation itself. Talk to Mopar loyalists of a certain age and you’ll find that their nostalgia is for not only what the brand used to be, but also for what they think it might have been had it not been cut off at the knees by the corporation and by Plymouth’s hated sibling, the Dodge Division.
To understand their rancor, we must go back to the origins of Chrysler. In the early 1920s, Walter P. Chrysler, a former General Motors executive, was hired to salvage the failing Maxwell-Chalmers company. (Fans of old radio comedies may recall that comedian Jack Benny supposedly drove an ancient and decrepit Maxwell whose asthmatic sound effects were provided by Mel Blanc, better known as the voice of Bugs Bunny.) Walter Chrysler wanted to build a car of his own, so in May 1924, Maxwell-Chalmers unveiled the first Chrysler Six. Based on its success, Chrysler reorganized the company as the Chrysler Corporation in July 1925. The initial six-cylinder model (now known as G70) was soon joined by Chrysler’s first four-cylinder car, the 50.
Chrysler’s early products were aimed at the mid-price market, particularly Buick, but Walter Chrysler had ambitions of a GM-like model range. In May 1928, he incorporated two subsidiary companies, the Plymouth Motor Company and the DeSoto Motor Company. DeSoto would be aimed at the lower-middle-class range while Plymouth was Chrysler’s answer to the Chevrolet and Ford’s Model A.
The first “Chrysler Plymouth” (known internally as the Model Q) debuted in June 1928, replacing the four-cylinder Chrysler 52. The Plymouth name was supposed to invoke the spirit of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower, a stylized version of which was used as the marque’s hood mascot for many years. Since it was essentially an updated and somewhat larger version of a previous Chrysler, the Plymouth was a good deal more expensive than either a Ford or a Chevrolet, but was also bigger than than either and offered features they did not — notably a fully pressurized engine oil system and four-wheel hydraulic brakes, which even some luxury cars of the time didn’t yet have.
Going head to head with Ford in the low-priced field was risky, but Chrysler sold a respectable 62,444 of the Model Q in only seven months. The revised Model U, which arrived in early 1929, did even better, selling 108,350 units.
In July 1928, barely five weeks after introducing the Plymouth, Chrysler arranged to purchase Dodge Brothers. Founded in July 1914, Dodge Brothers had become one of the larger and more successful U.S. automakers. Although the company had floundered since the deaths of the brothers a few years earlier, Dodge was considerably bigger than Chrysler and had a dealer network and manufacturing capacity that Chrysler lacked. When Dodge became the Chrysler Corporation’s fourth automotive division, it made Chrysler a serious player in the U.S. auto industry.
THE LITTLE BROTHER
In March 1930, responding to the economic downturn that followed the stock market crash, Chrysler decided to grant Plymouth franchises to existing DeSoto and Dodge dealers. This ensured that each of Chrysler’s dealers had a low-price car to sell and increased the number of Plymouth sales outlets to more than 10,000. As a result, Plymouth quickly reached the No. 3 position in total U.S. sales. Bolstered by the addition of a new six-cylinder engine in 1933, Plymouth sold its millionth car in 1934 and reached 2 million by 1939.
By then, Walter Chrysler had become a figurehead in the company that bore his name. He remained chairman until his death in 1940, but in 1935, he relinquished the presidency to K.T. Keller, president and general manager of Dodge Division. Keller was a good deal more conservative than Chrysler was, so during Keller’s tenure, the company’s appetite for innovation eroded significantly (due in no small part to mediocre sales of the pioneering but controversial Chrysler Airflow, which Walter Chrysler had championed).
Although Plymouth remained Chrysler’s best-selling division, the Dodge Division still controlled a substantial percentage of the corporation’s labor and manufacturing resources and thus tended to hold far more sway than Plymouth did in corporate politics; what Dodge executives wanted, they generally got. That was a sharp contrast with GM, where Chevrolet was acknowledged as the corporation’s most important division despite its position at the bottom of the GM price ladder. At GM, most senior executives would do a stint at Chevrolet before ascending to upper management. At Chrysler, for many years, most senior execs came from Dodge, including K.T. Keller and both of his immediate successors, L.L. (Tex) Colbert and Bill Newberg.
Since the other divisions were paired with Plymouth at the dealer level, the corporation tended to regard Plymouth as a loss leader — a basic model to lure buyers into dealerships where they could be “upsold” into more expensive, more profitable marques. As a result, Plymouth soon tended to lag behind in features like automatic transmission, power steering, and V8 engines. Combined with the make’s increasingly dowdy styling, Plymouth’s market share began to shrink worryingly.
Things began to change in the mid-1950s. In 1952, designer Virgil Exner, who had been languishing in a special projects studio, persuaded K.T. Keller (now Chrysler’s chairman, having relinquished the presidency to Tex Colbert in 1950) that the company’s existing body shells could not be resuscitated for another model year. Keller relented and allowed Exner to revamp the 1955 lineup, launching a styling trend that ads described as “the Forward Look.” Combined with new V8 engines and the PowerFlite automatic, Plymouth’s fortunes brightened considerably, with sales up more than 50%.
Things looked even better in 1957, when the smartly restyled Plymouth line put the fear of God into GM Styling. Plymouth was becoming so successful, in fact, that there was talk of ending its traditional linkage with DeSoto, Dodge, and Chrysler and elevating it from companion make to full-fledged division, with its own standalone dealer franchises and dealer organization — a remarkable volte-face for the company.
While this was going on, Chrysler, like Chevrolet and Ford, was weighing the merits of developing a new compact. Like its competitors, Chrysler had toyed with the idea of compacts for many years. Nothing had come of those products, but Chrysler was acutely aware of the alarming growth of import sales and of AMC’s compact Rambler, which demanded some sort of response.
In the spring of 1957, Chrysler president Tex Colbert and Plymouth general manager Harry Chesebrough set up a study group called the Special Corporate Car Committee to explore alternatives for a Chrysler small car. One obvious possibility was finding an existing European car that Chrysler dealers could sell as a “captive import”; to that end, Chrysler acquired a minority stake in the French firm SIMCA in 1958, although U.S. sales of Simca cars never amounted to much.
Much like their counterparts at Ford, the committee considered several possible configurations, but eventually decided their best bet was a conventionally engineered compact, much like the popular Rambler. The original plan was to have the new car ready for the 1962 model year, but since Colbert was well aware that both Chevrolet and Ford would have compacts on sale by 1960, he concluded that Chrysler needed to be ready at the same time and ordered the project fast-tracked.
PROJECT A901 TAKES SHAPE
The Chrysler compact task force, led by Bob Sinclair and former Mercedes-Benz engineer Otto Winklemann, eventually had more than 200 engineers working on the development of Project A901, which proceeded in great haste and considerable secrecy. While there was nothing especially radical about the compact in engineering terms, it was nonetheless an all-new car, which always presents a variety of practical challenges.
With a wheelbase of 106.5 inches (2,705 mm) and an overall length of 184 inches (4,674 mm), the Chrysler compact’s exterior dimensions split the difference between the Rambler (which at that time was 191.1 inches (4,855 mm) long on a 108-inch (2,743mm) wheelbase) and the smaller Rambler American (which was 178.3 inches (4,528 mm) long on a 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase). Project A901 was to have seating for six and a six-cylinder engine; a four-cylinder was considered early on, but performance was inadequate for American tastes.
The compact would have monocoque construction, which Chrysler was already preparing to introduce for all of its cars (except the Imperial) for 1960. Unit bodies were still relatively new in the U.S. at that point and their engineering was more art than science; many big American unitized cars were much heavier than they needed to be and controlling noise, vibration, and harshness was a major headache. To address that, the engineers made extensive use of computers for structural analysis, a bold step at the time; when Ford and Chevy engineers first proposed the use of computers for this purpose a few years later, they were greeted with considerable skepticism. The effort paid off, allowing the compact to forego the front subframe of its larger cousins and keeping weight to a minimum.
Like other Chryslers, Project A901 would use the recently introduced “Torsion-Aire” front suspensions — double wishbones with longitudinal torsion bar springs — with a live axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs in back. Brakes were duo-servo Bendix drums while transmissions were a new three-speed manual or a new lightweight, aluminum-cased version of Chrysler’s excellent three-speed TorqueFlite automatic.
Since Plymouth’s existing 230 cu. in. (3,772 cc) L-head six was both elderly and much too big to fit the compact’s engine compartment, Project A901 also had an all-new engine, an overhead-valve inline six tilted 30 degree to the right. The “Slant Six,” as it was soon nicknamed, had long intake runners that provided a healthy increase in torque. Gross output was 101 hp (75 kW) and 155 lb-ft (209 N-m) of torque with a single-throat carburetor.
The most radical aspect of Project A901 was its styling. Virgil Exner had been looking for a new styling theme to replace the Forward Look and its prominent fins, which were becoming passé. In their place, Exner’s designers, led by Robert Bingman, opted for a long-hood, short-deck look with heavily sculpted sides that also helped to make the car look bigger than it actually was. The gaping-maw grille was inspired by that of the 1957-1958 Chrysler 300 while the simulated spare tire on the decklid (often unkindly dubbed “the toilet seat”) was borrowed from the Imperial and Exner’s earlier concept cars, but in other respects, the compact intentionally bore little stylistic resemblance to other contemporary Chryslers. It was to be like the Rambler: a unique product that just happened to be smaller than the Detroit norm.
Chrysler originally intended to call Project A901 the Falcon, a name previously applied to an attractive 1955 show car. However, shortly before launch, Tex Colbert agreed to release that name to Ford, which applied it to Ford’s own compact. Officially, the alternative chosen, Valiant, was the result of a marketing survey, but Exner’s son, Virgil Exner Jr., says it was actually borrowed from Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, which was his father’s favorite comic strip.
At first, the Valiant, which went into production in September 1959 as a 1960 model, would not be called or badged as a Plymouth. Instead, it was registered as a separate marque, which brought the total number of Chrysler automotive brands to six.
The question on the minds of many Chrysler executives and dealers was whether the corporation would make good on its earlier promises to allow Plymouth to stand alone. In August 1959, Colbert had announced that the corporation would reorganize its six divisions into three: Chrysler-Imperial; Dodge; and a new Plymouth-DeSoto-Valiant division. Dodge dealers would no longer sell Plymouths, but Plymouth would still be paired with DeSoto and Chrysler and there would be no move to establish new standalone Plymouth stores. (There were some, but they were a small minority.) Valiant franchises, meanwhile, went to about half of the nation’s 4,138 DeSoto-Plymouth and Chrysler-Imperial-Plymouth dealers.
This was hardly what the independence-minded Plymouth organization had had in mind. To make matters even worse for Plymouth, Dodge got a new model called the Dart, which was essentially a lightly made-over big Plymouth wearing Dodge badges and offering nicer styling for only a little more money. Overnight, Dodge and Plymouth went from reluctant companions to bitter rivals.
THE VALIANT: NOBODY’S KID BROTHER
The Valiant bowed with great fanfare on October 27, 1959. At the press introduction at the Commodore Hotel in New York (where the original Chrysler Six had debuted back in 1924), Chrysler executive vice president Bill Newberg proclaimed proudly that the Valiant was not simply a small Plymouth. Early Valiant advertising echoed that sentiment, proclaimed the Valiant “Nobody’s Kid Brother.”
In most practical respects, the Valiant stacked up well next to its principal competitors: the Rambler 6, the Chevrolet Corvair, the Ford Falcon, and the Studebaker Lark. The Valiant was neither the biggest nor the largest of the bunch, being longer and significantly heavier than either the Corvair or the Falcon, but shorter and lighter than the Rambler. Excluding the V8 Rambler and Lark, the Valiant’s performance was better than average for the the group: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 16 seconds with automatic and a top speed of about 95 mph (153 km/h). Part of the Valiant’s performance edge over the sleepy Falcon lay in the three-speed TorqueFlite (a $172 option specified by about half of Valiant buyers), which was much more flexible than Ford and Chevy’s two-speed units.
With its relatively firm torsion bar suspension, the Valiant also handled better than the class norm, although that admittedly wasn’t saying much. The ride was comfortable, in part because it was well-damped by American standards, and good packaging made for generous interior space for the exterior dimensions.
The Valiant’s case was probably not helped by being somewhat more expensive than most rivals — the cheapest Valiant V-100 was $79 more than the larger (if less powerful) four-door Falcon — nor by lingering signs of slipshod workmanship. However, it appears that where the Valiant really fell down in the public mind was in the curious styling, which apparently looked no less odd to contemporary buyers than it does today. Readers will naturally make their own judgements, but comparing sales makes it clear where the buyers of the time stood on the question of styling. Total Valiant sales for 1960 were 194,292, compared to 250,007 Corvairs, 314,440 Ramblers (not including the smaller Rambler American), and 435,676 Falcons.
BECOMING THE PLYMOUTH VALIANT
The 1960 model year was not a good one for Plymouth. Total Plymouth sales skidded to 253,432 units, down more than 200,000 from 1959. Dodge sales increased by a very similar amount, suggesting that the new Dodge Dart was taking a big bite out of Plymouth’s business. DeSoto, already struggling to find its place relative to Dodge, was doing even worse and would disappear early in the 1961 model year.
It apparently occurred to Chrysler management sometime late in the 1960 model year that if Valiant sales were added to Plymouth’s, the total would allow Plymouth to cling precariously to its traditional No. 3 sales slot. In any case, being badged as a separate marque was not doing the Valiant any favors. Its lack of identity seemed to make dealers and buyers uneasy and the kind of marketing push that would have been necessary to establish it as a coherent brand was simply not there.
Chrysler’s compact officially became the Plymouth Valiant in the fall of 1960. With the demise of the DeSoto brand, the Plymouth division merged in early 1961 with Chrysler-Imperial to become Chrysler-Plymouth.
THE DODGE LANCER
Although they were doing good business with the Dart, Dodge dealers clamored incessantly for a compact of their own. The result was the Dodge Lancer, introduced as a 1961 model. Conceived as an afterthought, it was basically a facelifted Plymouth Valiant, sharing the same basic body and running gear, but subtracting a few of the Valiant’s more peculiar styling touches.
Arguably better-looking than the Valiant (although the resemblance was nonetheless unmistakable), marginally more upscale of badge, and only a little more expensive, the Lancer sold 74,776 copies for 1961. Unfortunately, Valiant sales fell by more than 51,000 units while sales of both the Falcon and the Corvair increased, again suggesting that Dodge was doing a better job of courting Plymouth customers than non-Chrysler shoppers.
For 1962, sales of the Valiant, now featuring tidied-up styling and offering a new Signet hardtop to match the Corvair Monza and Falcon Futura, climbed by about 14,000 units while Lancer sales fell to 46,549. Chrysler-Plymouth dealers might have considered that a moral victory, but it hadn’t gained Chrysler any ground. Part of the problem was that the Valiant and Lancer now had two Chevrolet rivals with which to contend: the Corvair, which had picked up steam since the addition of the Monza, and the new Chevy II, a conventionally engineered alternative for buyers wary of the Corvair’s air-cooled rear engine.
The bigger problem for Chrysler in 1962, as we have discussed elsewhere, was the company’s disastrous attempt to apply a bastardized version of the Valiant’s styling (and indeed a variation of the same body shell) to a new line of downsized Plymouths and Dodges. That debacle led new president Lynn Townsend to fire Virgil Exner in late 1961 and replace him with former Ford designer Elwood Engel.
Elwood Engel ordered a hasty revamp of Exner’s planned design for the second-generation Valiant, which arrived for the 1963 model year. As it finally emerged, the 1963 Valiant was still a little fussy in its detailing, but considerably more orthodox-looking than its predecessor, less likely to offend a shopper comparing it to a Falcon or Chevy II. Sales picked up commensurately, hitting a new high of 225,156 for the model year.
There was again a Dodge version of the new Valiant, but Dodge dropped the Lancer name, which hadn’t exactly been a raging success, and transferred the Dart name from the full-size cars to the compact. The new compact Dodge Dart was again mechanically related to the Valiant, sharing the new A-body shell, but was longer overall on a 5-inch (127mm) longer wheelbase.
The Valiant and Dart gained a new optional V8 engine for 1964 and were redesigned again for 1967. Both sold reasonably well throughout the decade and went on to become Chrysler’s most important products of the early and mid-seventies. The Valiant and Dart survived in the U.S. until 1976, replaced by the undistinguished Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare.
The rivalry between Dodge and Plymouth only got worse, particularly since by the seventies and eighties Chrysler no longer had the resources to differentiate the competing models in more than trivial ways. In 1979, Dodge outsold Plymouth for the first time (unless one counts the 1960 model year without Valiant sales). By the mid-eighties, it did so routinely, a trend that continued into the nineties. In November 1999, about a year after the Daimler merger, Chrysler announced that Plymouth would be discontinued after the 2001 model year, joining DeSoto and Imperial in Chrysler’s private ash pile of discarded nameplates.
Plymouth fans will tell you that the brand demise was a terrible waste that resulted from decades of corporate neglect. To a point, that’s difficult to argue, but in retrospect, separating Plymouth from Dodge in 1959 was probably a mistake. The ensuing rivalry was inevitable and it wasted resources that Chrysler could often ill afford, while resulting in more internecine rivalry and cannibalism than sales growth.
As for the Plymouth Valiant, it’s tempting to speculate what might have happened had it continued as its own marque. It might have had a tough time in the sixties, since American interest in compacts was very fickle during that period, but U.S. models along the lines of the Australian Valiants (see the sidebar above) would have done very well here in the seventies. Like many things in the history of Chrysler, though, it’s just another sad case of “might’ve been.”
NOTES ON SOURCES
Background for this article came from Richard Burns Carson, “The First Chrysler,” Special Interest Autos #45 (May-June 1978), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Letinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); Arch Brown, “1929 Plymouth: Walter P. Chrysler Invades the Low-Priced Field,” Special Interest Autos #158, March-April 1997, reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), and “1930 Dodge DD6: The First Dodge from Chrysler,” Special Interest Autos #76 (July-August 1983), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); Mike Covello, ed., Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946–2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); 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); Richard M. Langworth, “Not for Production: 1957 Dart/Diablo, 1955 Chrysler Falcon,” Special-Interest Autos #30 (September-October 1975): 21-26, “SIA Profile: Virgil Exner,” Special Interest Autos #72 (December 1982): 20-25, and “Thinking Ahead: Virgil Exner’s Ghia-Chrysler Showcars,” Special-Interest Autos #30 (September-October 1975): 12-20, 52-53; and Curtis Redgap, “Insider’s History of Plymouth,” Allpar, c. 2003, www.allpar. com, accessed 31 March 2009.
Our sources for the development of the Valiant included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1960-1962 Plymouth Valiant,” HowStuffWorks.com, 28 August 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1960-1962-plymouth-valiant.htm, accessed 3 April 2009), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Arch Brown, “1962 Dodge Lancer: A Valiant Effort?” Special Interest Autos #163 (January-February 1998), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Dodges: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); “Nobody’s Kid Brother: 1960 Plymouth Valiant,” Special Interest Autos #144 (November-December 1994), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths; and “North American Hybrid: 1964 Canadian Valiant,” Special Interest Autos #137 (September-October 1993), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths; “Comparing Corvair, Falcon, and Valiant,” Motor Life October 1959, reprinted in Falcon Performance Portfolio 1960-1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998); David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of Virgil Max Exner Jr.,” Automotive Design Oral History Project, 3 August 1989, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/ Exner_interview.htm, accessed 4 April 2009; Jeffrey I. Godshall, “In with the New: The 1963-66 Plymouth Valiant Story,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 26, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 50–63; Ken Gross, “1960 Lark Convertible: How Studebaker beat the Big Three to the compact punch,” Special Interest Autos #42 (November-December 1977), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Studebakers: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000); Jack Poehler, “The Australian Hemi 6,” Special Interest Autos #137 (September-October 1993), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths; “Rambler Six,” Road and Track February 1960, and “Road Test: Rambler American,” Road & Track March 1959, reprinted in AMC Rambler Limited Edition Extra 1956-1969, ed. R.M. Clark (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2004); Russ Shreve, “Origins of the Valiant project,” Valiant.org, July 2003, www.valiant. org/ history.html, accessed 3 April 2009; Robert N. Sinclair, “Valiant Project Leader Robert N. Sinclair on the 1960 Chrysler Valiant,” Valiant.org, n.d., www.valiant. org/valiant/ sinclair/index.html, accessed 3 April 2009; Jim Whipple, “Jim Whipple Tests the 1958 Rambler,” Speed Age February 1958, reprinted in AMC Rambler Limited Edition Extra 1956-1969; and “Year by year history and photos of the Plymouth Valiant,” Valiant.org, www.valiant. org/ chron.html, accessed 4 April 2009.
Additional information about the Hyper-Pak came from Jerry Engels’ “The slant six Hyper-Pak,” Allpar, and Allpar’s Slant Six pages, www.allpar. com, accessed 4 April 2009.