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Tailfin Twilight: 1961 Chrysler New Yorker

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posted by A. Kwanten alias Cargolex on Tuesday 24th of November 2015 07:03:06 AM

The fall of 1954 marked the arrival of the very new, very different Chrysler Corporation products of 1955. For twenty years, since the marketing failure of the streamlined Airflow in the mid-thirties, Chrysler had played it strictly conservative when it came to style. The Chryslers of the forties were solid machines but often dowdy and tall, and while the competition go lower, longer and wider, Chryslers stayed tall and boxy. This call came to an abrupt end in 1955, when Virgil Exner's new "Forward Look" suddenly made Chrysler stylistically relevant. That the cars were also powerful and good to drive didn't hurt. After many years in the wilderness, Chrysler Corporation cars became desirable in ways beyond utilitarian value and solidity. The second iteration of the Forward Look, which arrived for 1957, saw the debut of a spectacularly stylish line of sleek, long cars with soaring fins and elegant, clean lines. The marketing copy said "Suddenly it's 1960!" - and in many ways, this wasn't too far off. In 1957 Chrysler became the de facto style leader of the biggest auto industry in the world - and demand for the Corporation's products soared. Soared so much that the factories couldn't keep up with demand, and cut many corners trying to get the cars out of the door. Sales would drop precipitously in 1958 as reports of rusty six month old cars and quality problems surfaced, and Chrysler would be stuck with a reputation for rust for years. But on the eve of the '57s triumph, Exner had a massive heart attack - and for some time, it wasn't known whether he would survive. In the end, he was out of the office for almost half a year. It was in this period that major design work was underway for the successors to the second-wave "Forward Look" cars. The actual cars of 1960. Much of the work for the 1960 and 1961 cars was done by the time Exner returned, and the cars were essentially a continuation of the earlier themes. Fins were bigger, details were more ornamental, and classical motifs - maybe the first time retro touches had been applied to car design - began to appear. The 1960 Chryslers were now unibody machines - lighter, stronger, and more solid than before - and the corporation went to great lengths to ensure the cars stayed free from corrosion. But what had looked shockingly fresh in 1955 and 1957 did not look as new in 1960. After the 1959 GM designs, 1960's forms from GM and Ford were far more restrained, and tailfins were already on the wane. By the end of the year a new car would steal Chrysler's thunder - the understated, elegant 1961 Lincoln - which perfectly translated "international style" architecture and industrial design into an Automobile. These factors didn't help Chrysler - whose cars now looked alot more like 1958 and 1959 than 1961 - and the corporation as a whole was going through some troubled times - repercussions from 1958 and from some long-term miscues. Chrysler brand sales increased considerably in 1961, but that was mainly due to the introduction of the lower-priced Newport. This car effectively replaced the DeSoto, which was cancelled in November of 1960 after years of decline. It was also priced in direct competition with Dodge's Polara - the Newport cost marginally less - which was hurt by the new, very similar lower-priced Chrysler. After Exner had returned from his convalescence, he and his staff began working on the 1962 models. For Chryslers, this meant that the fins were clipped and some of the curves on the bodysides were eliminated, for a more slab-sided look that came without major mechanical change. There wasn't much time to do anything more, because for Plymouth and Dodge, 1962 spelled disaster. In the spring of 1960, Chrysler's then-new President William Newberg, protege of former President Tex Colbert - who had become Chairman of Chrysler's board, overheard a GM executive at a party talking about what would become the 1962 Chevy II. He mistakenly believed that GM was going to downsize the entire Chevrolet line for 1962, and forced major revisions to Exner's 1962 designs so that they, too, could be downsized. With no investigation about whether this was actually going to happen, Newberg ordered a hugely expensive crash program to downsize the 1962 Dodges and Plymouths. The new style ideas that Exner had created - increasingly ornate forms at odds with the prevailing trends towards slab-sided smoothness - sat unhappily on these smaller cars, and in the end, they were a sales disaster. Newberg had by then been ousted due to conflicts of interest - chiefly owning lots of stock in some Chrysler suppliers. The scandal eventually also brought down Colbert, who was likely guilty of nothing other than trusting Newberg. In the end, Exner took the blame for the downsized '62s, though he hadn't agreed with or liked the decision. And with his departure, the "Forward Look" era ended as abruptly as it had begun. ©2015 A. Kwanten.

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  • Published 05.26.22
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