Curbside Classic: 1986 Plymouth Caravelle SE–This Ship Still Sails

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Somebody needs to draw the K-car family tree. It sure can be confusing trying to figure out all the cars begat by the original Aries and Reliant K-car twins. At least in the early years, the family resemblance was strong. Over the years, Chrysler got better at the art of disguise, and by the time the K platform had run its course in the mid-’90s, you couldn’t always tell a Chrysler’s K-car roots just by looking. Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking this Plymouth Caravelle–it’s all-K.

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Or, rather, it’s all-E: In 1983 Chrysler, wanting to make a mid-size car out of the compact K, added three inches to its wheelbase to create the E platform. E-cars were six inches longer than their K counterparts and boasted an elevated trunk lid for more carry space. The E compared well in size to the mid-size offerings from Ford (Taurus/Sable) and GM (the A-body horde). It rode on a marginally shorter wheelbase, and was only a couple inches smaller in every dimension than the competition’s offerings. To me, these cars always seemed a lot smaller than the competition, but that’s probably because they look so much like the original K cars from the B-pillar forward: They were small by association.

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At first, Chrysler fielded two E models and Dodge one, while Plymouth went without. The E-based New Yorker (CC here) was liberally doused in the trappings of high society: padded roofs, poofy seats, faux woodgrain on the dash and the Electronic Voice Alert, which was always eager to tell you that your door was, in fact, a jar. Chrysler’s far less-padded and less-poofy E-Class shared the Dodge 600’s six-window roof.

Buyers fell for the New Yorker’s trim subterfuge–it outsold the less-expensive E-Class two to one. For 1985, Chrysler sent the E-Class downmarket by de-trimming it a little and slapping on a Dodge 600-based front clip and a Plymouth Caravelle badge. It didn’t work: The Caravelle sold no better than the E-Class. Chrysler had to regret the move; for the cost of a little trim, the higher-priced E-Class was certainly more profitable than the Caravelle.

The Caravelle name was not without precedent, by the way. Dodge Diplomat-based Caravelles went on sale in Canada in 1978. In 1983, the bigger Caravalle became the Caravelle Salon so that Canadian Plymouth dealers could sell E-based Caravelles. The name comes from caravel, a quick, nimble Portuguese sailing ship of the 15th century.

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Plymouth sold only about 42,000 Caravelles in 1987–its best sales year–so it’s kind of remarkable that this one survives, especially out here in the rust belt. This one’s an ’86–it wears the softer, rounder front and back ends of a 1986 facelift, but this was the last year for the style of steering wheel you see. After that, Chrysler left the car alone through its 1988 swan song.

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The Caravelle was offered in two trim levels: base and SE, although only the SE was offered for 1985. The SE was a nicely equipped car, with cloth seats, an AM/FM stereo, power windows and locks, cruise control and more. This car has either the 2.2- or 2.5-liter Chrysler four under the hood.

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I came upon this Caravelle at my favorite northwest-Indianapolis Chinese restaurant. I always thought the six-window Es wore the original K square styling best.