Curbside Classic: 1989 Chrysler’s TC by Maserati – The Chairman Has Gone Krazy

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The 1983 Executive limousine and the 1990 Imperial are krazy enough, but no k-car kan more klearly demonstrate just how krazed Khrysler’s kompulsive k-car konundrum was during Lee Iacocca’s reign than the 1989-1991 Chrysler’s TC by Maserati. If anyone needed a sign that the chairman had gone kompletely krazy, this was it.

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The very idea of commissioning Maserati to build a grand touring roadster for Chrysler arose in the early 1980s, as Lido was thinking of ways to re-establish some of Chrysler’s prestige that had been considerably lost in the past decade. A result of the corporation’s financial woes from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, the Chrysler brand had moved increasingly downmarket into historically Plymouth segments, seeking out more sales.

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Always a proponent of “halo model” coupes intended to stimulate interest in a brand, Iacocca felt that this type of vehicle would elevate Chrysler’s image. Rather than replicate his traditional personal luxury coupe formula, as was done with the 1981 Imperial, adding a European-inspired roadster to Chrysler’s stable was Lido’s next big idea. Opera windows and copious amounts of chrome still came without saying though.

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Back in the ’70s while at Ford, Iacocca and Maserati’s Alejandro de Tomaso had collaborated on the De Tomaso Pantera sports car. They had remained pals over the years and saw it fitting to enter partnership again, with Chrysler buying a 5 percent stake in the Italian automaker. This joint-venture, melding “60 years of Chrysler engineering leadership with 70 years of Maserati coachbuilding mastery”, was meant to be a win-win situation for both men and their companies, giving Chrysler the flagship model it desired and Maserati the substantially higher output (and thus revenue) it needed.

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In theory, this didn’t sound like an entirely preposterous idea. Unfortunately, once the finer details of “Chrysler’s TC by Maserati” emerged, they were enough to make anyone wonder just how many martinis were consumed at that luncheon.

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Despite its intentions of sporting, luxury, and prestige, this internally named “Q-car” abhorrently (but no less predictably) rode on a modified K-chassis known as the Q-body. While continued spin-offs of the K-car were debatable for economy cars, the humble K-platform was by no means a suitable platform for a theoretical Mercedes SL challenger.

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Numerous other components of the TC by Maserati also came right out of the K-car parts bin. Regarding its suspension, the TC featured front MacPherson struts and lower A-arms, rear beam axle on trailing arms, front and rear coil springs, tube shocks, and anti-roll bars, all of which were straight from the Aries/Reliant. The TC did, however, gain upgraded struts and shock absorbers manufactured in Germany by Fichtel and Sachs.

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For 1989, the base engine was the same 2.2L Turbo II found in models including the Dodge Daytona. Making 160 horsepower and 171 foot-pound of torque, this output was detuned slightly so it would not compromise the K’s 3-speed automatic. Chrysler replaced this powertrain the following year with the ubiquitous 3.0L Mitsubishi V6 and Chrysler’s new 4-speed Ultradrive automatic. This SOHC 12-valve V6 made identical torque output to the Turbo II, but horsepower of this engine ,which also powered the Dynasty, minivans, et al, was an unremarkable 141.

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Thankfully, not everything for Chrysler’s TC was purely carryover. After all, it was “by Maserati”, and in many ways the TC was by more. While most TCs that came off the production line were fitted with either of aforementioned powertrain, 501 examples were produced with a special “Cosworth-Maserati” 16 valve version of the 2.2L turbo making 200 horespower and 220 foot-pound torque. In a true international affair, the cylinder head was cast by Cosworth in England, pistons were produced by Mahle in Germany, camshafts were made by Maserati in Italy, and its turbocharger came from IHI in Japan. Final assembly of this engine occurred at Maserati’s factory in Italy. The only transmission available with this engine, a Getrag 5-speed manual, was sourced from Germany.

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The de Tomaso-owned Innocenti was responsible for the TC’s bodywork and final assembly. The TC’s styling was relatively tame if not unremarkable, drawing cues from existing Chryslers and Maseratis for its wedge-shaped profile. Like the Cadillac Allanté, foldable soft-top and removable hardtop roofs were standard, the latter of which featured somewhat controversial circular “portholes”, etched with the “Pentatrident” combined Chrysler-Maserati logos. Unlike the Allanté, Chrysler’s TC by Maserati did not receive special 747 shipment across the Atlantic.

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Despite its Italian influence, Chrysler’s TC by Maserati still suffered from the somewhat tin can look affecting all K-cars. It’s hard to exactly explain what this quality was, but nevertheless, the K-car’s early-’80s economy roots were getting ever so difficult to disguise. If my thoughts aren’t making sense, forgive me. It’s just something I’ve always noticed about the EEKs, but have never quite been able to pinpoint.

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Of course, beyond the fact that the TC by Maserati was a K-car, there’s that fact that Chrysler already sold a K-car convertible, which was not only considerably cheaper, but arguably far better looking. Who knows how many potential TC buyers were swayed by the “J-body” LeBaron, but with more attractive sheetmetal, a less stubby look, and a price tag under $20,000 when fully-loaded, the LeBaron was certainly a tempting choice compared to the $33,000 TC by Maserati.

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It should be noted that the TC was originally planned for a 1986 introduction. Had that been so, it would’ve shared Chrysler showrooms for a year with the outgoing K-body LeBaron convertible, a car which the TC did indeed look far more modern in comparison to. Unfortunately, production delays held up the TC’s launch until the 1989 model year, two years after the more elegant looking J-body LeBaron had bowed.

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Entering the cockpit of Chrysler’s TC by Maserati revealed a profusion of padded surfaces swathed in fine hand-stitched Italian leather and accented with genuine burled wood trim, in similar fashion to other contemporary Maseratis. Notwithstanding the leather’s high quality, the thought of parking one’s derriere on those seats is a bit nauseating, their look owing a strong resemblance to a botched tummy tuck.

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Though few would mistaken this interior for any ordinary Chrysler’s, few would also mistaken this car for anything other than a Chrysler. In spite of its Maserati touches, all the hardware, from the radio and HVAC controls, to the vents, gauge cluster, door handles, window switches, wiper stalks and automatic transmission shifter were all Chrysler. Because of this, the TC didn’t exude the same kind of Italianate sophistication and elegance as real Maseratis.

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So for all that Chrysler’s TC by Maserati was (or wasn’t), just who was the target demographic for this ultimate gussied-up K-car? I’m sure high-up Chrysler execs and investors were on that list, among other friends of Lido. Dealership owners and general managers, and/or their spouses were probably a core demographic as well. Basically anyone who wanted and could easily afford a $33,000 car (roughly $63,000 in 2015), but couldn’t be seen in anything but a Chrysler.

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Unsurprisingly, Chrysler’s TC by Maserati was a complete flop. Despite initial sales projections of 5,000-10,000 units annually, production over its three model years totaled just 7,300 units. By that point, Chrysler was once again on the verge of collapse, a result of its aging lineup, an economy in recession, and Iacocca’s reckless spending on ventures such as the TC, among many others.

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Simply put, Chrysler’s TC by Maserati was bad, even for one of Lido’s decisions while at Chrysler. Basing it on the existing K-platform and using numerous carryover components definitely saved some spare change, but the K-platform and base powertrain were uncompetitive and inappropriate for a car of the TC’s aspirations. With everything else that went into the TC by Maserati to make it “molto speciale”, total investment sung to the tune of some $200 million. Just think of what Chrysler could’ve built in that time had it not green-lighted this preposterous klassy koupe? A true Taurus/Sable competitor by 1990 maybe?

 

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