I’ve read lots of variations of the adage “clothes do not make the man”, or conversely “clothes make the man”, which has come up just as often. Meanings obviously differ along with the context in which these phrases are used, but in most cases, there’s some attempt at connecting, or contrasting, external appearances with the substance underneath. I like to present myself in a certain manner, fully understanding that any nicer item of clothing I wear on any given day will be no substitute for inner confidence. Stated another way, if I’m not feeling great about myself, making a new, expensive purchase, whether it’s shoes, a jacket, some jeans, etc. isn’t going to fix the way I’m feeling at the time. By the same token, I can think of instances when dressing more nicely has lent itself to me sitting up a bit straighter, standing with better posture, and speaking just a little less informally.
Chrysler’s M-body platform is a great example of how exterior sheetmetal “clothing” can be transformative and completely alter the character of the car underneath. After the big, short-lived, R-Body New Yorker (and related Newport) departed after three scant model years and just 74,700 total sales (Newport sold 97,000 units over the same period), the New Yorker was reborn for ’82 as a downsized M-car on a 112.7″ wheelbase. It had effectively replaced the rear-drive LeBaron which had originally been introduced for ’77 and restyled for 1980, with this nameplate then affixed to an even smaller, front-drive car on the K-platform for ’82. The New Yorker’s taillamp units were borrowed from the related Dodge Diplomat, but with a rectangular, chrome-and-red center section between them to give the impression of full-width taillamps. A slightly extended roofline under a vinyl landau top provided for a much more upright rear backlight, a hallmark of luxury cars of its day.
For ’83, the New Yorker was moved to Chrysler’s FWD E-body platform, which was a stretched K, so the older car was renamed the New Yorker “Fifth Avenue” to distinguish it. The Chrysler-faithful loved the old-school luxury of the rear-drive New Yorkers, and it became the brand’s volume seller from 1983 through ’87, the latter year being when the new J-body LeBaron coupe and convertible arrived and outsold it. The exception was in ’82, when only the newly downsized ’82 LeBaron did better, with sales of 90,300 against 50,500. However, for ’83, not even the combined sales of the E-Class and New Yorker (73,100) could match the 83,500 number of Fifth Avenues sold that model year, the one of our featured car. Among the other M-bodies for ’83, Dodge sold only 24,400 Diplomats, and just 18,100 Gran Furys moved out of Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships. Fifth Avenue sales would then break the 100,000 sales mark in both ’85 (110,000) and ’86 (104,700).
The 1983 Plymouth Gran Fury duplicated the refreshed 1980 Dodge Diplomat’s styling.
Getting back to the clothing metaphor, it has often come down to the taillights for me with these M-bodies, which also included the aforementioned Diplomat, and Plymouth’s Gran Fury, which would belatedly arrive for ’82. If viewed directly from the back, and without the Chrysler’s chrome rectangle between the taillights, all three cars would look almost indistinguishable to me, especially if I couldn’t make out the silhouette of the Fifth Avenue’s vinyl roof. However, rotate that rear view even a few degrees in any direction, and it’s clear just how much difference is in the details, with all the gingerbread ladled onto the Fifth Avenue, like the front fender louvers and the well-executed and attractive wire wheel covers or turbine-fin wheels.
Then, there’s that front end with Chrysler’s trademark “upside down” turn signals perched atop the quad headlamps that give the impression of haughtily raised eyebrows. This was an unconventional look that didn’t appeal to everybody, but stylists knew what they were doing by making these New Yorkers, and the preceding LeBarons, look like they’d ask you for a jar of Grey Poupon in a stuffy accent if they could talk. The Diplomat / Gran Fury twins had the more conventional, “proper” placement of the turn signals below the headlights. Those downmarket cars were also pretty forgettable looking, even if they had a purposeful, bantamweight boxer-like appearance within the guise of serving as law enforcement vehicles. There were some of these Dodges and Plymouths sold as private passenger vehicles, but many if not most were fleet sales.
Every major U.S. manufacturer has taken a basic platform under which an inexpensive version was intended to be sold by their volume make, given it a luxury makeover, and charged more for it. A semi-recent Curbside Recycling essay by Jim Klein that featured two different years of Cadillac Cimarron had many of us in the comments dusting off the pros and cons (mostly cons) of this approach to building an upscale car. In the case of the M-body, the Chrysler’s terrific sales figures (to private owners) meant that not only was it more appealing luxury as car than a workaday family hauler like the Diplomat and Gran Fury, it was also seen as a more substantial offering than the smaller luxury or near-luxury cars Chrysler was offering for less money.
For ’83, the base price of the Fifth Avenue with standard, 90-horsepower 225 Slant Six cost about $12,500 ($37,100 in 2022), close to $2,500 more (~ $7,400) than the front-drive New Yorker. The smaller car was powered by one of two four-cylinder engines that had only slightly more horsepower, displacing only 2.2 or 2.5 liters. Granted, the Fifth Avenue weighed literally over 1,000 pounds more. An EPA Gas Mileage Guide from ’83 rated the smaller New Yorker and E-Class at a combined 22 miles per gallon, but the six-cylinder Fifth Avenue was rated at 18 MPG, and with the 318-cubic inch V8, it was estimated to get only 17. For the same reason I would have chosen an ’80s Cordoba over the much more fuel-efficient, front-drive LeBaron two-door which probably had comparable usable interior space, the added heft of the Fifth Avenue would make it seem like I was buying a lot more substance for the extra premium it cost over the front-drive New Yorker.
My grandparents had owned one of these Fifth Avenues in silver following a couple of years with a navy-colored 1980 LeBaron, and even though it was the same size and seemed very familiar on the inside, my impression of it at the time was that it was a much nicer car. The ’85 Ford LTD Crown Victoria that replaced it was perceptibly bigger, as it was a proper full-sized car versus the Chrysler’s midsize dimensions. Still, the posh, button-tufted, velour seating, ice-cold air conditioning, and my grandpa’s intriguing CB radio unit under the center of the dashboard over the transmission hump made the inside of that car a very cool place to spend time. Had my grandparents opted to save money and go for a nicely equipped Plymouth Gran Fury, my memories of riding in it would have been completely different and not nearly as special. Their Fifth Avenue felt like a little limousine compared to any car my parents were driving at the time.
Frustration abounded as I saw this factory Crimson Red beauty coming westward on West Irving Park Road as I waited for my bus. I fumbled with getting my lens cap off before managing only a few frames of it, completely missing the opportunity to photograph its distinctive frontal styling. I have been searching for one of these in the wild for years, a car that had once been so popular, and one of which I’ve seen only two examples all year. There’s something that speaks to me about the extra-ness of these Fifth Avenues, the idea that adding a whole bunch of stuff to a pleasing if nondescript midsize car made it wholly appealing to a completely different, upscale demographic that would would see a Diplomat or Gran Fury as primarily a police car or taxi cab.
A revised roof, attractive wheels, and other luxury appointments made the rear-drive, midsize New Yorker stand up a bit taller than its M-body brethren, and buyers took notice: close to 560,000 of them through the end of this series in ’89. In retrospect, its popularity shouldn’t come as a surprise. Contrasted with the midsize, domestic luxury car competition for ’83, like the bustleback Lincoln Continental which cost 68% more to start and Cadillac Seville which was 72% dearer, what the Chrysler lacked in the cachet of those other makes, it more than made up for with a solid, proven, reliable drivetrain (unlike the Cadillac) and looks most such buyers could agree on. They were archaic by the time they said goodbye at the end of the decade, but these cars must be considered a solid win for the Chrysler Corporation of the 1980s.
North Center, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, August 21, 2022.
Brochure photos were as sourced from www.oldcarbrochures.org.