1949-1952 Dodge Wayfarer

From 1949 through 1951, softtop Wayfarers were usually placed where people could see them, up front along with the deluxe Coronet convertible and Diplomat hardtop. Dealers called them "traffic builders": eye-catching models that got people into the showroom, most ultimately to depart with sales slips for workaday sedans.

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1950 Dodge Wayfarer
The Dodge Wayfarer was designed as a stylish car for the
Shown here is a 1950 model.
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Then as now, glamour sold. At one point Dodge even contrived to have a Wayfarer star in an episode of I Love Lucy. Topless cars grabbed people. This was the Wayfarer's lure -- coupled to its status as the lowest priced open car on the market. In 1949 and 1950, just before the postwar buyer's market evaporated, you could buy a Wayfarer ragtop for $1,727, more than $100 less than the nearest Big Three competitor, the Chevrolet Styleline convertible. If you bargained hard at the end of the model year you could nail one for $1,600 flat.

The difference seems piddling in today's depreciated dollars, but to put it in perspective, $1,727 in 1950 was like $13,000 today. (Can you buy a '96 convertible for that little?) And saving $100 then would be like saving nearly a grand now. This is important when you consider that per capita personal income in 1950 was $1,500 in 1996 dollars and federal taxes took five percent of it. Glory, that was a long time ago.

1951 Dodge Wayfarer
The 1951 Dodge Wayfarer was considered one
of the best-looking Dodges of its time.

Even when new car prices started to rise in 1951, the Wayfarer "Sportabout," as it was then called, undercut its nearest competitors by about the same margin. For people inclined to buy Chrysler products, this meant that you could own an open Dodge for more than $600 less than the Coronet convertible and $300 less than the softtop Plymouth: Dodge prestige at a bargain price. This was far more important 35 years ago than it is today. Since the 1920s, when Alfred P. Sloan had pioneered the concept or marque-hierarchy at General Motors, Americans had generally followed a strict brand-name pecking order. GM people would start with a Chevy and move up to Pontiac, Olds, and so on; Chrysler folk would start with a Plymouth, go on to a Dodge, and then a DeSoto.

In planning his first all-new models after World War II, Chrysler Corporation President K. T. Keller experienced the recurring impossible dream: a new car for everyman. Former GIs, young folks just starting out after settling down from the war, could not afford to buy the traditional Dodge or Plymouth brand new -- so why not build one they could afford? The same quest impelled Henry J and George Mason to unveil the Nash Rambler in 1950.

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1949 Dodge Wayfarer Design

For 1949, Plymouth brought out the P-17 DeLuxe on its little 111-inch wheelbase, and Dodge the 1949 Dodge Wayfarer on a 115-inch stretch -- substantially smaller than any Plymouth or Dodge in a generation. The close-coupled, three-passenger Wayfarer business coupe sold for only $1,600, the P-17 business coupe for not quite $1,400. A two-door sedan cost $1,738 as a Dodge and just under $1,500 as a Plymouth. Then Dodge General Manager Tex Colbert, who would soon replace the retiring Keller as corporate president, took this concept one step further: He created an open model at a price far below that of the typical convertible.

The 1949 Dodge Wayfarer roadster shared the same massive eggcrate grille and heavy bumpers as the Coronet.
The 1949 Dodge Wayfarer roadster shared the same
massive eggcrate grille and heavy bumpers as
the Coronet.

It must have seemed like a darn good idea at the time. No other Chrysler division, indeed no other rival manufacturer -- except perhaps Willys-Overland, whose Jeepster was not really a car in most people's eyes -- had anything like the Wayfarer. But in order to sell it at such a low price, Dodge engineers had to crop out a lot of things convertible buyers had come to expect.

The top, though permanently attached to roof stays, was strictly manual, albeit with aluminum stays to keep it light. And in its first incarnation, which probably put off some buyers, the 1949 Wayfarer ragtop wasn't even a convertible. It was a roadster, meaning that it lacked roll-up windows. Halfway through the model run its lift-out windows, which proved unpopular, were replaced by conventional roll-up glass.

In the meantime. Dodge's 1949 brochure made a virtue of the reality: "Dodge brings back the Roadster!," it crowed, calling it "a three-passenger 'honey' for young people of all ages. Its soft, one-man top [women weren't then expected to have anything to do with tops except keep them on] is quickly raised or lowered. Easily installed plastic side windows are stored back of seat. And best of all, you'll like its low price!"

You begin to glean how Dodge's product elves were able to build a ragtop for so little money. But there was more to this formula, and there had to be. For one thing, they left out the back seat. For another, Wayfarer interiors were as spartan as those of troop carriers, with rubber floor mats fore and aft and dashboards painted the body color to avoid the more expensive woodgraining of the Coronet/Meadowbrook lines. Like all convertibles, cloth upholstery was shunned, but Dodge chose a heavy leatherette to avoid the cost of conventional leather.

To keep the price low, options were purposely left out when Wayfarers were shipped. Dodge even maintained a cheap accessory heater primarily for Wayfarers, with 40 percent less output than the standard unit and a much lower price.

In the days when it really was cheaper to build small cars than big ones, the Wayfarer was considerably smaller than other Dodges, though marginally longer than a Ford or Chevy. But because it used the same flathead six as the Coronet, it was livelier than its stablemates. Although its taillights were cheap affairs unique unto the bottom-of-the-line, it carried the same massive eggcrate grille and heavy bumpers as the Coronet.

Above all, it bore the good, upmarket name of Dodge. To some buyers the best thing about it was that it wasn't a Plymouth.

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1949 Dodge Wayfarer Performance

Dodge Division proclaimed its 1949 Dodge Wayfarer model a "daring new car," explaining that it was "lower outside, higher inside, shorter outside, longer inside, narrower outside and wider inside." In retrospect that probably was pretty daring, since the public manifestly preferred cars longer outside, wider outside, and never mind the interior dimensions. In the Fifties, management realized this was the wrong approach and began building longer, wider Dodges. But in 1949, it didn't much matter because the postwar seller's market was still roaring.

The 1949 Dodge Wayfarer became a sales success as buyers responded to its solid performance.
The 1949 Dodge Wayfarer became a sales success as
buyers responded to its solid performance.

Freshly redesigned, all Chrysler products sold briskly that year, including the Wayfarer roadster, which found more than 5,400 buyers -- twice as many as bought Coronet convertibles. It was part of a splendid across-the-board sales performance that constituted Dodge's second best year in history to that time. The entire Wayfarer line enjoyed a stunning success, scoring nearly 64,000 sales, better even than the lower-priced, shorter-wheelbase Plymouths (which included an all-steel two-door station wagon in place of the convertible), many bought by people who had never been able to afford a new car. To this extent K. T. Keller's hunch had, for the time being, proven correct.

You're probably wondering what this winsome little turnip was like to drive. We might as well admit that the sensation was something short of orgasmic. In the midst of the strongest buyer trend ever for speed and acceleration, Dodge had elected to offer solid transportation with a little style, and your choice of a 103-bhp six or a six with 103 bhp.

Peak horsepower came at 3600 rpm; torque topped out at 190 pound/feet just 1200 rpm into the effort. The Wayfarer's top speed was 75 mph, although it could cruise happily at 70. Accelerating from 0 to 60 with the column-shifted three-speed Fluid Drive transmission took 25 seconds, if you were good. A passing sprint from 30 to 60 in high gear took a quarter-minute; downshifting to second was problematic because second gear was pretty much all through around 50. Look, there's only so much available from 230 cid. Yet, because the roadster weighed 3,145 pounds unladen (compared to 3,065 for the runt of the litter, the business coupe), gas mileage didn't provide much of a payback. Most road tests barely squeezed out 20 miles per gallon at a steady 30 or 40 mph.

This doesn't sound very exciting, but there are some positive points worth making. For its time and class, the Wayfarer had excellent readability. The body, beefed up for the open model, was mounted on a large cross-section, thin-wall box frame; the chassis featured coil spring independent front suspension combined with Hotchkiss drive, in which driving and braking torque are absorbed by semi-elliptic rear springs.

Steering was relatively quick, just four turns lock-to-lock. Ride quality was good, although body roll was pronounced. Chrysler's well-trumpeted Oriflow shock absorbers capably hauled the car down on its chassis and Dodge's brakes -- possibly because the Wayfarer was so light -- were the best of the drum-brake genre. Motor Trend failed to produce fade after an hour of repeated hard applications, pronouncing Dodge's rivetless Cyclebonded brakes "among the very best" they had tested.

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1950 Dodge Wayfarer

For 1950, Dodge did what you or I would do in the face of success: They just kept buggering on with the 1950 Dodge Wayfarer. A modest front end lobotomy produced a new grille of horizontal bars encompassing the parking lights and placing the Dodge coat of arms on a square chrome plaque in the middle.

The three Wayfarer models came back, all now wearing the big fender-mounted taillights of the senior Dodge models and an extra chrome strip on their rear fenders. Since the roadster -- now dubbed the Sportabout -- had become a genuine roll-up-windows convertible in mid-1949 yet still cost only $1,727, it was now promoted as "the lowest-priced full-size completely convertible open car."

All 1950 Wayfarers, including this 1950 Dodge Wayfarer convertible, sported fender-mounted taillights.
All 1950 Wayfarers, including this 1950 Dodge
Wayfarer convertible, sported fender-mounted

The revised Sportabout, "favorite of all youthful America," according to Dodge brochures, looked a better buy than ever. "Heed the call of the open road in the sportiest car on the highway," they coaxed. "The durable fabric top on its lightweight aluminum frame can be raised or lowered quickly and easily with one hand... [C]hrome-trimmed safety glass side windows that roll up completely with one-and-one half turns give a completely weatherproof car... You'll enjoy the relaxing comfort of the extra wide, soft-cushioned knee-level seat with legroom to spare... the festive playtime look of bright interior fittings and colorful [artificial] textile leather upholstery. Out on the road, you'll thrill to the eager responsiveness of the big 103 horsepower Dodge 'Get-Away' Engine..."

­No ad writer's perfect, but this excerpt from the special 1950 Wayfarer brochure shows what Dodge was selling, and, on paper, stood to sell well.

Dodge's marketing gurus called the 1950 Dodge Wayfarer
Dodge's marketing gurus called the 1950
Dodge Wayfarer "the sportiest car on the highway."

With 1950 model-year production of approximately 75,000, Wayfarer appeal was well up from 1949. But fewer than 3,000 of them were ragtops, and this needs explaining. The reason sales leveled off in 1950 must be laid at the door of an upstart newcomer, the Nash Rambler semi-convertible.

Although Rambler's ragtop cost about $80 more than the Sportabout, was even slower, and had ugly side window frames that stood bolt upright whether the top was folded or in place, there was a certain homely appeal to the thing, and it returned outstanding gas mileage. It debuted with a fanfare predicated precisely on its small size ("the first compact," they called it in retrospect). All this attracted people to Nash showrooms, and quite a few of them were hooked: Nash sold well over 9000 Rambler convertibles for 1950, an astonishing figure for a brand new model in its first year, and from an independent producer at that.

The Rambler outsold the Sportabout by an even wider margin in 1951, ironically the Sportabout's last and best incarnation. A chartreuse version was centerspread material in the Wayfarer brochure, and the pitch never varied: "Designed for the young in heart... [A]s gay as a circus poster and trim and nimble as a polo pony... There's an added thrill to any trip when it's made in this sleek, smart Sportabout.. it's your fondest dream come true of what a convertible should offer... yet the price is amazingly low!"

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1951, 1952 Dodge Wayfarer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1949-1952 Dodge Wayfarer Prices and Production

Dodge took advantage of its first redesign after World War II to launch a line of short-wheelbase cars in the low-priced market. By reintroducing the roadster, the Wayfarer was something of a look backwards, but in a very fundamental way, it was also a peek into the division's future. Find prices and production for the 1949-1952 Dodge Wayfarer in the following chart.

The 1950 Dodge Wayfarer Sportabout was marketed as
The 1950 Dodge Wayfarer Sportabout was marketed
as "favorite of all youthful America."

1949-1952 Dodge Wayfarer Prices and Production:

1949 Wayfarer (wb 115)
coupe, 3P
2d sedan
Total 1949 Wayfarer

1950 Wayfarer (wb 115)
coupe, 3P
2d sedan
Sportabout convertible
Total 1950 Wayfarer

1951 Wayfarer (wb 115)
coupe, 3P
2d sedan
Sportabout convertible
Total 1951 Wayfarer

1952 Wayfarer (wb 115)
coupe, 3P
2d sedan
Total 1952 Wayfarer


1Combined 1951-1952 total. Combined 1951-1952 coupe and sedan production is 77,402 units.

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