(first posted 1/26/2015) This simple car is the definition of the Chrysler Corporation in 1980s North America. From 1981 to 1995, this basic architecture was molded, shaped, stretched, shrunken, and face-lifted into everything from sporting car, to minivan, to all guises of sedan. So let’s travel back to the time of big hair and parachute pants to explore all the permutations of the humble Chrysler K-car.
We will start with the beginning of the family; it all spirals outward from there.
K-Body: Dodge Aries / Plymouth Reliant
This was the figurative Adam and Eve of the K-car family. Introduced in 1981, these were solid sedans devoid of any sporting pretensions and advertised as being able to carry six passengers. While these passengers were of indeterminate size, the Reliant and Aries would provide many of these people their first taste of front-wheel drive.
Physical changes during the life of the Aries and Reliant were quite modest. There was an ever-so-mild revision in 1984 that eliminated the hood ornament.
MY 1985 would bring about the only nose-and-tail job these would see; both would remain unchanged until their demise in 1989. Model year 1988 saw the introduction of the “America” series; based upon the success of the Omni / Horizon “America” series, they would have a host of standard features made available at a very attractive price.
Chrysler had high ambitions for the Aries and Reliant, and they mostly panned out. However, several endeavors were less successful, such as the A38 Reliant taxi package…
And the Reliant / Aries police package available from 1982 to 1987. The police package consisted of extra body reinforcing, larger capacity radiator, and an optional 125 mph speedometer. The bulk of those produced were acquired by the United States military. Top speed of a 2.6-liter version? 103 mph.
The standard engine in the beginning was the 2.2-liter four. It would remain through the end. Optional initially was a Mitsubishi 2.6, which was supplanted by a 2.5-liter four of Chrysler manufacture.
A manual transmission would be available, if not overly popular, for the duration of the K-car’s run. A four-speed was available from 1981 to 1985; a five-speed was optional starting in 1982, and was the only available manual beginning in 1986.
Considered a Hail Mary pass by many, Chrysler was able to experience a profound revitalization thanks to the K.
K-body: Dodge 400 / Chrysler LeBaron
Introduced in 1982, these were simply an Aries in a nicer set of clothes.
The 400 was available as both a two-door and four-door. In 1982, it would become the basis for the first Dodge convertible since 1971. The convertible did prove to be relatively popular, outselling both trim levels of the 400 four-door in 1982.
The 400 would last for only two model years. For 1984, the coupe and convertible would be rolled into the Dodge 600 line and the four-door discontinued.
Explanation of the LeBaron gets quite tricky. As will be seen throughout this article, during the 1980s Chrysler was obsessed with the LeBaron name, using it on many different types of cars. This particular iteration of LeBaron was offered in the same bodies as the 400, and also as a wagon.
As with the Dodge 400, a LeBaron convertible was created for 1982. Being the first Chrysler-branded convertible since 1970, it shared the 100.3″ wheelbase of the 400. One could have an early LeBaron with a manual transmission, as an automatic wasn’t standard equipment until 1985.
These cars were available with turbocharging for 1984. Chrysler was focused on having a full financial recovery and brought out the big guns in their commercials.
The LeBaron convertible and coupe were unaffected by the termination of the 400, and would remain through 1986; the sedan and wagon would remain through 1988.
E-Body: Dodge 600 / Plymouth Caravelle / Chrysler E-Class / Chrysler New Yorker
This is where the K-Car family tree starts to get confusing.
For 1984, the 400 nameplate went away in favor of the 600, although the 600 coupe and convertible retained the Aries / Reliant wheelbase. The sedans had a longer wheelbase at 103.3″, officially prompting the E-body designation.
Initially, the 600 and the similar Chrysler E-Class were offered in 1983; the E-Class went away after 1984. Having a frontal and rear appearance similar to the New Yorker, but without the excessive adornment in between, the E-Class was a plainer Chrysler that could be considered the spiritual successor to the Newport.
Upon the termination of the E-Class after 1984, this body shell was rechristened as the Plymouth Caravelle. Both the Caravelle and Dodge 600 would last into the 1988 model year.
The K-body Dodge 600 coupe and convertible, sitting on the 100.3″ wheelbase and originally called Dodge 400, would receive a mild face-lift for 1986, identical to that of the E-bodies, but would be cancelled at the end of the model year. The 600 and Caravelle sedans hung around until mid-1988.
In addition to the overworked LeBaron nameplate, the New Yorker name was one of the few remainders from the Old Chrysler. Using the rear-drive R-body platform in 1981 and the rear-drive M-body in 1982, the New Yorker nameplate landed a longer-term home on the E-body for 1983. For all intents and purposes, the 1983 New Yorker was a gussied up E-Class.
This version would last through 1987 and a very similar New Yorker Turbo would be present for a portion of the 1988 model year, selling only 8,805 units for that abbreviated run.
G-Body: Dodge Daytona / Chrysler Laser
Not all the K-derivatives were mild mannered, milquetoast sedans. Sitting on a 97″ wheelbase, the Chrysler Laser and Dodge Daytona were introduced for 1984. Their physical similarity to a Porsche was hard to overlook.
A few years later, Daytona advertisements would be poking a bit of fun at Porsche.
The Laser lasted for only three model years; oddly, it outsold the identical Daytona during its first two years on the market. These cars were intended as competitors to the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro, and with the right power train they were formidable adversaries.
For the 1986 model year, the Daytona would receive the Chrysler-built 2.5 liter engine as standard equipment.
Changes would be slow but steady with the Daytona. The 1987 model year (1991 MY shown) would bring about a revised nose with hidden headlights, and standard four-wheel disc brakes would arrive in 1989.
A driver’s-side airbag would come into play for 1990 as would the option of Mitsubishi’s 3.0 liter V6.
Daytona would receive yet another nose job for 1992. Mid-year also saw the most potent Daytona yet, with the IROC R/T. Powered by a DOHC 2.2-liter engine, it would pump out 224 horsepower. Only about 800 were made. The Daytona was terminated at the end of the 1993 model year.
H-body: Dodge Lancer / Chrysler LeBaron GTS
The mid- to late-1980s would see a proliferation of K-based cars. The 1985 introduction of the Dodge Lancer and Chrysler LeBaron GTS was on the leading edge of this salvo. Chrysler used the LeBaron name once again in hopes to whip up as much market frenzy as possible. In the case of the Chrysler version of this car, the LeBaron name could easily have compromised sales results since it was yet another identically named horse in the Chrysler stable.
Playing to the patriotism of U.S. consumers, the 103.1″ wheelbase Lancer and LeBaron GTS showed themselves to be stouter than the competing European sedans frequently being sought by young, affluent baby-boomers. Arguably, the Lancer and GTS were the most attractive K-car derivatives yet.
Chrysler emphasized performance in the turbo versions of both the LeBaron GTS and the Lancer, even getting Carroll Shelby involved in 1988. The Dodge Shelby Lancer came equipped with a 174 horsepower 2.2 liter engine dubbed “Turbo II”. This was ultimately a halo car as only 279 Shelby Lancer’s were built for 1988.
Both saw a significant sales drop for 1987 due to the introduction of the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. These cars would continue through the end of the 1989 model year.
One notable jockeying of nameplates involved the non-turbo versions of what had been the LeBaron GTS, which were called “LeBaron Sedan” for 1989. The turbo version would maintain the GTS nomenclature for its swan song year.
J-body: Chrysler LeBaron
Upon its introduction in 1987, this version of LeBaron was intended as a replacement of sorts for the Chrysler Laser. The Laser had just bid adieu in an effort to provide Dodge some exclusivity in its sporty car. The J-body was based heavily upon the Laser/Daytona and was the first K-car family member without a twin in another corporate division.
The advertisements for the J-body were quite contemporary for the times. This commercial also demonstrates the progression away from the 1970s influence of its pitchmen while presenting a distinctive voice, much like Chrysler was aiming to do.
The 1987 LeBaron was also available in hardtop form. From the outset, there was quite a sales disparity between the coupe and convertible; in 1992, for instance, the sales ratio between the two was nearly 8:1. Many of the convertibles were dumped into various rental fleets in warm weather areas.
Engine choices initially were the base 2.5 liter with the 2.5 liter Turbo I and 2.2 liter Turbo II both being optional. Production was initially in St. Louis, but moved to Newark, Delaware, for the 1992 model year.
The Mitsubishi 3.0 V6 arrived for 1990 in almost every model. The LeBaron was unusual in that a manual transmission could be mated to the 3.0; finding one is equally unusual.
The front of the car was updated for 1993, which was also the last year for the much slower selling coupe.
The J-body LeBaron, along with its thoroughly flogged nameplate, was retired after 1995.
P-body: Dodge Shadow / Plymouth Sundance
Introduced for 1987, these were intended as a replacement for the L-body Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon that had been around since 1978.
Billed as a junior BMW by some, it was a junior Dodge Lancer in appearance. The initial advertisements for the Shadow were uncharacteristically reminiscent of days gone by, with a strong acknowledgement of the Dart.
As had become typical, the Dodge was aimed more at the performance minded, while the Plymouth targeted the budget minded, a fact that is reflected in the respective commercials for each. Available in both three- and five-door versions, the Shadow and Sundance did strike a chord with buyers.
Initially offered with naturally aspirated 2.2- and 2.5-liter engines and an optional turbocharged 2.2-liter engine, the 3.0 liter Mitsubishi V6 could be found in the engine bay for 1992.
Both received a face-lift for 1989, and an “America” series was introduced for 1991. Unlike the namesake series seen earlier with the Omni/Horizon and Reliant/Aries, this time there was a certain degree of de-contenting taking place; power steering was about the only luxury that came standard.
The Shadow was presented as more of a performance and enthusiast car, and would see several variants never available with the Sundance. The Shadow convertible was offered in 1991 and 1992. Converted by American Sunroof Corporation, there would be 19,000 convertibles built for 1991, but only 3,100 for 1992.
Carroll Shelby’s involvement with Chrysler Corporation during the 1980s would ultimately cover a number of cars, including the Shadow. For 1987, the Shadow CSX was introduced, powered by the 175 horsepower Turbo II, a turbocharged and intercooled 2.2 liter four-cylinder.
The following year would see a replay of events from Shelby’s time with Ford, as a Shadow CSX-T was created strictly for the Thrifty rental car fleet. Only 1001 of these machines were produced.
For 1992, Plymouth would latch onto a piece of its past with the Sundance Duster. While this version did not see a Space, Gold, or Feather version, the Sundance Duster would have cast aluminum wheels, a revised suspension and the seemingly ubiquitous Mitsubishi 3.0 V6. While better than the base four-cylinder, the 3.0 didn’t make the Duster as bubbly as one might expect.
At the end of 1994, the Shadow and Sundance were laid to rest to make way for the Dodge and Plymouth Neon.
AA-body: Dodge Spirit / Plymouth Acclaim / Chrysler LeBaron
Nothing lasts forever, and by 1989 the K-car twins of Reliant and Aries had lived a full and productive life. While Chrysler could have called their replacements by the same names, Spirit and Acclaim were chosen instead. For the 1989 model year, these were on the sales lot alongside the outgoing Reliant and Aries, just as the Volare and Aspen had been sold alongside the Valiant and Dart in 1976.
Powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that could be either naturally aspirated or turbocharged, along with the 3.0 liter Mitsubishi V6, the overall shape of the Spirit / Acclaim was clearly influenced by the outgoing K-cars.
Despite Chrysler again trotting out Tina Turner for ads, the vast majority of Acclaim sales were of the base model.
The Spirit and Acclaim would receive a driver’s-side airbag in 1990, when it was joined by yet another version of the Chrysler LeBaron. The LeBaron would come standard with the 3.0-liter V6 seen elsewhere in the AA-body.
For the most part, these sedans were as stimulating as a dose of Demerol. However, the AA-body wasn’t always a textbook study of humdrum.
Dodge would release the Spirit R/T for 1991. Powered by a 16-valve, 2.2-liter engine pumping out 224 horsepower, this engine was identical to the one later found in the Daytona R/T. Powered by an engine dubbed “Turbo III”, the Spirit R/T would cover the quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds, with a trap speed of 97 miles per hour; top speed was 141 miles per hour.
With cylinder heads developed in cooperation with Lotus, the Spirit R/T was faster than the six-cylinder Ford Taurus SHO and the R/T was billed as being the fastest sedan sold in America.
The Spirit R/T would last for only two years, selling about 1,800 units in all; the Spirit, Acclaim, and LeBaron would remain through 1995.
C-body: Dodge Dynasty / Chrysler New Yorker Salon / Chrysler New Yorker
The spiritual successors to the M-body Diplomat and Fifth Avenue, the Dynasty and New Yorker appeared for 1988. Exterior styling was supposedly dictated by Lee Iacocca.
Billed as a “contemporary family sedan” the Dynasty quickly became the most popular passenger car within Chrysler Corporation. Initially a 2.5 liter four-cylinder was the standard engine with Mitsubishi’s 3.0 V6 available optionally. The much remembered Ultradrive transmission came on board in 1989, along with a standard driver’s-side airbag.
With the termination of the rear-drive M-body in 1989, Dodge explored the idea of a police package Dynasty. It was a logical move as the Dynasty was pretty close to the outgoing Diplomat / Gran Fury twins in most interior dimensions. To further study its feasibility, Dodge produced three prototypes.
All were 1991 models powered by the 3.8 liter V6 found in the Imperial (see below) and tuned to have a 160 horsepower output. Suspensions were strengthened, the Ultradrive transmission was beefed up, oil coolers and pursuit tires were added, and each had anti-lock brakes. Of the three, one saw service in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, with a second serving in Washtenaw County, Michigan, where Chrysler president Bob Lutz lived at the time. Dodge kept the third; given the planned termination of the Dynasty in 1993, Chrysler opted to not enter this market.
The New Yorker had only the 3.0 V6 under the hood upon its debut. This was the first Chrysler to offer four-wheel disc brakes with an anti-lock option.
Later on, a Chrysler-built 3.3-liter V6 was standard equipment on the Chrysler and optional on the Dodge.
The New Yorker Salon of 1990 was a grille-and-badge-engineering attempt to fill a perceived gap between the Dynasty and New Yorker. It was not overly successful in initial guise.
Muddy and murky waters prevailed in 1991. The New Yorker Salon remained, taking the place of the New Yorker after the introduction of the New Yorker Fifth Avenue on the 109.3″ wheelbase of the Y-body. Confusing? It pretty much boiled down to the car formerly known as New Yorker now having the name “Salon” tacked onto it.
If you see a New Yorker Landau, this was not yet another variation; the Landau was simply a trim level of the New Yorker and New Yorker Salon.
The Chrysler New Yorker Salon would receive a more rounded frontal appearance for 1992; the Dynasty would never realize any exterior changes during its lifespan. This C-body lasted through the end of 1993.
Y-body: Chrysler Imperial / Chrysler New Yorker Fifth Avenue
In 1990, Chrysler donned their best poker face yet while introducing the Imperial. Sitting on a wheelbase of 109.3″, it was simply a stretched and tarted-up Dodge Dynasty with a base price of $27,000 (roughly $48,000 today).
Advertisements of the time unabashedly made comparisons to various European makes. While perhaps the points were valid, the basic execution and adornment of the Imperial differed vastly from that of the stated competitors.
The Imperial was not overly successful. The age of wire-wheel covers and vinyl roofs was pretty much over when these appeared.
Conversely, the very related New Yorker Fifth Avenue sold roughly four to five times as well as the Imperial. The 3.3 liter V6 was standard; the 3.8 liter V6 found in the Imperial was optional on the New Yorker Fifth Avenue beginning in 1991.
Both cars went to the retirement home at the end of the 1993 model year.
S-body and AS-body: Plymouth (Grand) Voyager / Dodge (Grand) Caravan / Chrysler Town & Country
Once upon a time, the first generation Voyager and Caravan seemed to be as common as sand on a beach.
Little more than an Aries with a wheelbase of 112″, the Voyager and Caravan twins, introduced in 1984, succeeded in bridging a gap between passenger car and full-size van. Its inherent utility combined with an attractive price turned into a goldmine for Chrysler, as the Caravan alone was soon selling over 200,000 units per year. Until 1988 the sole power train was a Chrysler or Mitsubishi four-cylinder engine with either an automatic or manual transmission.
The Grand twins of Voyager and Caravan appeared for 1988. Using a wheelbase of an additional 7″, the vehicle was longer overall by 14″ and was powered by the Mitsubishi 3.0 liter V6. The following year would bring the availability of a turbocharged 2.5 liter engine on standard wheelbase Caravans and Voyagers; the next year would see the 3.3 liter V6.
Not wanting to miss the gravy train, Chrysler introduced a minivan based Town & Country for 1990. It, too, was successful albeit following Chrysler’s then business practice of dressing up a Plymouth and selling it as a Chrysler. All were based upon the extended chassis.
The minivans continued on a K-car based platform through 1995. These were certainly one of Chrysler Corporations biggest successes ever.
Q-body: Chrysler’s TC by Maserati
The TC made its not-so-triumphant debut in 1988 as a 1989 model. Originally powered by a turbocharged 2.2 liter engine, 1990 would see the incorporation of Mitsubishi’s 3.0 liter V6.
When these appeared, they were all built fully laden with equipment with the only buyer choice being color. Their profound physical similarity to the much less expensive J-body LeBaron severely limited the appeal of these cars; even the aluminum wheels could be found on Dynasty’s and minivans. Automotive News magazine proclaimed the TC by Maserati as being “Flop of the Year” for 1988.
K-body: Chrysler Executive and Limousine
Any history of the K-car family would be incomplete without discussion of the Executive and Limousine. Based upon the two-door K-bodied LeBaron, these two cars are some of the lowest production K-cars ever made.
The Executive was available in 1983 and 1984. The prospective buyer had a choice of the 124″ wheelbase of the standard five-passenger Executive or the 131″ wheelbase seven-passenger limousine – not to be confused with the later Limousine. Standard motivational power was the 2.6 liter Mitsubishi four-cylinder.
The Limousine was available in 1985 and 1986 but only with a 131.3″ wheelbase. The 2.6 liter remained standard for 1985 but the turbocharged 2.2 liter engine was finally made standard equipment for 1986.
Production was also scant, never approaching 1,000 units in any given year for either model. 1986 saw the lowest production at a mere 138 units. The intent of these was to rekindle the spirit of the extended wheelbase Mopars of the 1940s and 1950s. This idea never ignited in the marketplace.
The conversion of the two-door LeBaron into the Executive or Limousine was performed by American Sunroof Corporation near St. Louis, Missouri.
Notable International K-Car Derivatives
The virtues of the K-car family were expanded to areas all over the globe. While the cars may have been tailored for their intended homes, they were still members of the family and deserve recognition. So in no particular order, let’s shed some light on some of these overlooked cars.
Based upon the AA-body Dodge Spirit, the Chrysler Saratoga was exported to Europe from 1989 to 1995. Power trains were similar to those available in the United States, but engine programming was reflective of European regulations.
All Saratoga models were equipped with bucket seats. Leather would become available in 1993, something that was never available on the AA-body in the United States. The AA-body LeBaron was also available in Mexico as the New Yorker when equipped with a vinyl roof and as a LeBaron when not equipped with a vinyl roof.
Also under the Chrysler nameplate was another Mexico market AA-body, also called Spirit. This Spirit was introduced in 1990 with a carbureted 2.5 liter engine that used leaded gasoline. Mexican regulations changed considerably for 1991 when fuel injection was added to deliver unleaded gasoline.
These were also quite popular with the police, as seen here with this example from Argentina.
Based upon the J-body LeBaron coupe, the Chrysler Phantom was available in Mexico from 1987 to 1994. Apart from the name, these were identical to what was offered to American customers.
One unique variation was the Phantom R/T which used the 224 horsepower Turbo III found in both the Acclaim R/T and Daytona IROC R/T. That engine was not available on J-bodies in the United States.
The H-body LeBaron GTS was exported to Europe as simply the Chrysler GTS. For all intents and purposes it was simply a rebadged Dodge Lancer.
The permutations for international markets were quite numerous and cannot all be captured here. For instance, the Dynasty and Daytona were both sold in Canada with a Chrysler nameplate.
Even Chinese Hong Qui sought to build a variation of the Dodge 600 / Plymouth Caravelle.
An often used phrase for popular items goes along the lines of “gee, they built a million of them”. In the case of the K-car family, it would be more appropriate to say “golly, they built 12.8 million of them!” Yes, it’s true. This spreadsheet shows production by year and model for all K-car relatives, cousins, and offspring.
The humble K-car showed itself to be quite a malleable platform, transforming and adjusting itself over fourteen years of production. Hopefully, this article helps to de-mystify the product content of Chrysler Corporation during those crucial years of the 1980s.