How long since you saw a first-generation K-car? In one piece, I mean? The facelifted ’85-’89 versions are still seen every odd and then, but the ’81-’84 units seldom are. And that’s kind of a pity. That’s the car aptly depicted making this happen:
…not long after this happened:
It’s fish-in-a-barrel easy to mock the K-cars; just ask Tim. But they really were quite a sensation when they came out, protuberant 5-mph bumpers and all. Advertisements played on themes of jubilant-throngs-fill-streets (and rode the coattails of Reagan’s morning-in-America schtick), and some of the trade-in fodder shown is risible, but the excitement was quite real; the last new small family car range so successfully, so transformatively, so seismically launched by Chrysler—or, arguably, any other American automaker—had been the 1960 Valiant.
For better and worse, the K-car became an enduring North American cultural touchstone, right up (and down) there with the likes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Some years after the K-cars per se had given way to their various begats, Barenaked Ladies (from Canada, where we call it Kraft Dinner and the first few years of K-cars were configured to run on leaded gasoline) lovingingly namechecked them. But they were what they were: inexpensive, basic, one might justifiably say disposable cars. Pretty good ones, especially compared to their competition from GM and Ford, but disposable cars nonetheless. And that’s what happened to most of them: used up and thrown away.
Not this particular one, though (ad archived here). It’s got a bare 23 kilomiles on it, still on its original little-old-lady-and-only-to-church-on-Sunday story, and its near-new condition is all the more astounding given the car’s location in the suburbs of Detroit. Yes, it’s for sale with an ask price of $7500; I repeat myself, when’s the last time you saw one? Check out the 55-in-a-box speedometer.
There’s a devoted purity to the design of the ’81-’84 K-cars. They are so unapologetically upright, so resolutely rectilinear as to make a Volvo 240 look swoopy; perhaps the only curve to be found on a gen-1 K-car is…erm…well, the muffler is round. If there’s a purer expression of the origami school of car design, I can’t think of it at the moment. From any and every angle, it’s all straight lines and corners. It’s boxes on wheels, but designed thoughtfully enough that it’s tidy, taut boxes on wheels—a justifiably extreme reaction to the Brougham brigade’s bloatmobiles.
The ’85 facelift spoiled the effect by randomly melting parts of the bar of soap. Corners were softened and the grilles and headlamps were fused into awkward rounded-trapezoid shapes that really didn’t belong on the still-square rest of the body; maybe that’s why Tim sold his.
But none of that sadness applies to this plucky ’83. It’s powered—at sea level; if you’re at high altitude we’ll just say it’s equipped—not with the regrettable 2.6-litre “silent [Not! -ed] shaft” Mitsubishi Astron engine, but with Chrysler’s carbureted 94-horsepower, 117 lb·ft 2.2-litre engine—penned by the same hand as the everlasting Slant-6—next to the transaxle iteration of the efficient Chrysler Torqueflite automatic.
Hey, what’s that aluminum thing with the vacuum pot on it, to the right of the cam cover, below the air intake flex duct? That’s the emission control air pump, which, yes, was belt-driven off the back of the camshaft because the alternator, A/C compressor, and power steering pump hogged up all the room and belt lines at the other end of the engine. The decal on the air cleaner reads “ELECTRONIC IGNITION SYSTEM”, which in 1983 was celebrating its 10th anniversary as an item of standard equipment on Chrysler Corporation vehicles. Look closer and you see the owner has installed an oil filter with an early-1960s Mopar label on it. Not quite era-correct, but still a nice touch:
Lookit there, the hood release spring and the A/C lines and the dipstick handles and strut mount bearings still have all the factory paint. The underhood decals are all intact. The original hose clamps are in place. Everything plated is still bright and shiny. We can see a dab of yellow paint on the transaxle, probably an assembly line inspection mark. This engine is clean enough to eat off or cook on.
The dashboard doesn’t know what cracks are—though it appears to be familiar with moulded-in simulated stitchwork—and this car was built before the shift from brushed chrome to black. The radio, which to me looks to be an AM unit, nevertheless bears one of the vacuum fluorescent displays Chrysler’s Huntsville, Alabama electronics centre was proud to have introduced for automotive service. Even here inside the car, it’s all rectangles ‘n’ lines, baybay! And some of the rectangles that don’t have brushed chrome have simulated woodgrain.
The windows and locks will still work perfectly even with a flat battery—roof don’t leak when there ain’t no rain—whether you’re sitting in front (lookit that impeccable door panel carpet and unsagged armrest!)…
…or in the back. I recognise that rear door armrest ash tray; the same type was used in Darts and Valiants of the 1970s. Ditto the window crank handle knob, which matches (scroll up) that knob that capped just about every column automatic shifter Chrysler put out between 1968 and 1983; its ’84 replacement was considerably less charming. But this is an ’83, and even the LOCK↑ imprint is still crisp and sharp on all four door lock rockers.
Now see here: I defy you—I dare you—to say the ’85-’89 restyle looks better than this:
One interesting detail here, or lack thereof, is the missing K behind the Aries callout. In one or another of Iacocca’s books, he describes how “K” wasn’t meant as anything more than just an internal car code, but marketing picked up and ran with it (“The K-Cars are coming!”), and so the cars were launched as Aries-K and Reliant-K. For 1983 the “K” was removed, but reportedly such was the outcry that it was subsequently restored.
It’s worth noting these cars were built and sold in Mexico as the Dodge Dart-K and Chrysler Valiant Volaré-K. Even without those names in the US and Canada, in many respects the K-cars were spiritual successors to the much-loved Darts and Valiants. They were not more and not less than what they were: simple, basic, affordable transport appliances for the masses. They weren’t so defiantly durable—the 1980s were not the 1960s; priorities had changed. And that’s why somebody needs to buy this and baby it; another like it will surely not be forthcoming.