VINTAGE CARS: Keller’s influence seen in 1952 in Plymouth

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Chrysler Corporation’s sales did not suffer in the years following World War II, but they did not prosper.

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It could be argued that all American automakers had their challenges in the years following the war, but only Chrysler seemed content with what they had achieved in the pre-war period.

As always, the company’s cars were well-built, well-engineered and pleasingly styled, but there were few risks taken and only a modest expression of excitement. It was as if Chrysler executives believed that when the war ended, everything would return to its pre-war state.

But everything changed after the war. Detroit car production had been halted in February 1942 and resumed at the end of 1945. The market for quality used cars was hot in 1946 and 1947. It was not uncommon for a 10-year-old car commands the same price as her. had in mint condition in 1936.

And so Detroit’s auto industry has benefited from a seller’s market. Everything they built sold quickly. The first cars built by GM, Ford, or Chrysler were mostly the same cars that were designed as 1942 models, but with slight modifications.

GM’s first new post-war cars were introduced for 1949. The same was true for Ford. The all-new 1949 Ford abandoned any design ties to its pre-war models and was a huge success. The new GM vehicles were equally advanced in design and well received.

But the new styling was restrained at Chrysler Corporation. The industry seemed to be racing to welcome the 1950s, but Chrysler took its time.

There was a reason for that.

Fifteen years earlier, Chrysler was arguably Detroit’s most advanced automobile company under the genius of founder Walter Chrysler. The company introduced its Airflow as Chrysler and DeSoto cars for 1934. The Airflow was revolutionary in engineering and design, but public appeal was limited. Few have been sold – at least not enough to justify the company’s huge investment. Walter Chrysler, as realistic as any businessman, ordered a redesign to make the Airflow more conventional for 1935. Within a few years, the car’s futuristic but controversial styling was gone.

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Society has learned a lesson. It was sometimes dangerous to be too modern, too futuristic, too advanced. And when Walter Chrysler died in August 1940, his successor, KT Keller, took the lessons learned from the Airflow to heart. Subsequently, Chrysler Corporation would be among the most conservative of Detroit’s businesses.

Under Keller’s leadership, Chrysler Corporation had become the second largest automobile company in North America, surpassing Ford. And Keller’s approach to engineering has always been progressive. But his vision of automobile design was more like that of Henry Ford than that of Edsel Ford. The elder Ford didn’t have time for design; he was more intrigued by the manufacturing process. But the young Ford was in love with art and design and excelled in both.

In the post-war years, as Detroit companies introduced streamlined designs and lower-profile cars, Keller clung to modest design. It required a higher profile, in which the roofline was high enough to allow a man to wear a hat while driving. Keller said cars should never be so low that a man can pee on them.

Due to Keller’s enforced conservatism, Chrysler’s cars looked older than newer models introduced by other companies. His cars were built according to what some people called the Keller Three-Box School of Styling. That is to say a box stacked on two boxes placed end to end.

The sales numbers help tell the story. In 1949, which marked the fourth consecutive year of increased automobile sales for the industry, Plymouth remained Chrysler Corporation’s top-selling marque, but sold nearly half as many cars as second-placed Chevrolet. Plymouth sold 520,385 units, but Chevrolet sold 1,010,013 cars. Ford, with its all-new 1949 model, sold 1,118,308 cars.

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The following year was a little better. Plymouth sales rose to 610,959 cars. But Chevrolet sales rose to 1,498,590, while Ford sales jumped to 1,208,912.

The same was true for subsequent model years. Ford and Chevrolet have battled for the top spot, while Plymouth has always been far behind.

It should be noted that Chrysler in the immediate post-war period sold well-built and carefully designed automobiles. But he was in no rush to be the first to introduce new post-war models. In fact, Chrysler was the last of the major automakers to do so, in March 1949.

The rear of the 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook emphasizes the three-box design introduced by the Chrysler Corporation in 1949. Peter Epp
The rear of the 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook emphasizes the three-box design introduced by the Chrysler Corporation in 1949. Peter Epp jpg, CA

The new models included three series of Plymouth cars. The cheapest was the P17 Deluxe. It was built on an 111-inch wheelbase and represented the base transport. There were three body styles – a businessman’s coupe, a five-passenger two-door fastback sedan, and an all-steel two-door Suburban station wagon.

The more expensive Deluxe rode on a 118.5-inch wheelbase, but was over four inches shorter than its 1948 counterpart. As with the cheaper Deluxe, there was little chrome on the exterior but the interior was better equipped. There were only two body styles available – a two-door club coupe and a four-door sedan.

Plymouth’s flagship model was the P18 Special Deluxe. It also rode on the new 118.5-inch wheelbase, but received more exterior brightness and much better interior appointments. The Special Deluxe was available as a club coupe, convertible, four-door sedan, or four-door wood-bodied station wagon.

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The box-like appearance inherent in the new “Keller” Plymouths offered significantly more glass area than in the 1948 models. The windshields were 37% larger while the rear windows were 35% larger.

But the company seemed to devote more attention to the interior of new cars than to the exterior. Inside were pleasing instrument panels that featured three white-on-black circular gauges, set in a rich-looking woodgrain panel. Near the center were chrome heater/defroster controls. New was a keyed ignition switch that replaced the previous year’s old key and push-button setup. Overall the interiors have been much improved.

All Plymouth cars were powered by a 217 cubic inch six-cylinder engine. The engine had been upgraded for 1949 by increasing the compression to 7.0. Thus, Plymouth was able to increase the power to 97 horsepower.

The introduction of the new Plymouths was so late in the model year that it was inevitable that total 1949 sales would be low. Yet Plymouth was still the third marque in 1949, although far behind Ford and Chevrolet.

Plymouth’s new cars remained virtually unchanged in 1950 and received new names for 1951. The entry-level Deluxe became the Concord. The mid-priced Deluxe became the Cambridge. And the Special Deluxe became the Cranbrook. The cars continued through the 1953 model year, although Concord was discontinued and Cambridge became the entry Plymouth.

A very good example of a 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook was on display at a September car show in Thamesville. The four-door sedan was painted emerald green and sported a white roof, as well as an emerald green sun visor. The car sat on four wide whitewall tires and is a stunning example of KT Keller’s style saying.

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The Cranbrook on display would have been built with the flathead six-cylinder engine and its manual transmission would have been operated by a column-mounted three-speed gear lever.

Because the Cranbrook was Plymouth’s most expensive car in 1952, it came with items such as a window heater and defroster, radio, trim rings and wheel covers. Available options would have included fog lights, tinted windows and seat covers, to name a few.

Cranbrook has become a popular Plymouth. Over 368,000 units were built for 1952. Production was cut short somewhat due to the Korean War effort; for 1953, over 400,000 Cranbrook cars would be built and sold.

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