Car of the Week: 1952 Plymouth Suburban

Rare Plymouth wagon has stood the test of time
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When most car collectors dream, their wish lists start with something fast, exotic or glamorous. Ferraris, Duesenbergs, Porsches, Corvettes, Mustangs, Cadillacs … there are too many pie-in-the-sky cars in the world to count.

Dick Romm might have been the only guy around with a 1952 Plymouth Suburban near the top of his list. The Eugene, Ore., resident can’t quite pinpoint why, but he wanted one for many years.

“I remember I had an old Mechanics Illustrated, and Tom McCahill took one from Florida to New York and he raved about it,” laughs Romm. “I always wanted one after that. I’ve always been into Plymouths. We always had them — they were kind of a pioneering car.

“Well, I started collecting a few cars and I always wanted one of those [Suburbans]. We looked for them, but a lot of them were either junk, customized, or had very, very expensive restorations… But I finally found one!”

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 Romm hit the jackpot in 2011 in a bit of an unlikely spot: the small town of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington State. The man who had the Deluxe Suburban was the second owner and had taken very good care of the Suburban, which he had apparently used as a good-weather car and part-time kid hauler. “He had a summer house there,” Romm noted. “He was Californian and wanted a car to drive around in with his grandchildren in the summertime.”

The second owner was also able to provide interesting information on where the Suburban had originally come from. He had some good documentation from the years he owned it, and even a wonderful photo of the original owners.

“I got a whole package of stuff with the car,” Romm says. “It was built in San Leandro, Calif., and bought new in Seattle by a couple, Melvin and Opal Clark, in 1952. I don’t think they had any children because they sent out a ‘birth certificate’ of the car for their friends, like they were having a baby. ‘Come over and see the new car.’ And there was an old snapshot of them taken with the car about 10 years later.

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“They must have used it for camping. There were snaps around windows … and an extra heater under the seat, I’m guessing for when it got cold when they were camping.” In addition, there is a thin metal bar across the ceiling the full width of the car, “probably for hanging clothes,” Romm surmises.  “The most intriguing thing is that there is about a 12 x 12-in. hole cut into the floor and a metal box welded in that is about 6 inches deep.  It is on the floor just behind the front seat on the driver’s side. It is covered with a metal plate and then the regular floor mat between the front and back seat. We can only surmise that this was a place where when camping, and taking a hike or a swim somewhere away from the car, they kept their valuables…wallet, watch, money, etc…. stored away where nobody would ever think to look.”

After the original owners died, the family sold it to a “middle man” type who then sold it to the owner in Friday Harbor.  “I got all the build sheets and registration tickets with it. It’s all kind of an interesting history,” Romm says.

Romm added that what attracted him most to the Plymouth was that it was a largely unmolested original. About the only thing close to restoration work that he could find on the Suburban was a very slight difference in the paint color on the front end. “I think the front must have been repainted at one point. In the right sunlight, you could tell there was just a slight difference.”

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That little anomaly didn’t matter after Romm suffered an unlucky mishap in a parking lot after he bought the car. “It was still in good shape, but somebody backed into it in a parking lot, so I decided to get the car repainted. That was only about six months ago. We painted it the same color.”

As far as Romm could tell, the paint was about the only thing on the car that isn’t original, other than the usual maintenance items. “We don’t have much rust out here, so the car stayed in pretty good shape. I’m sure the interior is all original. The front seat was worn on the driver’s side. We had the seat restuffed, but not reupholstered … The back seat looks fresh. The rest of the front seat looks fresh, too. The door panels were original. It was obvious the car had not been restored. The rubber floor mats look bad, but they are original. We have other mats over the top of the original because we don’t want to wear it out. Of course, these were bare-bones. They didn’t have carpeting. And I’ll tell you, it’s impossible to find a floor mat for that car. I’ve been trying for years.

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“It is curious in that it has a blue interior. I have the build sheet and all looks correct. My only feeling is that since it was the ‘bare bones’ model, I think there were only a few interiors offered, regardless of exterior color, or else there was factory ‘mistake!’ Nevertheless, it doesn’t clash with the maroon.”  

The Plymouth wasn’t completely without and bells and whistles, however. Romm proudly notes that it came with “five extras: armrest, heater, bumper guards, the guards on the doors, and turn signals.” At some point, the Suburban also received a dealer-installed radio.

“These were advertised as cheap,” he chuckles. “The Savoy was the upscale model.”

Farewell to the ‘woodie’

Ironically, the fact that Romm’s ’52 Plymouth is a low-cost model is probably one of the big reasons that it has stuck around this long. The Suburban was introduced in 1949 as a lower-cost, three-door, all-steel alternative to the more expensive woodie wagons already on the company menu. It was also one of the very few all-steel wagons offered by a U.S. manufacturer, and it helped signal the beginning of the end for wood-bodied haulers.

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The Suburban featured a modern “turn-the-key” ignition, three-speed column shifting (automatic shifting arrived in 1953) and two-row seating with room for five. You could fold the back seat flat to make room for more cargo, making it suitable for both commercial and people-moving duties. At the time, Plymouth used 118.5- and 111-inch wheelbases and the compact Suburban was built on the shorter of the two. Upholstery in the base Deluxe model was done in durable vinyl. Under the hood was a 217.8-cid L-head six-cylinder, Chrysler’s smallest power plant. It produced 97 hp and propelled four 6.70 x 15 Goodyear tires down the road.

In base form, the Suburban sold for $2,163. The upscale Savoy version was a whopping $124 more. Both were members of the bottom-tier Concord line in Plymouth’s hierarchy, one notch below the Cambridge and two rungs beneath the Cranbrook — neither of which, interestingly, offered a station wagon.

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The Suburban wagon carried on through the 1954 model year with few changes, other than the addition of an optional automatic transmission and a few annual styling updates. For 1955, Plymouth gave its cars a complete makeover with longer, lower bodies and a more modern look. The Suburban nameplate was part of the Plaza series, but was basically an entirely new vehicle. The Suburban moniker was dropped for good at Plymouth after the 1960 model year.   

Just ‘an honest car’

The previous owner had Romm’s Suburban for just three years and turned over the keys to Romm with 98,000 miles on the clock. It now has 110,000 and change, so he has not been shy about driving it. To make it more road-trip friendly, he’s added an overdrive transmission that he says has made voyages like his 600-mile round trip to Astoria, Ore., for a big Chrysler meet much more enjoyable.

“We have driven it as far as British Columbia (900 miles round trip), as well as driving it down from near Seattle where I purchased it. We were the lead tour car at the Regional Meet of our Chrysler Club last September,” Romm says. “It’s been very reliable. It has an electric fuel pump that the second owner installed and that fuel pump went out one time. That was the only time I’ve ever been stranded in it. I’ve also had the generator rebuilt and a few maintenance things. We’ve put about 11,000 miles on in 8 years,” he laughs. “Yeah, we drive it!”

Romm has had quite a few collector cars over the years, but insists the Suburban gets as much, or more, attention than any car he’s owned. Humble family vehicles from the postwar years seem to strike nostalgic chords with many car people, and Romm never has a shortage of folks commenting on his rugged old wagon.

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“A lot of people, especially older people and children of older people, remember riding in these,” he notes. “In those days, these were high-production automobiles, so people tend to identify with these.”

Romm insists that even though the old Plymouth is a camping veteran, he has no plans to take it to Yellowstone or any other campgrounds, for that matter. He does plan to have it in his garage for a long time, however.

“You know, my first collector car I ever bought — it was in really bad shape — was a 1946 [Chrysler] woodie Town and Country, and I still have it, but I’d probably sell that one before I’d sell this one. It’s probably the last car I’d ever sell. I liked it from the very beginning, kind of like it imprinted on me or something, I don’t know. It’s just an honest car, and there is just something special about it.”

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