1962-1964 Dodge Polara 500


The Dodge Polara 500 made its debut for 1962 as Dodge's entry in the new personal-luxury class. See more classic car pictures.

The start of the Sixties saw several new types of cars sprouting up in America as Detroit began fine-tuning its marketing. The 1962-1964 Dodge Polara 500 was one example. Aside from compacts, there were also "personal-luxury" cars and high-performance specials built to a formula that included V-8 engines, unique trim, and bucket seats. When Dodge mixed these ingredients, it cooked up the 1962-1964 Dodge Polara 500.

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Imagine you're on some Survivor-type TV program, alone out on the vast Utah salt flats. It's dark, desolate, and there's a chill in the air. Out in the distance, three cars are quickly moving toward you, all with their low- and high-beam lights blazing. From among those 12 circles of light, your test is to distinguish the 1962 Dodge Polara 500 from the 1963 and 1964. How do you do it?

If you know your Polara 500s, it's easy. The car with the inboard lamps higher than the outboards is the 1962; the car with the inboard lamps lower than the out-boards is the 1963; and the car with all lamps at the same height is the 1964. (Hey, you never know when this information will come in handy!)

The 1962 Polara 500 was Dodge's first attempt at a personal-luxury car with performance overtones. As such, it was the product of many powerful forces at work in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Some -- the introduction of smaller cars and the sudden demand for bucket seating -- involved the entire American automobile industry. Others were peculiar to the Chrysler Corporation. A quick look is in order.

Despite all the fuzzy-dice fondness for the decade, the last few years of the Fifties were turbulent ones for the American automobile companies. After a record-breaking 8-million-car year in 1955 and a second-best 6-million-car year in 1957, the industry suffered with the rest of the American economy in a short, but deep, recession in 1958. Simultaneously, an unexpected slump in the medium-price car market eliminated Nash, Hudson, Packard, and DeSoto, and gutted Mercury. It turned the Edsel, Ford's new medium-price entry planned in the halcyon days of 1955, into a marketing and financial fiasco.

Moreover, as sales of these high-profit cars were declining, the rising popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle and George Romney's Rambler drove the Big Three to introduce new smaller "compact" cars in the fall of 1959, cars that yielded diminished profit margins. The car market was undergoing what we'd today call a "sea change." All over Detroit, product planners were asking, "What kind of car should we build?" Big or small? V-8 or six-cylinder? Front-engine or rear? More chrome or less? It was a time of great uncertainty and, therefore, great risk.

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Dodge Polara 500 Competition

Items specific to the 500 for its class included special wheel covers, a blacked-out grille, and bucket seats.
Items specific to the 500 for its class included special wheel covers, a blacked-out grille, and bucket seats.

Early in 1958, Ford Motor Company lit up the darkness with the introduction of the four-passenger Thunderbird, and this was the start of a class that would become the 1962-1964 Dodge Polara 500 competition. Beneath the Thunderbird's fashionable blind-quarter roof line was a stylish passenger compartment offering seating for four. Individual front bucket seats were separated by a floor console, with simulated bucket seating in the rear. It was the first of a new genre, the personal-luxury car, and the public loved it.

Pontiac offered buckets in its 1958 Bonneville, and one or two others dabbled with the concept. But the big breakthrough came with the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair Monza coupe. It boasted a handsome interior with smartly trimmed front bucket seats, creating a two-door personal-luxury car anyone could afford.

Like the T-Bird, the Monza was an immediate success. Despite a late introduction, 12,000 were built in 1960, rising to 151,000 Monza coupes in 1962. In the words of Ward's 1964 Automotive Yearbook, "It remained for Monza to send other producers rushing into the bucket seating market." By 1963, bucket seats were being installed in 16.7 percent of production, prompting Ward's to comment that the "installation rate for this type of seating is quite phenomenal, since it permits only two persons to be seated in front instead of three, meaning at least 1,000,000 autos being sold annually no longer are family cars."

When it came to offering bucket seating, Chrysler was a bit late to the party. The innovative swivel seats first offered in 1959 were almost buckets. In 1960, the limited-production Chrysler 300-F sported four individual seats separated by a full-length floor console. But it wasn't until 1962 that front bucket seats were offered in any of the corporation's popular-price cars.

While bucket seats were a critical component of the first Polara 500, other forces also shaped the car. The shuffling of the headlamps each year symbolized Dodge's frenzied struggle to regain sales equilibrium after a disastrous styling and product planning misstep during which the Polara 500 was born. The debacle of 1962 nearly crippled the division and its dealers.

A nearly final mockup from February 1960 wears the headlights and grille that became the 1962 Dodge look.

The star-crossed development of the Dodge and Plymouth for 1962 has been well documented, so a summary will suffice. Searching for the "next look" after fins, Virgil Exner, Chrysler's talented styling vice president, set about reproportioning the full-size family car, substituting a long-hood/short-deck silhouette for the Fifties' wedge-shaped fins. Another new key design element was the oval body section at the B-pillar. Patterned after the sleek, space-efficient fuselage of a jetliner, the new curved side glass merged slickly into the bodyside sheetmetals.

But while the 1962s were progressing, executive vice president William Newberg "discovered" in the spring of 1959 that Chevrolet was planning to downsize its full-sized car for 1962. Panicky that the cars Exner and the engineering department had under development were now too big, Newberg mandated that the new 1962 Plymouths and Dodges be downsized as well.

Since there wasn't time for a new design-theme search, Exner's existing Dodge and Plymouth clays had to be tailored to fit the new criteria. Wheelbase was cut back from 118 to 116 inches, the curved side glass disappeared, and width was reduced. Everything possible was done to cut size, weight, and cost. In this, Newberg was abetted by a cadre of Chrysler engineers led by Syd Terry, who, dismayed at the growth in size of American cars in the late Fifties, enthusiastically endorsed this smaller, lighter, "more rational" package.

At the meeting where the downsized 1962s were approved, an unhappy Exner was uncharacteristically blunt. "These cars are 'plucked chickens,' " he told the assembled engineers, planners, and executives. "They are not competitive and Styling should not be held responsible." Ultimately, of course, Exner was held responsible when Chrysler president Lynn Townsend replaced him in the fall of 1961 with Elwood Engel.

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Dodge B-Body cars

A rendering of the proposed 1962 Dodge conveys many of design details championed by Virgil Exner.
A rendering of the proposed 1962 Dodge conveys many of design details championed by Virgil Exner.

Dodge's new downsized cars -- Chrysler's first unitized "B-bodies" -- were announced on September 28, 1961, and they would be used as the basis for the 1962-1964 Dodge Polara 500. Marketed as the "New Lean Breed of Dodge," these Dodge B-body cars were also offered in Dart, Dart 330, and Dart 440 iterations. Long, horizontal blades faded into the front doors. Up front, the wrap of the fender blades was interrupted by a bold, forward-thrusting grille in the shape of an inverted trapezoid.

The high-beam headlights were tucked into bright recesses in the upper corners of the vertical grillework, while the low-beam headlights were housed in circular chrome bezels nestled under the fender blades. Thus low beams were mounted low, high beams were mounted high.

Both locations had their oddities. The grille was basically undercut, with a short wrapover at the top. In order to mount the high-beam lights, this convex grille plane had to be scooped out for the for the lamp bezels, somewhat awkward, visually. Retired Chrysler styling chief Gerry Thorley recalls that the grille texture was originally concave, with the inner lamps recessed and set in forward-thrusting bezels in what he considered to be a more-natural workout. Thorley also favored the concave grillework as an evolution of the concave grilles on the 1961 Dart and Polara.

But Dodge Division General Manager M. C. Patterson insisted on the convex grille-work because it was a greater styling change from 1961. The bright bezels on the outer low-beam lamps were also unusual in that the inner bezel was a ring of white plastic, apparently in an attempt to make the five-Inch lamps look larger than the similarly sized high-beams.

The 1962 Dodge Polara 500 two-door hardtop, the most popular model, shows off the staggered taillights.

At the rear, the staggered-lamp look was repeated in the diagonally biased arrangement of four small, circular lamps, with the inboard lamps again mounted higher than the outboard. On Darts, the lower outboard lamps housed the taillights, while the upper inboard lamps were back-up lights.

An arcing, sculpted blade in the body-side sheetmetal curved over the rear wheel and then rose rearward to meet the upper lamp. In between the sculptural front and rear, the car's midsection retained the flush body-to-glass relationship of the original design, albeit with straight side glass. The beltline was notched-up aft of the front door to reduce the height (and cost) of the rear door glass.

Two- and four-door rooflines were identical and more upright in profile, a silhouette in stark contrast to the severely sloped two-door hardtop roofs Dodge had favored since 1957. The base of the windshield was pulled further forward at the centerline to meet the rising "speedboat" cowl, styling touches deposed vice president Virgil Exner treasured.

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1962 Dodge Polara 500

The 1962 Dodge Polara 500 was considerably smaller than its forebears, with a 116-inch wheelbase.
The 1962 Dodge Polara 500 was considerably smaller than its forebears, with a 116-inch wheelbase.

Into an uncertain milieu, with management shakeups hampering the design of cars, rode the 1962 Dodge Polara 500. The Polara name was fairly new to the Dodge lineup, having first appeared on the top series in 1960-1961, cars that were larger than the Darts and with some different styling details. It is unclear what Dodge planners originally had in mind for the Polara name in 1962, but in the end, it became a trim variant of the Dart.

That said, the Polara 500 was the most-attractive iteration of the 1962 Dart body, The exterior was pleasantly dechromed compared to Dart 330 and 440 models. The slightly flattened blade formation on the front door provided a surface on which Polara 500 could be spelled out in delicate individual chrome letters and numerals, a custom touch. The numerals were a none-too-subtle link with America's most revered automobile race, the Indianapolis 500.

The nearly chromeless flanks were accented by a narrow streak of color just below the belt, stretching from front to rear and outlined by slim moldings. The resulting color sweep was keyed to the color of the interior trim of the car. This treatment served as a continuous front-to-rear design element and inspired midyear imitations on the Dart 440 and -- in chrome -- on the Plymouth Fury and Sport Fury.

The Polara 500's other bodyside design "exclusive" wasn't as successful. The trailing edge of the rear quarter panel was accented by a series of bright louvers. Since similar louvers were also standard on the Dart 440, the Polara 500 had to have something "better." The stylists' solution was a long, bright, diecast rectangle enclosing chrome louvers fronted by the "fratzog," Dodge's new triangular, three-pointed emblem. Like the color sweep, the interior background of the rectangle was painted accent color. Unfortunately, the workout of this design element was heavy-handed; the car would have looked better without it.

Up front, Polara 500s could be spotted instantly by the blackout treatment given to the grille in which the narrower of the vertical bars were painted black, making the seven wider bright bars stand out. At the rear, each of the 500's four circular lamps were red taillamps. The back-up lights were relocated to a slim diecast band with a horizontal ribbed texture above the rear bumper. Finally, Polara 500s came with unique wheel covers, complete with protruding spinners -- "weed winders" -- in the form of large, chrome fratzogs.

Exterior and interior were carefully color-coordinated. Red, blue, green, cocoa, and black exteriors had beige in the color sweep and louver panel, while beige cars could be had with these same exterior colors in the sweep and louvers. Black cars could also be ordered with red or blue exterior accents. In each case, the predominant interior color was light beige, used on the seat bolsters, steering wheel, door-panel accents, and headliner.

A darker contrasting color was used on the instrument panel, door-trim panels, seat inserts, and carpeting. Thus, a blue car would have beige exterior accents and a beige interior with blue accents, while a beige car with blue exterior accents would use this same interior. The overall effect was striking, stylish, and sporty.

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1962 Dodge Polara 500 Interior

Fitted with a four-barrel carb and dual exhausts, the 361-cubic-inch V-8 engine made 305 horsepower.
Fitted with a four-barrel carb and dual exhausts, the 361-cubic-inch V-8 engine made 305 horsepower.

The 1962 Dodge Polara 500 interior was a vital element in achieving the desired personal-luxury look for the car. Trimmed in saddle-grain vinyl, the seat cushions and backs on the front bucket seats each featured a horseshoe pattern of narrow vertical pleats in contrasting colors, while the rear bench seat employed similarly formed pads to simulate a bucket-seat look. The front buckets were divided by a chrome-trimmed center console featuring lockable storage, dual ash receivers, cigar lighter, and courtesy lamp.

As with the exterior, the padded instrument panel was like nothing from General Motors or Ford. The base panel sloped down, away from the windshield, and then tucked under to maximize knee room. Virgil Exner, who oversaw the 1962 design while he was still Chrysler's vice president of styling, strongly favored this "minimalist" design in contrast to the normal approach using a full-width slab. Instruments were housed in a free-form pod in front of the driver, with automatic transmission and heater pushbuttons arrayed along the left and right lower edges of the cluster.

This arrangement was especially suited to the Polara 500, since most of the "good stuff" was in front of the driver. Even the steering wheel was different, with an odd-shaped hub stylists soon nicknamed "the grasshopper head."

Dodge Division General Manager Byron J. Nichols emphasized that "We do not believe the car buyer should be forced to choose between luxurious appointments ... and top-notch performance. The Polara provides both, and we believe ... discerning motorists will insist on this combination." To back his claim, the Polara 500 employed Chrysler's 361-cubic-inch, 305-horsepower V-8 with a four-barrel carburetor, high-lift camshaft, and dual exhausts.

"This is an engine with real punch," Nichols enthused. "It gives the Polara exceptional smoothness, acceleration and passing power." The addition of the four-barrel "Runner Manifold" provided five additional horses. Later in the year, engine choices were expanded with optional 330- and 335-horsepower 383-cubic-inch V-8s, and 413-cubic-inch V-8s boasting 365, 380, and 410 horsepower.

Polara 500 assembly was confined to the Dodge Main plant in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck. Producing all Polara 500s in one plant allowed for more-consistent control over build quality, commendable since the car's intended customers were expected to be more sophisticated and pickier about details.

Initially offered in a two-door hardtop and convertible, the Polara 500 lineup was expanded almost immediately. "Originally, the Polara 500 was going to be restricted to just two models," said Nichols in a press release dated November 5, 1961, "but customer and dealer interest developed so fast that we decided to introduce a four-door hardtop model."

The Polara 500 four-door hardtop differed from its companions in the interior. Instead of front buckets and a floor console, there was an all-vinyl, three-passenger front seat with a fold-down center armrest. Solid, dark interior colors were featured instead of the high-contrast two-tones used on the two-doors. Price was $2,960, compared to $3,019 for the two-door hardtop and $3,268 for the convertible.

The introduction of the 500 four-door hardtop scarcely a month after the debut of the 1962 line was evidence of the widespread discontent within the ranks. Unhappy as dealers were with the 1962 lineup's odd styling and diminished size, they also complained that owners of late-model Custom Royals, Polaras, and Matadors who might be interested in trading in their cars on a new model had no premium four-door car in Dodge showrooms to consider. Thus, the Polara 500 four-door hardtop and its more-conservative six-passenger interior was offered.

But a four-door 500 wasn't the answer. In the understated words of then-Dodge public-relations manager Frank Wylie, "The dealers got quite excited about not having a big car to sell." By January, the harried planners had patched together a true medium-price Dodge: a 1961 Polara front clip bolted to a 122-inch-wheelbase 1962 Chrysler Newport body shell, with the amalgam given the awkward moniker Custom 880.

Once this car entered production, the rationale for a four-door Polara 500 disappeared. There would be no successor model. Besides, the concept of a four-door personal-luxury car was a bit of an oxymoron, as Ford would discover when it brought out a four-door Thunderbird in 1967.

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1962 Dodge Polara 500 Styling

A four-door hardtop was hastily added to the Polara 500 lineup for 1962.
A four-door hardtop was hastily added to the Polara 500 lineup for 1962.

Like Ford's ill-timed Edsel, the 1962 Dart/Polara was the wrong car with the wrong styling in the wrong size at the wrong time. The 1962 Dodge Polara 500 styling included a prominent center grille, sculptural fender forms, fully exposed wheels, and long-hood/short-deck proportions, all of which were favored design cues from deposed exec Virgil Exner's "pure automobile" design philosophy expressed in his earlier "idea cars."

Of course, it could be argued that these design elements were correct for the sporty Polara 500 and perhaps they were. But for family sedans, it just wouldn't play in Peoria.

In the summer of 1962, vacationing Dodge Exterior Studio assistant manager Bob Gale drove his new Polara 500 convertible to the mountains of Colorado. While it got a lot of attention, "no one knew what kind of car it was," he said. "They'd never seen one like it." When the downsized Dodge hit the showrooms, there was a stunned silence from the dealers, longtime Dodge customers, and the buying public. Reactions to the styling began with "different," then quickly progressed to "unusual," "odd," "weird," and then "ugly."

Additionally, the whole scenario was full of irony. Unlike Dodge's approach for the Dart/Polara, Chevrolet didn't downsize its full-size car in 1962; instead, it introduced the 110-inch wheelbase Chevy II. Ford, too, kept its big car and also introduced a new midsized Fairlane on a 115.5-inch wheelbase halfway between the Falcon and the Galaxie. Lacking a full-size showroom companion, the Dart/Polara became by default an "intermediate," scorned by buyers interested in full-size cars.

Perhaps the final irony is that the 1962 Polara 500, with its sporty looks and colorful bucket-seat interior, was something of a success. (One enthusiast magazine even named it "Performance Car of the Year.") Some 12,268 were produced, amounting to a healthy percentage of the Dart/Polara assemblies.

This encouraged Plymouth to introduce at midyear a similar Sport Fury hardtop coupe and ragtop in what was becoming a crowded field. Ford joined the fray with its 1962 Galaxie 500/XL, as did Mercury with its similar Monterey S-55, and Buick with its Wildcat. It was also the first year for the bucket-seat Pontiac Grand Prix. Finally, even with its unusual styling, the Polara 500 was destined to be more successful saleswise than its more "normal" 1963 successor.

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1963 Dodge Polara 500 Development

Styling plans for 1963 went in several directions. In late 1960, taillights reverted to a modified 1962 style.
Styling plans for 1963 went in several directions. In late 1960, taillights reverted to a modified 1962 style.

When it came time for the 1963 Dodge Polara 500 development, along with the rest of the 1963 lineup, there was no relief for the overworked Dodge stylists. Just as there were two 1962 programs, there were multiple 1963 programs.

Nineteen sixty-three was initially to be a facelift year, with carryover bodies and new sheetmetal below the belt. Eventually, the new back ends were dropped, leaving the 1962s to be freshened up front with a new hood, grille, and fenders. The trapezoidal grille frame was discarded, enabling the grille texture to expand fully across the front. Sandwiched between the carryover bumper and a new, flatter hood, a body-color grille frame grouped the bright vertical texture into six separate segments.

The outer headlights were raised to the top of the new fenders. As of October 1960, the initial version showed single seven-inch lamps. But over the next two months, the concept had been modified to include five-inch duals, with the high beams recessed into the outer segments of the grille texture. Thus, in 1963, the low beams were mounted high and outboard, the high beams low and inboard.

This 1963 Dodge Polara 500 shows the headlight placement and amber turn signals.

For the first time, turn signals were amber. The front fender/door horizontal blade of the 1962 was discarded in favor of a sleeker appearance delineated by the outer curve of the headlamp and accented by a slim undercut element sloping from the fender peak into the new front door skin, where it hooked downward and faded.

As this version of the 1963 Dodge was being styled, Chrysler executives were confident regarding the direction the corporation was pursuing. Remember, the American car market was exhibiting a decided shift to smaller cars. When the Big Three brought out their new compact cars, Ford's Falcon became the most-successful new car ever introduced up to that time. Even 108-inch-wheelbase Ramblers and Studebaker Larks were selling well.

Additionally, the new, smaller, 118-inch wheelbase 1960 Dart was setting sales records for Dodge, its popularity eclipsing the larger Dodges. Meanwhile, clandestine reports from Detroit-area tooling shops confirmed that medium-price competitors Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Mercury were scrambling to add smaller cars to their product offerings.

Retired product-planning executive Gene Weiss recalls that during 1960, many in Chrysler's senior management were convinced they had the 1962 market "aced," that the downsized, lightweight, fuel-efficient 1962 Dodge and Plymouth would usher in a new generation of engineering and styling leadership for Chrysler. The Polara 500 would be the icing on the cake.

By early in 1961, however, those executives suddenly discovered to their consternation that they had been outmaneuvered. They didn't have the market aced. On the contrary, new "spy" reports confirmed that competitors' big, full-size cars would still be around in 1962. Their reaction again was to scrap the ongoing 1963 facelift program and hastily embark on more ambitious changes.

Once again, there wasn't time to start over. The nearly finished new Dodge and Plymouth front ends were kept as starting points, but designers were ordered to create virtually new cars from the doors back. Once more, the harried Dodge and Plymouth stylists racked up the overtime in a desperate dash to design, release, and tool new sheetmetal in time for 1963 production, set to begin in the late summer of 1962, a scant year and a half away.

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1963 Dodge B-Body Cars

Except for station wagons, the Dodge B-body wheelbase was stretched to 119 inches for 1963.
Except for station wagons, the Dodge B-body wheelbase was stretched to 119 inches for 1963.

The 1963 Dodge B-body cars benefited from a bigger package than their 1962 introduction. The wheelbase was enlarged to 119 inches, the same as the Chevy Impala and Ford Galaxie. This was accomplished by moving the rear wheels back three inches, which, in turn, moved the rear seat rearward, adding 1.5 inches of legroom for the rear-seat passengers, (Wagons, however, retained their 116-inch wheelbase.) Overall length was increased 6.1 inches.

Using the new front fender as a starting point, stylists developed a long, smooth bodyside that flowed continuously from front to rear, eliminating the "start and stop" look of the 1962's blades. The undercut detail that began at the headlight grew gradually deeper as it moved rearward, finally angling down sharply in side view to meet the new rear bumper. The various bodyside moldings followed and highlighted this character line to express further continuity.

The bodyside shape of the 1963 Dodge was a lot trickier than it looked. A subtle vertical peak centered above the outboard headlight widened into a vertical plane whose height increased as it moved rearward, becoming flush with the new C-pillar and forming the visual upper sides of the trunk. Below this plane, the body surface rolled outboard to meet the undercut described earlier, forming a sheetmetal shoulder that developed gradually from headlight to taillight.

New roofs featured wide, sloping C-pillars in frank imitation of the Ford Galaxie's Thunderbird-inspired roofline, a course GM was also pursuing. At the 1963 auto shows, Ford taunted its competition by proclaiming the Galaxie look as "The Roof That Tops Them All" -- and they were right!

At the rear, the Dodge's new decklid was wide, low, and flat, again in an effort to make the car look as big as possible. Usable trunk capacity was 10 percent larger than in 1962.

In the rush to upsize and "normalize" the car, most of the tooling money was spent on the outside. Consequently, not much was done to the interiors, which made do with new door panels and seat styles, a reworked instrument cluster, and more-conventional round-hub steering wheels. Tooling costs for the 1963 B-body program for Dodge and Plymouth combined totaled $26.7 million, compared to $87.5 million for 1962.

Overall, these new Dodges were a good-looking lot. When they finally arrived in showrooms on October 2, 1962, they would prove -- in size and styling -- to be a lot more "commercial" than the much-maligned 1962 Dart/Polara. What deposed Chrysler styling exec Virgil Exner thought of them isn't known.

Certainly they were a total repudiation of his original styling direction. Still, they were designed under his leadership and were virtually complete when Elwood Engel, his replacement, arrived in Highland Park in November 1961.

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1963 Dodge B-Body Cars Trim

Extensions of the vertical grille, an Elwood Engel touch, didn't survive into the start of full series production.
Extensions of the vertical grille, an Elwood Engel touch, didn't survive into the start of full series production.

Elwood Engel was quite pleased with the styling of the 1963 Dodges. But the new Chrysler vice president of design did mandate some minor changes for the first model year under his watch, including the 1963 Dodge B-Body cars. To add more brightwork to the front of the 1963 Dodge B-body cars' trim, the body-color grille frame was changed to anodized aluminum. To create the illusion of more width, Engel added triangular diecast extension pieces to continue the grille texture beneath the outer headlamps.

Although most of the cars in Dodge's 1963 press photos sport these extensions, they never made it to production, probably because they couldn't be made to fit right.

The surviving 1963 Dodge Polara 500 two-door hardtop and convertible again wore a prominent color sweep located above the bodyside "shoulder," running the full length of the car. Bright sill and wheel-lip moldings; a bright, ribbed quarter-panel appliqué that visually extended the wraparound of the rear bumper; and a horizontal extension of the bright drip molding along the base of the C-pillar completed the 500's unique ornamentation.

(The rear-quarter appliqué was a problem for Engel. As originally released, its forward end angled rearward, paralleling the side view of the bumper end. But this looked unnatural to Engel, who insisted that the appliqué lean forward, paralleling the trailing edge of the rear-wheel opening.)

While the side trim remained specific to the Polara 500, front and rear views lost their unique details. Inexplicably missing was the grille blackout that had provided an exclusive look in 1962. Though blacking out the vertical bars in the six-segment grille of the 1963 would have been a natural, Engel apparently didn't favor such treatments. Out back, rectangular lights were set into a carwide bright die-cast frame enclosing the license plate. On either side, a horizontal lens was divided between taillamp and backup-light functions.

This treatment was shared with a revived Polara series that included four-door and station wagon models. Thus, although the side trim on the Polara 500 remained unique, from other angles, the 500 appeared no different from a standard Polara hardtop or convertible. With ordinary Polaras in the lineup, the 500 appeared to be a mere trim variant.

The 500's bucket-seat interiors, however, kept their distinctive high-contrast coloring, available in five two-tone combinations. Alabaster replaced beige as the main color. A matching two-tone steering wheel was standard.

At the press previews, Dodge general manager Nichols bragged that "We believe that the 1963 Dodge has been engineered and styled so that it meets completely the needs and desires of a majority of American car buyers," while Chrysler president Lynn Townsend described the new Dodges as "all-purpose, full-size, representative American family automobiles."

Both men were right. As 1963 progressed, Dodge dealers began smiling again. The new compact Dart was a big hit and the big 880s accommodated the older crowd.

But the dealers were most pleased with the restyled and enlarged B-bodies. These were cars they could successfully sell right up against Chevy and Ford; they could even reel in Plymouth customers, given the Dodge's three-inch advantage in wheelbase. Further, they were covered by Chrysler's new five-year, 50,000-mile warranty, best in the industry. The new B-bodies were well received, with U.S. production increasing to 181,600 units for the model year.

The only sour note was that for some reason, Polara 500 assemblies dropped dramatically to just 7,256 cars. By contrast, production of Plymouth's comparable Sport Fury rose to 15,319 units. The price difference between a Polara 500 and a comparable V-8 Polara was $233, while the Sport Fury/Fury split was $158 -- but the 500 had a bigger standard V-8. Whatever the reason for this decline, it would not bode well for the 1964 version.

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1963 Dodge Polara 500 Engines

A new 426-cubic-inch "Ramcharger" engine made at least 415 horsepower with dual carburetion.
A new 426-cubic-inch "Ramcharger" engine made at least 415 horsepower with dual carburetion.

With the 361 V-8 restricted to the 880/Custom 880, the 1963 Dodge Polara 500 engine options started with the base 305-horsepower, two-barrel 383. Also available was a hotter version of the 383, fitted with a "Power Pak" consisting of a high-performance cam, dual-breaker distributor, twin exhausts, and four-barrel carburetion good for 330 horsepower.

Motor Trend tried one of these with a four-speed and hit 60 mph from a standing start in 7.7 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds -- even with a less-than-racy 3.23:1 final drive. Testing at Riverside International Raceway, MT got its 4,400-pound Polara 500 convertible up to 116 mph on the track's backstretch.

Replacing the 413 were two mammoth, special-order Ramcharger 426-cubic-inch V-8s. The lesser of the two boasted 415 horsepower, 11:1 compression ratio, "pop-top" aluminum pistons, hand choke, and two four-pot Carter carburetors. Its big brother toted 10 more horses, 480 pound-feet of torque, and an awesome 13.5:1 comp ratio. High-octane fuel of 102 or higher was required. Dodge warned prospects that "With its 426 cubic-inch displacement, the 425 horsepower comes so close to matching displacement that this one creates an irrefutable thunder that speaks with authority on any drag strip."

To increase power output in the high-performance ranges above 4,000 rpm, both engines featured short-tube ram-induction manifolds and upswept exhaust. The manifold assembly was fitted snugly between the two cylinder banks, with the bottom side serving as the engine's tappet cover. The compactness of the ram manifold made possible the use of maximum-performance engines within the narrower confines of B-body engine compartments.

Unlike the system used on that year's Chrysler 300-J, there was no provision for manifold heat. While most Ramcharger wedge-head engines were stuffed in stripped-down 330 two-door sedans (in which they carved out an enviable drag-racing reputation), five Polara 500 hardtops were ordered with the 426 engine option.

Chrysler's internal Engineering Data Book (issued in January 1963) listed several additional engine choices. They included single four-barrel versions of the 426 engines with 370 and 375 horsepower, plus an 11:1-compression-ratio 383 with either 320 horsepower (single four-barrel) or 325 horsepower (twin four-barrels).

A row of pushbuttons operated the Polara 500's optional TorqueFlite automatic transmission.

Several transmissions were mated to these engines, including a new Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed manual for use with V-8s, but not recommended for use with the 426 maximum-performance engines. Chrysler's own A-745 heavy-duty three-speed manual was also offered in four variations, but not with the 426. This tranny was available from the factory with a Hurst floor-shifter conversion unit.

Standard transmission with the 426 V-8s was the Borg-Warner T-85 three-speed manual with a Hurst-Campbell floor unit for faster shifting. On TorqueFlite automatics joined to a 426 engine, a high-speed governor was used to delay upshifts to a higher engine rpm. All TorqueFlites also featured a new parking sprag, activated by a lever adjacent to the transmission pushbuttons, to be used in lieu of the handbrake to hold the car in place while parked.

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1964 Dodge Polara 500 Development

A convex "barbell" grille set the headlights side-by-side on the 1964 Dodge Polara 500.
A convex "barbell" grille set the headlights side-by-side on the 1964 Dodge Polara 500.

For the first time since the 1961 model year, the 1964 design program was a normal one, free of corporate missteps, last-minute changes of direction, and panic. As the 1964 Dodge Polara 500 development went forward in the early months of 1962, Dodge stylists and engineers could relax, having only to work the usual amount of overtime. The 1964 design was also the first completely under the direction of Elwood Engel, giving him more opportunity to replace Virgil Exner's ideas with his own.

The program called for a classic Detroit facelift: a new front end plus a new two-door hardtop roof. Heading the styling activities as chief stylist in the Dodge studio was the late Bill Brownlie, who moved over from Plymouth during the development of the 1963s. Impeccably attired and always the gentleman, Bill nonetheless was a ardent competitor, always seeking a design "edge," that something extra that would put Dodge ahead of both Plymouth and Pontiac.

The front end sported new sheetmetal, including new fenders, hood, and cowl. The handsome new grille, designed by Dick Watson, cleverly employed a barbell theme. The outer, low-beam headlamps were emphasized by being set in oversize bezels, which in turn framed a full-width grille made up of vertical bars. The high-beams were recessed into the grille directly inboard of the lows.

The grille was basically a convex variant of the one that had been used on the 1962 Plymouths. Plymouth had walked away from the design in 1963, but Brownlie retained a fondness for the theme. The idea was so good that it was used on the all-new 1965-1966 big Dodges and even beyond that.

The new front bumper, the outer ends of which dipped obligingly under the outer lamps, reinforced the barbell theme. Much more substantial than the 1962-1963 design, the new bumper wrapped around the sides of the fenders for greater protection and possessed a deep skirt that now matched the rear. Triangular amber turn-signal lenses mimicked triangular inserts containing the Dodge "fratzog" emblem atop each fender. A satin silver-and-chrome casting on Polaras and 500s accented a concave, vee-shaped windsplit on the hood centerline.

At the rear, the new decklid outer stamping sported dual, raised wind-splits, accented by bright black-filled moldings on Polara/Polara 500. The rear bumper was also new, with a deeper skirt that eliminated the below-the-bumper body-color pan of the 1963. Dimensionally, the 1964s grew 1.6 inches in length and 1.5 inches in width, while the rear tread expanded 2.1 inches.

Above-the-belt changes included a new two-door hardtop roof. In 1962 and 1963, necessity had dictated that the sedans and hardtops share the same roof panels, but now there was time and money available for distinct designs.

Since the roof was to be shared between Dodge and Plymouth, a "bake off" was held between the two studios. One of the Dodge studio proposals was a much-modified variant of the original 1962 Plymouth "Super Sport" roof of which Brownlie was so enamored.

But the Plymouth studio's design won approval. It featured a wedge-shaped C-pillar that tapered to a narrow base, the pillar's surface broken by a subtle crease line. The lower portions of new angled backlite wrapped around to the pillars. Glass area on the 1964s was 1,275 square inches compared with 917 square inches in 1962-1963.

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1964 Dodge B-Body Cars Design

The extensive facelift of the B-body for 1964 included a new two-door hardtop roof.
The extensive facelift of the B-body for 1964 included a new two-door hardtop roof.

The 1964 Dodge B-body cars, including the 1964 Dodge Polara 500, had a new roof for racing purposes. After the plainer, more-vertical pillars used previously, the new B-body roof seemed rakish enough, though in fact the design wasn't nearly so aggressive as the heavily promoted semifastback roofs added midyear on the 1963 Fords and Mercurys. These radically sloped roof-lines were driven by the need to improve the aerodynamics of the big cars for NASCAR racing. But the inevitable comparison with Ford got Dodge chief stylist Bill Brownlie in a bit of a pickle.

One summer day in 1963, Brownlie returned from a press preview at the Chrysler Proving Ground in Chelsea, Michigan, informing his designers that while the automotive reporters liked the new hardtop roof, there was a problem. One had asked innocently, "What do you call it?" and Brownlie had no answer. He was due back at the preview the next day and wanted a name -- quick. Stylists spent the better part of the day trying to figure out a suitable moniker, but nothing clicked. In the end, the new roof remained nameless.

The windshield was also new. Though not initially in the program, Chrysler design vice president Elwood Engel, anxious to expunge his predecessor Virgil Exner's "speedboat" cowl, was able to solicit the money necessary for a new cowl panel, one of the most-expensive parts of a car to tool. Since the new, flatter cowl did not rise to meet the windshield, a new windshield was required. Glass area thus rose to 1,304 square inches, compared to 1,147 in 1962-1963. The new windshield was also less-slanted than previously, while the A-pillar became narrower and moved slightly forward at its top.

These expensive changes added $3.60 to each car built and were one reason the tooling costs of the 1964s -- $24.7 million -- were nearly as much as the heavily reworked 1963s. Fortunately, these costs could be spread out over two model years and four good-selling cars -- the 1964 Dodge and Plymouth, and the 1965 Coronet and Belvedere intermediates.

The new cowl required a new instrument panel. Engel, disdainful of Exner's minimalist motif with its free-form cluster pod, mandated a board-straight, full-width design with an overhanging lip that was padded on the Polara 500. Instruments, dials, and controls were laid out in an unimaginative assortment of circles and rectangles.

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1964 Dodge Polara 500

The 1964 Polara 500 option cost $170, bringing the starting price of a convertible so equipped to $3,227.
The 1964 Polara 500 option cost $170, bringing the starting price of a convertible so equipped to $3,227.

On May 8, 1963, Chrysler's Technical Data Department issued a booklet describing the salient features of the 119-inch-wheelbase Dodge for 1964. The 1964 Dodge Polara 500 described in this internal publication was far different from the one that reached production.

As originally planned, the 500 had unique side trim. A diecast, horizontally ribbed texture nested in the U-shape on the front fender, from which flowed a single molding that traced the length of the undercut body-side contour line. Bright sill and wheel-lip moldings were carried over from 1963, except the bumper extension casting was discarded in favor of lengthening the sill molding aft of the rear wheel, where it then outlined the bumper end. The Polara 500 nameplate was integral with the front-fender casting.

There were additional differences. The hood windsplit molding was all bright (instead of silver and bright). Out back, triple square taillights, three per side, were set inside a carwide textured chrome panel, with vertical backup lamps flanking the license plate.

Regrettably, this austere, clean-limbed 500 was never produced. On May 23, a letter was sent to recipients of the original report informing them that in 1964 "the Polara 500 will be marketed not as a separate premium-line automobile, but as a sport option on the Polara highline series. ..." All of the 500's unique exterior trim was thus cancelled.

Production 500s instead used the more-cluttered Polara side trim designed by ex-Packard stylist George Krispinski. This used the low-line 330-series "trace" molding with a wider, black-paint-filled double-rail molding a few inches below that ran the length of the bodyside, ending in an enlarged portion containing the series name.

On Polara 500s, the black was replaced with an engine-turned silver insert while a separate "Polara 500" nameplate was added to the front fender. The chrome lower deck panel was retained, but it was added to all Polaras. Red/white/red taillight groupings smacked quite a bit of Chevy's Impala. (At least new convex wheel covers with fratzog spinners were 500 exclusives.)

Even worse, the letter went on to explain that, "Since an engine is not included in the package, the [230-horsepower] 318-cubic-inch V-8 is the standard powerplant for the new Polara 500 sport option." Sticker price for the 500 package was $170, with the two-barrel 383-cubic-inch V-8 available for another $71 and the four-barrel job offered for $122 extra.

The reason for this seeming demotion was simple economics. The "take rate" for the Polara 500 had dropped dramatically during 1963, so Dodge product planners felt that the tooling required for the originally planned ornamentation on the 1964 500 was no longer a good business decision. In the end, they were justified; 17,787 customers opted for the less-distinctive-but less-expensive-1964 Polara 500, more than double that of 1963.

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Pentastar Logo

A more-conventional instrument panel and a new console were used inside the 1964 Dodge Polara 500.
A more-conventional instrument panel and a new console were used inside the 1964 Dodge Polara 500.

A gold Pentastar logo -- Chrysler's new corporate mark -- was added to the lower right fender just behind the front wheel opening of all the corporation's cars midway through the 1963 Dodge Polara 500 model year. The Pentastar was deliberately placed on the passenger-side fender only, inasmuch as this was the curb side and thus more likely to be noticed by passersby.

Although its unique exterior trim was eliminated, the 1964 Dodge Polara 500 retained its distinctive interior. The use of contrasting color on the vinyl bucket seats was confined to narrow U-shaped accent bands that separated the smooth bolsters from the seats' vertically pleated inserts. Six basic interior colors were available, including black. When vice president of design Elwood Engel arrived at Chrysler, he was astonished to discover that there were no black interiors extant and quickly made sure black was added as a color choice in 1964.

Much to the dismay of people who still regarded themselves as sons of "The Forward Look," 1964 saw the last of Chrysler's vaunted automatic-transmission pushbuttons. On 500s, they were already gone, thanks to a new floor console that housed four-speed manual or TorqueFlite shift levers, with a provision for a tachometer at the console's forward end. The new B-body console also included a new padded armrest with lockable storage below.

Underhood, engine choices were basically carried over from 1963, but the base 426-cubic-inch wedge engine was now a more-tractable version with a single four-throat carburetor, milder cam, 10.3:1 compression ratio, and 365 horsepower. (When any 426 was ordered, beefier brakes were included.) A new four-speed manual transmission, the Chrysler-designed A-833, boasted 11 percent greater torque capacity than the Borg-Warner T-10 it replaced.

Two special versions of the A-727B TorqueFlite were available for use with the more-potent of the 426 engines. Motor Trend returned to Riverside in a Polara 500 -- this time with a 365-horse 426 four-speed hardtop -- and reprised its 7.7-second 0-60 run from 1963. The quarter-mile time was slightly higher at 15.9 seconds, but top speed climbed to 118 mph.

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Dodge's 50th Anniversary

The 1963 Dodge Polara 500 was made in low numbers; only 1,580 convertibles were built.
The 1963 Dodge Polara 500 was made in low numbers; only 1,580 convertibles were built.

Nineteen sixty-four was Dodge's 50th anniversary as an automaker and the division celebrated in a couple of ways: A special exterior body color was offered, appropriately named "Anniversary Gold," and a special concept car named "Charger" was created for the auto-show circuit. Based on the 1964 Polara 500, this first Charger (which still survives in private hands) was a two-seat, candy-apple-red roadster with a frameless, cut-down windshield and a squat roll bar with faired-in headrests for driver and passenger.

It was powered by the 426-cubic-inch Hemi V-8 introduced in February 1964 to propel the mightiest Dodges and Plymouths destined for circle-track and dragstrip duty. Chrysler exec Elwood Engel drove it home one summer night, all of his stylists secretly hoping it would rain. It wasn't that they hated Engel or wished him ill, but the thought of "the boss" stuck in the rain in slow-moving traffic in this fancy, topless car was too delicious a picture to ignore.

Introduced at the 3,305 Dodge dealerships nationwide on September 20, 1963 (the earliest intro in Dodge history to that point), the 1964 B-bodies were a resounding success. Some 248,700 units were produced in the model year, just 26,000 units behind the related Plymouth. Furthermore, when Dart and 880 assemblies were included, the division topped the 500,000 mark for the first time in its 50-year history, a nearly 12 percent gain from 1963. After the debacle of two years earlier, Dodge was finally smack dab in the middle of that "mainstream" so eagerly sought by Engel and Chrysler president Lynn Townsend.

Still, the 1962-1964 efforts to create a Dodge personal-luxury car "on the cheap" failed. Objectively, given the division's other problems, the Polara 500 was never more than a sideline. The car was displaced in 1965 by the new premium bucket-seat Monaco heading the all-new 121-inch wheelbase Dodge.

An attempt to make the Monaco Dodge's personal-luxury entry was derailed a year after its launch when the Monaco name replaced the Custom 880, downgrading the renamed 1966 Monaco 500 to trim-variant status. Although a 500 package remained optional on Polaras through 1969, it was never the same. Forsaking personal luxury, Dodge planners instead turned to creating muscle cars like big-engine Coronets, Chargers, and Challengers.

From a collectibility perspective, in general, the 1964 Polara 500 is the least desirable. Not only was the 1964 the most-numerous 500 (and thus lacks exclusivity), it was also the least-distinctive from an appearance standpoint, reflecting its diminished status as an option package rather than a model in its own right. Additionally, it has the smallest standard V-8.

As for the 1962 and 1963, it's a much closer call. Both had distinctive side ornamentation and were separate models. The 1963 was produced in the lowest numbers, but from direct front or rear, is indistinguishable from lesser Polaras. The 1962, with its blacked-out grille and exclusive taillight/backup lights, is the most-distinctive from an ornamentation viewpoint. The 1962 Polara 500 has the most-unusual styling, but its standard engine was the 361 V-8, while the 1963 had the larger 383.

Of course, as a collector car, any 1962-1964 Polara 500 with a 413 or 426 Ramcharger V-8 would be the most valuable, although not as drivable as the more-tractable standard V-8s.

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