Marketing Surveys May Not Be Best Gauge of Buyer Sentiment

Article excerpt

Byline: Jim Leman

The thing about marketing surveys is they too often tell you what you want to hear. And that can get you into trouble. It certainly got Chrysler in trouble in the early '50s, when a marketing study, Does Your Neighbor Want a Smaller Car? prompted Plymouth Division chief Henry King to downsize the '53 and '54 models in response.

"Neighbors might have wanted smaller cars, but the buyers themselves wanted bigger ones," noted auto historians Michael Lamm and Dave Holls in A Century of Automobile Styling.

Despite Plymouth's hopeful marketing slogan for the new models - "Bigger on the inside, smaller on the outside" - buyers simply saw the car as stubby. In fact, beginning with the '53 model, the Plymouth was 670 pounds lighter and when compared to its competition visibly smaller.

The '53 and '54 Plymouths were also the first Plymouths both designed and built by Chrysler itself, the corporation having bought out its body builder, Briggs Manufacturing, in 1953. When the smaller '53 Plymouth hit the dealerships' showrooms, sales increased 39.5 percent to 636,000 units - largely due to a $100 reduction in prices - then plunged in '54 to 400,000 units sold. Plymouth dropped in market share to fifth place, holding onto just 7.2 percent from 10.6 percent the prior year - behind Ford's 25.1 percent and Chevrolet's 25.6 percent shares.

The '53 and '54 Plymouths were on the cusp of being a then- modern car, but not quite. It wasn't until the '55 model, with a new - and first for Plymouth - V-8 and trend-setting Forward Look styling that Plymouth entered the age of the modern automobile. As a result, 1955 model sales skyrocketed, to more than 742,000 cars.

The '53 and '54 models would offer only one power plant choice, the flathead six. This was basically the same engine first introduced by Plymouth in 1933. By 1942 this engine was a 218 cubic inch displacement version of its former self, and this same displacement engine appeared in the '53 and '54 Plymouths as well, though by then it sported 7.1 compression and 100 horsepower. A 230 cubic inch engine was available by late '54 as an option, primarily for cars equipped with the new two-speed Powerflite automatic.

For '54, Plymouth did finally offer transmission options: the standard 3-speed manual, the manual with overdrive, the semi- automatic Hy-Drive (introduced in '53) and the fully automatic Powerflite. Rear end ratios were the standard 3.73 for the manual and Hy-Drive and, presumably for the Powerflite, and 4.10 for overdrive-equipped cars.

Chrysler historians and those owners familiar with the Hy-Drive often have referred to the semi-automatic in less-than-flattering terms. …