(This marks new entry No. 500 for me here at Curbside Classic.) I had written an essay in high school about my dislike of the word “potential”. This word was the source of many jokes and anecdotes between a few friends and me, as it seemed most often attached to backhanded compliments or to point out certain inadequacies. “Joe’s not quite there, but he has so much potential.” (I’ve got your ‘potential’, would say the voice in my head.) I don’t know. I suspect I might have been more sensitive to criticism than some of my peers for reasons I’ve previously alluded to here at CC, but it took me a long time to make peace with that word. I’m cool with it now. It’s far better to have the raw goods that could be developed, versus having none at all. I hope I never stop striving toward increased self-actualization.
1976 Plymouth Volaré Premier press photo.
It’s normally not my practice to write about cars I’ve seen at shows, but sometimes I’ve just had to listen to my heart. Oh, the Plymouth Volaré. The Dennis family had owned a ’77 coupe purchased new from Chinonis Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge on the north end of Flint. It was burgundy with a matching vinyl interior and a white, pebble-grained vinyl roof that stretched from the A- to the B-pillar. There were matching, white bodyside moldings. Deluxe hubcaps with the Plymouth “frog legs” corporate insignia in the center added a touch of class, as did the full-width chrome panel between the taillamps. Perhaps my favorite exterior features on that car were the rear-facing turn signal indicators mounted on top of each of the front fenders. Our neighbors’ fancy ’74 Monte Carlo didn’t have that feature.
Your author being photobombed by our ’77 Volaré coupe.
The Dennises didn’t own GM products in a GM factory town, which made us yet another anomaly (interracial, immigrant father, etc.), but our Volaré was a sharp-looking car that my parents kept maintained immaculately, even after it had started to rust (immediately). It had the Slant Six, which I’m guessing would have been the single-barrel version and not the “Super Six” with the two-barrel carburetor, if my memory may be trusted of its lack of brisk acceleration. It also had a host of problems that we first would take back to Chinonis for repairs, recalls, and service, and then later to a local, neighborhood mechanic, Mr. Smiley. My parents used to say that after Mr. Smiley worked on it, our Volaré never quite ran right, but if it had Lean Burn, and from everything I’ve read about that system, that was probably more to blame than anything Mr. Smiley did. He seemed cool and I remember liking him.
The Dennis family’s ’77 Plymouth Volaré had wheel covers like this.
In my young childhood, the Volaré was the nicer, newer car in our stable for years (our other car was a ’71 Plymouth Duster, which I’d love to have today), and I honestly can’t remember my parents saying many bad things about it. The Volaré did leave us stranded next to the expressway once, but it took us semi-regularly on the two-hour drive between Flint and my grandparents’ farm in northwest Ohio without issue. We ended up giving it to my sister when it was eight years old and still looked great, aside from the rust. Her man at the time had even remarked to my dad how well-kept it was. (“Doc, you keep your cars good!“) It was a pretty car. I had no idea at the time that the Volaré was the source of so much hardship… not only for many buyers (who might have been just like the Dennises), but for parent company Chrysler Corporation as a whole. It was just the family car to this young kid.
There was great representation of all different makes and models, mostly domestic, at the annual Back To The Bricks car festival in downtown Flint this past August. I took so many pictures that I’m still editing them over a month later, but few of those cars instilled in me quite the same combination of intrigue and pathos as this ’79 Volaré. I’ve photographed many a Chevy Vega and even professed to loving the style of the hatchback, even writing about of few of them here. The trouble-prone Vega, like the Volaré, could be seen as a tragic figure. Why, then, am I able to look at a Vega, admire it, and fantasize about what could have been without getting the same slightly ill feeling in the pit of my stomach as I usually get with a Volaré?
I want to be clear that it’s not this particular Volaré I have any issues with, and I love that it was there. This example was a cool, interesting car that has been reasonably well-preserved, and I especially admire the inventiveness its owner used in sourcing the grille from what looks like an early Plymouth Reliant to stand in for the original (it’s the wrong texture for a ’78 or ’79 Volaré; would look more at home on a ’76 or ’77 model), a grille that was so often broken or missing on many examples. It’s just that I can’t look at this car, with my understanding of its history and almost immediate, adverse impact on Chrysler, and not feel a profound sadness, wishing for a different outcome in some alt-world universe.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. You can read the CC “Deadly Sin” article here in this link, but it’s basically like this: after sixteen years of well-engineered, popular, dead-reliable product in the Plymouth Valiant (and Dodge Dart for many of those years) through ’76, Volaré and Aspen came to market underdeveloped and and did untold damage to the reputation of its already struggling parent company that couldn’t give away its full-sized cars. The F-body’s problems and factory recalls were myriad and record-setting, at the time. The Vega doesn’t seem quite as depressing only because GM was healthy. Seventies Chrysler wasn’t. These cars needed to be fundamentally good – with quality at least as good as the Valiant and Dart they were designed to replace. The first two model years were the most numerous… and disastrous for quality control.
That brings us to our featured ’79, the Volaré’s penultimate year, and at a time by which most of the bugs had been worked out of this platform. The coupe was never the most popular of the Volaré’s three body styles, often vying with the wagon for the bottom rung, but it’s my favorite. The wagons seem to get all the love from an aesthetic perspective, but I’m not necessarily a wagon person. I’m part of a demographic that came of age when two doors equaled sporty (to a greater or lesser extent), and this is a great-looking coupe even at its most basic, unadorned level. That black Road Runner coupe in the brochure photo above is a clean, attractive, purposeful-looking sport compact.
Check the lower left for what the ’79 Road Runner package included.
Of almost 209,700 Volarés sold for ’79, this is one of about 63,600 coupes, complementing 95,400 sedans and 50,700 wagons. It should be noted that the ’79 production number was just 36% of the 327,700 high-water figure posted for the second-year ’77s. The ’78 tally of 256,800 represented a decrease of 21.6% from the prior year; The 8.2% drop for ’79 seems relatively benign and not out of the ordinary for a design in its fourth year of production. Factory-stock, these Volaré Road Runners looked sharp, and a 195-horsepower 360 V8 was optional, which would make it reasonably fast for its day. The Volaré was one of only two domestically designed and built Plymouths available for ’79, with the other being the L-body Horizon. Other Plymouth-badged offerings that year included the Mitsubishi-sourced Sapporo coupe and exceptionally good-looking Arrow hatchback.
Getting back to the idea of unfulfilled potential, it’s a little bit of a challenge for me to look at this really cool survivor, which has clearly been built up and is well cared-for, and appreciate its rarity and cool factor without also catching a whiff of the stench of the F-body’s fumbled initial execution. I was an avid Billboard music chart follower at one time, and when reading about the start and trajectory of the Volaré and Aspen, I get the same feeling as when I had first read news stories about Mariah Carey’s Glitter movie and soundtrack back in 2001. In both cases, high expectations were met with some troubling reviews and underperformance of the finished product.
The Chrysler F-bodies eventually fulfilled their potential and went on to genuine success in the ’80s as M-bodies (especially the money-spinning New Yorker Fifth Avenue), much like the Glitter soundtrack has now come to be appreciated in recent years. (I like it, being a fan of most things ’80s.) Will there similarly ever be redemption for the Volaré in years to come, or is over four decades of bad-car exile still not enough, even for its most desirable editions? I choose to see the very existence of this perfectly imperfect ’79 Volaré Road Runner at a popular car festival as evidence that it’s never too late to come into one’s own, no matter how long it takes.
Downtown Flint, Michigan.
Saturday, August 19, 2023.
Brochure pages were sourced from www.oldcarbrochures.org. The press photo scanned was purchased secondhand in Detroit!