1951, 1952 Dodge Wayfarer

Brightly facelifted with a sloping hood, a new ram's head mascot, and a flashy grille that imparted a lower, wider look, the 1951 Dodge Wayfarer was one of the nicest looking Dodges built since the war. Inside, a new dash confronted drivers with a round central speedometer flanked by rectangular sections for auxiliary gauges; this in place of the trio of squares that held the instruments of 1949-50 models. Under the skin, however, it was the same old 103-bhp flathead six riding the familiar short wheelbase, but the Wayfarer for 1951 was clearly the most winning model of the three-year run.

The 1951 Dodge Wayfarer didn't just look great; it won praise for its agile handling, too.
The 1951 Dodge Wayfarer didn't just look great;
it won praise for its agile handling, too.

McCahill tested a Wayfarer sedan for Mechanix Illustrated, coming away with a 0-60 time of 17.4 seconds, a top speed of 87 mph, and the conclusion that it had "twice the life and agility of any Dodge I've ever driven before." Dodge readability was undeniable. Motor Trend's Griff Borgeson, flogging an upmarket Coronet around the Joshua Tree National Monument, described the ride as "'family soft'... still we were surprised by the absence of any tendency to skid while cornering at high speed on dirt -- and we gave the car every chance to do so."

Borgeson's test car was fitted with Dodge's Gyro-Matic semi-automatic transmission, the availability of which was extended to the Wayfarer for '51. Gyro-Matic featured low (first and second gears) and high (third and fourth gears) ranges. The clutch was needed only when shifting between the ranges or to reverse. In normal use, the Dodge started in third gear; when the driver lifted the accelerator at 14 mph or above, the transmission took about two seconds to shift into fourth. When speed fell below 11 mph, third gear was automatically selected. A button-activated kick-down passing gear worked in either range, but came into play only below 35 mph, limiting its usefulness to city driving.

In 1951, Bill Newberg took over Dodge when Tex Colbert moved up (and became president when Colbert later faltered: The Dodge general managership was obviously a key stepping stone). Major changes for the 1951 and 1952 Dodge Wayfarer lay ahead.

Engineers were already hard at work on a scaled-down Dodge version of the Chrysler's hemi-head V-8, which would arrive in 1953 as the 140-bhp Red Ram. Virgil Exner had arrived at Chrysler Styling, and was readying the first of many increasingly radical restyles that would make Chrysler the industry design leader by 1957. This combination of style and performance was the first stirring of Dodge toward its modern image as Chrysler's performance make, which it attained before the Fifties ended and still retains today.

Newberg reviewed the 1951 line and decided quickly that the short-wheelbase economy Wayfarer had no place in the new age aborning. The first model to go was the Sportabout, which did not reappear when Dodge switched to the little-altered 1952 specification late in 1951. (Most notably, '52 Dodges differed from the '51s via a painted lower grille panel, new hubcaps, and a break in the former connection of rear fender trim to the tail-lights.) Only 1002 Sportabouts had been produced for 1951.

The next to leave -- in mid-February 1952 -- was the coupe, which Dodge had often touted as ideal for salesmen or, in recognition of the rising American standard of living, families in need of a second car.

Even the most popular Wayfarer, the two-door sedan, vanished in 1953. That's when Dodge brought out its V-8 and Exner's new design, with a one-piece curved windshield and unified envelope body exhibiting no hint of the previous bolt-on rear fenders. To compensate for the departed Wayfarer, the 1953 Meadowbrook was expanded to five models, the cheapest of which cost little more than the cheapest 1952 Wayfarer.

Meadowbrooks came only with a six-cylinder engine and, together with a pair of Coronet Sixes, accounted for 135,000 sales that year -- so there were still plenty of customers for economy Dodges, and evidently they preferred the larger size. But the Coronet V-8 outsold all the sixes combined. Over the new few years it would receive increasing emphasis, although six-cylinder Dodges were never entirely abandoned.

Clearly, Bill Newberg made the right decision. Wayfarer sales were tapering off (they averaged only about 38,000 a year in 1951-52) while the Rambler, Henry J, and Aero-Willys sucked up most of the limited market for small economy cars. Thus, the Wayfarer -- especially the Sportabout -- became a historical asterisk, born at the wrong time.

Ten years after it disappeared its time had come, and Dodge brought out another nifty little convertible on an even smaller wheelbase: the Dart. Sold like hotcakes, too.

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