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Black Beauty: 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook

031116 Barn Finds - 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook 1

Here is a bargain car from Chrysler’s bargain division: a black 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook found here on Craigslist in West Bend, WI. The beautiful black body looks like it’s in almost perfect condition, but the engine will need work to power this black beauty again. The seller is asking $1,850 for this possible sleeper.

031116 Barn Finds - 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook 5

There have been a couple of early-1950s Plymouths posted on Barn Finds in the last few months but those were lucky enough to have had operable drive trains. This one is nice body-wise, but it’ll need some work on the engine to get it rolling under its own power again. This Cranbrook sedan looks good and other than a tiny bit of surface rust on the bottom of the quarter panel it looks like it would shine up nicely. Black cars usually bring a premium and if this were a 2-door model I’m sure that it would be either sold by now or priced higher.

031116 Barn Finds - 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook 2

Let’s get up in this grille! 1953 was the first year for a slight redesign for the Cranbrook with sleeker lines and a less-boxy shape overall. I actually prefer the previous generation Cranbrook, but that’s just my personal preference. A one-piece windshield is also noticeable here and it helps to modernize the 1953 models. This would be the last year for the Cranbrook name as in 1954 it would be replaced by the Belvedere, which had been the top trim level of the Cranbrook. The name game was very much alive and well sixty years ago, too. You can see by the lack of chrome, or relative lack of chrome that the Plymouth was the budget line for Chrysler Corp.

031116 Barn Finds - 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook 3

Here’s the non-running engine. Well, no wonder it doesn’t run, there aren’t any spark plug wires on it; that’s an easy fix! Well, if was only that easy. There is no mention of what’s going on here but just that it doesn’t run. I can’t imagine that it would be super hard to pull this engine and rebuild it. This car is also equipped with the “Hy-Drive” transmission, first offered in Plymouths in 1953. The Hy-Drive was sort of a stop-gap between a manual and an automatic. Car makers were caught off guard by GM’s Dynaflow automatic available in Buicks in the late-1940s so they were scrambling to come up with something similar. Chrysler’s Hy-Drive was a manual transmission that used a torque converter like an automatic but you could shift without pressing on the clutch pedal, at least once the car was moving. You still needed to operate the clutch pedal from a dead stop, but once you were rolling you would just move the gear selector to change gears. It was pretty slick, but it was no fully automatic transmission. I actually prefer shifting for myself so I always look for fully-manual vehicles when I can. The Hy-Drive was an updated version of Chrysler’s Fluid-Drive and a predecessor to their first fully-automatic transmission, the PowerFlite, which became available in 1955.

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This looks like a fun project if a person isn’t dead set against anything with four doors. Sure, a two-door car is generally more desirable and valuable, but this one is worth saving, in my opinion. What do you think, would you rebuild this original engine or would you turn this black beauty into a sleeper with a modern drivetrain?


  1. Avatar photo piper62j

    From the side view with the doors open, it almost looks like my 51 Ford Custom.. Almost..

    Nice car… Great find..

    Like 0
  2. Avatar photo Rando

    I love it! Why are there no cars like this in NC? If this were in NC, it would be $10K or something stupid like that. If it were within 3 hrs of me, I’d have it in the driveway by sundown.

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  3. Avatar photo Charles

    This looks like a nice clean car. Rebuilding the original drivetrain should not be difficult or costly.

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  4. Avatar photo Howard A Member

    Hey, it’s a local car. Clearly, the seller knows nothing of the history of the car, and no title means they probably got it from an estate sale, or something. Sure is clean. I don’t think that’s original paint. There were very few all black cars back then ( unlike today) and looks too nice. Maybe original. Wis. used those yellow plates for many years, but the red sticker indicates 1972, so it’s been sittin’ for a while. Plymouth back then was kind of the underdog, kind of the Ford Pinto of the time. Nothing fancy, just transportation. Since it already doesn’t run, I’d ditch the whole works, and put a modern drive-train ( and brakes). It would be a great cruiser. Amazing find.

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  5. Avatar photo RayT

    I agree a two-door would be more stylish — if one can apply that word to an early-50s Plymouth — but this does appear to be a good deal.

    There’s no rocket science involved in rebuilding one of these engines — just a lift that can handle the weight of all that cast iron! Don’t know how difficult it would be to substitute a genuine full-manual transmission, but I’d be sorely tempted. “Hy-Drive” was not exactly the ideal choice for performance….

    Wish the seller had included some interior and underside photos. Old Wisconsin cars often have some rot (or a lot), and it’s hard to imagine this one escaped it. But what an opportunity for some reasonably low-cost cruising!

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    • Avatar photo Lee Hartman

      I was told that all you had to do to make the Hy-Drive into a manual was to weld the torque converter solid. Not sure how it was done but that would be the easiest way.

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      • Avatar photo Ed P

        Lee, I’ve never heard of that but, it might be a viable solution. Hy Drive Plymouths were very different from standard shift versions. The engine block casting was different as well as the floor pan of the car. Even the drive shaft was different, ie shorter. Putting a different transmission in this car may require a lot of fabricating to make it work

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      • Avatar photo Vince Habel

        little blocks welded between the converter and the flywheel.

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  6. Avatar photo Fred

    Probably my least favorite styling of any car ever (other than the Pontiac Aztec), but at least the price is realistic. Motor is probably stuck from sitting up, maybe some Marvel Mystery Oil is in order?

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    • Avatar photo Howard A Member

      Hi Fred, “Marvel Mystery Oil”. Many years ago, I worked for a company that was a distributor for MMO. It was kind of the “castor oil” for machines. It does work pretty well, and had customers that swore by it.

      Like 0
  7. Avatar photo Healeydays

    This could be a nice driver, but in perfect condition the world record price for one of these in a 4 door is only $16,500.

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  8. Avatar photo Rick

    Always thought these were mega ugly. When I was a little kid in the early 60s, these are what the really poor people drove (the ones too poor to afford an early 50s Ford or Chev)

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  9. Avatar photo DrinkinGasoline

    Where I grew up, poor people didn’t have cars, they walked or took the bus. I would imagine they would have been tickled silly to have a Cranny in the driveway. Rebuild that flatty, straighten out a few odds and ends and have an honest driver.

    Like 3
  10. Avatar photo Rufus

    As a child of working class parents whose father was a career non-com in the Navy, my first memory of a car was the Cranbrook. Not that we could afford a Chevrolet or Ford, but Dad just liked Plymouth’s and there was always one in his driveway. As a little kid, I was baffled by the need to shift sometimes and other times not. I still have fond memories of laying in the package tray above the back seat while Mom flogged the little “poor peoples” car and sang along with the AM radio. We enjoyed ourselves so much that Mom would ask “wonder what the rich folks are doing”?
    Now I’m a grown up, and still remember our Cranbrook fondly. I wish the seller luck on moving this piece of history to someone who may fix it and enjoy the ride.
    Have fun

    Like 1
    • Avatar photo Texas Tea

      Rufus, I got a good laugh out of your piece. I grew up in a non-com Army family with seven kids (kid production 1947-1963). We were just glad to have food on the table, but never went hungry because Sgt Dad new how to get K-rations/C-rations when needed. Dad always had a ford of some kind. When we traveled to get any where (Grandma’s) we went at night to avoid the hot summer days. We didn’t ever have much, but we did have each other. Great memories. p.s. I fell out of one of those Fords in 1959 as we turned a corner and the door flew open and I flew out. A few stitches here and there and I was good as new.

      Like 0
  11. Avatar photo Electronika

    The Hy-Drive kind of makes this car a white elephant. Everything is different in this car from a manual or if it were a 54 a Powerflite. The engine and the transmission share a common oil sump requiring a 11 quart oil change, the clutch mechanism is different, the floor pans are different, even the engine is different. The shift linkage is unique with an indicator on it as opposed to the manual cars. A conversion is very hard. Dealers hated them and where thrilled when they were gone.

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  12. Avatar photo Chris in WNC

    restore. that’s always the right answer.
    if you need more go-power, flat sixes can be gently modified to run with the V-8s….

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  13. Avatar photo andrew m

    very vague… could be all is needed is a simple carb rebuild and some fresh points to get it going, could be a timing chain. These engines are tough as nails, i’d try to keep it in place. Would be a cool short distance daily driver with some nicer looking wheel covers or rims. if it were local, I would be tempted to pick this one up.

    Like 0
  14. Avatar photo fordfan

    The grill on this car made it look like it was wearing 1950s braces

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  15. Avatar photo grant

    This is really cool.

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  16. Avatar photo G 2

    PowerFlite came out at the end of 53 not 55. Hydrive only had to clutch when you shifted. Could sit at a stop in high gear and just hold the brake because of the torque converter. Really slow off the line starting out in high gear.

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  17. Avatar photo charlie Member

    I learned to drive on one (a ’54) in l957. Great training for learning to shift for yourself, since, if you forgot to put the clutch in from 1st to 2nd, and from 2nd to 3rd, as long as you let off the gas, it worked, or if you let out the clutch too quickly it didn’t matter, and it was a very smooth “clutch engagement”.

    My friends and I viewed it as an old lady’s car.

    Like 0
  18. Avatar photo Melvin Lloyd Ottinger

    I would be interested in the 1953 cranbrook. Send me a email with information on how to contact you.

    Like 0

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