(first posted 3/1/2013) In the early 1980s, no auto company had to make more out of less than Chrysler. Sometimes, as with the minivans, the company was spectacularly successful. Other times, as with the re-imagined Town & Country convertible, the result was not so impressive.
If there is one thing Lee Iacocca learned during his years at the Ford Motor Company, it was how to mine the company’s heritage to burnish its current products. Lincoln had long struggled in its post-WWII role as a none-too-popular substitute for Cadillac. However, there was one nugget in Lincoln’s history that Cadillac could not match: the original Lincoln Continental. The 1969 Continental Mark III took many of the traditional cues of the original Continental and updated them for buyers of luxury cars in the 1970s. The result was a decade-long dominance in the high-end personal luxury segment in the United States.
When Iacocca signed on to buck up a badly foundering Chrysler Corporation, he quickly learned that things were going from bad to worse there. He determined that with Chrysler’s deteriorating finances, the company would not be in a position to field a competitor in most every segment of the market as it had traditionally done. What’s more, in a brave new world of fuel shortages and CAFE regulations, it made little sense to waste the company’s scarce resources on what was then widely believed to be the dying segment of large cars.
The history of the K platform has been well-documented. Initiated in the late 1970s, and nearing completion during the dark days of the loan guarantee negotiations, the platform would have to serve as the basis for most of the company’s products going forward, at least until their financial situation improved.
The original Reliant and Aries soon morphed into slightly larger (and much pricier) segments, including that of the storied Chrysler New Yorker (CC Here), which was based on a platform referred to as the Super K. Yet Iacocca knew that no matter how impressive its EPA fuel mileage ratings might be, and even with the Turbo power that would be along for 1984, the car would not make a proper flagship. It was time to dip into the dusty corners of the company archives for some inspiration.
Iacocca and his product team must have been a bit disappointed. Sure, there were some mighty impressive Imperials from the tail end of the classic era, but beautiful as they were, nothing about them was really unique to Chrysler. Even worse, ever since the 1934 Airflow Chrysler’s history had been one of solid but stolid cars made for old ladies, accountants and mechanical engineers: lots of steak, but not much in the way of sizzle. The 1955 C-300 (and its letter-series brothers) was certainly a legend, but one made legendary by brute power that would be difficult to transpose into the key of K. That left but a single model: the classic wood-bodied Town & Country.
The Town & Country’s story has been told before (here). To recap briefly, after its introduction as a wood-bodied sedan/wagon hybrid in 1941-42, the 1946-48 postwar Chrysler included a line of wood-bodied style leaders. The undisputed glamour-girl of the line was the Town & Country convertible. The woody ragtop sat atop the big New Yorker chassis and had eight-cylinder power. This planked and varnished cruiser had a decidedly nautical air about it that was accentuated by its smooth-but-laconic Fluid Drive system. It was the one (and only) Chrysler of its era that possessed genuine star power. Comedian Bob Hope and actress Barbara Stanwyk each owned one, and screen legend Clark Gable reportedly owned two. Leo Carillo (Pancho on the Cisco Kid television show) even owned one with a steer’s head affixed to the front. Here, the product planners surely thought, is the one old Chrysler family jewel that can translate to the 1980s.
The key was the return of the convertible body style, which had not been seen with a Chrysler nameplate since 1970. From the early 1970s, there had been widespread rumors of impending federal rollover standards that no normal convertible could hope to meet. Coupled with slowing sales in a world where air conditioning had become ordinary, car manufacturers began dropping convertibles, one by one, from their lineups. By 1976, the Cadillac Eldorado was the last ragtop standing, and when it went away at the end of the year (to much fanfare), there was widespread grieving among lovers of open-air motoring.
While everyone remembers Iacocca’s role in promoting the 1983 minivan, few remember that he was just as much behind the resurrection of the Chrysler convertible. The Super K coupe served as the basis for the car, which itself was strengthened in the rear quarter panels, cowling and A pillars, and had a torque tube welded into the floor pan. Chrysler resisted the then-prevalent trend of farming out specialty models to such outside contractors as ASC, and instead kept the LeBaron convertible’s construction in-house; when the car debuted in 1982, it was the only factory-built American convertible. And while Chrysler got only about 3,000 out the door that year, sales would spike to nearly 17,000 the following year.
To create the Town & Country version of the drop top, the stylists (to their credit) went beyond the basic Di-noc look that had hobbled Chrysler’s short-lived 1968 imitation (the Newport Sport-Grain). Instead, the car featured extensive plastic trim pieces that mimicked the ash framing of the classic version. This same styling trick, which had been used previously on the LeBaron Town & Country wagon since 1977, was also adapted to the new Super K Town & Country station wagon. The car was also luxuriously trimmed, featuring Mark Cross leather and a wide assortment of power options and sound systems. The seats in the feature car make plain that the leathers Chrysler used in these cars would put many more expensive modern cars to shame.
And then? Although the LeBaron convertible would prove quite popular, the Town & Country version would not. Out of nearly 17,000 1983 LeBaron ragtops, only 1,520 of them were Town & Country convertibles–and that number that would only go downhill from there. In the T&C convertible’s entire four-year (1983-86) run, Chrysler sold (drum roll, please) 3,811, according to the folks at chryslerkcar.com. Even the 1941-42 genuine wooden station sedan/wagons managed over 1,000 units in a year-and-a-half. So, then, what was the problem? Was it that by 1983, the Town & Country name had become better known for station wagons than for luxury convertibles? Perhaps, but it’s more likely there was simply no way, even in 1983, that anyone was ready to mistake a four-cylinder short wheelbase convertible for a genuine luxury car, no matter how nice the leather may have been. The old timers may have liked the concept, but they bought Fifth Avenues and Town Cars instead. And to young, up-and-coming boomers, could anything look more ridiculous than the worst feature of their childhood station wagons slathered all over a tiny, brick-shaped convertible?
This is another car that I found and photographed very early in my CC career, and have since watched in vain for it to reappear. I caught this one under challenging lighting conditions, parked outside a tavern lunchtime, but the odds of finding another are slim. This one is a final model-year 1986 (as identified by the high-mounted rear stoplight and the “aero” treatment around the taillights). Chrysler sold nearly 20,000 1986 LeBaron convertibles before the J-body LeBaron replaced it in 1987. How many of those 20,000 were equipped with the Town & Country package? According to Allpar, the answer is 501. Adding in the fact that this one is equipped with the optional Turbo makes it a very rare car indeed.
We can chortle about Lee Iacocca’s poor record of flagship cars during his tenure at Chrysler. The 1981-83 Imperial had been an expensive flop, as would be the later TC by Maserati and the EEK platform Imperial after that. The Town & Country convertible fits squarely into this category–or does it? It was an inexpensive trim job that was certainly not popular. However, its raw material, the Super K convertible, would turn out to be both a solid hit for Chrysler and a flagship in its own unique way. After all, even over 30 years after the debut of the LeBaron ragtop, a convertible remains in the Chrysler lineup for 2013. That’s a longer run than the minivan, I might point out, and one that has consistently turned in far better sales numbers than pretty much any previous Chrysler convertible going all the way back to the beginning. As an updating of the classic Town & Country convertible, this car was clearly a failure; however, as the car that re-introduced America to the joys of open-air driving in a package fit for the ’80s, it remains a car that Lee Iacocca has every right to be proud of.