Curbside Classic: 1986 Plymouth Caravelle – All In the Family

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Most of us have likely known or heard of instances of odd or unusual family relationships due to marriages.  One that always intrigued me is when siblings marry siblings, such as two brothers getting hitched to two sisters.  When this happens, I have always wondered about their children – are they cousins or are they something else since they are all drinking from the same gene pool?

The 1980s saw a lot of familial relations at Chrysler Corporation.  Soon after Papa Lee and Mother Mopar consummated their relationship, a whole lot of babies started to appear.  Papa and Mother were quite the fertile pair, with babies appearing quicker than mold on cheese; among their brood was the Caravelle.

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Maybe specifics are needed as to which Caravelle I refer.  Sometimes in large families a name gets duplicated and the Caravelle name, inspired by Portuguese caravel ships, was a busy little guy for a brief while.  This name does have a subtle tie-in to Plymouth as a caravel was the Plymouth mascot upon its introduction in the 1930s.  Interestingly, the Caravelle name was suggested by a secretary at Chrysler Canada.

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The first Caravelle, introduced in 1978, was birthed by Mother Mopar in a previous relationship she no longer cared to talk about. This Caravelle was the M-body based Plymouth Caravelle sold in Canada.  While the Caravelle started off in the U.S. market Dodge Diplomat idiom, by the early 1980s its market had evolved into public service efforts as opposed to its original private sector focus. The Caravelle would serve and be loved by police fleets in Ontario and Manitoba as much as their counterparts loved the sibling Plymouth Gran Fury in Ohio and Minnesota.  The difference between the rear-drive Caravelle and Gran Fury sisters was little else than the name tag glued to the fenders and trunk lid; most parents tend to avoid giving their twins the same name.

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As we all know, familial relationships are quite complicated at times, and the offspring from Mother Mopar and Papa Lee were no exception.

For 1983, the M-Body Caravelle was rechristened as the Caravelle Salon to make way for a new baby in the house, the front-drive Caravelle.  This Caravelle was only for Canada; the United States would have to wait.  The Dodge 600 shared the developmental womb with the Caravelle as did the Chrysler E-Class and New Yorker (CC here). Despite differing levels of makeup and markup, these cars were as related as Walt Disney’s Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

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The beauty about automotive families, particular when there are multiples in the litter, is that births can be offset at will.  The birth of the Plymouth Caravelle in the United States was postponed until 1985.  The Chrysler E-Class died at the end of 1984.  With the Chrysler going to the family cemetery, the Plymouth Caravelle was introduced as a market pacifier.

Plymouth’s Caravelle was presented as a mid-sized car, a car intended to battle the Ford with its Taurus and GM with its A-body clan.  There was only one drawback – where the Taurus and A-body had six bullets in the piston chambers, the Caravelle only had four.  One could get themselves a more potent four pot by choosing the optional 2.2 liter turbocharged engine, but it wasn’t a widely used option, despite it being the first turbocharged Plymouth.

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Genetics are a funny thing.  Sometimes family members will look nothing alike when other times the resemblance will be frightening.  Looking at the Caravelle it is as obvious as sunshine that it is related to the famous first-born of the Papa Lee and Mother Mopar marriage – the almighty K-Car.  Thus we arrive back to my original intrigue about the children of siblings who married siblings.  The Caravelle was not a Plymouth having a resemblance to another product; no, as most of us know, it was sitting on a Reliant chassis sporting a wheelbase that had been stretched three inches.  Not only did it share the same basic platform, it shared power trains and many interior components.  It was partaking from the very same gene pool as the Reliant, only it had received a few growth hormones during its gestation.  Despite being advertised as an E-body, we all know every family has their dirty little secrets.

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Speaking of dirty little secrets, I will confess to having a streak of fondness for the Caravelle.  To these eyes, it is one of the most visually balanced amongst the brood of K-car derived sedans; it has neither the blunt edges of the Reliant / Aries twins nor the chrome and vinyl doodads of the Chrysler branded cars.  What’s even better about the Caravelle is that it rivaled older half-sibling Gran Fury in nearly every dimension while looking more contemporary and consuming less fuel.  It’s a shame Plymouth only sold 34,000 of these for 1986 – this car deserved better.

One huge, fundamental difference between one’s family and an automotive family is that few people think twice about a car company taking one of their offspring out behind the woodshed and killing it.  This was certainly the case with the Caravelle as it was terminated in the midst of the 1988 model year, making way for the Plymouth Acclaim.

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Genealogy is a common interest in most families.  While the Caravelle is but one branch on the Chrysler family tree, it has managed to grow some unusual offshoots.  To make it even better, these offshoots are residing in an assortment of other countries.  Not every ordinary family sedan from this time period can lay such a claim.

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In Mexico there is the Chrysler Dart Europa.  This helped propel the Caravelle into covering the three largest countries in North America and can likely be found in Central America.  It shared pretty much all body panels with the Caravelle.

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image source:  www.atizapandezarago.olx.com.mx

There was also the Dart Volaré Europa.  Yes, you read that right; the Volaré name was used in Mexico well into the 1980s.  The primary difference was the Volaré Europa used the header panel from a Plymouth Reliant on the Caravelle body.  Building all your cars on the same chassis family does allow for rapid permutations.

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image source: www.atizapandezarago.olx.com.mx

As an aside, I distinctly remember seeing the tail of one of these in Arizona in 1988, as the Volaré name plate almost jumped at me. It’s only taken twenty-six years to figure out what it was!

When production of the Plymouth Caravelle / Dodge 600 was winding down in 1987, Mother Mopar was willing to forego infanticide for an adoptive parent.  She found an interested party in First Auto Works, owner of Chinese brand Hongqi.

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image source:  www.carnewschina.com

Hongqi had purchased the tooling for Chrysler’s 2.2 liter engine in late 1987.  As they were also seeking a new luxury sedan, they explored possibilities by making alterations to two Dodge 600 / Plymouth Caravelle sedans like this, to be branded as the Hongqi CA750F.  There were an effort to determine interest in purchasing the entire Plymouth Caravelle production line.

There was one wrinkle.  At about this same time, Hongqi had started producing Audi 100 based automobiles in a joint venture with Volkswagen.  VW did not want another car line, so the CA750F was scuttled.

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image source:  www.carnewschina.com

The related Hongqi CA760F limousine was also abandoned.

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image source:  www.carnewschina.com

In a twist, Hongqi did go on to produce Audi 100 based cars powered by their version of the Chrysler 2.2 liter engine.  How’s that for expanding the gene pool?

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At first blush, it would appear our subject Caravelle was yet another forgettable 1980s K-car derivative.  This once again proves what parents frequently say about how one should never judge anybody or anything by outward appearances.

For looking so meek, the Plymouth Caravelle was certainly a world traveler, able to adapt to local customs and needs.  For being an afterthought of the humble K-car, this is a rather admirable feat.

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