Pentastars in PA: 2014 Carlisle Chrysler Nationals

cac-leadartCarlisle Events has been supporting the old-car hobby since 1974 when it was called the Flea Marketeers and it produced “Post War ’74.” Starting in 1991, the organization launched the Carlisle Chrysler Nationals and, since then, it’s been one of the biggest gatherings of Mopars in the U.S. – only the Mopar Nationals is bigger, and some would say Carlisle is better for it.

Although Carlisle is best known for being America’s premiere automotive flea market (along with Hershey), you also get a car show 2,403 strong, with over 50,000 people going through the gates. Compared to Carlisle’s Ford and GM show, the Carlisle Chrysler Nationals is Valhalla − a testament to Mopar fans and the fervor they have for anything with a Pentastar on it. Let’s walk through Carlisle and see what nuggets we find.

Early Mopars

We didn’t find many pre-war Mopars, but some of the K.T. Keller-era Mopars were in attendance. Of particular beauty is the Wayfarer, a cut-rate Dodge roadster with a rakish roofline and stolid styling that was built between 1949-52.

1935 Plymouth, 1946-48 DeSoto, 1954 Plymouth, 1950 Dodge Wayfarer

Keller was a man who liked cigars and hats, and he felt anyone wearing the latter should be able to wear it in a Chrysler product. Alas, the 1949 redesign for all Chrysler brands looked dowdy compared to most of its rivals. It wouldn’t be until 1955 with Virgil Exner’s Forward Look that Chrysler began producing stylish cars to rival Detroit’s style leaders.

Forward Look

From 1955-61, Virgil Exner took Chrysler to new heights, both figuratively and literally, the latter because every Chrysler product – Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial – eventually would feature soaring fins that captured America’s imagination. Exner’s creations from 1955-56 were neat, but 1957 set a standard that was beyond reproach.

1957 DeSoto Fireflite, 1957 Dodge, 1958 Plymouth, 1959 Plymouth, 1959 Dodge

Alas, quality control suffered as Chrysler tried to meet demand, creating long-lasting issues to its image. A recessionary year in 1958 didn’t help things, and a 1959 facelift for all divisions was weak. And then, suddenly it was 1960 – Plymouth styling was outrageous while Ford and GM gently were moving away from fins. Things got worse in 1961, not because the fins but because many Chrysler cars were simply ugly. Virgil Exner, what hath you wrought? DeSoto ended up being axed mid-year, Chrysler had goofy canted headlights, Imperial was zany (especially in comparison to the ultra-tasteful Lincoln Continental), but Plymouth and Dodge were not of this world (or any other).

1961 Dodge Dart Pioneer (with 1963 Plymouth wagon)

If there was one car that managed to escape Chrysler’s issues during this time, it was the 300 Letter Series. What began as the C-300 in 1955 became the mightiest car in America, setting speed records and exhibiting the brute strength that was the Hemi’s calling card. Starting with 300 horsepower in 1955, 400 became available with the 1960 300-F when paired with a four-speed manual, but it is believed only nine were built. The Letter-Series 300 was built through 1965 300-L, which paled in comparison with its 413/360.

1957 300-C set and a pairing of 1960 300-F and 1961 300-G.

Plucked Chickens and Elwood Engel

Despite enthusiastic praise for the 300 Letter Series even in lean times, Exner’s problems continued post-1961. Legend has it that Chrysler President William Newberg was at a Detroit social when he overheard a Chevrolet executive hint about a small Chevy for 1962. With this rumor, plus the knowledge that Ford was coming out with a midsize car, Newberg made a hasty decision and ordered the designers to downsize what was planned for 1962 − even after tooling had been created. Exner himself was saddled up in the hospital, recouperating from a heart attack, so he had no knowledge of what was going on at the office. The result were what Exner later called “plucked chickens,” Plymouths and Dodges that were slightly smaller than the competition and a little odd. And that rumored downsized Chevy? It was the compact Chevy II – hardly a downsized full-size sedan.

Compare the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge with the 1963 versions.

However, with the introduction of the Max Wedge motor, the lighter Mopars had a distinct advantage that would culminate with the 426 Hemi in 1964 (and a 1-2-3 win at Daytona). Not only that, but new design chief, Elwood Engel smoothed out the edges of the downsizing debacle and made Dodges and Plymouths better-looking and more substantial.

1964 Plymouth and Dodge

The Muscle Years

And then Pontiac came out with the GTO in 1964. Dodge and Plymouth had street vehicles with competitive performance, but none of them had the image of the GTO. Even the introduction of the Street Hemi in 1966 didn’t translate to sales due to its price and perhaps its mechanical complexity (and did we say image?). Finally, in 1967, Mopar fans had a proper muscle car with image to spare: the Dodge Coronet R/T and Plymouth GTX. Both came standard with the big 440 with 375 horsepower (which also was available for the fastback Charger).

1967 GTX and Coronet R/T (image courtesy of Ken Bowser)

There also was performance news for the A-body compacts because the Dodge Dart GT and Plymouth Barracuda Formula S had an available 383. With that motor, the Dart GT became a GTS, then moved into being its own model with standard 340 for 1968). The compacts improved for ’68 with the addition of a high-winding small-block 340 that embarrassed a number of big-blocks.

Ultra-rare 1967 Barracuda Formula S 383 convertible

But the big news for 1968 were two cars that caught the market’s attention: the Dodge Charger and Plymouth Road Runner. The Charger was a looker, with smooth lines and a graceful flying buttress roofline − certainly the best-looking car that year. With the Road Runner, Chrysler changed the rules in the muscle car sweepstakes and one-upped the GTO with this bare-bones model stuffed with a 383 and little else. In a crowded market that even featured AMC, the Road Runner stood out as the hit of ’68.

Initially offered as a coupe, the 1968 Road Runner was joined mid-year by a hardtop.

And it wasn’t just going on in the streets – on the speedways, the Hemi was king, but Ford was giving Chrysler a run for its money. The easy answer to that was improved aerodynamics, thus the 1969 Charger 500 was born. Ford and Mercury countered with the Torino Talladega and Cyclone Spoiler II, respectively, and Chrysler returned the shot with the Charger Daytona – the most in-your-face car from the muscle car era.

Unusual gold Charger Daytona with green interior.

The Beginning of the End

But the muscle car era was experiencing change − 1970 has been called the high-water mark of the era, but every muscle car faced falling sales due to high insurance rates and a recessionary year. Road Runner fell by half. The new E-body Barracuda wasn’t selling well either, although the fancier Dodge Challenger sold better. A new Duster semi-fastback took up where the A-body Barracuda left off in 1969 . . . indeed, Chrysler had a solid lineup with the Rapid Transit System and the Scat Pack, but sales were lacking.

Plymouth's Rapid Transit System was new for 1970 and included the new Sport Fury GT and Duster 340. Dodge's Scat Pack had no such equivalents.

So what to do? Carry on with even more outrageous hijinks. Indeed, 1971 was a year of far-out style and redesigns. B-bodies were redesigned for the first time since 1968, giving Plymouth fans a new Road Runner and GTX; over at Dodge, the Charger absorbed the full two-door line, leaving Coronets as four-door-only. The Charger R/T continued, but now was joined by a Charger Super Bee. Both performance B-body models were available in a myriad of color and stripe combinations that made it difficult to find two exactly the same.

The 1971 Plymouth Road Runner and GTX had many options to set them apart visually, including optional Elastomeric bumpers. Ditto for the Charger, which could be had with the Elastomeric bumpers or hidden headlights, as demonstrated by this Charger SE.

Meanwhile, while the industry was paring back, the E-bodies were wilder than ever, especially the ‘Cuda when equipped with colored grille, rubber bumpers, and “Billboard” stripes. The Challenger was slightly less outrageous but offered wilder stripe colors in fluorescent orange and green in addition to the usual black or white.

With wild colors and in-your-face striping, 1971 was the loudest Mopar muscle year ever.

The Lean Years

Alas, after 1971, compression was lowered, the Six Pack was discontinued a few weeks after model introduction, and the E-bodies got rid of big-blocks. Despite a good effort, it seemed performance was in the throes of death.

In 1972, the Challenger received a new grille and the Barracuda reverted to a pair of headlights.

After 1974, Chrysler exploited the maturity of muscle car consumers by breeding the Charger more for the personal luxury market, which would reach its zenith with the debut of the Chrysler Cordoba and the similar (redesigned) Dodge Charger. And the Road Runner? It became part of the Volaré compact, along with its Dodge Aspen R/T brethren.

The last B-body Road Runner was in 1975, which was followed by the Volaré Road Runner. By that time, performance buyers had grown up to the Cordoba, Charger, and Magnum.

After Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler with the K-car platform, which served as the basis for everything from orthodox sedans to minivans and a Camaro-fighter. While never up to the level of 5.0 Mustangs and Buick Grand Nationals, there’s an enthusiastic segment who play around with Chrysler’s 2.2L turbo-four.

Happy Days Are Here Again

It’s been a long road to get to where we are today. Sure, we’ve had the Viper for over 20 years, but Chrysler hasn’t had a mainstream performance car until the LX-based 300 and Charger debuted, soon to be joined by the Challenger after an auspicious concept car introduction. Who knew, a few years later, we’d have a 707-horse Chally?


Special Displays

Of particular interest for Mopar fans at the Carlisle Chrysler Nationals are several special vehicle displays. In Building T was the “featured vehicles” plus “50 years of Barracuda” which showed the fish from its 1964 A-body beginnings to its final E-body iteration in 1974.

Dual-Ghia was a special custom-built cruiser based on a show car - a handful were built. 1960 DeSoto was one year away from being kaput.

Over at Building T was the A12 Reunion, which is another way of saying “an assemblage of 1969 Super Bees with the 440 Six Pack and Road Runners with the 440 6bbl.” These cars came with black wheels without hubcaps or wheelcovers, a fiberglass hood with no hinges, 4.10 Dana rear, and tri-carb induction, and could be considered a “street-racer’s special” from the factory.  There’s a lot of particulars with these cars that have led to a following of ardent fans, so the 45th anniversary of the package was worth celebrating.

Don Grotheer’s A12 Road Runner

A third display was the Race Hemi Reunion, a collection of 1964-65 Hemis in the old Beeney Motors dealership.

1965 and 1964 Hemi Plymouths

Swap Meet and Car Corral

Of course, how could you talk about Carlisle without chatter about the swap meet and car corral? Need a fuel injection unit for a 1958 DeSoto Adventurer? This is the place you’ll find it. Need vintage go-fast goodies? This is “Pomona East.” If it’s got a Pentastar, you’ll find it here. Or maybe you don’t even have a car yet? You’ll find plenty in the car corral, from projects to fully restored vehicles.

It runs the gamut at Carlisle.

About the author

Diego Rosenberg

Diego is an automotive historian with experience working in Detroit as well as the classic car hobby. He is a published automotive writer in print and online and has a network of like-minded aficionados to depend on for information that's not in the public domain.
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