Curbside Classic: 1988 Dodge Diplomat SE: Absolution Granted

(first posted on CC’s first day, 2/13/2011. And dedicated to Educator Dan, a long-time reader and fan of these cars)  Starting all over again is like going to confession; all your sins are magically left behind. And one of my sins undoubtedly was in calling this car’s Chrysler twin, the Fifth Avenue, a CC Deadly Sin. But absolution requires penance, so here it is, my song of praise for this very lovely Dodge Diplomat. But don’t get me wrong; I’m not doing this out of obligation; I really am fond of this car. I just want to make it up to those of you I might have offended. Now if my penance had been to praise the Aspen, which this car essentially is, that would be a different story. And by the time I’ve finished this piece, I may well have committed another sin.

Yes, the Aspen and Volare deserved their punishment in CC hell. But like so many bad cars, the problem was in their being birthed prematurely. Within a couple of years and dozens of recalls, the M-Bodies went on to have very productive if somewhat dull lives, like so many Chrysler products.

So why did I condemn the Fifth Avenue? Because I have an deep-rooted aversion to padded half vinyl roofs and pretentious stand-up grilles. Hardly the stuff of mortal sins; a mere matter of taste. And taste is an acquired…taste; or something like that…de gustibus non est disputandum.

Well, this extremely well preserved Diplomat is blessedly unencumbered with those issues, so that makes it easy for me to do my penance; sure beats 20 Hail Marys and Our Fathers. It’s a classic American car, and rather easy on the eyes at that. It wasn’t as roomy as a traditional V8 RWD car might be, but then its Aspen/Volare progenitors were intended to be replacements for the “compact” Valiant and Dart.

The Diplomat came along in 1977, just two years after the Aspen/Volare twins, and managed to arrive guilt free from any association with those sinners. It was the upscale version, essentially, with more sound deadening and some other refinements. Sales got off to a reasonable start, and there was a coupe too, which fell by the wayside after a few years. They were treated to a minor restyle in 1980, giving them an edgier/boxier look.

Energy Crisis II put a real damper on these cars, like so many of their kind, as everyone scurried to snap up the K-Cars. But when gas prices receded, the Ms had their renaissance years.  And 1985 was the high point, with about 39k Diplomats sold. But let’s not forget that a very healthy percentage of these were sold to the police and taxi fleets, along with its Gran Fury sibling. With the slant six (with all of 90 hp), they were a taxi operator’s delight. But if my memory serves me right, they didn’t use them in NYC, probably because the city had very strict rules about how roomy the cars had to be. The Chevy Caprice ruled Park Avenue then.

And the cops liked them too, but then they were treated to some decent power. While the standard 318 CID (5.2 L) V8 two barrel was rated for 130/140 hp, depending on the year, and a four barrel version was available (to civilians) through 1982, with a 165 hp rating. The 360 CID (5.9 L) was technically available through 1979 only, with a 195 hp rating.

But the police were given preferential treatment. According to an allpar article on Diplomat cop cars, the 360 was still available to police through 1984, and the four barrel 318 probably right to the end in 1989. In tests against the police Caprice, the Diplomats acquitted themselves very well, with one exception.

Chrysler made a huge mistake when they abandoned their longitudinal torsion bar suspension, which had been proven itself since 1957. The M-Body’s new front suspension was problematic from day one, especially in heavy duty fleet use. Shock towers actually sagged, and and front end braces were weak. Chrysler eventually fixed these, but it never need have happened.

It may not sound like much today, but the power of the four barrel V8s was enough to put fear in the speeders of the day. I certainly got very good at spotting the distinct outline of these cars from a distance when I used to abuse the double nickle in CA back then. But it was a sporting event itself, since the CHP was not allowed to use radar back then, by state law! The good old days; when it was a real cat and mouse game. And if you were good, you won the game, fair and square.

Now here comes the heart breaker, Dan. I prefer to shoot cars sitting at the curb, as you know, but Stephanie and I were taking our maiden urban hike over the brand new Delta bike/pedestrian bridge in the background. One end is right up against this car dealership, and as we came back over the bridge, this Diplomat caught my eye, naturally. I always ask, if it’s on private property, and the sales manager said it was a trade-in that had just  come in. That made me sad; such a cream puff.

Who could part with such a pristine Diplomat, undoubtedly a one owner, with such a nice interior. I should have gone back and told them that I  knew someone who might want this car, but I didn’t, and this was last fall, and…well, I’m sure it’s found an appreciative owner, even if it wasn’t you, Dan.

So while the Fifth Avenue has been absolved, have I committed another sin? Will you ever forgive me? Shall I keep an eye out for another one? Some other penance? I hate to start out fresh feeling guilty already.