Curbside Classic: 1981 Chrysler New Yorker – Failure Can Be Beautiful

27422320945_def7803cb2_k(1981 New Yorker photos from CC Cohort by William Rubano)

As it’s been well-documented at Curbside Classic several times over the years, Chrysler’s R-bodies were by and large a colossal failure, doomed by Chrysler’s own doings and misfortunes as much as they were by external forces. Yet despite their many shortcomings and short-lived years, I have always found a soft spot for these final traditionally-sized full-size Chryslers.

1979 New Yorker blue

Nearly a foot shorter in length, 600-800 pounds lighter, and riding on a 5.5-inch shorter wheelbase than the C-bodies they replaced, the R-bodies were the automaker’s answer to GM’s 1977 B-/C-body and Ford’s 1978 Panther-body “downsized” full-size cars. Despite their downsizing, Chrysler’s full-size R-bodies were still nearly a foot longer and rode on 2 to 5 inch longer wheelbases than the Bs/Panthers, something Chrysler heavily played-up in advertisements, regardless of the fact that most interior dimensions were quite similar.

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In some ways this was detrimental, as GM and Ford’s externally smaller vehicles conveyed a greater sense of fuel efficiency, regardless of whether or not they actually were. In the case of the costlier New Yorker, however, its wealthier clientele were probably less concerned with fuel efficiency and appreciative of the “big car” look. Furthermore, the New Yorker’s competition over at GM rode on the C-body, which was actually the same size in every dimension, give or take an inch.

1962 Dodge Dart

Naysayers will be quick to call out the R-body as little more than a Chrysler B-body (which dated back 17 years to 1962) with a new name, which indeed is very true. Apart from a few new components, such as weight-saving plastic brake cylinder pistons (which had the tendency to swell up and fail prematurely), the R-body used tried and true technology, such as a parallel torsion bar front suspension dating back to 1957, Torqueflite 3-speed automatic transmissions dating to 1962 and 1964, and Slant 6 I6 and LA V8 engines also dating back to the early ’60s.

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Of course in the mid-to-late 1970s, Chrysler’s financial situation was more troubling than ever before. With Chrysler’s 7.5 billion dollar federal loan request denied, the automaker had little choice but to adapt existing mechanics for its new downsized full-sizers needed to meet CAFE standards. That said, it’s not like GM’s 1977 B-body and Ford’s 1978 Panther-platforms were 100-percent new, also taking advantage of their existing parts bins.

1979 Chrysler NY Fifth Avenue

Where Chrysler spent the bulk of its wallet was in the areas frequently seen and touched: the exterior and interior. The bodies of the R-platform vehicles were entirely new, sharing nothing with their predecessors, nor other Mopars. Apart from front and rear clips, and a few minor trim variations, sheetmetal was identical between the eventual four R-body variants (New Yorker, Newport, St. Regis, Gran Fury), all of which were limited to four-doors, as Chrysler could not afford to develop additional body styles.

Amidst safety concerns, automakers began dropping their 4-door hardtops in the mid-to-late 1970s, with Chrysler offering the industry’s last true full-size hardtops in its 1978 C-body New Yorker and Newport. Unlike Ford and GM who used framed-glass for their full-size sedans, likely as much of a weight-saving measure as it was a cost-saving measure, Chrysler chose to stick with frameless glass with a thin B-pillar, somewhat (but not really) emulating the hardtop look.

Chrysler officially marketed the R-bodies as “pillared hardtops”, though this was confused even more on the New Yorkers. Featuring a standard quarter-landau roof, its rear-quarter opera windows opened with the rear doors, making for an unusual look when the door was opened, especially if the window was rolled down. In any event, frameless windows gave the R-bodies airier interiors and a less top-heavy appearance than their competitors.

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Exterior styling was nothing groundbreaking, following the squared-off genericism that was sweeping the industry following the introduction of cars such as the 1975 Cadillac Seville. Now that being said, the R-bodies’ styling represented a clean break from previous big Chryslers, and unlike their predecessors, body lines were straight, angles were sharp, and all wheel wells were open, reducing the cars’ visual bulk. Additionally, the R-bodies’ slanted front ends, trim details, and longer length gave them a distinctive enough look and somewhat more graceful look when compared to GM and Ford competitors.

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Plymouth Gran Furys and Chrysler Newports were naturally the plainest looking, with exposed quad sealed-beam headlights above non-wraparound turn signals. The Dodge St. Regis was the most unusual, with its headlights hidden behind retractable translucent covers and wraparound turn signals.

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The Chrysler New Yorker was rightfully the most stately in appearance, with a more upright front end, formal waterfall grille, and more traditional quad round headlights hidden behind retractable metal covers.

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Around back, New Yorkers gained a unique decklid mimicking the power dome hood, as well as non-wraparound art deco-esque full-width taillights for a more formal look and greater distinction over its siblings. As previously mentioned, all New Yorkers featured a standard padded quarter landau roof with integrated opera windows. New Yorker Fifth Avenue Edition models also gained front fender louvers for an added touch of dignification.

1979 new yorker interior

Inside, interiors were all-new, sharing little in terms of design with other Chryslers (the 1980 J-body personal luxury coupes would feature similar dashboards). Dashboards featured a clean, angular appearance mimicking the exterior, and were constructed of injection-molded plastic, permitting for full instrumentation (something competitors ceased offering as standard) while keeping weight down.

1979 fifth avenue interior

As the premier R-body, New Yorkers featured the highest level of standard equipment and the most elegantly appointed interiors. A generous amount of simulated woodtone appliqué accentuated the dash and door panels, in the form of the New Yorker’s simulated burl walnut or the New Yorker Fifth Avenue’s simulated driftwood (1979-1980) or featherwood grain (1981).

1979 seats

Standard upholstery was a plush “Richton” cloth-and-vinyl combination (left), featuring in your author’s opinion, a refreshingly attractive seat design and upholstery pattern. After that, things got a little more confusing. Leather with vinyl trim was optional on New Yorkers, though for 1979-1980, non-Fifth Avenue models featured a button-tufted floating cushion seat design (center).

Fifth Avenues meanwhile, featured standard champagne leather for 1979-1980, and used the same seat design as base New Yorker’s cloth seats (above right). In a more logical move, for 1981, the New Yorker and New Yorker Fifth Avenue switched leather seat designs, though Fifth Avenues now featured a new “LaCorde” cloth upholstery and seat design as standard, with leather now optional.

1980 NY Seat trim

R-body New Yorker offered buyers a whole spectrum of interior color choices, including in no particular order: midnight blue, teal green, gray, cashmere, red, heather, mahogany, champagne, and even white leather with midnight blue, teal green, or red accents. Regardless of upholstery, front seats were a 60/40-split bench with center armrest and reclining passenger’s seat back. The appearance of these front seats were more bucket-like than competitors and predecessors, and actually looked like they belonged in a car and not granny’s living room, or worse, a brothel.

1980 Chrysler-01 (1)

Even with the button-tufted floating cushion leather, 20-ounce cut-pile shag carpeting, deforestation of fake wood, and gold-etched opera windows, Chrysler’s interiors came across as more efficiently designed and less stuffy than similar vehicles from brands such as Oldsmobile, Buick, Mercury, as well as Cadillac and Lincoln.

Fit-and-finish was nothing spectacular in any American car of this time period, but given Chrysler’s dire financial situation, nickel-and-diming was even more prevalent. More corners were cut, and Chrysler actually anticipated 1,077 defects for every 100 R-bodies produced, or an average of 11 defects per vehicle. This 1979 review clearly supports this claim.

1981 NY b&w

But the R-body’s biggest deterrent to buyers lay in the fact that its parent company was publicly reeking the stench of death. Denied of federal assistance and slow to release downsized models (and new vehicles altogether) in response to the energy crisis, its aging lineup of uncompetitive offerings greatly suffered as the competition was enjoying rising success.

1981 New Yorker twotone

Whether its potential buyers were weary of the automaker’s future, unimpressed with Chrysler’s attempt at a downsized car, or sick of waiting for Chrysler to play catch-up, the R-body did not find a loyal audience. Sales of the New Yorker and its cheaper Newport sibling started off strong (at 54,640 and 78,296, respectively), but with another fuel crisis in 1979, plummeted to levels far worse than competitors and never rebounded.

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Armed with and fully invested in its new front-wheel drive K-cars, in an abrupt move, Chrysler pulled the plug on the R-bodies after a brief 1981 model year, leaving the midsize M-body to take over as its “full-size” rear-wheel drive car. The former M-body LeBaron briefly became the New Yorker for 1982, with the LeBaron name moving to a new compact K-car. A front-wheel drive four-cylinder New Yorker arrived for 1983 on an extended K-platform, making it the smallest New Yorker ever.

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One has to ask the question of how the R-body would’ve fared had Chrysler kept it on a few more years and let nature take its course, with or without any potential updates. After all, sales of all full-size cars suffered immediately following the 1979 fuel crisis, only to rebound between 1983-1985 as gas prices subsided again. But that’s a question we’ll never have a for-sure answer to, and the fact of the matter is, this featured “Baron red” example was one of only 6,548 New Yorkers produced for the 1981 model year.

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In any event, the R-body was a short-lived platform, and one that is universally regarded as a failure. Not only did it fail in the marketplace, but it didn’t lend its engineering to any future Chrysler, essentially making it a dead-end vehicle. All impediments aside, the Chrysler R-body and particularly the New Yorker, was not a bad looking vehicle. In fact, exuding the once seductive characteristics of “long, low, and wide”, I personally find the R-bodies the best looking full-size American cars of their time, but that’s just me.