Curbside Classic: 1977 Chrysler Newport – Frosted Gingerbread

Chicago’s upscale Near North neighborhood would be the last place I’d expect to find any Chrysler product of this era, especially in condition this excellent.  This area is full of expensive real estate, and street parking here is usually neither plentiful nor cheap.  The streets of this city are notoriously salty during the cold weather months, and though I had spotted this Newport at the beginning of April a few years ago, it was by no means impossible for it to snow again at least once or twice in the following weeks.

Chrysler Corporation’s fortunes were in the toilet by ’77, with its issues with inconsistent quality control having been well documented here at CC and elsewhere.  For this reason, I had been under the assumption that Newport sales had experienced a serious drop from the introduction of the new-for-’74 models through the end of this design’s run for ’78.

As it turns out, however, and also factoring out the wagons for which production figures never broke five figures in any individual year of this generation, combined Newport and Newport Custom figures had remained fairly consistent for the first four years of this design’s production: 77,400 for ’74, 68,800 for ’75, 56,300 for ’76, 76,400 for ’77, and then about 39,000 for ’78.  For 1977, a 190-horse 400-V8 was standard to motivate the pillared Newport sedan’s 4,500 pounds.  The most popular Newport bodystyle that year was that of our featured car, with about 39,500 units sold.

Though total Newport sales in any year of this generation were a fraction of that of any mid-priced, full-size model from GM or Ford (for example, against 213,600 Olds Deltas or 135,700 of the Mercury Marquis for ’77 – again, factoring out wagons), the Newport clearly must have maintained some appeal to a loyal demographic.  I also found it interesting that the base price of the ’77 Newport hardtop coupe was basically the same (just six dollars more, at $5,374 / $21,100 in 2016) as the handsome, personal luxury Cordoba, which outsold the 2-door Newport by a ratio of 11:1.  The Cordoba’s great looks and more manageable size in a booming market segment contributed to a timely, much-needed sales bump for the make.

As for our featured car, several immediate thoughts and questions crossed my mind when I spotted it.  This clearly must have been one of the “good ones” in the Chrysler Quality Lottery.  Did it sit in an outside lot for long under the ill-conceived Sales Bank program?  How many owners has it had?  Should I stick around for the current owner, and would they indulge me by letting me get some pictures of the interior and under the hood?  Would he or she start it up for me and let me hear that distinctive “Highland Park hummingbird” starter sound that I remember from my family’s ’77 Plymouth Volaré when I was a young kid?  I didn’t linger, as I had places to go and there always seems to be so few hours in the weekend before Sunday night rolls around.

Then, there is this Newport’s color – brown, which seems to have been the most unloved color for a car for as long as I can remember.  I recall how one of my dad’s former college students who later became an attorney was really excited to show our family his new Porsche 944… which was finished in factory Mocha Brown.  In trying for a modern-day metaphor, a Porsche in brown seemed then like Armani suit in polyester would seem today.  I actually love the color brown.  Many of my favorite sweet treats and baked goods are brown.  I’m a sucker for chocolate, pretzels, root beer and gingerbread.  I’ll choose bourbon whiskey over vodka on most days when I choose to drink.

Why is it, then, that I immediately pity a car simply for being in a pretty universally unpopular color for a vehicle?  Then, when looking again at this Newport, I begin to remember it was “born” in what must have been the most earth-toned of all decades within the last century – the 1970’s.  Brown was seriously in vogue when this car was new, if the wood paneling in the basements of many American homes (including the one of my first memories) and the abundance of brown corduroy in period Sears catalogs (whoosh, whoosh, whoosh down the center aisle for Holy communion was part of the soundtrack of my childhood) was any indication.  This Newport was likely brown on purpose, and its white vinyl roof treatment seems, almost literally, like the icing on this nearly-luxurious cake.

I’m actually not 100% positive this car is a ’77.  It could also be a ’76 or a ’78, as all three model years sported the same full-width taillamps, which I felt were an attractive upgrade from the outboard, vertical units on the ’74 and ’75 models.  I chose the year “1977” only for emphasis, as today would mark close to exactly four decades since our featured car was new.  As old as the current Chrysler 300 (the Newport’s direct descendant) seems now, having been on the market in its current form since 2011, I’ll bet our featured car seemed positively ancient by comparison by the time its design was six years old – when the seminal, front-drive K-Cars were on the eve of being introduced.

Given this big, old Newport’s apparent comfort level in this tony area located not far from that famed stretch of the Michigan Avenue shopping district commonly known as the “Magnificent Mile”, I’d like to think that if personified, it would remember that its family name, Chrysler, once carried sufficient cachet to transcend even what is likely to be the most ridiculed of all automotive paint colors.  As for me, I say this car wears its very-1970’s hue very well in its own solid, resolute way – like one of the expensive brownstones on this street.

Near North District, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, April 5, 2014.

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