Thursday, July 16, 2015

Plymouth Valiant: A Later Exner Design

It was introduced by Chrysler Corporation for the 1960 model year as simply Valiant.  The compact (by American standards) Plymouth Valiant (name change starting in the 1961 model year) was part of the Detroit reaction to increasing market penetration of foreign brand small cars, especially Volkswagens.

That same year, Ford launched its compact Ford Falcon and Chevrolet marketed its Chevrolet Corvair.  Competing firms often come up with similar solutions to meet a requirement, but in 1960 the compact / foreign threat had no obvious answer and the three cars differed significantly.  The Falcon was entirely conventional, the Corvair was radical with its rear-mounted air-cooled motor, and the Valiant featured unconventional styling.

Virgil Exner was still in charge of Chrysler styling when the Valiant was developed, though a serious 1956 heart attack reduced his ability to work.  His noteworthy designs while at Chrysler include a series of Italian-inspired concept cars in the early 1950s, a handsome set of redesigned production cars in 1955, and a striking restyling for 1957 featuring tail fins.  After that, Exner-inspired design became elaborately strange and quirky, though his (unused) design proposals for 1962 were somewhat more pleasing and conventional.

The first-series Valiant (1960-1962 model years) included some features Exner hoped to have on 1962 DeSotos and Chryslers.  These included the general shape of the passenger cabin, especially the windshield, and the horizontal sculpted blade motif on the front fenders.  On the other hand, the Valiant included one Exner detail from some of those early-50s show cars, namely a false spare tire cover on the trunk lid.  The bold sculpted rear fender curve that terminated as a small, canted tail fin is another Exner quirk.

All told, Valiant styling was unlike almost anything else on the road -- not necessarily a bad thing.  What was a bad thing was that the design did not hold together very well.  It was more an assemblage of Exner-favored details than a coherent concept where details are related to an overall theme.

Of the three new compact designs, the conventional Ford Falcon was the clear sales winner.  The radical Corvair out-sold the Valiant, but not by a large margin.  This was despite that fact that General Motors' overall market share was far greater than that of third-place Chrysler Corporation.  So the Valiant can be considered a qualified market success, perhaps more due to it excellent "slant six" motor than its unconventional styling.


1960 Valiant advertising.  The grille deviates from the dominant horizontal convention, though other American cars including the 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk, 1958 Studebaker Lark and the 1957 Chrysler 300 featured somewhat square grilles.

Although the Valiant looks long, it was compact by 1960 American standards and its wheelbase was shorter than those of the competing Falcon and Corvair.

Rear view showing the faux spare tire and the tail fin / tail light ensemble.  The Valiant was not quite a fastback design, nor was it a bustle-back.  Nothing intrinsically wrong about this, though I regard it as a manifestation of the lack of a coherent styling theme.

An entry-level Valiant lacking much of the chrome trim and dressed-up wheels shown in the first three images.  This view highlights the fender metal sculpting that contrasts with gently-curved side sheet metal.

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