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A fan's perspective on a Dodge Sweptside

A look at the "finned" Dodge pickup from a fan's perspective.
Few pickups get you noticed quicker than a Dodge Sweptside. The Glacier White and Tropical Coral color combinationscreams “Fab ’50s.”

Few pickups get you noticed quicker than a Dodge Sweptside. The Glacier White and Tropical Coral color combinationscreams “Fab ’50s.”

I was mesmerized the first time I saw a 1957 Dodge Sweptside pickup. As an eight-year-old boy, I thought putting tailfins on a truck was a bold advance in design. The Sweptside inspired me to put cardboard tailfins on my bicycle, but instead of the Sweptside Dodge fins, my bike’s fins looked like cartoonish shark fins. Even so, I thought flying personal transportation was just around the corner.

The 1957 Dodge truck’s front fenders reminded me of the 1956 Plymouth front fenders. Both vehicles had a forward-leaning edge that housed deeply hooded headlamps. Both vehicles looked as though they were in motion, even when parked. On the truck’s fenders were Forward Look “Flookerang” emblems representing Dodge’s styling campaign that year.

What's more '50s than fins?

What's more '50s than fins?

The ’57 Dodge trucks were part of the 1954-’60 C Series, which was further subdivided into the 1954-56 “Functional Design” trucks and the 1957-’60 “Power Giant” trucks. The styling of the “Functional Design” trucks evolved from the 1948-’53 B Line, which were called “Pilot House” models, because their cabs offered 180-degree vision and chair-height seats. With the B Line, front pontoon fenders were eliminated and the flush fenders faded into the doors. The C Series cab had a more contemporary look with a one-piece curved windshield. Doors were higher and wider. The front fender line now went to the back of the doors.

Optional for 1954 were the first Dodge truck V-8 engine and additional rear cab windows. The 1955 C-Series trucks that followed had wraparound windshields. Options included this year were overdrive, automatic transmission and wraparound rear windows. For 1956, a 12-volt electrical system was standard on the little-changed trucks.

For 1957, Dodge trucks were facelifted with the 1956 Plymouth-style hooded headlamps and a new grille panel. Dodge began offering the full-width, flush-side Sweptline box beginning this year.

In an unusual move, the Dodge truck front clip was again redesigned in 1958. There were now quad headlamps on both sides of a horizontal grille and new front fenders. At the front and side of the front fenders, there was a carved “C” shape that appeared again with the 1961 Imperial, which used a floating headlamp treatment. Over the truck’s grille was a brow that continued down from the fenders, into the doors. This design element would reappear on the 1960 Valiant front fenders.

In 1959, there was a redesigned Dodge truck grille and instrument panel with a hexagonal pod in front of the driver, similar to the gauge panel that appeared on the downsized 1962 Plymouth Fury. The full-width, flush-side Sweptline box continued to be offered in 1959. For 1960, there was another revised grille, but the Sweptside was gone, replaced by the Sweptline truck that had flush box sides, but without the tailfins.

Competing with game-changers

Although Dodge kept improving its light-duty line through the 1950s, it only had 7 percent of the pickup market in 1955. That year, Dodge trucks ranked number five behind Chevrolet, Ford, International and GMC. Adding to Dodge’s woes were the influential styling of the 1955 Chevy Cameo Carrier, the fresh and cutting-edge 1957 Ford Ranchero and the first modern pickup, the 1957 Ford F-series, which had extra cargo capacity in its Styleside model, which also had flush box sides. All three would be considered halo trucks today.

Style is everything, and the “second series” 1955 Chevy truck was sensational, especially as a Cameo Carrier. The second-series Chevys had a wraparound windshield, hooded headlamps and a Ferrari-style egg-crate grille. To lend flair to practicality was the Chuck Jordan-designed Cameo Carrier version with flush box sides using fiberglass panels behind the cabin to make an envelope body from bumper to bumper. The head-turning design also had a license plate panel that folded down to access the spare. The Cameo cab came with deluxe features, and the upholstery material was similar to the 1954 Bel Air Sports Coupe. The Cameo Carrier exterior and interior were colorful and lavish in Bombay Ivory and Commercial Red. This was a high-fashion, glamorous, double-duty beauty for work or play.

In 1957, wooden floor boards were painted black on a Dodge truck.

In 1957, wooden floor boards were painted black on a Dodge truck.

The 1957 Ford Ranchero, a half-ton pickup, was a first in the United States. It looked like a Ford automobile all the way through to the rear fenders, but had a cargo box. It rode and handled like a car, yet worked like a truck. In addition to doing household chores, it could be a fun truck for recreational use, or for businesses serving higher-class clientele.

Another ground-breaking style came from Ford in 1957 with the F-100 series. The hood and fenders were now the same height. This trend-setting styling continued into the 1990s. Ford eliminated the old-fashion pontoon rear fenders with the flush-side cargo box of the Styleside, which was regarded as a landmark design that continues to this day. Even with this type of box, Ford provided the lowest price truck in America, with the added benefit of extra cargo capacity.

Developing the Dodge Sweptside

These game-changing trucks had an effect at Dodge. Incidentally, while Virgil Exner was the styling chief at Chrysler, he was not the one who came up with the stylish Sweptside pickup. That honor goes to Joe Berr, the manager of special equipment sales at Dodge Truck. He was a practical problem solver. Berr realized Dodge had minimal finances for a glamour truck, so he re-used the rear quarter panels from a 1957 Dodge two-door station wagon and the wagon’s rear bumper to create the Sweptside. SEG employee Burt Nagos welded these pieces to a Dodge truck bed. Then the tailgate was slightly trimmed. Bingo! It worked. With the Sweptside, Dodge now had a top-of-the-line “image product” to sell.

Like Chevrolet’s Cameo Carrier, the Dodge Sweptside was two-toned, but the Sweptside offered more colors, such as the Tropical Coral on our featured pickup. Wheel covers, chrome bumpers and whitewall tires were standard. The Sweptside could come with a standard or deluxe-trimmed cabin.

No production records exist from the Dodge Sweptside’s 1957-1959 production run, but they’re rare today. They were rare when new, too, partially due to the fact that their boxes were modified with station wagon rear fenders by hand in a special area of the factory, a relatively long and laborious process that also made them expensive. And not many truck buyers in the late 1950s were ready for a flashy and expensive workhorse.

In a time of Sputnik and visions of visiting the moon, the jet-age aesthetics of the Sweptside convinced me as a youngster that this pickup was the future. The Sweptside, however, was not a blueprint for Dodge’s future commercial design language. Even though the Sweptside sold in dribs and drabs, and was discontinued in January 1959, it left a lasting impression on this writer.  

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