Though some parts of the country might be burrowing out of blizzards, it’ll be soon migration season for a particular type of bird. Spring equinox is less than a month away. Soon that special bird of automobile, the vintage convertible, will find its way back into ever-increasing sunlight. This seems like the perfect time to tell the story of a rather rare and odd bird.
Chrysler convertibles in the days before they dominated rental fleets were rare birds indeed. The focus on stout engineering and solid workmanship that once upon a time was a consistent calling card of Chrysler products applied better to sedate sedans and conservative coupes. It’s not that convertibles in general have dominated sales of any particular model since mass-market closed cars have been available; but Chrysler moved perhaps even fewer fresh air fun time machines than most brands.
One thread that might have limited the appeal of Chrysler Convertibles in the classic era was cost. The prestige of owning a Buick convertible in 1955 would cost you only $2,590 before you larded on the options. At $2,812, a Windsor Deluxe was a bit more dear, and for a less prestigious prestige nameplate.
Due to slow sales, Chrysler basically gave up on the entry level convertible for one or two (there’s conflicting data to what I can find) seasons.Perhaps this decision gave DeSoto more breathing room to offer a variety of models as the squeeze in the Highland Park hierarchy of brands mirrored or foreshadowed the same loss of hierarchy with competitive General Motors brands. In the recession-inspired 1959 lineup, however, the access point to open air Chrysler luxury once again became less dear.
By 1961, there wasn’t a need to worry about DeSoto. That brand would bite the dust before the clock struck midnight ushering in 1961. Ever worried about increasing their sales and market share, Chrysler made sure that this section of the market was properly covered.
Enter the Newport; no longer a designation for hardtop coupes and sedans, but a new frugal way to get you into the batty-eyed 1961 Chrysler and all its goodies.
In reality, a Newport was the virtual twin of the model-nameless last DeSoto. The Newport, however, had more models to choose from and a less funky grille arrangement. When it was clear that the Newport would be more profitable as being the attention grabbing “under $3,000” Chrysler, the DeSoto was taken behind the barn and put out of its misery.
In the process, Chrysler gained a far more closely aligned competitive model with the latest basic full-sized Buick, the LeSabre. For the extra $55 over a LeSabre, the Newport did offer 15 more horsepower over its 361 cube V8. Granted, you had to fork over more money to get the splendid Torqueflite; the Buick made Turbine Drive standard for full size models in 1961.
However, the virtues of a Mopar product still stood as selling points. The Torqueflite still ruled the roost as perhaps the finest automatic transmission available in American cars in 1961. The brilliant transmission was coupled with a still more firmly tuned torsion-bar suspension and a rather robust V8. For those in the know who prized that athletic verve in their American Dream on wheels, the engineering geekiness of Chrysler products still shone brightly. Fewer of the quality bugaboos that had plagued Chryslers throughout the late 50’s were present in these cut-rate chariots as well.
The elephant in the room, even when discussing the Newport’s relative success, is the “Virgil Exner in the twilight of his career” styling. His ideas graced (or degraded, depending on your interpretation) the solid engineering of not just Chrysler, but all of Highland Park’s offerings in 1961. The choices Exner and his team made in designing their early 1960’s confections have long been called into question of whether they represent any modicum of good taste, or rather represented the first version of Mars Attacks. I guess by that logic, the 1962 line-up was the more horrifying sequel.
I’m going out on a limb here, but when viewed from the side (and the formality of the convertible top helps) the 1961 Chrysler just ain’t that bad. Sure, it’s clinging desperately to a Sputnik inspired “sky rocket in flight” look. It doesn’t express with clarity the pure dart shape that ranks among the best of the Forward Look cars. It’s not particularly clumsy either. In actuality it seems that some of the crispness of the reactionary 1959 GM products, notably Buick, had a modicum of influence in sharpening up some of the softened edges that were always present in the Forward Look bodies.
In each successive remodel, it was the irony that the solution to keeping the basic purity of those ’57 Vintage design cues up to date was to slather them with more weighty chrome, General Motors style. The 1961 Chrysler, especially in basic Newport trim, showed a refreshing return to the less gaudy gilding of lilies.
The controversy truly centers around that funny face. I’ve come up with a number of design theories about it previously. I do have to say that in my years of having these odd birds flock to me from all over the Bay Area, I’ve definitely softened to the oddness of the 1961-62 Chrysler face. It’s not as fear-inducing as the 1961 Plymouth face, nor does it seem like as much of a cop out after running out of ideas as the 1961 Dodge face.
In reality, Exner and the ’61 Chryslers weren’t too far from where the leading luxury brand was in 1961. It would take a while for the influence of restraint offered by the 1961 Lincoln Continental to take root among a number of brands. Chrysler more than likely was just as much in the weeds around how to transition from 1950’s flamboyance to newfound 1960’s elegance as were any number of brands.
Unlike the failed Mega-Lincoln experiment over in Dearborn, the Forward Look Chrysler cars at least had design leadership going for them before the target shifted.
Therein lies the truth that moving to the head of the class leaves you blind to what your classmates will do to succeed in becoming a star pupil once again. Chrysler was actually quicker to shed the shame of their Fifties past. The 1962 plucked the finned feathers out of the rump and is, surprisingly, less sculpted and more slab sided than the 1962 Cadillac.
Although the efforts helped shore up Chrysler sales, they didn’t result in much in the way of convertible sales.
Just over 2,100 Newport convertibles found buyers for 1961, compared with over 11,000 LeSabre Convertibles that same year. It should come as no surprise that Chrysler was quicker to drop convertibles than their main domestic rival as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. However, the lure of an open-air Chrysler proved to be far too strong to stay away for too long. Chrysler did return to the convertible market first, and stuck with offering one or more entries in the field most persistently in the last 30+ years of the automotive industry.
As Spring arrives, and it appears Chrysler has given up on this market once again, we take in this swan with the funny face and hope, at some point, Chrysler remembers tradition and offers us an open-air delight sometime in the near future.