The Artful Dodger from Plymouth
Return to News

The Artful Dodger from Plymouth

By JoeKenwright - 19 March 2013
The 1960 Dodge Phoenix was a critical full-sized addition to the ageing Chrysler Royal to compete with locally-assembled Ford Fairlane and Chevrolet Bel Air models. Local paint dictated by harsh local conditions did little to reproduce the glitter of the US versions. (Image from: Wikipedia)  

After Chrysler’s local arm hobbled into 1960 with an obsolete side-valve six cylinder model, a new and current US Dodge Phoenix revitalized the local range. This new Dodge was joined by the Valiant in 1962 to create one of the most vibrant model ranges seen in Australia at the time. Suddenly, a visit to local Chrysler showrooms carried some real anticipation and excitement.

Ironically, it was the failure of Chrysler’s US range that dictated a new Dodge range that not only turned US sales around but stimulated export markets as well. The catalyst for the Dodge Phoenix was the ailing De Soto arm and its withdrawal from production in November 1960.

Former De Soto-Plymouth dealers became Chrysler-Plymouth dealers, offering premium Chrysler models and a range of Plymouths to fill the gaps beneath. The first Valiant was presented as its own brand. Valiant was neither Plymouth nor Chrysler and promoted in a range of body styles and model levels through the Chrysler-Plymouth network as “Nobody’s Kid Brother”.

Its Chrysler branding in Australia and other export markets was legitimate. After all, it was a Valiant that you purchased from US Chrysler dealers. By 1961, it was badged as an entry Plymouth, Chrysler’s basement brand, and positioned as a cheap Plymouth compact. This had huge implications for Australia where it was about to be presented as a premium alternative to local rivals and share showrooms with the local Dodge Phoenix.

These changes also had a profound impact on US Dodge-Plymouth dealers who could not survive on a single premium full-sized Dodge model range after losing Plymouth to the new Chrysler-Plymouth network. The solution for 1960 was to create a new Dodge Dart based on the mid-range Plymouth Fury. The Dart Phoenix was the top level of this smaller model. The new Dart had a wheelbase of 118in/2987mm, significantly shorter than the premium 122in/3099mm long wheelbase Dodge Polara range that was way too big for Australia.

Reconciling the 1961 Phoenix with the more desirable restraint of the 1961 Chevrolet Bel Air also on offer in Australia was not easy. Again, in drab local colours with basic hubcaps on skinny local wheels and tyres, it lost something in the translation. Note the emphasis on imported when it was in fact locally assembled.


The Exner Era

The 1960 Dodge Dart Phoenix was packaged as the local Phoenix although some Chrysler experts suggest that these local cars started off as US base models then assembled to a local specification that had no US equivalent. Because it was still bigger than most 1950s US models sold in Australia and the local Chrysler Royal, it had enough presence to be considered a serious rival to local full-size Chevrolet and Ford offerings. In the US, it outsold bigger Dodges, accounting for 88 per cent of all Dodge sales. Dart sales then started to maul its 1960 Plymouth stablemate, which was quite ugly by comparison.

The Phoenix’s “Unibody” construction, push-button automatic transmission and torsion bar front suspension were all of interest to Australian buyers. They also provided a vital premium context to coming Valiants. The local Phoenix, with its big 318/5.2-litre V8 and lower centre of gravity presented as a tighter, more responsive long distance cruiser without the ‘yank tank” float.

As if to highlight its Plymouth origins, the local Phoenix had a RHD Plymouth dash that shared a family look with the final facelift of the local Chrysler Royal. Criticism of the vague steering and poor brakes would surface like a broken record for the next nine years.

The US 1961 Dodge Dart then sent sales into an instant 53 per cent tail spin, pun intended as its reverse-finned tail styling was part of the problem. The Dodge Lancer badge-engineered version of the Valiant was added to US Dodge showrooms, a development that would soon have an impact on Australian models. Not unexpectedly, flamboyant Chrysler’s chief stylist Virgil Exner was replaced by the no-frills ex-Ford man Elwood Engel, another major development that would change the face of Chryslers in Australia for the better. Yet local sales were quite steady despite a credit squeeze, drab local colours and poverty-pack exterior and cabin detailing.

If the 1962 US Dodge model range was a disaster in the US, it was a game changer for the Dodge Phoenix in Australia. A US Chrysler executive was so convinced that Chevrolet was about to downsize its range, all full-size Dodge models were cut back to the same 116in/2946mm wheelbase as the compact Fairlane. He had been suckered by leaks that GM was about to release a small Chevy range except no one told him that it was an entirely new Chevy II range and that it would be business as usual for the Bel Air and Impala.

The big cut in wheelbase of the 1962 Dodge Phoenix re-established the model as a performance leader as acknowledged by this 1962 Wheels road test. Although Australians loved the look of the R/S Series Valiant, the bigger Phoenix proportions changed the trans-Atlantic feel for yet another styling dead-end. (Image from: Wheels Road Tests No 5, 1962)

Although Dodge had to rush a separate long wheelbase Dodge Custom version of the premium Chrysler Newport onto the US market as 1962 US sales faltered, the shorter and lighter Dart was ideal for the local arm.

The 1962 Dart’s Exner styling not only aligned it with the first R and S-series Valiants, it more closely resembled these Valiants than the Plymouth version which worked in Australia’s favour. The local Phoenix version was a quick car with a top speed of over 170km/h and a standing 400 metres of 17 seconds.

Again, its highway handling was a strong point, the push button TorqueFlite was judged to be the very best of its type and the comprehensive dash similar to the Valiant’s, was a benchmark. A cut in fuel consumption was also welcome. For the first time in recent history, Chrysler was offering two very different but compatible current US models that offered the same distinctive styling, handling and performance advantages in two highly competitive local classes.

Not only was this a first for Chrysler, it was a first for the local industry. Ford would not reach this point until 1966-67 and it took until 1968 before all GM-H offerings shared the same generation exterior and cabin presentation. Kids around Australia had no trouble convincing their parents to stop at Chrysler showrooms to look at the wild new designs on offer. It was a golden period for Chrysler Australia and local buyers alike. By 1963 this was about to go into overdrive with the arrival of the first Engel Chryslers.

As this press shot highlights, the Dodge Phoenix had a big following in its home state of South Australia which in 1963 marked the start of the outback, a world away from US interstates. Although the new grille provided much needed continuity with the 1962 model, the 1963 Phoenix hit the spot in style and long distance capabilities. (Image from: Dodge Phoenix Facebook)


The Engel Era

Despite the local excitement created by the three Exner-era Dodge Phoenix models, there was no continuity in the styling of the 1960-62 models which was wreaking havoc with resale and making it difficult to establish a clear local identity. In a market dominated by rural owners who needed their cars to hold their value over the lean times, the evolutionary styling of 1960s Chevrolet and Ford models was a big advantage. For similar reasons, the US market had also tired of the Chrysler approach prompting the recruitment of Ford designer Elwood Engel.

The 1963 Valiant-based Dodge Lancer grew in size and became the new Dodge Dart compact. This allowed the previous Dart/Polara (Phoenix in Australia) to return to its original 1960 size but this time with a wheelbase boosted by an inch to 119 inch/3023mm. The Newport-based Dodge Custom continued as the premium long wheelbase model. With Engel’s crisp lines, the next Dodge 440/Polara-based Dodge Phoenix was a hit in Australia in 1963. Even if its rear profile bore a close resemblance to Engel’s 1962 Ford Galaxie, it looked fresh and new as that car had not been released in Australia.

Chrysler Australia in the meantime had re-styled the US Plymouth Valiant into the stand-alone AP5 Valiant for 1963. It emerged with a striking resemblance to the 1963 Dodge Phoenix inside and out.

The 1963 Dodge Phoenix featured the same unique RHD dash from the 1962 model. This had an even closer family resemblance to the AP5 Valiant dash, possibly because it was similar, but by no means the same, to the 1962 Dodge Lancer version of the Valiant.

Again, Chrysler could do no wrong with two competitive and quick stablemates that offered the same advantages in their respective classes including plush new interiors. The usual accolades applied to the 1963 Phoenix plus the increase in wheelbase improved its balance and rear legroom, both features valued by Australians.

This unrestored and original 1964 Dodge Phoenix, found in a remote corner of South Australia, highlights the enormous pride that owners had for their 1963-66 models. Local solid colours, although bland, held up well in scorching outback sun. (Image from: Ian Moorhouse)

The 1964 model was more of the same, with extra length, wider rear track and extra safety. The previous model’s carryover 1962 bumpers were replaced by far more substantial items sculptured around the simpler, more slender front.

Closer to the AP5 Valiant in appearance, it marked the point where Australians could again bring home a new American car that would impress neighbours with its clean, fresh design, luxury interior and exemplary road manners, providing you didn’t expect too much of the tiny drum brakes.

This shift in local expectations sparked by the trim 1961 Chevrolet and the 1962 Compact Fairlane, was so pronounced by 1964 that owning a “tank” Fairlane or a “batwing” Chevrolet would prompt others to question your judgement. Australia was still very conservative in 1964. The dramatic loss in used value of the 1959-60 US models plus the big boost in sales of US models as soon as they were toned down in looks, paint a very clear picture. The 1962 Phoenix tally of 648 sales rocketed to over a thousand in both 1963 and 1964.

Both locally and in the US, the 1964 Dodge was a steady seller, too successful in fact. Chrysler had to move quickly and arrest the decline of Plymouth which would have disappeared like De Soto, if the Valiant hadn’t kept it alive.

The solution was ingenious. It was now a given that such changes would also have a big impact on what was offered in Australia. Chrysler removed the 119inch/3022mm wheelbase Dodge 440/Polara platform from the Dodge range and handed it exclusively to Plymouth for 1965. The new Fury III was not only Plymouth’s biggest model ever physically, it had to restore some cachet to the Plymouth brand. This suited the Australian market just fine.

Lavish expanded vinyl trim and quality Australian carpet fitted to top-shelf local Valiant Regal models lifted the local Phoenix to another level. This 1966 interior was the first locally-assembled US model with front bucket seats, a bold move when so many US cars were purchased for their three-person front seat capacity.


The Plymouth Fury-based Dodge Phoenix

Because the 122inch/3098mm wheelbase Monaco became Dodge’s sole full-size 1965 model, the local Dodge Phoenix could no longer be a real Dodge. Apart from being too big for Australia, the Monaco also looked bland. That’s because Dodge was staking its US future on the compact Fairlane-sized Dodge Coronet. The Coronet would not only plug the gap left by the Polara but mount a formidable campaign against the popular Ford Fairlane compact and its new Chevelle rival from Chevrolet.

Helped along by the icon Coronet-based Charger, the Coronet boosted Dodge sales as Plymouth’s new Fury III based on the 1964 Dodge 440/Polara’s119inch/3023mm wheelbase prompted a dramatic two year Plymouth turnaround. At last, Chrysler’s divisions were not cannibalizing each other from within.

Engel had obviously seen where the 1965 Galaxie was headed before he left. The 1965 Plymouth Fury III not only arrived with a very similar profile and headlight treatment to the 1965 Galaxie, it also featured the recessed side panels of the first XK Falcon. For Australians, it was the perfect model to be rebadged as the 1965 Dodge Phoenix except the local arm boosted the local specification with a top shelf RHD version of the Dodge Monaco dash and the distinctive triple-eared wheel covers of upper 1965 Dodge models.

A new bolt-on separate front subframe to support the powertrain gave the engineers extra scope to isolate harshness and vibration. It was a class act that fitted nicely with the 1965 AP6 Valiant which was given styling aligned with the 1965 US Valiant.

This early shot of a 1966 Phoenix outside Como House in Melbourne highlights the formal and state duties often required of later Dodge Phoenix models. Engel’s restrained lines translated well to an Australian market that was as much European as American. (Image from: Dodge Phoenix Facebook)

The mild 1966 Plymouth Fury facelift with its neat styling changes front and rear that created a centre division similar to the AP6 grille created a particularly attractive and compatible Dodge Phoenix. Its lavish front bucket seats were a first for this type of vehicle in Australia. The usual accolades applied to the powertrain, handling and appointments but the criticism of the feeble drum brakes was becoming much more strident as more local cars were offered with disc brakes.

The US 1966 Plymouth Fury introduced a luxury VIP model but not here. The VIP badge and vinyl roof presentation previewed the local 1967 VE Valiant VIP that would provide stiff internal competition for the Dodge Phoenix and would ultimately replace it as the Chrysler by Chrysler.

For many Dodge Phoenix loyalists, the 1966 model marked the end of the sleek, ground hugging styling that defined the model from 1963. The 1967 Dodge Phoenix was another Plymouth Fury, essentially a 1966 model on the same wheelbase with bulked-up square sides and more extreme overhangs that prompted memories of the now discredited “yank tanks” of 1959-60.

Available in sedan and hardtop versions for the first time, a 383/6.3-litre V8 came with the hardtop, the first time anything bigger than a 318/5.2-litre was fitted to a local Dodge Phoenix. All this big new engine could do with each increase in weight and size was to maintain performance and use more fuel.

Assembly was moved from South Australia to the old Rootes facility in Port Melbourne, the most primitive car factory in the country with entrenched work practices. The Tonsley Park finish and quality that was a Dodge Phoenix high point, was a casualty in the move. The 1968 update was more of the same.

The sun-visor and weather shield fitted to this 1969 Dodge Phoenix highlighted the growing gap between Australian and US requirements. Rough rural roads had been steadily transformed into fast but narrow and winding black-top where the extra bulk of this Phoenix had become a liability.


The Land Barges

The all-new 1969 Plymouth Fury-based Dodge Phoenix arrived on a wheelbase stretched to 120in/3048mm with extra bulk all round. Its appearance was quite bland. Although the slightly curved sides broke up the slabbiness of the 1967-68 models, its acres of sheet metal without the finer detailing of equally big Chevrolet, Pontiac and Ford LTD rivals left it looking too much like the basement Plymouth land barge that it was.

Although vastly improved in almost every area, including new front disc brakes, its generic looks and wasteful packaging were also being challenged by appealing new mid-range local luxury cars. Not only was the local Ford Fairlane and Rambler Rebel staking a claim on the big US car class, Chrysler’s own VIP had grown considerably in size while prestige buyers were being offered brilliant new Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar models.

As sales slumped to just over a third of the Dodge Phoenix’s best annual tallies, Chrysler made a feature of individually numbering the 400 of each model that the market would absorb. Because the 1970 and 1971 Plymouth updates were only recognizable to a serious car spotter, the final Australian Phoenix from late 1971 had no chance against the new Chrysler by Chrysler and slick new Holden Statesman and Ford Fairlane models in 1972.

Even the lure of driving one of 400 limited editions was not enough to clear the last examples. Reliable sources recall that after production had to be suddenly abandoned, unopened crates of CKD kits were quickly dispersed through the local parts trade.

Others were stored along the banks of a Melbourne river prone to flooding. Reports of some being saturated or washed away suggest they may have at least recovered their insurance value. It was an ignominious end to a short but golden era for Chrysler in Australia. As for the Plymouth Fury, it was just one of many US models reflecting the excess and loss of direction that had infected the US industry by 1970, a decade after the last time.