Monday, January 7, 2008

Last of the wild-style Dodges

CLASSICS | But Polara, Matador found few buyers

The 1960-61 Dodge Polara/Matador was one of the last wildly styled domestic cars, which had been popular in the more exuberant 1950s.

Chrysler Corp. design chief Virgil Exner was responsible for the best-styled 1957 cars, which had clean, sweeping, exquisite lines that were so good they frightened former styling leader General Motors.

However, Exner came up with some zoomy looking Chrysler Corp. models for the early 1960s, such as the 1960 Polara and similar Matador with their soaring, cantilevered tail fins. Such fins were pretty much out of fashion by then, although the 1960 Cadillac had mild fins.

Not that early 1960s Chrysler Corp. models were bad cars. They had great engines and the automaker's "TorqueFlite,'' which was the world's best automatic transmission. Tight, solid unibody construction was used instead of the usual body-on-frame construction.

The Polara and Matador, which looked virtually identical, lacked the solid quality of Chrysler Corp.'s pre-1957 Dodge, Plymouth, Chrysler and DeSoto autos, but quality topped that of the 1957-59 models. (DeSoto was dropped after 1961, but Plymouth lasted until the 2002 model year.)

The severe 1958 recession cut into the market for wild-looking cars and led many folks to lower-cost economy-oriented cars for several years. They even bought small, low-cost foreign cars that Detroit had scoffed at. The new, low-priced 1960-61 Dodge Dart thus accounted for most Dodge sales in the early 1960s.

The full-size 1960 Polara and its lower-line Matador version consequently were pretty much stuck in left field. Both had a long 122-inch wheelbase shared with Chryslers and DeSotos, compared with 118 for the Dart.

However, the 1960 Polara/Matador turned heads. It had an aggressive grille, nice sculptured lines, distinctive fins and pod-like "rocket-tube'' taillights jutting from below the fins. Chrome, stainless or aluminum trim dazzled the eye.

The dashboard was no less jazzy. It had one of the most original instrument clusters ever designed, with a wide translucent speedometer and pushbuttons for climate control functions and the automatic transmission.

Despite its Buck Rogers appearance, the dashboard's speedometer, gauges, pushbuttons and clock were conveniently placed in front of the driver. The car's panoramic windshield and oversized rear window gave the interior a very airy feel and excellent driver visibility.

There also were optional swiveling front seats for easier entry and exit, and even power seat controls had a Space Age design. A unique option was a "Highway Hi Fi'' record player.

The Polara/Matador had excellent roadability. Chrysler Corp.'s "Torsion Aire'' torsion bar suspension provided handling that full-size cars from other domestic automakers just couldn't match.

Powering the Polara/Matador were stout engines that delivered strong performance. A 361-cubic-inch V-8 with 295 horsepower was standard for the Matador. The Polara had a standard 383-cubic-inch V-8 with 325 horsepower. A 330-horsepower "383'' V-8 was optional for the Polara, and both 383-cubic-inch V-8s were optional for the Matador.

A three-speed manual gearbox was standard, but most Polaras and Matadors were bought with the optional two-speed "PowerFlite'' or crisp-shifting three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmissions.

The Matador was sold as a coupe, sedan or station wagon, while the Polara came as a coupe, sedan, convertible and as a pillarless station wagon, with no center body posts. In fact, the sportiest Polara/Matador coupes and sedans also had no center body pillars.

Despite their pizzazz, the Polara/Matador accounted for only 12 percent of 1960 Dodge sales because people now favored more conservative designs. The Polara found 16,728 buyers, and Matador sales totaled 27,908 units.

The Matador version was dropped for 1961, leaving the Polara with six coupe, sedan, convertible and wagon models.

The 1961 Polara got a new front end with a concave grille with a large starlike emblem and four nifty integral headlights. The car's back end was rather extraordinary. It had "reverse fins'' that peaked above the wheels and then tapered down around pod-like taillights to form an ellipse with a lower-body creaseline.

It's amazing that Dodge could put such an elaborate back end on a production auto, instead of on just a hand-built auto show concept car.

The standard Polara engine now was a 361-cubic-inch V-8 with 265 horsepower, but optional was a 383-cubic-inch V-8 with 325 horsepower -- or 330 horsepower with tuned "Ram-Induction'' manifolding.

Despite everything, the 1961 Polara's production was low again, with only 14,032 built. The lower-cost, more conventionally styled, rival 1961 Mercury full-size model sold better, and large Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac models had attractive conventional new styling that helped their sales.

Low sales of the Polara/Matador means few have survived. After a year or so, they were just another "used car'' -- not something special that most owners would cherish or keep in prime condition.

A 1960 and 1961 Polara or Matador two-door pillarless coupe in top shape is valued at $14,700, while a 1960 Polara convertible is worth $17,500. A 1961 Polara coupe is at $12,950, while a convertible is worth $15,400.

Those are low amounts in the collector car market for fast, flashy 1960s models with eye-catching styling. It's hard to believe that they once were considered nothing very special.

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