The 1960 Plymouth Valiant had its beginnings the year Detroit "blinked." After years of fretting about the rising sales of imports, and unexpected challenges to its long-held sacred bigger-is-better product philosophy, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler bit the bullet and introduced compact cars of their own. With great fanfare, Chevrolet brought forth the Corvair and Ford the Falcon. Chrysler's entry was named Valiant.

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This 1962 Valiant was part of the first foray into small cars by Plymouth.
This 1962 Valiant was part of the first foray
into small cars by Plymouth. See more pictures of classic cars.

To Detroit's credit, each of the three offerings was distinctly different from the others. Chevy's entry was the most radical; the air-cooled, rear-engine CorĀ­vair being an Americanized Volkswagen. On the other hand, the Falcon was thoroughly conventional, a smaller version of the standard Fords. Valiant was somewhere in the middle: conventional in layout (front engine, rear drive), but uniquely different in appearance and initial philosophy.

The introduction of these three downsized automobiles in the fall of 1959 was even more remarkable considering where the industry had been a scant five years earlier. The 1955 model year was celebrated by American automobile manufacturers as a new high-water mark in terms of sales and production, but by 1958, the industry was suffering in the midst of a nasty recession.

Worse than slumping sales, many long-established medium-priced makes were dead or dying. Buyers were beginning to rebel against what they perceived as Detroit's egregious excesses: huge tailfins, excess chrome, and the seemingly inexorable growth in the size of AmerĀ­ican automobiles, particularly among the low-priced three.

Moreover, much to the annoyance and consternation of Big Three executives, the champion of the small car, American Motors president George Romney, was running heretical full-color ads in national magazines openly deriding the Big Three's finned fantasies as automotive dinosaurs (even though Romney's Ramblers also had fins).

Detroit's critics gained even more ammunition via a bitingly sarcastic tome on the automobile industry published in 1958 -- The Insolent Chariots -- wherein author John Keats excoriated the industry's mania for making cars bigger and more costly.

Of the contemporary American automobile Keats wrote: "She grew sow-fat while demanding bigger, wider, smoother roads. The bigger and better the road, the fatter she became, and the fatter she grew, the greater her demands for even bigger roads. Then ... she put tail fins on her overblown bustle and sprouted wavering antennae from each fin. And, of course, her every whim was more costly than the last."

Criticism, however derisive, Detroit could ignore. What could not be ignored was the disquieting growth in foreign-car registrations -- from a mere 27,000 in 1952 to more than 668,000 in 1959, with the Volkswagen "beetle" garnering the lion's share despite its obsolete package, quaint 1930s styling, and nearly forgotten association with Herr Hitler.

Very well; if the American public wanted smaller cars, Detroit would give them smaller cars. Like petulant children, Detroit's leading car companies had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the decision to design and market these new compact cars.

To give Detroit its due, it had taken a quite serious look at building and marketing smaller-than-standard cars immediately after World War II. Each of the Big Three designed and tested smaller cars, and each independently came to the conclusion that the market just wasn't there -- in America, at least.

Detroit realized that the cost of making a smaller car wasn't all that much less than making a standard-size car. And since smaller cars would of necessity have to be sold with smaller price tags, smaller cars would yield less profit. Besides, with an abundance of paved highways and cheap gasoline for the foreseeable future, Americans would continue to buy the most car they could for their money.

Chrysler's flirtation with smaller cars began in the mid-1930s. Concurrent with the development of its pioneering Airflows, Chrysler engineers also investigated smaller editions to be marketed under Plymouth and DeSoto nameplates.

Even more ambitiously, an engineering team headed by R. Ken Lee was involved in extensive research on an experimental front-wheel-drive small car with a water-cooled 66.6-cid five-cylinder radial engine. Mounted on a 98-inch wheelbase, the car resembled a Volkswagen. More than 200,000 test miles were logged before the project was shelved.

By 1947, Chrysler Engineering was working on another small car. Dubbed Project A-106, the 104-inch-wheelbase, four-passenger, rear-wheel-drive sedan featured a horizontally opposed water-cooled four-cylinder engine.

Less radical was the Plymouth "Cadet," a stillborn 105.5-inch-wheelbase economy variant of the upcoming all-new 1949 Plymouth. That car, together with the other Chrysler marques, championed the "smaller-on-the-outside, bigger-on-the-inside" design philosophy that was heavily influenced by Chrysler's experimental work in small cars -- and the convictions of its inimitable president, K.T. Keller, and his famous hat.

Furthermore, alone among the "low-priced three," Plymouth did in fact introduce a smaller postwar car. When its new 1949 car was announced, a subseries on an 111-inch wheelbase was included, the shortest-wheelbase Plymouth since 1934. Plymouth's second all-new postwar car was also heavily influenced by small-car thinking.

All 1953 Plymouths rode on a 114-inch wheelbase, a calculated compromise between the 111-inch and 118.5-inch chassis of 1949-1952. Moreover, Plymouth and Dodge began sharing bodies with the result that 1953-1954 Dodge two-door hardtops, convertibles, and wagons also used the 114-inch wheelbase, a crippling disadvantage against bigger competitors in the medium-price class.

The change to a smaller car was a milestone for Chrysler. To read more about this change, continue on to the next page.

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