Roadster remembrance: The 1949 Dodge Wayfarer
You might be familiar with the number of postwar roadsters that gained popularity in the immediate postwar era. Many fondly remember those wearing MG, Triumph, and other British badges. Less common are those from American marques such as Chevrolet, Kaiser-Darrin, and Dodge.
Wait a minute, Dodge?
Well, yes. For 1949, Dodge introduced its first true Detroit-built roadster since 1931. The so-called Wayfarer Roadster arrived alongside Dodge’s redesigned models in February 1949. The company would have introduced them during the traditional fall 1948 new model rollout, but Chrysler Corporation, then America’s second-largest automaker, didn’t have everything ready. To fill showrooms, 1948 models, which were, in reality, slightly restyled pre-war designs, were sold as “first series” 1949s until the new models were produced.
Called the “second series,” the 1949 Dodges were all-new but hardly exciting due to their drab, boxy, slab-sided styling. The new looks reflected the conservative, if dowdy, taste of Chrysler President K.T. Keller, who rejected the “longer, lower wider” ethos of GM’s design chief Harley Earl. “We make cars to sit in, not piss over,” Keller reputedly said.
Perhaps to attract buyers to its staid product lineup, Dodge introduced the entry-level Dodge Wayfarer as a notchback business coupe, a fastback two-door sedan, and two-door roadster models. The roadster was priced at $1727, or $18,583 in 2019 dollars when adjusted for inflation. Clearly, it was designed for the tightwad who wanted a drop-top but didn’t want to spend a whole lot to get one. After all, competing convertibles cost more, including Plymouth ($1982), Ford ($1886), and Chevrolet ($1857).
Riding on a 115-inch wheelbase shared with Plymouth, the Wayfarer was shorter than tonier Dodge siblings, an outgrowth of a stillborn small car project that Chrysler, like Ford and General Motors, thought might be needed after the war.
The Wayfarer name, which was new for 1949, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a person who travels on foot”; not the best name for a new car.
Of course, next to walking, driving a Wayfarer roadster was heavenly, despite the Wayfarer’s Spartan interior that lacked such standard amenities as turn signals, a heater, radio, armrests, horn ring, cigar lighter, and a second sun visor. (The Wayfarer was equipped with one visor.) Thankfully, it did come with windshield wipers and a front bench roomy enough for three. But instead of a back seat, there was a package shelf that could be fitted with an optional cushion for occasional passenger use.
True to its name, the roadster came with standard removable Plexiglas side curtains, although removable plastic swing-out windows were a $22.50 option. The manually-operated convertible top was offered solely in gray and used an aluminum frame. Its short length eliminated the need for rear quarter windows, and it could be raised or lowered with one hand.
Underneath the bland body was a conventional suspension setup, with an independent front suspension with unequal-length A-arms, coil springs, and an anti-roll bar, while the live rear axle uses semi-elliptic leaf springs. Stops come courtesy of 9-inch drums.
Power was provided by a 230-cubic-inch L-head inline six-cylinder engine that dated to 1929 and would remain in production through the 1970s for military trucks and industrial applications. Rated at 103 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque at 1200 rpm, it was mated to Dodge’s Fluid Drive, a three-speed manual transmission that substituted a torque converter for the flywheel and shifted with a column-mounted lever. While it could be worked like a traditional manual, drivers could shift into high gear and continue driving as if it were an automatic transmission, idling in gear and accelerating from a stop without using the clutch, although it was still required for reverse.
Around this time, California lawmakers got involved. The brain trust in Sacramento dictated that drivers be able to use hand signals at all times, even if the car had turn signals. This proved impossible, so all California units were recalled and fitted with roll-up windows. It became a $35 option for 1950, and was a feature on almost all vehicles past this point.
Of the 63,816 Wayfarers sold in 1949, only 8.5 percent, or 5420 units, were roadsters. By comparison, Plymouth sold 15,240 ragtops. Despite a freshening for 1950, which included a new Sportabout moniker the Wayfarer roadster’s popularity declined, accounting for 3.8 percent of the 75,403 units built. Of course, a 104-day strike impacted sales, as did the arrival of the 1950 Rambler Airflyte convertible costing 4.4 percent more than the Dodge, but boasting a far more generous list of standard equipment. Even an extensive facelift for 1951, which included a new hood, grille, bumper, revised trim, and additional windows did little to halt the car’s fate.
Dodge dropped it for 1952, leaving the Coronet as Dodge’s sole convertible offering. Dodge built 217,623 Wayfarers, of which 9325 examples were roadsters and Sportabouts. Its rarity and unusual nature make it an interesting oddity, albeit one rarely remembered today.
Base price, 1949: $1727
Engine: 230 cubic-inch L-head inline six-cylinder
Torque: 190 pound-feet
Wheelbase: 115 inches
Length: 194.4 inches
Width: 73 inches
Height: 63.5 inches