Near the end of World War II, Chrysler head K.T. Keller had become heavily involved in the electronics side of Chrysler Corporation. They were very heavily committed to the Manhattan Project, that developed the Atomic Bomb.
However, the Corporation to date has never disclosed just how deeply it was involved in the Bomb process. What did it have to do with automobiles? Answer: Absolutely nothing! Chrysler, by the way, was a very big military contractor, and its electronics division, at the time, was second to none. The U.S. military was stunned by the capabilities that the Germans had reached with the V-2 missiles. The U.S. was nowhere even close in that game.
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 1953.
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.