By on April 16, 2009

This is the very car that inspired “Curbside Classics.” I’ve been admiring its blocky solidity for ten years, whenever its owner and I happen to workout at the Y simultaneously. I can count on its reassuring, unchanging presence at least a couple of times a month (an anchor of constancy in this turbulent world). And you can’t get much more anchor-like than this cast-iron 1951 Plymouth Cranbrook. But anchors sink, and this car began Plymouth’s long dive into the deep blue.

Chrysler products of this vintage developed a rep early on for their build quality. But the Plymouth wasn’t just solid; it was also stolid. And that’s not what folks were looking for in 1951 (or pretty much anytime). After almost a full decade with few new models, Americans after WWII were more than ready for a little excitement. They wanted sleek, and low. Ford and GM delivered; Chrysler . . . not so much.

Ironic too, since Chrysler’s meteoric rise in the twenties was in good part to their handsome looks. And when Chrysler boldly launched the attractive low-price Plymouth brand in 1928, it was an instant hit. Within three years, Plymouth captured the number three sales spot behind Chevrolet and Ford. That was no mean feat considering the dozens of brands competing back then—think China 2009.

And Plymouth stayed a solid number three for over twenty years. But after Walter Chrysler died in 1940, the baton was handed to K.T. Keller. Chrysler styling now . . . wasn’t. “Cars should accommodate people rather than the far-out ideas of designers,” Keller said. Was he referring to Harley Earl and his GM Motorama dream-mobiles? The fedora-wearing Chrysler prez dictated that the all-new ’49 Chrysler products accommodate hat wearers, with room to spare: “the styling won’t knock your hat off, but neither will getting in one of our cars.”

The result is self evident. Abe Lincoln in his stovepipe hat would feel at ease in this tall-boy. Well, the stovepipe-hat-wearing market was small, if non-existent. But the market for anything new was huge. Americans’ pent-up appetite for new wheels in 1949 created the biggest seller’s market ever. And the stodgy un-Dodge sold well enough.

That is, until the market caught up. In 1951, Plymouth moved 600,000 fedora-mobiles. But the unchanged 1952 model crashed, down by a third. And by 1954, Plymouth tumbled out of the bronze. There was a brief return after 1957 with the dramatic Virgil Exner-styled “Suddenly it’s 1960” models. But after two more cameo appearances in 1971 and 1974, Plymouth’s days on the low rung of the winner’s podium was over.

Plymouth had developed a reputation for dullness and styling stodginess (or quirkiness in some years, like 1962) that it could never quite shake, despite some good efforts along the way. A rep it took all the way to its grave.

But this original Cranbrook is far from its final resting place. At the rate it’s aging, it’s got another sixty years in it easy—before it needs a restoration. And, ironically enough, its proportions actually look more contemporary today than they did in the low-slung sixties. Tall boxy cars and crossovers are in, the benefits in seating comfort rediscovered. Keller was ahead of his time. Didn’t I read somewhere that fedoras are in again, too?

Sitting in one of these old tanks is a joy. Driving one . . . well, you have to change hat and mindset to 1951. Or even 1933. That’s the year the Plymouth’s 218 cubic inch flathead six first saw the light of day. These long-stroke (4.38″) chuffers deliver a gentle but steady dose of torque, right from idle speed (max. 175 lb·ft @ 1200 rpm—I wasn’t exaggerating). Just the ticket for chugging around town and not sweating the not-fully-synchronized three-speed tranny.

On the highway, these gentle whales are happiest at a pre-interstate system 55 or 60 mph. The advertised horsepower was 97 gross @ 3600 rpm—maybe 85 horses in today’s net rating.  That might take you up to an equivalent number of miles an hour. But you wouldn’t want to. Everything wants to happen slowly, like the unassisted steering, and gently, like the brakes. And the word “handling” hadn’t entered Detroit’s dictionary yet.

This car brings back a raft of memories. They were ubiquitous in Iowa back in the early sixties. Ironically, I hated them then for their durability. They were a blot on the carscape, which in my mind should have consisted of nothing but dazzling 1960 Pontiac Star Chiefs and the like.

But on one of my hitchhikes, in 1974, I got a ride in one of these, right through a blizzard. Everyone else was stuck or off the road. The already elderly Plymouth didn’t have enough power to spin its wheels and just chugged on through. Right into a special place in my heart.

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28 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1951 Plymouth...”


  • avatar
    paris-dakar

    I love that car. A Plymouth Volvo. Were the seats reupholstered?

  • avatar
    GS650G

    When cars had style and distinction. Today we have piles and extinction.

  • avatar
    TRL

    All I can remeber from driving my brothers almost identical car is that you could not kill it no matter how hard you tried. With foot planted on the floor, downhill with a strong tail wind I don’t think it was possible to get engine revs up to anything close to 3,000 RPM. Made my Chevy Blue Flame feel like some high reving Alfa or something. At 57 years of age this thing probably isn’t at it’s half life yet.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    GS650G, what a great line! Ha.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Remember the Holden Effigy concept? Wouldn’t that have made an awesome Malibu?

    Wouldn’t reinvention of this have made an awesome Sebring?

  • avatar
    geeber

    Very nice article.

    Interestingly, in 1940 Plymouth almost knocked Ford out of second place. But it was the 1940 Ford that would become the classic.

    And the 1957 Plymouth stole many sales from that year’s Chevrolet, and sent shock waves through GM’s styling studios. But it was the Chevrolet that became the classic.

    When I was growing up, a 30-something gentleman in my grandmother’s neighborhood who was sort of the local “handyman” drove a gray 1951 Plymouth four-door sedan. It really stood out in the mid-1970s. He kept it in immaculate shape. I wonder what happened to that car.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    A college buddy had a ’49 4-door very similar to this that had a split manifold and dual pipes…what a cool-sounding car that was. He lost it on the way back from seeing a friend in Missouri; looked down to light a cigarette, and wandered into the oncoming lane.

    Another friend had a 51 Chrysler 6 – essentially the same car with a bit longer hood – it had a beautiful leather and red plaid Highlander interior, and a drive train even less able to hurt itself because of the Fluid Drive transmission. He did finally manage to do in the engine though, and the car ended up on top of the stack at the local boneyard with mold growing on the flannel seats.

    I know from personal experience that those cars are stout. In 1967 I t-boned an old fart driving one who made a left turn in front of me, and it cost me about $800 to fix the 67 Beetle. (plus the split lip where I bounced off the steering wheel, seatbelt or no.) It just dented his door and fender, and he drove it home.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    And, ironically enough, its proportions actually look more contemporary today than they did in the low-slung sixties.

    It’s not just the proportions, but the aerodynamics. The low-slung cars that followed weren’t quite as slippery as their predecessors, certainly because stylists has started to take precedence over engineering.

    Have a look at some of the Saabs (which were designed in a wind tunnel by aircraft engineers) of the same era and you’ll see a shape akin to this Plymouth’s: no wind-catching surfaces on the front and a sloping tail to reduce drag. You could do this car today, without the kind of compromises that retro-throwbacks like the Mustanamaroallnger require.

  • avatar

    Those early ’50s Plymouths were very durable. Unlike the cooler looking jobs from the later ’50s. By the time I was 4, hated them. We’d moved from Seattle to Boston for the year, and we’d bought a beautiful new Chevy 210 station wagon, but whenever we went to the mountains in New Hampshire that winter, we had to go in Marshall Schulman’s (probably ’51) Plymouth, “because Marshall has snow tires!” my mother would say, chirpilly. We didn’t have them because we were supposed to be going back to Seattle the next year, where chains sufficed since it hardly ever snowed.

    How I hated riding in that thing. It wasn’t just the stolid exterior. It was all that dark cloth inside. The Chevy’s vinyl felt much more modern. I’m stretching an analogy here, but it was like the difference btween the stuff you’d find at MOMA and typical 19th century American.

    I dont know whether the following contributed to my distaste for the Plymouth, but Marshall had young children like me, and his wife had died. I think that probably spooked me.

    Thanks for another great trip down memory lane.

  • avatar

    @Geeber

    I don’t know about the ’40 Ply, can’t conjure it up in my head, but the ’41 was a real beauty. Of course, so was the ’40 Ford.

  • avatar

    “the word “handling” hadn’t entered Detroit’s dictionary yet.”

    Never has for that matter.

    Great write-up Paul.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    A friend had a nearly identical 51 Dodge in the late 80s. Same car, but with Fluid Drive – a fluid coupling between the engine and transmission. For city traffic, just put it in second (with the clutch) then drive it like an automatic with one gear. The torquey old flathead six would even go from a stop in 3d gear, but slowly.

    I believe that it was either 50 or 51 that Lee Petty started winning NASCAR races in a Plymouth. Pedal to the floor and steer, all the way around the track. When the big heavy Chryslers, Lincolns and Hudsons were pitting for fuel and tires, the little Plymouth just kept putting around the track at around 97 mph and winning races. Then Petty would drive it home.

    I read years ago that The bolt-upright styling on those cars was the result of market research. When asked what kind of car would you like to buy next, those taking the surveys said the logical things like “bigger inside, smaller outside, sensible, more economical” and so on. Chrysler built scads of them and and got drubbed. (K T Keller’s other quote was “We build cars to sit in, not to pee over.” Most people forget that Chrysler was No. 2 of the big 3 all thru the 30s, 40s and into the early 50s. The next survey Chrysler took asked “What kind of car will your neighbor buy next time?” The respnses came back that the neighbor would buy something longer, lower, more flashy and powerful. Then came Virgil Exner, who saw to it that Chrysler built cars for the neighbors.

    Every time I hear modern Chrysler commercials touting the highest quality cars in their history, I do two things. First, I think of these late 40s-early 50s models. Second, I think unkind thoughts about the honesty of the PR department.

  • avatar
    baaron

    Excellent article Paul. Keep them coming.

    My dad’s 1950 Dodge is in the driveway waiting for a restoration. Your story makes me want to start wrenching on it.

  • avatar
    red60r

    My family had maroon 1948, a sea-green 1951, and a red-and-beige 1955 (V8!) Plymouth wagons. The first two each had 2 doors, the last, 4. Each made round trips, pre-Interstate, from Chicago to Idaho. I still remember the middle one roaring into a gas station in western Nebraska, smoke billowing from under the hood. When opened, there was a pillar of flame from the top of the engine to the raised hood, courtesy of the oil-bath air cleaner falling off the carb at highway speed. The station crew were waiting with fire extinguishers since we were visible for several minutes before we arrived. No real damage, just excitement. I also had a blue 1954 wagon, at least two previous owners and to-the moon mileage, that somehow managed to self-motivate even with two broken rings and a holed piston. The goop spewing from the crankcase vent (PCV? HAH!) completely buried the distributor, yet the flathead six kept on churning, sorta.

  • avatar
    skor

    For a vry long time, Chrysler had a rep for building boring bullet proof cars. Remember the slant 6? Years ago, I recall reading an article in Hot Rod Magazine titled, “The Slant 6, The Thing that Wouldn’t Die.”

    Today Chrysler has a rep for building boring junk.

  • avatar
    relton

    My father loved Plymouths like these. The best was the 53 model. He had a Cranbrook, 4 dr. The 53 was even shorter than the 51, and had the same interior room.

    When I was a kid I thought these cars were really dorky. I still do.

    Bob

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    What gear ratio do these cars have? I know it’s not recommended that I take my 58 Chevy over 60 mph due to the high rev’s (for a 50’s era engine that’s 2,500 to 3,000 rpm) required.

  • avatar
    Rev Junkie

    So you’re saying Plymouth in 1951 was Toyota in…every year.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Wonderful article, Paul.

  • avatar
    ronhawk62

    I bought a 52 Plymouth when I was in high school for the grand total of $30.00. It was painted red with white racing stripes running from front to back. I put Ford wheels on it with 8:50X14 on the back and smaller tires on the front for the cool hot rod look.It was slow and the brakes weren’t worth a crap, but I had fun with it until I moved on up to a 57 Ford Ranch Wagon.

  • avatar
    NickR

    Small thing but…are those door handles not totally cool?

  • avatar
    ern35

    I can vividly recall one of the ‘well turned out’ dudes in high school driving a shiny light blue 1953 DeSoto 4-door sedan in ’54. Among its various ivory-coloured interior accents was the colour of the steering wheel. The massive grill of the car pretty well encompassed the entire front. Now that was an impressive ‘cool’ car!

  • avatar

    @Skor

    Chrysler did really well on reliability in the early ’50s, slipped badly in the mid to late ’50s (my parents’ 57 Plymouth was rusted out after 4 years, such that you could have pulled a Flintstone, and had to have an engine rebuild before 5 years), and then went back up in the ’60s to where they were much better than Ford or GM.

  • avatar
    billiam59

    Yes, great work, Paul. As the co-owner of this car, I’m especially grateful. Only need a fedora.

    To answer paris-dakar’s question: yes, the seats were reupholstered not long ago by Stan’s: real craftsmen.

  • avatar
    straycat

    I own a 51 Cranbrook. I drove it out of a barn in north Ga after it had sat for 10 years. 30k original miles, and it is my daily driver.Truth be told, it is slow as hell. I orderd a borg warner overdrive for it which should bring my top speed from 60 to around 80 mph. Not to mention, there is an aftermarket performance market for these. Headers, dual carb intakes, the whole bit. This is the quietest car i have ever owned. My wifes newer model honda has more noise comming from the engine compartment than my Cranbrook does. Very forgiving and resilient vehicles.

  • avatar
    RiverPanzer4

    love the Review Paul

    if you get a chance to do one on a 52 dodge kingsway custom PLEASE DO Because i own one and am restoring it and would love to know some stats like top speed and other stuff like that

    -Ryan-

  • avatar
    jbelway

    I just wanted to add something to your wonderful write up on these cars. I have personally owned 3 of these, one was a ’51 like the one in your photos and 2 ’52s. I guess you would have to restore a ’51 to know this and I find it really funny how many of these cars I have seen in pictures that have the front hood emblem upside down. I didn’t know mine was until I came across a New Old Stock center piece, which is the plastic insert. Over time these inserts fade so badly that the symbols are no longer legible, so when the car gets a paint job the whole emblem is installed the way it looks like it should go, upside down. An interesting note is that the new insert has in it an Indian in a head dress offering a sheave of grain to the new arrivals of the Plymouth ship from England.

  • avatar
    EZF12

    I owned a 1941 Special Deluxe Plymouth and a 1951 Plymouth Cranbrook. Apparently the 41 had seen much use during WWII when new cars were not being built. The engine had piston slap which led to piston ring failure. When I disassembled the engine the rings came out in pieces. After many miles, the 51 engine failed in the same manner. Piston slap and engine oil blowby. The bottom of the car was covered by oil. Another common problem was the transmission falling out of third gear while coasting. I had a MOPAR rebuilt engine installed in the 51 and drove it quite a few more miles before selling it and buying a new 1959 Volvo P544.


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