Walter P. Chrysler once said "buying Dodge was one of the soundest acts of my life. I say sincerely that nothing we have done for the organization compares with that transaction." He might also have added "if Dodge was first, then my second-soundest act would be creating Plymouth." The deal to buy Dodge from the bankers that had earlier purchased it from three Detroit businessmen was signed late in the afternoon of July 31, 1928. That same year the first Plymouth came off the line, as did the first DeSoto.
Both brands were in the works before Chrysler purchased Dodge but Walter P. quickly recognised their value. The low-price Plymouth and the higher-price DeSoto would help him follow the same step-up-a-class marketing system that Alfred P. Sloan had created for General Motors. Plymouth would go against Chevrolet, while DeSoto would compete with Pontiac and GM's Oakland brand. Dodge provided mid-price cars and Chryslers were targeted at the upper level of the market.
Plymouth was a handsome car, too, the styling enhanced by a slender-profile radiator, bowl-shaped headlamps and crowned fenders. Under the hood was a high-compression four-cylinder Silver Dome engine.
Though Plymouth was advertised as a "cheap" car it included features not normally available in others of this class. It was the first low-price car to offer four-wheel hydraulic brakes, full pressure engine lubrication instead of the splash system, lightweight aluminum alloy pistons, a hand brake independent of the service brakes and an optional oil filter. It was priced between $670 and $725. By May, 1929, the company was turning out some 1000 Plymouths a day. In spite of the depression, by 1933 production of the Plymouth had reached a quarter million and it, together with Chrysler's branding methodology and clever engineering, is credited with helping the corporation survive the dark days of the 1930s.
Chrysler was the last major automaker to introduce all-new cars after WW2, with a launch date in 1949. Boxy and with high rooflines (by order of chairman Walter K. T. Keller, who insisted they allow room for men wearing hats) the new Chrysler products weren't as sleek and sexy as the competition but the conservative styling worked well for low-price Plymouth, which debuted its first all-steel station wagon.
The brand (they weren't called brands in those years, that term being better suited to breakfast cereals) went on to achieve some glory in muscle cars with the Superbird and was also used to debut Chrysler's involvement in compacts by way of the Valiant. Years later it became a major player in Lee Iaocca's K-Car survival plan; indeed, the Plymouth Reliant represented a return to the car's original values. Sadly Walter P. Chrysler's second-best act became the victim of an incompetent management and no longer exists.
Never a glamour name in the car world, older Plymouths seldom attract much attention at auction but if I were a collector I'd buy one of those early cars, for they represent what North Americans have always admired: affordable, reliable family transportation backed by clever engineering.
A more complete history of Plymouth's early days can be seen by clicking here.