LAS VEGAS -- DaimlerChrysler AG confirmed Wednesday it plans to phase out the Plymouth brand at the end of the 2001 model year in an effort to eliminate overlap with other Chrysler models.
"Chrysler has great momentum right now that we intend to keep going. As we move forward with our global growth strategy, Plymouth, as a U.S. brand only, did not contribute to that growth," Chrysler president Jim Holden said in a statement.
"This was an emotional decision because Plymouth will always be an important part of our heritage."
The move had been expected for months. DaimlerChrysler had announced no new products for Plymouth, and all of the vehicles sold under the Plymouth name share a twin with DaimlerChrysler's Dodge and Chrysler brands with the exception of the low-volume Prowler.
DaimlerChrysler has combined many of its dealerships to sell Chrysler and Dodge cars and trucks. The Plymouth brand was stopped last year in Canada. And recently, the company stopped putting the Plymouth emblem on the Voyager minivan.
Chrysler said it will sell the Voyager minivans as Chryslers starting in December, and drop production of the Plymouth Breeze sedan at the end of 1999. The Plymouth Neon and Prowler will continue to be sold until 2001.
The Plymouth brand dates to 1928, when the former Chrysler Corp. introduced the four-cylinder car to compete against Ford and Chevrolet for customers looking for an inexpensive car.
After World War II, Plymouth stayed competitive, helping to set the trend for larger cars and tailfins. In the '60s, Plymouth staked out a place in hot-rodders hearts, bringing out small and medium-sized cars with huge engines, including the 1968 Plymouth Road Runner available with a 425-hp V-8.
"Plymouth was sort of the mainstream product for Chrysler for many, many years," said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "By in large the Plymouth brand was the core brand. Dodge was the intermediate and Chrysler was luxury."
But as the Plymouth brand has aged, it has lost its muscle-car macho and been fenced in as Chrysler's low-cost leader. During its financial slide in the late 1970s and '80s, Chrysler sold nearly identical cars under both the Dodge and Plymouth names, leaving customers confused. After it rebounded in the late 1980s, Chrysler revived Dodge with a sporty image, but was unable to give Plymouth its own feel.
Sales began to sag. In 1973, when Richard Petty was winning stock car races in his light blue Road Runner, sales of Plymouth cars reached 750,000. Last year, sales totaled 307,000.
The company tried to turn around sales three years ago with the introduction of the Breeze sedan and the Prowler roadster. DaimlerChrysler revved up spending on advertising, and tried using sales kiosks in shopping malls to attract the 20- to 40-year-old crowd.
This year, sales of the Breeze are down 10 percent in a market where pickups and roomy sport utility vehicles are selling far better than small cars. For the year, Plymouth sales are down 9 percent; in October, Plymouth sold 30 percent fewer cars and minivans than it did in October 1998.
Dodge currently sells its own versions of almost all of the Plymouth vehicles. It has its own Neon, the Stratus (sister to the Breeze) and the Caravan (the Dodge version of Voyager). Outside the United States, the Neon is sold under the Chrysler brand.
The company said it would try to keep Plymouth customers, a task Cole said could be challenging.
"For every one less Plymouth, is there going to be one more Dodge or Chrysler?" Cole said. "They would hope to maintain total volume. It's a tough game they're playing."