Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hell Hath No (Plymouth) Fury

This period advertisement of a 1957 Plymouth convertible underscores the importance of designer Virgil Exner's Forward Look; it brought America into the rocket era of the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of John Gunnell Collection)
If you think the Plymouth looks good in gold, just imagine it in black; the slogan of the time was "Suddenly it's 1960!" (Photo courtesy of John Gunnell Collection)
You could get the 290-hp Fury high-performance package in any '57 Plymouth. (Photo courtesy of Ken Gross Archives)

Date posted: 08-19-2007

Poor, old Plymouth is long gone, dropped by the Chrysler lineup after 2001, but enthusiasts still value the high-performance versions of its long-dead cars, especially if their badges read 'Cuda, GTX, Road Runner or Superbird. From humble beginnings, Plymouth came a long way before things went bad.

Niceties aside, Plymouths were always considered basic transportation. They were prosaic, reliable and boring. Unfortunately, Dad really liked Plymouths.

We owned three in succession: a '50, a '53 and finally a '57. Although I learned to drive trundling up and down Phil McCarty's driveway in his '37 Ford coupe, my dad would always insist he taught me to drive in the family's '53 Plymouth Cranbrook. Its anemic 100-horsepower flathead-6 was incapable of coaxing any serious jitterbugging from the wallowing 3,193-pound rag top, and I longed for something faster.

Plymouth Gets a Little 300
There was no switching my dad from Plymouths, but as soon as I heard about the red-hot '56 Plymouth Fury, my campaign for a new car shifted into high gear.

Most people have forgotten that Plymouth offered its first performance model more than 50 years ago. The image-enhancing success of the '55 Chrysler C300 had inspired Chrysler management to order a "little 300" for each of its divisions. Dodge had the D-500, DeSoto had the flashy Adventurer and Plymouth retained the irrepressible Jim Wangers (who later gained fame as the promotional whiz behind Pontiac's GTO) to help launch its Fury Special 8.

Visitors to the Chicago auto show first saw the Fury in January 1956. Meanwhile in Daytona Beach, Florida, a factory-prepped Plymouth Fury piloted by Phil Walters (a factory driver for the Cunningham sports car team and widely known as "Ted Tappet" in midget racing) blew through the Flying Mile at a record-setting 124.01 mph. Even a stock Fury was capable of getting to 60 mph in about 9 seconds and would top out at 111 mph.

Styled with the "Forward Look" of Chrysler designer Virgil Exner, every Fury was an off-white Belvedere hardtop with gold-anodized exterior trim and a natty interior that featured eggshell-and-black cloth upholstery interwoven with metallic gold thread. Sounds tacky, but trust me, it was very sharp in 1956.

Optional Horsepower
For a nominal $500 premium over a base Belvedere, the Fury delivered heavy-duty driveline components, plus heavy-duty springs that lowered the ride height an inch and Oriflow dampers. Adding Chrysler's 331-cubic-inch all-iron Hemi to the relatively lightweight, 3,510-pound Fury would have created a monster that could blow off its bigger, pricier brethren from Mopar. This wouldn't do, so the Plymouth's 200-hp 276-cid V8 was replaced with a Canadian-built 240-hp, 303-cid V8 with polyspherical heads with 9.25:1 compression, solid lifters, a hot cam, a Carter four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts.

For $746.90 more, you could get an install-it-yourself package with two four-barrel carbs on an aluminum intake manifold, a hot cam, special tappets and performance air cleaners, all good for 270 hp. Other special equipment for the Fury included gold-anodized hubcaps and grille trim, 11-inch Dodge brakes with heavy-duty police-ready linings, performance tires on 5.5-inch rims and a Stewart-Warner tach with a 6,000-rpm redline.

A three-speed manual transmission was standard, but sticks were rare, even then; most buyers ordered the optional heavy-duty, push-button PowerFlite two-speed automatic, with buttons located on the left side of the dash, out of reach of the kids. You had to be careful, since there was no setting for Park.

National Brand
At the time, Plymouth was America's fourth best-selling nameplate. Thanks to considerable showroom traffic — and no directly competitive Chevy or Ford specialty models — some 4,485 examples of the Fury were sold in the model's first half year of production.

But none of them went to my family. I begged my dad to buy a new Fury. I even left a Plymouth brochure on his desk. But the Fury was not available as a convertible. And even with gasoline priced at 25 cents a gallon, Dad balked at the prospect of poor gas mileage, let alone spending a 25 percent premium on a hot motor. Instead we kept that pathetic little Cranbrook.

There were times (like dates with certain girls) when an old Ford just wouldn't cut it and a clean, late-model car with wide seats would come in handy, so I lobbied again to get my father to consider next year's Fury. The bigger, handsomely rebodied '57 Fury was really cool. For $2,900, you got torsion bar suspension and a 290-hp, 318-cid V8 with dual quads. Plymouth ads trumpeted, "Suddenly...it's 1960!" In 1957, Plymouth regained 3rd place in U.S. sales.

Of more interest to me, a hopped-up version (called Suddenly!, of course) with a bored-and-stroked 389-cid Chrysler Hemi ran in the experimental class at the NASCAR Speed Trials on the sands of Daytona Beach. Driven by Wally Parks (now the patron saint of the NHRA), the car averaged 159.89 mph, with a one-way run of over 166 mph.

At last, Plymouths were cool.

Coolness Comes to My House
We had to get a Fury. I begged, I pleaded, and one summer night, Dad came home with a brand-new '57 Plymouth.

It was a jet-black convertible with a lipstick-red interior, and its silver-anodized exterior trim gleamed in the late afternoon sun. It was finny and flashy, and much quicker than the prosaic Cranbrook. Unfortunately, our new car was lumbered with the 215-hp V8, a two-barrel Carter carb and single exhaust. Duals would only have been $19.80 extra, but Dad didn't go for them.

Thankfully, the rear bumper design concealed the fact that there was only one tailpipe. I drilled holes for the plaque for my hot rod club (the "Pipers") and occasionally hung it from the rear bumper with S-hooks and short chains.

Where's the Rust Remover?
Maybe I wasn't the only one captivated by the Plymouth Fury. A 1957 Plymouth made news recently when the city of Tulsa unearthed a soggy Belvedere hardtop, buried for half a century in what sadly turned out to be a leaky vault.

To everyone's sorrow, the pathetic Plymouth was revealed after weeks of hype as a rusty hulk. It seems virtually impossible to restore, but a company called Ultra One apparently would like to give it a try with its rust remover.

As for me, I still fantasize about driving a hot '57 Plymouth Fury, so I persistently check the classifieds. Nothing's come up yet. Dad's been gone now for 15 years, and gas is 10 times more expensive. There's got to be a Fury out there with my name on it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Little Heavy for acceleration (drag)racing on Florida blvd. but out on the airling with your best girl to lean over the front seat and roll those big back windows up, at close to 100 you were "rapidly closing the distance on either a Ford or Chevy most time (all stock and with the Mayflowers 200 hp powerpack)but It being magnificent,still a Desoto adventurer in gold and white would make me sigh.