COAL: 1981 Plymouth Reliant Sedan – Old Reliable

1981 Plymouth Reliant

1981 Plymouth Reliant Sedan

I was always kind of aware of the various vintage and classic cars that my extended family collected, but I didn’t really see the point. With all the accumulated wisdom of a 13-year-old fed a steady diet of automotive buff books, I was much more interested in new cars. My first trip to Hershey changed all that.

For those not in the know, “Hershey” is the shorthand name for the Antique Automobile Association of America (AACA) Eastern Regional Fall Meet, held on the first full week of October every year in Hershey, PA. You can see why refer to it simply as “Hershey.” Hershey has the distinction of being one of the largest antique automobile show and flea markets in the world. It is impossible to describe how large it is – words simply cannot do it justice. I would guess to walk from one end of the field to the other is approximately one mile.

In the fall of 1982, my freshmen year of High School, my Dad’s brothers (who had been attending Hershey for a decade or more) invited him to attend. Dad in turn invited me. I didn’t really know what to expect: I vaguely knew that Hershey, PA was the headquarters of the Hershey Co. and that the streetlights were shaped like Hershey’s Kisses. Honestly, I was looking at it as much as an opportunity to get to miss a few days of school and go on a road trip with my family as anything else.

For this trip, I was riding in the back of my Uncle Jim’s Buick Electra station wagon. And when I say in the back, I literally mean in the back: There was no room for me in the front two rows of seats. I remember two things about this car: It had a buzzer that alerted you when you exceeded a preset speed (It went off a lot, and I wondered how this was supposed to be better than cruise control), and that my uncle had modified the cornering lights so that they were always illuminated when the headlights were on, which nicely illuminated the side of the road. In retrospect, I guess I had just experienced my first mod, long before the term was invented.

Suffice it to say, my first trip to Hershey left a huge impression on me. There is much more that I can and will say about Hershey, so we will be spending more time here in future COALs.

Author in his younger days with the two most common things you will see at Hershey: Old cars and mud.

Back on the home front, we were still getting by with the 1981 Pontiac Bonneville Diesel that my Dad drove (covered in my last COAL), and a 1981 Plymouth Reliant that my mother drove. Again, I don’t have any photos, so you will have to make do with the representative images  (this will be the last COAL to be so afflicted, I promise!).

To say that my Mom didn’t share Dad’s and my interest in cars is an understatement. She is a strict utilitarian and viewed cars as little more than appliances. There is nothing wrong with this view: indeed this is the most common, as we car enthusiasts are in the distinct minority. So when Dad and I went out shopping for her new car, she had but one instruction – no options!

I’m not sure how we decided upon the Reliant, of all the possible cars we could have gotten (A patriotic fervor to support a company that had just received loan guarantees from the US government might have had something to do with it). My Dad was not a Mopar fan, and had never previously owned any Chrysler products that I know of. However it came to pass, there we were at the local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer, taking delivery of a silver 4-door Reliant with absolutely no options.

Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, right, sits on the fender of K Car Number One, a Plymouth Reliant, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1980, Detroit, Mich. The automaker showed off its new front-wheel drive model. The car will also be sold as the Dodge Aries, and will be manufactured in Detroit and Newark, Delaware. (AP Photo/Dale Atkins)

Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, right, sits on the fender of K Car Number One, a Plymouth Reliant, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1980, Detroit, Mich. The automaker showed off its new front-wheel drive model. The car will also be sold as the Dodge Aries, and will be manufactured in Detroit and Newark, Delaware. (AP Photo/Dale Atkins)

An early 80’s car with no options is quite a bit different than what you would expect in modern base model. Sure, there was no A/C and crank windows. Yes, it also meant a bench seat and a four-on-the-floor (with no tachometer, natch). But it also meant doing away with such “luxuries” as power steering,  power brakes, and a passenger side mirror. That four-speed, by the way, had no center console – just a lever sticking through the floor with a rubber accordion boot. The only concession to style was a standup hood ornament.

Plymouth Reliant with rare four-on-the-floor transmission.

Mom hadn’t driven a stick shift for decades, but after some initial head jerking and stalling it didn’t take her long to pick it up again. She seldom complained about the extra steering effort during parallel parking, or the lack of vacuum assist on the brakes.

K-car aficionados (if there is such a thing) will know that 1981 was the only year that the rear windows of the sedan did not roll down. Instead, it made due with a pop-out quarter window in each rear door. This, combined with the lack of A/C, made the back seat a miserable place to be in the summer. While Chrysler was quick to address this oversight with proper roll-down rear windows for the 1982 model year, it was of little comfort to me.

For all its shortcomings, I was quick to appreciate the USS Reliant (as we came to call it, after the starship in Star Trek II) for its many virtues, especially once it became my hand-me-down daily driver at college. With four long gears and a forgiving clutch, it was an easy car to learn to drive stick shift on. As a result of this positive experience, I drove only manuals for decades afterward. The front-wheel drive (the first I had ever experienced) was unstoppable in the snow, the same of which could not be said about the Bonneville.

On non-AC cars, the center "vents" are just knockout panels.

On non-AC cars, the center “vents” are just knockout panels.

The minimal complement of options yielded other unexpected dividends. Without the added weight and power loss of engine driven accessories accessories like A/C and power steering, the Reliant was surprisingly quick and nimble (everything that the Bonneville was not). The direct feedback of unassisted steering and brakes made for a level of driver involvement that even modern sports cars can only dream about. Who knew a family sedan could be so much fun to drive? In retrospect, with its light weight, manual transmission, and unassisted steering and brakes, the Reliant was as close to a true sports car as I would come to own for a while.

The mechanical simplicity meant that there was very little to break down. Other than a propensity for the aluminized exhaust system to rust out every couple of years, the only other issue I can recall is that the instrument panel illumination went out at some point. I solved that problem with a clip-on reading light.

I must also give props to the 2.2L four-banger: It gave us years of trouble-free motoring with minimal maintenance, occasionally bordering on neglect. Unlike the Bonneville, the Reliant never left me stranded. I recall one time driving home, when I noticed some smoke and a burning smell coming out from under the hood. I pulled over and opened the hood, and the entire engine compartment was covered with oil. Apparently, the oil filter had sprung a small leak and was spraying oil everywhere. I pulled out the dipstick, and there was not a drop of oil on it. Not knowing what else to do, I continued driving home, where I promptly changed the oil filter and added several quarts of oil. To its credit, the engine never missed a beat, despite being driven God knows how far with a basically dry oil pan.


I honestly don’t remember what happened to that car – it probably drifted off in one of my Dad’s many trade-ins that took place while I was away at college. But it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that it was still chugging along somewhere.

As for Dad, the Reliant had the exact opposite effect on him that Bonneville Diesel had: He became a lifelong devotee of Chrysler, buying a long succession of Mopar cars and trucks for the remainder of his life.