Plymouth’s story begins in 1904, with the formation of the Maxwell-Briscoe Company of Tarrytown, New York. While the Briscoe cars never really caught on, the Maxwell models did quite well. In 1907, there was a very significant fire in Tarrytown. Afterwards, production was moved to New Castle, Indiana, where the company built the then-largest automotive factory in the United States.
In 1910, Maxwell became one of the brands comprising the United States Motor Company. When the USMC failed in 1913, Maxwell was its only surviving brand. The company was reorganized as Maxwell Motor Company and business operations were moved to Detroit. With some 60,000 cars sold by 1914, Maxwell was considered one of the top three brands in the United States. The other two were Buick and Ford.
By the way, anyone who remembers—or has seen—the “Jack Benny Show” on television has seen a Maxwell. Set in the 1950’s, the “ancient” car Benny drives on the show because his character is too cheap to get a new one is a 1916 Maxwell.
Walter P. Chrysler bought a controlling interest in Maxwell in 1921, well before he started the Chrysler Corporation. In doing so, he also got that factory in New Castle. It would remain in production as a Chrysler plant until 2004. Walter P. used the Maxwell facilities to get Chrysler Corporation up and running. In many ways, it can be said the foundation upon which Chrysler was built was Plymouth—in the form of Maxwell.
In 1925, when Chrysler did form his corporation, the Maxwell automobiles evolved into the 1926 four-cylinder line of Chrysler 52 models—the company’s affordable product line. In 1928, the cars would be reworked to become the Chrysler-Plymouth Model Q. This formed the basis of the Plymouth brand. In 1929, the Chrysler name was dropped and the cars became known as the Plymouth Model U.
Interesting fact…while the original Plymouth logo featured a view of the Mayflower—evoking thoughts of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock—the company was actually named for a popular brand of twine. In the 1920s, Plymouth Binder Twine was a well-known household item used to bind packages and et cetera. In all probability, the twine was named for Plymouth Rock, so technically it could be argued Plymouth cars were too—but only by extension.
The 1931 Plymouth PA model introduced the concept of “floating power” to the automotive industry. The four-cylinder engines of the day were notoriously rough, but they did return better fuel economy than smoother running six-cylinder engines. Chrysler engineer Owen Skelton mounted the powerplant in the chassis using only two connection points insulated with rubber dampers. This prevented a great deal of the harshness and vibration of the engine from being transmitted into the passenger compartment. The result was a smoother operating automobile. With this innovation, Plymouth models could claim the smoothness of a six-cylinder engine coupled with the fuel economy of a four.
By 1933 though, this wasn’t enough. Ford and Chevrolet were offering six-cylinder engines in the Plymouth’s price category, so Plymouth also had to go with six-cylinder engines to remain competitive. To accomplish this, but keep Plymouth models below Chryslers, the engineering team fitted the Chrysler six-cylinder engine with a smaller carburetor—then installed it in Plymouths. This ensured Plymouths wouldn’t be as powerful as Chrysler automobiles. Unfortunately though, they also made the car smaller and the public was into bigger—so it didn’t sell very well. Learning from this mistake, Plymouth’s product planning team created the larger and more warmly received 1933 Plymouth DeLuxe.
For 1939, Plymouth offered the 1939 Plymouth convertible coupe. This model is considered the first mass production convertible with a power-folding top. It was originally shown at the 1929 New York World’s Fair. Going into World War II, Plymouth vehicles were among the top selling American cars. After the war, they continued to be successful—based largely on their reputation for durability, affordability, and superior engineering.
However, this reputation was threatened in 1957.
That year, Plymouth models were restyled with the Forward Look design theme, developed by Virgil Exner. Introducing the concept of longer, lower and wider to Chrysler’s products, along with the tailfins that became so all the rage following that period, the cars were fresher and more modern looking than the competing Ford and Chevrolet models. In fact, the 1957 Plymouths were advertised with the slogan, "Suddenly, it's 1960!"
They sold too—really well.
Plymouth production went up by some 200,000 units that year, but neither the factories nor the suppliers were ready to produce that kind of volume with high quality. Consequently, the cars suffered from poor materials, spotty build quality, and to add insult to injury, inadequate corrosion protection made them rust-prone as well. This greatly damaged Plymouth’s reputation for quite some time.
Going into the 1960s and 70s, however, horsepower became the big thing. Plymouth automobiles such as Barracuda, Road Runner, and GTX landed the marque solidly in the mix of the muscle car era. The brand also benefitted mightily from its association with one of the most popular NASCAR drivers of all time. “King” Richard Petty started his racing career piloting Plymouth models. Petty’s most famous car of all was the 1970 Plymouth Super Bird, an aerodynamically enhanced version of the Plymouth Road Runner.
Like so many ill-fated American manufacturers of the time though, the 1970’s fuel crisis spelled the beginning of the end for Plymouth. And while it would take another twenty-some-odd years for the brand to ultimately meet its demise, the actual decline of the nameplate began during this period. As one of Chrysler’s two low-pried brands, most 80s and 90s Plymouth models were little more than rebadged Dodges and Mitsubishis. Compounding the maladies were financial problems at Chrysler, which inhibited the marque’s ability to develop new models.
The last real highlight in the history of Plymouth automobiles is the 1997 Plymouth Prowler. That car was a modern version of the hot rod. There had been plans to fully reinvigorate the Plymouth lineup going into the 21st century, but Chrysler’s merger with Daimler in 1998 put a damper on all of that. On November 3, 1999, DaimlerChrysler announced the Plymouth nameplate would be put to rest at the end of the 2001 model year.