By on January 1, 2010

fins in SF

I could spend three life-times finding Curbside Classics on the streets of San Francisco. Last time here, before I started this series, I found a running Fiat 600 Multipla parked on the street. Does that give you a fair idea of the potential? On the other hand, I get annoyed by the city’s traffic and parking, so I don’t spend anymore time then necessary there. But on New Year’s Eve morning, we bopped into an almost dead town for some time at Fort Mason and the waterfront. I wasn’t really looking to shoot anything, but then there it was, sitting in front of a purple building. For a moment, I thought I might have found a very elusive ’57 model, but until that appears somewhere, this ’58 will do, quite well.

greetings from sf

I’ll be honest: I don’t have the time to do a proper write-up on the groundbreaking ’57 predecessor to this car right now, while my hosts sit in the other room and dinner is almost ready. So it’s just as well that its a ’58; we’ll save it for later, and just dig this bat-winged wonder.

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The basic story is pretty well known: Chrysler was getting hurt in the early fifties for its stodgy, boxy styling. They hired the flamboyant Virgil Exner to turn things around, which started to come to fruition with the ’55 models and, and hit its zenith with the “Suddenly It’s 1960” models for ’57. These were radically low, long and wide for their time, and caught GM with their pants down. The illustrious ’59 GM models are a direct response to Exner’s ’57s.

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Chrysler suffered the same fate in ’57 that Studebaker did in 1953 with its radical new cars: abysmal build quality. The ’57s were notorious leakers, from all quarters. Rust followed in short order. Chrysler’s long-cultivated rep for superior build quality was washed away.

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The ’58s were a distinct improvement, but sales took a huge hit, a combination of the problematic ’57s and the recession of 1958. Chrysler suffered for years, until its (short lived) renaissance in the mid-late sixties.

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Dinner is almost ready, and I need to load up these pictures; so maybe some of you will fill in any details I left out. But I needed to share this bitching Plymouth stat; so here it is, and a Happy New Year of Curbside Classicking with you all! Your comments and support are my inspiration; thank you for helping me to have the funnest year in a long time. I’m the luckiest guy around: I get to live out my childhood fantasy of gazing at old cars and ruminating on them. Thank you all, and I’ve got even more goodies in store for 2010!

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35 Comments on “Curbside Classic New Year’s Greetings From San Francisco Edition: 1958 Plymouth...”

  • avatar

    Wow.  Not an attractive automobile, IMO.  I guess it looked good in its day.

    • 0 avatar
      Jerry Sutherland

      I truly believe that you have to put that comment in perspective-they scared the hell out of Harley Earl (the man behind the iconic 57 Chevy) at the time.
      Build and metal quality were issues-styling was not.They had a lower, wider stance that made the other cars look like 4×4 trucks.
      Had it not been for the dip in quality, these finned monsters would have dominated in 58 because they were a lot faster than Ford or Chevy plus  the torsion bar suspension spanked anything domestically built… and gave European cars a scare or two.

  • avatar

    Paul, so glad to see that holidays, absence of internet, dinner hosts and other impediments don’t hold you back from sharing your rumunations!  I look forward to each installment, and this has become my fave TTAC feature.  Happy 2010 to you and your family.

  • avatar

    I think it’s beautiful, though overdone.  (BUT I LOVE OVERDONE!)  Squint a little, imagine it with all the windows tinted to the legal limits of your state.  (FYI in NM it would be limo black on all the windows behind the B pillar and 80% light transmission for driver and passenger.)  Put a well applied coat of paint in a dark smoky gray on it, who cares about restoring the interior as long as the spring isn’t poking you in the butt.  Polish up the bright work, keep the original hubcaps but change those tires to either wide whitewalls or blackwall.  Now that would be one bad machine.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I have always thought that the ’58 DeSoto was one of the best ever.

  • avatar

    I agree with Educatordan about beautiful but overdone. But other Xlers of this era are better. I think my favorite in this style is the ’59 Imperial. The ’58 or ’59 Dodge was also a pretty hot looking, mean looking car.
    But as to why ’57s are scarce, and why ’58s probably are, too, they were POSes. We had a ’57, in fact, I learned to shift gears on it, when I was nine, and it had a monster clutch. Boy did I make that thing buck. And at 4 yrs old, you could see the road through the floor, and it was badly rotted out above the headlights and below the doors. Also needed a rebuilt engine about that time.
    And yet, it handled distinctly better than our ’57 Chevy, and was more powerful. (both sixes.) Anyway, thanks for the memories.

    • 0 avatar

      I thought the ’58s were heavier but curb weight looks to be around 3500 lbs.

      Still, the base 230 six-cylinder only had 132hp (and that’s the old, SAE gross rating) with 205 ft-lbs of torque to motivate one of those behemoths. I guess a manual would be able to get underway by its own power, but imagine trying to merge at today’s highway speeds with a 2-speed PowerFlite automatic version and a six.

      Of course, I suppose as the body rusted away and the car got lighter as it shed that pesky metal weight, acceleration improved…

  • avatar

    “Christine” just doesn’t look right in white.

  • avatar

    Pity it isn’t sporting the choral pink/grey/white tri-tone livery.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The driveshaft kept falling out  of  my  buddies ’58 . The car was a freebie in ’66

  • avatar

    San Francisco, eh?  This is a very good argument against the legalization of drugs.  I’m a very laid back guy, and usually not bothered by much at all.  But looking at this grotesque abomination of automotive design makes me want to go out, severely hurt something, and then plead temporary insanity when arrested.

  • avatar

    From the looks of the rust popping through the paint, this car doesn’t have much longer to live, short of the owner doing a full restoration. In southeastern Massachusetts, there’s a cab company founded by veterans called “Vets’ Safe-T-Cab”. I remember one driver mentioning the company dodged a bullet by buying a fleet of  ’56 Belvederes, and avoiding all the problems that came with the ’57-’59 models. If they’d bought the later models, they might not still be in business.  They were still using the ’56 models in the mid-60’s.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Actually, this type of rust is very slow in developing and progressing, as it’s not the result of water/salt trapped in behind the metal, but from the paint wearing away. This is the equivalent of basal cell skin cancer, not deadly melanoma.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    Paul, thanks for the effort you put into CCs. The photos are fun, but what sets apart this feature is the quality of your articles. You have a nuanced historical sensibility. That draws readers with thoughtful comments. I also appreciate your genial responses to feedback. Just the right touch.

    When I think about what a late-1950s, “step-down” Hudson might have looked like, the 1957 Chryslers come closest to mind. These were easily the most innovative designs of that period. Chrysler had confidence in those days, e.g., it was the only America automaker to buck the silly trend toward “dog leg” A-pillars.

    It’s not as easily appreciated now as it was then, but the shift to lower, wider bodies in the late 50s was the single biggest design change of the post-war period. At least in the popular price classes, Chrysler was the first to offer such low cowls. The Imperial’s basic platform was so advanced (e.g., the first American car with curved side windows) that it was used through 1966.

    Too bad build quality was initially so bad. Chrysler didn’t learn from Packard’s debacle in 1955.

    • 0 avatar

      Unfortunately, given the long lead times in automotive design and development, Packard would have had to have had to committed their sin at least 5-10 years earlier. 

      And doubly unfortunate, given the hubris and NIH (not invented here) syndrome endemic to Detroit (my hometown) Chrysler may not have seen itself as capable of committing the same blunder and thus become capable of committing  it in their own operations.

      And so it goes…

  • avatar
    buzz phillips

    This car appears to be a spring edition “Silver Special” and is not labeled in  the Plaza, Savoy or Belvedere series.  It might have a 318 V8 and push butt0n “Powerflite”.

  • avatar

    Iirc, this car has the “spring special” trim on it. This was a little bit of extra side trim that the dealers could install on low-line cars that were still around the place late in the model year to help get them out the door. I note that it’s a V8 automatic – can’t tell if it’s Powerflite or Torqueflite, can’t see the pushbuttons.
    This car doesn’t show the rustout over the headlights and in the rocker panels that these cars were prone to; the only visible rust is surface rust due to the abysmal quality of the white paint that was used that year. Notice how nice the gray paint on the top looks?
    Again, it’s had the same California plates on it since they were issued in 1963.
    If you want to see another ’58 on the other end of the model spectrum, here’s a pic or two of the convertible I owned for over thirty years. I sold it in 1998, and the pics were taken a year or two before that. All the paint and trim was original; seats were recovered in the original pattern.

  • avatar

    Well this brings back memories.  I was 9, and my grandmother bought this car for my mom  who could not afford a car, deciding against getting a 57 Ford or Chevy.  I wanted the Ford or Chevy.  The Plymouth we got was a two door, dark gray paint, and I thought it was totally ugly.  The rust over the headlights in the picture rings true, as does rust elsewhere.  We got the car repainted and it rusted again.  Finally, after the car began to become unreliable, we got a 1963 Dart which was a  great car by comparison.  The pictures of this Plymouth bring back a lot of bad memories of how I felt about that design as a kid.  I see that my opinion has not changed at all.  Still, a great find and nostalgic trip back in time.

  • avatar
    also Tom

    I forget the model names but as has already been pointed out, that’s an entry level model. However, if memory serves, the top-of-the-line version wasn’t much better looking and the ’58  model year was a distinct disappointment after the ’57, both being completely out uglied by the ’59. Perhaps the epitome of going down the wrong path design wise was the ’61 Dodge, a prime example of which my dad brought home one day much to my horror.

  • avatar

    My aunt bought a new ’57 Savoy 4-door similar to the one pictured, except it was red with a white roof.  Great looking car for the times, but I remember it gave her a lot of trouble (I was too young to remember the details).  So much so that she ditched Mopar for good and replaced it with a ’59 Chevy Bel Air sedan (like the one the IIHS crashed, except it was all white).

    The six in her Plymouth was the ancient flathead; all attention by then was lavished on the V8s.  She also had the push-button automatic transmission.

    Our next-door neighbor at the time was a loyal Chrysler man and would trade every 2 or 3 years.  He had a ’58 Belvedere sedan in that same shade of gray as in the pictured example, as I recall.

    I think the best-looking finned Chryslers of the era were the ’57-’58 Chryslers, followed by the DeSotos of the same years.  They had the most graceful fins.

  • avatar

    OTOH guys, this thing is 52 years old. I don’t care how well built you think your present rides are, do you think they will get this old?

  • avatar

    Those who are ragging on the car’s styling are not looking at it next to either a 58 Ford or a 58 Chevy.  I will grant you that that springtime Silver Special trim plastered on the lower part of the body is not the most attractive, but the 58 Plymouth was substantially longer, lower, wider and cleaner than anything else in its class.  Remember that 1958 was an industry-wide year of baroque excess, but the MoPars were the cleanest and least chrome-festooned of the batch.
    I once owned a 59 Fury sedan.  I have always wondered what they were thinking when they designed those rear view mirrors.  The inside mirror was mounted on the dash, not hung from the top of the windshield.  If anyone was sitting in one of the middle seats (front or back) all you could see was your passenger, and nothing out behind the car.  Then there were the side mirrors.  My 59 had one on either side (the right side was even remote controlled) but they were out on the front fenders and viewed through the windshield, not through the side glass.  The result was a really, really narrow field of vision.  Many times did I grumble about having three rear view mirrors, and not being able to see a blessed thing out of any of them.
    And Jerry Southerland is right about the handling on these cars.  Everything else out of detroit in those years leaned hard in corners, and nosedived big time under heavy braking (Fords in particular).  The MoPars with front torsion bars and rear leaves (with the axle mounted not in the middle, but 2/3 of the way forward on the spring) provided both an unmatched ride quality and unbeatable handling.  It is a testament that the same system remained largely competitive into the 70s (although Chrysler softened the spring and torsion bar rates in 66 in an effort to improve the ride).

    Check out this 3 part comparison road test of 1958 mid-priced cars, narrated by Tom McCahill. I am sure that this was bankrolled by Chrysler and played to the Mopar strengths, but still . . .

    I still remember my 59 as being my all-time favorite in the way it drove.  There was something about that car that fit me perfectly, from the position and thickness of the steering wheel to the taut suspension that made the car feel ten years newer than it was.  But you are right that they are rare cars- after 57, they did not sell well, and they rusted terribly.

  • avatar

    UH – the 1958 Fords and the 1958 Chevrolets were MUCH better looking than this thing.

    Longer, lower, wider? You wouldn’t know it by that nasty front end design treatment! The back fenders don’t even try to blend into the beltline. Instead they hump up into witches’ hat tail lights with exclamation point lighting. NASTY!

    Plymouths this year look bad. This ugly design only gets topped in 1961 for the most hideous Plymouths produced.

    Edsels looked better than this!

  • avatar

    ’58 Plymouth hardtops looked better than this sedan, but to my eyes the only good-looking 1958 Chevy was the Corvette.

  • avatar
    also Tom

    Juniper, I feel your pain!  Moments like that are hard to forget.

  • avatar

    My Grandpop had his 57 faded lime green in NJ. Had hole in floor passenger rear big enough to fall through. I remember riding in it in the late 60’s. Told us not to put our feet through the hole andt and would get really upset if we put any part of our body outside the car. Not sure what happend to it but I don’t think he ever had a car less than 20 years.

  • avatar

    This is indeed a 1958 Silver Special. I own a rust-free 2-door Silver Special. It was a spring marketing special from the factory, not dealer tack on trim. It cost $1958 in 1958 and it was based off the low line Plaza 2 and 4 door sedans. It is actually a pretty rare car. It consisted of the unique trim that included the “Forward Look” emblems on the fin instead of the model name (Plaza, Savoy, Belvedere, or Fury). The side trim that ran from the rear bumper forward to the front of the door then back toward the rear tire was unique in the fact that it kicked back upward to the upper trim instead of down to the rocker like optional Savoy trim. Mine has metal diamond plate trim inside the enclosed area. Don’t know if they all did, but I think so.
    The upper trim that ran from the headlights to the middle of the door was unique to the Silver Special as were the stamped metal front fender top spears. the roof was painted silver as were the wheels that used higher line hubcaps.
    The gold V in the grille indicates it had a V8. Mine is a 318 “poly” motor which referred to the polyspherical combustion chambers. These are different than the more recent 318 engine of the 60’s and 70’s. The flathead straight 6 engine was identified by a stylized Plymouth ship emblem in the grille.

    • 0 avatar

      Hello, all–just joined this site. Was intrigued by this thread:

      The Standard Catalog of American Cars describes the ’58 Silver Special as follows:

      “In the spring, a special Silver Savoy Special was marketed. It was a club sedan with special ‘Sport Toning’ front door and fender spears, metallic silver roof and wheels, turn signals, electric wipers and washers, and a price tag that matched the model year. It sold for $1,958,”

      The first car I owned was a ’57 Belvedere 4-door HT w/301 c.i. V8, given to me by my dad in 1962. It was the worst piece of garbage ever. After months of poor starting, we did a compression test: no compression in two cylinders, no more than 50 psi in the remainder. The PowerFlite trans leaked fluid directly onto the exhaust pipe, leaving a trail of thick white smoke behind. The ball joints collapsed while I was driving (luckily not fast), and a torsion bar cracked while it was parked, dropping the left front side to the ground. My next car, a ’57 VW bought in ’63, was close to the best car I ever owned–the quintessence of simplicity, quality and reliability. So much for “Suddenly it’s 1960.”

  • avatar

    Also, the hubcaps on this car are correct, as is the roof paint.
    This looks like an unmolested complete original survivor of a very rare car.

  • avatar

    It has since been painted. It ia all original with only 85K original miles. It is a numbers matching car. How do I know all this…I just bought this car over the weekend. I am planning to clean up and redo the interior as well as some minor mechanical. Long term who knows….
    I think these cars are either “love it or hate it”. Personally ever since I watched “Christine” I can’t get enough of them and am happy to own this one.

  • avatar

    Well its been about a year so I thought I would update. Still have the car. It’s had the bumpers straightened and rechromed. The interior has been completely done. New cocker wide white walls and suspension work. Everything on the car works and its nice driver/weekend show quality.
    Out of all my toys this one seems to get the most attention and compliments…
    If I could download some pics I would but don’t see any option too.
    I absolutely love this car and could never see selling it!
    Gotta love the classics!!

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