Curbside Classic: 1979 Chrysler Newport – B Plus C Equals R

Oh, Chrysler, you had such a time in the ’70s. You axed the Challenger and ‘cuda after five model years of disappointing sales. Then came your all-new 1974 full-sizers–just in time for the first gas crisis–followed by the star-crossed Volare/Aspen duo. Really, could things have been much worse?

As the ’80s approached, Chrysler seemed headed for the junkyard. They needed new, downsized big cars, but lacked money to develop and build them. Taking a page from GM’s use of the Colonnade as the platform for the new ’77 Caprice, Chrysler used the midsize Fury/Monaco chassis for the 1979 full-sizers, with Broughamtastic new sheetmetal and interior. Unfortunately for Chrysler, and unlike GM, the strategy was not successful.

Along with Lincoln, Chrysler was a stubborn holdout when it came to downsizing. Even so, they knew that the 1978 New Yorker Brougham and Newport, while big and plush, were dated. With baroque styling and pillarless roofs, they seemed well behind the times next to fresh models like Chevrolet’s Malibu and Caprice–not to mention Chrysler’s own Diplomat and LeBaron models. But with no money available, what could be done?

Enter the B-body. Introduced in 1971, the Fury and Monaco B-bodies predated even the C-body Mopars. Six years later, most of their sales were to police departments that liked their big-block 440 power. Although these favorites of the constabulary left the scene in 1978, that didn’t stop near-penniless Chrysler from performing a bit of reanimation worthy of H.P Lovecraft.

At its core, the all-new (mostly-new?) R-body 1979 Chrysler Newport was a restyled B-body with a 118.5″ wheelbase and an overall length of 220.2 inches. While the chassis and running gear were mostly Fury/Monaco hand-me-downs, the exterior styling was fresh, despite a more-than-passing resemblance to Bill Mitchell’s “sheer look” GM models. The big-block 400 and 440 V8s were history; incredibly, the 1979 Newport’s standard engine was the 225 Slant Six, which made all of 110 horses to power the 3,530 lb. “pillared sedan.”

Despite the carryover underpinnings, the new 1979 Newport was rather attractive and quite modern-looking. The interior offered ample space, as did the 21.3-cu ft trunk. Buyers who wanted some eight-cylinder oomph could choose from optional 135-hp 318, 150-hp 360, or 195-hp 360 V-8s. Also on the option list was an available Open Road handling package, which included firm-feel power steering and suspension, wider wheels, a rear sway bar and HD shock absorbers. I’m guessing there weren’t many takers for it, since most of the Chrysler buyers shelling out $6,405 (for the Six; the 318-V8 model ran $6,720) were probably more interested in a smooth and cushy ride.

Interiors were typical Chrysler–plush. Both the standard bench and optional 60/40 split bench seats were offered with standard cloth-and-vinyl upholstery or optional full vinyl. Because the world had not yet entered the Gray-and-Beige-Interiors-Only era, you could get your interior in blue, green, cashmere, red or gray–or even done up in white vinyl with contrasting red, blue or green trim. I imagine that white interior was really sharp. Has anyone ever seen it?

A four-door sedan was the sole body style. Apparently, Chrysler felt the LeBaron-based Town & Country was enough to fulfill the hauling needs of Mopar wagon buyers. With the Newport, Chrysler tried out some unique weight-saving features–including plastic brake cylinder pistons and lightweight aluminum bumpers that led to trouble: The plastic brake parts failed after a couple of years, and the bumpers were not as sturdy as Mopar engineers had thought. Eventually, many an owner who’d whistled past Chrysler’s cloud of doom to buy a ’79 Newport realized that purchasing a Caprice, Bonneville or Delta 88 might have been more prudent.

Initial sales of the Newport (and its New Yorker sibling) were good; however, the combination of Chrysler’s deteriorating financial condition and the 1979 gas crisis put big-car sales in the tank. In their first year of production, Chrysler moved 78,296 R-body Newports, many of which might have been fleet sales; there was no Plymouth equivalent, and in some cases the Newport actually cost less than Dodge’s St. Regis variant. Production of the $10,026, V8-engine New Yorker was lower, at 54,640 units, but it’s likely that most of those sales were to retail customers.

Nineteen seventy-nine would prove to be the high water mark for the R-body. A second energy crisis had hit in the spring of 1979, about halfway into the model year. Naturally, car sales took a major hit, and while every automaker felt the impact, it hit precariously-positioned Chrysler hardest. With barely a year on the job, its new boss, Lee Iacocca, hadn’t had a chance to address most of the company’s problems; at the time, all that mattered was regaining solvency and launching the new K-cars. As a result, Chrysler’s existing lineup would enter the next model year with the most minimal of changes. At Highland Park, 1979 was a rough year to say the least, with production down 15% from 1978, and a record $1.1 billion loss for the corporation.

Right now I’m working part-time hours at my new job, and I found our featured CC a couple of months ago while driving to lunch. I made a mental note to return later, but every time I got a chance to go back (usually around 1 PM), it was parked under a big tree, sitting in bright light and shadows that make for poor photos. A couple of weeks ago, I finally resolved to visit the car at around 3:00 PM, when shade wouldn’t be a problem. As you can see, it worked out rather well.

This car looks to be all original, from its two-tone Frost Blue-over-Ensign Blue paint to its midnight-blue cloth upholstery. The interior looks particularly cushy. (Editor’s note: My thanks to JPC for the correct info.)

Other than some rust on the left-side doors, the car is quite solid, right down to those aluminum bumpers. It must have been garaged for much of its life. Even the trunk edge shows no rust. Could it have originally come from snow-free (and salt-free) climes?

Nope. That vintage dealer tag came from a local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer, just across the river in Davenport, where they still sell Chryslers, Jeeps, Dodges and Rams. I guess it was simply years of TLC at work here.

I can tell that this car is a first-year model by its distinctive 1979-only hood ornament, which features a stylized “C.” The Newport went largely unchanged throughout its short life, but 1980 models shared the corporate Pentastar hood ornament with K-cars, Caravans and many other ’80s Mopars.

In side view, the R-body might have a strong GM B-body vibe, but the front end looks more Chrysler-like. Still, it could pass for a C-body Buick Electra from a distance, especially the 1977 model. Another indicator of a longtime owner is that once-ubiquitous bug shield. Those things used to be everywhere!

R-body production for 1979 was not up to expectations, but positively great compared with 1980; that year saw only 15,061 Newports and 13,513 New Yorkers come off the line. As you would expect with a recently redone model, changes were minimal.

One reason for the Newport’s sales drop might have been reintroduction of the Plymouth Gran Fury to satisfy Plymouth dealers, who’d not seen many police car sales since the ’78 Fury’s departure and demanded their own (and cheaper) R-body. I can’t really blame them, since at the time they offered only the Volare, Horizon, Trail Duster, some full-size vans and a bunch of captive imports.

For the R-body, the arrival of the big Plymouth was too little, too late. Chrysler was betting the house on the K-car, and full-sizers like the R-body trio were not in Iacocca’s long-term plans. Despite the short model year. Both the Newport and the New Yorker got new grilles for a shortened 1981 model year, during which just 3,622 Newports and 6,548 New Yorkers were sold. Then it was over. It was the end of both the big Chrysler and the Newport name. Now, the midsize M-body LeBaron/New Yorker/Fifth Avenue would carry the V8 rear-drive torch for Chrysler–and, against all odds, do quite well.

The success of the M-body (which lasted to 1989) makes me wonder what might have happened had Iacocca seen fit to produce the R-body a few more years. After all, GM B-body sales also tanked (thought not quite so drastically) in 1980-81, and in 1982 Pontiac went so far as to eliminate full-size models. In time, sales picked up; by the mid-eighties, Caprices, Delta 88s and LeSabres were selling in great numbers once again. Even Pontiac brought back a full-sizer, the badge-engineered Canadian Parisienne. Could Mopar have gotten in on that? And would it have made a difference?