By on June 23, 2009

Did I hear someone ask “How about more capsule reviews such as a 1930 Ford Model A where 0-60 is measured with an hourglass?” At Curbside Classic we aim to please; I’m on it. And although I didn’t rustle up a Model A within 24 hours, I came pretty close: a 1936 Plymouth. The only problem is that the Plymouth never did make it to sixty.

I’m sure back in its prime, sixty wouldn’t have been any problem. And given its (then) 82 horsepower, and a fairly healthy power-to-weight ratio of 34 lb/hp, the “sprint” to sixty would have been better timed with an egg timer than an hourglass. To put that in perspective, a certain big proud premium-brand American car in the mid seventies had a worse power-to-weight ratio than that (don’t ask which one; it’s a future CC).

But this car is feeling its age, which after almost three-quarters of a century of use and abuse, it deserves to. Would you put the spurs to your arthritic great-grandmother? Yet it’s still in use as a daily driver, which is how I came to find and drive it.

I’ve seen the distinctive water-fall grille at a distance in traffic repeatedly this past year or so, but couldn’t quite catch it going my way. But the other day I saw it duck into an alley, and after my light changed, I prowled and found it parked behind a bar, next to a McDonald’s. And the apparent driver turned out to be a dog.

I caught up with “Dozer’s” owner, who turned out to be the only mechanic I’ve ever had to take my old ’66 F-100 to, for a problem that was to messy for me to fix. And when I hit him up for a drive, he swallowed hard, and said sure. I found out after we got back that no one else has ever taken it out of a parking lot before. Thanks, Jeff! You’re a trusting soul.

I’m sure it’s not his car he cared as much about as it was the other participants in the game we call traffic. This Plymouth is exactly the kind of car you would only take to a German or Japanese vehicle inspection in your worst nightmare. The brake master cylinder leaks, the clutch clutches, the steering has more play than a pre-school, the shocks shock, etc. In other words, it’s exactly the perfect vehicle for a fiercely independent mechanic to drive to his favorite watering hole with his dog after a day fixing anything and everything that can be pushed up to his door.

The first impression upon sliding in the front seat: it feels mighty familiar. The front compartment dimensions are practically a dead ringer for an old VW Beetle. Standard-size American cars had a long hood, and lots of rear-seat leg-room, but the narrowness and contours of the body were no bigger than a VW. Well, the Beetle was considered “full size” in its day (in Europe), and both cars were designed around the same time.

Step one: the starting drill. Pull choke fully out, spread right foot on and beyond the gas pedal to also hit the floor-mounted starter button when foot is mashed down. Push choke mostly back in on the first sound of ignition, lest engine be flooded. Simultaneously ease off the starter and flutter the gas. With a six-volt battery, you don’t get many chances. I nail it on the first try, which seems to visibly ease the tension in Jeff’s face, and the 201 cubic inch flat-head six quickly settles into a smooth, chuffing idle.

The floor shift three-speed also feels familiar; it has all the directness and un-subtlety of the Farmall I drove in my childhood, although it does ostensibly have syncromesh on second and third. We’ll skip (literally) the current state of the clutch.

With 4.11 gears in the rear end, and a very tired engine that didn’t like to rev much past 3,000 rpm in its youth, the Plymouth lets you know it likes to be shifted very early, and that it lost its taste for higher speeds many decades ago. At forty-five, it feels composed and unstrained. Perfect for ambling along an Oregon country road on a beautiful early-summer day, with the windshield cocked open to blow away the crankcase fumes streaming in through the porous firewall and floorboards. Just keep me the hell away from a freeway, the Plymouth murmurs unceasingly back to me.

Oh, that and curves too. The steering is a lot stiffer than I had imagined. And it just doesn’t like to change directions. Maybe the front-end geometry has become obtuse with time, but the Plymouth makes my manual-steering Ford pickup feel downright sporty.

But who could possibly be in a hurry to get anywhere in this patina-rich time capsule? Zero to sixty? The Plymouth was already twenty years old before that concept was first invented. Let the hourglass run out; I could happily amble along at forty five with the smell of fresh-cut hay mixed with crankcase blow-by for hours on end.

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23 Comments on “Curbside Classics Review: 1936 Plymouth...”


  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    Ahhhhh. The best low priced car in the world in 1936. The Fords were faster. The Chevrolet (and the Ford too, that year) was better looking. But the old Plymouth flathead was darned near indestructible. None of the burned valves of the Chevies, none of the cooling system ills of the Ford flathead.

    Designed by Walter Chrysler’s ace engineering triumverate of Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer, these cars were as good as you could buy for the money. Dodges, DeSotos and Chryslers were a little bigger and a bit more powerful, but the Plymouth buyer got most of the great engineering at a minimum price. IIRC, Plymouths (all Chrysler products, actually) had among the best resale value in the industry in the 30s and 40s. How times change.

    I once drove a 36 that was for sale in my area. My most lasting impression was that while those old 30s cars may look like they have the structural integrity of Fort Knox, they are actually a little willowy. They are not built for modern traffic, with their tractor-like handling and brakes that are better on deserted country roads. But for a cruise around the town square or a run at 45 mph on a county highway, these old Plymouths were good all day long.

  • avatar
    brickthick

    It really warms my heart to see a 1936 Plymouth make it to the Curbside Classics. I was really hoping that I would be the first to offer up mine for a review, once the restoration is completed, but I’m more than happy to see one make it. Any chance you could tell us where you found it?

  • avatar
    vb9594

    Neat car made even better by the fact that there is a Boxer sitting in the front seat. My Boxer would most definitely approve!

  • avatar
    86er

    The only problem is that the Plymouth never did make it to sixty.

    Sheesh, my grandpa had a ’55 Plymouth (with the 6) that shook like a Mexican space shuttle at 60 mph.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Hydraulic brakes? Automatic spark advance? Even syncromesh! Goldurnit, a fancy modern car like a’36 Plymouth just spoils a driver with all those high-tech conveniences.

    But I loved the article. That Plymouth was a great car in its time and place. And thanks for giving us more photos.

  • avatar
    Commodore P

    Thanks for posting this, Paul.

    My wife’s grandfather’s first car was a 1935 Plymouth coupe, pictured here outside their home.

    Her grandfather turns 90 this August and still works six days a week. He drives a Prius these days and hypermiles in rural southwest Michigan. Anybody know of a ’35 Plymouth coupe owner near Kalamazoo or Battle Creek who’d be open to giving Grandpa a spin on his birthday? Or have suggestions for finding same outside of TTAC? Thanks.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    brickthick, All the Curbside Classics are found randomly parked on the streets (or parking lots) of Eugene. Which is why you won’t be seeing all those perfectly restored garage/trailer queens here. We loves patina!

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    That Plymouth sounds like even more fun to drive (and start). For your next trick, try starting the engine on a hill. I’ve got a 58 Chevy truck with the stovebolt 6 and “3 on the tree.” The steering’s a little squirrely, braking requires planning, and top speed if you don’t want to destroy the engine is limited to 60 mph. It also has no radio, no AC, and no cup holders to distract you from the primary task at hand, driving, and I wouldn’t trade it for a new Porsche Cayman PDK. The smells and sounds of that old truck (and I’m sure the Plymouth) is part of the enjoyment.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    This reminds me of my 51 Ford stock flathead V-8
    in the late 60s. It would settle in nicely on the freeway at 55, but howl in protest if I took it up to 60. That’s just the way main stream vehicles used to be.

    • 0 avatar

      Sorry Juniper, with due respect, this is the voice of experience. While in the US Navy in 1951-55, I happened to buy a 1950 Ford stock flathead V-8. I drove Rt 17 from Norfolk to Winchester most weekends. That black beauty never howled back at me once for doing 60 and one night I was curious and the needle hit 91. Floating a little but Steady as she goes.
      I eventually put twin pipes on her and drove her until 1965 when I bought a 1956 Model, my first OHV V-8. Thanks for the memories.

  • avatar
    charleywhiskey

    That’s the car that carried Mom, Dad, my sister and me all the way back from Florida to Minnesota at the end of WWII when Dad’s service ended. Same color; may even be the very same car. Except for Dad, we all got carsick every day as we rolled, pitched and swayed on the way home. I’ll never forget the smell of that car; dusty sagging headliner, gasoline fumes and baby barf. Mom worried that my little sister might fall out while underway, should one of the back doors open accidentally, which they were prone to do, so Dad rigged up a cable connecting both rear doors so that neither could be opened until he unhooked the cable from the front seat. When we got home, Dad put his name on a waiting list for a new car and when it finally arrived, he quickly sold the old green Plymouth to one of several people who had already expressed interest and were ready with cash. There was a real shortage of cars in those days. Not at all like today.

  • avatar

    The photos with the boxer are absolutely spectacular. the dog’s expression and coloring go so well with the car. What luck to have the dog in the car. (Although if this were France, the dog would be allowed in the bar with its owner.) Love the patina. Commodore, great shot of your wife’s grandparents with their car.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    Now that I see what it is, I feel worse for not guessing the year right, since I owned the 1935 Dodge version once. On the other hand, that was in 1958 – it was the second car I owned.

    Being a fancy Dodge instead of a plebeian Plymouth, my car had an automatic choke. Combine that with the 6-volt electrics and the six-foot-long ground cable to the battery under the driver’s seat, and you’ll know that starting it cold was always a bit chancy. It had its original paint – shiny black lacquer on the body and dull black enamel on the fenders.

    I thought it handled okay, but I was comparing it with my first car, a 1947 Chevy with no front shocks, and my old man’s 1950 Packard, so what did I know? The most memorable experience with it was on the way home from a keg party when one of my passengers took it into his head to climb out the window onto the running board and wave at passers-by while we were still going down the road.

  • avatar
    NickR

    That grille kicks ass.

    I love people who still use these for daily drivers. There is an older gentlemen in my neighbourhood who’s daily driver is a Model A. He resolutely pulls into Toronto rush hour traffic and toots along.

    Funny thing, all the comments about cars of this era maxing out at 55-60 mph. Most daily drivers now can easily do twice that, but their owners stand as much chance of seeing 60-plus mph as the original owner of this Plymouth did.

  • avatar
    oldyak

    sweet!
    Thanks!

  • avatar
    Andy D

    My father drove a Dodge weapons carrier in the ETO. When he got home, his first car was a used Plymouth of similar vintage.

  • avatar

    vb9594,

    Agreed. As someone who grew up with boxers in the house, they’re the greatest big dogs ever. They’re adorable, whether they’re a puppy or full-grown.

  • avatar

    I would guess that a healthy, broken-in ’36 Plymouth would be good for 75-80 mph flat out, but with the short gears, it was not at all happy with sustained speeds above 55 or so. Its power-to-weight ratio was actually very similar to a Ford V8 of the time, so 0-60 would probably be in the vicinity of 17-18 seconds.

    Some Plymouths of that era had a taller 3.70 axle, which is a bit more sluggish in acceleration, but a lot happier at 60-65 mph cruising speeds. I don’t think Plymouth offered overdrive at that point, which would have been a good compromise.

    If you scoff at the significance of its hydraulic brakes, note that Plymouth had them from the beginning (1928), while even Cadillac and Packard didn’t adopt them until 1936 and 1937, respectively. Henry Ford was deeply suspicious of “juice” brakes, and he held out until 1939! For the era, the Plymouth had excellent brakes.

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    My first car was a 1938 DeSoto. It was a POS when it rolled off the assembly line and was much the worse when I bought it for $80 in 1951. Mercifully a tire blew out on the way to work and it ambled off into a ditch. Now walking, a senior citizen observing the event wanted to know if the POS was for sale. $50 and the POS was his. I’m amazed of the respect given trash of the Depression. They look great in a museum and that’s where they belong.

  • avatar
    IronEagle

    Man nothing is obscure here! Great thread guys!

  • avatar
    Bocatrip

    My dad took me out in his 35 black 4dr Plymouth when I was 13, I could swear that we drove a steady 70mph on the Belt Pkway in Brooklyn, NY. I remember the front windshield had a manual crank to open it from the bottom out. It was super comfortable, and a very smooth engine. I loved that back seat……….could have had a party back there.

  • avatar

    @Bocatrip
    The Belt is narrow, and even now it’s a bit twisty. Hard to imagine driving anything from the ’30s–with all the play in the wheel they had then–on the Belt at 70. Even if it was 60, that must have been a hell of a ride!

  • avatar
    jcate

    I had a 36 Plymouth in 1968 and drove it back and forth to college from Northern Wis. to Southern Wis for many years. It was the best car I ever owned. 55 MPH was just fine, loved the opening windshield. I’m just now in the process of buying another 36, this time a coupe. Lots more than my first one at $350 w/ 36,000 miles in 1968. but what the heck, you only live once!!! The Plymouths were years ahead of the Fords of the 30′s. Plymouth always had hydraulic brakes from 1928 on. The flathead six was simpler and smoother than the flathead eight ford and had about the same horsepower. I can’t wait for my new 36 to get here!!!


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