Curbside Classic: 1979 to 1981 Dodge St. Regis – The Perfect Storm

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Throughout the 1970s, financial thunder clouds were constantly dumping over the Chrysler Corporation.  From the poorly timed introduction and sales disappointment of their new 1974 full-sized line to their increasing dependence on the aging  A-bodies to its less than stellar replacement, there was a nearly unending rain on Chrysler’s continually diminishing parade of products.  During the height of this stormy weather there was a long reverberating clap of thunder called the Dodge St. Regis.

1978 Dodge Full Line-04 - Version 2

In concept the R-body St. Regis wasn’t a bad car.  As a replacement for the 1978 Monaco, it succeeded in being both bigger and lighter, a rarely seen combination for those times.  Tipping the scales at 3,600 pounds, the weight reduction of the St. Regis was palpable as it was 200 pounds lighter than the B-body Monaco.

1975 Dodge Monaco-04

This new Dodge was also 500 to 600 pounds lighter than the last of the “full-size” Dodges, the C-body 1977 Royal Monaco (1975 Monaco shown).  Upon its introduction in 1979, the St. Regis was the biggest Dodge available, having a wheelbase of 118.5″, a mere 2.5″ longer than the new for 1977 General Motors B-body quadruplets.

Therein lies the first criticism of the St. Regis.

1977 Buick Full Line-14-15

When the new C-body Dodge Monaco was introduced for 1974, its resemblance to the 1972 Buick LeSabre were considerably more than minor; when the R-body bowed, similar comparisons were made between the St. Regis and the 1977 Buick LeSabre, seen here.

1978 Dodge Full Line-04

While there are certainly some visual similarities to the 1977 LeSabre, which could be debated as being either cribbing or simply the general style of the times, the St. Regis did have some quite obvious styling themes Chrysler had been using.  In addition to the frameless door glass found on various two-door models such as the Cordoba and Diplomat, there was also the face similar to the 1978 and 1979 Dodge Magnum.

Covered headlights were very much a 1970s styling element, but few had the clear lens covers of the Magnum and St. Regis.

1979 Dodge StRegis-01

Dodge appeared to be creating a familial face for their product; perhaps someone in Highland Park was having a fit of optimism.

The similarities between the Magnum and St. Regis extended beyond their frontal appearance.  This contributed to the second criticism of the St. Regis.

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Under its skin, the St. Regis looked an awful lot like the familiar Chrysler B-body, still utilizing the torsion bar front suspension first used in 1957.  Nothing about the chassis itself was truly revolutionary or unique.  Given GM’s success in manipulating the Colonnade frame into use for its much ballyhooed downsized B-bodies, did Chrysler really behave in such a taboo manner?  Not really.

It wasn’t like Chrysler was overwhelmed with resources allowing something breathtakingly original.  They needed a replacement for their large car line, and created a slightly larger successor to the Monaco.  Yet, in what was becoming a Chrysler tradition, their timing was atrocious.

st regis sales bank

Everybody has their dirty little secrets.  In the case of Chrysler, they had their poorly conceived Sales Bank.  Instigated during the reign of chairman Lynn Townsend, the concept was to not idle factories and place cars into the Sales Bank, encouraging dealers into buying pre-built cars already on hand.

The downsides were many.  Cars were taking up a lot of space, they were aging from weather exposure, and the use of rebates to clear out inventory all conspired against Chrysler’s already fragile bottom line.

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Sales of the new R-body St. Regis started off respectable, selling nearly 35,000 units for 1979, slightly more than the four-door versions of the 1978 Monaco.

However, Chrysler (mis)management and geopolitical events would never again allow the St. Regis to see such volumes.  In June, the 1979 Energy Crisis hit, prompted by the Iranian Revolution.  This, combined with high interest rates, would drive sales of the St. Regis down by half for 1980 and down another two-thirds for 1981.  St. Regis sales were a mere 5,388 that final year.

The primary purchaser of those few cars has helped cultivate the third leg in the mixed legacy of the St. Regis.

1980 Dodge Police-03

The largest engine available in the 1979 St. Regis was the 5.9 liter, 360 cubic inch V8.  This also applied to law enforcement as the fabled 440 cubic inch V8 was now history.  For 1979, the 360 was available to cops in all fifty states, with a rating of 195 horsepower for everyone but those in California.  Air regulations imposed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) required detuning the California destined engines to 190 horsepower to meet emissions standards.

Testing by the Michigan State Police found the St. Regis to have a top speed of 122.9 mph, a velocity far greater than any full-sized offering from Ford or GM.  While top speed was quite close to the 124 mph Car & Driver recorded for a 6.6 liter Pontiac Trans Am, it was 10 mph slower on the top end than a 440 powered 1978 Plymouth Fury (Monaco’s twin) also tested by Car & Driver.  The 1978 Fury earned the distinction of having the highest top speed of any car built in the United States in 1978.  It outran a Mercedes 450 SLC, the Chevrolet Corvette, plus both GM F-bodies and not by insignificant margins.

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So while performance was down, testing revealed the St. Regis to be the best performer of any police package sedan sold in the United States for the 1979 model year.  It just didn’t have the highest top speed of any car built in the United States.  States like Michigan and California, having a selection process that was performance based in lieu of simply the lowest bid, used the St. Regis in 1979.

Things devolved for 1980.  While the 360 remained for 49 states, stricter regulations by CARB disallowed it in California, making their hottest cop engine the 4 barrel, 318 (5.2 liter) V8 pumping out 155 horsepower.  Also conspiring against performance nationwide was Chrysler discontinuing the option of a 3.21:1 axle ratio for a one size fits all 2.94:1 axle ratio.  While this four-barrel 318 still outran a 5.7 liter Impala in Michigan State Police testing, performance was down from 1979 with the sprint to 100 mph taking nine seconds longer and top speed being 8 mph less, at 115 mph.

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In California, where their Highway Patrol had ran Dodge’s for all but two years since the mid-1950s, this was a stark contrast to the 440 powered cars they had been using for over a decade.

Chuck Swift, owner of Swift Dodge in Sacramento and nearly perpetual contract winner for the Patrol’s cars, summed it up best when he attributed the lack of performance fuss by cops to “big block withdrawal”.  While the 318 powered St. Regis wasn’t in the same league as a 440 powered Monaco, the St. Regis was simply the best patrol car available in a time when a drop in performance was an annual event.  These California emission cars had a documented top speed of 114 to 115 mph with a slick top and around 108 mph with a lightbar.  For comparison, that 108 mph exceeded the capability of a 5.7 liter Impala with a slick top.

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While a 318 was the largest engine available in any St. Regis for 1981, it really didn’t matter anymore.  The police had moved on to both the M-body Dodge Diplomat and Ford Mustang with any remaining retail buyers going elsewhere.  The Mustang provided power and the Diplomat aided in the people moving realm, but both were considered too small.  Called many things, the St. Regis was never called small, even being dubbed “Best Chrysler Police Car” by respondents to a survey by author Edwin Sanow in his book Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler Police Cars, 1979 to 1994.  The St. Regis had proven itself to perform quite well for the time.

The St. Regis lived a short life, born into a perfect storm which seemingly doomed it to failure from every angle.  While a sales failure, the St. Regis succeeded in doing what it was built to do, even acquitting itself as being the best among some of the worst.

Is it any wonder this car has such a mixed legacy? St Regis 5

Photos by Tom Klockau

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