Using captured V-2 rockets,
and captured German scientists, the U.S. Army set out on a missile
program. Missiles are heavy into electronics, and that meant
Chrysler was right there. In 1950, the President, Harry Truman,
appointed K.T. Keller as head of the U.S. Army's Redstone Missile
program. Mr. Keller never looked back, so to speak, at the
automobile business that he sprang from.
By this time, Chrysler's
automobile divisions were in total chaos. No one was at the helm,
so to speak, to bring all the divisions into singing from the same
page. As a result, you had divisions competing against each other
as hard as they competed against Ford and General Motors! Chrysler
survived from 1946 through 1950 totally on the war starved demand
for new automobiles, and the booming economic recovery created
after the huge World War. During that period, customers began a
shift from solid, reliable, anvil-like cars to cars like the new
step down Hudson with its lowered floor and racy profile. Things
like automatic transmissions, power steering, power brakes,
electric windows and more engine power were raising fast as the
marketing catch. Chrysler looked to its Chairman, K.T. for some
sort of guidance, and he responded with the usual sort of 3 box
design philosophy (one box sitting on two boxes) for the entire
Chrysler line of cars. Solid, silent, and stodgy!! Keller was
quoted as saying that the styling "won't knock your hat off, and
neither will getting in one of our cars." I guess he thought it
was a good pun.
Plymouth, by the way, was
always the largest ChryCo division producer. The logic however was
that it was the "small margin" car, and attached to other
divisions for its existence. Plymouth production surpassed 1/2 a
million cars in 1936 (520,025) and it never looked back from there
until Buick gave Chrysler Board Members a real shock in 1954, when
Plymouth fell to fifth place in production behind Buick (3rd) and
Pontiac (!) [4th].
My father and grandfather
owned a full MoPar dealership. They were one of the rare outlets
that dealt directly with the factory, and were not a franchise. As
a result they were able to offer and sell every single make that
ChryCo had to offer, along with Dodge trucks.
Some of the journal entries
that were made by my Dad and Grandpa about the Corporation are
interesting and insightful. Both disliked the 1953 model Plymouth
not only due to its stubby appearing design, but for its poor
quality of assembly and lack of creature amenities. No automatic,
no power steering, no power brakes. And it was a dusty, leaky
bastard, in my Dad's words. The placement of the gas filler on the
left hand side just above the rear bumper was an engineer's
nightmare according to Grandpa, causing more gas spills than
"Carter had farter starter pills." But, they didn't end there.
1951 was a critical year.
Materials were hard to get due to the Korean War. Politically,
Harry Truman toyed with the idea of declaring it a war so that
production of war materials would be assured. However, the auto
makers assured him that he would have all the things the Armed
Forces needed, and they would also be able to sustain passenger
car production. It made it well for Truman because he did not have
to declare it a true "war," it was a politically expedient
decision that kept the cash flow coming into the car maker's
coffers. Like all things of this nature though, compromises had to
be made. Certain materials, such as steel, had a finite capacity
to be made. As a result, some car manufacturers found ways to
decrease the amount of steel it took to make a car. Plymouth sheet
metal, along with all Chrysler marques were thinned out. Some
braces were eliminated, and fasteners were spaced further apart.
The 1952 Plymouth was visibly less sound than the 1949, 1950
models. It was also a decision year for the corporation. Dodge was
due to receive its own V-8 "hemisphere" head engine in 1953. That
meant that Plymouth should have received its own V-8 in 1954. To
save costs, it had already been agreed that the Plymouth V-8 would
not be the hemi head design, but rather the "polysphere" head.
Again, Plymouth took it on
the chin. With materials critical for engine manufacturing in
short supply, the Board hid behind the military demands for
products and shoved Plymouth's V-8 into the year 1955 at the
earliest. Dodge also cried that it didn't have the production
capacity to build engines for its own vehicles, its truck division
and Plymouth too! Further, the newly conceived fully automatic
transmission [first called project JUS95A which later became the
ubiquitous Powerflite) was put up for further study as to its
adaptability to the requirements of Plymouth! To add to the
Plymouth division's woes, the government kept threatening to
curtail materials necessary to build any cars for which the ChryCo
Board decided that Plymouth would be the first to stop production
if that occurred! Despite all the bad things thrown its way,
Plymouth managed to hang onto its traditional third place finish
in the production race, but not by much with a surging Buick
snapping at its heels.
Surely 1953 would be better.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was good to his word after his first year in
office, and had gotten the North Koreans to the bargaining table,
slowing down demand for war materials considerably. Plymouth
introduced its new models, which on the inside were virtually the
same as they had since about 1941! Outside however, they were new
looking, and management was convinced they had the right track
when new car sales took off on a pace that equaled the 1951 record
year of over 660 thousand Plymouths. That is up until July of
A few things happened. The
Korean War ended in an armistice. Then Ford began an all out sales
blitz to gain the number one production spot. Not to sit idly by,
Chevrolet joined in the fray. It was an acrimonious time in the
automobile business. Somehow, the dealers had to unload the cars
they had because the factory was just dumping them on their
doorsteps, whether they ordered them or not. Suddenly, the
independents, and Chrysler began to sweat a little. Plymouth was
running at over capacity and was pushing out 20,000 cars a week.
That was the absolute best they could do, and no other ChryCo
division offered them space to increase their production either.
It was at the expense of quality, however that the levels rose to
that many units. Simply, it was just not enough. Ford was running
at 26,000 cars a week, and Chevrolet grabbed whatever space it
needed from other GM divisions to reach 37, 500 cars a week.
Suddenly, it dawned on
someone down in Highland Park that Plymouth not only lacked
capacity, it also lacked the marketing glitz shown by its direct
competitors. Namely, when other cars were growing, Plymouth
actually shrank. While other cars laid on the chrome trim,
Plymouth took it off. While the competition was increasing its
engine power, Plymouth had the same old flathead six that had been
around then for over 20 years. Plymouth couldn't even point to its
oddly acquired NASCAR racing record anymore, since the usual
Plymouth drivers had switched to V-8 power offered by Dodge or
Oldsmobile. Plymouth was one of only 7 cars that did not have an
automatic transmission, not even the semi automatic was offered.
There was no power steering. No power brakes. No fancy packages of
any kind. It was sort of depressing over at the Plymouth Division.
But, at the end of the 1953 production year, Plymouth hung on to
its third place in the units built race. Chrysler Board members
went into a self congratulatory mode. Not all, however fell into
the production trance. One of the last things that K.T. Keller did
before he retired was to hire a new corporate designer. The 1954
models were set. The arrival of the new designer met with no
fanfare, and little notice. However, by the disastrous end of
1954, Virgil Exner was to be put on a pedestal at Chrysler.