Curbside Classic: 1978 Dodge Aspen Wagon – Defying Expectations Since the Carter Administration

(first posted 11/14/2012)    If one reads (and believes) the various articles and reviews relating to the Dodge Aspen, it would be easy to conclude it was the biggest chunk of junk to roll out of Detroit in the 1970s. Such thinking would be inaccurate, for there were too many other worthy candidates.

The Dodge Dart was a good solid car that had lived a very long life despite being nearly as exciting as a cholesterol test.  Chrysler knew that simply remaining competitive would mean appealing to a demographic much wider than nuns, music teachers and math professors. The Aspen, introduced in 1975 for the 1976 model year, was designed to do exactly that. The debut was promising; Motor Trend named the Aspen its 1976 Car of the Year.

The Aspen, along with its Plymouth Volaré twin, was a breath of fresh air for the compact-buying crowd.  Aside from drivetrains carried over from the old Dart, it was a completely different car.  The Aspen lineup even included a station wagon, a body style unavailable as a Dart since 1966, a full decade earlier.  Its 71.9 cubic feet (2.04 cubic meters) of storage space provided quite generous storage capacity.

The Aspen wasn’t perfect, but what is?  In a sense, and in many ways, Chrysler was way ahead of its time. Did the front fenders on your Aspen experience premature rust?  Chrysler replaced them and took care of their customers. That’s the embodiment of excellent customer service.

In contrast, there is no evidence that General Motors did likewise for owners of their terminally biodegradable pickups of the same era, and Ford simply followed GM’s precedent.

There were also recalls for hard-starting issues, but even these issues produced something positive: They let the driver experience the wonderful sound of the Highland Park Hummingbird starter motor for a longer time.  Numerous people here have commented on their enjoyment of that wonderful sound.  Giving the customer what they desire is another hallmark of excellent customer service.

Chrysler was ahead of their time in customer service, yet is still chastised over the Aspen.  No good deed goes unpunished, as the old saying goes.

Often missing from the critiques of the Aspen is the one thing most important to its owners: How well did it actually perform when it came to meeting their needs?  I’m not talking about raw acceleration, or how many g’s it could pull on a skid pad.  I’m talking about a car with the ability to mimic the pledges in the movie Animal House: “Thank you, sir, can I have another?”.  (Author’s note:  Google “Animal House Frat Initiation” and you’ll see why I chose that picture.)

I’m talking about the Timex of cars, one that can “Take a licking and keep on ticking.”

I’m talking about a car that can take punishment and keep chugging along.  Let’s examine that a bit.

In late 1978, my parents bought a leftover ’78 Volare like this one, but in fecal-brown metallic.  Theirs was a two-door in Premier trim. Equipped with the Super Six (a slant six with a two-barrel carburetor), it was as reliable as ever a car was, and also pretty easy on fuel.  I suspect it was one of the hard starters, but that sound was a sweet mechanical melody to a six-year-old Jason.

The Volaré was a tough girl.  My mother had an natural talent for using it to thin out the local dog population, but it never suffered a scratch.  Once, during a period of freezing rain, my mother, a nurse, left work at midnight for the 11-mile trek home.  She ran off the road into a field, and then used about 20 acres’ worth of it to turn around, judging by the ruts we saw the following day.  Driving through the tilled field didn’t even compromise the front-end alignment.

Throughout their ownership, which lasted until 1983 and covered 105,000 miles, it needed absolutely nothing major.  The only surgery it ever required was a catalytic convertor-ectomy shortly after purchase.

As an aside to those of you outside my neck of the woods, I’ve yet to get an emissions test on anything I have ever owned.  In the context of place and time, pulling off the converter was then a fairly routine procedure, much like LASIK surgery is today. I fully realize the likelihood of my experience being the polar opposite of your own.

Compared with my grandmother, however, my parents were rank amateurs.  My grandmother has a Ph.D. in car abuse.  She had an ’80 Aspen sedan in pine green with a pine green vinyl interior, also with the Super Six and Torqueflite automatic.  Did Chrysler ever build a better combination?

Grandma, who is now 91 years old, bought her ’80 Aspen new, in mid-year.  Her house was seven miles from the nearest paved road.  She had an eight-mile drive to work, and over seven of those miles were on  gravel roads; suffice to say that she was on gravel pretty much non-stop.  These gravel roads were of the large creek-gravel variety, were maintained by a very poor county, and were graded perhaps once every two years.  They would work suspensions and gobble poor quality tires.  Oh, and did I mention she drove 45 mph regardless of the road surface, and employed the “point-and-shoot” driving methodology?

She drove that Aspen until 1990, when she traded it off after having driven it 55,000 extremely tortured miles.  In addition to her 45 mph habit, she would overfill the trunk with firewood from a nearby sawmill (then drive back at 45 mph, on gravel), and let her 10-year-old only (and rambunctious) grandson drive it, often while overloaded with firewood.  One can only imagine how she would have overloaded a wagon.

And my point?  I washed and waxed her Aspen–for the first time in its life–when she traded it off in 1990, and it looked just fine.  It had endured more physical abuse than most cars ever will, and yet it was ready for more.  Even the oft-maligned transverse torsion bar front suspension wasn’t doing too badly.  The ability to absorb abuse is the best testament to a car’s worthiness, and she had had zero issues with this one. Would you dare think of using your Camry or Accord in a similar fashion?

In 1989 I made a trip to Washington, D.C., where I had one of my most memorable taxi rides. As you might have guessed, the cab was a ’78 Aspen wagon similar to our featured car. During my 15-minute ride, I discovered that the cabbie could successfully moonlight as a stunt driver.  His Aspen was totally unfazed by any of his U-turns, full-throttle left turns and 80 mph blasts through tunnels.

In 1978, the Aspen was considered a compact.  At a curb weight of 3,448 pounds (1,570 kilograms), this was the sole American-made compact offered in three body styles, although wagon sales slid from 125,305 in 1977 to 61,917 in 1978, and dwindled to 38,183 in 1979.

Ford offered the Ford Granada and Mercury Monarch twins only as sedans and coupes.

Likewise, Chevrolet didn’t have a Nova wagon, only Nova sedans and coupes.

In typical fashion, Chrysler fully thought out the Aspen/Volare development process, as evidenced by model-specific wheelbases of 108.7″ for coupes, and 112.7″ for sedans and wagons. The practice of using multiple wheelbases started with the Dart, with its 108″ coupe and 111″ sedan wheelbases.

GM euthanized the Nova in 1980, and the Granada would get a new body and chassis for 1981. Nineteen-eighty would also be the final year for the Aspen, but not for its legacy.

Witness the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury;

the Chrysler Fifth Avenue, an M-body strongly based on the Aspen’s J-platform; even its front-door shape is eerily similar to the Aspen’s.

Did you know that the Diplomat/LeBaron also came in wagon form for a short while? Chrysler deserves credit for recognizing a good platform and getting full use from it, offering these M-bodies through 1989.

Are today’s examples of the Aspen/Volare twins representative of them all?  Hardly.  However, I do not subscribe to any theory about Chrysler’s having a lemon factory that cranked out Aspens.

The Aspen was even good enough to get Mr. Roark around his fantasy-fulfilling island, so it couldn’t have been an unrelenting pig of a machine.

Besides, a genuine swine-mobile would never have been used as the basis of the Monteverdi Sierra.

I found this out-of-gas Dodge Aspen in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store resting next to a Buick Century, a certified cockroach of the road. Since then, I’ve seen it on the road twice, both times driven by a little old man who could barely see over the steering wheel.  It makes me wonder how many owners it has had.

It also made me curious as to how much more punishment this emissary of ’70s-era wagon Nirvana was ready to take.

Related reading:

1976 Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare: Chrysler’s Deadly Sin #1

Vintage Review (R&T) “A Solid Set of Wheels”

CC 1980 Dodge Aspen Wagon; Rock Bottom and Loving It