Darrell Davis, who retired in 2001 as senior vice president for parts and service at DaimlerChrysler, remembers in explicit detail when and how his passion for Plymouths was ignited.
“When I turned 16 on Monday, Aug. 8, 1955, my mom and I went to the local justice of the peace and filled out the form for my driver’s permit,” he recalled. “We sent it off with special handling, which was available then in Pennsylvania and I had my permit back on Wednesday, Aug. 10.”
Practice at the wheel of the family’s 1954 Plymouth Belvedere followed, but did not last long.
“I took my driving test on Saturday, Aug. 13, and passed it on the first try,” he said.
He added, with impish delight: “I never rode my bike again.”
Davis said his parents were impressed by how quickly he had become proficient enough to pass the test, given how little tutoring he had received. It seems they did not know how much experience their son already had.
“When I was about 12 or 13 there were usually two cars at home,” he said. “When the family left, I would get the keys and drive around the house and up and down the driveway. All were standard-transmission cars — I was pretty smug about my driving.”
Davis, who went on to spend 36 years working his way up at Chrysler, traces his lifelong love of cars to those practice sessions — and to the times as a toddler that he rode on his grandfather’s lap, steering a 1936 Chevrolet pickup around the family farm near Sharon, Pennsylvania.
Still showing that youthful enthusiasm at age 69, Davis feels little nostalgia for old Chevy pickups. But 1954 Plymouths are another matter. Today he is probably the world’s foremost collector of those models — and an enthusiastic keeper of the flame for the defunct Plymouth brand.
In part of his 836m2 garage near Orlando, Florida, Davis has recreated a fully equipped Plymouth dealership showroom. On display are all four body styles from the then newly expanded 1954 Belvedere line, an upscale alternative to the Plaza and Savoy models. He has collected the sales brochures and display racks, banners, signs, order books and even the sheets of paint samples and upholstery swatches. All of it is meticulously preserved and presented.
“Nobody collects 1954 Plymouths,” he said with a chuckle and a chomp on an unlit half-cigar. “I just collect them because I like them.”
The Plymouth of 1954 was not a success, despite the availability of engineering innovations like power steering, power brakes and the semiautomatic Hy-Drive transmission. (The fully automatic PowerFlite arrived late in the model year.) The chairman of Chrysler at the time, K.T. Keller, had called for designs that were tall and bulky, because, he said, “a gentleman should be able to wear his hat” while driving.
Virgil Exner, a visionary designer whose background included jobs at General Motors and Studebaker, was brought in to enliven the designs. Though Exner’s influence was barely perceptible until the jazzier 1955 models arrived in showrooms, he sprinkled some flash on the 1954 models, part of a so-called Hy-Style treatment. Chrome flourishes, arresting paint schemes, colorful emblems and even wire wheels became available.
But it wasn’t enough; calendar-year sales plunged to 399,900 in 1954, from 662,515 units in 1953.
The seeds of Plymouth’s ultimate demise in 2001, Davis suggests, were sown in 1959 after the bounce-back success of Exner’s 1957 to 1959 finned Forward Look models.