1960s Chrysler Concept Cars


Image Gallery: Concept Cars This 1959 clay model shows how the DeSoto would have appeared for 1962 had not the 32-year-old DeSoto brand been cancelled in late 1960. See more concept car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Despite the promise inherent in an array of 1960s Chrysler concept cars, the DeSoto brand died quietly on November 18, 1960, after 32 mostly successful years. The reasons? Continuing Chrysler Corporation losses and high development costs for the new Valiant compact.

The last DeSotos -- a token pair of garish 1961 hardtops -- were little more than thinly disguised 1961 Chrysler Windsors and numbered a paltry 3,034 -- this from a make that had topped 125,000 units as recently as 1957.

But tucked away in the Highland Park styling studios was a concept car for a brand-new 1962 DeSoto embodying a radical new design philosophy.

Actually, all of Chrysler's full-size cars were to be completely redesigned for 1962 in a top-to-bottom corporate overhaul known as the "S-series" program. Only the Dodge and Plymouth members of this family made it to showrooms, and even they were drastically changed from original plans.

The S-series began taking shape in late 1958 under Chrysler design vice-president Virgil Exner. Its inspiration was his XNR show car, then in preparation, with similar long-hood/short-deck proportions and prominent blade-type fenderlines, elements slated for production premiere on the 1960 Valiant.

After initial work with 3/8-scale models, a full-size "theme" clay was completed by May 1959 and wheeled under the styling dome. A convertible mocked up as a DeSoto, it represented a striking new direction for Exner: smaller, dramatically altered in profile, completely finless, and with a truncated rear deck in complete contrast to contemporary long-tailed Ford and GM cars.

The truncated rear treatment for the would-be 1962 DeSoto is evident in another clay model from 1959. The truncated rear treatment for the would-be 1962 DeSoto is evident in another clay model from 1959.
The truncated rear treatment for the would-be 1962 DeSoto is evident in another clay model from 1959.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Fins had made Chrysler the industry's styling pacesetter in 1955-57, but Exner knew they were already passé. With the S-series, he reached for the next "Forward Look" -- literally -- by shifting the focus from rear to front.

Other features of that May mockup included vee'd bumpers, a slight beltline kickup just behind the doors, and a center vestigial fin (which survived only on the 1962 Plymouth). Also featured were curved side glass (pioneered by Chrysler on the 1957 Imperial), a steeply angled windshield, and long bladed fenders a la the XNR that stopped abruptly just before the B-pillar. Aft quarters wore a high-set concave rhomboid that tapered smoothly back to match rear-deck contour.

Information about the S-series versions specific to DeSoto and Chrysler can be found by continuing to the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

DeSoto and Chrysler S-Series concept cars

This rejected clay model from Don Kopka proposes a rather conservative direction for the 1962 DeSoto.
This rejected clay model from Don Kopka proposes a rather conservative direction for the 1962 DeSoto.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Somehow, Chrysler management in the late 1950s eagerly approved dramatic styling mockups as part of the work on the DeSoto and Chrysler S-Series concept cars. The mockups previewed the upcoming S-series, and threw designers a curve because they were chosen over more conventional clays from production studios (one surprisingly Mercury-like). That left the individual division designers to evolve their 1962 production models from an unexpected source.

Since Chrysler and DeSoto would share bodyshells and many outer panels as usual, DeSoto studio chief Don Kopka worked closely with his Chrysler counterpart, Fred Reynolds on the would-be 1962s.

For both models, the theme car's rear-quarter treatment was quickly modified to harmonize better with the tapered deck, producing what junior stylists dubbed "the chicken wing." Front bumpers acquired dropped center sections because Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner wanted something other than straight bars.

DeSoto designers ultimately revived their make's triple-taillight motif of 1956-1959, though in horizontal instead of vertical format. The borning Chrysler was given large, single wraparound units.

This 1959 clay model This 1959 clay model
This 1959 clay model
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Both makes carried four headlights in individual chrome bezels, arranged in slanted vertical pairs, as on the production 1961s. Grilles were topped by a prominent bright horizontal molding flared up and out to flow back over the hood and on into the beltline trim, which furthered the front-end emphasis.

DeSoto stylists played with many grille themes, but ultimately settled for an undistinguished mix of thick and thin horizontal bars, accented by a large center emblem. Chrysler stayed with its inverted trapezoid, as for 1960-1961, with different inserts to identify the various series; the proposed letter-series 300 retained the "crossbar" motif used since 1957.

The S-series Imperial was just as different from its predecessors, if less radical than the DeSoto and Chrysler. Its "face," for instance, was like the production 1961 design, with a fine-texture grille set beneath a wide chromed header displaying IMPERIAL in big block letters. Flanking this were twin sets of freestanding headlamps in individual chrome pods suspended from overhanging fenders, a "Classic" throwback that still appealed to Exner.

Though it sounds as ghastly as the 1961 treatment, this ensemble actually had a crisp, tight look. Blade front fenders mimicked those of lesser S-series models, but rear fenders wore a single short blade terminating in bulged fender tips.

On each of those was a "gunsight" taillamp, an Imperial signature since 1955. Of all the senior S-series proposals, Imperial was arguably the handsomest, DeSoto the least attractive.

To learn about the Dodge and Plymouth versions of the S-series, keep reading on the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

Dodge and Plymouth S-series Concept Cars

This 1962 Plymouth S-series concept car clay model wears offset hood and rear deck fins. Designer Exner liked the look, but Chrysler brass ditched it.
This 1962 Plymouth S-series concept car clay model wears offset hood and rear deck fins. Designer Exner liked the look, but Chrysler brass ditched it.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Early Dodge and Plymouth S-series concept cars looked something like the "downsized" production models that appeared for 1962, but they were better proportioned because they had longer wheelbases than the cars that made it to the showrooms.

The most intriguing of this bunch was a Plymouth "Super Sport" coupe, whose roofline combined elements of some future GM cars. A single side window, for the door (1970-91 Chevy Camaro/Pontiac Firebird), was cut up into the roof (as on the 1963 Corvette Stingray coupe), and wide, reverse-slant B-pillars led to an enormous wraparound rear window that was V-shaped in plan view (forecasting the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado).

Though this treatment was used in watered-down form on the 1964-1966 Barracuda, the stillborn Super Sport wore it much better. Other S-series Plymouth ideas seen in surviving "record" photos were a more conventional semi-fastback hardtop coupe and a back panel remarkably like that of the 1960 Pontiac.

Final S-series styling models were ready by February 1960, but the program was soon overshadowed by a scandal that shook Chrysler to its core. On April 28th, William C. Newberg, a 27-year company veteran, was elected president; just two months later, on June 30th, he was fired by the board of directors for alleged conflict of interest: financial holdings in several Chrysler suppliers. Other officials were also dismissed, each "resignation" making big headlines.

Despite his brief presidency, Newberg was able to alter S-series plans substantially. Based on a rumor that Chevrolet would downscale its full-size Impala for 1962 -- which proved false -- he summarily ordered the approved Dodge/Plymouth wheelbase cut from 118 to 116 inches.

This more-symmetrical 1962 Dodge S-series mockup wears near final styling, though the bright side trim was dropped for production versions. This more-symmetrical 1962 Dodge S-series mockup wears near final styling, though the bright side trim was dropped for production versions.
This more-symmetrical 1962 Dodge S-series mockup wears near final styling, though the bright side trim was dropped for production versions.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Confusion reigned as staffers worked long hours making the original styling fit. In the process, Chrysler exec Virgil Exner's designs lost their curved side glass and several other elements.

Though more conventional, the final 1962 Plymouths and Dodges were still pretty odd -- rather like overgrown Valiants. They met a poor reception -- so poor, in fact, that Virgil Exner was fired, too (replaced by Elwood Engel, lured over from Ford).

Meanwhile, L.L. "Tex" Colbert, who had engineered Chrysler's remarkable mid-1950s comeback, briefly returned as president after the Newberg debacle. With one eye on dismal 1958-1960 sales, he reviewed Newberg's plans for 1962 and had second thoughts.

Though it was too late to abort the shrunken Plymouth and Dodge, he could cancel the chunky S-series models planned for DeSoto and Chrysler and hope for the best with heavily facelifted (really "definned") 1960-1961 models. Which is just what he did. At the same time, Colbert consigned DeSoto to history, concluding that a key factor in its recent poor sales was price competition from the lesser Chryslers and the grander Dodges.

Sans fins, Chrysler and Imperial both sold somewhat better for 1962. Helping Chrysler's cause that year was a new "300" line to replace the mid-range Windsor, offering the style, if not the performance, of the renowned letter-series cars at much lower cost.

There was one other model that got lost in the DeSoto pipeline, which you can learn about by continuing to the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

The Last DeSoto

By September 1959, DeSoto had finalized its styling for the never-to-be 1962 DeSoto S-series line.
By September 1959, DeSoto had finalized its styling for the never-to-be 1962 DeSoto S-series line.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Strictly speaking, the S-series planned for 1962 was not the last DeSoto. Chrysler management briefly considered a 1962 DeSoto cloned from the definned Chrysler Newport. Engineering released an ornamentation drawing of it, the only difference between it and the Newport involving grille emblems.

It's doubtful that Chrysler seriously intended to sell this DeSoto. Indeed, the drawing may have been done only so that officials could honestly tell the press, which had been asking pointed questions about DeSoto's future since 1959, that Chrysler really was working on new models.

On that score, one car magazine reported in early 1960 that, in light of falling sales, DeSoto would offer only a compact for 1962. Presumably, this would have been a Valiant-based car instead of an all-new design, though the report (actually a bit of gossip) didn't comment on that. Perhaps they got their rumors mixed up with insider tips on Dodge's Valiant-clone 1961 Lancer.

As for the stillborn S-series DeSoto, Fred Reynolds remembered inspecting the completed metal prototype six months after the program was killed. He recalled it looking grotesque, awkward, already dated.

All told, he was glad the company decided not to build it, which means he couldn't have much liked the aborted Chrysler or Imperial either. Given the poor showing of the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge, it's probably just as well the S-series was axed.

One of two final DeSoto S-series mockups shows a relatively subtle "chicken-wing" rear fender. One of two final DeSoto S-series mockups shows a relatively subtle "chicken-wing" rear fender.
One of two final DeSoto S-series mockups shows a relatively subtle "chicken-wing" rear fender.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The upshot to this story is that DeSoto died in name only. Less than a year after its burial, the make was effectively resurrected at Dodge in the full-size Custom 880. Hastily fielded to offset underwhelming sales of those downsized 1962 "standards," it arrived with a pair of hardtops, like the 1961 DeSoto line, but also a hardtop wagon, four-door sedan, even a convertible.

All combined a 1961 big-Dodge front with a 1962 Newport rear, which meant the reborn big Dodge was essentially the same car as the 1960-1961 DeSoto, Chrysler and, yes, full-size Dodge. The two Custom 880 hardtops even cost about the same as the last DeSotos, and the entire line sold well, doubtless due to its conventional, inoffensive styling.

The Custom 880 continued earning good money for Dodge right on through 1966. Given that, one suspects that DeSoto's rapid decline, like Edsel's, stemmed less from a changed market than a "loser" image and increasing rivalry from sister divisions.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out: