There it was, gleaming in the sun, the magnificent the queen bee of the Mopar fleet. Seeing a brand new Diplomat on the dealer’s lot was a moment to be savored, but this occasion was extra special. On that warm, sunny day in July 1986, it was the first 1987 model car I had ever seen. While nothing had changed from the prior model year (or the two years before that), the sheer novelty of it imprinted itself on my thirteen year old brain.
It was none other than a silver Dodge Diplomat SE. What a magnificent sight, especially with the lesser seen SE having the Fifth Avenue header panel to distinguish it from its base model brethren.
At the time my parents owned a 1981 Dodge Omni and a 1983 Plymouth Reliant. I was thirteen and already noticeably taller than my 5’7″ father. With my mother’s family all being tall, I knew my growth had not ceased and both my younger sister and I no longer fit into either car nearly as easily as we had only a few years earlier.
Overhearing a discussion between my parents revealed that I was not alone in my observations. As an orthopedic nurse, my mother had seen a lot of nasty broken bones in her life. Her concern was a wreck in either car would cause broken femurs in both of her children and something had to change. The Omni already had about 120,000 miles on it, so it was a prime candidate to disappear.
I tagged along as my father apprehensively went car shopping soon afterward. He started at Town & Country Motors, the Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealer in Cape Girardeau.
The salesman was quick to emerge. Opening the doors to this amazingly loaded Diplomat, he began extolling its virtues and explaining how it was a traditionally built car that worked well for families not desiring a van. As the rear door opened, I plopped my skinny self into the rear seat. Its comfort massaged the essence of my young and highly impressionable soul.
Upon seeing the window sticker of $14,700 my father appeared to have heart palpitations. His interest quickly wavered, his natural affinity for diminutive machines conflicting with the marching orders he had received. He did not accept a test drive offer, which was a real bummer as I so wanted to hear that Highland Park Hummingbird.
At the time, neither my father nor I realized the interior room of the Diplomat was fairly comparable to that of the K-car derived Dodge 600 sedan.
He wound up buying an ’85 Ford Crown Victoria, a car that turned into a sad turkey at 50,000 miles. Since then I have always been quite fond of the Dodge and Plymouth M-body, long tormented by the never-to-be-answered question of what happened to that beautiful silver Diplomat.
At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the original Diplomat, that trendy Dodge that appeared for 1978 and did a bang-up job of camouflaging its recall-infested, Dodge Aspen bone structure. Sure, I had realized the similarity in the shape of the Diplomat’s front doors and its drastic resemblance to the interior of my grandmother’s 1980 Dodge Aspen. In my thirteen-year-old mind, this was nothing but a common design language in the magical world of Mopar.
Despite many indications to the contrary, not all Diplomats were sold to the police fleet. A good portion, of course, but not always a majority. For 1985, total Diplomat production peaked at 38,000; of these, nearly 15,000 went to the cops. This year was a fluke, as every other year from 1981 to 1989 Diplomat production would often struggle to reach 25,000 units.
Here is a breakdown for Diplomat production from 1980, when the style of our featured Diplomat appeared, to the end of production in 1989. Included is a tally showing how many went to police departments.
Realistically, why would a dealer want a Diplomat sitting on their lots? Most K-car derivatives were selling briskly, so who would want their real estate occupied by a slow seller? However, I have often wondered if this scenario fed upon itself; if they kept them on the lot, would they have sold? The Chrysler Fifth Avenue was selling like crazy, as they were on the lots and Chrysler advertised for them.
Conversely, Dodge spent little-to-nothing on advertising the Diplomat for the entirety of the 1980s. This advertisement is the only one I can find for it. Perhaps this was by design; if you can sell the same basic car with a vinyl roof for a base price of roughly 50% more, why advertise the budget version?
Years later, I finally drove the retail version of a Diplomat, very much like our gold one. Driving it was an eye-opener.
Both the 1985 Crown Victoria and our featured Dodge were rated at 140 horsepower with the Diplomat sounding a bit more promising being 200 to 300 pounds lighter. There were fundamental differences, as the Dodge had a carbureted 318 vs. the Ford’s injected 302, and the Dodge lacked an overdrive in its transmission. Any pretense of perkiness in the Diplomat was quite annihilated by its 2.24:1 rear gear ratio, a move made in the name of fuel economy. It made me wonder if my father had made a better decision back in 1986 by purchasing the Ford.
There is something so totally no-nonsense, square-jawed, and cordial yet ruthless about the demeanor of the Dodge Diplomat, especially in base trim. Found about 2 1/2 years ago, I suspect this gold Diplomat is still actively writing its story somewhere.
I’ve been seeing this Dodge flitting about town for the three years I have lived here. At the time these pictures were taken, I would see it being driven by a very well dressed older man wearing a fedora and usually smoking a thick cigar–just like the older adults I witnessed driving their Dodge Darts in my childhood.
Sometime soon after these pictures were taken, a huge dent appeared in the right front door. It was somewhat shaped like an inverted dome; it made me wonder if it had been created by someone’s head. During this period I would see a portly, comparatively younger guy driving it, interspersed with the original gentleman. Was it his son? His nephew? Inquiring minds needed to know and our paths crossed only once–just enough to acquire these pictures.
Sometime later, a woman appeared in the passenger seat when the younger man was driving. Later, I would occasionally see the woman driving, either alone or with the younger chap. Never again did I see the older gentleman in the car.
It is now to the point I haven’t seen this Dodge in some time, which is unfortunate. These Diplomats possessed a mechanical ruggedness nearly equal to that of an anvil. I’m confident it is still darting around somewhere and I just haven’t encountered it.
Related reading: 1987 Dodge Diplomat SE – Absolution Granted