Curbside Classics: 1976 Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen: From an A to an F – Chrysler’s Deadly Sin #1

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While the human Seven Deadly Sins – lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride – clearly play a part in any automaker’s fall from grace, Detroit cultivated its own favorite deadly transgressions. Chrysler’s recurring dirty little habit was premature ejection: spurting cars out of the factory door before they were ready. The shoddily built 1957s devastated the company’s hard earned rep for solid, well-engineered cars. Chrysler only barely absolved itself through the penance of hard work along with the blessing of the sacred A-Body. But in 1976, Chrysler fell from grace again, and this time it took the intercession of the Great White Father in Washington to keep it from eternal damnation. And not for the last time, either.

 

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It’s hard to overstate the importance of the A-Bodies to Chrysler’s survival during its difficult years. The Valiant and Dart, along with their Swinging Duster off-shoots, developed a well-earned reputation for rugged simplicity. And they sold like stink. In fact, contrary to usual Detroit-think, they sold better the older they got. In 1974, in their fifteenth year, some 720k new A-Bodies found homes. And I’ll bet that the percentage of them still on the road today is the highest of any American car sold that year. There are dozens of them still plying the streets of Eugene.

Chrysler must have known that replacing the A-team successfully would be a mission-critical task. Boy, did they ever flub it. Their compacts went from being the most durable to the most-recalled in history, up to that time; GM’s X-bodies soon stole that title. It was 1957 all over again, but worse. At least Chrysler had the foresight to call them “F-Bodies”. From an A to an F, without any intermediate stops; what a fail.

Beta-testing new cars on a mass scale is just not a good idea. Build quality was all-round crappy, at best. It went downhill from there: five mandatory recalls covering a variety of ills with suspension, ignition, fuel system, brakes, steering and body. The one that had the highest visibility (literally) was pre-mature rusting of the front fenders. All Aspares had fenders inspected, removed, replaced and/or galvanized, and repainted to the tune of $109 million. That was serious bucks to Chrysler then, especially since the whole mothership was rusting away.

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Lee Iacocca had this to say: “The Dart and Valiant ran forever, and they should never have been dropped. Instead they were replaced by cars that often started to come apart after only a year or two. When these cars first came out, they were still in the development phase. Looking back over the past twenty years or so, I can’t think of any cars that caused more disappointment among customers than the Aspen and the Volare”. Honest, but easy for him to say, since he wasn’t responsible.

There was a big difference this time from 1957. Back then, unhappy Chryslerites might have drifted reluctantly to Ford or GM, only to soon be back in the fold. But by the late seventies, it was more likely that they ended up in a Toyota, and stayed there. By 1980, the delayed but full impact of the pre-mature twins was obvious; sales were down to under 200k. And sales of the Volens’ direct replacement, the Reliant and Aries K-cars, never topped 300k. The A-car franchise was now a distant and painful memory, and materially contributed to the Pentastar’s collapse.

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Chrysler barely avoided bankruptcy in 1979 thanks to federal loan guarantees, and went on to fly high again. But it wasn’t the last time its pet sin was committed (think Neon). Meanwhile Volare and Aspen soldiered on a few more years, before they morphed into the dull M-Bodies: Diplomat, LeBaron, Grand Fury, New Yorker, and that final supreme devolution, the Fifth Avenue, which doddered along until 1989. Does it only seem like that was yesterday?

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Can we find something a little positive to say here? Sure; the original incarnations were the best looking, before all the neo-classic grilles and half-vinyl tops. The Volare and Aspen were an attempt to redefine the intermediate size car, since the abominations that had once been called that swelled to ridiculous proportions in the mid seventies.

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The station wagon in particular exemplified the best qualities of that effort: clean, practical, handsome, almost Volvo-esque.

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The coupe: much less so. Ignoring the driveability/smog control/Lean Burn  issues that were common to the era, Chrysler’s engines and transmissions were a highly known quantity: pretty much bulletproof. You could even order a Super Six, a two-barrel version of the slant six which put out as much power as some of the Chevy small blocks of that illustrious lo-po era. With a floor-shifted four speed to back it up, it was about as euro as Detroit got back then.

Ride and handling were decidedly anti-euro: softer. The A-Bodies were generally the best handling domestic compacts, at the expense of refinement in ride and quietness. The Volare and Aspen introduced a new transverse torsion-bar front suspension, with greater isolation, and the result was just that. Chrysler was trying to imitate Ford’s popular soft-rider Granada, and it succeeded spectacularly.

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Just as the impact of the Volare and Aspen’s fall from grace hit, along came the Ford Fairmont and pretty much did it all better. The original Fox body was lighter, cleaner, crisper and more efficient; the closest Detroit ever got to the old Falcon/Volvo formula. But of course soon it too morphed into padded vinyl-topped mini-Lincolns.as well as the real thing.

Probably the best thing Chrysler did with the Volare and Aspen was their names. By changing their body designation from “A” to “F”, and by not naming them Valiant and Dart, they at least avoided dragging those names through the mud. Now that sin would have been unforgivable.

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