There was a lot of turmoil within Chrysler Corporation in the early 1960s, but out of that confusion came some really good-looking cars, and among them was the 1964 Dodge Polara.
Smaller than other full-size cars from that era, Polara was well equipped and handsomely turned out. Designed by Elwood Engel, it had lost some of the goofy appearance of earlier Polara models. For 1964, it featured dual headlights, but the smaller headlight’s position within the grille wasn’t as emphasized as in 1962 and 1963.
Prominent along the side of Polara is chrome accenting that is airplane-like. It extends to the very rear of the car and the sheetmetal is smooth and uninterrupted.
The side mirrors aren’t placed in front of the windshield but rather beside the driver and front-seat passenger. The windshield has a modest but pleasant curve.
The rear of Polara is as conservative as its front. Squared off, it features taillights that include three square lights, the middle reserved for the backup lights. All of them are encased in a broad and chromed piece of metal.
The decklid is smooth. The only embellishment is two chrome strips that extend from the rear window to the lip of the trunk.
The interior is beautifully designed and, in my opinion, would have stood up to anything that GM or Ford were offering for the same price point in 1964.
The dashboard is concave-shaped and stretches across the front with a series of fitted chromed pieces. Four oval gauges, side by side, offer instrumentation.
In the Polara 500, a handsome floor console offers the automatic shifter, an armrest on top of a storage compartment, and a gauge at the front that appears to be a tachometer.
The seats are leather or vinyl wrapped, and are inlaid with a thin, white strip of material.
The entire package is pleasant, and looks good even 56 years after its construction.
The 1964 Dodge Polara represented a return to some styling normalcy for Chrysler Corporation, which for several years had experienced what could only be described as turmoil.
Part of Chrysler’s challenge could be attributed to the collapse of the medium-priced car market in the late 1950s. And part of it was because of poor quality issues that were revealed in its cars during those same years.
The result could be seen in Chrysler’s overall sales. At the start of the 1950s, Chrysler was the No. 2 automaker in Detroit. By the end of the decade, it was No. 3.
Overall sales for 1959 were a miserable 671,649. Chevrolet alone built over 1.4 million cars for the same model year.
By 1960, Chrysler Corporation sales were up to 895,573, but they dropped to 640,916 for 1961, and to an awful 558,348 for 1962. GM’s Pontiac Division, alone, built 521,933 cars for 1962. Plymouth, always in third place in the annual Detroit sale race, came in at eighth. Dodge was ninth.
DeSoto was an early casualty of the corporation’s struggle. The decision to close DeSoto was announced in November 1960. The final models would be 1961 cars, and only 3,034 were built.
Yet DeSoto’s departure helped struggling Dodge.
New for the 1960 model year was the top-of-the-line Polara. Its name expressed all of the hopes and desires of an era fascinated with the Space Age.
Polara featured styling cues carried over from the 1959 models, as famously expressed by stylist Virgil Exner’s ‘Forward Look’. Polara offered “jet pod” tail lights, shortened fins, dual headlights that protruded from the car’s body to give an illusion of speed and a grill hidden behind an odd-looking wishbone-shaped front bumper.
It was offered as a four-door sedan, a four-door wagon, a two-door convertible, a two-door hardtop, a four-door hardtop and a four-door hardtop wagon.
Inside, the driver and passengers were treated to an upscale trim with better fabrics than offered in the lesser full-size Dodges, the Matador or Dart.
Polara had more trim on the exterior, including a chrome stone guard behind the rear wheel housing.
Polara was also built differently. Chrysler’s engineering department had switched from full-perimeter frame construction to unit-body construction. That allowed the body shell to become a stress member. The result was a much improved driving feel, along with increased stiffness and less weight.
Polara shared in this benefit. Indeed, it weighed only 3,815 pounds and was quite fast when equipped with the Ram Fire 383 V8 engine.
All of this – a new name, an attractive body style, and a better driving experience, helped Dodge. Its overall sales surged for 1960 to 367,804 units sold – its best showing since the end of the Second World War.
And then something very odd happened.
The corporation’s president apparently overheard Chevrolet division president Ed Cole mention that Chevrolet’s largest cars were to be downsized for 1962. If Cole had indeed said that, it was a deliberate attempt to mislead the Chrysler boss. But it’s more likely that Cole was misunderstood.
Whatever the case, Dodge (and Plymouth) models were immediately ordered to be redesigned. The cars for 1962 would be smaller, they would be lighter, and they would be designed to accommodate a 116-inch wheelbase.
It was a rush job. To be sure, the 1962 models were already approved for production. But now, at the last minute, the design team was told to shorten the cars.
It would be among the biggest of corporate blunders in Detroit automotive history.
And the result was something of an embarrassment for Chrysler. Chevrolet’s new cars for 1962 (along with the full-size Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac) were no smaller than they had been in 1961. In fact, they were slightly larger.
By comparison, the full-size Plymouth and Dodge models were small by comparison, and were sized closer to Ford’s new intermediate-sized Fairlane.
Plymouth and Dodge sales dropped like a stone. Plymouth sales for 1962 dropped to 339,527, while Dodge sales dropped to 204,484. There were no DeSoto sales. And Imperial sales were only 14,337.
It was the corporation’s worst showing in memory.
Chrysler brass scrambled to solve the problem, and midway through the model year released something called the Dodge 880. It was cobbled together using the larger Chrysler Newport. The front was pure Dodge. But with the exception of Dodge badging, the 880’s rear was mostly a Chrysler Newport. It was an attractive car and was released in January 1962.
But the introduction of the rushed 880 put a crimp into Dodge’s plans for the Polara. With a wheelbase of 116 inches, Polara remained smaller than a full-size car. Its saving grace was the Polara 500. It was initially available as a two-door hardtop and convertible, with a four-door hardtop added in late 1961.
Standard equipment included a 361-cubic-inch V8 that produced 305 horsepower when equipped with the four-barrel.
Ironically, the smaller and lighter Polara (and Plymouth Fury) gave Chrysler an interesting edge in certain races such as NASCAR. They had an immediate advantage over the larger cars from Ford and General Motors. And Polara was available with engines as large as a 413-cubic-inch V8.
The basic 1962 Polara body was continued through to 1963 and was given a handsome facelift for 1964. Fifty-six years later the 1964 Polara remains an attractive automobile, designed under the watchful and careful eye of Elwood Engel.
By 1964, the Polara 500 was available only as a convertible and hardtop coupe.
A few years ago (June 15, 2013), a wonderful example was on display at the annual car show in Blenheim.
Owned by Jim and Angie Regnier, the red convertible featured a handsome console with floor shifter.
The public responded with enthusiasm to the 1964 Dodge Polara, and overall Dodge sales climbed to 501,781, or more than double the sales of 1962.
The 1964 model year would be the last year the Chrysler B platform would be used for Polara. For 1965, the car would be larger and a ‘full-size model’, sitting smartly on the Chrysler C platform.
The Polara name would be used by Dodge until 1973.
But in my opinion, the 1964 Polara was the prettiest of the lot.