Chrysler may be #3 in Detroit, but their fans are #1. Their fervor for all things Pentastar is legion, and they are used to being first on race day (with apologies to Ford). So where do like-minded Mopar fans go to appreciate what Highland Park and Auburn Hills has given them? They visit Carlisle, Pennsylvania, home of the largest automotive events in America.
And if you found yourself near this Harrisburg hamlet on July 6 – 8, 2012, you would have been surrounded by people peddling Six Pack manifolds, flaunting Forward Look fins, and honking their “Beep-Beep” horns. The Carlisle Chrysler Nationals is all this and more.
Chrysler has a proud history of engineering excellence – a core competency that almost killed them. Starting in 1924, they were the first mass production car to offer four-wheel hydraulic brakes and pioneered rubber engine mounts. But in 1933, with the introduction of the aerodynamic Airflow, the brand found itself in dire straits as Depression-era America wasn’t ready for such a futuristic car. The upside was Chrysler was #2 behind GM by 1936, no doubt buoyed by Plymouth. Ford caught up by 1949, the year Chrysler redesigned all its brands and ended up looking dowdy compared to the competition. The 1951 HEMI reinforced Chrysler’s modus operandi of engineering excellence, but it wasn’t until 1955 that their cars started to be lookers. And in 1957, Virgil Exner’s designs took the breath away from the industry, stealing the design helm from GM.
However, success was a double-edged sword as Chrysler vehicles from that era had horrendous quality control. A move to unibody construction and the 5/50 warranty was supposed to turn things around, but goofy styling and downsized full-size cars didn’t help. Chrysler wasn’t the same after that, but their feats in NASCAR and drag racing were legendary. By the 1970s, Chrysler was a mess, which necessitated a government loan and a reorganization with Ford’s Lee Iacocca at the helm. He introduced the K-Car and, a few years later, the K-based minivans, making Chrysler an industry success story. When Lee left, a new era at Chrysler began, with the LH sedans, Viper, Ram truck, and purchase of the Jeep brand taking the company to even higher levels of success. However, the “merger of equals” with Daimler-Benz ended up wounding Chrysler, exacerbated by the global recession from a few years ago. Today, Fiat owns a holding interest in the company, helping this Phoenix rise from the ashes once again.
As you can see, there is a lot to be proud of. Here are some of Chrysler’s finest moments.
Not many pre-war cars in attendance – were there any? – but there were a few pre-1955s. The 1947 Windsor convertible was of a style that was used from 1942-48, upon which Chrysler redesigned all their cars for a starved car-buying public. However, the redesign was dowdy in comparison to the competition – blame can be given to K.T. Keller, Chrysler’s president who felt that a passenger should be able to wear a hat in his cars. The 1951 HEMI helped, but the lack of automatic transmission did not. They’re still great cars that only pale in comparison to more stylish brands.
The Forward Look
When Virgil Exner introduced the Forward Look in 1955, he introduced design to a company that traditionally had been led by engineers. All of Chrysler’s brands, from Plymouth to the newly independent Imperial, were lookers, but it was with the redesigned 1957 cars that brought Chrysler to the style throne. GM was in a tizzy, and all you have to do is compare a 1957 Plymouth with a Chevy to see why – the Plymouth was lower, wider, and more contemporary. But it’s a Chevy world, so the Forward Look doesn’t belong to America’s sense of nostalgia but all you have to do is visit an auction and see Forward Look cars are among the most valuable 1950s cars even when compared to darlings like the Fuelie Bel Air and 1959 Cadillac convertibles.
A- and F-bodies
Volkswagen started to give Detroit fits in the 1950s, so Plymouth introduced a new platform for 1960 – the A-body – and a new car called Valiant. Out of all the Detroit compacts (Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon), the Valiant was the most stylish and comfortable. That also was the year the Slant Six was introduced. After Dodge’s companion Lancer was introduced in 1961, there was a redesign for ’63 for both, with the Dodge being renamed Dart, then a sporty Plymouth Barracuda introduced mid-year 1964. These cars continued into the 1970s with various levels of utility or performance, the fastest being the Super Stock HEMIs modified by Hurst in 1968. They were replaced by the Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen on the new F-body platform. Non-Mopar guys and gals may scratch their heads, but they do have their following, especially when equipped with T-tops, the Road Runner or R/T package, and the Super Coupe package.
When they were introduced in 1962, they were Plymouth’s and Dodge’s full-size platform, but they had been downsized from the industry standard based on a rumor that GM was going to downsize their cars. The size wasn’t appropriate for most of America and sales suffered, although the styling also was out of touch with the trends. When a “proper” full-size car was introduced in 1965, the B-body continued on a mid-size car. These cars were the basis for the Street HEMI, the Road Runner, the first funny car, and Richard Petty’s success.
Somewhat unloved by Mopar collectors, and somewhat loved by demolition derby competitors, the C-body is Chrysler’s full-size land barge. While Chevy guys go ga-ga over the Impala, there’s less enthusiasm for something like a Fury with a 440 Super Commando. Still, they’re great cars that are more roadable than their competition, and in convertible form they may be the ultimate cruisers. The last generation were introduced in 1969 with “Fuselage” design and lasted through 1978.
When the Barracuda was redesigned in 1970, it moved up in size. Chrysler created a new platform that had some B-body DNA to allow for big engines. The new Barracuda received everything from the 198 Slant Six to the HEMI and 440. That was also the year that Dodge jumped on the ponycar bandwagon with the Challenger, which has experienced a reincarnation of sorts although it’s built on the LD platform, a shortened version of the LX platform.
Chrysler has been revitalized after its reorganization with Fiat. Its bread and butter like the 300 and Charger have received updates that keep them competitive, and a new Dart is bringing Italian passion with American style. Chrysler may have been down, but it sure isn’t out.
A few years ago, Carlisle Events converted the old John Deere dealership into a mock showroom. An anniversary year was chosen for each show, so 1972 was this year’s theme. That was the year that all motors had their compression lowered, plus the 340 was the top engine for E-bodies and the HEMI was cancelled for every performance model. However, you could still get a 440 in the B-body, and even a Six Pack if you ordered your car in the first week of production.
Swap Meet, Vendors, and Car Corral
If you’re looking for a part, chances are you’ll find it at Carlisle more than any other place. For over 35 years, they have been giving car guys and gals a medium to peddle their wares and cars. Shall we take a look?
Other Odds & Ends
The Ladies of Carisle
What would Carlisle be without Miss Carlisle? There also was a Daisy Duke contest, but why bother when the real one – Catherine Bach – was on hand for autographs? So were Ben Jones (Cooter) and Richard Petty (The King), although they have a Y chromosome so we’re not interested in them at the moment . . .
So what is your favorite brand? Could they put on a show as good as this? Judging by the other Carlisle shows, GM and Ford fans have some catching up to do.