How Plymouth Cars Work


Cars like this 1930 Plymouth convertible helped the company prosper through the depression.

When Walter P. Chrysler decided to launch a low-priced car in 1928, his sales manager, Joseph W. Frazer, suggested the name Plymouth, after the storied Massachusetts rock where the Pilgrims landed.

WPC wasn't sure people would make that connection, so Frazer mentioned another product well known to the ex-farmboy. That was all Chrysler needed. "Every god damn farmer in America's heard of Plymouth Binder Twine," he replied -- so Plymouth it was.

Plymouth was a success from day one. Though it was first sold only through Chrysler dealers, demand was so strong that franchises were extended to Dodge and DeSoto agents by 1930.

The strategy excellent and it vastly increased the number of Plymouth dealers while insulating them from the Depression-era sales reversals suffered by costlier Chrysler makes.

Yet despite those "hard times" -- or perhaps because of them -- Plymouth prospered in the '30s on a formidable combination of low price, attractive styling, and engineering often more advanced than that of Ford or Chevrolet. Though Plymouth never outproduced those rivals, it was firmly established as America's number-three seller as early as 1932, a spot it would hold well into the '50s.

Many key features figured in this meteoric rise: all-steel construction (per Chrysler practice) in an age of wood-framed bodies; four-wheel hydraulic brakes some years before Ford and Chevy had them; "Floating Power" rubber engine mounts that gave the 1931 models "the smoothness of an eight and the economy of a four"; independent coil-spring front suspension for 1934, again beating Ford (and matching Chevrolet); rubber body isolators (1936); standard safety glass, recessed controls, concealed heater blower and defroster vents (1937).

Reflecting these and other pluses, Plymouth was one of the few makes to score higher production in 1930-31 than in the pre-Depression period. It also gained in 1933, one of the roughest industry years on record. Output peaked at nearly 552,000 for 1937, dropped to about 279,000 for recession-year 1938, then recovered beyond the half-million mark by 1941.

A "New Finer Plymouth" was announced in April 1930, but it was much like the 1928-29 Models Q and U, with the same 109-inch wheelbase and a competitive lineup in the $600-$700 range. The big difference was a four-cylinder engine enlarged for the third time in as many years, reaching 196 cid (versus 170 for '28 and 175.4 for 1929). Horsepower stood at 48, up three. Like the Model U, the 30U carried into the succeeding calendar year, but saw lower total production of 76,950 versus 108,350. A likely factor was Ford's enormously popular new Model A.

Plymouth responded in May 1931 with a car that was genuinely new, the fruit of a $2.5-million development program. Designated PA, it kept to the same wheelbase but boasted "Floating Power," as mentioned, plus eight more horses to go with it.

There was also a broader lineup with a dashing new sport phaeton and rumble-seat roadster. But mindful of the Depression, Plymouth also fielded two cheap "Thrift" sedans at $495 and $575. Despite the general economic gloom, model-year production soared to nearly 107,000.

Bowing in February 1932 was the last four-cylinder domestic Plymouth for the next 46 years. Styling wasn't greatly altered, but the new PB was more expansive on a three-inch longer standard wheelbase. A convertible sedan was added, Chrysler evidently feeling confident enough to dabble with less-popular body styles even in its price-leader line.

Also new was a seven-seat sedan on a 121-inch chassis. That model found only 2200 buyers and was duly dropped -- but not for long. Horsepower kept climbing, reaching 65, but prices stayed put. Sales fell sharply in this first year of Ford's milestone V-8, but were still respectable at just under 84,000.

Plymouth offered better value by switching to a six for 1933. The project cost $9 million, but was worth every penny in extra sales, which leaped beyond 298,000 for the model year. No wonder, for the new Six sold for as little as $445, over $300 less than the original 1928 Four.

The six naturally had more horses, but from fewer cubic inches. Arriving with 189.8 cid and 70 bhp, it was stroked to 201.3 cid and 77 bhp for 1934. Save an interim push to 82 bhp for 1935, this sturdy four-main-bearing L-head would remain that size through '41, when it spun out 87 bhp.

Like other makes, Plymouth continued "splitting" model years by offering two 1933 series. The first, titled PC, was built from October 1932 through March 1933 in five models on a 107-inch wheelbase. Then came a two-series PD line of standard and DeLuxe Sixes on respective wheelbases of 108 and 112 inches. A convertible coupe was exclusive to DeLuxe.

Follow­ing another industry trend, Plymouth began a cautious move from four-square to streamlined styling, adopting fully skirted fenders and a rounder hood/radiator ensemble. A winged-lady hood mascot arrived as a new accessory.

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Plymouth in the 1930s: PF Standard and PE DeLuxe

In 1934, Plymouth models like this coupe saw smoother styling and some mechanical upgrades.

Styling was smoother still for 1934, when Plymouth made its aforementioned moves to independent front suspension and a larger six. Offerings grouped into PF Standard and PE DeLuxe, the latter on a still-longer 114-inch wheelbase.

A second Standard series designated PG arrived in March with three cheap models priced around $500. DeLuxes now featured safety glass as well as "artillery" steel wheels, which were gaining favor over traditional wires that looked old-hat on streamlined cars.

The winged-lady mascot was replaced by an image of the ship Mayflower, reminding buyers of the Plymouth Rock connection.

Though a factory Plymouth station wagon wouldn't arrive until 1938, U.S. Body & Forge of Tell City, Indiana, built wagon bodies on modified 1934 Plymouth Standard chassis. The resulting West­chester Suburban was a four-door model made mostly of wood from the cowl back; it thus demanded lots of upkeep. Only 119 were built that year. On August 10, Chrysler built its one-millionth Plymouth, and Walter Chrysler was pleased by even higher model-year volume of over 321,000.

Lumpy but modern "potato" streamlining identified the fully redesigned 1935 PJ Plymouths, which included new "trunkback" two- and four-door Touring sedans with integral luggage compartments. Standard and DeLuxe continued, but now shared a single 113-inch wheelbase. The one exception was the new DeLuxe Traveler, a five-passenger four-door sedan on its own 128-inch chassis. Only 77 were sold that year.

All models boasted new "Chair-Height" seats, improved engine cooling via full-length water jackets, an extra five horsepower, and better handling via a new front stabilizer bar and improved weight distribution. Helped by prices as low as $510, Plymouth moved up in model-year production: nearly 327,500.

Despite relatively few changes, the 1936 Plymouths broke the half-million mark, a first for the make. The long chassis was trimmed three inches between wheel centers, and the Standard line was prosaically retitled Business. The main styling distinction was a fulsome barrellike radiator with thin vertical bars.

Plymouth achieved its decade production high with rebodied 1937 models bearing reduced window areas but standard safety glass on all models. Also as mentioned, Plymouth offered recessed interior knobs, plus a rounded dash bottom and a padded front-seat top, all for safety's sake. Oddly, a right-hand windshield wiper still cost extra.

Crank-open windshields were in their final year, but 1937 was the first time Plymouth prices exceeded $1000. That applied to a new seven-seat DeLuxe limousine, which shared a long wheelbase, stretched seven inches from '36, with a similar sedan. Other models lost an inch between wheel centers.

Styling became dumpy for 10th Anniversary 1938; a near-oval radiator didn't help. Models and specifications were mostly carryovers, though there were some changes. For example, a high-compression head was newly optional, lifting bhp to 86, up four from standard. Also available, as it had been since 1936, was a low-compression 65-bhp "economy" engine, a no-charge lure offered to Depression-weary buyers.

On the model front, the Business line became the Roadking in March 1938, but was no less spartan for it. A four-door DeLuxe station wagon, the Suburban, bowed as Plymouth's first such "catalog" model, though U.S. Body & Forge built its coachwork, as it had done back in '34. Like some other contemporary wagons, this came with front-door glass only; glazing behind cost extra. There was no rear bumper either, but a tailgate-mounted spare tire provided some protection.

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1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943 Plymouths

Plymouth's 1939 DeLuxe convertible wasn't a strong seller.

A refreshing facelift arrived for 1939, the work of Raymond H. Dietrich, the great coachbuilder who then headed Chrysler styling. Hallmarks included a strongly peaked "prow" front, perhaps inspired by the Lincoln Zephyr's, plus a Vee'd two-piece windshield instead of the previous single pane. Headlights, now rectangular, nestled within the front fenders, and the gearshift moved from floor to steering column.

The canvas convertible top could be power-operated for the first time in any car, a definite selling point -- especially in the low-price arena. Offerings largely reprised the '38 line, but Roadking added a Suburban and two-door utility sedan. The former saw just 97 copies.

Plymouth's long models were equally slow sellers: only about 2000 for the model year. Such cars would be a Chrysler specialty for many years to come, but none would sell well.

Making a final stand in the DeLuxe series was the rumble-seat convertible coupe and a 117-inch-wheelbase five-seat convertible sedan. The latter was a Plymouth exclusive at Chrysler Corporation for '39, revived for a 12-month stand. After a big dip below 280,000 for recessionary '38, Plymouth recovered nicely with 1939 volume of over 417,000.

A full body change for 1940 Plymouths introduced "speedline" fenders and better proportions on three-inch-longer wheelbases. Sealed-beam headlamps appeared, as elsewhere in Detroit, and simple horizontal-bar grilles flanked a less-prominent prow. Sedans were now solely trunked fastbacks, though with more luggage space than the superseded "trunkbacks."

Though 1940 prices began as low as $645, Plymouths remained a bit costlier than equivalent Fords. They also remained noticeably slower than Dearborn's V-8/85s despite a token two extra horsepower for 1940.

Yet if no speedway threat, the Plymouth six still provided reliable cruising at over 65 mph, and was well-known for economy. A notable manufacturing advance was Chrysler "Superfinish," a special process of giving certain internal engine parts a mirror-smooth surface for reduced friction and decreased wear.

After healthy 1940-model production of 423,000, Plymouth scored a robust 546,000 for '41, thanks mainly to heavy output in the closing months of 1940. Calendar-year figures reflected the turn toward defense work at the end of 1941, running some 50,000 units behind Ford.

The 1941 Plymouths wore an adroit facelift featuring a simple, almost heart-shaped grille and modest bright-metal side accents. Six cheap standard-trim models were added, Roadking became DeLuxe, and the old DeLuxe was now Special DeLuxe.

The slow-selling limousine was axed after just 24 were built. Other '41 rarities were the DeLuxe club coupe (204) and the standard club coupe (994), utility sedan (468), and Suburban (217). All models boasted another Chrysler engineering first: the Safety-Rim wheel, with a beaded circumference to prevent tire loss in a blowout. The battery moved under the hood for the first time, and Plymouth offered "Powermatic" shift, a ­vacuum-transmission assist.

War-shortened 1942 introduced a more massive look via a wider grille and front fenders, plus door sheetmetal extended to cover the running boards. The six was enlarged for the first time since 1934, bored out to 217.8 cid and 95 bhp; it wouldn't be touched again until 1949. Standard-trim models departed, and Special DeLuxe expanded with the town sedan, a new Chrysler style with more formal, closed-in rear roof quarters.

Plymouth Division's 1942 output was close to 152,500 when the government halted civilian automobile production in February for the duration of World War II. While all '42 Detroit cars are quite scarce today, some of these Plymouths are especially rare. For example, only 80 utility sedans, 1136 wagons, and 2806 convertibles were built.

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1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949 Plymouths

Cars like this 1947 Plymouth Special DeLuxe benefited from a 1946 model-line facelift.

While Plymouth manufactured munitions and military engines during the war, stylists like A. B. "Buzz" Grisinger, John Chika, and Herb Weissinger worked on postwar ideas when­ever they could. Typical of Chrysler thinking at the time, these involved smooth, flush-fender bodies with thin door pillars and wraparound grilles.

But like most everyone else, Plymouth resumed civilian operations with mildly modified '42s, which the booming seller's market happily consumed into model-year '49. The first all-new postwar Plymouths bowed in March '49 as squarer and more upright than any wartime study.

Plymouth built just 770 cars between V-J Day and the end of 1945, then quickly picked up the pace, reaching near 265,000 for 1946 and over half a million by '49.

Plymouth's 1946-48 facelift involved a more modest grille with alternating thick/thin horizontal bars, rectangular parking lights beneath the headlamps, wide front-fender moldings, a new hood ornament, and reworked rear fenders. DeLuxe and Special DeLuxe returned, but without utility models. No styling or mechanical changes would occur through early '49, so serial numbers are the only clue as to model year.

Postwar inflation boosted 1946 prices by $270 over 1942. The '47s ran about $250 more than the '46s, and the '48s were up to $300 costlier than the '47s. While Plymouth readied its first all-new postwar models for spring introduction, the '48s were sold as "interim" '49s with inch-smaller wheels and tires (15s versus 16s), plus other minor alterations, but still at '48 prices.

When the "real" '49s arrived, Grisinger and Weissinger had departed for Kaiser-Frazer and a new styling philosophy was in force. It reflected the tastes of K. T. Keller, who'd taken over as company president following Walter Chrysler's death in 1940.

No fan of low "torpedos," Keller preferred what designers termed "three-box styling -- one box on top of two others," believing in function over form. "Cars should accommodate people rather than the ideas of far-out designers," he said. What he failed to grasp was how much postwar buyers wanted the long, low look -- never mind the reduced headroom or ground clearance. In time, Keller's practical bent would severely hurt company sales.

But the seller's market was at its height in 1949, most everything sold no matter what it looked like, and the new Plymouth offered an efficient, comfortable, and roomy package with good visibility.

Wheelbase stretched to 118.5 inches for a DeLuxe notchback coupe and sedan priced in the $1500s, and for Special DeLuxe coupe, sedan, convertible, and wood-trimmed wagon covering a $1600-$2400 spread. A shorter 111-inch chassis supported a DeLuxe fastback two-door, business coupe, and new all-steel Suburban wagon.

Plymouth liked to credit its '49 Suburban as the first "modern" wagon, but Chevy, Olds, and Pontiac also issued all-steel haulers during 1949. Still, the Suburban cost only $1840, quite a bit less than the GM models, and thus sold well: nearly 20,000 for '49.

Buyers evidently loved wagons that didn't require costly, time-consuming upkeep. Within four years, other Chrysler makes and the rest of Detroit had put "woodys" to rest. Plymouth kept its wood-framed wagon through 1950.

Oldsmobile's 1949 "Rocket" 88 fired the gun for a "horsepower race" that turned all manner of staid cars into stylish sizzlers. Plymouth was one of them.

But even more than Chevrolet, Pontiac, or sister Dodge, Plymouth reinvented itself because it had to. Although the make spent most of the early '50s still entrenched as number-three, it sold fewer and fewer cars after '49, bottoming to fifth in calendar-year sales by 1954.

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1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Plymouths

1953 Plymouth models looked small, and sales dwindled.

As continuations of the new '49s, the 1950-54 Plymouths were well-engineered, solid, and reliable; but they were also squarish, stubby-looking, and none too fast.

The ancient L-head six was raised to 97 bhp for '49 and would remain there through 1952, after which it went to 100 bhp (probably by the stroke of an ad writer's pen). Plymouths were still thrifty (20-23 mpg ­wasn't uncommon), but hard-pressed to beat 90 mph. However, automatic electric choke and combined ignition/starter switch arrived as innovations for the low-priced field.

The 1950 line was basically a '49 reprise. An effective facelift brought a simpler square grille with large horizontal bar, slightly longer rear decks (to relieve the boxiness), and taillights placed low within reworked fenders. The Special outsold the plain DeLuxe by about 7 to 5.

After some 611,000 of its 1950s, Plymouth built about the same number of its 1951 models, which gained a modified hood and a lower, wider grille that made frontal appearance a little less blunt.

New model names accompanied the fresh face. Short-wheelbase DeLuxes were retitled Concord and now included a two-door Savoy wagon besides the Suburban. The long-chassis DeLuxe and Special DeLuxe were now Cambridge and Cranbrook, respectively. The latter listed a convertible and Plymouth's first hardtop coupe, the Belvedere, which typically wore "saddleback" two-toning with the roof and rear body (but not rear fenders) in a contrast color.

Ford also offered its first hardtop for '51, but it, too, was a year behind Chevrolet's Bel Air. The Belvedere trailed both in sales by wide margins, but was still pretty popular, with 51,266 built for 1951-52.

Chrysler didn't bother to separate 1951 and '52 production, ­mainly because its cars changed so little. Plymouth was no exception, though a rear nameplate integrated with the trunk-handle (replacing separate script) was a small spotter's point. Overdrive arrived for '52 as a new option, and all Plymouths continued with an important 1951 improvement: Oriflow shock absorbers, a Chrysler hydraulic-type designed to improve ride and handling.

But dumpy looks, a weak old six, and lack of full automatic transmission put Plymouth at a sales disadvantage in '52, when output slid by a substantial 204,000 units to below 400,000, aggravated by government-ordered civilian production cutbacks for the Korean War.

The '53s addressed some of the competitive deficits, starting with an outer-body re-skin that brought flow-through fenderlines, a one-piece windshield, and a more aggressive grille. A single new 114-inch wheelbase was used for a revived two-series lineup minus Concord (Cambridge expanded to embrace the business coupe and wagons).

Another ploy to boost sales was the midyear introduction of semiautomatic "Hy-Drive," a manual transmission with torque converter that eliminated most clutch work, though you still had to clutch between forward and reverse.

But the '53s still looked small, and so did the facelifted '54s, which were as uninspired as any Chrysler product. Volume dwindled from the previous year's 650,000-plus to around 463,000 -- less than half of Ford/Chevy output. Models were regrouped again, this time into cheap Plaza, midline Savoy, and top-shelf Belvedere series covering a $1600-$2300 price spread.

Plaza and Savoy each listed a club coupe, sedans with two or four doors, and a Suburban wagon; there was also a Plaza business coupe. Belvedere comprised four-door sedan, convertible, Suburban, and Sport Coupe hardtop.

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1954, 1955 Plymouths

In 1955, cars like this Belvedere received all-new styling.

Two important mechanical changes occurred during '54. The old six was enlarged for the first time since 1942, a longer stroke swelling displacement to 230.2 cid and horsepower to 110. Also at about midyear came a fully automatic two-speed PowerFlite transmission as a new option. It would prove to be very popular.

Plymouth repeated this basic lineup for 1955, but with a dramatic difference: all-new styling hatched by Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner and executed under his assistant, Maury Baldwin. Suddenly, Plymouths looked exciting. What's more, they had performance to match, thanks to the first V-8 in Plymouth history -- and a new polyspherical design, at that.

Called "Hy-Fire," this new V-8 was an excellent overhead-valve unit in the small-block tradition begun with Studebaker's 232 of 1951. It premiered in two sizes: 241 cid and 157 bhp, and a 260 with 167 standard bhp or 177 with an optional "Power-Pak" of four-barrel carb and dual exhausts. Outstanding features ran to lightweight aluminum pistons and carburetor, and chrome-plated top piston rings for longer life and better oil control. Tuning changes brought the old six, now called "Power­Flow," to 117 bhp.

Other highlights for 1955 included suspended foot pedals, tubeless tires, front shocks enclosed within the front coil springs, and dashboard lever control for the PowerFlite automatic. There were also several options new to Plymouth: fac­tory air conditioning, power windows, and power front seat.

But Plymouth's most-visible '55 attraction was its crisp new styling: pointed front and rear fenders, smooth flanks, shapely tail, a bright but not gaudy grille. Two-toning was confined to the roof and, via optional moldings, broad bodyside sweep ­panels. Four-door wagons returned for the first time since 1948 as Plaza and Belvedere Suburbans. The line-topping Belvedere convertible came only with V-8, as it would through the end of the decade.

Ads proclaimed the '55 a "great new car for the young in heart." It was certainly a clean break from Plymouth's plodding past. Customers rushed to buy -- encouraged by prices little higher than in '54 -- but production lagged and Plymouth dropped to sixth for the model year at 401,000 units. But volume for calendar '55 was a rousing 742,991 (including some '56s, of course) -- a record that would stand well into the '60s.

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1956, 1957, 1958 Plymouths

1957 Plymouths, like this Belvedere, had a tendency to rust..

Plymouth reclaimed fourth place for model-year 1956, which introduced "The Forward Look" -- essentially tailfins, achieved by raising rear fenderlines a little. Engineers brought forth push-button PowerFlite, a 12-volt electrical system, and an optional "Highway Hi-Fi" record player that used special platters and a tone arm designed to stay in the groove -- which it typically did not do on bumpy roads.

Suburbans became a separate line with two-door Deluxe, two- and four-door Customs, and four-door Sport models respectively trimmed like Plaza, Savoy, and Belvedere. A Sport Sedan four-door hardtop expanded Belvedere models, and a two-door hardtop did likewise for Savoy. Both Hy-Fire V-8s were larger and more potent, comprising a base 270-cid version with 180 bhp, and a pair of 277s packing 187 and 200 bhp.

An even hotter Plymouth arrived at mid-'56: the limited-edition Fury. An attractive hardtop coupe, it came only in white, set off by bodyside sweepspears of gold anodized aluminum. Power was supplied by a special 303 V-8 with 240 bhp via 9.25:1 compression, solid lifters, stronger valve springs, dual exhausts, and a Carter four-barrel carb.

A stock Fury could do 0-60 in about 10 seconds and reach 110 mph, though one modified example approached 145 mph on the sands of Daytona Beach. The Fury gave a big boost to Plymouth's growing performance image, and 4485 of the '56s were sold -- not bad for the $2866 price, some $600 above the Belvedere hardtop.

After record-shattering production of nearly 553,000, Plymouth zoomed to better than 762,000 with its stunning all-new '57 line. Ads said, "Suddenly, It's 1960" -- and not without reason. Next to its rivals, Plymouth did seem "three full years ahead," with the lowest beltline and highest tailfins of the Low-Priced Three. Wheelbases lengthened to 122 inches for wagons and to 118 inches for others. Offerings were unchanged through midyear, when a Savoy Sport Sedan hardtop was added.

The PowerFlow six had been coaxed up to 132 bhp by 1957, when Plymouth listed no fewer than five V-8s: 197- and 235-bhp 277s, new 301s with 215/235 bhp, and the Fury's even larger new wedgehead 318 with 290 bhp. TorqueFlite, Chrysler's excellent new three-speed automatic, was an optional alternative to PowerFlite. Also shared with other '57 Chrysler cars was new torsion-bar front suspension, whose superior geometry made for the best-handling Plymouth ever.

It's hard to remember how truly different Plymouth seemed in 1957: low and wide with distinctive "shark" fins, a graceful grille, a front bumper raised over a vertically slotted center panel, two-toning on the roof and tasteful bodyside color ­panels (sometimes the roof alone), huge glass areas (the convertible windshield curved at the top as well as the sides), and a delicate-looking thin-section roofline on hardtop coupes.

Suburb­ans gained load space with an upright spare tire mounted in the right-rear fender, an idea borrowed from the 1956 Plymouth Plainsman show car. The '57 Plymouths were indeed memorable, but their tendency to early rust -- reflecting a rushed development program and a consequent decline in quality control -- makes good examples fairly rare today.

A predictably mild facelift for '58 brought quad headlamps, a horizontal-bar grille insert (repeated in the under-bumper modesty panel), and small round taillights at the base of the fins (bright metal filled the space above). A trio of 318 V-8s offered 225-290 bhp (the latter standard for Fury), and a newly ­optional 350 "Golden Commando" wedgehead packed 305 bhp or, with that year's ultra-rare fuel-injection option, 315 bhp. Fuel injection proved troublesome and all were probably converted to carburetors. A deep national recession held production to just under 444,000, but most everyone built fewer cars for '58.

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Plymouth in 1959 and 1960: Plymouth Sport Fury and Plymouth Valiant

The 1960 Plymouth Fury was one of the Plymouth's hottest models.

Plymouth shared in the industry's modest '59 recovery, turning out a bit more than 458,000 cars that were heavily restyled -- and heavy-handed: longer and higher fins, garish eggcrate grille, headlamps with odd "siamesed" eyelids, more prominent bumpers, more plentiful bright trim, and abstract pilgrim-ship emblems.

The Plaza vanished and Savoy and Belvedere moved down a notch in price; Fury became a top-line series with two- and four- door hardtops and a four-door sedan in the $2700-$2800 range.

Plymouth's high performer was the new Sport Fury, offering a convertible as well as hardtop coupe for around $3000, including a 260-bhp 318 V-8. That year's regular 318 delivered 230 bhp. Fuel injection was no longer offered, but a new 361 "Golden Commando" V-8 with 305 bhp arrived as an $87 extra.

The division's '59 convertibles and hardtop coupes could be ordered with a simulated spare tire on the decklid, a lump of add-on tin reflecting Virgil Exner's love of "classic" design elements. It's since acquired the unflattering nickname "toilet seat." Typical of the gimmick-mad 1950s -- and increasingly of Chrysler -- was Sport Fury's standard "swivel-action" front seats: individual affairs (separated by a pull-down armrest) that turned outward at the touch of a lever to ease getting in and out. Sturdy latches kept them from swiveling while in use.

Also gimmicky, if occasionally predictive, were the several interesting Plymouth-branded show cars of the 1950s. They started with Ghia's 1950 XX-500, a pretty sedan that won Exner's patronage for the Italian coachworks to build later show cars and limousines.

The 1954 Explorer, another Ghia-built Exner design, was a smoothly styled grand tourer. Also in 1954, Briggs Manufacturing, the body maker purchased by Chrysler that year, contributed the two-seat Belmont roadster. The car was supposed to spur Plymouth into offering something similar for the showroom -- with Briggs-supplied bodies, of course -- thus answering Chevy's Corvette and the Ford Thunderbird.

A minuscule sports-car market precluded that, however, which was just as well: The Belmont wasn't much of a looker. The glassy '56 Plainsman, mentioned above, was followed by the even-glassier 1958 Cabana "dream wagon," which sported four-door hardtop styling that would make it to showrooms on 1960-62 Chrysler wagons, but not Plymouth's.

Plymouth built its hottest cars in the '60s -- and also began the long slow slide to its demise. Though Plymouth ran its usual third for 1960, it would not do so again for another 11 years. It dropped to eighth for 1962, knocked out by Rambler, Pontiac, and Olds -- and its own slow-selling line of smaller big cars with no full-size alternatives.

Though it began to recover the next year, Plymouth wouldn't dislodge Pontiac from third until 1971, settling for fourth instead. Much of this trouble reflected management's repeated failure to gauge the market correctly and have the right products at the right time.

Trouble was apparent right away, with 1960 volume easing to just under 448,000 despite support from the compact Valiant, which arrived at Chrysler-Plymouth dealers as an ostensibly separate make.

Sport Fury departed but other Plymouths returned with Highland Park's new "Unibody" construction on an unchanged wheelbase. "Misshapen" described the styling. Tailfins strained to mimic the outlandish appendages of '59 Cadillacs, and headlamp hoods stretched awkwardly down and around from a blunt front to the front wheel openings.

Good news began with a new 225-cid ohv "Slant Six" with 145 bhp, essentially a larger version of the Valiant's 170 unit to replace the old L-head six as base power.

Exceptionally strong and reliable, this fine engine would be a corporate mainstay for the next 20 years. V-8s were largely '59 reruns and all "wedge-heads": 318s with 230/260 bhp for Savoys and low-line Suburban wagons; 361s with 260/305/310 bhp for Belvederes and midline Suburbans; and top-dog Golden Commando 383 with new "Ram-Induction" manifolding and 330 bhp for Fury/Sport Suburban.

Though Rambler's more conservative styling and thriftier sixes scored 2000 more sales for calendar 1960, Plymouth won the model-year race by a substantial 25,000-plus, though that included 194,292 Valiants.

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1961, 1962, 1963, 1964 Plymouths

Lighter Plymouths, like this 1962 Fury, could get away with smaller engines.

The compact Valiant got Plymouth badges for 1961, and the standard line just got weird. A drastic restyle of the year-old Unibody eliminated fins and Fury's extra-cost "toilet seat," but taillights became ponderous bullets attached to scalloped ­fenders, while the pinched grille was eerily reminiscent of an old Graham "shark­nose."

A V-8 reshuffle cut the 260-bhp, while a hotter one arrived with 340 bhp. Chrysler's biggest V-8, the mighty 413 wedge, came to Plymouth with 350/375 bhp. But Plymouth's odd "plucked chicken" styling combined with still-mediocre workmanship reduced model-year volume to around 350,000. Industry standing fell to fourth place behind Rambler.

Then came the division's worst mistake of the '60s. Anticipating strong demand for smaller "standard" cars, Exner sliced standard Plymouths eight inches in overall length, trimmed two inches from wheelbase, slashed curb weights by up to 550 pounds, and applied strange, Valiant-like styling. Existing models returned, and Sport Fury was reborn at midseason as a sporty bucket-seat convertible and hardtop coupe.

These lighter, more maneuverable '62 Plymouths could get away with a smaller standard engine. The 225 Slant Six became the power­plant for more models. Previous V-8s returned, though horsepower ratings fluctuated somewhat. Most significant was the boost given to the big 413, which now packed a whopping 410/420 bhp, making these Plymouths (and sister Dodges) the cars to beat at the dragstrip.

But mainstream ­buyers, not enthusiasts, were what mattered, and they still hungered for "full-size" cars. Ford and Chevrolet had them, and thus prospered as Plymouth's model-year volume plunged below 340,000 (again including Valiant). At least that would be the decade low.

Beating a hasty retreat, Plymouth issued more conservative, squared-up styling for '63, then a Chevy-like '64 facelift. Both were crafted under Ford alumnus Elwood Engel, who replaced Exner in 1962. But this didn't help much. Plymouth rebounded to fourth for '63 mainly on continuing strong demand for Valiants rather than appreciable gains in its "big-car" sales.

Engines in these years stood pretty much pat save a notable '63 newcomer. This was a wedgehead 426, a bored-out 413 with ultra-high compression -- 11:1 up to 13.5:1 -- packing 370/375 bhp with twin four-barrel carburetors or 415/425 with Ram Induction.

Driver Richard Petty gave Plymouth a big morale boost by winning the '64 NASCAR championship hands down, driving a Fury hardtop whose new "slantback" rear roofline undoubtedly aided aerodynamics on the long-distance "super-tracks."

But this triumph came with a 426 hemi-head V-8 available only to racers, not the general public. Still, it was heartening to see Chrysler's famed '50s muscle mill revived for a new "horsepower race" that was already well underway.

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1965, 1966, 1967 Plymouths: Plymouth Fury and Plymouth Belvedere

1966 Plymouths like this Barracuda were long on performance. See more pictures of Plymouth cars.

A full-scale Plymouth renaissance was evident for 1965, largely because the make returned to the full-size fold with big, blocky Furys on a new 119-inch wheelbase (121 for wagons).

Fury I and II offered two sedans and a wagon; Fury III added two- and four-door hardtops and a convertible; at the top were a bucket-seat Sport Fury convertible and hardtop coupe. They were the largest Plymouths ever, and naturally far roomier than the '64s.

Yet prices were amazingly reasonable: $2400-$3200. Unit construction continued, but a bolt-on subframe carried engine and front suspension. Powerplants ran from 225 Slant Six through 318, 361, 383, and wedgehead 426 V-8s producing 230-365 bhp.

Meanwhile, the advent of intermediates begun with Ford's 1962 Fairlane suggested a new role for the 116-inch-wheelbase "standard" Plymouth of 1962-64. With a blocky reskin to resemble the big Fury, it returned for '65 as the "new midsize" Belvedere and met strong buyer approval.

Offerings ran to Belvedere I sedans and wagon; Belvedere II four-door sedan, wagon, hardtop coupe, and convertible; bucket-seat V-8-only Satellite hardtop and convertible; and a much-altered drag-oriented two-door hardtop aptly named Super Stock. A wedgehead 426 with 365 bhp was standard on S/S and optional for other Belvederes. A 426 Hemi with 425 bhp was optional for the Super Stock. S/S rode a special 115-inch chassis and weighed just 3170 pounds, so performance was mighty.

But it was neither cheap at $4671, nor readily available as it was built for strip and not practical on the street. Normal Belvederes cost $2200-$2700 and offered mostly the same engines as Furys, though their base V-8 was a new small-block 273 rated at 180 bhp. This was a debored cousin of the 318, which was reengineered for '65 to save weight, yet the result was no less durable or potent.

Scoring points with performance-minded young-bloods, Plymouth finally took the incredible Hemi from track to show-room as a limited-production option for the 1966 Belvedere II/Satellite.

Heavy-duty suspension and oversize brakes were included to cope with its awesome power, which was 425 advertised but closer to 500 actual. Transmission was initially limited to four-speed manual, but three-speed TorqueFlite automatic was soon added.

Surprisingly docile at low "touring" speeds, Street Hemi Belvederes were electrifying demons when pushed. Correctly set up with proper tires and axle ratio, they could reach 100 mph in 12-13 seconds, making them prime quarter-mile competitors in the National Hot Rod Association's A/Stock and AA/Stock classes, along with Dodge's similar Coronet-based Hemi-Chargers.

Chrysler's mighty "B-body" middleweights continued doing well in NASCAR. David Pearson won the '66 championship for Dodge; Richard Petty again did the honors for Plymouth in '67.

Belvedere/Satellite's crisp-lined '66 styling continued with only detail changes for 1967, the last year for the original '62 "standard" platform. Topping the line was the new Belvedere GTX, a lush hardtop coupe ($3178) and convertible ($3418) equipped with a 375-bhp version of the big-block 440 wedge (evolved from the 426) introduced on Chrysler Corporation's full-size '66s.

Plymouth reserved its '67 Street Hemi option exclusively for GTX, which was easily spotted: silver-and-black grille and back panel, simulated hood air intakes, sport striping, and dual exhausts.

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1968, 1969 Plymouths and Plymouth Road Runner

Plymouth's 1971 Road Runner featured an ingenious tie-in with the Warner Bros. cartoon character.

A new B-body with no change in wheelbases gave Plymouth's 1968 intermediates a more rounded look that was just as ­pretty. Belvedere was reduced to a low-line coupe, sedan, and wagon. Satellite was now the full-range volume series, and Sport Satellite denoted a top-line wagon, convertible, and hardtop coupe priced just below GTX ($2800-$3240).­

Plymouth scored a marketing coup with the 1968 Road Runner, a budget-priced no-frills muscle machine with ingenious tie-ins to the beloved Warner Bros. cartoon character. It bowed as a pillared coupe, but unexpected popularity (2500 first-year sales forecast, almost 45,000 actual) prompted adding a two-door hardtop at mid-year.

Exterior badging comprised RR nameplates and cartoon-bird decals inside and out, along with side-facing dummy hood scoops that could be made functional for a little extra money. Power came from a 335-bhp 383 with intake manifold and big-port heads from the 440.

The Street Hemi was available, as was a slew of comfort and cosmetic goodies; beefy suspension, four-speed, and a cute "beep-beep" horn were standard. Dynamite on street or track, this finely tuned package of power and performance cost only $2800-$3100 -- an extraordinary bargain for the day.

The midsize Plymouths continued through 1970 with only minor interim changes. A convertible and more standard equipment bolstered Road Runner's appeal for 1969, though higher prices didn't ($3000-$3300). The ragtop GTX disappeared after '69 and a mere 700 copies.

Following a mild '66 facelift, the big Furys received crisp new lower-body sheetmetal that added inches to length and width. Wheelbases and engines stayed largely the same, with the big-block 440 option returning from '66 with 350/375 bhp. Fury's standard V-8 remained a 230-bhp 318; a brace of optional 383s offered 270/325 bhp. The 225 slant six continued as base power for all models.

Plymouth joined Ford and Chevy in the move up to medium-price territory with the 1966 Fury VIP, a hardtop coupe and sedan offering standard 318 V-8, vinyl top, richly appointed interior, and special badging for around $3100.

VIP returned as a separate series for '67 with the same two body styles although the hardtop switched from notchback to that year's "Fast Top" styling, with a slanted backlight and very wide C-pillars that also showed up on a second Sport Fury hardtop. Pillarless Fury coupes offered the same choice of rooflines for 1968, when another mild facelift occurred.

If not exactly head-turners, late-'60s Furys gave away nothing in appearance to rival Fords and Chevys. The 1965-66 models wore conservative full-width grilles, stacked quad headlamps, minimal side decoration, and simple taillights. Sheetmetal was more sculptured for 1967-68 -- crisper yet somehow more imposing than before.

For 1969, the big Plymouths adopted the smoother, more massive "fuselage styling" then in vogue at Chrysler. Beltlines were higher, which made windows shallower, and lower-body contours were more flowing and heavier-looking. Squarish fenderlines were links with the past, but headlamps reverted to horizontal pairs.

Model offerings again stood pat, with non­wagon styles on an inch-longer 120-inch wheelbase. Plymouth's big ragtops were now fast-waning sellers. The Fury III saw only 4129 copies for '69, the Sport fury a mere 1579. The latter then disappeared, leaving the bench-seat job as Plymouth's last big convertible; only 1952 of the 1970 models were built.

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Plymouth Valiant and Plymouth Barracuda

The car that pulled Plymouth through its early-'60s troubles was Valiant, one of the Big Three's original 1960 compacts. The first design generation ran through 1962: ruggedly built Unibody cars with Exner styling marked by square grilles, pronounced "blade" fenderlines, and short decks adorned by dummy spare tires, all on a 106.5-inch wheelbase.

A four-door sedan and wagon were initially offered in V100 and V200 trim for $2000-$2500 -- cheaper than Chevy's Corvair but quite a bit upstream of Ford's runaway-hit Falcon. A V100 two-door sedan and V200 hardtop coupe arrived for '61. With bucket seats and spiffy trim, the hardtop became 1962's Signet 200, perhaps the most-collectible early Valiant.

A strong point of most every Valiant ever built was its robust Slant Six, so named because the block canted right to permit lower hoodlines, though engineers also claimed certain manufacturing and operational benefits. The initial 170-cid version produced 101 bhp; a 1960-61 four-barrel option called "Hyper-Pack" raised that to 148 bhp. The larger 225 unit from the big Plymouths became optional from 1962.

Exner's departure left Elwood Engel to shape the '63 Valiant, which emerged as clean, rounded, and conventional, if a bit stodgy. Bolstered by appealing new Signet and V200 convertibles, Valiant picked up sales, rising from about 157,000 for '62 to over 225,000. The '64s sold even better, thanks in part to optional availability of the new 273 small-block V-8, which made these sprightly cars indeed.

After two facelift years, Valiant was completely redesigned for 1967, adopting a 108-inch wheelbase and four-square lines reminiscent of some midsize European sedans. Wagons were dropped -- they hadn't been huge sellers anyway -- as were hardtops and convertibles, leaving two- and four-door sedans in "100" and Signet trim.

Yet despite this, and aggressive new Ford and Chevy competition, Valiant remained one of Detroit's most-popular compacts. Except for some interesting interim develop­ments, the basic '67 design would persist through the final Valiants of 1976.

The reason Valiant lost its sporty models was the success of Chevy's Corvair Monza, which prompted Plymouth to refocus its sights on the sporty-compact market. The result was Barracuda, launched in mid-1964 as a '65 model. This was not a direct reply to Ford's Mustang "ponycar," though some observers thought otherwise, as the two models appeared almost simultaneously.

Actually, Barracuda was the existing Valiant with a new superstructure: a cleverly conceived fastback hardtop coupe with a huge compound-curve backlight and stubby trunklid. A fold-down back seat, then a novelty for Detroit, could be used to create a seven-foot-long cargo deck for hauling things like surfboards and hero sandwiches.

Despite its obvious workaday origins, Barracuda offered a pleasing combination of sporty looks, good handling, utility, and room for four. Close to 65,000 were sold for model-year '65 -- far adrift of Mustang's near 681,000, but welcome added business all the same. And unlike Mustang, Barracuda didn't "cannibalize" sales from sister models.

Predictably, the 225 slant six was standard for the 1964-65 Barracuda, with the 180-bhp 273 V-8 optional. However, a high-performance 235-bhp 273 was also offered with a high-lift, high-overlap camshaft, domed pistons, solid lifters, dual-contact breaker points, unsilenced air cleaner, and a sweet-sounding, low-restriction exhaust system. With "Rallye Suspension" (heavy-duty front torsion bars and antisway bars, stiff rear leaf springs), "Firm-Ride" shocks, and a four-speed gearbox, the 235-bhp job could do 0-60 mph in eight seconds flat.

After a debatable '66 facelift featuring a squarish front (shared with Valiant) and two-piece eggcrate grille, Barracuda was handsomely redesigned for '67. Wheelbase was stretched two inches, overall length five inches, and a shapelier fastback (without the "glassback") was joined by a new convertible and notchback hardtop coupe (the latter with a rather odd, "kinked" rear roofline).

A newly available four-barrel 383 with 280 bhp provided better straightline performance, but hurt handling by adding up to 300 extra pounds at the front. The 273 remained the best choice for all-around roadability. As for '66, a Formula S package was offered; it included heavy-duty suspen­sion, tachometer, wide-oval tires, and special stripes and badges.

Happily, the '67 Barracudas continued without drastic change through 1969 -- except, of course, for the feds' new safety and emissions equipment then appearing on all Detroit cars. A vertical-bar grille insert and small round side-market lights identified the '68s; the '69s gained a checked insert, revamped taillights, and square side-markers.

In both years, Plymouth fielded muscle-market "'Cuda" versions offering a choice of Chrysler's new 340 small-block with 275 bhp or the big-block 383 with 300 bhp for '68 and 330 bhp for '69.

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1970 Plymouths

The 1970 Barracuda was lower and heavier than previous models.

Appearing for 1970 was a fully redesigned third-generation Barracuda that donated its basic structure to a new Dodge ­double, the Challenger. Against the 1967-69 Barracudas, the '70 was two inches lower, three inches wider, a tad shorter, much heavier, and somehow more conventional-looking.

Wheelbase remained at 108 inches, but the new "widebody" design had plenty of room for every big-block V-8 in the Chrysler stable, up to and including the 426 Hemi and a new six-barrel 440 that was conservatively rated at 390 bhp.

Those two were available with a special "shaker" hood, so-called because a functional scoop attached directly to the carb housing poked through the panel and could be seen a-shakin'. The trademark fastback was no more, but hardtop and convertible returned in three forms: base, performance-oriented 'Cuda, and luxury Gran Coupe (which in ragtop form was thus a Gran Coupe convertible).

Perhaps the most-interesting 1970 Barracuda was the racy, midyear AAR, named for and inspired by the Dan Gurney All-American Racers team cars that contested that year's Trans-Am series in Sports Car Club of America competition.

Based on the 'Cuda 340 hardtop, the AAR was easily spotted by its bold body-side "strobe" stripes, wide tires, matte-black fiberglass hood with functional scoop, rear spoiler, and long exhaust trumpets peeking out from beneath the rocker panels.

The last also made the thing unmistakable to the ear. A modified 340 V-8 carried an Edelbrock intake manifold mounting three two-barrel carbs, plus special heads and a fortified block and valvetrain. Heavy-duty suspension was also included. Planned production was 2800, but the final figure is estimated at no more than 1500.

Giving Valiant a lift for 1970 was a new semifastback pillared coupe called Duster, a pleasant little car of good quality that attracted more than 217,000 first-year sales. Several thousand sported a "Gold Duster" option package with gold accents on grille, body, and interior, plus bucket seats, whitewall tires, and special wheel covers.

The Duster 340 was a racy derivation with a mechanical package similar to the 'Cuda 340's. Equip­ment ran to the 275-bhp small-block, three-speed floor-shift, front disc brakes, wide tires, and tuned suspension.

Among 1970 Plymouth intermediates was a startling newcomer: the Superbird. Part of the Road Runner series, it was an evolution of Dodge's 1969 Charger Daytona, with a similar hidden-headlamp "droop-snoot" and huge struts carrying a stabilizer wing high above the rear deck. The Superbird looked fast -- and was: Racing versions recorded over 220 mph.

Street models came with a four-barrel 440 and TorqueFlite automatic, but the 440 "Six Pak," 426 Street Hemi, and four-speed manual transmission were all optionally available. Dodge built some 500 Charger Daytonas to qualify it as "production" for NASCAR events; then the sanctioning body increased its minimum to 1500. That was no problem for Plymouth, which ended up building 1920 Superbirds.

The Superbird's greatest moment came at the 1970 Daytona 500, when Pete Hamilton romped home at an average speed of nearly 150 mph to best every Dodge and every Ford. Superbirds then went on to take 21 of Chrysler's 38 Grand National wins that year. But NASCAR changed the rules again for 1971, thus ending the Superbird's dominance on the high-speed ovals -- and the car itself.

Full-size Plymouths got their own dose of extra performance for 1970. Most notable was the new Sport Fury GT, a hardtop coupe carrying a 350-bhp 440, heavy-duty suspension, and long-legged rear axle ratios (up to 2.76:1).

Also new to the Sport Fury line was the S/23 hardtop. Its standard 230-bhp 318 wasn't in the GT's league, but you did get a tuned chassis and modest "strobe" body stripes. Other Sport Furys were upgraded to take over from the now-departed luxury VIP, and all versions now hid their headlamps within a big new loop bumper/grille worn by all full-size Plymouths. Arriving in February was a plush Gran Coupe pillared two-door boasting most every comfort and convenience feature in the book at $3833 without air conditioning or $4216 with A/C.

For more on defunct American cars, see:

1971, 1972, 1973 Plymouths

For two brief shining moments, 1971 and '74, Plymouth again finished its traditional third in industry production. But after that, it never ran higher than fourth. By decade's end Plymouth had sunk to ninth, even though 1979 was a very healthy Detroit year. By the early '80s, the make was all but invisible.

Several factors contributed to this sorry decline: more wrong products at wrong times, indifferent workmanship even on the few models that were well timed, dwindling public confidence in Chrysler Corporation generally, and decreased styling distinc­tion with related Dodges.

Plymouth also suffered from a growing dullness that stemmed from the '60s consolidation of Chrysler's five divisions into two (Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth). Because this eliminated the need to put all nameplates on all major platforms, glamour assignments like Cordoba went to Chrysler while Dodge increasingly got sportier models all to itself. By 1978, Plymouth was back to peddling basic family transportation -- just as it had started out doing 50 years before.

Yet few could have foreseen this diminished role in 1970, when Plymouth countered Ford and Chevy with five separate car lines spanning 44 individual models and about 70 basic variations (counting trim levels and engines).

Valiant, the lone survivor of the original Big Three compacts, dominated its market right on through swan-song '76. A key factor was the Duster coupe, which chalked up well over a quarter-million sales for 1974 alone. It was conventional but cute and well-engineered, and at least as well-built as comparable GM and Ford products.

Plymouth kept Duster desirable with a stream of extra-cost packages. The 1971-74 "Twister" option included matte-black hood, Duster 340-type black grille, bodyside tape stripes, and Rallye wheels. The Gold Duster continued through 1975 with a color-keyed pebble-grain vinyl roof. The "Space Duster" of 1973-74 was Plymouth's equivalent of Dodge's Dart Sport "Convertriple," with a wagon-style fold-down rear seatback that gave a 6-1/2-foot-long carpeted cargo deck. (Shades of the original Barracuda.)

Even at the end of the line there was a special "Silver Duster" (a handsome combination of silver, red, and black) as well as a "Feather Duster." The latter, a reply to Ford's "MPG" models, had an economy-tuned 225 Slant Six with aluminum intake manifold, and aluminum instead of steel inner panels for hood and decklid. With a manual-overdrive gearbox, which had an aluminum case, the Feather Duster was surprisingly frugal; a prudent driver could nurse one up to 30 mpg.

Further bolstering the Valiant line were the performance-­oriented V-8 Duster 340 (through '73) and 360 (1974-75); the 1974-76 Brougham luxury option for sedans and two-door hardtops, offering opulence not usually found in compacts; and the Scamp hardtop, which was new for 1971. Altogether, Valiant and Dodge's similar Dart were impressive sellers right to the end. In some years Valiant gave Chrysler the compact lead over Ford and Chevy.

Unveiled for mid-'76 was Volare, a more upscale Plymouth compact that replaced Valiant entirely the following year. Though only a bit larger outside, Volare (and its Dodge Aspen cousin) had been designed for maximum interior space, which was quite good for the day. Workmanship, however, was anything but good.

Still, this very real problem didn't harm sales right away, mainly because it didn't surface for a few years. Trim levels comprised base, mid-range Custom, and high-line Premier; the last offering unexpected luxury for around $4500. Volare also came as a five-door wagon in addition to the expected coupe and sedan -- Plymouth's first compact wagon since 1966.

The Volare was right on target, racking up almost 400,000 sales for '77. Most examples had a 225 Slant Six or 318 V-8, both able veterans of some two decades. Though no trend-setter, Volare appealed mainly for its restrained styling and a decent performance/economy compromise.

Compacts were Plymouth's only real success in the '70s; its intermediates and full-size cars fared poorly. So, too, did the Barracuda, which was of no significance in the steadily declining ponycar market.

The all-new 1970 design was warmed over for '71, gaining quad headlamps and a none-too-pretty Vee'd grille with vertical slats. A low-priced pillared hardtop replaced the convertible Gran Coupe and promptly took the lion's share of drastically reduced sales.

Convertibles and big-block power were scrubbed for '72, leaving standard and 'Cuda V-8 coupes. These carried on for two more seasons before Plymouth gave up. Low production has thrust 'Cudas and Gran Coupes into the collector limelight -- especially convertibles. The '71 droptop 'Cuda saw just 374 copies, and the standard convertible was almost as rare at 1014.

Midsize Plymouths consolidated under the Satellite name for 1971 and were completely revamped, shedding their relatively square 1968-70 look for more radically sculptured sheetmetal and large loop bumper/grilles.

In line with a Detroit trend, coupes rode a shorter wheelbase than sedans and wagons (115 vs. 117 inches). Convertibles vanished here too, but Road Runner and GTX were still around, and there was a smart new sports-luxury hardtop called Sebring Plus.

Unfortunately, these Plymouths suffered the same fate as most '70s intermediates, becoming ever-more ponderous, thirsty, and ugly. The GTX was dumped after '71 for lack of sales, and the Road Runner, still ostensibly a separate model, wasn't nearly as fast on its feet as before.

An attempt to regroup for 1975 brought the "small Fury," basically the existing platform with squared-up outer sheetmetal and a new name, but sales continued to languish. The last of these cars rolled out the door in 1978.

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1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979 Plymouths

Fury models, like this

The big full-size Furys vanished after 1977, but for 1971-73 they were restyled continuations of the 1969-70 "fuselage" body/chassis design. They retained the same four-series lineup of Sport Fury and three lower trim levels ­designated by Roman numerals.

Plymouth began whittling away at this group for '72, with Gran Fury taking over at the top and economy Fury I offerings cut from four to one. Meanwhile, Chrysler Corporation was preparing a brand-new design for all its full-size cars, scheduled well in advance of the brewing Middle East oil crisis.

Nevertheless, the hulkier new 1974 Fury (and the correspond­ing Dodge Monaco and Chrysler Newport/New Yorker) seemed incredibly ill-timed. They were not only heavier, but looked it: square and undistinguished on wheelbases stretched two inches.

A Slant Six was available in some models, but made them ­grossly underpowered. V-8s were the now-usual assortment of 318, 360, midrange 400, and big-block 440. Significantly, sales didn't improve even after gas supplies eased and big-car sales began recovering.

After 1974, the full-size Fury was called Gran Fury to avoid confusion with Plymouth's renamed '75 intermediate Furys. But somehow, Chrysler never seemed to understand that badge shifting seldom (if ever) makes any difference in sales. It sure didn't here. Except for the midrange Custom sedan, not a single Gran Fury model scored more than 10,000 sales for 1976, and production of some Brougham and wagon models was laughably low for a traditional high-volume make.

Hoping to cut such losses, Plymouth trimmed big-car offerings for '76 and again for '77 -- mainly hardtop sedans and some trim variations. But the losses continued, and Plymouth temporarily fled the full-size field. It halfheartedly returned for 1980 with a bargain-basement version of the pseudo-downsized R-body Chrysler Newport, again bearing the Gran Fury name and intended mainly for the fleet market. But sales, at less than 19,000 for the model year, were disappointing.

The shape of Plymouth's future arrived with the all-new 1978 Horizon, a five-door subcompact sedan whose 99.2-inch wheelbase made it the smallest Plymouth in history. It was virtually identical to Dodge's Omni except for grille insert, taillights, and badges, and thus shared distinction as America's first domestically built front-drive small car.

Horizon sold briskly from the start despite later ill-founded charges that handling wasn't all it should be. In fact, ­roadability was one of Horizon's strengths. So was fine economy, courtesy of a 70-bhp, Volkswagen-based 104.7-cid four-cylinder engine. Another plus was the practical, space-efficient hatchback body. A sleek 2+2 "fasthatch" coupe called TC3, riding a 96.7-inch wheelbase, added some spice to the line for '79.

But by that point, Plymouth was a mere shadow of its former self, down to just Horizons, TC3s, and Volares. Management tried fostering the illusion that this was still a "full-line" make by slapping Plymouth nameplates on various "captive imports" from Mitsubishi of Japan. These included the little Arrow hatch-back coupe (1976-80), the larger and more luxurious notchback Sapporo (1978-82, sold with a Dodge double reviving the Challenger name), and the front-drive Champ economy hatchback (new for '79 and duplicated as the Dodge Colt).

The badging was a good marketing move, providing vital sales support at a crucial time, but it only underscored how low once-prominent Plymouth had fallen.

Though more salable new domestic products soon appeared, Plymouth's record in the '80s was pretty sorry for what used to be Detroit's perennial number-three. After moving slightly more than 500,000 American-made cars for 1977 and again for '78, Plymouth wouldn't exceed 400,000 in any one year through 1986 -- and was well below 300,000 for 1980, '82, and '83.

Though having fewer domestic models was a definite sales handicap, Plymouth's also-ran status in the '80s stemmed as much from a conscious decision to change its role within the corporate lineup. Planners decreed that Chrysler would cater to luxury buyers, per tradition, while Dodge would again go after the performance crowd. This left Plymouth with nothing to emphasize except reliable value-for-money cars that duplicated Dodges but were less interesting and fewer in number.

For more on defunct American cars, see:

Plymouth in the 1980s

Plymouth relied on Reliants (shown here as a 1981 model), and Horizons for sales in the 1980s.

The Plymouth product story in the '80s is thus basically the same as for the duller Dodges. And a short one it is, too, because the make missed out on reborn convertibles, luxury models, and a latterday ponycar like the front-drive Dodge Daytona.

With that, most Plymouth sales came from just two model lines: the L-body Horizon and derivative TC3 coupe (retitled Turismo for 1983-87), and the seminal K-body Reliant, which ousted Volare as the division's compact for 1981.

In ­yearly styling and engineering changes they parallel Dodge's near-identical Omni/Charger and Aries, respectively, except for minor trim and, in line with Plymouth's solid-citizen role, no Shelby-tuned subcompacts.

In most years, Reliant earned honors as Chrysler's single best-selling model line. Wagons departed after 1989, but coupes and sedans finished out Reliant's run as value-equipped "America" models priced at $7595. Plymouth's Horizon also outsold Dodge's Omni, though not by much, averaging 150,000 per year except for about 90,000 managed for 1982-83.

Badge-engineering gave the make token representation in the full-size and intermediate ranks. For the former, Plymouth was doled a "downsized" 1982 Gran Fury, a near-twin of the 112.7-inch-wheelbase M-body Dodge Diplomat to replace the slow-selling 118.5-inch-wheelbase Gran Fury of 1980-81. This sputtered along as a four-door sedan with few interim changes through swan-song 1989.

Engines were the expected Slant Six and 318 V-8 (V-8 only after '83), and trim levels were restricted to only one or two. Of course, this was nothing like previous Gran Furys, being the original Aspen/Volare compact as evolved through the midsize 1977 Diplomat/Chrysler LeBaron. Most sold to police and taxi fleets, where the M-body's aging but proven rear-drive design was an asset.

Canadians were offered an M-body Plymouth before 1982 as the Caravelle. For '85, this name came to the U.S. on a restyled, downpriced version of what had been the Chrysler E-Class. All but a copy of Dodge's 103.3-inch-wheelbase 600 four-door sedan, this front-drive Caravelle was nominally Plymouth's midsize family car, and sold in plain and uplevel SE trim at a respectable 35,000-45,000 a year until its 1988 retirement when sales dropped to 17,000.

Unlike Dodge with the 600 ES, Plymouth was not allowed a more sporty model or even a five-speed transaxle, but for a time the 146-bhp turbocharged edition of Chrysler's 2.2-liter (135-cid) "Trans-4" engine was optional. Most Caravelles had either a 2.6-liter (156-cid) Mitsubishi four with a balance shaft or, after debut-model 1985, the 2.5-liter (153-cid) enlargement of Chrysler's 2.2. All carried TorqueFlite automatic.

Like Dodge, Plymouth's other big winner in this decade was the practical K-based T-115 minivan, new for '84. The name here was Voyager (retained from Dodge-clone big-Plymouth vans of the '70s), but that and a different grille were about all that separated it from Dodge's Caravan.

Added to the K-cars' success, the fast-­selling minivans were a big reason why Chrysler Corporation enjoyed record profits by middecade, a mere five years after nearly tumbling into the financial abyss. Because the industry counts minivans as trucks rather than cars, Voyagers don't figure in the Plymouth production totals cited here.

Plymouth got in on the new-for-'87 P-body, the more upscale subcompact originally intended to replace Omni/Horizon. That replacement didn't happen immediately, though, as strong demand for the high-value "America" models announced for 1987 prompted Chrysler to keep the L-bodies through 1990. A surprising number of changes occurred that final year: new dash, standard driver-side air bag, and no America tag. Identically priced at $6995 for 1990, the Omni/Horizon went out as outstanding value for the money.

Plymouth's name for the erstwhile successor P-body was Sundance (recalling an early-'70s Satellite trim option). Though predictably all but identical to Dodge's Shadow, Sundance aimed more at luxury-minded small-car shoppers, offering three- and five-door notchback sedans with only one well-equipped trim level and a suspension tuned more for ride than handling.

But Highland Park hadn't entirely forgotten Plymouth's performance past, because the 1988 Sundance offered a new RS package option with sportier appointments that included integral fog lamps, two-tone paint, wider tires on racier wheels, special bucket seats, and leather-rim steering wheel. An ­optional 2.2-liter port-injected turbo-four with 146 bhp backed up this brag, then gave way to a blown 150-bhp 2.5 the next year.

Also available through 1990 were standard 93-bhp 2.2 and optional 96-bhp 2.5, both normally aspirated engines with electronic throttle-body injection. All could be teamed with standard five-speed manual or optional TorqueFlite transaxles. A new face with flush headlamps cleaned up Sundance's 1989 appearance. The 1990s added a driver-side air bag in the steering-wheel hub as a worthy safety advance.

Like Shadow, Sundance generated nearly 76,000 sales in its first year. Production then settled at around the 80,000-100,000 unit level through 1990. This suggested that Chrysler could still reach small-car buyers, but not nearly as many per year as in Valiant days. Still, many things had changed, and Sundance was arguably just as right for its time and market.

That also applied to the new-for-'89 Acclaim. Like Sundance, this was conceived to replace an older Plymouth, the remarkable Reliant, but the K-car's continuing sales strength ­prompted corporate planners to let the new and the old run side-by-side that year, as Volare and Valiant did in '76.

More immediately, Acclaim replaced Caravelle as Plymouth's midsize sedan. Riding the same wheelbase but sharing the latest corporate A-body with that year's new Dodge Spirit. There was still lots of Reliant in Acclaim styling, but the look was more contemporary: formal yet smooth, and carefully detailed for good aerodynamic efficiency.

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1990, 1991, 1992 Plymouths

Horizons, like this
Horizons, like this

Again, Plymouth marketed a shared package less aggressively than Dodge, announcing Acclaim in base, midrange LE, and luxury LX guises with few sporting touches. Engine choices were naturally the same: blown and unblown 2.5 fours and a new 3.0-liter (181-cid) Mitsubishi V-6 with 141 bhp.

The last was reserved for LX and teamed only with Chrysler's first four-speed overdrive automatic transaxle, called Ultradrive. Of course, certain sporty features were available, including ­bucket seats and, for 1990, a Rallye Sport option with uprated chassis, enthusiast-oriented interior, and subtle exterior badging.

But this was only a nod to Plymouth's performance past, and fully 85 percent of Acclaim buyers opted for the workaday base model. That wasn't necessarily bad, of course. After all, Plymouth's value-for-money marketing emphasis stood to pay off big once the economy turned down again in 1990. But two domestic cars and a smattering of rebadged Japanese imports (still from Chrysler affiliate Mitsubishi) were no substitute for the full-range lineup Plymouth had lacked for so long, ­especially as none of its cars was really tops in class.

As a result, Plymouth became an even weaker also-ran in the early '90s, finishing next to last in domestic model-year car sales through middecade. The low point came with 1993, when Plymouth moved some 141,300 domestic cars, after which volume picked up to just over 178,000 for '94. While the make's overall volume in this period wasn't exactly puny at between 365,000 and 424,000, more than half of each year's total came from Voyager minivans, making Plymouth more of a "truck" producer than a carmaker for the first time in its history.

It was just as well, for Plymouth might have died sooner without Voyager's consistently high yearly sales. At one point in late 1991, Chrysler was said to be on the verge of killing Plymouth so as to free up funds for its new upscale Eagle line, of which great things were expected. But where Eagle generated only a third to a sixth of Plymouth's volume (to run dead last in the industry race), Plymouth still accounted for no less than 40 percent of total company sales, thanks mainly to Voyager.

On realizing that, management decided Plymouth deserved another chance and approved a heavy infusion of product and promotion money in an attempt to rejuvenate a name that had slipped in public awareness to somewhere between fuzzy and unknown. They even plumped for a nostalgic new Plymouth logo: a stylized sailing vessel reminiscent of the Good Ship Mayflower that would be in place by 1996.

Money was one thing, however, and mission quite another. Though any attention was welcome after some 20 years of not-so-benign neglect, Plymouth still had no place in the corporate scheme except as a "value" brand with a limited selection of low-priced, largely low-profile cars. No surprise, then, that Plymouth continued in the '90s exactly as it had in the '80s, except that offerings declined to three with the complete elimination of imports after 1994. This reflected the decision (at the time) of a newly resurgent Chrysler to sever long-standing product and manufacturing ties with Mitsubishi.

Among the casualties was arguably the most-interesting Plymouth of this era, the Laser sport coupe, a "badge-engineered" Mitsubishi Eclipse built in the same Illinois plant (as was an Eagle version, the Talon).

Voyager, meantime, kept doing land-office business, helped by the same thoughtful changes accorded Dodge's Caravan. Highlights began with a deft exterior makeover for 1991, which also introduced antilock brakes as a first-time extra, plus a revised dash and, with the optional 3.3-liter V-6, available all-wheel drive. A standard driver-side air bag was added as a '91 running change, followed by the industry's first integrated child safety seat as a 1992 option.

For '94 came a standard passenger air bag in another revised dash, plus side-guard door beams and an optional 3.3 V-6 converted to run on compressed natural gas. Environmentalists loved it, even if a $1700 price severely ­tested their convictions. The basic '84-vintage Voyager then put in a final year. Though Plymouth still trailed Dodge in passenger minivan sales, Voyager volume remained significant after 1990 at well over 200,000 per model year.

By contrast, Acclaim and Sundance mostly withered in both sales and interest value, giving little evidence that Plymouth had ever offered anything so exciting as a Hemi 'Cuda or Superbird. With product plans now dictated by marketing goals and sales trends, Plymouth's midsize line was reduced for 1992 to a single base-trim sedan with an exhaustingly long list of option packages but only two engine choices: 100-bhp 2.5-liter four and 141-bhp 3.0-liter V-6.

An eggcrate grille was the main visual change for '93, when an interesting "flex fuel" version of the four became optional. Sold only to fleets for '93 but available to retail customers for '94, this could run on any combination of gasoline or "M85" methanol (an 85-percent methanol/gasoline mix).

Also for '94, Acclaim gained a motorized right-front-shoulder belt to meet that year's federal man-date for dual front "passive restraints." The A-body Plymouth then made a last stand with a shortened options list omitting automatic, ABS, and the flex-fuel engine. Production declined steadily after 1991's respectable 97,000-plus, finishing just above 12,000 for the token '95 model run.

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1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 Plymouths

Models like the 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager saw decent sales, but not enough to prop up the ailing carmaker.

Sundance was treated to a few more yearly changes than Acclaim, but not many. Predictably, most were shared with Dodge's Shadow. Sundance never got a convertible like its P-body sister, but it did add budget-priced three- and five-door America models for 1991. Though you could get one for as little as $7699, you had to make do with less sound insulation, fewer options, no cargo area carpeting, and just a 93-bhp version of the veteran 2.2-liter inline four.

For '92, Sundance dropped its sporty RS option in favor of a new confection reviving the Duster name from Valiant days. Available for both body styles at about $2100 above base-trim spec, this package delivered sporty paint, applied tape graphics, a slightly firmer suspension, cast aluminum wheels, more aggressive standard tires, and -- the big attraction -- the same 3.0-liter V-6 available in Acclaim.

Ordering the Duster also opened up a new optional transmission: the first four-speed automatic available in a Chrysler subcompact. Though 141 bhp implied a certain speediness, this Duster was no whirlwind, but it was pleasantly swifter than any four-banger Sundance save the rough and raucous turbo models.

Duster stayed on for '93, but America and Highline trim disappeared in favor of a single price level equipped with elements of both. Antilock brakes were newly optional, a laudable addition. Like Acclaim, Sundance added a right front "mouse-belt" to meet 1994's requirement for dual passive restraints, but five-doors exited in January, leaving three-doors to finish out the last model year. Considering its elderly K-car origins and lack of real pizzazz, Sundance sold quite well in this period, falling no further than 62,800 for model-year '91 and hitting nearly 86,000 for '93.

The reason Sundance lost its five-door models early was the advent of a much better small Plymouth, the Neon. Of course, it was all but identical with the 1995 Dodge Neon that arrived at the same time, so everything said about that version applies to this one -- save for badges done in Plymouth blue instead of Dodge red.

As with minivans, Plymouth's Neon didn't sell quite as well as Dodge's, yet C-P dealers moved some 121,400 Neons for the '95 season. This was strong public acceptance recalling that of Plymouth's first front-drive car, the 1978-79 Horizon, yet Neon was far superior, offering spunky performance, taut handling, and surprising interior room thanks to scaled-down "cab-forward" styling that managed to be winsomely cute. Low prices also spurred sales: under $10,000 to start. About all that needed fixing were undue engine and road noise, patchy workmanship, and obviously low-buck interior materials.

Overall, though, Neon represented impressive value, and competitors lost sleep trying to figure out how Chrysler could deliver so much small car for the money. Even vaunted Toyota was moved to take one apart to learn its secrets.

Speaking of cab-forward, Plymouth was denied the car that pioneered the look, Chrysler's full-size LH sedan of 1993 -- and more's the pity. One suspects a new LH-based "Fury" would have sold well. But Plymouth was always in the loop for the new midsize JA platform, even if its 1996 Breeze was a year behind the similar Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus.

Per Plymouth's ongoing mission, Breeze was the cheapest of the JA trio, appealingly base-priced at $14,060, about $300 below the last Acclaim. Though inevitably less lavish than its sister "cloud cars," Breeze was no stripper, boasting standard dual air bags, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo radio, tilt steering wheel, tinted glass, and fold-down back seat.

An eggcrate grille echoed Acclaim, but attached to a much slicker cab-forward sedan body on a rangy 108-inch wheelbase that again made for relatively generous passenger and cargo space. As the most-affordable JA, Breeze offered the fewest options, though the list included important items like antilock brakes; integrated child safety seat; and power windows, mirrors, and door locks.

Price reasons also dictated but one engine: the new 2.0-liter overhead-cam inline four designed and built by Chrysler for the Neon. Though its 132 bhp promised slow going in the larger, heavier JA, the Breeze proved surprisingly able, running 0-60 in 10 seconds with standard five-speed manual and about 11.5 with optional four-speed automatic -- decent if not exactly, er, breezy.

Even nicer perhaps, Consumer Guide® found this Plymouth a very tight and solid car by any standard, a real revelation for a low-priced Detroiter. And, of course, Breeze was no less fun to drive than a Cirrus or Stratus, inheriting their crisp, responsive front-drive handling; stable, well-planted wide-stance cornering poise; precise power steering; and delightfully "tossable" feel.

For 1998, Chrysler's well-known 2.4-liter four with 150 bhp became optional for Breeze. Automatic was mandatory, so the bigger engine delivered little more zip than the smaller one with manual, but it did reduce driver stress in the daily grind and used little more gas. Any Breeze was more comfortable for '99, thanks to softer damping providing a more absorbent ride.

Together with Neon and an all-new crop of nicely redesigned 1996 Voyagers, the Breeze gave reason to be optimistic about Plymouth's future. So did Chrysler's stated commitment to the make, symbolized by a handsome new "Mayflower" logo. Marketing efforts were stepped up to "reintroduce" Plymouth to those who still remembered, while hammering home the "high value" message to younger folks who didn't.

One of the more novel initiatives involved setting up computerized "Plymouth Place" kiosks in selected major shopping malls, where prospective buyers could learn about the various models and even price one to order without fear of being set upon by some salesperson. Chrysler also staked out some cyberspace for Plymouth on the burgeoning Internet, and returned to forceful advertising of more conventional kinds with the slogan "One clever idea after another."

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1997 Plymouth Prowler

The 1997 Plymouth Prowler was a crowd-pleasing hot-rod.
The 1997 Plymouth Prowler was a crowd-pleasing hot-rod.

For sheer impact, though, nothing could match the 1997 Prowler, the most-exciting Plymouth in a generation. It was unlike anything ever offered by a mainstream automaker, being a modern reincarnation of the iconic American hot rod.

Like the Dodge Viper before it, Prowler began as a concept, premiering at the 1993 Detroit Auto Show amid rabid pleas to "Build it!" Once more, Chrysler president Bob Lutz gave his full endorsement to a fairly outrageous automobile aimed squarely at car buffs like himself.

Again sharing his enthusiasm were design chief Tom Gale, long an active hot rod hobbyist, and Advanced Design director Neil Walling, who oversaw the concept's development from an idea suggested by a staffer at the company's California design outpost, Chrysler Pacifica.

Though hardly the sort of car expected of a "value brand," Prowler promised to do for Plymouth what Viper had for Dodge -- namely, get people talking and change their minds. Indeed, Chrysler viewed its two-seat retro roadster has having just the right "shock value" for resuscitating Plymouth's moribund image and low "brand awareness" among consumers.

There was high-tech seriousness beneath the hot-rod fun, as Prowler became Chrysler's low-volume laboratory for nontraditional construction and materials. For example, aluminum was used not only for an all-independent suspension but the entire chassis and much of the body. In fact, Prowler packed more aluminum than any car in Chrysler history -- some 900 pounds of it -- construction rivaled only by the exotic Honda-built Acura NSX sports car. The result was a lean machine with about the same length as a Porsche 911 but weighing well under 2900 pounds.

Other weight-watching measures included a lateral dashboard brace made of costly magnesium, the industry's first cast aluminum brake rotors (rear only; front discs were iron Voyager parts), and plasticlike sheet molding to shape the quarter panels, vintage cycle-type front fenders, and a pointy nose skimming just 4.5 inches above the pavement.

Helped by a raked-forward profile and broad 76.5-inch beam, the Prowler turned heads like nothing else on the street. The only changes from the stunning concept were more prominent front "bumperettes" and headlights, both to satisfy the feds. Wheels were handsome five-spoke alloys measuring 1737.5 inches fore and a massive 20310 aft, and you could have any color at first so long as it was vivid Prowler Purple. The manual top, a black fabric affair, stowed easily beneath a rear-hinged trunklid -- and most always was. Prowler, after all, was about lookin' good. There was no room for introverts.

Or much of anything else. The front-tapering '30s-style body left footwells uncomfortably narrow (though wider than on the concept). Standard run-flat tires eliminated the need for a spare, but the trunk was nearly useless, squeezed from below by the fuel tank (itself laughably small at 12 gallons) and a rear transaxle, also new for Chrysler. The latter contributed to front/rear weight distribution of 45/55 percent, making Prowler quite nimble on dry roads despite a long 113-inch wheelbase. And for times when you had to carry more than a couple of pizzas, Chrysler offered a small accessory trailer, shaped like the tail, for about five-grand.

But the fat tires with their ultrastiff sidewalls "find every bump," as Car and Driver noted, and could be way too slippery in the rain. And like Viper, antilock brakes and traction control weren't available, yet a number of luxuries were standard: air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, leather upholstery, high-power sound system, even a gee-whiz tire-pressure monitor.

Hot-rod purists also shook their heads at Prowler's powertrain: a 3.5-liter V-6 sending a modest 214 bhp through a four-speed automatic transmission. Like much of the interior, these were off-the- shelf components used to keep price reasonable, which it was at an initial $38,300. Yet despite that, the lowish weight and standard AutoStick manual-shift feature, Prowler was nowhere near as fast as it looked. Car and Driver's results were typical: 0-60 in 7 seconds flat, a standing quarter-mile of 15.6 at 87 mph -- pretty tame.

Overall, C/D viewed Prowler as "awash in contradictions. Hot rods have V-8s and manual gearboxes. The Prowler offers neither. Hot rods are supposed to ride badly and handle badly, then set fire to the dragstrip. Instead, the Prowler handles almost like a sports car but is a relative flatliner on the drag­strip. Hot rods are supposed to have individualized exteriors …[not] one level of trim. Hot rods customarily sport spartan, handmade interiors. The Prowler's is more plush and option laden than a BMW Z3's."

On the other hand, "It's a convertible, the drivetrain is dead reliable, it can be driven [every day] as long as there's no snow, there's a three-year/36,000-mile warranty, and the vehicle regularly twists the needle right off … the gawk meter."

Predictably, Chrysler's latest piece of eye candy was always in short supply. Though the long wait from concept to reality stoked demand to a fever pitch, Chrysler wouldn't rush. After all, Prowler was Plymouth's important new image-leader, and thus needed to be well-made and glitch-free from day one. Besides, why risk diluting the car's mystique -- and driving down resale values -- by building too many too fast? All this echoed Viper experience, and Chrysler sensibly assigned Prowler production to the Viper plant on Detroit's Conner Avenue, which was geared to build semicustom machines at a measured pace with considerable hand labor.

As it happened, though, Prowlers didn't begin reaching dealers until August 1997, delayed by last-minute production glitches. As a result, model-year output was only 312 units instead of the 2000-3000 planned, and a bidding war broke out among would-be owners.

For more on defunct American cars, see:

1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Plymouths

Plymouth Prowlers, like this 2001 model, were much talked about but didn't boost sales as much as retailers had hoped.

Prowler skipped model-year '98 for an early start on 1999. Red, black, and a vibrant yellow expanded the color palette, but the big news was an aluminum-block version of the single-cam 3.5 V-6. Horsepower swelled by 39 to 253, peaking at 6400 rpm instead of 5850. Torque rose by a useful 34 pound-feet to 255, and maxed out at more accessible 3100 rpm (versus 3950). Car and Driver lopped a second off the 0-60 dash and timed quarter-mile acceleration at 14.7 seconds at 90 mph.

Other magazine tests showed less-dramatic improvements, but the '99 was stronger by most accounts. And though the traditional hot-rod exhaust burble was still missing, so were some of the '97 model's unwanted cowl shake and body quivering. Base price went up $1000, but nobody complained.

Yet for all its high-profile pizzazz, Prowler did nothing to spur sales of workaday Plymouths, and that spelled trouble once Germany's Daimler-Benz absorbed Chrysler Corporation in late 1998. The new DaimlerBenz was troubled from the start, and the mostly German top brass were far more concerned with "shareholder value" than any value Plymouth might have for their American "division."

Thus, in late October 1999, after months of mounting rumors, DC's American-born president, James Holden, announced that Plymouth would be terminated after model-year 2001 as irrelevant to the company's new "global growth strategy." It was a sad day for many car lovers, but industry analysts (and even Chrysler-Plymouth dealers) weren't surprised. After all, Prowler was only the first Plymouth since the '69 Barracuda with no direct Dodge duplicate, and Dodge always did better with shared products.

But C/D's Pat Bedard, himself a former Chrysler engineer, begged to differ. In a March 2000 epitaph, he noted that Plymouth sales might still be sliding, but were "hardly dead … Voyager sales not only outnumbered Plymouth cars in 1998, they outgunned the combined minivan efforts of the Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Montana … There's something odd, too, about DC's notion of global growth. Yeah, Plymouth is only a U.S. brand. So what? … Low-priced brands always slump when people have the dough to buy higher on the status ladder. [When they don't], a trusted budget brand makes a great lifeboat [for an automaker]. Building a fresh one, as GM did with Saturn, costs billions … I think DaimlerChrysler is walking away from sales."

Maybe so, but losing Plymouth was easy for DC, and customers could be steered to other company brands. With that, Breeze was dropped with the 2001 redesign of its Dodge and Chrysler siblings (which would then presumably take up the slack), and rebadging created Chrysler Voyagers even before the company's new minivans arrived, also for '01. The second-generation 2000 Neon was sold as Plymouth, but only for about 18 months and without the sporty options Dodge offered.

Prowler, too, became a Chrysler, swapping nameplates during model-year 2001, but hung on through '02. The 2000 edition got revised damping and adjustable shock absorbers for a more pliant ride, plus a few minor feature additions. Otherwise, only colors were changed.

Left behind in Plymouth's demise was the intriguing Howler concept. Basically a Prowler with a handsome new squared-off tail, it offered usable luggage space at last, achieved by exchanging the rear transaxle for a conventional front-­mounted transmission. Even better, though, that gearbox was a five-speed manual bolted to a V-8, a torquey 250 4.7-liter borrowed from the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Enthusiasts cheered, but there was no hope for Howler, a strictly what-if dream unveiled only weeks before Plymouth's announced execution.

Plymouth wasn't Detroit's only historic nameplate to be killed off by new-century corporate tactics. General Motors' Oldsmobile went to the gallows barely a year later. But there's an ironic footnote in that the 2001 PT Cruiser was once planned for Plymouth, as product chief Tom Gale told us. Considering its huge sales success as a low-priced Chrysler, the versatile, "way-cool" Cruiser could have been just the comeback car Plymouth needed, setting the stage for more Plymouth-only models and a true revival of the make. A pity Chrysler walked away from that, too.

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