This morning’s post by Jason Shafer on Shockingly Low Volume Plymouths comes with a dash of irony. Last month, Jason and I met up one day to visit the Auto World Museum in Fulton, Missouri, and the spent rest of the afternoon talking about old cars. One topic of conversation was cars that have become all but extinct, and Jason mentioned the 2-door K Car. Neither of us had seen a 2-door Aries or Reliant in years. Two days later, guess what I saw?
While our featured car here is not the shockingly low volume ’87 base model Reliant discussed in Jason’s post (of which 204 were produced), it is still quite a rarity. This car is 1989 Reliant America – a special treat in its own right not just for being a 2-door, but also for being from the Reliant’s final model year. Jason and I speculated on how many 2-door K car variants might be completely extinct, but this one is bravely staring down its inevitable doom.
That doom may come sooner, rather than later, due to some significant body damage. Unless it is quickly rescued by a deep-pocketed K Car enthusiast, this example isn’t long for the world. So, let’s appreciate it while we still can.
Widely hailed as the vehicles that rescued Chrysler, K cars thrived on their good value from their 1981 introduction right through the rest of the decade. The K car package provided exactly what customers wanted through much of the 1980s – front-wheel drive in a space-efficient package, (tight) 6-passenger capacity, and impressive fuel mileage, all for very reasonable prices. Both the Reliant and the nearly identical Dodge Aries included 2-door, 4-door and wagon versions for 8 of their 9 production years (wagons were dropped for ’89), and the 2-door models were heavily marketed in the K cars’ early years.
Initially, 2-doors accounted for about one-fifth of total Aries and Reliant sales. However, in the late 1980s, that number trailed off rapidly, mirroring industrywide trends. By 1988, just 6% of Aries/Reliant sales were 2-door models.
Manufactured from 1981 to 1989 with only modest updating and a single (1985) facelift, K cars enjoyed a long shelf life, and a robust popularity with bargain-seekers. While overall Aries/Reliant sales peaked in their first year at over 300,000 units, later years’ sales didn’t dip too far – with the twins still selling over 200,000 units as late as 1988, even after their intended replacements (the Shadow and Sundance) debuted. Such strong demand for a clearly dated product was a result of the K car’s value. This focus on value was amplified in 1988 with the “America” series, which brought higher trim levels to the base cars, at a price that was hard to beat.
Chrysler’s reasons for introducing the America in 1988 help to explain the shockingly low production number for the ’87 base Reliant mentioned in Jason’s article. In 1983-84, the bare-bones base model accounted for over half of total Reliant sales, but that proportion plummeted as K car buyers began showing a preference for higher levels of amenities. By 1987, less than 5,000 customers ordered base Reliants, with just 4% (or 204 cars) being 2-doors.
Chrysler responded to this rapid shift in demand quickly, and well. Replacing both the base and LE models with the America series (which included most of the LE’s features at low price) kept customers coming for another two model years. Reliant sales increased for 1988. The proportion of 2-door sales, though, continued to droop.
Aries/Reliant production ceased midway through the 1989 model year, with 105,000 cars being produced (about evenly split between Dodges and Plymouths). Roughly 4,000 Reliant 2-doors were made in the K car’s final year… not shockingly low, but scarce enough to make this an intriguing find.
The small, simple K car had an outsize influence on American industrial history, yet many variants may slip into extinction before anyone even realizes they’ve become rare. Although the 1987 base model Reliants may already be gone, as of last month, at least one Reliant America 2-door was still working hard.
Photographed in Quincy, Illinois in April 2017.