Thus begins the strangest tale in my entire vehicle ownership experience. Which is saying something. This was a car that never should have come into my life, but that was (at the time) everything I had ever wanted in a car. Isn’t that how all tragic relationships start?
In the spring of 1980 I successfully converted my mother’s driveway into one that was 100% Mopar, something I had never before thought possible. That was when she decided to replace the 6 year old Luxury LeMans – a gas hog that she had never really loved. I innocently suggested that she check out a Plymouth Horizon or Dodge Omni. I had tried selling my mother on a Chrysler product before, in 1974. I at least got her to drive into the lot of the local Chry-Ply dealer before she saw what the Satellite sedans looked like and drove right back out again without stopping the car. But this time the little L body made a case for itself.
Mom wanted a small car, but wanted one that was “plush”. She was approaching fifty years old and was not ready to settle for an econobox. We had gotten a touch of Honda experience by driving occasional loaners when the Pontiac had been in for service at our local dealership that handled both lines. Hondas of the 1970’s were a lot of things, but plush was not one of them. The GM X body had just come out, but Mom didn’t like the looks of them and they were larger and more expensive. The little Omni just seemed right, and once she got over the games Glenbrook Dodge was playing (three separate times when the special order car was to be delivered but, oddly, was reported as not on the truck), she drove a couple of blocks to Tomkinson Chrysler-Plymouth and ended up with a two tone navy and silver blue Horizon sedan. And it was actually plush, with comfy velour upholstery, air, power steering and brakes, automatic, and the best stereo either of us had ever had in a car.
Early one summer evening two years later I happened to be out somewhere with Mom and my Aunt Norma, who was curious about a Horizon for one of her kids. It was after business hours (the best time) and we stopped in at “our” Chry-Ply dealer to see what they had on hand. Suddenly, I no longer cared. Because there, in the front row of the used cars, was the most gorgeous 1977 New Yorker Brougham 4 door hardtop ever built. The “Russet Sunfire” paint was an unusual cross between copper and burgundy, and it was stunning when paired with the light beige vinyl roof and beige velour interior. My car-influence Howard had bought a 77 Newport 4 door hardtop brand new, and I was
quite really extremely fond of that car. But this New Yorker took everything good about the Newport and turned it to eleven. You know that oft parodied movie scene where the man and the woman see each other across the green meadow full of daisies, then run in slow motion until they end in a passionate embrace? My reaction upon seeing the New Yorker was a lot like that.
A back door had been left unlocked and I called Mom over to check it out. I only intended to invite her to join me in drooling over the unobtainable, but something inexplicable happened. She fell in love with it as hard as I did.
This was absolutely not my mother – she was of German stock and as practical as they came. But she had harbored a little thing for big, expensive cars since she had gotten the occasional use of her Uncle Carl’s Cadillacs when she was in nursing school. Gasoline and interest rates were both sky-high in 1982 so a 5 year old New Yorker was not in demand. First, it was an unapologetic product of the old pre-Iacocca Chrysler Corporation. I loved that about the car, but I was in a very small fan club. Second, anything powered by a 440 V8 would struggle to get double digit gas mileage under the best of circumstances and was therefore as popular as a rat in a fancy restaurant. The five-year-old car had only 34k on the odo and was pristine in every way.
It was an unusual summer in other ways too. I had just graduated college and the country was in the middle of a nasty recession. I had taken the LSAT exam and had been admitted to the IU law school at Indianapolis. That seemed like the best plan because the job market for college graduates for any kind of business degree (mine was economics and finance) was horrible. So, I continued the life of a student, and managed to piece together three part time jobs so make some money. My barber’s wife ran a card and gift store in the mall and needed someone she could trust to be in charge during a summer trip they had planned, so that took care of my evenings. She, by the way, had traded a big Buick on a 76 New Yorker Brougham, which she loved. I also got hired to work mornings at an industrial warehouse where my father had some contacts, and I was also able to pick up shifts when I was able at the funeral home where I had started for the summer four years prior. These all worked out to maybe 125% of a full time job. I was nothing if not versatile.
And my job situation meant that I had many afternoons free, which gave me time to call the salesman who sold Mom the Horizon and ask about my new object of desire. The story was that an elderly farmer had traded it in on a new Fifth Avenue. The salesman was a good guy and got me the prior owner’s number so I could call – mileage confirmed. I think the car cost about $3400 when the dealing was done (on a car that had stickered at over $10k five years earlier) and it was undoubtedly the nicest car available for that kind of money.
Thus began a weird time with my mother owning two cars. I had the Scamper, she had her Horizon, and then there was the New Yorker. She sort of justified it by my younger sister still being at home and occasionally needing a car, but Jackie could not have cared less about that big Chrysler. The car (which was never called anything other than The Chrysler or The New Yorker) was highly optioned, with Auto-Temp, power windows, telescoping wheel, “Premiere Wheel Covers”, power locks, and even an in-dash 8-track. Which was a selling point for Mom, given her extensive 8-Track collection.
The first task was to sort out the issues – it wasn’t running quite right and a trip to the dealer resulted in a warranty-covered repair involving a transducer replacement associated with the Lean Burn system. Spoiler alert: this will not be the last time that the Lean Burn system figures into this story.
Cars in dealer used car lots are always quite clean, but it was not JPC clean. The vinyl roof got a deep scrubbing to get all of the dirt out of the grain. There was waxing, and cleaning of chrome. Lots and lots of cleaning of chrome. Most people do not consider 1977 as the golden age of chrome plated diecastings but two years earlier this had been the final Imperial, so there. Much time was spent on those Premier wheelcovers. I’m sure that nobody ever noticed that there were 40 little chrome plated rectangles around the outer edge of the plastic insert that bolted to the stainless rim, topped off by the plated diecast cap that bolted to it all. Each of those 40 little rectangles got scrubbed with chrome polish and wax until those wheelcovers glimmered in the sun.
I learned about how there was a lot less underhood room around a 440 in one of these cars than I had expected, and that spark plugs were best accessed from the top (on 5) and from the bottom (on 3). How could there be so little room around the engine in such a big car? I also learned about the odd shudder that the V-twin a/c compressor gave off at idle as it forced icy blasts from the dash vents.
But for all of my efforts, the car just wasn’t really running quite right. I decided that maybe a plugged catalytic converter was the reason for the sluggish performance, which is why I bought and inserted in its place one of those “test pipes”. To test the system, of course. And while I was testing, it seemed silly to pay extra for unleaded gas so I pried open the hole in the filler pipe to accept the larger nozzle.
I started law school that fall and was a bit anxious about it. When I went off to college my best friend Dan and I went together. Law school would be different – I was going to a new city where I knew nobody. Mom suggested that I take the New Yorker down to move in and then come home and swap cars after a couple of weeks. Making the trip with the then-love of my life helped, as I reveled in the solid luxury that the car provided. For anyone who never experienced big Chryslers of the 60s and 70s, each generation had a distinct feel to it. The Fuselage cars of 1969-73 generally drove great but had bodies and interiors that came off as cheap when compared to their competition. The 74-78 cars’ bodies felt more substantial (at least in some ways) and the interiors were far nicer than previously.
The two-car system was a curiosity for my mother after I went off to school, as my sister had headed to college that fall. But two cars were better than one, with the practical Horizon for daily duty and the big Chrysler for occasional luxuriating. Of course, I never missed a chance to take it out when I was home. After a couple of years in the driveway and as my law school graduation was coming into view, Mom let me know that she intended to make the New Yorker my graduation present. An 8 year old Chrysler might not be everyone’s idea of the perfect gift, but it certainly was mine and it kind of slowly morphed into being my car as winter gave way to spring in 1985.
I loved so much about that car. The seats were supremely comfortable and it was one of the rare times when a used car presented itself in a color combination that I probably would have special-ordered had I been buying new. I also loved the conservative stripe pattern of the beige velour over the poofy pillow look of the leather that everyone else seemed so crazy about. An unexpected (and massive) plus was the factory HD suspension, made better with the set of 70 series Goodrich T/A s (with a cool little “T/A” logo made by a diagonal break in the white sidewall) which I bought upon taking full control. That Chrysler was the best handling big car I have ever driven. Highway entrance and exit ramps were a total blast, with the car taking a hard set in the curve and sticking like glue as the curve was carved. Lots of cars could run away from it in the esses, but nothing anywhere close to its size. And on one flat-out run on a smooth, new highway I spent a few miles north of 100 mph, a speed at which that big car pushed itself down onto the road and tracked like a freight train.
Life was perfect. There I was, a newly minted lawyer with a big Chrysler of the kind I had always wanted. Well, except for one thing – the damn thing just never ran or drove right. My friend Howard had owned a 77 Newport 4 door hardtop brand new with a Lean Burn 400. His car always ran great – it had been one of the reasons I was so keen on the New Yorker. But ours was not so fortunate. Two or three trips into the Chry-Ply dealer had always resulted in one of those states where you pick the car up and try to convince yourself that the problem had been solved, knowing that it really had not been. It never started easily, it was sluggish and never ran as smoothly as the Scamper. There was also one problem that affected Howard’s Newport and affected our car too – a highway vibration in the front end that only happened randomly – though more often in ours than in his. Neither of us ever solved that one.
One day I had finally had enough. There was an independent shop that claimed to specialize in “Lean Burn Conversions”. I was still in school and had neither the time nor the space (or tools) to do any significant wrenching. And in those pre-internet days, I lacked the resources to research things the way we have all become used to in the ensuing years. This shop diagnosed three burned valves and proposed to do a full valve job and convert the ignition system to a 1972-spec Chrysler distributor. It seemed like a good idea, though an expensive one. Except that the car never ran right afterwards either. What a colossal mistake that was. Upon getting the bad news I should have said “Thank you, now give me my keys” and then waited for a chance to trade it. I also should have put more effort into trying to figure out for myself why it wasn’t running better afterwards. But this car had always manipulated my emotions and discouraged rational thought.
Then there were the little things, like the ungodly stiff throttle return spring. I tried unhooking one of the two springs and got a great relaxed gas pedal, but one that would not return to idle without a goose to the pedal due to a sticky throttle shaft. Maybe a rebuild of the Carter Thermo Quad would solve all of my problems, right? Uh, no – one more failed but costly attempt to prove myself worthy of this increasingly petulant automotive diva. The other nagging problem was a power steering pump that could never keep up with fast inputs at low speed, as in parking. So I couldn’t even park the car without it irritating me. And oh yes, the more than occasional rpm flair between shifts of the transmission. In the several months when the New Yorker and the Scamper coexisted under my ownership, I found myself heading for the Scamper when I needed to go somewhere. It wasn’t that I was trying to save on gas, it was just that the old car was so much more satisfying to drive. When you prefer the car you have been driving for five years (the one with the K-Mart seat covers, has a shitty radio and no a/c) to the gorgeous lust-object that is finally in your possession, something is very wrong. By this time I had driven enough big Mopars to know how they were supposed to drive. This one was just off in so many small but grating ways.
The memories I associate with this car are not all bad. During my law school years some friends and I assembled a mix tape of classic Motown songs that really seemed to fit with this car after I bought the cassette adapter for the 8 track. And in my last summer and early fall with it stalwarts like James Brown and Aretha Franklin were back on the radio with the kinds of songs that really seemed to fit with an old in-your-face Detroit-built sled in a time when Toyotas and Hondas were becoming the norm. Whatever its faults (and there were many) the Chrysler had a fabulous stereo and every time “Living In America” or “Freeway Of Love” came on the radio, the volume went up and those big speakers belted out some Motown revival that made me forget about my increasingly strained relationship with the car, if only for a short time.
Those diversions, however, were not enough to stop stuff from happening. A radiator was replaced, and later the hoses – after one of them let go on the drive home from downtown one night at 10 pm after a bar exam review course. With the real life stage of real life approaching, I had been smitten with new cars for a year or so by this time, and had driven several. But I got the Chrysler fixed and kept on looking.
I liked the New Yorker’s full instruments, and other than the fuel gauge their readouts had always pretty uneventful. Then one day I noticed the ammeter displaying heavy charging almost all the time. That. Was. It. A little electrical problem should not have caused me to slam the door on this deteriorating relationship, but this car had never run or driven completely right despite all of the love, attention and money I had thrown at it. I kept seeing the car for what it could have been and should have been, but it kept disappointing me. The stuff I expected would be Chrysler weaknesses – body hardware and power accessories – had been just fine. It was the stuff that was supposed to be Chrysler’s strength (like the engine, transmission and chassis) that had me pulling my hair out.
I am sure the situation got worse when I drove it every day instead of only occasionally, when all of the little failings flung themselves into my consciousness with each drive. When I traded my Mustang for the 59 Fury, I had said “it’s not you, it’s me.” This time, it was more like “I’ve tried, God how I’ve tried. But it’s you, it’s all you!” My current new-car infatuation was sitting in a dealer lot waiting for me to get serious, and I was there. I think the Chrysler had accumulated about 55k miles since 1977 – 20k of that by our family over three years. I think I only made a bit over 6 or 7 months after it was all mine.
On the Monday after a 6 pm Friday trade transaction for my first new car, I got a call from my salesman. He reminded me of something I had completely forgotten – that I was in my third year of, um, testing the operation of the catalytic converter. By this time I had no idea where the cat had gone. The salesman had been told to call me and demand a replacement converter so that they could legally sell the car. Being a new lawyer, I did what lawyers do – I staked out a position and waited for a response. “OK” I said, “Maybe I have some kind of obligation under Federal law to replace the cat, I have no idea and am not going to spend my time researching it.” I continued: “So have the dealership’s lawyer call me and explain why this is my problem. If it’s my problem I will pay for it. But if (as I suspect) it is not my problem, then each of us owns a car and yours needs a catalytic converter.” I never heard another word, and thus the New Yorker was no longer a part of my life.
I saw the New Yorker for sale three or four years later, sitting in a supermarket parking lot looking the worse for wear and priced around $1500. I fell in love with it all over again – for about 90 seconds. That was how long it took me to remember the life of co-dependency and heartbreak it had caused. The little 71 Scamper had been like the title character of the movie Rudy, the under-sized, under-skilled over-achiever who made up for all of his shortcomings with the heart of a lion. The New Yorker was more like Hunter Biden – the great looking, athletic guy who grew up with every advantage but who could never manage to convert it all into a successful, productive life. So the New Yorker taught me a(nother) valuable lesson in car ownership – sometimes you actually get everything you want. And it can still suck.