Curbside Classic: 1981 Chrysler Newport – Life Is Like a Box of Chocolates

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ever since the post on the ’68 Chrysler Newport (here), something has been bugging me.  Never quite able to place a finger on it, it suddenly hit me when I found this ’81 Chrysler Newport, a well loved example of the fabled Chrysler R-body.

forrest-gump alexlod dot com

image source:  www.alexlod.com

The life and trajectory of the Newport at times resembles that of Forrest Gump.  For those not familiar with Forrest Gump, it was a novel written by author Winston Groom in the mid-1980’s; in turn, it was made into a movie in 1993.

As an aside, the movie Forrest Gump is good but pales in comparison to the novel.  As Winston Groom said about the movie, it is the character in the book with all the rough edges filed off.  The movie does skip over several fun elements of the book, such as Forrest’s time as a professional wrestler, his affinity for marijuana, and a few of his dalliances.

To compare and contrast, the Chrysler Newport appeared in 1940; Forrest Gump was born in 1944.  Both flourished in the 1960’s and had significant life changes throughout the 1970’s.  The Newport was a de-contented Chrysler New Yorker; Forrest was a man whose IQ was 75 but whose basic wisdom knew no limits.  The Newport name died after 1981; our time with Forrest ended about 1983.

While the history of the Newport series was captured previously, let’s examine the end of the Newport line through the prism of the movie Forrest Gump.  After all, lots of things happened between 1968 and 1981, did they not?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” – Forrest Gump

The 1970’s was a terrible decade for Detroit.  From riding high in 1970, things sure didn’t look the same by 1979.  Chrysler, a demonstrative leader in the long wheelbase, living room on wheels brigade until 1978, was one of the very last automakers to downsize.  The 118.5″ wheelbase R-body was their answer.

While the genesis of the R-body has been covered previously (here and here), let’s just say the mixture of timing and quality control was less than optimum.  Sales for the new 1979 Newport were 78,000 as compared to 39,000 in 1978.  The bottom dropped out for 1980 and grew even more bleak for 1981.  This ’81 Newport is one of only 3,622 made that year.

When building cars, it is the same crap-shoot as is a box of chocolates.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“My Mama always said you got to put the past behind you before you can move on.” – Forrest Gump

This example isn’t the best representative of what your author thinks is total R-body goodness.  Yet, maybe it does provide an insight into the disappointment of the R-bodies; the overly thick vinyl roof was a throwback to the 1970’s and adds a distinct garish factor  – one not generally found on the Newport’s Dodge St. Regis stablemate.  Not that any of them sold particularly well, even by Chrysler Corporation standards.

The days of the 440 powered Chrysler’s were over at this point.  This Newport has exterior styling that isn’t radically different than any other full-sized offering of the time, such as the Olds Delta 88.  However, GM, in a true moment of cogency, put the past behind it with their downsized B-bodies.  Chrysler appeared to be yearning for days gone by, especially with the New Yorkers, and much to its detriment at the time.

Oddly, Chrysler would have success throughout the 1980’s with the Aspen / Volare based Chrysler Fifth Avenue, a car whose attempts to live big in a smaller package were wildly successful, with sales in excess of 100,000 in both 1985 and 1986.  This outcome makes the flash in the pan of the R-body that much more unusual.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I am living off the government tit! Sucking it dry!” – Lieutenant Dan Taylor

As we all know, Chrysler latched onto that spigot in 1980.  Perhaps it was at this time the Iacocca led Chrysler Corporation decided to truly put the past behind them.  There was an unceremonious jettison of the R-body in an effort to focus on smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles (and to put the past behind them).  This focus did bring success, as Chrysler sold what seemed like an endless supply of K-cars and their myriad derivatives.

newport copcardotfotkidotcom

image source:  www.copcar.fotki.com

Following Lt. Dan’s philosophy, suckling from the government tit had been what had prompted most R-body production.  With its introduction in 1979, Chrysler had an official police package for their Newport; the St. Regis was available as such for each of its three years of life.  In Ed Sanow’s book, Dodge, Plymouth & Chrysler Police Cars 1979 to 1994, the R-body Dodge St. Regis (whose only differences from the Newport was a header panel, tail lights, and a name) was voted by police officers as the best Mopar police car of all time.  The R-body did have a fan club even at that time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Aging Hippie:  Whoa! Man, you just ran through a big pile of dogshit!

Forrest Gump: It happens.

Aging Hippie: What, shit?

Forrest Gump: Sometimes.

The time period of 1980 and 1981 wasn’t exactly a stellar period for the United States automobile industry.  Sales were down and the economy was bad with interest rates that made loan sharks envious.  Long range forecasts had fuel prices in the stratosphere.  Few people thought big cars would last beyond 1985.

Let’s indulge in some speculative thought based upon a few facts.  Sales of the Buick LeSabre were in the 80,000 unit range in 1980 and 1981; by 1985 sales were up to roughly 150% of that amount.  Sales of the 114″ wheelbase Mercury (Grand) Marquis were in the 50,000 to 60,000 range for 1980 and 1981; by 1985, they had nearly tripled to around 160,000.

Did Chrysler pull the R-body from the vine before it had ripened?  Was the sales gauge used at a time when the gauge wasn’t at its peak calibration?  Did Lee Iacocca just want to cut the cord to the R-body?

Likely, it is a yes to all three, as all were so closely intertwined any one could have greatly influenced the other two.  Shit happens.

Earlier I stated I truly like the R-body’s.  Perhaps due in part as being a child of the ’70’s, the R-body – to me – was one of the best looking Chrysler products of the ’70’s and ’80’s.  They have always prompted me to stop and look closer, but with one exception.

1981 Chrysler Full Size-01

I have never found excitement for this generation of New Yorker.  It is trying desperately to be something it is not.  It just doesn’t work.  The fact this thing appears to be sitting way too low in the ass-end isn’t helping matters, either.  I know why on the featured car, but a brand new one?  Maybe quality control really was that bad.

1981 Chrysler Full Size-05

However, the Newport’s – especially without vinyl roofs – are a true sight to behold.  Are they a world class design?  Hardly.  However, in the context of full-sized American cars in 1981, the aesthetic quality of the Newport beats anything from Ford Motor Company and nearly everything from General Motors (except maybe the Olds Delta 88).  One of these with an unblemished roof (ie, no vinyl) is quite refreshing to my eye.  Granted, I have always liked the non-brougham full-sized Detroit offerings from every year.  The R-body Newport just seems to capture the essence of its era with its crisp lines and general lack of cluttering attachments.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“It’s my time. It’s just my time. Oh, now, don’t you be afraid, sweetheart. Death is just a part of life. Something we’re all destined to do.” – Mrs. Gump, Forrest’s mother

Sadly, the R-body Newport was laid to rest early in the 1981 model year.  That is a shame.  While the Fifth Avenue wasn’t a horrible car in a mechanical and reliability sense – and would be a cash cow for Chrysler the rest of the decade – it was a car that was originally a compact Aspen / Volare, trying to compete with the true full-sized competition.  The R-body Newport, euthanized before its time, was a true contender to the mantle of being a full-sized Chrysler, a car worthy of continuing the Newport name.

While the Newport could have been argued to debase the Chrysler aura in 1968, this Newport would have lifted the name of Chrysler from the wheezing heap of front-drive, four cylinder compacts that would be christened as Chrysler’s in the years ahead.  Perhaps it was the destiny of this Newport, much like Forrest’s girl Jenny, to die young and have a good looking corpse.  It leaves you contemplating what might have been.

“And that’s all I have to say about that.” – Forrest Gump

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA