From premium early-Fifties hardtop coupe to fiery top-line series, there's a lot of variety to be found under Plymouth's Belvedere badge. Here's a look at the 1951-1958 Plymouth Belvedere, the first of the breed, all interesting and long-overlooked collectibles.
Belvedere is hardly a household word. Some may recognize it as the name of a fictional butler portrayed in a 1980s TV series, while others know it as the northwest Illinois town (spelled Belvidere) where Chrysler has a plant. But in the Fabulous Fifties, Belvedere usually meant Plymouth's best.
The first Belvedere was a two-door hardtop arriving a year behind Chevrolet's Bel Air and two years after GM started the pillarless-coupe craze. Not that there weren't other Johnny-come-lately hardtops: Ford's Victoria also bowed for 1951, Studebaker's Starliner a year later. But Plymouth had a habit of being late in the postwar years, often to the peril of Chrysler Corporation itself.
Plymouth had started late. Introduced on July 7, 1928, it was 25 years behind Ford and 16 years younger than Chevy. Yet by the end of 1929, Walter P. Chrysler's new low-price contender had skyrocketed to 10th place in an industry field of 36. Sales declined in 1930, but not as much as most makes, and Plymouth finished fifth, ahead of sister divisions Dodge and Chrysler as well as Essex, Studebaker, and Nash. Mid-1931 brought the PA series, with fresh styling and the smoothness of "Floating Power" engine mounts; Plymouth overhauled Buick and Pontiac to claim third.
Two years later, Plymouth switched from fours to sixes, invited buyers to "look at all three," and promptly doubled sales even as the Depression bottomed out. Production was well past the half-million mark by 1936, about equal to combined Buick-Olds-Pontiac output.
Of course, the target was never those GM makes but Ford. Chrysler was out to make Plymouth No. 2, right behind Chevrolet, and it nearly succeeded with an attractively restyled 1940 line that sold only 15 percent behind Ford. Yet Dearborn's lead was 42 percent by 1947 and better than two-to-one just three years later, when Buick threatened to grab third. By 1954, Plymouth was fifth (behind Buick and Olds) and trailed Ford by an astonishing 71 percent.
Styling wasn't solely to blame for Plymouth's postwar plunge, but it's as good a place to start as any. Which inevitably brings up iron-willed Chrysler president Kaufman Thuma Keller. K.T., as he was always called, had come up through the manufacturing ranks and firmly believed in practical products. So though he appreciated fine art, his cars invariably sacrificed beauty for utility. "Smaller on the outside, bigger on the inside" appealed to K.T., who thought people wanted cars they could ride in with their hats on.
Chrysler's all-new 1949 fleet thus arrived with high, boxy bodies, lots of headroom -- and stodgy looks. But the public really wanted shiny, low-slung torpedoes, and Keller's "three-box" cars began losing ground in 1950, when competition heated up with the end of the postwar seller's market. All Chrysler brands felt the heat. Plymouth got burned.
Favoritism compounded the problem. With the return of civilian production in the late Forties came shortages of certain raw materials, notably sheet steel. For multi-line automakers like Chrysler, this raised the question of whether to allocate available supplies among all operations or only those that could turn the biggest and fastest profits.
There was reason to believe favoritism adversely affected Plymouth. To find out why, continue to the next page.
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What follows is speculation about why post-war Plymouth sales tanked leading up to the 1951-1958 Plymouth Belvedere, but it makes more than a little sense. In 1930-37, K.T. Keller had been general manager of Dodge, which became the industry's No. 4 seller by 1933. But by 1938 it had slipped to fifth, then to seventh two years later. Did sentiment lead K.T., as Chrysler president, to favor his old division in the early postwar years so as to boost its fortunes? We think it's likely.
In any case, Dodge was supplied largely at Plymouth's expense. Helped by a protracted strike at GM, it easily overtook Buick-Olds-Pontiac to reclaim fourth in 1946, only to fall back again three years later. Plymouth, meanwhile, held onto third despite reduced production that prompted many prospects to buy elsewhere -- mainly Ford and Chevy. And because "make loyalty" counted for something back then, once customers were lost, they were tough to get back.
Then there was dealer loyalty -- or rather the lack of it. Initially limited to Chrysler outlets, Plymouth was also sold through Dodge and DeSoto dealers beginning in 1931. Having the low-price product in all the firm's franchises not only helped them survive "hard times" but improved Plymouth distribution. But the idea backfired once good times returned.
As a former Dodge-Plymouth dealer explained: "We advertised Plymouth heavily as our price-leader in order to draw prospective buyers. But over on the next street were the Chrysler and DeSoto dealers [who also] carried Plymouth [and were thus] ready to shave a few dollars off our price to make a sale. So our people were instructed to focus the prospect's attention on Dodge." As Chrysler and DeSoto agents did the same, pushing Plymouth wasn't really anyone's top priority.
Belvedere wasn't the last low-price hardtop, but it wasn't the first either. Still, this was one of the smartest closed Plymouths in recent memory: far less boxy than the rest of the 1951 line and arguably better-looking than its larger Chrysler Corporation cousins, yet practical enough for even K.T. Keller.
Then too, early postwar Plymouths were as dull to drive as they were to look at. Though enlarged from 201.3 to 217.8 cubic inches for 1942, their plodding L-head six hadn't changed much since its previous enlargement back in 1934. At 95 horsepower through the early-1949 models and 97 horsepower thereafter, output was competitive with that of the "Blue Flame Six" Chevy but not the flathead V-8 Ford, the traditional low-cost performance leader.
Finally, Plymouth suffered into the early Fifties by not having a fully automatic transmission. Chevy had pioneered this convenience among low-price makes with two-speed Powerglide for 1950, and it proved instantly popular. Ford replied the following year with its more efficient, three-speed Ford-O-Matic, and Studebaker also managed a slushbox.
But K.T. Keller insisted his cars have a clutch for "better control," so Plymouth didn't go shiftless until April 1953. Even then, its optional Hy-Drive was just a semi-automatic of the sort previously reserved for Chrysler's senior lines. You could leave it in top, but standing-start acceleration was interminably slow; for best performance you still had to move off in second, then shift to High as with an ordinary manual.
To find out about the initial Plymouth Belvedere, continue to the next page.
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1951-1952 Plymouth Belvedere
The year 1950 saw the start of historic changes that would dramatically improve the fortunes of both Plymouth and Chrysler Corporation by 1955, and not just because of the promising 1951-1952 Plymouth Belvedere. First, K.T. Keller became company chairman after 15 years in the president's chair, which passed to the dynamic Lester Lum "Tex" Colbert (pronounced CUL-bert).
Already on board was Virgil M. Exner, recruited by Keller from the Raymond Loewy team at Studebaker to head up an advance-design section independent of Henry King's production studios. By the winter of 1952-1953, "Ex" would be modifying King's initial 1955 designs, which he thought were "lousy."
Meanwhile, GM had scored a big hit with the industry's first "hardtop-convertibles," the 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera, Cadillac Series 62 Coupe deVille, and Oldsmobile 98 Holiday. Highland Park replied for 1950 with the Dodge Coronet Diplomat, DeSoto Custom Sportsman, and Chrysler Newports in Windsor, New Yorker, and Town & Country trim. Like the seven prototype T&C hardtops built in 1946, they were based on convertible body-shells, and were thus much more stylish than their sedan and wagon running mates yet about as practical.
Plymouth had to watch Chevrolet's new 1950 Bel Air sell a smashing 76,662 units before countering with a hardtop of its own. Predictably perhaps, it was late, arriving on March 31, 1951. But the Belvedere was one of the smartest closed Plymouths in recent memory, far less boxy than the rest of the line and arguably better-looking than its bigger cousins. However, it shared their three-piece wraparound rear window, which combined with the pillarless roofline for a light, airy appearance, and was most always supplied with the roof and lower body in contrasting colors.
All 1951 Plymouths sported new front sheetmetal that made them seem more "important" than the 1949-1950s, plus fresh series names. The low-end, 111-inch-wheelbase DeLuxe became Concord, while the mid-range, 118.5-inch-wheelbase DeLuxe was re-titled Cambridge.
The latter's chassis was retained for this year's version of the top-line Special DeLuxe, called Cranbrook, which included the new Belvedere as well as convertible, four-door sedan, and notchback club coupe/sedan. Cambridge listed only the last two, while Concord offered three-passenger coupe, two-door fastback sedan, and the pioneering all-steel Savoy and Suburban wagons. Other than this, there was little new to talk about.
There was even less on the 1952s, which were virtual 1951 carryovers apart from a revised rear license plate lamp/holder and bolder "Plymouth" lettering above the grille. The Belvedere, though, gained a further distinction in new "saddleback" two-toning, with the trunklid painted to match the roof. Chrome moldings curved down onto the rear fenders from the C-pillars to define the color break, with Belvedere script just below the pillars at the beltline's trailing edge.
With the Korean conflict at its height, Chrysler was as heavily engaged in military production as any automaker, so civilian output was way down this year, Plymouth's by a sizeable 23.5 percent.
In later years, Plymouth hardtop coupes, like most everyone else's, were priced about the same as comparably trimmed four-door sedans. In the beginning, though, the Belvedere was a premium piece. The 1951 arrived at $2,114, nearly $300 more than the Cranbrook four-door and only $108 below the convertible.
The 1952s maintained this spread, though prices rose by $102. Forecasting the huge popularity of hardtops in general, the Belvedere outsold its open-air counterpart better than three to one. However, at 51,266 units for 1951-52, it was far adrift of low-price rivals. Ford built 187,606 Victorias for the same period, Chevy 177,990 Bel Airs.
To learn about changes for the 1953 and 1954 Belvedere, keep reading on the next page.
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1953-1954 Plymouth Belvedere
Better things were coming for the model -- but not for the 1953-1954 Plymouth Belvedere, as Plymouth marked its 25th anniversary in 1953 with a complete re-style that wasn't completely successful. Concord was dropped and previous models redistributed between Cambridge and Cranbrook on a new in-between, 114-inch wheelbase.
Despite fully flush rear fenders, smoother front, lower deck, and the obligatory one-piece windshield, the result was stubby, almost homely next to this year's Ford and Chevy, both of which rode one-inch-longer wheelbases. The grille was curious, its convex horizontal bar suggesting an overbite. Mechanical changes were virtually nil apart from the addition of Hy-Drive automatic transmission, though a slight compression boost upped the hoary six-cylinder engine to an even 100 horsepower.
Still a top-line model, the 1953 Belvedere wore its name instead of Cranbrook script on the front fenders, plus special square-corner upper windshield moldings. Two-toning was more conventional than before, while genuine wire-spoke wheels were newly optional in chrome or main body color. Alas, the revised roofline with its reverse-slant C-pillars was unbecoming, rather like an ill-fitting hat.
Price came down $172 but demand stayed about the same, model year production totalling 35,185 units. More modest price reductions attended other models ($61 on the Cranbrook sedan, for instance). Meanwhile, Ford sold over 128,000 Crestline Victoria hard tops and Chevy moved better than 99,000 Bel Air Sport Coupes.
For 1954, Belvedere replaced Cranbrook as Plymouth's top-of-the-line, thus emulating Chevy's pattern with the 1953 Bel Air. Included were convertible, two-door Suburban wagon, four-door sedan, and the familiar hardtop, now called Sport Coupe. Cambridge was retitled Plaza, though two- and four-door sedans, Suburban, short-deck club coupe, and business coupe were retained. All but the last were duplicated in a new mid-range series called Savoy.
Styling was mildly facelifted, with a less awkward grille, more prominent headlamp bezels, and revised trim. Belvederes (save the Suburban) wore little chrome fins on their rear fenders, a forecast of things to come. Ads billed the 1954s as "Hy Style," which they definitely weren't, though Belvedere's two-tone interiors were attractive enough. The problem was size. Though Plymouth sat an inch lower than this year's Ford, it was five inches shorter. It showed, aggravated by body lines that weren't integrated somehow.
The Ford/Chevy price war that had been clobbering most makes (especially the independents) since mid-1953 prompted two new Plymouth features in March 1954. One was the much-needed fully automatic transmission, Chrysler's excellent two-speed PowerFlite. The other was a new standard engine, the 110-horsepower, 230.2-cubic-inch six previously reserved for Dodge.
It was little enough: Chevy's six was up to 115 horsepower with stickshift or 125 with Powerglide; Ford's new overhead-valve V-8 offered 130.
Plymouth -- and thus Chrysler Corporation -- had a dismal 1954. While Chevrolet sales held relatively steady and Ford, Buick, and Olds all enjoyed substantial gains, Highland Park's breadwinner plummeted by nearly 40 percent, falling below third in calendar year production for the first time since 1931.
To find out about the redesign for 1955, continue reading on the next page.
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1955 Plymouth Belvedere
In 1955, suddenly Plymouth's frog became a handsome prince. Styled under Virgil Exner's direction by Maury Baldwin, the 1955 Plymouth Belvedere was the most exciting Plymouth ever: sleek, well proportioned, and appreciably quicker.
Wheelbase gained only an inch, thus matching Ford and Chevy, but overall height was 1.5 inches less and overall length 10.3 inches greater than the 1954. With fall-away front fenders, hooded headlamps, wrapped windshield, vastly expanded glass areas, shapely rear fenders, and colorful two-toning, it was a transformation as dramatic as this year's Chevy.
It was not as big a commercial success, though. Plymouth actually built fewer 1955s than 1954s, dropping from third to sixth in model year production behind Buick, Olds, and Pontiac. Yet that's misleading. Demand increased throughout the year, peaking with introduction of the 1956s, and the division set a calendar year production record of nearly 743,000 units, with Belvedere the most popular series.
Plymouth's first V-8 was the other big news for 1955. Called "Hy-Fire," it was a modern, oversquare overhead-valve design with efficient poly-spherical combustion chambers and aluminum pistons. It went into 61 percent of total production, though the figure would have undoubtedly been higher had it been more readily available.
Three versions were offered. The base 241-cubic-inch unit (bore and stroke: 3.44 × 3.25 inches) delivered 157 horsepower at 4,400 rpm. A bigger bore (3.56 inches) produced 260 cubic inches and 167 horsepower with two-barrel carb, or 177 horsepower with optional "PowerPak," four-barrel carb and dual exhausts. The old Power Flow flathead six returned with higher, 7.4:1 compression and 117 horsepower at 3,600 rpm.
Transmission choices comprised the usual three-speed column-shift manual, the same with optional overdrive, or the new Power-Flite automatic. The last, now controlled by a willowy wand protruding from the dash to the right of the steering wheel, was fitted to 46 percent of production. With all this, the 1955 Plymouth was aptly billed as "a great new car for the young at heart."
Handling, already one of Plymouth's better features, was further improved. The rear semi-elliptic leaf springs were widened to 2.5 inches, and front coil springs were newly wrapped around their shock absorbers. Motor Trend magazine rated Plymouth "the easiest car to drive in 1955." Air conditioning, power windows, and power front seat appeared on the options list, while suspended foot pedals and tubeless tires were standard.
A revised lineup featured a club coupe and four-door sedan in each series, Plaza business coupe and two- and four-door Suburban wagons, and Belvedere convertible, Sport Coupe hardtop, and four-door Suburban. Six or V-8 were available for all except the convertible, which had the base V-8 as standard.
After this redesign, few changes were made for 1956. Find out what distinguished the 1956 model on the next page.
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1956 Plymouth Belvedere
Model year 1956 wasn't a great one for Detroit, but Plymouth took a worse drubbing than most, sales falling some 39 percent. Even so, Plymouth ousted Olds from fourth in the production standings, helped by the 1956 Plymouth Belvedere.
Styling changes were confined to a reshaped grille and side trim, plus uplifted rear fenders that furthered the corporate "Forward Look" theme but seemed ill-matched to the basic 1955 styling. Models expanded as a four-door hardtop, pioneered the previous season at GM, joined the Belvedere line as the Sport Sedan, and Savoy picked up a two-door Sport Coupe. Wagons were now a separate Suburban series, with Deluxe, Custom, and Sport models paralleling Plaza, Savoy, and Belvedere trim.
On the engineering side, Plymouth switched from six- to 12-volt electrics, and PowerFlite acquired the controversial control pushbuttons (four, in a pod to the driver's left) that would be a fixture at Highland Park for the next nine years. There was also a gimmicky but unpopular new option: the "Highway Hi Fi" record player.
But with the "horsepower race" at full gallop, performance again got Plymouth's major emphasis for 1956. The old six was tweaked (via 7.6:1 compression) to 125 horsepower, while the base Plaza/Savoy V-8 was bored to 3.63 inches for 270 cubic inches and 180 horsepower at 4,400 rpm with two-barrel carb, single exhaust, and 8.0:1 compression. Standard Belvedere/Suburban power was a new 277-cubic-inch Hy-Fire (bore and stroke: 3.75 × 3.13 inches) with 187 horsepower at 4,400 rpm. PowerPak boosted that to 200 horsepower.
Then Belvedere was eclipsed as Plymouth's best by the Fury, a limited-edition hardtop coupe arriving two months behind the rest of the 1956 line. Identified by flashy gold-anodized side trim and special interior, it carried a new 303-cubic-inch V-8 (3.82 × 3.31 inches) with 240 horsepower that made Plymouth the performance surprise of this year's Daytona Speed Weeks.
Base price was $2,866, nearly $400 above the Belvedere convertible and over $600 more than the Belvedere Sport Coupe, so orders totalled only 4,485. With wagons set apart, Belvedere was also eclipsed in sales, by the expanded Savoy series, though it ran ahead of Plaza and Suburban.
To find out about the redesign for 1957, continue reading on the next page.
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1957 Plymouth Belvedere
The 1957 Plymouth Belvedere and the rest of the company's lineup were all-new again for 1957, the second time in three years. Ads declared "Suddenly It's 1960!" And indeed, it seemed Plymouth had leapfrogged the competition by three years. Seldom had a car changed so radically in a single season.
Nor, for that matter, had a Plymouth been more beautiful. Standing 3.5 inches lower and four inches wider than the 1956, it projected the illusion of great length, though the 1957 was, in fact, fractionally shorter. Credit design executive Virgil Exner's new dart profile with towering "shark" fins, the industry's lowest beltline, a flat hood/front fenders ensemble, strong-but-graceful rooflines, and vast new expanses of glass. Model offerings stayed the same except for the addition of a Savoy Sport Sedan.
Chrysler claimed fins enhanced the directional stability of all its 1957s, and trundled out wind-tunnel tests to prove it. Motor Trend doubted that, then admitted that wind gusts had little effect on the new Plymouth. But mostly, the fins looked right!
So did the rest of the package. The fine cross-hatch grille, for example, was set off by a bumper raised in the center over a separate stone shield with vertical slots. Turn signals nestled inboard of the headlamps under wide hoods, suggesting the four-lamp system long rumored in Detroit (and offered, where legal, by a few other makes this season).
At a time when most cars were garishly two-toned, Plymouth used a slim contrasting color spear on Belvedere or a modest low-set panel on Savoy. Interiors were colorfully trimmed in jacquard cloth and/or vinyl, and a new low-profile dashboard grouped instruments in a large, upright pod directly ahead of the driver. In all, Plymouth was the style standout of this year's daringly redesigned Chrysler fleet.
The changes weren't all cosmetic. Wheelbase grew to 122 inches on wagons and 118 inches on other models, which enhanced ride at the expense of extra weight. Despite this, Plymouth offered much flatter cornering and generally superior handling thanks to Chrysler's new ball-joint front suspension sprung by long, longitudinal torsion bars, plus a lower center of gravity from the new ground-hugging body design and a switch from 15- to 14-inch wheels and tires.
Other alterations accompanying "Torsion-Aire Ride" included higher spring rates and front roll center, rear leaf springs mounted outboard of the chassis siderails for reduced compliance and better stability, and revised front upper-control-arm mounts for less nosedive in hard stops.
Though Plymouth trailed Ford and Chevy in standard 1957 horsepower, it certainly had more than enough to be competitive. The Plaza's carryover Hy-Fire 277 now rated 197 horsepower, while the base V-8 for other models was the new Fury 301, with that many cubic inches from a larger, 3.91-inch bore. Output was 215 horsepower at 4,400 rpm in base tune or 235 horsepower with PowerPak.
Arriving in January was the biggest engine in the low-price field, the new 318-cubic-inch (3.91 × 3.31) Fury V-800, with 9.25:1 compression, dual-quad carburetion, and a rousing 290 horsepower at 5,400 rpm. Standard for the limited-production Fury, the V-800 was optional for any other 1957 Plymouth, and made the lightweight Plaza a terror. The old six wasn't neglected, rising to 132 horsepower on tighter, 8.1:1 compression.
Last but not least was a new three-speed automatic called TorqueFlite, an alternative to PowerFlite and also offered by other Chrysler divisions this year. With its high torque multiplication (up to 6.62:1), TorqueFlite provided astounding acceleration, and allowed axle ratios to be lowered numerically in the interest of low- and mid-speed fuel economy. Smooth and efficient, it was controlled by five pushbuttons, which combined with an overrun "safety" to permit manual gear hold for both maximum performance and engine braking.
Alas, all this goodness was spoiled by sloppy workmanship. Somewhere along the way to the 1957 redesign, Chrysler products lost their previous solidity and relative corrosion resistance. Plymouth was no exception. Some historians date this from 1952, when Chrysler took over Briggs Manufacturing Company, its long-time body supplier.
In any case, Plymouth quality control was noticeably poor in 1957. Motor Trend, for instance, reported that the new dash-mount rearview mirror vibrated so badly at high speed as to be nearly useless. Worse, rust problems surfaced early, and brakes were susceptible to premature fade.
Nevertheless, the combination of fine ride and handling, able performance, and sensational styling was enough to vault Plymouth back into third place for 1957 as sales increased 44.3 percent. Exner reaped his just reward by being elevated to the newly created corporate post of Vice-President and Director of Styling.
Find information about the last Belvedere of its era, the 1958 model, on the next page.
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1958 Plymouth Belvedere
Thanks to the start of national economic recession in late 1957, Detroit retrenched much more in 1958 than it had in 1956. Overall industry production was off 31 percent, but Plymouth slumped 44 percent, due partly to deteriorating quality control. Styling changes on the 1958 Plymouth Belvedere were confined to a simpler grille, the expected "four-eye" headlamps, shorter taillamps that didn't completely fill their fin cavities, and the usual trim shuffles.
The six-cylinder stood pat, while the 318-cubic-inch V-8 was up to 225 horsepower standard, 250 horsepower with four-barrel carburetion, and 290 horsepower with dual quads. The last was limited to Fury, but an even bigger V-8 was available across the board. This was the new 350-cubic-inch "Golden Commando" (4.06 × 3.38), packing 305 horsepower with 10.0:1 compression and dual quads or 315 horsepower with Bendix "Electrojector" fuel injection. The latter found few takers at $500, though, and reliability troubles prompted a recall for conversion to 305-horsepower form.
For 1959, Belvedere was relegated to mid-pack status as Fury became Plymouth's top-line series, with a new Sport Fury convertible and hardtop coupe substituting for the previous limited edition. It was, perhaps, a sign of the times. Chevy did likewise with its Bel Air/Impala, Pontiac with its Star Chief/Bonneville.
But the Belvedere name would hang on all the way through 1969. It even enjoyed a brief resurgence when Plymouth badge-engineered its slow-selling 1962-64 standards into a "new" intermediate line for 1965. Most memorable of this generation were the hot, bucket-seat Belvedere GTX of 1967 and the rare, hemi-powered altereds built for drag racing. They were a far cry from that 1951 hardtop. But that, as they say, is another story.
To find out why the Belvedere name may have been chosen, keep reading on the next page.
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Though the Belvedere name is a fanciful one, time was when automakers showed little imagination in naming their wares. In the beginning were models, with a capital M and some letter or number that often made sense only to the manufacturer. Later, Standard, DeLuxe, and Custom (sometimes Master, occasionally Salon) were used to indicate series in ascending order of price and posh, followed by redundancies like Special DeLuxe or, even worse, Super DeLuxe.
Some played the numbers game. This usually involved cylinders (Six, Eight, Twelve, Sixteen, but seldom "Four"), engine and horsepower (Auburn's 8-98 of 1931, for instance), and wheelbase in inches (Packard's One-Twenty). There were also obscurities like production starting date (Cord 810) or even the hoped-for miles on a tank of gas (Nash 600). So though the cars may have embodied no end of creative genius, their names were hardly inspired.
Not that there weren't exceptions. Apperson had its Jack Rabbit as early as 1907, Stutz offered its jazzy and romantic Bearcat roadster five years later, Jordan presented a dashing Playboy in 1920, and Reo rolled out the Flying Cloud in 1927. But such appellations were as rare as they were colorful, and mostly denoted only a single model or body style, not an entire line.
Studebaker broke out of the mold with its Commander, President, and Dictator series of 1927. Impressive titles, though public opinion dictated retiring the last once Hitler started running roughshod over Europe. The trend gained favor, though, and by the late Thirties we had Buick's Special/Century/Roadmaster/Limited lineup, Nash's Ambassador, Hupp's Skylark and the later Graham Hollywood, and Chrysler's English-sounding Royal, Windsor, and Imperial, to name a few.
While Chevy had adopted the Fleetmaster, Stylemaster, and Fleetline tags as early as 1942, it wasn't until the postwar years that the Low-Price Three turned to less prosaic names in earnest. Plymouths, for example, were still DeLuxe or Special DeLuxe as late as 1950. Then new nomenclature arrived with the expanded 1951 lineup. Concord and Cambridge, evoking images of colonial New England, fit nicely with the make's traditional good ship Mayflower heraldry. But Cranbrook, the top-line series, incongruously referred to a town in British Columbia. At least it sounded nice.
Detroit's early hardtops harked back to prewar practice with names of their own, many of which stuck around for decades -- Riviera, Coupe deVille, Sportsman, Diplomat -- though on very different cars. They were also uniformly top-line models. Thus, when Plymouth's belated entry appeared for 1951, its full (and rather awkward) title was Cranbrook Belvedere.
Though no one seems to remember why Belvedere was chosen, we'll hazard a guess. Chevy's first hardtop bowed for 1950 under the name of a ritzy Los Angeles enclave still renowned for its Hollywood luminaries and exclusive shops: Bel Air (which means "beautiful line" in French). Now it just so happens that there's a counterpart community in Marin County, near San Francisco, called -- you guessed it -- Belvedere.
We'd be hard-pressed to prove that rationale, but the name was a good one in any case. Aside from a certain élan, it was certainly in the right neighborhood for an upmarket model. And it served Plymouth well for 18 years.