The Plymouth Automobile
Joe Sherlock automobile blog
Rest In Peace

Plymouth Obituary: The Rise, Fall and Death of an Automobile Brand
(originally published 11/4/99)

On November 3, 1999, Jim Holden, President of the Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler, announced that the Plymouth brand would be discontinued at the end of the 2001 model year. On September 23, 1999, the Detroit News had carried an article which, in essence, said that the Plymouth brand was dead. A companion article was an obituary and eulogy for the Plymouth brand. At the time, DaimlerChrysler refused to comment on the articles - a sure sign, at the time, that the discontinuation was a done deal. (Ironically, Jim Holden himself was later 'discontinued' by DaimlerChrysler.)

The Germans at DaimlerChrysler have been busy cleaning house - changing business management. American executives have been bailing out (or have been tossed out) with retirement packages and the dealer organization has been indifferent to Plymouth's demise - after all, they can all just sell Dodge products instead. So ... no one at the factory or at the dealerships was left to champion the Plymouth brand.

The Germans didn't care about Plymouth's heritage (it had minimal presence in Europe) - and the Germans are the ones calling the shots. Thus, the death announcement came as a surprise to few. There's a sick little joke that's been going around Detroit: Question - "How do you pronounce 'DaimlerChrysler'?" Answer - "The 'Chrysler' is silent!" Here's another - when DaimlerChrysler killed Plymouth, they did a blasphemous thing. After all, Plymouth was the brand of automobile which God used to drive. It's in the bible: "... then God drove Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise in a Fury!"

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The Plymouth Breeze sedan will disappear, the Plymouth Voyager becomes a Chrysler Voyager, the entry-level Chrysler minivan, and you'll be buying a Dodge Neon rather than a Plymouth Neon. The Plymouth Prowler will become the Chrysler Prowler just as the original Plymouth PT Cruiser showcar evolved into a Chrysler brand when it reached production.

At New York's Madison Square Garden on June 7,1928, Walter P. Chrysler launched the Plymouth automobile, his entry into the low-priced class, an upstart competing head-to-head against the industry's biggest brands, Ford and Chevrolet. It was a sturdy and durable little car which attracted a legion of loyal owners.

"The new brand raced up through the sales charts, shoving Essex, Willys-Overland, and Buick out of the way, and by 1932, Plymouth was the third best-selling car in the USA, trailing only Ford and Chevrolet. And the Chrysler Corporation had become the final member of the Big Three."

"Mechanically based on Chrysler's Model 52 four-cylinder series, the first Plymouth was designated the Model Q and listed at $675-$735. The pricing was a little higher than Ford or Chevrolet, but Chrysler made sure buyers got a little more, offering a longer wheelbase and advanced features like full-pressure engine lubrication and four-wheel hydraulic brakes. The four-cylinder Silver Dome engine, inherited from the Chrysler 52 and descended from Maxwell, displaced 170 cubic inches and produced 45 horsepower."

In 1934, Walter P. Chrysler shakes hands with his company's Vice President, Bernard Edwin Hutchinson, as Hutchinson drives the one-millionth Plymouth off the production line.

Plymouth became one of the low-priced-three from Detroit and was usually #3 in sales, just behind Ford and Chevy. In good times, Plymouth sold almost 750,000 cars per year. Sometimes stodgy (think 1953 Cranbrook) ...

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... sometimes wild (those '57 fins), sometimes strategically brilliant (the 1960 Valiant compared with the Falcon and Corvair), sometimes crazy/goofy (the Roadrunner - beep, beep), sometimes race car (Richard Petty winning all those stock car races in a blue Road Runner in '73) and sometimes poorly made (too many model years to mention, although the name Volaré somehow comes to mind), Plymouth certainly had its moments. And created its own history and heritage.


In the 1960s, Chrysler began to re-position Dodge as a brand alternative to Plymouth, reducing the price spread between the two marques and offering low-priced, compact and intermediate-sized models with both Dodge and Plymouth badges. By 1982, Dodge was outselling Plymouth. Plymouth sales continued to decline relative to Dodge and, by 1990, offered no unique products. Ultimately, Plymouths became rebadged Dodges, except for the Prowler.

The 1998 Pronto Cruiser concept and 1999 PT retro-show car were initially branded as a Plymouths, then reappeared with Chrysler badges, hinting that Plymouth's end was near. By 1999, Plymouth sales were less than 300,000 per year.

In my 1997 business book, I detailed Plymouth's problems in a chapter called 'Lessons From Detroit' about automotive marketing fiascos (and how you could use these lessons to prevent marketing mistakes in your own business).

Some of Plymouth's automotive friends are also in poor health - there is a great deal of industry speculation regarding the possible demise of Oldsmobile. (On 12/12/00, GM announced that it was phasing out the Oldsmobile brand.)

Like Plymouth, Olds had its loyal fans but, in later years, lacked corporate sponsorship and direction. Same for Pontiac and Mercury.

As for Plymouth - farewell old friend. You had some great years, but it was sad to see you in your declining years. Rest in Peace - alongside your long-dead relatives, Maxwell and DeSoto.

Joseph M. Sherlock 11/4/99, (updated 12/12/00, 3/14/12 and 11/2/15)

Footnote 1: The very last Plymouth, a silver Neon, rolled off the line (without fanfare) at the DaimlerChrysler assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois on June 28, 2001.

The last Plymouth I ever drove (except for my '39 coupe), was a green Neon rental car in early 2000. It was underpowered, noisy and unimpressive. (permalink)

Footnote 2: On April 30, 2009, Chrysler declared bankruptcy.

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