Curbside Classic: 1979 New Yorker – Chrysler’s Deadly Sin #3 – The Rolling Coffin

No car better epitomizes the death of Old-Old Chrysler than this car. It even looks like a coffin.

The seventies were the end of the old way in the car business; the industry was tossed on its head. GM had the resources to downsize successfully, leaving it with a mammoth market share in 1978. Ford barely hung in there, late to the new game, and improvising, sometimes in surprisingly effective ways. Chrysler mostly just rolled over. The Cordoba and the Horizon/Omni were the only two successful new products in the whole decade, and the Cordoba’s light was not a long-lasting one.

The big cars were history, and Chrysler couldn’t afford a proper downsizing like GM’s excellent B-Bodies and Ford’s not-quite-so-excellent Panthers. Chrysler had to do something, and this is it: a re-bodied version of their (former) intermediate sized cars. Why not?

The size was about right, and wasn’t the Caprice riding on an evolution of the Colonnade sedans’ 116″ wheelbase frame?  Somehow, Chrysler’s charade just didn’t take. 1979 was a fabulous year for car sales, but Chrysler could only move 133k of the R-Body Newport and New Yorker. And that would quickly turn out to look superb, when sales crashed in 1980 to 28k, and finally withered to 11 k in 1981. Finis.

The Dodge St. Regis and Plymouth Gran Fury didn’t click any better either. It seems they all ended up as cop cars or taxis, so good luck finding one of those now. I consider myself quite lucky to have found this New Yorker. It’s the only R-Body I’ve seen in quite some time.

The really pathetic thing was that the Dodge and Plymouth were also the most-rock bottom police cars ever built. In 1980 or 1981, the California Highway Patrol had a major fiasco on its hands when its new fleet of St. Regis police pursuits literally had difficulty in topping 85 mph. The 318 CID made some 165 hp, which just wasn’t enough to push that big box through the air at anything approaching the speeds the CHP had been used to (the old 440 Coronets could hit 130 without breathing hard).

It became public knowledge that the St. Regis was easy to outrun. Let’s just say that I never got any tickets during that era, and leave it at that. They were also easy to spot, with their distinctive boxy yet somehow droopy shape. Keep in mind, back then CA had a state ban on using radar except for within municipalities.

It was strictly an honest cat and mouse game; they would troll the ramps, hoping to catch a speeder as they repeatedly entered the freeway. And they had to quickly catch up to them and pace them in order to write a ticket. Good eyes were much more effective than a radar alarm ever was in later years. The only time I did get nabbed was with an airplane “bear in the air” set up. I started pointing my driver’s side outside mirror skywards after that. And the CHP soon bought a little fleet of Mustang 5.0 coupes to augment the doddering Dodges.

I can’t say I’ve ever set foot in one of these R-Bodies (who has?), so the driving experience is out of my knowledge base. But Chrysler’s efforts to give their big cars a soft ride generally came at the expense of handling, although I suppose the police car setups were fairly different than that of a New Yorker.

The St. Regis fiasco in CA just sealed the deal on the West Coast. Folks were discriminating, and knew that a properly optioned Caprice or big Olds was the (only) real thing if you still wanted a big American car. These Chryslers were a laughing stock, sad to say. They just exuded desperation and deadliness. There just wasn’t a redeeming quality to them. Their proportions were off, the interiors looked overwrought, and their dynamic qualities were zilch. End of the road, and one that had once been so proud.

Death is not a very pretty thing, usually; and the R-Bodies were no exception. No wonder folks were ready to embrace something new, even if it wasn’t much bigger than a boxy urn.