Curbside Classic: 1971 Chrysler Newport Royal – Chrysler’s Deadly Sin #6, The Fuselage Years

When I started at CC I would not have argued that this car was a Chrysler Deadly Sin.  But I have gotten to the place where I believe (much as it pains me to say it) that it was.  There will be time for throwing of bricks and rotten fruit in a little bit.  For the moment, just hear me out on why the Chrysler of the fuselage years was a Chrysler Deadly Sin.

An Automotive Deadly Sin does not have to be a bad car, as our founder was required to say over and over when the Wronged Fans Of General Motors (c) would respond in high dudgeon when one of that company’s products was tagged with the CC DS moniker.  No, to be a DS requires only that the vehicle did something to hasten the demise of the company.

In Chrysler’s case, of course, we are actually talking about “near-demise” (1979-80 edition), as it survived under new management after the federal government agreed to guarantee some fresh loans.  And unlike some later motor city bailouts, Chrysler’s 1980 near-death experience did not actually cost the taxpayers any money.  However, but-for Uncle Sam’s willingness to co-sign on the note, Chrysler Corporation might have displaced Studebaker as the last big U.S. auto industry failure of the twentieth century.

So, how could the fusey, introduced in late 1968, possibly be implicated in the rolling wreck that was Chrysler in 1980?  Just sit down with a cup of coffee and allow me to explain.

The Chrysler brand had gone through tough times before.  After decades as a top choice of the moneyed traditionalist, the nameplate never really advanced beyond its showing in 1953, even at the height of the Forward Look.  Although the rest of the company’s lines exploded in popularity with the dramatic 1957 Forward Look models, Chrysler actually saw a drop from 1956 before imploding in 1958.

The production figure chart (gleaned from Allpar data) shows that the brand began working its way back into customers’ good graces in the early 1960s, though probably not nearly as quickly as it should have given the demise of DeSoto and the low priced Newport model that pirated sales from Plymouth and Dodge.

New management and new products would eventually save the day.  A new push for quality (relatively speaking, anyway) and a brand new vehicle for 1965 would send the Chrysler to some of the best years ever.  Just look at the numbers for 1965-68.  And think, the 1968 model was a terribly un-stylish four year old car doing battle against some mighty pretty jobs from GM and Ford. So the table was set for the new follow-up model:  The Fuselage.

At the start, the fusey was a compelling design – and 1969 production numbers showed it.  Elwood Engel’s styling was startlingly modern, though it set a course not necessarily in tune with the more baroque trends starting to come from the competition.  But Chrysler had been counter-cyclical in its styling before, and had learned that there is always someone out there who will appreciate something different.

The first problem was badly fumbled execution.  Initially, the car was plagued by one of the worst product launches since 1957, with disastrous quality lapses that soon gave the car a bit of a reputation.  But the problem ran deeper.

The 1965 models had been expensive cars – expensive to build, and using expensive parts to build them.  Lynn Townsend had been on a winning streak since taking over at the company’s modern trough in 1961-62.  Sales increases, even dramatic ones, had been easy to rack up, and that was what the big Chrysler did.

In 1967-68 those production numbers remained good, but those came at a cost.  The company was having to work harder and harder for slimmer margins as dealers pushed back, arguing that they were having trouble moving the metal in an economy that had been steadily softening after the record breaking year of 1965.

Whatever their styling merits, the ’69s had one big problem in the showroom and on the sales lot.  They felt cheap.  Chrysler Corporation’s unibodies had always struggled a bit in terms of road isolation when compared with the competition.  So long as they could boast better handling (“A Chrysler is a Road Car!”) it kind of worked.  By 1969 the cars had lost much of their handling edge, particularly as against GM that was making big strides in suspension design.

Road noise, hollow-sounding doors, chintzy looking door panels and dashboards, all of it came together into the serious headwinds these cars would face for their entire duration.  When you can’t find a car with straight upholstery seams for the brochure, there is a problem.  In the kingdom of Lynn Townsend, volume was king and volume became the child of reduced costs, so the very last thing Townsend would allow was to put more money into trim and sound deadening.  The fact that the company had a minor financial crisis in 1970 continued the spiral.

As one who was around then, here was what I knew:  After 1969 nobody ever bought one of these cars who was not already a Chrysler customer.  OK, this is overstating things a bit, because surely the company made a few conquest sales.  But what the 1965-68 cars did almost every year the 1969-73 cars largely failed to do: appeal to people who had never owned a Chrysler before.

Things did not become a real problem until 1971.  That year both Ford and GM introduced either all-new designs or designs so heavily revised that they appeared all new.  How many people could tell a ’71 Chrysler from a ’70?  I couldn’t, and I was a dedicated car nut.  They were never seen in big enough numbers to make the job reasonably easy to the casual observer.  Buick built nearly 340,000 of its big cars (Excluding Riviera) that year and was up to 425,000 by the improved market of 1972.

And the styling that had been so current and modern in 1969 was becoming dated by 1971. The Continental Mark III and the Monte Carlo (not to mention the Ford LTD) were selling conservative, increasingly angular designs with opulent interior touches, or that at least looked opulent.  Chrysler refused to put significant money into the restyling and even the final 1972-73 model was changed very little.

A closer look at those lackluster 1971 production figures gets uglier.  A bit into the model year the Newport Royal was added as a new model below the existing Newport and Newport Custom.  The figures from the Classic Car Database show that the only popular Chrysler was a cheap Chrysler.  Looking at 4 door sedans, the Royal made all the volume with 44,496 units, while the Newport only hit 24,834, and the Newport Custom a mere 11,254 cars.  The Royal was even the most popular among the four door hardtops of the three series.

It has been convincingly argued on these pages that the big American car had jumped the shark by the early 1970s, and one could argue that the Fuselage Chrysler did as well as could have been expected.  Wouldn’t any added sales have just come out of the numbers of other manufacturers?  Of course they would have – after all, other manufacturers had been gaining share at Chrysler’s expense since about 1950 so it would be natural to expect that Chrysler could have won some of those buyers back.  Like there was not some dissatisfaction with GM and Ford’s offerings after 1970?  Yet the fusey failed to gain any ground at all.

A wider look at the other lines using the fuselage C body show that the picture for them was even less rosy than it was for the Chrysler during these years.  At least Chrysler had been on a sustained upsweep.  Line-wide it took an all-time record sales year in 1973 to get back to where they had been in what had been a slightly off year for the industry in 1966.  And while 1965-68 had been great years for the Chrysler label, that good fortune was not really shared with the downmarket big Plymouth and (especially) Dodge.

Chrysler’s trouble in 1979 was that there were too few Chrysler owners who were inclined to trade for another, never mind those willing to take a chance for the first time.  Quality had remained iffy in the fuselage years, with some cars being excellently built while others suffered one problem after another until the angry owner traded at somebody else’s dealership.  After the successes of 1965-68 all forward momentum stopped.  Or maybe 1963 if you count Plymouth and Dodge.  Like a string of roller coaster cars that didn’t quuiiiiiite have enough oomph to get over that last hill, the big Chrysler shed valuable momentum after 1968, momentum that it desperately needed (but didn’t have) in 1979-80.

Let’s be clear – I love these cars.  At least I like them, because the ones I really love are the 1965-68 versions.  But these make a good second choice, and I would be delighted to drive this car every day.  One that has made it this long is clearly one of the good ones and it could be my trusty daily companion under the right circumstances.  I have been waiting to find and write up a Mopar C body from the fuselage era for pretty much the entire time I have been writing for CC.  Little did I anticipate that I would feel compelled to say unkind things about it.

This car had a job to do.  It’s job was to build on the success of its predecessor, and thereby provide a better foundation for designs to come later.  Leave things better than you found them is an old bit of advice offered by many of our wisest elders.  Offer a car that appeals to everyone, not just to those who would buy your cars no matter what.  The fuselage C body failed to do this.  A record year for the industry in 1973 couldn’t top 1966 for Chrysler, and production in 1974 was back down to the level of 1964, only this time with a brand new design that was as in tune with current styles as anything from the company in years.

It is, of course, true that the fusey performed a whole lot better than the following generation, during which C body sales collapsed.  But the fuselage Chrysler was like the underachieving kid who inherits a business and is content to do what has always been done, just not as well, before handing things off to the drug-addled grandson who never came to the office.  The fusey could have (and should have) been so much better than it was.  In some respects it was an excellent car.  In most others, however, it was a Deadly Sin.