The last-minute creation of the 1962 Dodge 880 was a flurry of activity intended to give Dodge a competitive mid-size car to take advantage of a suddenly booming market. Dodge was caught unawares, completely unprepared for this mid-size car need.
In fact, the corporation was betting that the whole medium-price field was suffering a permanent deflation. In 1961, Chrysler fielded three medium-priced cars: the Chrysler Newport, DeSoto, and Dodge Polara, each on a 122-inch wheelbase with the same 361-cid V-8 as standard equipment. But only the Newport was selling.
Anxious to maintain sales of its founding marque without resorting to so-called "junior editions," Chrysler killed off both the DeSoto and the Dodge Polara based on the hard knowledge that the 1961 production of the two cars combined was barely more than 17,000 units. (North of the border, Chrysler Canada chose to market neither the 1961 Polara nor the 1961 DeSoto, giving its erstwhile Dodge-DeSoto dealers the Chrysler Newport to sell instead.) Of course, far from declining, the medium-price market was actually on the verge of a great renaissance.
While all this was ongoing, the design of the company's all-new 1962 cars was thrown into chaos, the result of a radical downsizing ordered by then company president William Newberg based on incorrect information regarding the forward plans of Chevrolet and Ford. The 1962 Plymouth and Dodge were sales disasters. As a result, Chrysler's market share dropped precipitously, at times to less than 10 percent.
In summary, Chrysler erred when it didn't follow through with the plan for Plymouth-only dealerships (which some believe led ultimately to Plymouth's demise in 2001). It erred when it essentially made Plymouth and Dodge equivalent makes. It erred in believing that the medium-price market was declining. It erred in downsizing its mainline Plymouth and Dodge for 1962. This perfect storm of errors and miscalculations led inexorably to the need for the Dodge 880.
In the midst of all this, changes were occurring in Chrysler's executive suite. Lynn Townsend, Chrysler's new president since July 1961, could forgive the disastrous downsizing as a fiasco attributable to the now-discredited Newberg. But Townsend could not overlook -- or forgive -- the divergent styling of the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge, with their "overgrown Valiant" looks.
To make sure of that, Townsend replaced the talented, but unfortunate Virgil Exner, hiring Elwood Engel away from Ford to be Chrysler's new vice president of styling. Townsend gave Engel strict instructions: Get Chrysler styling back into the mainstream.
When the tall, lanky Engel arrived at Chrysler's Highland Park campus in November 1961, his first duty was to examine the company's upcoming 1963 line, cars designed under the guidance of Exner. To Townsend's relief, Engel liked what he saw for the most part. (The only major change he made was to the rear-quarter panels of the all-new Valiant.) However, before he could even settle into his new office, Engel had to deal with his first crisis, the crash program to create a big Dodge.
Obviously, the new car had to be constructed off an existing platform. The 118-inch-wheelbase platform used for the 1960-1961 Plymouth and Dodge Dart was out of production, and the sole remaining 122-inch platform belonged to the 1962 Chrysler Newport. Product planners and engineers came up with the idea of mating a 1961 Polara front end to the 1962 Newport body, thereby providing a Dodge identity to the makeshift combination.
This approach had multiple advantages. It would employ available tooling, allowing the new car to be built alongside the Newport in Chrysler's Jefferson Assembly plant in east Detroit with hardly any alteration to the factory. (The Polara had been built there in 1961). Best of all, it could be accomplished in a matter of months in time for a late-winter introduction.
There were downsides to this approach as well. Styling-wise, this new Dodge would be a strange duck, indeed, looking like a new 1962 Chrysler from the back and an "old" 1961 Dodge from the front.
There was also the risk that this new Dodge might dilute the image of the successful Newport and even eat into its sales, which would sit none too well with Chrysler dealers. Normally, such considerations would have sparked a lively debate among the sales, marketing, and division staffs within the corporation, but the overriding need to do something to help desperate Dodge dealers swept aside any objections.
There was still work to do regarding the styling, though, especially the ornamentation. Everything possible -- or at least reasonable -- had to be done to give this Dodge-Chrysler hybrid its own personality. To assist in this process, a "mule" car was assembled with a 1961 Polara front clip hand-fitted to a 1962 Newport sedan body. The car was painted black so as to best show off any proposed moldings and other details.
Retired Chrysler design executive Dave Cummins recalls Engel being in the Styling showroom with the mule and a hodgepodge of existing bezels, plaques, nameplates, medallions, and moldings on the pristine parquet floor in a pile four to five feet in diameter and one to two feet high. Others recall him sitting on a three-legged stool, directing the stylists as they taped parts onto the car. It was seat-of-the-pants styling done against a loudly ticking clock.
"Being new to the company and reporting directly to Townsend, Elwood could get anything he wanted," says Cummins. "His power was greatest then, being hired to 'fix things.'" Even so, Engel had his restrictions. Take the bodyside molding. In order to be able to use the Newport's doors and rear-quarter panels, the 880's side molding had to be placed in exactly the same position as the Newport's, which was a midbody spear placed high enough to clear the front wheel openings.
Locating the molding higher or lower would have required new drilling fixtures in the plant, and there wasn't time for that. As it was, the tapering "speedform" line on the 1961 Polara's front fenders very nearly precluded extending the bodyside molding onto the front fender. The molding did clear, but barely.
Bits and pieces of ornamentation were tried and evaluated. A diecast louver ensemble from the rear quarters of the 1961 Chrysler New Yorker was tacked on the front fender forward of the wheel opening, replacing the original Polara script.
A star-within-a-slanted-rectangle ornament lifted from the 1962 Dart 400 C-pillar was applied to the C-pillars of the 880 four-door sedan and four-door hardtop. A slim bright molding was added to the lower lip of the decklid. Other major moldings were carried over from the Chrysler, including the sill molding, the molding that outlined the license plate and rear-bumper openings, and all the greenhouse moldings above the beltline.
To make sure that everyone knew this was a Dodge, a marque script borrowed from the 1962 Dart was added to the rear quarters just above the side molding, and individual block letters spelled out the brand on the hood edge and right side of the decklid.
Curiously, there was no Custom 880 nameplate anywhere on the exterior (but there was no Newport nameplate on the Chrysler, either). The exterior was festooned with Dodge's new delta-shaped "fratzog" logo, which appeared on the grille, trunklid, and wheel covers. (Stylists called the faux knock-off hubs "weed winders.")
Accounts of the development of the first 880 customarily state that the front end was the same as the 1961 Polara. This was not strictly true. The hood, for example, was not a direct carryover part. The hood on the 1961 Dart/Polara had left and right banks of louvers stamped into the hood surface near the base of the windshield. These louvers were not present on the 880.
Retooling the entire hood for such a small change was impossible in so short a time, so in all probability, the stamping dies were altered to eliminate the louvers. This meant that any future hoods struck off the modified tooling, such as replacement parts for 1961 Dodges and 1962 880s, would be louverless.
The same applied to the Custom 880 grille. In place of the large star emblem in the center of the 1961 Polara grille, the 880 sported an oversize fratzog affixed to a new horizontal bright bar that stretched between the headlights. The stamped-aluminum grille texture itself was the same as 1961, but the integral frame of bright metal surrounding it was altered. On the 1961s, the frame was decorated all around with long, slim depressions that were painted black to look like cooling slots.
On the 880, the depressions directly above and below the grille were eliminated by altering the stamping tools to create a smooth surface. Curiously, the ends that wrapped around the headlights were not altered, but their depressions were no longer paint-filled. Why the step of simply omitting the black paint all around the grille frame was not used is unknown, but someone (probably Engel) obviously took great exception to the very presence of the pseudo "slots."
Total tooling bill for the 1962 Dodge 880 was a mere $400,000 -- chump change in the auto business -- with the entire amount spent on the outside of the car. Out of strict necessity, the existing 1962 Chrysler taillights were retained.
There wasn't enough time to do anything for the 880's interior. According to Chrysler's internal 1962 Engineering Data Book, "trim style, codes, colors, and materials are identical to those of the 1962 Chrysler Newport."
This gave 880 customers a choice of four cloth-and-vinyl and four all-vinyl trims to coordinate with the 11 exterior colors and 25 two-tone combinations. To impart a Dodge identity, the 1961 Polara instrument panel and steering wheel were installed in the Newport interior.
When the Custom 880 was finished being patched together, what was the result? Many would agree that the car was better looking (if less original) than the 1961 Polara, with its logic-defying "reverse" fins.
But the clean lines of the Newport body made the exaggerated forms of the Dodge front end -- one of those ideas that looked good in sketch form but less attractive in reality -- look garishly overdone. With an overall length of 213.5 inches and a weight of 3,655 pounds, the Custom 880 four-door sedan was 1.4 inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter than a comparable Newport.
Of course, what was really odd about the two cars was that the Newport itself was simply a 1961 Polara with new rear-quarter panels and taillights. When Exner's planned long-hood/short-deck 1962 DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial were abruptly canceled, stylists had to come up with replacements and quick. DeSoto was dead and the Imperial could be given a swift makeover front and rear.
But the Chrysler was much more difficult. The 1961 front end clip could be used, but not the doors, since their contours were inexorably tied to the suddenly dated finned rear quarters.
Someone cleverly came up with the idea of using much of the 1961 Polara's sheetmetal, including front and rear doors, decklid, lower deck panel, and the rear bumper. With those pieces in place, a new rear-quarter panel was developed, designed to mate with the carryover Polara parts while also conforming to the Polara's rear-wheel opening.
In profile, the new finless quarter panel was given a reverse effect, with the taillight draped over the undercut surface. The result was a design that was admittedly bland, but relatively clean.
For more on the features of the 1962 Dodge 880, see the next page.
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