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1951-1958 Plymouth Belvedere


1957 Plymouth Belvedere
"Shark" fins and a low beltline made for a dashing 1957 convertible.
"Shark" fins and a low beltline made for a dashing 1957 convertible.

The 1957 Plymouth Belvedere and the rest of the company's lineup were all-new again for 1957, the second time in three years. Ads declared "Suddenly It's 1960!" And indeed, it seemed Plymouth had leapfrogged the competition by three years. Seldom had a car changed so radically in a single season.

Nor, for that matter, had a Plymouth been more beautiful. Standing 3.5 inches lower and four inches wider than the 1956, it projected the illusion of great length, though the 1957 was, in fact, fractionally shorter. Credit design executive Virgil Exner's new dart profile with towering "shark" fins, the industry's lowest beltline, a flat hood/front fenders ensemble, strong-but-graceful rooflines, and vast new expanses of glass. Model offerings stayed the same except for the addition of a Savoy Sport Sedan.

Chrysler claimed fins enhanced the directional stability of all its 1957s, and trundled out wind-tunnel tests to prove it. Motor Trend doubted that, then admitted that wind gusts had little effect on the new Plymouth. But mostly, the fins looked right!

So did the rest of the package. The fine cross-hatch grille, for example, was set off by a bumper raised in the center over a separate stone shield with vertical slots. Turn signals nestled inboard of the headlamps under wide hoods, suggesting the four-lamp system long rumored in Detroit (and offered, where legal, by a few other makes this season).

At a time when most cars were garishly two-toned, Plymouth used a slim contrasting color spear on Belvedere or a modest low-set panel on Savoy. Interiors were colorfully trimmed in jacquard cloth and/or vinyl, and a new low-profile dashboard grouped instruments in a large, upright pod directly ahead of the driver. In all, Plymouth was the style standout of this year's daringly redesigned Chrysler fleet.

The changes weren't all cosmetic. Wheelbase grew to 122 inches on wagons and 118 inches on other models, which enhanced ride at the expense of extra weight. Despite this, Plymouth offered much flatter cornering and generally superior handling thanks to Chrysler's new ball-joint front suspension sprung by long, longitudinal torsion bars, plus a lower center of gravity from the new ground-hugging body design and a switch from 15- to 14-inch wheels and tires.

Other alterations accompanying "Torsion-Aire Ride" included higher spring rates and front roll center, rear leaf springs mounted outboard of the chassis siderails for reduced compliance and better stability, and revised front upper-control-arm mounts for less nosedive in hard stops.

Though Plymouth trailed Ford and Chevy in standard 1957 horsepower, it certainly had more than enough to be competitive. The Plaza's carryover Hy-Fire 277 now rated 197 horsepower, while the base V-8 for other models was the new Fury 301, with that many cubic inches from a larger, 3.91-inch bore. Output was 215 horsepower at 4,400 rpm in base tune or 235 horsepower with PowerPak.

Arriving in January was the biggest engine in the low-price field, the new 318-cubic-inch (3.91 × 3.31) Fury V-800, with 9.25:1 compression, dual-quad carburetion, and a rousing 290 horsepower at 5,400 rpm. Standard for the limited-production Fury, the V-800 was optional for any other 1957 Plymouth, and made the lightweight Plaza a terror. The old six wasn't neglected, rising to 132 horsepower on tighter, 8.1:1 compression.

Last but not least was a new three-speed automatic called TorqueFlite, an alternative to PowerFlite and also offered by other Chrysler divisions this year. With its high torque multiplication (up to 6.62:1), TorqueFlite provided astounding acceleration, and allowed axle ratios to be lowered numerically in the interest of low- and mid-speed fuel economy. Smooth and efficient, it was controlled by five pushbuttons, which combined with an overrun "safety" to permit manual gear hold for both maximum performance and engine braking.

Alas, all this goodness was spoiled by sloppy workmanship. Somewhere along the way to the 1957 redesign, Chrysler products lost their previous solidity and relative corrosion resistance. Plymouth was no exception. Some historians date this from 1952, when Chrysler took over Briggs Manufacturing Company, its long-time body supplier.

In any case, Plymouth quality control was noticeably poor in 1957. Motor Trend, for instance, reported that the new dash-mount rearview mirror vibrated so badly at high speed as to be nearly useless. Worse, rust problems surfaced early, and brakes were susceptible to premature fade.

Nevertheless, the combination of fine ride and handling, able performance, and sensational styling was enough to vault Plymouth back into third place for 1957 as sales increased 44.3 percent. Exner reaped his just reward by being elevated to the newly created corporate post of Vice-President and Director of Styling.

Find information about the last Belvedere of its era, the 1958 model, on the next page.

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