Everyone’s familiar with the concept cars designed by Chrysler and built by Ghia of Italy in the early 1950s. But not everyone knows that several Chrysler concepts were built much closer to home. One of them is the 1954 Plymouth Belmont, a fiberglass-bodied, V8-powered, two-seat roadster included in the Salon Collection at this 43rd annual Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale collector car auction.
The Plymouth Belmont was produced in Detroit, not Italy, and not only is it part of automotive history, but the Belmont was also something of a movie star, with roles in three Hollywood films.
The Belmont was one of the first Plymouth-badged vehicles equipped with a V8 engine — a 241cid power plant rated at 150 horsepower. This engine didn’t go into any Plymouth production car until the 1955 model year. According to its serial number, the engine in the Belmont was the 14th built and had been intended for use in a 1955 model year vehicle. For the Belmont concept car, the engine got chrome valve covers and a low-profile air cleaner to fit beneath the car’s long and low and light blue metallic painted hood. (The car later was repainted in its present shade of red.)
The engine was linked to Plymouth’s 3-speed Hy-Drive semi-automatic transmission. Like the transmission, the bumpers, wheels and tail lamps were right out of the parts bin, though the compoundedly curved windshield was produced from Plexiglas.
The Belmont was a true roadster. There were no roll-up side windows, and the cloth top could be removed and stowed in the truck — the spare tire stored in its own compartment behind the seats. The dashboard featured a complete set of race car gauges, with controls for the radio’s power antenna built into the center console.
The Belmont debuted at the New York Auto Show in 1954 and then appeared at other auto shows around the country and around the globe.
The platform beneath the Belmont came from Chrysler’s Dodge division. Reinforced fiberglass was chosen as the material for the Belmont’s bodywork, like the Chevrolet Corvette and the Kaiser Darrin. In conjunction with its auto show debut, the Plymouth Belmont appeared on the cover of the Jan. 1, 1954 issue of Motor Life magazine, an issue that also featured a road test of the fiberglass-bodied Kaiser roadster.
Had it gone from a one-off concept car to a production sports car, the Belmont would have been considerably larger than its likely competitors. The Belmont is nearly 192 inches long — more than two feet longer than the ’54 Corvette, nine inches shorter than the Darrin that was produced only for the 1954 model year, and nearly 18 inches longer than the Thunderbird that Ford would launch for 1955. The Belmont is 73 inches wide but only 32 inches tall along the top edge of its doors. Overall height is just 49 inches.
Briggs Manufacturing was created in 1909 when Walter O. Briggs bought out his employer, the B.F. Everitt Co. Briggs was a Michigan native who became skilled at making upholstery for carriages and cars and eventually turned his company into a major supplier of not just automotive interiors but also metal bodywork and even complete vehicles for a variety of automakers.
In the late 1920s, Briggs Manufacturing acquired a New York coachbuilder and its automotive designer, Ralph Roberts. Chrysler turned to Briggs for help to redesign its original Airstream model, and in 1941 Briggs’ designer Alex Tremulis designed the Chrysler Thunderbolt and Roberts designed the Chrysler Newport. Six examples of each vehicle were built for Chrysler by Briggs.
In 1953, Briggs was enfolded into Chrysler. By then, Chrysler design director Virgil Exner had been working with Ghia, the Italian design house and coachbuilder, to produce “dream” cars designed in Exner’s studio.
For 1954, Chrysler turned to Briggs to do two of its concepts, the Plymouth Belmont and the Dodge Granada, a fiberglass-bodied convertible.
Credit for the Belmont’s design goes to Briggs’ Al Prance and Bill Robertson. One report said the Belmont’s design was influenced by Chrysler’s development work on a gas-turbine engine. However, Exner must have been closely involved because he acquired the Belmont from Chrysler after the car left the show circuit, and he drove it for several years.
The car was sold in 1968 and again in 1970 and was rediscovered by Loren Tyron in Oregon in the late 1980s. Don Williams and the Blackhawk Collection acquired and restored the car, then sold it at Barrett-Jackson in 2001. Williams subsequently re-acquired the car.
The Plymouth Belmont made appearances in at least three Hollywood films. In 1956 it joined Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in “Bundle of Joy,” a musical remake of the 1939 movie “Bachelor Mother.”
A year later, the Belmont appeared in two more films — “Mister Cory,” starring Tony Curtis, who goes from the Chicago slums to become a big-time gambler, and “The Tattered Dress,” starring Jeff Chandler and Elaine Stewart.
Chrysler and Briggs built only one Belmont. It is believed that the slow start of Chevrolet’s Corvette sales made Chrysler executives reluctant to promote their potential competitor into production. Nonetheless, seeing the car, then and now, you cannot help but wonder what might have been, had the Belmont joined the Corvette and the Thunderbird on America’s boulevards and back roads.Barrett-Jackson, Cars