Curbside Classic: 1971 Plymouth Satellite Sebring Plus – Chrysler Jumps The Shark (Again) With A Tip Of The Hat To Virgil Exner and Marcello Gandini

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(first posted 10/9/2014)     From the end of WWII until the minivan-Cherokee era, Chrysler rode a stylistic see-saw—as well as a financial one. One minute its designs were too conservative, the next they were aliens from another planet. As the perpetual number three, it lacked the gravitas to set market trends, at least for more than a few fleeting finny moments. With the exception of the Forward Look 1957s, Chrysler was perpetually chasing GM’s tail, or even the rumors of its tail.

After licking its ’62 wounds and playing it safe from 1963-1968, Chrysler once again got the gumption to get back in the ring with GM. Their dramatic new 1971 coupes were the second of its fuselage design one-two punch, after the 1969 big cars. While it may well have been a stylistic knockout, the punch missed its mark and hit a brick wall instead. This time, Chrysler almost didn’t get back up at all. But one has to admire their pluck, as well as the weapon of choice.

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Before we begin a look at the influences that shaped the featured Sebring, let’s briefly pause for a moment’s meditation at this 1970 Chrysler 300 Hurst.  The 1969 full sized cars pioneered the loop grille and were the next expression of the “fuselage” look that Exner first used on the 1960 Valiant, as well as some earlier concept car. It was defined by the rounded body sides that continued unbroken into the C-pillar without the typical “shoulder”, a feature that had pretty much always defined the lower from the upper body half.

These big fuselage cars certainly made a big impression in 1969—and they still do today—but it was a compromised design on a number of levels. Yes, the sides were rounded and continuous, to an extent never seen before on a big American car. But extruding a very long, perfectly straight body out of a rounded die does not make for a truly fine design, at least one that doesn’t get boring and predictable in certain respects all too soon. It was the some problem the early “pontoon” cars had back in the immediate post-war era. Endless unbroken planes rather bring that on, and these big cars had acres of that, on the hood and trunk alone. The greenhouse exhibits symptoms of microcephaly, as if a compact car was hiding inside daddy’s suit. But it’s an imposing mofo, and compelling in part because of its exaggerated proportions.

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Clearly, those issues were addressed and rather effectively resolved with the new 1971 intermediate coupes; the front and rear ends have a good deal of taper in plan view (looking down from the top), and substantial fender bulges break up the rounded sides. Strictly speaking, it’s not really a true “fuselage”.  And it’s much the better for that.

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The front loop bumper in these ’71-’72 Satellites were the most expressive and bold of the bunch; with its undercut and stark, glaring eyeballs, it creates a rather different effect than the symmetrical gaping maw of the big Chrysler. The loop bumper was one of the more unique design affectations of the late sixties, and Chrysler was its chief protagonist. Which only makes sense, as it was essentially pioneered by Chrysler, although some years earlier.

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It first saw the light of day on Virgil Exner’s 1961 XNR 500 sports car, a Valiant-based roadster that packed a 250 hp Hyper-Pak slant six and exceeded 150 mph on the test track. Exner wanted desperately to see a slightly civilized version go into production as a cheaper alternative to the Corvette, but it was not to be. Of all the production loop bumpers, the Satellite’s most closely evokes the XNR’s.

Plymouth XNR 1960

But Exner’s contribution to the ’71 Satellite didn’t end with the loop bumper. The XNR 500’s body, like the Valiant itself, were the true pioneers of the “fuselage” design theme, and Exner used that term in referring to it.

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It can be a bit hard to see, as all the busy extrusions on their front and rear fenders distract the eye from the underlying fuselage body shape. The real breakthroughs on the Valiant were the way the C-Pillar melded directly into the (underlying) body without a shoulder and how the doors tapered in at the belt line, without any break where the window glass started. That’s the essence of the fuselage design.

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No one else was doing that on a production car; in fact, at the time, wide “shoulders” were not only ubiquitous, but even exaggerated as a design feature, especially so by Ford. The green house was clearly a separate entity that sat on top of the lower half of the car. Not so on the Valiant.

This fuselage design originated on Exner’s 1953 Ghia D’Elegance. Note how flush the side window is in relation to the door.

Chrysler Imperial d'Elegance

It was brought to its next level in the rather wild 1958 Imperial D’Elegance, which foreshadowed the 1960 Valiant’s greenhouse. Chrysler’s big mistake was in premiering the fuselage on a compact, instead of an actual Imperial. Compact buyers were mostly conservative, as the 1960 Falcon proved.

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But here’s Exner’s closest forerunner of the 1971 Satellite, the 1962 Plymouth, and in more ways than one. For starters, the down-sized ’62s morphed into the mid-sized B-Bodies, and lent their basic underpinnings to our featured car. But that’s not all; take a look at that C-Pillar: again there’s no break between it and the lower body. And with a bit of imagination, its front end with those expressive recessed headlights in that concave grille rather predicts the Satellite’s too. It just needed that bumper to loop all the way around.

Of course these unfortunate 1962s were the end of Exner’s fuselage period, and hastened his departure as the convenient scapegoat of a decision by Chrysler’s management to downsize and reduce costs, in response to the fiasco of 1958.

Plymouth 1967 Satellite coupe

Elwood Engel brought lots of straight edges and carpenter’s squares with him from Ford when he was hired to replace Exner. The classic Engel period at Chrysler came into full fruition in 1965 with the C-Bodies and 1966 with the B-Bodies. Engel was responsible for perhaps the biggest “shoulders” ever, on his 1961 Continental, and although they were toned down a bit in concession to the changing times, they’re quite evident here on this ’66 Satellite.

Although these “square era” Chryslers were handsome, they were obviously out of step with the times, given GM’s wholesale adoption of “Coke bottle” styling in 1965. And although they sold well enough, the writing was on the wall: curves were the hot thing, and Engel had to throw out the carpenter’s squares and invest in a lot of French curves for his designers.

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The result was the “stop gap” 1968-1970 B-Bodies, obviously a re-skin of the previous cars. It too was a reasonably successful job in its own right, but with GM’s bold new 1968 intermediates, they were instantly behind the times, once again. Like so many Chryslers, if the styling wasn’t your thing, they still had plenty of appeal under the skin.

The 1968 Pontiac GTO/LeMans is most often cited as the inspiration for the ’71 Chrysler B-Body coupes, and it’s certainly hard to deny its influence. Obviously, GM’s decision to break up these cars into distinct coupe and sedan/wagon bodies, with different wheelbases even, was pretty radical, somewhat analogous to the 1953 Studebakers, except in reverse—the coupes were shorter than the sedans (duh!), and they were madly successful. Undoubtedly Chrysler’s decision to do the same for its 1971s was a case of follow-the-leader. But the actual styling was clearly an attempt to leap-frog GM, once and for all.

All of the 1968 GM A-Body coupes had a decided fuselage aspect to them, especially in the way the C-Pillar/sail panel was now one continuous and large extension of the body. GM had taken the fuselage to heart, but not in the “extrusion look” that would plague the ’69 Chrysler C-Bodies. Instead, the GM coupes were curvaceous and dynamic from every angle, something that was of course easier to accomplish on a relatively short 112″ wheelbase compared the very long, big Chryslers.

Dodge 1971 Charger

The 1971 Dodge Charger, especially the R/T version with its body-colored divided loop bumper, paid tribute to the GTO’s pioneering Endura loop bumper in the most sincere fashion. But just where exactly did that slab-sided, shoulder-less continuous C-Pillar/rear quarter originate, other than in vestigial form on Exner’s fuselages v1.0 ?

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GM first used it on its bold 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, but with very pronounced wheel arch flares and a character line to tie them together, to break up what would have been a huge expanse of slab-sidedness a lá the big Chryslers.  Despite that, the experiment was deemed not very successful, as far as its buyers were concerned; the Toronado did not achieve its sales targets. What would work well on a mid-sized coupe targeting the younger demographic was too different for the Toro’s older demo.

Olds 1969 Toronado

Within a couple of years (1969), a rather artificial break line between an extended lower body and the roof appeared, ending that bit of pioneering. The Brougham influence was becoming inexorable, and soon big padded shoulders would be in again. Take heed, Satellite!

Lamborghini Marzal(23)

In Europe, the shoulder-less sail-panel fuselage theme was taken up with great vigor and had a huge and lasting impact. Marcello Gandini’s brilliant 1966 Lamborghini Marzal was a bold milestone in the development and wholesale adoption of this theme. It was an evolution of his seminal 1966 Miura, which still sported a distinct shoulder over its husky rear wheel hips, as well as the precursor to the Espada, Lamborghini’s long-running and successful 2+2 coupe.


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Gandini’s 1967 Alfa Romeo Montreal coupe concept carried the theme a bit closer to earth (metaphorically speaking), on a front-engine chassis and a body design suitable in size and scope for mass production, although the production Montreal was hardly a big seller. But it was a very influential car, and dozens of Italian and other European coupes soon carried the look, for seemingly forever. It even had a delicate loop bumper, broken only by the headlight covers. In the US, its influence would be seen most evidently on the 1971 Satellite coupe.

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Even the Road Runner’s bold graphics emulate the vents in the Montreal’s broad and continuous C-Pillar. And you though those were home-grown?

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So much for this car’s origin myth speculations; let’s take a look at the Satellite Sebring Plus coupe as it is, in cold steel and slippery vinyl.  First off, we should note is that although there were two distinct bodies for the coupes and sedans/wagons, Chrysler didn’t differentiate their wheelbases to the extent that GM did. The Sebring coupe sat on a 115″ wheelbase; the sedans/wagons had 117″; the GM coupes sat on a 112″ wb; the sedans/wagons had 116″.  These Chrysler coupes were still bigger than the competition at GM.

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The advertising for them drove the point of their differentiation home, but then that was old hat by 1971, as GM had been doing this for three years.

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Also not totally unlike the 1953 Studebakers, the sedans turned out to be decidedly less exciting than the coupes, and were particularly ill-suited for Broughamification.

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GM’s 1973 Colonnade sedans (top) were dynamic, airy and bold, if not everyone’s cup of tea. Ford’s flabby Torino sedan (middle) typified the excesses of the Brougham era. And the Satellite sedan soon took on the image of fleet, cop, and thrifty grandpa-mobiles.

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But in 1971, it was all about the coupes. The sporty-coupe era had been building for years, and in the mid-sixties, the mid-sized coupes became the focus of attention, as younger buyers swelled into the marketplace, often for the first time. The muscle-car variants, led by Pontiac’s smash-hit GTO and Plymouth’s own Road Runner propelled the segment to its all-time heights. GM had an outsized share of that market, and the ’71 Sebring and Dodge Charger were Chrysler’s bold shot for the gold.

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Stylistically, it just barely caught the tail end of the late-sixties flamboyant, cartoonish design zeitgeist, as well as the golden performance era. But that window of opportunity was already closing quickly, thanks to exorbitant insurance rates, smog controls, and rising gas prices. And although these coupes made an outsized visual impact at the time, on me as well as everyone else under the age of 30 or so, their actual sales were anything but outsized.

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Combined sales for the comparable coupe versions of Satellites, Sebrings/Plus, Road Runners and GTX for the years 1968 – 1974 are:

1968:  131k;  1969:  149k  (swelled by 80k RR sales);  1970:  85k;  1971:  81k; 1972:  63k;  1973 (restyle): 115k;  1974:  62k.

The numbers tell a sad tale: these ’71 coupes fell on their loop-bumper faces, with sales down from the stale 1970 models.

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And when Chrysler ditched the loopy front end for 1973 and modified the roof line and front fender a bit to make the Sebring coupe look more mainstream, sales jumped back into triple digits for the first time since 1969, although that turned out to be a one-year phenomena. The beep-beep era was truly over, the boomers were getting married, and the Brougham Epoch was in full fury.

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Speaking of, the Satellite and Sebring were completely tossed overboard for 1975, as Chrysler belatedly and desperately tried to get on board the SS Brougham with a substantial re-skin and re-name: Fury (the full-sized cars were now elevated to Gran(pa) Fury status). Now that was really coming full circle with Exner’s downsized 1962 Fury. And they a bit similar, to boot. Or is my Exneruberance running away again? And as was so often the case with Chrysler, they couldn’t afford a truly new body, the tell-tale being the 1971’s windshield.

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Since we’re on the subject of Chrysler’s perpetual windshield development investment capital challenges, we should point out that the 1971 mid-sized coupes shared much of their body structure (and pretty much everything underneath) with the 1971 E-Body Barracuda and Dodge Challenger. These were simply shortened in the back seat area, and treated to some cosmetic surgery. But if that ’75 Fury’s windshield above looks familiar, that’s because it is.

One might be tempted to give the weak Satellite/Sebring sales showing a bit of a break since these Clydesdale-pony cars undoubtedly ate into their sales. But the ’71-’74 Barracuda was a major flop too; ’71 sales were less than half of the outgoing ’70’s. Ouch! Well, the Duster 340 was significantly cheaper, and fast as all get-out. The Dodge Challenger did a bit better, but both were axed after sales plunged in 1974. The original pony car era was over, except for the Camaro which galloped off to the bank with the gold.

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Enough of the downer stuff. Like pretty much all Chryslers of the 60s and 70s, regardless of whether you liked the styling or not, the best was likely under the hood anyway. And 1971 was pretty much the peak-experience in that regard; at least in terms of what was to come. Compression ratios were still in double-digits, and it took two hands’ worth of digits to count all the carburetor venturies on the hottest engines.

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The line-up ranged from the venerable 145 hp 225 CID slant six all the way to the mighty 426 Hemi, in its farewell outing. With two four-barrel carbs, it was rated at a conservative 425 hp (all hp numbers are gross). But with its rather peaky torque curve, the hairy hemi wasn’t really the ideal street daily driver.

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That role was played by the 440, preferably in Six-Pak form, with its triple two-barrel carbs and 385 rated hp; the four-barrel version was supposedly good for 370 hp. The Road Runner’s standard 383 made 300 hp, while the two-barrel version had 275. Oddly, both of those 383s had only 8.5:1 compression ratios. The excellent LA 340 V8 was not on the list, presumably because they couldn’t make them fast enough what with the Duster 340’s success.

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The Satellite Sebring Plus came standard with the 230 hp 318, and was available with 275 and 300 hp versions of the 383.

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Somewhat surprisingly, this Sebring Plus is not Torqueflite-equipped, but appears to have a four speed stick with the legendary pistol grip at that; ah, what a period piece. And from the looks of the two fat Road Runner exhaust pipes (if they’re original), it presumably has a 383 under the hood.

Like many of the so-called bucket seats of the era, these weren’t really helpful in keeping one’s butt remotely in place during spirited cornering. At least there was the console to keep one from sliding into the passenger seat.

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The rear seats in these coupes weren’t exactly inviting and accommodation either. Space utilization wasn’t even on the brief when these cars were designed. The youthful boomers or kids who might end up there were obviously presumed to be skinny and limber. Does that help explain why four doors are the norm these days?

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I found this pristine period piece sitting curbside among the many architectural period pieces in Bolivar, WVA, which is adjacent to historic Harper’s Ferry. I’ve long wanted to find one of these ’71s, and I had to travel to a designated historical site to do so. Makes sense.

In the long history of the automobile, these cars were the proverbial flash in the pan, a two year experiment that caused a lot of eyes to open wide, if not the wallets. Chrysler succeeded in its goal, of surpassing GM in terms of design leadership. But that only applied to the mid-size sporty-coupe market, which was shriveling up in front of its soon-to-be weepy eyes. A Pyrrhic victory, one for the pages of CC but not for the stockholders.

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Chrysler chased the wrong GM car. Instead of the GTO and Malibu, they should have been hot on the heels of the ’69 Grand Prix and the ’70 Monte Carlo, whose long noses were pointed in the direction of the future, not the past. While Chrysler was plotting to leapfrog the Malibu, GM cooked up a new category that would soon dominate the top of the sales stats. Nice landing; wrong airport.

Chrysler’s blunder led to desperate measures in the mid-late seventies, none of which amounted to anything approaching true success except for the Chrysler Cordoba. Acres of soft Corinthian leather weren’t enough to stem Chrysler’s late-seventies slide towards bankruptcy.

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With these cars, Chrysler misread the market direction as badly as it had with the “plucked chicken” 1962s, and with similar consequences. And in both cases, Chrysler was chasing a phantom Chevy: a non-existent downsized ’62 Chevrolet, and a sportier/zoomier Malibu that never really materialized.

The blunder was near-fatal, as mid-sized profits shriveled to non-existent ones. But unlike the non-conformist and oft-shunned ’62s, these ’71s suck the casual in observer in with its chrome lips surrounding the black maw, and the swoopy shark-like body that follows it.

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Of course Mopar maniacs have long embraced both of these vintage Chrysler coupes, and with good reason: They are the bookends to some of the finest performance cars of the era, a series of B-Body coupes that dominated drag racing, NASCAR and Main Street with their husky good looks (except maybe the ’62s) and splendid power trains. They may both have over-reached in their styling and under-performed in sales, but they never disappointed in the enthusiasm they engender in their fans. Count me in.