COAL: 1971 Chrysler Town and Country Wagon – Movin’ On Up

It seems that the people in marketing at Chrysler in 1970 were somewhat on different pages when it came time to design the sales brochures. On one hand we have a photo of a rather twee bunch of folks standing in front of some pretty light-weight antiques. On the other hand, the text tells us that this is a car that will carry 4×8 sheets of plywood – flat — and tow a hefty 2.5 tons without a towing package. I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m thinking that those folks wouldn’t have much use for plywood. Besides, they need the back seat in position for Mr. Peeper’s in-laws. The guy in the rocking chair…well he doesn’t need to fit, although he absolutely could sit between Mr. and Mrs. on the front bench. Maybe they just told him that, and he’s bumming. I think we’d all be happier if he just stayed behind.

Despite what the copy says, the 1971 Town and Country was clearly aiming for a more rarefied buyer than someone intending to lug around lumber. To me, this is fitting, as the 71 Town and Country that came into my life definitely represented a certain elevation in my family’s lifestyle.

In earlier COAL articles, I explained that new cars weren’t exactly common in my family. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true since the Simca 1000featured last week was technically new. Paperwork indicates that my dad financed it for $1700, so it was probably purchased new. That $1700 Simca would be $14,000 in today’s money (not that one could actually buy a $14,000 new car today). But the Chrysler Wagon was the equivalent of $41,000 today. This was no stripper car, and it represented a quantum leap beyond anything that my parents had devoted to a car purchase before. It was a new car, and then some.

None of this was not lost on me as a 10 year old. It was a matter of family doctrine that we were not the “type of family” (so I heard and learned) that spent money (period) or had money to spend on things other than absolute necessities. The objective truth of that is probably very arguable, and I do not recall a childhood where true necessities such as food and shelter were absent (and in my 21st century mind, I know that this alone indicates a level of privilege that many families then and now do not have). And we did after all have one of the most impractical dogs – bless his heart – ever to consume his weight in dog chow every month.

Nevertheless, contradictions are the spice of life, and in general there were a variety of signs that money didn’t come easy – and certainly wasn’t spent easily – by my parents. For example, there was the constant search (touched upon earlier in these posts) for ways to cut corners on expenses such as auto maintenance. The same applied to things as commonplace furniture (“We have 4 chairs. Why do we need more than 4? Are you going to use more than one at a time?”). We didn’t own a house until almost 5 years after the Chrysler was purchased. My parents had no mortgage down-payment and no ability to acquire one.

And yet, in October 1970, my dad shelled out for a $6000 car…with power windows even ($126.55)? And air conditioning ($421.05)? By the way, I think that this was the real kicker for my parents. I can still recall both of their complaints that they could not get the car without air conditioning and that they therefore had been “forced” to accept that frivolous option.

The broadcast sheet for this car indicates that it was absolutely not a special order and therefore was simply purchased off the lot. Yes, even though the car itself has been gone since the late 1980s, I still have the broadcast sheet, window sticker, invoice, etc. because those things were carefully saved by my parents. Of all their cars, this is the only one where that level of documentation exists. That speaks to the degree to which for them this car was a special, amazing, purchase. Something that they did not expect to come around again and therefore necessary to carefully preserve.

All of that, and it’s not even the car they originally wanted.

This is what they wanted. And to the extent that I had any say in the matter (I didn’t), it’s what I wanted too (I still do). While the Chrysler was clearly more upscale (just a bit though, those horsey folks could be the slightly sportier relatives to Mr. and Mrs. Mad Men in the Chrysler brochure) and larger, the Vista Cruiser had something unique. That would be those skylights reminiscent to 10 year old me of…

I had developed a thing for the Scenicruiser on several childhood bus trips from MD to NYC. Plus, of course, Greyhound.

Another NY World’s Fair branding-connection. There’s still a part of me that wants a Scenicruiser. Fortunately (although that’s debatable if you only ask me) I’ve watched enough of this guy’s YouTube channel to know that there are a variety of things I still might do with my life before I go entirely off the deep end and acquire a 50 year old bus.

Unfortunately, back then a 1971 Vista Cruiser was not in cards for us due primarily due to what at that time was the longest UAW strike against GM in history. My dad spent time stalking Oldsmobile dealers – and I believe even put a deposit down on a car – but as the strike wound on it became very clear that there would be no Vista Cruiser headed our way. At least one that did not involve a special order and a long wait…neither of which fit with my parents’ car-buying practice.

Thus he wound up at the Maryland Motors lot up Rockville Pike. I know that this couldn’t have been easy, as the main reason why he was in the car market at all was that the 1961 Plymouth had finally expired. Between the continual issues with that car and the shoddy treatment the Simca had received from Chrysler-Plymouth dealers, he wasn’t eager to wind up behind the wheel of another Chrysler product. Particularly not one that cost over $1000 more than the Oldsmobile that he originally wanted.

Still, we needed two cars and by mid-Fall of 1970 vehicles were starting to vanish off of most dealer lots as GM production was still stalled and inventory of other brands was growing increasingly tight. All things considered, my dad was probably lucky to negotiate $1000 off of sticker on the Town and Country.

Plus, we were indeed moving up economically – for a while at least. That fall, my dad was in the first year of his first (and ultimately only) non-government job and had a taste of private sector “riches”. In his case, he had found his way to AAA (yep, the American Automobile Association) as one of their first transportation policy analysts. As a city and urban planner, a big part of that work in those days was transportation policy.

I have very few pictures of the Chrysler when it was brand new. In this picture, it’s already several years old and by then we’d moved to North Carolina. Let’s just say that my dad’s private-sector work (which turned out to be largely developing positions for AAA’s lobbying efforts) wasn’t all that he’d hoped it would be. In his mind it was better to leave the bigger money for a clearer conscience. That’s probably the basis another article altogether. But in relatively short order we were off to another state and another state government job.

Well, we got a nice car out of it. That’s the story for today.

Aside from the upgrade presented by the unheard of luxuries of air conditioning and power windows, the Chrysler had 275 HP compared to the Simca’s 49 (or the Plymouth’s 145). Of course, at 3500 pounds, the Chrysler was a bit more than twice as heavy as the Simca. It truly was Big Car to the Simca Little Car.

And of course the Chrysler had a big dog to haul around.

Frankly, the dog was about the only hauling our Chrysler ever did. One would think that for all its comfort, we’d have taken that car on the kind of road trips that had been the regular assignment for the Plymouth, but that was not the case. Our family vacations in the early 1970s were increasingly by plane and then rental car. For the driving portions of those trips, we usually wound up in Buick Skylarks from Avis.

Overall, our Town and Country never quite lived up to its potential. Arguably one of the largest and most powerful wagons ever to roll down the road, ours mostly did lightweight grocery-getting. In short, our particular Chrysler always seemed a bit too much for my family, and I expect the same was true for many owners.

Never terribly common on the roads – at least compared to Ford and GM wagons – the big Chrysler stood out and thereby only deepened my parents ill ease around owning something so showy. My mom – who was the primary wagon driver – always seemed simultaneously proud and intimidated by the car. She kept the car immaculate, but was also on record as being scared by the power windows due to what she regarded as a sure fact that they would be utilized to “chop off” her children’s fingers. As it turned out those would be my fingers…smashed by my sister gleefully activating the tempting silver switch while I had my hand wrapped around the window frame in a parking lot. I lived…with all fingers presently attached and still mostly functional.

In bad weather, my mom and dad constantly debated whether the “special” (Sure Grip LSD) differential was a good or bad thing with regard to winter handling. It should have been a good thing…except as we know, many innovative automotive technologies – e.g., ABS – that change the ways cars are expected to work can be daunting — and even unsafe – until drivers catch up with how to interact with the technology. Anyhow, in their lack of automotive acumen they assumed that the Sure Grip was an innovation that did nothing productive beyond adding to the car’s price and complexity.

Me? I loved the Town and Country even if I understood that it represented a forbidden level of luxury that I probably did not deserve or need. I was a blossoming child of the modern age and assumed that what Chrysler gave us would surely be in our best interest.

One of my favorite features — the rear window washer — was standard and quite goofy. To use it, it required the driver to roll down the window and press a big chrome dash button. Then, the washer and wiper went about their business in private, out of sight. Washer fluid was added through a chrome cap on the tailgate. Probably all wagons of the day had something similar. I didn’t know that at the time and assumed that this was just one more way the Big Car was fancier than the average car. After all, in all of our other cars if the rear window was dirty, you just lived with it until you got to a gas station (which was often) and then washed it like God meant people to wash car windows. By having the gas station guy do it.

Like many CC readers (I suspect), I loved the sales literature that came home with the Chrysler and I poured through it constantly. It amazed me that cars could be “ordered” (that’s a concept in itself!) with optional accessories. The one that I coveted was #16 – the Stereo Cassette Tape System. This was not because I was thinking of playing cool tunes without relying on radio stations…but because it had A MICROPHONE.

That’s right, you could record tapes in the car!! This was of particular interest to me since at the time I had started carrying around a small reel-to-reel tape recorder, and would record trip narration on longer trips. The overall effect was not unlike many of the World’s Fair rides – e.g., the Ford pavilion where you rode through the narrated exhibit in a brand new Ford. Imagine if one could do that using our car’s “radio” and I didn’t have to bring along the tape recorder??? My 12 – 13 year old head nearly exploded at the thought of that.

I always wanted to get one of those tape decks and install it myself. But by the time I would have been old enough to look into actually doing that, I was done with the Chrysler…having moved on to an actual driving obsession with what will be next week’s COAL installment. Still though, we kept that car for far longer than our typical 10 years or so. It’s not just that it was relatively problem-free (it must have been a good day at the Jefferson Avenue Plant in Detroit when our wagon rolled off the line) but I sincerely believe that my parents wanted to keep the car around because it represented to them such a substantial and awe-inspiring investment for them.

Given its longevity, the Town and Country was the first family car that I actually drove. That turns out to be a short story, as the entirety of my early driving experience with the Chrysler was a single trip on my learners’ permit. I’ll save most of the drivers’ ed stories for the next post, but here I’ll simply say that my first time behind the wheel of the Chrysler was also the first time I’d driven with both of my parents in the car. I’m sure you can see what’s coming next.

It was just a short trip to the store or something, but memorable for its ending. As I drove the car into its parking spot under the carport, I made a typical newbie mistake of letting my foot slide off the brake and onto the gas (releasing some of that power that was capable of towing 2500 pounds) and rolled the car into one of the 4x4s that served as carport roof supports. The 4×4 broke, the car was unscathed, and my mom refused to get into a car with me behind the wheel for – I kid you not – another 10 years. I’d not only managed to fulfill her expectation for disaster (all except for the part about “killing us all”…she wouldn’t give up on that for another 10 years) but just as important, I’d “nearly wrecked” the Big Car. That was pretty much unforgiveable and – as it turned out quite fortunately – sentenced me to only drive the Little Car for the rest of the time I was home before leaving for college.

I’ll wrap this episode by noting that rather ironically — given what I’ve just written above — the Chrysler would get along until the late 1980s, up until the time it gave its life saving my parents’ lives. Totaled by a head-on collision at speed with a wrong-way driver on a hilly Northern Virginia two-lane highway. My parents were seriously, although not irreparably, injured. The occupants of the other (naturally much smaller) vehicle – visiting citizens of a left-side-driving country who sadly were not attentive to their location – were not so lucky. Rumor has it that despite the Chrysler being totaled for insurance purposes, it was deemed to be still rebuildable. They held title to that car – despite it sitting in the back lot of some obviously slow moving garage – until they had both passed more than another 10 years after that.

Wait, I have it right here.

Of course I do. ‘Cause you know, with a car that fancy, you’re going to want to fix it someday, right?