(first posted 6/26/2014) Poor Chrysler. Poor, stupid, unlucky Chrysler. Was there another brand of what we used to call the “Big Three” that was so consistently star-crossed?
From the end of World War II until the mid 1950s, they had no style. During the rest of the 1950s, they had plenty of style but levels of quality that went from bad to awful. In the early 1960s, they were hampered with oddball styling. In 1965 and again in 1969, Chrysler brought out new full-sized C body cars that were reminiscent of GM’s styling of three years earlier. The 1969 fuselage cars were particularly unlucky in that their introduction coincided with a bad economy and that their styling quickly went past its sell-by date. But everything would be different with the new 1974 models, right? Wrong again. But it would not be for lack of trying.
The structure of the car would be all new, although mechanical components would largely carry over. For the first time since the late ’50s, it seemed that Chrysler had finally been able to tap into current styling trends, and the Newport was attractive, though certainly not groundbreaking. The cars would be long and sleek, particularly in this four door hardtop body style, which was significantly more stylish than the slightly dumpy four door sedan. These Newports may not look it, but they are five inches shorter than their 1973 predecessors, while still on the same 124 inch wheelbase.
Speaking of that four door hardtop, was this the very last newly designed car to be offered in this body style? Ever three years behind the competition, Chrysler would soon be the lone purveyor of pillerless four door cars. The “last convertible” danced offstage to a cheering crowd in 1976, but the last four door hardtop would disappear two years later to zero fanfare, never to return.
As with many Chryslers, the styling of this car is shrouded in mystery. We have examined the transition from Virgil Exner’s styling era to that of Elwood Engel in 1963 (here) and this car marks a similar handoff of the styling baton from Engel to his successor, Richard MacAdam. Engel retired in 1973, so the car was likely done mostly under Engel’s watch. This hardtop body style is actually quite interesting in how much its roofline differs from the companion four door sedan (a much bigger seller).
It has been reported by Sandy Block in the WPC News (reprinted here by the Imperial Club) that this sketch was the first concept of the 1974 Imperial. Although the sketch shows a center pillar, the overall shape of the 1974 C body four door hardtop is quite evident. It is not hard to imagine that the Imperial and New Yorker were the reason for this sleek four door, but unlike at other companies, the lowliest Chrysler would share a body with the high-end imperial, so the Newport buyer was the unintended beneficiary of the Imperial’s stylish shape.
So, who designed these? To my eye, the more conservative sedan seems more in keeping with MacAdam’s sensibilities, while the sleeker pillarless car seems more in tune with Engel’s body of work. But perhaps those of you in the commentariat have more to share here.
Another Chrysler bigwig who closed out his career with these cars was Lynn Townsend who, particularly during the 1970s, was a fascinating figure. He was a pennywise accountant who, strangely, seemed to have in place no significant controls over costs. How else to explain the lavish use of chrome-plated diecastings slathered all over the front of lowly base model Newport, while at the same time, giving every single car a black instrument panel and steering wheel. Unlike Chevrolet, which had tried the same cost-cutting trick on lower trim levels in 1971-72, even the guy who shelled out for a top-of-the-line New Yorker Brougham would be denied a color-keyed steering wheel. And was this the same seat-vinyl and loop-pile carpet used in the lowly Valiant? I have no idea, but a fellow could be forgiven for reaching that conclusion.
That same pound-foolishness was writ large in the decision to stretch the fuselage body out through a fifth model year in 1973. Chrysler would pay dearly for that decision, and in two ways. The first effect was in 1973, when Chrysler would offer big car buyers a stale product during the hottest car sales year in industry history. Then, Chrysler would pay even more in 1974, when the brand new C body would hit the market in the worst economy since 1958 and the highest fuel prices in memory.
How bad was it? Chrysler brand sales dropped from 234,000 cars in 1973 to 117,000 in 1974. Of those, roughly 68,000 were Newports, with the base Newport outselling the Custom nearly two to one. Before someone goes to look it up, Chrysler suffered the worst year to year drop in the entire industry that year, despite being the only genuinely new offering in its class. Just for comparison’s sake, the 1975 Cordoba would, all by itself, outsell the entire ’74 Chrysler line, and by nearly 35,000 units. Chrysler kept one tradition going strong, though, in that its four door sedans outsold hardtops by whopping margins. My research indicates that only about 9,000 Newport four door hardtops rolled out of the plants that year, a figure about 1,500 short of the number of four door ’74 Imperials.
You might also think that the extra year’s time allowed for development of the new 1974 C body cars might have at least resulted in decent quality at launch time. Had this situation occurred anywhere but at Chrysler in the 1970s, this might be a reasonable conclusion. But alas, build quality did not seem to be on the agenda during the final year or two of Townsend’s time as chairman. The ’74 C body would set the tone for a series of new car launch disasters that would take the company all the way through the 1970s (and in some cases, beyond).
A few years after these cars were new, I had a conversation with the son of a Fort Wayne funeral director who had bought a ’74 New Yorker, his first Chrysler in years. I was told that the car was a complete mess during its entire (short) life with the business. Everyone who worked there came to despise that car, and one guy even remembered that the car had been built so badly that it came with a black steering column and wheel in a burgundy interior. That, I had to tell him, was actually intentional. Not surprisingly, this information lowered his opinion of the car even more.
So, with all of the problems that these cars exhibited from the start, why does this Sahara Beige example excite me so much? Particularly after I excoriated a very similar beige Buick sedan as perhaps the most boring car in the world (here)? A good psychological referral might get you an answer. I described the ’73 LeSabre as a safe bet–an unexciting car, but a very good one. This Chrysler, on the other hand, was the 50:1 longshot bet. Sure, it was reasonably attractive, but it would likely get its owner on a first-name basis with the service writers at the local Chry-Ply dealer (and later a salesman at an Olds or Buick store). Maybe I liked it because this was the Bad Boy of big sedans–the car that my sensible parents, and most of America, as it turned out, would never touch with a double-sanitized fork.
I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something classic and elegant about this car that harkened back to an era before that of the Brougham, which was advancing steadily in 1974. Perhaps this was a large part of this car’s lack of popular appeal–it was a Richard Nixon car in a Gerald Ford world. Chrysler would learn at least some of its quality lessons and would eventually sell a lot of these big hardtops, but only after a lot of effort and improvement (and a fair amount of Broughamification). Perhaps the other pull this car exerts on me is that this would be the last new big Chrysler that would even remotely come in a full complement of bodystyles.
I have often compared the new-car purchase of a 1970s Chrysler product with playing the lottery. There were some winners, who got a well-built car that contained a lot of deep-down goodness. Most, however, were not so lucky. And in 1974 with this car, it was not only the customers but Chrysler itself that was left holding a losing ticket.