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Mark Coudriet's '57 Plymouth Helps Keep the Exner Spirit Alive
by Bob Hall

 There are aren't too many 26-year-old automotive hobbyists who are great fans of Virgil Exner-designed cars, or even know who he was! Which makes Mark Coudriet a very knowledgeable young man. He not only can tell you a great deal about Chrysler Corporation's former styling chief, but about one of Exner's most famous designs, the 1957 “Forward Look” Plymouths.

 

  That's because the Clearfield, Pennsylvania policeman is the proud owner of a Dusty Coral and Sand Dune White '57 Belvedere four-door sedan. It was displayed at the Carlisle Fairgrounds during the 1999 Chryslers at Carlisle event held July 9-11. The Belvedere was included in the “Mopar Survivors” display which features all-original, at least 25 years old cars, that are untouched and unrestored (i.e. wearing 80 percent of their original paint).

  With a mere 22,700 miles on its odometer, you might not think it has survived that much. However, “the car sat dormant in a garage from 1961 to 1995,” Mark told us. In fact, he shared the Belvedere's entire history with us. It was bought new in September 1957 from Posner Auto Sales in Mount Pleasant, Pa. by Mr. Herb Patton of Youngwood, Pa., He drove the car some 21,000 miles over the next four years, until he died in 1961. His widow, who did not drive, parked the Plymouth in the garage next to their house, where it remained for the better part of the next 34 years.

   “I think she kept it for sentimental reasons,” Mark told us. “She had it taken out once a year for state inspections up through 1965, but then it sat until 1995.”Meanwhile, the young Mr. Coudriet was developing an fascination for Virgil Exner designs. “My interest in '57 and '58 Plymouths began in the seventh or eight grade,” Mark remembered. “Their styling amazed me, all those Forward Look cars. From then on, I was looking for one. I started buying literature and dealer items, mostly at Carlisle (events).”

  It probably will not surprise you to learn that Mark “grew up around antique cars—both my father and grandfather had them.” They brought Mark to Carlisle “beginning in the early '80s,” long before he was of driving age. Once he had achieved that status, Mark “started really looking to purchase a '57 or '58 Plymouth, probably in '90 or '91. I looked at several basket cases in the $1,000 to $2,000 range, but fortunately didn't buy one.”  

  Back in Youngwood, his eventual purchase was in sad shape. Mrs. Patton passed away in 1995 and the Belvedere was willed to her niece, who “sold the car to a dealer.” After 30 years, “all the tires were flat and the gas in the tank had turned to molasses.” Mark was not too impressed with the dealer's efforts to rejuvenate it. “He put on new tires, an NOS gas tank and basically got it to run, barely,” he told us. The Belvedere came well equipped, having both the optional 301-cubic-inch V-8 and three-speed Torqueflite automatic transmission, which is engaged via a lever protruding from the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel. It also featured the $20 “Sport Tone” paint option that added the contrasting roof color to the inside of the long side spear that runs the length of the car. With wool carpeting, radio and heater, it was one well-equipped '57, with an original list price of $2,750.

  Mark first saw it “on the last day of Hershey in the fall of '95, in the car corral. The asking price was $11,500. Initially, I wasn't that interested in it because it was a four-door sedan, but the more my father and I went over the car, the more it looked like an original.” Mark and his father had noted some flaws and the cursory way in which the dealer had prepared the Plymouth for Hershey. But it turned out that many of them “were just the lack of Chrysler quality control.” As much as Mark loves the Forward Look cars, he has no illusions about their construction. “They just fell apart,” he admitted. Still, after looking the Belvedere over very closely, “we made a $10,000 offer and he took it.” Then Mark's work really began.

  “I detailed the engine and the under carriage. Nothing was taken off, I just tried to bring it back to life.” But he did replace quite a few components. “We put on another set of tires, replaced the radiator hose, rebuilt the carburetor, had the brakes re-done and the radiator rodded. Plus the freeze plugs were completely rusted, we'd never have been able to drive it home. And anywhere there was a factory fluid, we replaced it.” Once all these tasks were accomplished, Mark was very satisfied with the results.

  “Meeting and talking to Plymouth people the last three years makes me realize how exceptional my car is,” he told us. “I have a huge collection of dealer and promotional items that I used to help detail it and to help other people with their restorations. Even though I like to drive it, I'm very particular. I don't let it see the rain.”

  Mark also was surprised at how drivable his Plymouth is. “For a car with no power steering or brakes, it handles much better than other antiques I've driven, certainly better than my father's three Oldsmobiles (a '54, '57 and '58).” Mark credits the Plymouth's torsion bar suspension. He reminded us that “Chrysler Corporation won the Motor Trend Car of the Year Award in '57 for their handling. There's no sway or roll. I'd like to get another '57 or '58 Plymouth— especially a two-door hardtop or convertible—but you don't see many and the prices are out of sight.”

  For now, Mark not only enjoys his '57 Belvedere, but also sharing his Mopar knowledge and expertise with fellow hobbyists of all ages. “I like to see credit given where credit is due,” he said in summation, “so I have to compliment Virgil Exner.” We think Mark Coudriet deserves a few compliments of his own.