Curbside Classic: 1974 Plymouth Satellite Custom – Almost Our Thanksgiving Turkey

(first posted 11/23/2011)    It started simply enough:  Oh look – a great car to photograph for a CC.  And then I saw the sign – Asking price of only $2100.  All it took was a playful picture text message to my oldest son Jimmy.  You see, Jimmy is on the hunt for his first car.  Jimmy’s excited reaction suddenly changed  the course of my Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago.

The Plymouth Satellite of these years was always a turkey, even when new.  Poor Chrysler was always a generation behind GM and Ford in styling in those years.  In the second half of the 1960s, as GM and Ford set the styles with fluid fastbacks, Chrysler was there with angular cars that appealed to those still stuck in 1963.   When the 1971 Satellite appeared, it appeared that Chrysler had, for a change, caught the wave with a car that was as hip and mod as Richard Petty’s sideburns (PN’s in-depth CC on the 1971 Satellite coupe here).

Plymouth 1973 Sebring br

Unfortunately, Ford and GM were about to go all-in on the brougham look – formal, dignified and luxurious.  Was there ever a car less equipped to “go brougham” than the 71-72 Satellite?  It wasn’t just the looks.  Plush carpet and woodgrain were “in”, but there was none of it to be found in the Satellite.  There was simply nothing luxurious about this car.   Even the name seemed out of date by 1974.  Chrysler must have agreed, because the car would come back in 1975 with a comb-over and  a new leisure suit as the new “small Fury”.

In truth, this was always one of my least favorite cars from the Mopar torsion bar era.  It wasn’t just the homely styling.  The post-1970  B body offered one of the flimsiest feeling bodies that Chrysler ever built.  The door slam sounded terrible, the long hood was wavy and the sheetmetal surface would quiver as you drove down the road.   I much preferred the earlier generation and when these were plentiful, I stayed away.

By 1974, the stylists did their best to square-up the styling (partly necessitated by the federal requirement for the 5 mph bumpers) so that the car would look a little more fashionable.  The 1971-72 design may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but there was at least a theme, a concept that was carried out fairly successfully.  The 1973-74 restyle, particularly on the sedans, was a hash.  Actually, these probably never looked better than when in full police trim.

My mother was in the market for a new mid sized sedan in 1974 to replace the ’72 Cutlass two door that had become impractical with two growing teenagers and their friends.  Like any self-respecting car-crazy fifteen year old, I did my best to steer her towards what I liked best.  I considered it a great personal triumph when I was able to get her to at least drive into the local Chry-Ply dealer.  Sure, the Satellite was the weak link of the lineup (the Fury was much more appealing), but maybe I could upsell her once we got there.  She took one look at the baby blue Satellite sedan nearest the entrance and drove right back out without ever stopping the car.  Oh well.  It’s not like a gander inside the car would have changed her mind.  After a near-deal on a Gran Torino, she ended up with a maroon Luxury LeMans.  Even I had to admit that it was a much more appealing car.

Time, however, is the great equalizer.  Deep down, the Mopar DNA was intact, and the running gear proved to make up for the all too apparent shortcomings of the bodies of these cars.  You could make a case that one of these would be a pretty good daily driver today out of all of the choices available, if simplicity and durability is your thing.

But back to this particular Satellite.  I got Jimmy and brought him back to take a look.  This car had all the marks of an honest long term ride of an old man.  The small town dealer sticker, the bracket for the CB radio, and the 91K indicated on the odometer.  Just enough rust to show that the car was original, and only a single split in the seat vinyl.  Suddenly, I was mentally back in 1980.  Funny thing, though, this car was much more appealing to me than it had been at that time.  Here I was, ready to snag myself a B body with a V8.  And Jimmy was excited too.  Was this Burn Notice Charger-on-the-cheap too good to be true?

We called the owner.  A while later in the afternoon, we met.  He had picked the car up from an elderly lady about a year ago and had not really driven it much.  He didn’t want to believe me when I suggested that the upholstery was not really leather.  A chill went down my spine as I turned the key and heard the “Na-Rayre – deeer-deeer-deeer-Vroom”, one of my favorite sounds from my youth.  But this was where the honeymoon ended and where the car went from the perfectly functioning car in my mind’s eye to a four wheeled Butterball.  It was even the same color.

Part of my car problem is that when I see something like this, I expect what should be, and not necessarily what is most likely.  For some irrational reason, I automatically expect that the car will run and drive just like it would have when it was, say, 7 or 10 years old.  But it is not 1980 anymore.   “Maybe if it warms up, it will smooth out”, I thought.  We took it out.  I had forgotten how light the full-time power steering was.  Bad tires that thumped, a slight pull to the right, and an engine that ran so rough it was impossible to tell how the Torqueflite was shifting.

The shiny carburetor and ignition modules told me that someone had tried and failed to fix the awful-running 318.  No smoke or knocking, though.  I figured that this, like all things, was fixable.  But how and at what cost?  Jimmy, you see, is a college sophomore.  He likes the idea of an old car, but did not grow up yearning to feel a wrench in his hand.  He would help me occasionally, but only when asked and never with much interest or natural aptitude.  He is a sports communications major and knows his way around a football formation or a page of basketball stats like nobody else I know.  But an old car?  This would be a simple car to learn on, and if it were me as a college sophomore, I would have been all over it.  But was this really what he wants to do?  We reluctantly agreed that this car was kind of like the puppy that a six-year-old begs for:  we both kind of knew who would end up taking care of it.  Somewhere out there is another car that will better suit his needs.

So, sadly, I forced myself back from 1980 to 2011.  In Jimmy’s words, this one was not really plug and play.   Neither of us has the time to tackle this project.  Maybe another $150 in parts would bring the reluctant 318 back to its old self, or maybe getting the old girl to run properly would be the first of many time consuming and expensive challenges.  So, for 2011 at least, our golden thanksgiving turkey will be of the edible variety, and not this elderly Plymouth.

I must finish now, because staring at these pictures is starting to make me go wobbly again.  So I will push myself away from the computer and start thinking of what needs to be done in the kitchen.  I am just afraid that a look at tomorrow’s fresh-from-the-oven turkey will get me thinking about this old Satellite all over again.  Happy thanksgiving, everyone.


Related reading:

CC 1971 Satellite Sebring Plus Coupe – Chrysler Jumps The Shark (Again) With A Tip Of The Hat To Marcello Gandini And Virgil Exner  (by PN)