Chrysler had its first brush with bankruptcy in 1978-1979. And like it would again later, it reached out to Uncle Sam, but then in the form of government loan guarantees. And just how did Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca convince Congress that it was backing a viable player? He showed them pictures and details of the upcoming K Cars, not unlike how GM trotted out its Volt prototypes in Washington in 2009. Congress bought Lee’s K-Car dog and pony show, and the company was saved. And the K-Car would become the cornerstone of the “New Krysler” for seemingly decades to come.
Lee didn’t really have all that much to do with the actual K-Car, as it was already under development when he arrived in 1978. His job was to restructure the company drastically, in the process shedding a huge segment of its workforce and overhead, and sell the K Car to Congress and then the American public.
The second part turned out to be trickier than he thought. The early K-Car production mix heavily leaned to highly-optioned cars, in hopes of padding the profit margins; Lee was probably still getting over his success at Ford peddling Marks and such. But in the recession of 1981, folks were looking for basic transportation, and it took a drastic switch in the product mix to lower priced cars to salvage first year sales, which managed to still top 300,000 for Aries and Reliant combined.
The basic boxy outline of the story is well etched into the memories of us that lived through the K-era. In the years leading up to it, the Valiant and Dart kept growing, and were eventually replaced by the now mid-sized Volare/Aspen twins. Arriving in 1976, those were already one or two sizes too big, given the spiraling rise of oil prices and the downsizing already underway at GM. In fact the Volare and Aspen eventually morphed into Chrysler’s “big” M-Body cars, the last RWD sedans until the modern 300.
That doesn’t mean that traditional “big” cars were actually all that roomy inside. In a graphic testament to just how space-inefficient traditional American cars of the time were, the drastically smaller K-Cars (176″ length) equaled most of the key interior dimensions of the 1972 mid-size Satellite and the Volare-based 1986 Grand Fury (both about 204″ long). Seating for six and bench seats were a major criterion for the clean-sheet K-car design, and who can blame them, if you’re a polygamist and you want to take your two wives and your buddy and his two wives out for dinner like this happy set of trios above? Who else would find themselves in this scenario above?
Yes, the K-car was one of those rare times when American designers and engineers were given the chance to start from scratch, although Chrysler’s experience with the (mostly) European designed Horizon/Omni came in mighty handy. The suspension design was quite similar, and quickly becoming ubiquitous: front struts and rear twist-beam axle. Chrysler already had FWD transaxles, including the automatic TorqueFlite from the Omnirizon. That still left the body, a new four cylinder engine, and to make it all work together harmoniously.
The result must be considered a qualified success. Let’s leave the qualifications for later and focus on the good: given the times and Detroit’s state-of-the art, the K-Car structure was not only space efficient, but fairly stiff, sturdy and sound, especially given its light weight (2300-2400 lbs). This contributed to a decent ride quality, and adequate, if totally uninspiring handling.
The new 2.2 liter OHC four, which does look quite a bit like a slightly scaled up VW 827 engine (as used in the Chrysler Omni/Horizon), turned out to be a rugged basis for future development, even if the early units had a an appetite for head gaskets and a few other maladies. And, of course, it suffered from the horrible state of smog-controls of the time: electronic-feedback carburetors that were balky, expensive to replace, messed with the ignition timing, and gave mediocre power: all of 84 hp was the result, in the first two years of production. The optional Mitsubishi 2.6 four had a hint more torque, and was a bit smoother with its pioneering balance shafts, but had its own set of issues. This Aries sports the 2.2 and a column shifted three-speed automatic.
I had the distinct displeasure of being an Aries (or was it a Reliant?) driver for a couple of months in 1985. It was my temporary company car (extended-term rental) right after a stint with the all-new Nissan Sentra, and just before I finagled a brand new 1986 Mercedes 300E W124 company car. Sandwiched between the remarkably brisk and tossable Sentra and the superb 300E, the Aries was bound to disappoint. It did.
My (reverse) commute then was a dream, for LA standards. Straight through Beverly Hills on Rodeo Drive, and up, over and down scenic and winding Coldwater Canyon into the Valley. Or Laurel Canyon, for a change of scenery and even tighter twisties. Running against the usual traffic flow, the canyons were a wonderful way to start the morning, but not in a Reliant. The Sentra was eager, willing and brisk, if a bit primitive. The Aries, with its bigger motor, had the typical tip-in and torque to “feel” powerful from a start, but was strangled as the revs (didn’t) build. Early versions of the K car tested at 13-16 seconds for the amble to sixty. The Sentra (with a stick) could do it in ten. And driving a K-car down Rodeo Drive every day didn’t exactly do much for my self esteem. Bring on the Mercedes!
The steering was too light, and the car just wasn’t set up to deliver any fun. Yes, it did beat the totally feeling-less power steering of the bigger Chryslers of the time, but don’t even ask what it felt like compared to an Accord. And therein was the crux of the problem: The K-Car was a big step forward for Chrysler and Detroit, and a reasonably capable car. But by the time it arrived, Honda was readying the second generation of the killer Accord. Comparing the two is an exercise in futility. The Honda simply felt (and was) profoundly better in every possible metric. It took a long time for Detroit to finally narrow that gap.
Although Iacocca arrived at Chrysler when the K-car program was already well on its way, he successfully made it his own. Although the K-car was not originally developed with any thought to the endless permutations it spawned, but it was quickly stretched, spindled and mutilated, a testament to the simplicity and adaptability of such a straight-forward design, as well as the talents of the Chrysler engineers. The various offshoots lasted at least until 1995, even though the Aries and Reliant were gone by 1989, replaced by the Spirit/Acclaim, or Sundance/Shadow, depending on your point of view.
The upscale LeBaron and Dodge 400 expanded the total first-gen K-car sales to over 350k per year, and maintained close to that through 1988, when their replacements appeared. The K-cars did exactly what Lido sold Congress on: they were profitable from the start, and generated enough profits with which Chrysler repaid all its government-backed loans by 1983. And that was just the start: the cash really started rolling in with the mini-vans and other off-shoots, allowing Chrysler to buy Jeep, and invest in a whole new line of cars in the 1990′s. The K-car truly created the New Chrysler.
And given the missteps that GM made with their hyper-recalled X-Bodies of the same vintage, the K-car’s launch was relatively trouble free; hardly a given in those times. In Chrysler’s case, that was literally essential; if the K-Cars had arrived with serious problems, Chrysler’s resurrection might have turned out quite different. Yes, the early versions had their issues; good luck finding a 1981 or 1982. But build quality, performance and refinement steadily improved, especially with the ’85 refresh. A Toyota or Honda it wasn’t, but after the botched launch of the Aspen/Volare twins, and GM’s X-Body woes, the K-car escaped the wrath. As did Chrysler.