For 1953-’54, Plymouth tried smaller approach

John Lee |

If you had been shopping for a new convertible in 1953 or 1954, would your local Plymouth dealer have been on the list of places to visit?

If you were looking for a restoration project from the 1950s, or a restored car to drive and enjoy, would you walk past a Bel Air or a Crestliner ragtop to check out a Cambridge or a Belvedere?

Not too likely on either count. In the first place, Ford sold some 75,000 convertibles in 1953-’54 and Chevy sold almost 45,000, while Plymouth moved just more than 13,000. Which will probably also answer the second question, because with that degree of rarity, chances of finding one either restored or unrestored slim down quickly.

Yet, seeing one nicely finished, especially with a pair of mellow glasspack mufflers (no, they were not even a factory option, but who cares?) and optional wire wheels, is enough to make one ask, “Why not?”

Certainly, there was some grumbling among the Plymouth faithful in 1953 about their favorite make having shrunk. Anyone looking to trade up from their 1949-’52 “full-size” Plymouth would be taking a cut from 118 1/2 inches to 114 inches in wheelbase length and nearly five inches in overall body length.

The new platform was a compromise. For the economy-minded, Plymouth had been marketing a smaller, less-expensive model for the past four years. The Deluxe (1949-’50) and Concord (1951-’52) models, offered only as a single-seat business coupe, fastback two-door sedan and two-door Suburban station wagon, rode a 111-inch wheelbase. So, the single wheelbase length of 114 inches for 1953 fell between the two previous spans. It was an inch shorter than that of rivals Ford and Chevrolet.
The two-year 1953-’54 Plymouth model run is in a class of its own.

Separate, detachable rear fenders that are so 1940s were finally eliminated. New slab-side styling gained character from subtle, horizontal flares over the front and rear wheel openings, which were decorated with bright stainless trim on the upscale models. The front flares continued around the front fenders, right into the horizontal grille bar, while those in back wrapped around the quarter panels and across the rear panel just below the trunk opening. The license plate mounted in the center of the panel and the gas filler opening was on the left.

For the first time, Plymouths had curved, one-piece windshields, and one-piece wrap-around rear glass on two-door hardtops.
The face 1953 Plymouths presented in dealer showrooms featured a single horizontal grille bar with the ends painted to match the body, a bright stainless center section and nine vertical trim pieces wrapping around it. Stainless headlamp rims fit flush with the fenders, and rectangular parking lamps below followed the contour of the grille bar.

The facelift stylists provided to change the frontal look for 1954 with a new chrome center grille bar section featuring the Plymouth name in plastic, and horizontal bright trim that wrapped around and connected with the front fender trim. A thinner stainless trim bar below the main bar spanned the grille opening between round parking lamps. The chrome ’54 headlamp rims tunnelled the lenses about an inch.

Slightly restyled taillamps incorporated round back-up lamps, and chrome bolt-on fins added visual length to the rear fenders. Stats on these two models showed the ’54s, at 193 1/2 inches, measure four inches longer than the ’53s. Although the bodies are the same, the rear bumpers have been moved out from the body, a slight alteration to make the cars look (and measure) a bit longer. It seems the ’53s looked too stubby for some customers.

Adding stainless-steel trim strips connecting the front and rear fender trim may have made the ’54 Savoys and Belvederes look longer, but I always thought it was unnecessary and looked cheap. A better $37.65 add-on for convertibles and hardtops came in the spring of 1954, along with new, bright spring colors. A narrow trim strip dropped down from the beltline at the front of the doors, trailed back at a slightly downward angle and kicked back up to the beltline at the rear of the window opening. With a basket-weave insert, this trim offered a two-tone accent and hinted of a sports car-style beltline dip.

The interiors were improved for 1954 with nicer and more colorful upholstery fabrics, brighter dashboard trim and a new deluxe steering wheel.

The well-known 217.8-cid flathead six was rated at an even 100 hp for both years. Options for the standard three-speed transmission were overdrive or the semi-automatic HyDrive. In April, 1954, Plymouth finally received a fully automatic transmission with the offering of the two-speed PowerFlite at $189. Along with PowerFlite, Plymouth installed the Dodge Division’s 230-cid, 110-hp six.

Plymouth series names were juggled between 1953 and 1954. Belvedere, identification for the two-door hardtop model since 1951, now named the entire top trim series consisting of the convertible, a hardtop, a four-door sedan and a Suburban wagon. Savoy, which had named a high-trim Suburban in 1952 and 1953, now designated the entire middle-trim-level series, and the economy-level series adopted a new name: Plaza.

Even before World War II ended, Plymouth engineering and marketing personnel had seemed insistent that there should be a market for a smaller, lighter, more economical automobile. They had toyed with small-car designs, then built the shorter-wheelbase 1949-’52 Deluxe and Concord models before unleashing the seemingly sensible-sized 1953-’54s.

It may have been a case of designing a car for a market that didn’t exist, or maybe the first example of “build it and they will come.”  The 1953 production total of 636,000 was a new all-time high for the Plymouth Division, but that figure headed the wrong way, dropping to 433,000 for the facelifted 1954 models. The 13,200 convertibles built in those two years was a slight drop from the 15,650 sold in 1951-’52.

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