(first posted 2/1/2013) All my recent talk about Oldsmobiles made me forget that I have another significant family legacy. My Great-Grandmother Clara bought Chrysler New Yorkers exclusively, from her first new-car purchase in 1956 to her last, in 1987. Although I’m feeling like the Dr. Doolittle of the Forward Look, we’ll look at how her loyalty probably had nothing to do with our subject car.
My Great-Grandmother Clara arrived in San Francisco, from Birmingham, in August 1956, along with her second husband and my (maternal) grandmother, then a blossoming teenager. The Conestoga wagon of the trek was a lightly-used 1951 Pontiac Chieftain. For her new life in the glamorous Baghdad By The Bay, though, that old Chieftain Deluxe just wasn’t cutting the mustard.
Despite having made a huge trek from the deep south, somehow and miraculously the family found enough money for a down payment on a 1956 New Yorker four-door sedan–in “Pink and Ecru”, as Clara would tell four-year-old me when we started talking cars some 30 years later.
The family however landed in San Francisco during one of its more modern periods of upheaval. The Fillmore District was being “redeveloped” (a loaded term then, just as it is now); by the fall of 1957, having received their “eminent domain” settlement, they were looking toward suburban environments that would be welcoming to African Americans.
Thus was Clara’s love of new Chrysler New Yorkers put on hold for eight model years: The cost of a mortgage, furnishings and maintenance for a 1,300 sq.ft. suburban home some 30 miles away left little money to indulge in ownership of the rapidly changing Chryslers.
She was tempted by their long, sweeping lines and cathedral tail lamps. She probably wouldn’t have really known or cared for the newly stiffened Torsion-Aire ride, but would have been dazzled by the breathtaking go-power of the upsized 392 Hemi V8, whose class-leading 325 horsepower filtered through the finest-in-the-industry Torqueflite automatic. It surely would have been a thrill to play with on those drives to Salinas to get vegetables for canning.
She would have enjoyed every moment, sliding behind that plastic steering wheel onto the Jacquard- fabric bench seats–at least until the springs started poking out randomly from beneath the cheapened foam padding. And then, the rattles would have developed, along with the possibility of leaks from the windshield and other assorted places.
She probably wouldn’t have suffered the worst faults of the fatal Forward Look: Northern California’s temperate climate would have done wonders to postpone the snapping torsion-bar mounts and notorious rusting. It’s well documented that in terms of quality, the 1957 model year was an unmitigated disaster for Highland Park, and one from which it took years to recover. In fact, some say Chrysler’s reputation never really did recover from it.
I wonder if my Great-Grandmother would have tolerated such flaws in her car. She always believed in buying high-quality things that resulted in less consumption in the long run. Would her loyalties have been shaken? If so, where would she have gone? Oldsmobile and Buick are the most logical alternatives (she openly detested a fellow deaconess at Macedonia Baptist Church who traded for a new Cadillac every two years). Or would she have forgiven the mistakes that Chrysler made in the fury of ’57?
In any case, the 1956 New Yorker was replaced when my Grandmother, now 21 and with two children, needed a car to relocate to Chicago. It was a perfect opportunity to finally splurge a little for a new New Yorker, this time a beige four-door hardtop. By 1964, most of the quality headaches that scared off a host of Mopar faithful (and probably killed DeSoto once and for all) had been sorted out. And frankly, the new Mopars weren’t as…well, weird as the 1961-62 models.
It always fascinates me that consumer loyalty is mostly based upon positive experiences with the product purchased, which explains the my family’s other loyalty for Oldsmobiles: Most of the more questionable Olds moments–from the diesels to the nightmare that the Aurora could be–were avoided. What’s more, my own experience with an Ultradrive-equipped LHS has sworn me off modern Chryslers for life.
Function can follow form only when the function proves useful. It’s a lesson that Chrysler has repeatedly struggled to learn during its history. By circumstance, then, they never lost a lifelong customer. Here’s hoping that in the 21st Century they aren’t relying on such dumb luck.
Chrysler’s Forward Look folly reminds one that not only is beauty merely skin deep–but that often, it covers an internal ugliness that goes straight to the bone.