1959-72 Dodge Phoenix: Buyers guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Wheels archives

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Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix

A hugely popular local offering that made use of the best of Yankee bits now makes for very good buying for those looking for reliable 'big car' fun

1959-72 Dodge Phoenix: Buyers guide
Buyer's guide: 1959-72 Dodge Phoenix

 

Buyer's guide: Dodge Phoenix

During the 1960s when three US-owned car-makers dominated Australia’s motor market, each of them was obliged to offer a big, American-designed model as the ‘flagship’ of its range.

Local content rules decreed that these cars arrived for assembly in timber crates and items including trim, tyres, paint and some mechanical parts were sourced from Australian suppliers. Although billed as US models, the big imports were predominantly the products of Canadian factories; built RHD and with the benefit of British Commonwealth ‘preference’ which made them cheaper to import.

The Dodge Phoenix that greeted Australian buyers early in 1965 was a Plymouth Fury in all but its badge-work. However, as the Phoenix name had been established since 1960 there was no sensible reason for Chrysler Australia to confuse the marketplace with new branding.

The new Phoenix had modernised styling with a full-width grille and stacked headlights. Its rear aspect was less appealing; a droop-boot with low-set tail-light clusters that the following year were lifted to sit closer to eye level for following drivers.

The big shift came in 1967 when Chrysler Australia introduced its first locally-assembled Hardtop. In deference to the North American Plymouth range (by this time fourth on the US list of best-selling brands) the new Phoenix was completely reshaped and choices expanded to include a four-door ‘pillarless’ model.

While the sedan retained a 5.2-litre V8, Hardtops were deemed sufficiently sporty to justify a 6.3-litre motor with 200kW that helped push maximum speed to 174km/h.

The trim was high-quality vinyl with stylish pleating, armrests everywhere and even retractable headrests for the Hardtop’s reclining front buckets. Power steering was standard, a radio and air-conditioning popular accessories. The boot was fully lined, including a cover for the very intrusive spare wheel.

At the time, Ford was offering disc front brakes on every V8 passenger car in its range and they were also standard on Chrysler’s Valiant-based VIP. Even the budget-priced Rambler Rebel had them but not the 1.8-tonne Dodge and road-testers panned a manufacturer that persevered with a car that could not safely stop from its 130-140km/h potential cruising pace.

The shape changed again and for the final time in 1969. With the remodeled Phoenix finally came disc front brakes and also a new model designation.

Having decided that the market could support 400 each of the sedan and hardtop, Chrysler Australia dubbed its new Dodges ‘Limited 400’ and each one came with a numbered plaque on the dash.

The final Phoenix was 50mm wider and a little lower than the 1967-68s with horizontal headlights set into a full-width grille. Conventional wiper sweeps replaced the ‘clap-hands’ arrangement foisted on pre-1969 cars as a way to avoid the cost of moving wiper attachment posts to suit a RHD configuration.

The Limited was a sales success and encouraged Chrysler to import a further batch of cars for sale during 1971-72. These came with a different grille and hubcaps but were old wine with a revised label and shortly superseded by the smaller, more pretentious ‘Chrysler by Chrysler’.

On The Road
If you want some idea of how the commander of an aircraft carrier might feel while negotiating an ocean gale, drive a Phoenix quickly along an undulating stretch of road.

Unless you hunch against the wheel, peering up and over the massive bonnet it is impossible to position this car by anything more reliable than instinct. Twirling the huge, plastic-rimmed wheel brings into play 3.5 turns of indistinct power steering which sometimes gives the impression it isn’t connected to anything.

Treating a Phoenix like a sports car is, of course, completely unfair. However the engine and transmission combination are so good you are left longing for some handling and brakes to match.

What these cars did to great effect was deliver the qualities demanded by well-heeled and well-connected buyers. Among these was the ability to waft along at 55-80mph (that’s 90-130km/h for the metric speakers), with 4-6 people on board and a brimful boot.

The suspension was conventional and very typical of 1960s-70s Mopar products: torsion bars and wishbones up front with semi-elliptic springs down the back. Most cars will by now have acquired radial-ply rubber; contributing to improved grip and predictability.

Certainly there should no longer be reason for the criticism carried in a 1960s ‘Wheels’ magazine test of the original 8.15x15 Uniroyals that "…produce road squeal, shoulder distortion at high speeds and uncomfortable wet weather control."

During the pre-1973 era, Dodges could be seen lined up outside Parliament House, ready to ferry our elected hierarchy from the seat of power to a couch at the Canberra Club.

Although Comcar drivers on overtime were rarely in a rush, a Phoenix could, if asked, produce a shriek from the rear but barely a rumble from below the bonnet. Adding a dual exhaust and four-barrel carburetor unleashed 500 extra rpms, a nicer note and some added urgency to the acceleration.

The three-speed Torqueflite transmission needed no enhancement. It was one of the best automatics of its era and renowned for smooth changes. When hooked to the ‘383’ engine it could be held in Intermediate gear to almost 140km/h.

Keeping the boot buried when overtaking will also stop the transmission upshifting and you can whistle from 80-110km/h in a little over six seconds.

Size, a brilliant transmission and abundant torque made these Dodges a popular choice among people who towed big caravans and boats. Unless the suspension is jacked though the massive rear overhang will cause draw-bars to crunch into the ground on the shallowest of entry-ways.

Pushing a big-block Phoenix hard or pulling significant weight will translate into hefty fuel bills and frequent visits to the petrol provider. Tests when a 400 Limited Hardtop was new produced average consumption of 16.5L/100km. That would climb to more than 20L/100km when exploiting the performance.

BUYING

Phoenix prices have not been caught up in the sometimes mercurial value shifts that affect a lot of North American Mopar models.

Value Guide survey data from the late 1990s shows 1960-64 cars averaging almost $8000 while 1965-68 cars were 25-40 percent cheaper. Limited 400 versions did a little better and very good examples reached $7000.

Demand and the disappearance of poorer-quality cars since those days has helped values to pretty much double. As a result, very good cars have gone past $15,000.

The majority of 1965-68 models remain below $10,000, making them attractive buying for people who don’t have a lot to spend but want an impressively corpulent V8 cruiser. Cars in this price range will need some work but they are simple to maintain. With rust often affecting structural areas and the turret, rough one in the sub-$3000 bracket are best viewed as parts cars.

Finding a really good Phoenix means casting your eyes a lot further than the classified market. In years past, even the local newspaper could turn up a tidy Phoenix with history attached but those cars will now most likely be found at US-themed shows or via contact with appropriate clubs.


BUYER'S CHECKLIST

Body & Chassis

Body rust is going to be an issue with cars that haven’t received recent and professional attention to body problems. Cars with vinyl roof covering need special attention to the rear pillars and window surround. Given their age, these cars need an on-hoist inspection looking for damage to floor pans, chassis members, suspension attachment points and the lower firewall. Look also at the top surfaces of mudguards, wheel-arches, doors and the edges of the boot-lid and bonnet. Brightwork, be it chromed or stainless steel, isn’t easy to locate so make sure all the bumpers and rubbing strips are attached and in decent condition. Sets of body rubbers are available and not expensive and even reproduction door-handles can be bought for $250 per pair.

Engine & Transmission

Cars sold in Australia were powered by 318 and 383 engines and both units are very durable. The smaller motor was shared from 1969 with Valiants so spares are easily found. US suppliers have everything needed to rebuild or upgrade either motor. These engines, if neglected, can suffer from overheating but a professional flush will help. New radiators are available for around $300. Misfiring and backfiring can be a warning of camshaft wear, or at least faulty ignition timing. Cars with show potential need to be running correct mechanical components, so seek advice from a Dodge authority if something doesn’t look ‘right’.

Suspension & Brakes

Basic suspension design means easy maintenance and no serious durability issues. Replacements for wearing parts such as ball joints and bushings are available and at reasonable prices. The power steering needs to be checked for leaks and a reconditioned pump costs around $250. All-drum brake set-ups need to be in top condition to deliver adequate stopping power but parts are available. Alternatively, US suppliers have kits which allow pre-1969 cars to be converted to front discs. The parts cost around $1500, with freight charges adding another few hundred.

Interior & Electrical

There isn’t a lot inside a Phoenix to fail but if it has an air-conditioner, check that the system has been upgraded to current specifications. Replacement hood-lining for the US-made Fury is still available but replacing damaged seat vinyl is tricky. Make sure that small parts like control knobs are present and the dash dials aren’t cracked. Lenses for the tail-lights and indicators are still being made, a new steering wheel was offered at $500 and it is easy to obtain a reconditioned starter motor for either engine.


SPECIFICATIONS

1959-72 Dodge Phoenix

Number built: N/A (1965-68) 1600 (800 sedan, 800 hardtop) 1969-72
Body: all-steel, unitary construction four-door sedan and hardtop
Engine: 5.2 and 6.3-litre V8 with overhead valves and single downdraft carburettor
Power & Torque: 200kW @ 4400rpm, 526Nm @ 2800rpm (Limited 400 383)
Performance: 0-96km/h – 9.9 seconds, 0-400 metres 17.4 seconds (400 Limited)
Transmission: three-speed automatic
Suspension: Front – independent with upper and lower control arms, torsion bars and telescopic shock absorbers, Rear: live axle with semi-elliptic springs and telescopic shock absorbers
Brakes: disc or drum front, drum rear, power assisted
Tyres: 8.25x14 or 815x15 cross-ply
Price range: $2000-22,000
Contacts: Chrysler/Dodge Clubs in most states www.chryslerclubvic.org.au

 


*****

 

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