Chrysler’s recent emergence from bankruptcy to become a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles brings to mind an earlier time when the company’s continued existence was in doubt. Thirty-five years ago Congress debated a measure that would reassure lenders who were hesitant about extending credit to keep Chrysler’s sinking ship afloat. At the urging of President Carter, the Chrysler Loan Guarantee Act was passed — over the objections of General Motors Chairman Thomas Murphy who called the measure “a basic challenge to the philosophy of America.” Speaking of “basic challenges to the philosophy of America,” the Chevette was introduced during Chairman Murphy’s tenure at GM.
But we digress. Over at Chrysler, once Public Law 86-185 was enacted resources were poured into marketing the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, the legendary K-cars, so named for the company’s internal code for the front wheel drive platform shared by both. We can’t get over this 1980 commercial for the Aries in which no less a light than the real Chairman, a certain Mr. Francis Albert Sinatra declares, “America’s not gonna be pushed around any more!” Give ’em hell, Frankie!
The cars were well made, comparatively reliable (Reliant — get it?) but were, essentially, dull as dishwater. Styling was straightforward in a way that recalls a child’s typical depiction of a car as one box atop another — with windows and doors. Nonetheless, the K-car twins were smash hits, giving Chrysler Chairman Lee Iococca, the company’s onscreen pitchman (“If you can find a better car, buy it!”), a tremendous public profile that obliterated thoughts about the role he had played in the Pinto disaster back when he ran Ford. The loans that the government had guaranteed were paid off ahead of schedule and, as a result, the U.S. Treasury got a $350 million bonus, though it was probably all frittered away in the Iran-Contra deal.
Chrysler, cleverly, used the K-car platform as a kind of automotive Hamburger Helper, creating new products from the same basic components. The Chrysler brand launched its tarted up LeBaron derivative which became the basis for the first new American convertible since the demise of Cadillac’s much vaunted “last” one back in 1976. Dodge gave the Aries an upscale treatment (and a convertible) and, inexplicably, named the result “400.”
Chairman Lee seemed to be enamored of fake wood and, in short order, launched the LeBaron Town & Country station wagon and convertible, both festooned with gobs of grainy goodness. An early LeBaron convertible, slathered with bogus timber, is for sale for under $7,000 here in nearby Woodland Hills, CA. One of these went for almost twice that much at a recent auction so we’re thinking this could be the buy of the century, if not the millennium.
The platform was stretched, like so much pizza dough, for longer models including Chrysler’s New Yorker and the Dodge 600, though, again the Dodge’s model number seems to be a reference to nothing in particular. The K-platform underpinned the wildly successful Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans and even the seldom seen (or purchased) Imperial, Chrysler’s line topper that had come back from vehicular purgatory for a short run beginning in 1990.
That Imperial looks like two or three cars were grafted together to make one strange, billowy barge. Profit margins on these rococo K cars were higher than bare bones Aries and Reliants so they found clever ways to squeeze some additional dollars out of a dumbstruck nation.
The K-car marched into the next decade under a variety of names. This Plymouth Sundance gives some indication of the abuse these stout machines could take.
That’s not just a festering dent on the right rear of this ’87 LeBaron; it’s a mark of character.
We really like the profile of this ’89 Dodge Shadow as seen on the mean streets of lower Manhattan. A tip of the hat to Feral Cars Field Scout and self-proclaimed “car guy” Jim Bessman for this stunner!
Dig this archetypal Chrysler commercial with Chairman Lee closing the deal. “Buy it!”
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