Well before the late Sergio Marchionne arrived at Auburn Hills, there was a brand that competed in the budget car field under the Mopar banner. It was once the match for Chevrolets and Ford, while putting out some of the most compelling models of the Muscle Car Era.
Maybe you have forgotten about Plymouth. You might have, until that moment when someone points out a 1970 Barracuda.
By the way, that was a Plymouth.
Consider the history of the Mopar side of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for a moment. You recall that the Dodge Brothers were acquired by Walter P. Chrysler in 1928. Before that, Chrysler planned on competing in the popular budget car field against Ford and Chevrolet. The company positioned Dodge as a mid-priced brand after the acquisition, with its sights on Buick and Oldsmobile. This was done just days before the first Plymouth was shown at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Plymouth was a subsequent product of another acquisition. The Maxwell-Chalmers company was acquired by Chrysler in 1920, while Maxwell was about to merge with Chalmers. By 1925, Maxwell and its associated brands were phased out to simply make room for Chrysler's own products. Chryslers were seen as a mid-priced automobile with luxury car aspirations, leaving a void in the budget car field inside the company. From what was left of Maxwell-Chalmers came the idea that would lead Chrysler towards creating the Plymouth brand.
The first Plymouth was actually a Chrysler model. The four-cylinder 52 was a Maxwell that was reworked for Chrysler to compete in the budget field. The Plymouth name appeared on this model, as it was redesigned again into the Model Q for 1928. By 1929, the Chrysler name was dropped in favor of Plymouth’s new Model U – a further revision of the Model Q.
The Depression had a huge effect on the automotive industry. It seemed that the major manufacturers, along with a few independent automakers, braved a period of lost profits and jobs. Chrysler took a chance on the Airflow design, which also became a huge failure for the company. Plymouth never received its own version of the Airflow, which was a very smart thing to do. It would have ruined their budget field status, due to the high expense of making an Airflow vehicle.
Instead, Plymouth concentrated on the basics while offering innovations in its field. Floating Power gave their engines "the smoothness of an eight – the economy of a four." That engine would be superseded by an in-line six starting in 1933, which helped Plymouth to further gain on the other two "low-priced" brands – Chevrolet and Ford.
During the 1930s, you can get a Plymouth at any Chrysler Corporation dealership – Chrysler, De Soto, and Dodge stores. That helped in sales during a tough economy, placing it as the third best-selling brand of car behind Chevrolet and Ford. In 1940 and 1941, Plymouth jumped to second place, surpassing Ford in sales.
Coming out of World War II, Plymouth continued its status as Chrysler's lower-priced lineup. Sales were steady through to 1954 before Virgil Exner took on a new chapter in automotive design. The first "Forward Look" Plymouths gave the brand something it had been lacking since the beginning – style. It was not until the 1957 model year when a lower, leaner "Forward Look" would catapult Plymouth into orbit.
Even in the face of Chevrolet and Ford, Chrysler had Plymouth at a huge advantage. However, two things would thwart the brand's progress. One was the Torsion-Air suspension system that caused plenty of problems that hurt the 1957 and 1958 models. Second would be a gremlin that would haunt Chrysler for decades: great design, poor execution. Quality issues would daunt Plymouth, including poor corrosion protection, poor materials, and assembly.
By 1961, a mix of good and not so good would continue at Plymouth. The year before, Chrysler introduced the Valiant – their first compact car. After being sold as a Chrysler in 1960, they would begin to apply the Plymouth badge with the 1961 model year. The second was in response to a rumor that Chevrolet was to downsize their full-sized cars. While the 1962 Chevrolet got slightly bigger than its 1961 models, Plymouth’s lineup just got smaller. Though slightly bigger than a Ford Fairlane, the 1962 Plymouth would be considered too small to compete with full-sized Fords and Chevrolets.
As the Valiant was updated for 1963, Plymouth was given the option of a fastback coupe to be built from the compact car’s platform. It shared plenty of the Valiant's hardware – engines, drivelines, dashboards, even most of the body. The only thing that would be different was the rear end. It seemed risky to apply a large curved rear glass, but it made the Barracuda distinctive from another car that would end up competing against it – the Ford Mustang.
The history between the two pony cars would be linked in many different ways. Plymouth introduced their Barracuda on April 1, 1964, with the Mustang arriving at Ford showrooms 15 days later. Chevrolet had its own answer – the Corvair Monza. That answer would be soon discredited thanks to Ralph Nader's campaign against the rear-engine car.
For 1965, Chrysler finally gave Plymouth a full-sized car again. The former mid-sized models would be redesigned and designated the Belvedere – a long-time model name for Plymouth. The big sedans were called the Fury – another Plymouth name that had lasted since the Forward Look days. It would share the same chassis as the Dodge Polara, except for a difference of two inches on the wheelbase. Fury wagons rode on the Polara's wheelbase.
While the Barracuda provided a sporty model in the compact class, Plymouth added a Satellite model to the 1965 Belvedere lineup. The aim was to stir things up in the mid-sized class for a car that was sporty and upmarket at the same time. Not bad for a car in the low-price field.
It seemed that everyone wanted a bit of luxury with their low-priced cars. The Fury III was designed to compete with the Chevrolet Impala. However, the Bowtie brand upped their game with the introduction of the Caprice model. Ford would have to catch up by introducing the LTD alongside the Galaxie 500. Plymouth answered back in 1966 with the VIP model. Plymouth even promoted the Sport Fury as an alternative to the Impala SS and Galaxie 500/XL. It was only "Sport" in name only for the first few years.
However, things were stirring around Plymouth to fully compete with the muscle cars from GM and Ford. Chrysler always had high-performance engines – the HEMI V8s. From the 1950s, Chrysler's Hemis were the most feared engines to run against, next to the Chevrolet small block V8s and Ford’s own mix of V8 engines. The HEMI would help to transform Plymouth into a major player in the muscle car market.
The HEMI would appear under the hood of the Belvedere first. The 1967 GTX would be the pinnacle of these first efforts to create a high-performance car to battle with the Pontiac GTOs, and Chevrolet's SS models. It was a 426 cubic inch monster designed to make no apologies for its swagger. The GTX was only the beginning of the transformation of Plymouth.
The Barracuda was redesigned in 1967, featuring more sexier "Coke bottle" lines and a tauter body – without the big wraparound glass out back. They were simply getting ready for what's next.
The model year was 1968. While the GTX made a name for itself with its big HEMI engine, the newly revised Belvedere and Barracuda would welcome a new V8 engine – the Super Commando 383. The HEMI 426 was the big beast that all of the enthusiasts wanted, but the 383 introduced them to the game.
When the GTX was not enough, Plymouth introduced the Road Runner in 1968. They were not just mere Satellites with a Looney Tunes character on the rear quarter panel. You cannot get a Road Runner with anything below a 383 cubic inch V8. You can spend another $714 and wedge in a 426 HEMI underneath its hood. The Road Runner would be an integral part of Plymouth's muscle car lore for years to come, even spouting a high NASCAR wing on the back of the 1970 Superbird.
The year 1969 saw the Fuselage body introduced to the Plymouth Fury. To distinguish it from the more expensive models, Chrysler made the Fury less significant on the profile, though one would see some shared body traits with the Dodge, Chrysler, and Imperial. The 1969 Fury was not the peak year of the model. That would come with the 1970 and 1971 model years when we saw true fuselage styling – integrated grille within the front bumper and rear bumpers with taillights integrated, as well.
To go along with the Fuselage body, the 440 cubic-inch Six Pack V8 arrived. Chrysler came up with a powerhouse to meet the new big block engines GM and Ford had trotted out. This V8 was capable of embarrassing its competitors with three two-barrel carburetors on top of a massive V8 that put out 390 horsepower. Plymouth dropped the 440 Six Pack under the Sport Fury and Road Runner's hood starting in 1969.
However, 1970 was historic for Plymouth. A revised Valiant brought on a two-door fastback coupe called the Duster. The muscle car movement went downward onto compact cars, and the Chevrolet Nova SS was king of the small muscle cars. Ford just changed its Falcon to the Maverick and could not muster an offering to match the Nova SS or the Duster. You also saw plenty of Duster owners throwing out the 318 cubic inch V8 in favor of larger engines, thanks to its weight and proven chassis.
Then, there was an all-new Barracuda. It took the "Coke-bottle" design to another level. Next to a Mustang, it was sexier, beefier, and sleeker. For a lighter car, the Barracuda received all of Chrysler's best engines underneath its hood, including the 426 HEMI and the 440 Six Pack.
This is where interject myself into this story. When I was almost 1 year old, my dad got a new 1965 Satellite coupe. That was cool and all, but it was not until he got a year-old 1970 Barracuda from a local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer that spun me into the automotive stratosphere. That blue base model was the sexiest car I ever saw my family own. I do not recall what was underneath the hood – it was a smaller V8 with a four-barrel carburetor connected to a three-speed Torque-Flite transmission. The latter part I remember.
From my recollection, it was a temperamental car. A few times when the intersection of Victory Boulevard and Wilbur Avenue (in Reseda, California) was flooded, the Barracuda would stall out. Those were embarrassing moments for our family. Sadly, when dad left us in 1972, we had to sell the Barracuda. My brother was hoping mom would keep for him until he began driving five years later.
Despite its temperamental disposition, I truly miss that 1970 Barracuda.
All of the sudden, the muscle car craze came to a halt, thanks to new Federal standards on emissions controls and safety. It also did not help that the Society of Automotive Engineers decided to recalibrate horsepower ratings to net figures. The Barracuda limped through with clogged engines until 1974. A new Satellite coupe was introduced with Barracuda-like styling with Fury-like details. It, too, was given detuned versions of its most powerful engines.
The 1970s were a rough time for Chrysler. They were on the brink of bankruptcy, quality was horrible – at best – and there were questionable product moves across all brands. Lee Iacocca's arrival at Highland Park was just the beginning. After he secured Federally-guaranteed loans to help jump-start the company again, Plymouth would begin to reap the benefits of a company turnaround.
Plymouth already had a compact, front-drive hatchback in the Horizon. The Simca-developed car was brought into North American production as proof of Chrysler’s commitment towards righting their ship. The future was front-wheel drive and it would shape the future of the North American automotive industry.
Simca's Horizon lead to the development of the K-Car platform. Iacocca championed Hal Sperlich’s stillborn Ford initiatives to the Chrysler brass, in which they saw their return to solvency and profits on the back of a series of vehicles from the same platform. The fall of 1980 saw its first offering – the Plymouth Reliant. The small sedan had a basic look with basic ideas, even though customers had the choice of two engines, two transmissions, three body styles, and three trim levels.
The Reliant met Plymouth's mission perfectly – a basic car for a value brand. In 1981, you two dealer channels for Chrysler – Chrysler-Plymouth and Dodge. Dodge was aimed at the lower-mid market, where customers wanted something more basic for their transportation at a value-added price. Dodge also sold Chrysler's truck line. Paired with near-luxury Chrysler, Plymouth help span their dealership lineup from low-priced small cars to luxurious offerings. The K-Car platform spawned an entire lineup of cars that fit everyone's needs and budgets.
It was absolutely right for Plymouth to receive one of the first minivans ever created – the Voyager. This breakthrough vehicle combined the utility of a van with the driving manners of a car in a size that fits in a garage. This proposition not only propelled Plymouth back into a position of leadership, but it also helped Chrysler repay those guaranteed loans and earn bigger profits.
The Plymouth Voyager was the right vehicle at the right time for both Chrysler Corporation and the brand. Yet, somehow there was a feeling that the brand was not benefitting from a larger vehicle portfolio. There was a strategy for the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer network, however. The upmarket K-Car went to Chrysler. The E-Body, extended K-Car, went to Chrysler. Plymouth did come out with its own version in Canada, first – the Caravelle would soon join the lineup later in the 1980s.
The K-Car based coupe went to Chrysler. The 1984 Laser was positioned as an upmarket version of the Dodge Daytona, featuring more luxury content. It was seen as a slap against Plymouths face, though they had a coupe version of the Horizon, called the Turismo. A Plymouth version of the Laser/Daytona would herald a return of the Barracuda in the lineup.
Further along in the 1980s, we saw Chrysler receiving the sporty five-door hatchback version of the LeBaron and the new coupe/convertible. Plymouth was left with the Horizon, Turismo, Reliant, Voyager, Gran Fury, and Caravelle – neither of them shouted the excitement the brand once enjoyed back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
When the Horizon and Turismo were being replaced, Plymouth benefitted from an "exciting" new compact product – the Sundance. The notchback looking hatchback brought interest back to the brand, with its shapely looks and addition of the turbocharged 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine.
For the next round of K-Car models, Plymouth received the Acclaim sedan and the next version of the Voyager – and that was it. Or, was it?
Plymouth did benefit from a new collaboration. Actually, it was a new chapter of an old one – Chrysler and Mitsubishi’s long-standing tie-up. In the past Plymouth sold captive imports from Mitsubishi, such as the Arrow (Celeste), a few generations of the front-drive version of the Colt and the Colt Vista (Space Wagon). In 1989, both companies opened up a joint venture plant in Normal, Illinois to produce a sports coupe.
The 1990 Plymouth Laser was not have been the spiritual successor to the Barracuda customers wanted, but it helped to keep the brand relevant in the 1990s. The front-drive coupe offered a turbocharged engine optional, which brought enthusiasts to Chrysler-Plymouth dealers. However, it would live a very short life. The last Laser was sold in 1994, as sales dropped off. Enthusiasts favored more robust versions from Mitsubishi and Eagle (the brand created in the wake of the AMC merger/acquisition with Chrysler).
By that time, another product would keep the brand relevant in the same decade. The Cab Forward movement came into play in 1992 with the introduction of the LH platform. While Chrysler, Dodge, and Eagle received their new large sedans based on this design philosophy, Plymouth was passed over to receive a large car.
Chrysler was developing two smaller vehicles based on this design philosophy. Plymouth did receive the compact car, called the Neon. The happy looking notchback became a success story for Chrysler when they needed it. The car was designed to be peppy, well-equipped, and efficient in every way possible. The cars were actually fun to drive and very affordable, which was something Plymouth needed very badly.
The Neon served as Plymouth's domestic entry-level car when Mitsubishi pulled back the Colt from Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships. While it found customers, it also found itself on the track under its own series with its ACR model. This was a breakthrough that was needed for the brand.
Though delayed by several months, Plymouth received their mid-sized car forward model, the Breeze. The cars were designed to be lower cost, initially offering the 2.0-liter engine, instead of the larger, more popular 2.4-liter version. The smaller engine meant selling the Plymouth Breeze at a lower cost, undercutting its mid-sized competitors.
If there was a parting gift to its fans and enthusiasts, it came in the Prowler. The retro-roadster arrived with V6 power and unique driving dynamics, using a rear-mounted transmission as the final drive. The exposed front suspension provided a different challenge for customers, as the bumper system was exposed for safety. Still, the Prowler was one last attempt to make Plymouth relevant, even in low volumes. Only 8,532 Plymouth prowlers were built. It was sold as a Chrysler in the last two model years of production.
By 2001, Plymouth sales have shrunk to about half the volume of Dodge's own sales. Eagle had already folded with Jeep standing alone as the sole survivor of the AMC merger/acquisition. Now merged in with Daimler-Benz AG, the plan was to consolidate all Chrysler brands into a single dealership channel, or at least pair Chrysler with Jeep, leaving Dodge dealers alone for the time being.
It was determined that Plymouth was no longer relevant within DaimlerChrysler. Dodge has taken over to compete with Ford and Chevrolet for mainstream consumers. Their portfolio was also diverse and sustainable from a business standpoint. Plymouth was simply a shell of itself, even though they were selling plenty of Voyagers in the face of the SUV craze.
By July of 2001, Plymouth was quietly sent into the dustbin of history. No fanfare. Nothing on the scale of Oldsmobile's demise a few years afterward. Just gone.
And, that's disappointing.
Consider the reasons behind this. It was all numbers. Something you would expect from a "merger of equals" involving a German automaker with the grand reputation in the USA.
By eliminating Plymouth from the Chrysler side of the house, did DaimlerChrysler vacate the lower end of the market? The industry itself has changed since the 1950s. No longer were the budget and mid-priced segments relevant to consumers. You are either mainstream or premium/luxury. In this new world of marketing and segmentation, Dodge filled the void left by Plymouth, followed by Jeep.
There are those who have forgotten about Plymouth. Then there are those who remember it quite well. We were surrounded by them – some with the highest performance ever imagined for the era.
When Plymouth was around, we had a mix of value-oriented vehicles, high-performance heroes, and groundbreaking new forms of transportation. The legacy left behind by Plymouth is still seen today. Just go to any muscle car or classic car event to see one up close. It may remind you that they were once a leader in its class. Plymouth was indeed genuine Mopar.
All photos by Randy Stern