Curbside Classic: 1988 Chrysler Fifth Avenue – The Volaré That Fell Out Of The Brougham Tree, And Hit Every Branch On The Way Down

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Okay you guys, fair warning: there will be no Saabs, no air-cooled VWs, no Volvo 240s, Triumph Bonnevilles, BSAs, Goggomobils or Toyota Supras in this post. No, this CC is a paean to my Brougham-centric psychosis. I will stand in front of you all, and say thus: I love Chrysler Fifth Avenues. Yes, yes, I am well aware that they are based off of the recall-tastic Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volaré. I will nod my head and agree with you if you say these Fifth Avenues were the worst kind of lipstick on a pig. I know they were the antithesis to smooth and linear VW Jettas, Honda Preludes and Saab 900 Turbos that also occupied the decade with these mini-me Broughams. But, I do not care. I still like them. Should you share the same affliction, join me, as we delve into the depths of the origins of these Parthenon-grilled, Landau-roofed, poof-tastic interiored Mopar Broughams.

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Scene: A helicopter appears on the horizon. It draws closer, and we see it hover and land on a grassy field. Thomas Magnum appears from its sliding door, and walks to a nearby Chrysler Fifth Avenue. Higgins exits the vehicle, and gives Magnum his latest admonition: “Mr. Magnum, you have abused the Ferrari for far too long. Did you know the last valve job cost $1300? So, I am afraid you will have to make do with this Chrysler. It isn’t as fast, but it’s quite comfortable. Hope you don’t have to chase any bad guys. Har har har!”

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Yes, the Chrysler Fifth Avenue was not the hip, newfangled choice for young and peppy Yuppies. Nor was it a hot rod, with tons of sound insulation, plush carpeting, button-tufted velour (or optional leather), and seventy-five pounds of tacked-on Landau roof weighing down the smogged 318 V8. But for those who wanted comfort, traditional American styling, and good old-fashioned V8, rear-wheel drive power, these were a solid choice.

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But how did such a car come to exist? After all, the original Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volaré these Fifths were based on were simple compact sedans, coupes and wagons upon their introduction in the fall of ’75 as 1976 models. How did it turn into the wire-wheel covered, fiberglass Landau-shelled conveyance we see here? Well, time, desperation, and good old Lee Iacocca had a bit to do with it.

01image: eBay.com

While the 1976 Volaré morphed into the luxury 1977 LeBaron, the big Chryslers (CC here) stayed truly big through 1978. They may have been throwbacks against the 1977-up B- and C-body GM full-sizers, but they were comfortable, reliable (well, save for that newfangled Lean-Burn system) and oh so Broughamy and prestigious. They were finally replaced with the ’79 R-body Chryslers (’79 NY CC here, ’79 Newport CC here), based off of the recently-departed B-body Dodge Monaco and Plymouth Fury. But Chrysler was in the depths of its almost-death, and compromises led the R-body to have some teething issues. Plus, it was still big and didn’t sell so great, so Lido axed the big New Yorkers after ’81.

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I really liked the New Yorkers, with their hidden headlights and plush accommodations. Other folks likely did, too. But the R-body was gone. What to do for Chrysler’s traditional buyers with no interest in a K-car LeBaron or Reliant?

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Simple. Take a 1980-81 LeBaron, add loose-pillow seating, a formal-roof fiberglass shell to tack onto the roof, padded Landau roof with blanked-out quarter windows, gold-tone badging, wire wheel covers and voila! You have the 1982 M-body New Yorker. This was doable because the LeBaron nameplate had moved from the M-body to the über K-car for ’82.

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And so it was that the old, rust-prone 1976-80 F-body became top dog in the C-P lineup. The 1982 NY changed names again for ’83, when it became the Klassic Kustom K front-wheel drive NY for ’83, surpassing even the mini-Mark V LeBaron in padded vinyl and pillowed velour.

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So, for those of you who have lost track, the Volaré/Aspen begat the 1977 LeBaron, which begat the 1982 New Yorker, which was renamed as the 1983 Chrysler Fifth Avenue, which was the biggest, Broughamiest (and sole V8-powered) and most expensive Chrysler for most of the ’80s. If you wanted a V8 Chrysler, this was it–at least until the 2005 300C brought back the classic “big Chrysler.”

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Yes, it soldiered on, despite the addition of much more modern and appealing automobiles like the 1987-up LeBaron coupe and convertible and snazzy hatchback LeBaron GTS. In the 1988 Chrysler family portrait, the good ol’ Fifth was looking rather like elderly old Aunt Mildred, sitting indignantly among the grandsons and granddaughters at the family picnic.

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But they still had a certain appeal, especially in dark blue, maroon or black. They were a throwback for sure, but still had plenty of fans–and rather strong sales. Unlike the related fleet-centric Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury, plenty of (albeit older) folks were interested in signing on the bottom line for one of these–or paying cash.

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“Timeless styling. Classic lines and character.” Well, yes, if you were still stuck in 1976. That said, by the ’88 model year these cars were pretty well sorted out. As you would expect, since the original 1976 F-body these Fifths came from had been produced by Chrysler for a dozen years by this point. Yes indeed, you could still get soft Corinthian leather in your 1988 Fifth Avenue!

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And they were so simple: 318 V8, rear wheel drive, torsion bar front suspension, live rear axle and unit construction. The Chrysler 7/70 warranty also added extra insurance for those looking to put a Chrysler in their driveway. Perhaps not as big as a whale by this point, but still rather elegant, in a 1977 Omaha, Nebraska sort of way.

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All 1988 Chrysler Fifth Avenues came standard with dual reclining seats, fold-down center armrest, passenger assist straps, and ample courtesy lighting, according to the 1988 deluxe catalog. Newly added on ’88 models was an overhead console that included dual map lights, compass, exterior temperature gauge, and cubbys for your garage door opener and sunglasses. As the brochure closed, “For everyone who has a dream of owning the very best.”

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Snicker all you like. Sure, the W126 Benz or a 750iL was a much more sophisticated car with fine handling and a dynamic chassis. But how many of them would still be in running condition as a “back-row beauty” at a local dealership like this one?

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This dark brown 1988 model, despite years of abuse and likely mechanical neglect, was still here in mid-2013 when I shot these photos. And its Mink Brown Pearl Coat finish still shows some shine, despite the wear and tear of the previous twenty-five years.

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The interior? Not quite so much. The dash pad, carpeting and Corinthian leather upholstery definitely showed the years, but you can still see how nice this car had been when new. Those seats had to have been super comfy. Lumbar support? Bah! You’re in the wrong showroom, sir. Please feel free to visit the VW dealer across the street or the Mercedes-Benz showroom across town.

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One thing that these Fifth Avenues lacked, despite their Broughamy seating, chrome trim and plush carpeting, however, was rear-seat legroom. For Grandpa Bill and Grandma Betty, however, it was just fine, at least until the grandkids hit high school!

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In addition to the overhead console, ’88 Fifths lost the gold-tone “Fifth Avenue Edition” logo on the blank-out panel on the rear doors, replacing it with a crystal Pentastar and oh-so-Cadillac laurel wreath. The Landau roof was also modified, extending below the door sill trim for the first time.

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They were plush, they were formal, and they were anything but a foreign car at just a glance. But hot rods they were not, with an emission-choked 140-hp 318 CID V8. However, torque was decent at 265 ft-lbs. Just don’t go challenging any Mustang GTs or IROC Camaros.

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But how many folks who bought these cars new would do such a thing? Not many. These cars were designed for empty-nesters from the Greatest Generation, who would no more buy a Honda or Toyota than they would set their house on fire. Comfy ride? Check. Solid mechanicals? Check. Broughamy interior environment? Double check!

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But by the late ’80s, the M-body’s days were numbered. For one thing, the new-for-1988 New Yorker was a much more convincing luxury car compared to the 1983-87 New Yorker and 1988-only New Yorker Turbo. It was more modern, more impressive looking (not near the stretched K-LeBaron as the previous NY) and also more interior room than the ’70s designed platform of the M.

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1989 was the last year for the M-trio, but Diplomats and Gran Furys were almost exclusively fleet-only. Like the 2010 Panther Grand Marquis, the 1989 Fifth Avenue was the only M to have any decent retail movement. One interesting addition to ’89s was a driver-side air bag, also installed on the Dodge and Plymouth versions.

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And with that, the M-bodies departed. The ex-AMC plant in Kenosha where the last couple of years’ production of M-bodies were built was shuttered, and fans of Mopar RWD V8 sedans were in for a long, long wait.

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Starting in 1990, the EEK Fifth Avenue debuted, as a long-wheel base New Yorker variant (CC here). And so did the Fifth rejoin the storied New Yorker nameplate, for the first time in a decade. It retained the M-body Fifth’s button-tufted interior plushness and Landau roof, but it was now FWD with a V6!

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And with the new LH platform’s debut in 1993, the Fifth Avenue finally disappeared for good for the 1994 model year, when the NY joined the LH platform and a Euro-inspired LHS version replaced the Fifth as top-dog Chrysler.

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The New Yorker itself only lasted to 1996, and then it was only the LHS left for premium Chrysler motoring. But the 2005 300 replaced it, and finally brought a bit of the class and American flair of Chryslers of yore–which continues to this day. So laugh at the Volaré-based Fifth all you like; I don’t care. But for many, this was all you had if you wanted a traditional American Chrysler product during the ’80s. And by the looks of these two survivors, they were certainly robust enough, to have lasted over two decades since they rolled off the line. Fare well, you Broughamy ’80s Fifths. Your Broughaminess and V8 power have endured to the present day!

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