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.
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.
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.
I grew up with Dodge Darts. My parents had a 1965 Slant 6 with a 2 on the tree purchased not long after I was born. My grandmother had a 1966 automatic Slant 6 she drove till 1988. I had a 1966 Dart automatic for my first car in 1982 which had 145 hp gross. Was a fairly peppy car. I then had a 1975 Dart Custom with a vinyl roof with AC and a 1 barrel. It struggled with AC and I wish it had more power. Was a nice car though. My parents got a used 1978 Dodge Aspen wagon with the 2 barrel carb which was around 110 net hp. It wasn’t a fast car but was better than my Dart. The early Aspens took around 16 to 18 seconds to do 0-60 mph which seems slow today but would be consider “acceptable” in those days of the 55 mph speed limit. The Aspen was more comfortable riding then the Darts but I still liked the Darts better. Both were practical cars was good visibility and luggage space. My parents didn’t get a car with AC until they bought a 1984 Reliant which also had problems with its carb. We also lived with AM radio till they got the Reliant. I didn’t mind the crank windows and lack of AC in the 1970s. It was an accepted thing in those days for the most part. The Aspen and Volare had a lot of early quality control problems. They were a good overall design in their day though and were practical cars. The Slant 6s would go forever but the bodies of the Darts and Aspens didn’t last in the snowbelt. A good COAL that brings back the car buying values of our folks and that era. Thanks for triggering some similar memories in me!
Our “73 Swinger” had a/c and the “318”. It ran pretty well. My aunts “72” had same arrangement, much nicer interior. She had covered parking too.
Both were good cars. Neither was any good in the snow.
We weighted the trunk in the winter months.
‘Weighting the trunk’ for winter driving brings back a memory of helping my dad put a couple of bags of cement in the back of our ‘81 Bonneville (Diesel…eeew.) ‘ cos he hadn’t had the snow tires put on yet and it was an early snow in KC that year.
This brings back fond memories (or not so fond memories?) of two F Bodies in my life. My grandfather sounds a lot like your dad. He would always buy a USED base model of something. His last car was a slightly used 1976 Volare wagon. This would have been about 1977. It did have A/C and power door locks, but nothing else. Vinyl bench seats, AM radio, no woodgrain, no carpet in the cargo area. It always ran terrible when cold, and he found someone who removed all the emissions control equipment. It ran a lot better after that.
My parents bought a used 1976 Volare wagon about the same time. It had the Slant 6 too, but otherwise was better equipped with woodgrain, 60/40 seats with orange and brown plaid fabric on the seats and door panels (seemed ritzy at the time), A/C, AM/FM Stereo (our first car with that). I don’t remember it having the rough running problem, though. This was our “nice” car, the other car at the time being our 1975 Suburban with three on the tree and rubber floors.
While the F-body had a troubled start-up and myriad teething problems, they were eventually ironed-out as evidenced by the longevity of the F-body-based M-body (Fifth Avenue/Diplomat/Gran Fury, et al) which lasted through 1989. IIRC, the M-body used the rear doors from the F-body station wagon.
So, while the F-body was bad at first, it at least got something of a reprieve. A pity because it really sullied the bulletproof reputation of the old compact A-body, a car which many remember as a highlight of the old Chrysler corporation before Iacocca took the reins and virtually all Chrysler cars were FWD (with the lone exception of the M-body).
My memories of a Dodge Aspen was a company car. At the time, I worked for Cambria County (PA) Mental Health/Mental Retardation/Drug & Alcohol program as the HR department. Which also added the federally funded Breathalyzer program. Being an electronics geek at the time (I actually had an IBM PC clone in my office, my personal computer not a county supplied one, no Internet but I had routines for printing out Civil Service interview notices) I did the maintenance on the Smith & Wesson 100’s, only to have the person actually getting paid to run the Breathalyzer program (son of one of the County Commissioner) sign off on my work and take the credit.
The nice bit about this was at least once a month I had to take machines into Pittsburgh to the S&W repair facility to take care of problems that I couldn’t do in the basement lab in the house that was program headquarters. Which meant getting the keys to a fleet special ’75 Dodge Aspen wagon. Automatic, AM radio, and maybe air conditioning (I say maybe because it’s my nature to never use air condition, just open the windows – it’s the motorcycle rider in me).
The first time the program had to do this, it was assigned to the D&A program secretary, who, of course, had to take another secretary with her, being terrified of going into the big city (150 mile round trip) alone. That took a good seven hours. When the second trip came around, I was assigned the job, administration figuring I could do it in less time.
I did. Six hours. Three hours for the trip, and three hours stopping off for a bit of afternoon delight with a college student I was seeing on the side in Pittsburgh. It made for a nice way to earn a day’s pay, and the county never caught on until the day I dutifully turned in my resignation. Little matter of the control of the courthouse had switched parties, my godfather had retired, and there were political dues to pay – somebody from the other party needed my job.
Still remember that car. Gray with red vinyl, actually ran about as well as you could expect from anything in the Seventies, and since it was garaged and I certainly didn’t do runs on days after bad snowstorms.
We had a ’80 Dodge Aspen as a company pool car. Stick shift, straight six, bare bones. The car would overheat at a moments notice, ran like an Iron Duke was under the hood, rattled like a can of nuts & bolts, and wallowed over every bump in the road to the point of nausea.
Since I had just started my career and was to buy my “first new car”, all of Chrysler was kicked off the list. Manufactures fail to appreciate the “collateral damage” when a project is rushed and customers repeat their poor experience to those in the family and the office. The image is tarnished in the back of the mind and stays there.
Antics like above are the reason why the Big Three are no longer the Big Three.
Dad had a 78 Volare Premiere Wagon with all optional features including chrome roof rack with 328 V8. Overall it was a reliable, comfortable and boring vehicle. Following the evolution of this platform, I found much to like in my 83 and 85 Fifth Avenues! 🏆. With the formal roof cap and plush tufted velour seats as well as being loaded with standard equipment, these Fifth Avenues were elegant and extremely comfortable! One of Chryslers best evolutionary efforts. They were extremely successful until discontinued and names New Yorker, Fifth Avenue, and Imperial went to extended Kcars. Wouldn’t mind having another, mid 80s Fifth Avenue again.😎👍
10 model years was an eternity in those days, and I doubt that anyone was more excited than I was when these cars hit the ground in the fall of 1975, just as my Mopar fandom was really in blossom. They tested well at first, and Chrysler was putting some really attractive interiors in these, at least in upper trims. Then one by one I started hearing reports from owners of hard starting, bad running, rust, and almost always followed by “I’m never buying another Chrysler”. But I still remember a ride home from college in an early Volare or Aspen wagon with that nice high-level interior trim and being impressed by it.
I don’t think I can recall a car bought by an adult family member that was without a/c after about 1969. I remember my mother test driving a really nice 74 Luxury LeMans – she loved it until the salesman sighed heavily and said “no air”.
This was a great story. I love being temporarily brought into someone else’s family to listen to how car-buying decisions were made, learning about the personality traits and quirks of other peoples’ parents and how those quirks were both different and the same as the quirks my own parents displayed.
I love your “the air of a taxicab” description. My Dad drove a base model ’70 Dart for a private car service for years until he upgraded to a ’75 Dart Custom. Over the years my parents owned a half dozen Darts ranging from a ’67 to the ’75. All base models except the ’75. IIRC the ’75 was the first car they owned with air conditioning.
I bet the dealer was happy to sell the non-A/C higher trimmed model off. “Great job, finally sold it, now order one with A/C next!”
“… restyled and upgraded compact based on the Dart/Valiant platform…”
The F bodies were a different design than A, not just a “re-skin”. Lots of chassis parts don’t interchange, for example. And the F’s torsion bars are different layout, too.
I’ve now edited the text to correct that.
Zero chassis parts interchange between the A- and F-body cars, unless we’re counting stuff that doesn’t really count (brake drums or rotors…).
In western PA , where I lived, a lot of those “glamed up, no a/c rides”, were running the roads then.
Even our neighbors “Monte Carlo” had no a/c. My sister /brother in law’s “Charger SE” as well.
The fact that you helped talk your parents into an Aspen and were not placed for adoption within the first year of ownership means they must love you!
Ha ha, yeah they loved me enough to keep me around despite the car’s troubles.
The Volare/Aspen broke our family’s hearts. Diehard Valiant/Dart fans excited over the new contemporary design of the Volare/Aspen. My older brother got an Aspen wagon. It lasted four months. When all the recall notices went out, our generation-long love of Mopar ended. No one else in my family bought another. We switched to Ford.
Can’t look at them, the Fifth Avenue, Diplomat, or other knock-offs using this vehicle without remembering how good they could have been.
We must’ve got a good one, my mom had a ‘78 light metallic blue Aspen when I came around in 1985. We kept it until 1991 or 1992 and had made the move from central IL to central FL in 1990. It was replaced by a light blue 1988? Plymouth Horizon.
The Aspen was a great, reliable car for us and dad always talked about the “sweetheart of a six” under the hood. Maybe they had really low expectations? Haha.
These replacements for the Valiant and Dart were bland, boring, ugly. And they weren’t even good cars to start. Took Chryco a couple of years to get most of the bugs worked out.
When my parents took me along for car shopping in 1976, one of the first cars we looked at, maybe the first one, was a Plymouth Volare. We test drove a base model with an ivory cloth interior, taxicab-plain. I hated it. It was so boring! I recognized a few trim pieces, like the door lock buttons, as being the same as in our ancient 1966 Polara wagon, the epitome of plainness (except for the awesome huge speedometer and gauge cluster). Please don’t buy this car, Mom and Dad! We later stopped by the Dodge dealer. My dad considered the Dart Special Edition they had in the showroom to be a prestigious luxury car. We also looked at an Aspen, not yet realizing it was essentially the same car as the Volare until the dealer pointed it out. But we drove a top-line Aspen SE with red vinyl seats and A/C which was much nicer than the base Volare. We also looked briefly at a Coronet – obviously an old, outdated design even more boring than the Volare. I recall one unflattering detail, a gasoline pipe leading running from the fuel filler cap that intruded on trunk space. My favorite of the cars we looked at was a Ford Granada Ghia, the most Brougham-y and upscale, with thick carpets, map pockets, reading lights, and loads of woodgrain trim – a mini-Lincoln. Our Consumer Guide Auto Test ’76 and Consumer Reports both looked down on it due to subpar handling and outward visibility, but I didn’t care about that stuff as a underage passenger. We also looked at a Chevy Nova Concours, which had some good points but felt older than the others, with 1960s-style pushbutton door handles, and the cloth upholstery was scratchy and the rear seat seemed less roomy than the others. Overall I liked the Aspen (my mom’s fave due to best outward visibility) better than the Concours but less than the Granada. My dad decided against buying any of them after hearing GM was about to introduce a new line of cars that had the room and quiet, smooth ride of a big car but small outside dimensions for 1977. We waited a few months, then drove a blue Caprice and quickly decided it was much better than any of the “compacts” – just slightly bigger on the outside but much roomier, smoother riding, and quieter, and an impressively small turning circle. We drove all of the GM B bodies before ordering a two-tone green Pontiac Bonneville Brougham with most of the option boxes checked, our first “fancy” car.
Before deciding to wait for the downsized B bodies, the Aspen became our first choice. One thing it had in its favor, we assumed, was proven reliability. Sure it was a new design, but basically it was a restyled Dart with a updated body and suspension, but still with very basic, conservative engineering. The slant 6, 318 V8, and Torqueflite carried over and all had stellar reputations. How could they possibly mess this up?
My aunt/uncle got a new “78 Aspen SE sdn”, in spring of “78”. They had covered parking, drove rather little. The car aged well, was “optioned” heavily.
In September “1979”, the transmission gave out. ((fairly abruptly))
It was “warranty replaced”. Looked like the car would be theirs until the middle “80’s” for sure.
In “1981”, my uncle totaled it.
Nice story, Gene. As I’ve said in comment to your posts before, I think that my dad and your dad were kindred spirits so far as penny-pinching car-buying. He was also a Chrysler-Plymouth guy and so in some ways your story here makes me wonder why we didn’t have a Dart or Valiant or eventually an Aspen/Volare in the driveway. I think it was really just a matter of timing. My mom’s cars were always Mopar wagons, and those were kept (in the fashion my dad definitely appreciated) until the wheels literally fell off. Dad wanted something definitely smaller than the wagon for his daily (something better on gas…this being of course when gas was all of 25cents/gal), so the Dart/Valiant would have been too big. My dad was still in the process of driving the wheels off of a Fiat 128 in the late 70s/early 80s, so when it came time for him to get a new car in the mid-80s, I think he was done with Chrysler. He went for an Audi and that was done with buying “American” cars period. He drove an Audi the rest of his life.
But if the timing was right, I think that a stripper Dart/Valiant or a later-model Aspen (once some of the quality problems were worked out) would have suited him.
I for one loved Darts/Valiants such as the one your mom had. I have several friends who drove those things from the early 70s until nearly the 90s and I spent a lot of time in them in high school. The more low-optioned the better…and of course with the slant-6 and the dog dish hubcaps. If not for the rust, I’m confident that those friends would still be driving those same cars to the present day.
Yeah I hated the Dart when my Mom had the plain Jane model but now I wax nostalgic for it and wish I had one now. There will never again be another car like the Dart/Valiant, such a simple, honest, unpretentious workhorse.
One of the friends of the owners of this gas station/repair shop I worked in/hung out at had a bare-bones-ish coupe; I don’t remember if it was an Aspen or Volare. I know it did have the 225 slant 2bbl carburetor “Super Six” proudly proclaimed on the air cleaner decal. It also had a 3 on the floor.
I remember they fiddled with the timing and tweaked the carburetor mixtures and used their “magic” oscilloscope to dial it in. I got to ride in it and it ran pretty good. It actually burned rubber too. Seriously.
My dad bought a new ’78 Aspen wagon, with the Super Six (Slant Six with a two barrel carb), on June 12, 1978. It served him well, winter-driven in the Rust Belt, until 1991. No significant mechanical repairs, or serious rust. He did maintain it well.
Another family member bought new, a 1976 Volare Premier wagon in Harvest Gold, with the 360 V-8. And another family member bought a new 1978 Aspen Special Edition sedan, with the 360 V-8, in red with a white vinyl top.
At the time, I really wished Chrysler had offered the final year (1980) very modern Fairmont/Citation-like nose from the beginning, in 1976.
I loved that nose, over the earlier dated grilles, and round headlights. It also would have made a much stronger styling break from the discontinued A-Bodies.
With Chrysler government-mandated to replace the prematurely rusted front fenders on ’76 and ’77 models, I still remember seeing plenty of Aspens/Volares with mismatched front fenders. Some examples had very noticeably bad colour matches, relative to the rest of the car.
What a great way to turn off car buyers, forever. Shoddy workmanship, from the factory. Supported by equally bad dealer work.
At one point around late 1977, F-Bodies were extremely common, much like the FWD GM X-Bodies. Especially, the very popular wagons.
Look carefully in the background of this 1978 Toyota commercial. Pretty much sums it up…
I think Lee Iacocca also famously said “if you can find a better car, buy it”, around the same time this commercial aired.
Loved reading this! Great piece. I especially liked the part about you secretly enjoying all the trips back to the dealership when the Aspen when in for repairs. Our ’77 Plymouth Volare went back to Chinonis Chrysler-Plymouth / Dodge with frequency, and I remember being as excited to go back to the dealership as my parents must have been disgusted.
I still get excited when I think about the sounds and smells of the sunken garage repair pit area in that dealership, all the overhead lights, and that numerical tag they hung from the windshield-mounted rearview mirror when we’d pick up the car. That’s just one of memories of my early formative years that has made me question the nature/nurture part of why I love cars so much.
My dad bought a new ’77 318 Volare wagon and it was an excellent car. My uncle bought a new ’78 Volare and a couple of week’s later won a ’78 Dodge Aspen. Great car’s. My uncle was on the road all the time, put many miles on his automobile’s and he loved the Dodge and Plymouth. Later when he needed a new car, he decided he wanted to go with Ford. He researched all the model’s and bought a Taurus and it was nothing but trouble. He replaced it with another Ford and had nothing but problem’s. He went back to Chrysler and bought a new Plymouth Acclaim and never looked back. In my opinion, great machines. Make mine a Volare Super Coupe with a 360 or Aspen Super Coupe. Still better than anything GM or Ford offered at the time.
I know these had a bad reputation. My dad, however, bought a good one. A ’76 TOL Volare 4 door, 318 everything but power windows and seats. Deep metallic blue with parchment top and interior. No rust, few problems, an all round nice little car that wanted to be a bigger American car. My point of pride was installing a Teac auto reverse cassette deck. Enough relays and such so that you put in a cassette and the radio turned off and the speakers switched over with full isolation. See mom, my electronic projects may have been overbuilt but they worked.
Then he went and traded it in ’82 for a Pontiac 6000. Not deserving of the “mark of excellence”.
A friend of mine and his twin brother bought two of them, one an Aspen and the other a Volare. Their family was Mopar through and through. Those two cars, and the ones that followed them, were the beginning of the end of them as a Mopar family. The Aspen was constantly at the dealer for electrical issues. The Volare had both electrical and trans issues from almost day one. Less than a year into ownership of the Volare, one of their uncles offered up his Buick Regal for trade, and my friend jumped on that deal, only to slightly regret it about 2 years later when the Regal ate it’s Turbo 200 transmission. After the trans was rebuilt, it was an OK car, and one I would see even after he sold it. By some whacky coincidence, the guy he sold it to ended up being a coworker and a friend of mine since the mid 80’s, and the first time I saw it, I described my friend who sold it to him perfectly. He had that car as a winter beater until about 1995 or so, it went to the scrapper under it’s own power, with pretty much every panel rusted through and the engine, a 350 Buick I think it was, pouring out blue smoke. No shock, it was closing in on 500,000 miles, and was on it’s (at least) 4th transmission after the original. The Aspen was trash by the time it’s wreck in 1984 happened, and it was never on the road again. The 600 that replaced it was one of the all time disasters and it would mark the end of his Mopar love, and the other brother had a Lancer that ended his Mopar love. The Volare owner is now a Mazda fan, and the other one has gone full in Toyota, after a Saturn/GM run.
I k ow this car is going to get a Tsunami of hate but as soon as I saw the first picture I smiled .
When they were six years old I was offered an Aspen wagon for $1,000 from a tow company I passed looks like I dodged a bullet there .
Born and raised in Michigan 1955.
In the 60s AC was still a rarity.
The vent wing windows helped.
Inspirational story Gene but my Dart story is very different starting early fall of 1974 i bought a co-worker’s ’66 Dart for $400 but this one had the solid-lifter 273, a Carter AFB, a Mallory dual-point & dual exhausts along with a 3 on the tree. No a/c (in TX!) but young guys are invincible, right? Anyway it was quite the hotrod and later on due to a wreck it became a 4-speed ’65 Barracuda but that’s another story or two. Glad to have missed out on the malaise era…