Chrysler Corporation sales didn’t suffer in the years following the Second World War, but they didn’t thrive.
It could be argued that all of the American car companies had challenges to overcome in the years following the war, but only Chrysler seemed to be content with what they had achieved in the pre-war era.
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As always, the corporation’s cars were well built, well engineered and pleasantly styled, but there were few risks taken and only a modest expression of excitement. It was as if Chrysler executives believed that when the war ended, everything would return to pre-war status.
But everything did change in the post-war era. Detroit car production had been halted in February 1942 and had resumed in late 1945. The market for quality used cars was red-hot in 1946 and 1947. It was not uncommon for a 10-year-old car to command the same price as it had when new in 1936.
And so the Detroit auto industry enjoyed a seller’s market. Anything they built sold quickly. The first cars to be built by GM, Ford or Chrysler were mostly the same cars that had been designed as 1942 models but with slight modifications.
GM’s first new post-war cars were introduced for 1949. It was the same for Ford. The all-new 1949 Ford abandoned all design ties to its pre-war models and was a massive hit. The new GM vehicles were equally advanced in design and well received.
But new styling was restrained at Chrysler Corporation. The industry seemed to be racing ahead to welcome the 1950s, but Chrysler took its time.
There was a reason for that.
Fifteen years earlier, Chrysler was arguably the most advanced automobile company in Detroit under the genius of founder Walter Chrysler. The corporation introduced its Airflow as Chrysler and DeSoto cars for 1934. The Airflow was revolutionary in engineering and design, but public appeal was limited. Few were sold – at least not enough to justify the corporation’s enormous investment. Walter Chrysler, as realistic as any businessman, ordered a redesign to make the Airflow more conventional-looking for 1935. Within a few years, the car’s futuristic but controversial styling was gone.
The corporation learned a lesson. It was sometimes dangerous to be too modern, too futuristic, too advanced. And when Walter Chrysler died in August 1940, his successor, K.T. Keller, took the lessons learned from the Airflow to heart. Thereafter, Chrysler Corporation would be among the most conservative of the Detroit companies.
Under Keller’s leadership Chrysler Corporation had become the second largest automobile company in North America, surpassing Ford. And Keller’s approach to engineering was always progressive. But his view of automobile design was more like Henry Ford’s than Edsel Ford’s. The elder Ford had no time for design; he was more intrigued with the manufacturing process. But the younger Ford was enamoured with art and design and excelled at both.
In the post-war years, as the Detroit companies introduced designs that were streamlined, and with cars that featured a lower profile, Keller clung to a modest design. It demanded a higher profile, one in which the roofline was high enough to allow a man to wear a hat while driving. Keller famously said cars should never be so low that a man could pee over them.
As a result of Keller’s enforced conservatism, Chrysler’s cars looked older than the new models being introduced by other companies. Its cars were built to what some people called the Keller Three-Box School of Styling. That is, one box piled on top of two boxes that were laid end to end.
Sales figures help tell the story. In 1949, which represented the fourth consecutive year of rising auto sales for the industry, Plymouth remained Chrysler Corporation’s best selling brand, but sold almost half as many cars as did second-place Chevrolet. Plymouth sold 520,385 units, but Chevrolet sold 1,010,013 cars. Ford, on the strength of its all-new 1949 model, sold 1,118,308 cars.
The next year was a bit better. Plymouth sales rose to 610,959 cars. But Chevrolet’s sales rose to 1,498,590, while Ford sales surged to 1,208,912.
It was the same for the next several model years. Ford and Chevrolet were in a dogfight for first, while Plymouth was always a distant third.
It should be emphasized that Chrysler in the immediate post-war era was selling well built and thoughtfully engineered automobiles. But it was in no hurry to be the first to introduce new post-war models. In fact, Chrysler was the last of the major car companies to do so, in March 1949.
The new models included three series of Plymouth cars. The least costly was the P17 Deluxe. It was built on a 111-inch wheelbase and represented basic transportation. There were three body styles – a businessman’s coupe, a five-passenger fastback two-door sedan and a two-door, all-steel body Suburban station wagon.
The more expensive Deluxe rode on 118.5-inch wheelbase, but was over four inches shorter than its 1948 counterpart. As with the cheaper Deluxe, there was little chrome on the exterior but the interior was better appointed. There were only two body styles available – a two-door notchback club coupe and a four-door sedan.
Plymouth’s top model was the P18 Special Deluxe. It also rode on the new 118.5-inch wheelbase but was given more exterior brightwork and much better interior appointments. The Special Deluxe was available as a club coupe, convertible, four-door sedan or a four-door wood-body station wagon.
The box-like appearance inherent to the new “Keller” Plymouths provided much more glass area than in the 1948 models. Windshields were 37 per cent bigger while rear windows were 35 per cent larger.
But the corporation seemed to spend more attention to the new cars’ interior than exterior. Inside were pleasant-looking instrument panels that featured three circular white-on-black gauges, set into a rich-looking woodgrain panel. Near the center were chrome-plated heater/defroster controls. New was a key-start ignition switch that replaced the old key-and-push-button setup from the previous year. Overall, the interiors were much improved.
All Plymouth cars were powered by a 217-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine. The engine had been improved for 1949 by raising the compression to 7.0. As such, Plymouth was able to increase horsepower to 97.
The introduction of the new Plymouths was so late in the model year that it was inevitable that total 1949 sales would be soft. Yet Plymouth was still the third-ranking brand for 1949, although well behind Ford and Chevrolet.
Plymouth’s new cars continued mostly unchanged for 1950, and were given new names for 1951. The entry-level Deluxe became the Concord. The mid-priced Deluxe became the Cambridge. And the Special Deluxe became the Cranbrook. The cars continued through to the 1953 model year, although Concord was dropped and Cambridge became the entry Plymouth.
A very good example of a 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook was on display at a September car show held in Thamesville. The four-door sedan was painted in an emerald green and sported a white roof, as well as an emerald green sun visor. The car sat on four wide-whitewall tires, and is a stunning example of K.T. Keller’s styling dictum.
The Cranbrook on display would have been built with the flathead six-cylinder engine, and its manual transmission would have been operated through a three-speed column-mounted shifter.
Because the Cranbrook was Plymouth’s most expensive car for 1952, it came with items such as a heater and window defroster, a radio, trim rings and hubcaps. Available options would have included fog lamps, tinted glass and seat covers, to name a few.
Cranbrook became a popular Plymouth. More than 368,000 units were built for 1952. Production was somewhat abbreviated because of the Korean War effort; for 1953, more than 400,000 Cranbrook cars would be built and sold.