In the automotive world, the plain jane American full-size, rear-wheel, V8-powered sedan might as well be as basic as a cup of black coffee. While hardly popular anymore, these were the cars that built American car brands for most of the 20th century, much like black coffee did for coffee chains such as Dunkin’ and Starbucks.
As we all know now, however, coffee shops have become very clever at milking us out of way more than just a simple cup of black coffee, luring us with pricey extras like steamed milk here, flavored syrups there, and even whipped cream and sprinkles. This same approach fairly accurately describes Chrysler’s strategy with the 1982-1989 Fifth Avenue. After all, who doesn’t like sprinkles?
Our featured car’s black coffee origins can be traced back to 1976, with the introduction of the then-new F-body Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volaré. Although these theoretically-advanced replacements for the venerable Dart and Valiant soon proved themselves as lambasted quality nightmares, nevertheless, Chrysler persisted, following with upmarket variants designated the M-body in 1977. Initially sold as the Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge Diplomat, these “senior” midsize cars shared nearly all of the F-body’s mechanical underpinnings, its wheelbase, its roofline, its doors, and its dashboard, among other traits. Where the M-body predominately differed was in its more formal and emphatic front and rear styling, and its more luxurious accoutrements, allowing Chrysler to charge significantly more — think of it as adding vanilla cold foam to your iced coffee.
Things got extra interesting as the next few years panned out. A second energy crisis in 1979 combined with ensuing economic recession hit full-size car sales especially hard, and the full-size car’s days appeared grimly numbered. While Ford and GM scurried, further downsizing their full-size offerings, shuffling nameplates to existing smaller models, and introducing new midsize vehicles meant to take their place, an especially cash- and capital-strapped Chrysler axed its full-size R-bodies altogether in 1981.
This left the midsize M-body as their largest and only remaining rear-wheel drive sedans, and thus, the automaker’s de facto flagship, which Chrysler now called “New Yorker” and marketed as “full-size”. Shuffling the name, positioning, and luxuries of its flagship down to the smaller car, it would be like Starbucks discontinuing its 20-ounce Venti and moving the name to its 16-ounce Grande, yet claiming the caffeine content was still the same as before and charging more for it. Confusing, huh?
In truth, Chrysler did its best to make the 1982 M-body New Yorker’s image and caffeine, er luxury, content the same as it was in the 1981 R-body. Besides a mild restyle, numerous standard features and plenty of extra ornamentation were added to what was previously known as the LeBaron, plus available options like the Fifth Avenue Edition package that added button-tufted loose-pillow seats with available Corinthian leather. Chrysler did some more of the name reshuffling game with the advent of its midsize E-body New Yorker. All 1983 M-bodies were now called New Yorker Fifth Avenue Edition, though by the following year the car was simply called “Fifth Avenue”.
For the remainder of the M-body Fifth Avenue’s life, through 1989, Chrysler enjoyed surprisingly strong sales as a result of subsiding oil prices and a resurgence in demand for traditional full-size cars. Chrysler marketing would play heavily into the Fifth Avenue’s “traditional” qualities, as well as its value for having so many standard luxury features — features Chrysler could afford to include because the M-body’s tooling had been amortized to make for a hefty profit margin on the Fifth Avenue.
From where it all started back with the cheap cup of drip black coffee Volaré and Aspen, Chrysler bedizened it to the far pricey Blonde Cocoa Cloud Caramel Macchiato (an actual drink from Starbucks’ menu) with 1 pump toffee nut syrup and caramel + mocha drizzle swirls Fifth Avenue, and it worked… spectacularly, from a bean-counter’s prospective. First year sales of this “new” New Yorker 1982 was more than the 1981 LeBaron, Newport, and New Yorker combined, and by 1983, the New Yorker Fifth Avenue Edition became the Chrysler division’s best-selling model, a title it would also claim in 1985 and 1986. When you consider the fact that the Fifth Avenue was only available in a single body style and single trim level, it technically was Chrysler’s most popular model consecutively from 1983 through 1987, upon which the C-body New Yorker Landau surpassed it in 1988 — a feat all the more impressive considering it was the division’s oldest model by a significant amount. Talk about making milk money.
Photographed in Hanson, Massachusetts – September 2019