I may have inadvertently ruffled a feather or two with my oh-so-erudite comparative analysis between two Cadillac Cimarrons recently, the upshot was we’ve (again) been more or less accused of shilling in favor of all imports to the detriment of the domestic automotive industry. Well, today we have one of those foreign-built jobs that we apparently hold in such high esteem to take a closer look at. I’ll call ’em how I see ’em, and I’ll admit right off the bat that there are a couple of things that appeal here…but Maserati do have a history of laying a few eggs and some might have gotten broken in the making of this veritable omelette of a car.
First and foremost, I don’t know that I ever consciously realized that it actually is called “Chrysler’s TC….” and not “Chrysler TC…”, yeah, with the apostrophe and the “s”. Jon Stephenson found another one early last year and he got it right in his text as I realized when I reread his piece, but I had glossed right over that the first time and the entire time I’ve been aware of the car since the later 80s. Virtually nobody anywhere else seems to get it right either. But jeez, it does come across as a little pretentious, kind of like opera windows etc, but I may be getting ahead of myself there so just hang on. It just sounds stupid as in “Hey, Vanessa, come check out my new car, a 1989 Chrysler’s TC By Maserati“.
The backstory of course was that Lee Iacocca and Alejandro deTomaso of Maserati (at the time) were old buddies; they got together and decided on a mutually beneficial project wherein Chrysler would give ungodly amounts of money to Maserati, perhaps the only automaker with a worse reputation than Chrysler, and in return Maserati would design and build a brand new gorgeous Convertible. With a Turbo, so they could call it the Turbo Convertible (TC). Clever name. Seemed like a win-win. Or maybe two wins for the Italian side, since it was apparently a LOT of money, my understanding well over half a billion 1980s dollars. Maybe that’s well over half a billion wins. It’s hard to compete against that many wins. But never mind, we have eggs to crack!
Of course Maserati didn’t have complete free reign, the engineering team was shackled to the Chrysler parts bin and told to use whatever bits weren’t being used up in K-cars at the moment. Originally slated to appear in 1986, the Italians took their sweet time, waved their hands around a lot while shouting excitedly in foreign language gibberish at the American engineers looking over their shoulders, waited for Iacocca to actually release the new Chrysler LeBaron in its homeland and THEN declared the almost dead ringer TC for it ready for prime time well after the checks had cleared and there could be no clawbacks. La Dolce Vita indeed. And the buyers took a quick glance and said maybe instead of Chrysler’s TC it should be Chrysler’s WTF.
The bodywork is unique and created at Innocenti, nothing is actually shared with any Chrysler no matter how much it looks like it and in person the TC is in fact far better looking than the LeBaron, but then again lots of people in other places buy those Chinese knockoffs of RAV4s and F150s and Range Rovers that look almost exactly but not 100% like the original for less than half the money.
That’s sort of how this is, but the awkward part was that in this case the knockoff made it to the showroom first and was sold in the same one. Doh. Both cars are on different platforms, but both of those are different variants of the basic K platform, making this of course the only Maserati(-ish car) to be front wheel drive. It does make one wonder why are there multiple platforms used for what most people think is the same exact car? (Correction: There was a FWD Maserati prior, the Quattroporte II, using Citroen SM mechanicals, it never received Type Approval and was hand built/sold a total of 13 times in a handful of countries that looked beyond that. Yet it did exist.)
Do you guys like opera windows? I don’t. I think they look ridiculous, especially on anything this side of 1960. The same people bitching about modern cars not having enough window area seemed to have no problem buying cars with tiny opera windows placed in a huge expanse of B or C pillar by the parking-lot-full not so long ago.
Does Maserati have a history of opera windows? Did Pavarotti stand backstage and peer out a tiny little window at the audience before making his entrance? What’s the deal here? Or did Lido simply think THIS is what will bring them running. I can imagine the boardroom fights when he lost the battles for a landau top, hood ornament, and curb feelers.
These cars had a standard hard top AND a soft top as well, just like a Mercedes SL. Sehr cool. Most of these cars seem to have the hardtop on permanently, at least the ones I’ve seen, perhaps the soft tops deteriorate and are too expensive to fix or replace? Who knows. Or the second, third, or fourth owner has nowhere to store the hardtop on those beautiful late summer days.
The color on this one is the Black Cherry hue, one of six colors available in 1989 according to a brochure I referenced although other sources say only three colors were available initially. Most of these seem to be the buttercream yellowish color, but white, black, red, and a charcoal were also supposedly available, but perhaps not that first year.
Wheels were by Fondmetal, exclusive supplied to Formula 1 racing back then, not that I can imagine anyone in the US caring a hoot or even barely knowing what F1 was/is, more likely they are just whoever sent in the lowest bid response to Maserati’s RFQ, it’s not like it was ever planned to be a huge contract. I’ll be a little cynical and just assume this is as close to Iacocca’s preferred wire wheel look as the Italians would accede to.
The wheels don’t look bad and fit in with the era; the BF Goodrich Radial T/A white letter tires (and on just the rears) sort of ruin the premium look the car was going for at the time though, but they aren’t original to the car. The chrome fender lips ARE original and as much as I don’t particularly have an opinion on black plastic cladding on many modern wheelwells, I’m not particularly carrying a torch for the chrome version either. See? We’re up to at least two things I don’t really like on this import.
And yes, it most assuredly is an import, just like all the Mitsubishis that were taking up the other half of the Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth/Eagle/Who’d-I-Miss showrooms at the time. Made in Italy, manufactured by Maserati, and with a Z VIN. No mention of Chrysler here whatsoever.
This one is number 3086 off the line in that first year run which turned out to be the lion’s share with 3,764 produced. 1990 ended up at 1,900 and then there is a bit of a confusing tale of a further 1,636 or so built in 1990 but held over or not sold until the 1991 model year. Any way you slice it, a far, far cry from the projected numbers at the outset and at a base (but very well equipped) price of $33,000 in 1989 rising to $37,000 at the end, a Loser with a capital L. Do the math, if the numbers are all correct, the investment vs sales (not profit, sales) return was less than 50%.
Standing in front of the car the hood was stuck closed, it even said so on the hood. I figured it out after much prodding and probing, mainly because I was curious what engine was in it before I looked inside the cabin which made it obvious. Chrysler used the 160hp 2.2liter Turbo engine from the Daytona for these, mated to the hoary 3-speed automatic, but optionally (and supposedly at zero cost according to the early brochure) an engine based on the same block but with a Maserati and Cosworth designed 16-valve head along with some other changes that added 40hp (for an even 200) was available.
Those changes encompassed supposedly using items such as a Crane-designed cam manufactured by Maserati, Mahle pistons, and a different, Japanese supplied turbocharger. This was paired exclusively with a 5-speed manual Getrag transmission. While the Venn diagrams for Opera-windowed cars and manual transmission turbocharged drivetrains in my mind are on opposite sides of the planet (much like Chrysler and Maserati) apparently 500 or so people saw it differently and chose that combination. Or perhaps a few of the 300 select (lucky?) Chrysler dealers that were “allowed” to peddle these ticked the wrong box on the order sheet and then faced an even bigger challenge moving these off their lot.
I do like the grille and after spending far too much time groping around under it trying to open the hood, I removed it and bought it for my garage wall, I find it looks cool, the combination Pentastar/Trident logo will warn future generations in my garage of entering into ill-advised dalliances and the stainless surround is actually steel and not plastic.
One would think (and frankly hope) that the most reliable thing in a Maserati-Chrysler badged car might be the engine churned out by the millions in Detroit, sadly in this case that does not appear to be so. The comically appropriate plastic trashbag was tightly covering the engine, I was the one to remove it to make sure it wasn’t obscuring the special Maserati-fettled engine; alas, it was not.
Someone was plucky enough to remove the top parts of the engine, perhaps being familiar with an Omni or something before, but then somehow paused and tucked it away for that special day when it would all be restored to new. Or even better!
Apparently Chrysler agreed that their engine sucked as for the 1990 and 1991 models they told Maserati that they would be supplying Mitsubishi 3.0l V6s instead. Say what? Yes, all the 1990 and 1991 models have a Mitsu V6 mated to a 4-speed automatic unless they were part of the 500 with the special engine. The whole name was based on them all being turbocharged…oh well, best laid plans and all that…
I was firmly hoping that the engine simply lived for 32 years and provided dutiful and faithful service for many hundreds of thousands of miles as the condition of the paint might indicate, so it was time to get inside the car and find out.
And there it hit me that no, the car (and engine) had only clocked 67,092 miles before apparently giving up. I can’t even blame this on a crappy Veglia or VDO odometer as that looks to be straight out of a Plymouth Voyager or similar. At least the gauges are complete-ish with no blanks, I wonder if the owner saw the coolant temp spike or the oil pressure dwindle or both at the same time? More fun than just a warning light I guess.
This though is my favorite part of the car (besides the grille). The steering wheel. The Italians know how to do leather and this cabin is draped in it. It even still smelled good! Or at least less bad than other cars but some goodness was definitely in the air. That wheel looks great, alas it was for 1989 only, in 1990 they swapped it out for an airbag equipped wheel out of a minivan from the Mopar parts bin, which, I’ll be frank, didn’t look quite as inviting. Still round, still sort of tan, but not quite the same.
No LeBaron even looked this good inside. Actually, most new LeBaron’s looked worse than this one today. The seats are practically still moo-ing, the door panels more or less have leather blankets tossed over them, the wheel is great, and if you could deep-fry the top of a dashboard in leather at the Milan State Fair, then that’s what this one had done, even if today the leather on that dashtop looks more like a funnel cake than anything else.
And my favorite part of course may be the thick baked-together-bun look on the center console armrest. It’s as soft as it looks, I poked it like I was poking the Pillsbury Doughboy’s belly and when it yielded a couple of inches I giggled like the Doughboy himself. Thinking about it, they should have engineered in the parts bin Chrysler Electronic Voice Alert System “Your door is ajar” etc and made that thing giggle every time it got poked.
While the wood is real (veneer) and holding up quite well in this car, the buttons, switchgear, and other bits and pieces are clearly and painfully lower grade K-car bits. They work and all, they just look and feel cheap. Perfectly fine in a value oriented vehicle, not so much here. And that font is atrocious in this or any context, especially with the varied letter spacing as is clearly evident here.
But I guess any dollar of the investment that Maserati didn’t have to convert into a lire to buy or make their own bits is a dollar socked away or squandered on something completely different; after all, even though it’s a Maserati (or a “By” Maserati), it didn’t have to actually be sold by Maserati, a small but perhaps critical detail. Mitsubishi didn’t have to operate under the same constraints, but then again, the Dodge Colt “By Mitsubishi” was also sold as the Mitsubishi Mirage across the street. Things to ponder before getting out of bed this morning…
More parts bin bits here, but with the wood and stitched leather they are more passable I suppose. Well no, not really, below is what a 1989 Maserati Biturbo Spyder’s interior looked like.
Same model year car, same builder, probably same suppliers for much of it. And based on a design almost a decade old. It’s better and just more sophisticated looking. And the interior of the Chrysler’s TC By Maserati probably turned out to be its best part! I wonder how much Chrysler actually saved by using the interior bits, it’s not like someone felt immediately comfortable in the car due to having had a Plymouth Horizon and recognizing the door handle or something.
Awkwardly placed behind the driver’s shoulder are controls to lower or raise the top and solid tonneau cover. Someone did a pretty good job color matching the grainy plastic to the stitched leather here. And the gathered leather with elastic pouch below it is a great place to stash absolutely nothing I can think of.
Unlike in the Lebaron, there is no +2 here, just space for a bag or maybe a Corgi or two. That cover lifts up to provide a generously sized bin that unfathomably holds a spare tire (gone on this one, what’s wrong with the trunk for that?) and also has a pull cable release for the trunk lid.
We don’t have pictures of the trunk interior as even though there was a key in the car (with the black plastic Chrysler head of the era), said key actually twisted and broke in half when I tried to turn it in the trunk lock, and then the pull release didn’t work either at which point I just decided to sod it and walked away…
After all that, I can’t really bring myself to entirely dislike it. Yes, it was a complete mistake of an idea and then things just got worse from inception on, the ship never really got righted, and it’s beyond baffling that Lee Iacocca didn’t just get fired from Chrysler by 1990, I myself have been fired over far more trivial things. The car perhaps had some initial promise conceptually but the reality was never going to live up to the dream/hype/whatever-was-being-smoked, not once it got delayed, not with all the low buck components, not with front wheel drive, not with the unfortunate LeBaron timing and styling and certainly not with an Italian car marque involved that was best known and remembered in the U.S. for making almost a decade’s worth of their Biturbo models go bang unexpectedly, expensively, and generally consistently so.
One of the best bits of info that I came across was actually in the yard while I was trying to figure out how to open the trunk once the key broke. I googled it on my phone and came across a forum where multiple people had asked the same question, apparently it’s an issue, the best response was from an owner who lamented why oy why did Chrysler decide to partner with Maserati of all companies instead of just picking a German company to hand their money to…