COAL – Flashback – The Cars Of My Childhood 1 – 1977 Dodge Aspen SE – Peak MOPAR Malaise Machine

Before the grand finale of my COAL series I thought I would pause for an interlude to talk about two cars from my formative years.  This week is the first.  Growing up in the 70’s malaise era meant that my idea of the ultimate car was the Lincoln Continental Mark IV that my friend’s mom drove to pick him up from Cub Scout meetings.  I dreamed of us owning a similar quintessential 1970’s Brougham luxury sedan, the thicker the vinyl roof, the better.  But as a kid I was deprived of that dream, until Mom got a new car.

Mom’s Dart on a camping trip. Hard to believe the Slant Six engine could pull that size trailer

The year was 1976, and Mom was driving an 8 year old Dodge Dart, the basest of base cars.  Dad was quite the penny pincher when it came to the family car, always buying the cheapest loss-leader car on the lot and driving it until the wheels came off.  Mom’s 68 Dart was getting pretty old, although the 225 Slant Six engine was still running well but it was all of the peripheral  accessories like the water pump that kept breaking down.  I for one, was sick of riding in the back seat of the most basic stripped down sedan you can imagine, with black vinyl seats, metal door panels, no A/C, and no radio.  Outside, it was dog dish hubcaps and virtually no chrome trim.  The car had the air of a taxicab.

Mom had been making noises about getting a new car for a while, so when Dad finally gave in and announced that we were going to trade in the Dart for new wheels, I was beyond excited.  Now, Dad was a loyal Chrysler man, having been quite satisfied with the Dart over the years, his first new car.  There was no question we were going to get another Dodge.  In 1976, Dodge was selling both the Dart in its last year of production alongside their brand new Aspen, which along with the Plymouth Volare were the new F-Body replacements for the aging Dart/Valiant platform.  So Dad was trying to decide between another Dart or the new Aspen for a bit more money.  Obviously, I campaigned hard for the Aspen, showing him a Consumer Reports article in which they tested a Dodge Aspen against a Ford Granada, Pontiac Ventura, and AMC Concord.  The Aspen came out on top, with Consumer Reports noting a relatively spacious interior and no major faults.  They stated that the Aspen/Volare had noticeably improved ride vs the old Dodge Dart.  I also pointed out the fact that the Aspen / Volare won 1976 Motor Trend’s Car of the Year.  

I successfully sold Dad on the new Dodge Aspen, and the big day came when we would all go to the dealership.  Dad wore a tie, and me and my brother as well as Mom dressed up in our Sunday best, so that the dealer knew we would be serious about buying a car, according to Dad.  I was wowed by all of the shiny new models in the Dodge showroom, especially the massive Royal Monaco Brougham wagon.  With its covered headlamps and acres of fake wood plastered on its sides, I had never seen such a beautifully luxurious wagon.  But alas, this car was way out of my parents’ reach, but a new Aspen would be good enough in my book.  Of the cars on the lot, my parents narrowed it down to two, a blue base trim Aspen with air conditioning, or a maroon top trim Aspen SE but without air conditioning.  Dad went for the maroon Aspen SE because it was his favorite color, and with the vinyl roof, wide body side moldings and other bits of SE gingerbread, it looked downright prestigious.

It was spring and I didn’t miss the air conditioning, but I marveled at all of the Broughamy styling bits on the top line Aspen SE, the turbine wheel covers on whitewall tires, stand up hood ornament, chrome fender mounted turn signal indicators, and a full width taillight trim plate adorned with some silver and white swirly pattern.  Inside, a genuine 60/40 split bench reclining vinyl seat with a fold down center armrest, fake wood door trim inset with more of that swirly pattern, and carpeting on the lower door panels!  Oh I was in Brougham heaven.  

Never mind that the windows had to be cranked by hand, and the door locks were manual.  And there were plastic blank out panels in the dash where there should have been vents for air conditioning.  And there was only an AM radio.  Actually, this dressed up Aspen SE was equipped like our old Dart but in fancier clothes, and Mom made a remark that after 9 years we’ve upgraded our car by only adding an AM radio.  But on the outside it carried enough Brougham street cred for me to hold my head up semi-high when I got picked up at school, next to my classmates whose moms were driving Cutlass Supremes, 98 Regencies, Ford LTD’s and various Buicks, the staples of upper middle class suburbia in the late ’70’s Midwest.

Well, most people know the troubled history of the F-Body Aspen/Volare, the terribly flawed compact that singlehandedly ruined Chrysler’s reputation for engineering excellence.  Our car was no exception,.  Shortly after bringing the car home, the recall notices started coming.  Dad was exasperated, but I didn’t mind because I got to go with him on these frequent trips to the dealer, getting to ogle the shiny new cars in the showroom and add to my growing collection of Dodge brochures.   One day as we were driving home from church, we hit a pothole and the front torsion bar snapped in two, causing the whole front end to collapse and ride only on the jounce bumpers.  Also, the front fender tops started to rust, like virtually every Aspen/Volare ever made.  

Aspen on a ski trip, sadly, not in Aspen but in Ohio

Eventually, the lack of air conditioning wore on me and I too grew to resent this car.  We went on road trips and camping trips with friends, and me and my brother would suffer in Midwestern summer humidity while my friends waved to us from the rear cargo area of their A/C-equipped station wagons.  At 16 I started Driver’s Ed and Mom’s Aspen was the car I learned to drive in.  I got my first taste of how this car drove, and it was really underwhelming.  The 1 BBL slant six engine with all of 85 hp was woefully undermatched for this size car.  On a downhill slope with a tailwind the car could possibly manage 80 mph, at all other speeds any throttle opening over 50% would cause severe detonation and knocking.  By comparison, I thought that the driver’s ed car, a 1982 J-car Buick Skyhawk loaded with 4 students and one very overweight driving instructor, felt peppy.  

I didn’t have my own car in high school so I would have to borrow Mom’s Aspen or Dad’s car (next COAL) on occasion.  I took it to Prom my senior year, a 7 year old Dodge all washed and waxed up to Brougham perfection.  True to form, Dad kept this old lump of steel running through my college years, so I used it to visit friends whenever I was home.  In time, the old Aspen was retired and Dad finally got Mom a car that had (gasp!) A/C, power windows, and a cassette player.  It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.  Progress indeed.