I was a senior in high school when I was given my own car, which was a used, bright red 1984 Ford Tempo GL . The Tempo had served duty as the “nice car” in the Dennis family from its purchase as new in the fall of ’84 from Al Bennett Ford in Flint, Michigan until being bequeathed to me. This was actually the second ’84 Ford Tempo GL we had in our possession, as the first Tempo we had selected, in a dignified-looking charcoal gray finish with a matching interior, had been totaled against a tree within two days of our ownership. After my mom had recovered and the insurance company had adjusted our claim, we went back to Bennett Ford to see what other ’84 Tempos were left on the lot that fall that were equipped similarly to the one that was now sitting in a scrapyard off Dort Highway. There were two left – one in “Light Academy Blue Glow” (which resembled Crayola’s “Periwinkle”), and one in Bright Red. We went with the latter.
I remember the thought process behind choosing the red over the blue being that it would provide visual “warmth” during the cold, Michigan winter, or some other hooey my mom had come up with. I was #teamblue all the way, both because blue was and is my favorite color, and also because the color of the blue Tempo was very close to that of my new, off-brand Members Only jacket. (How fly would it have been for me to arrive somewhere in a car painted in a “factory” color that matched that of my Members Only jacket?) Anyway, the Tempo was our main family car until I got it, but then this meant that my parents were now going to have to replace it with something else. Both my dad’s retirement and my high school graduation were on the horizon for the early ’90s, and our family had planned to relocate south following both events. We needed something reliable that could accommodate four (five in a pinch) that would also, most of all, be inexpensive.
By that point, I had the Tempo as my own car (which I would trade for a 1976 Chevrolet Malibu Classic), but I was still very much invested in whatever my parents were going to choose next. A family car isn’t just reflective of whomever happens to be behind the wheel at any given time, at least in the mind of a teenager. It is a representation of the family unit as a whole, providing clues as to the socioeconomic status, aesthetic preferences, and fashion consciousness of all of its occupants. Picking out a new family car is like choosing an outfit that your entire family has to wear. When you were a teenager, would you have rather have bought your clothing from, say, a more hip or specialized store like The Gap or Chess King, or from a long-established, value-oriented anchor like Sears?
The Dennis family was always going to the choose the “Sears” of anything and everything. To be clear, I am not dissing Sears, and I have made many great purchases from that retailer over the years. I also always had adequate food, shelter, and clothing provided for me as a child. Let’s just face the fact that many teenagers will tend to skew toward things that are more stylish, trendy, or fashionable than what they may gravitate toward later in life when they’re calling their own shots and paying with their own funds. Getting back to car shopping, my family, like many in those times, was committed to buying something American-branded. My parents initially preferred a new car, as it was expected that this one would need to survive the big move to Florida and beyond, but they later expanded their shopping list to include newer used cars in an attempt to beat the depreciation curve. We consulted with a family friend, Ron, an engineer who was very knowledgeable and car savvy, and after making some phone calls and taking a few test drives, the choices had been narrowed down.
First up was a year-old Cavalier wagon from Applegate Chevrolet. Mom was doing all the testing, since she would be this car’s primary driver, as my dad had surrendered his drivers’ license a few years earlier due to his poor and deteriorating eyesight. She raved about how much space it had, that it was a wagon, and that it would get such great fuel economy. Ron wasn’t impressed with the $10,000+ sticker price, stating that was an awful lot of money for a little Cavalier. It must be pointed out, very lovingly and respectfully, that if the Dennises were thrifty, Ron’s family took thrift to the levels an an extreme sport. (They didn’t even own a television set.) It is absolutely true that this Cavalier wagon wouldn’t have been the best bang-for-the-buck, even if it would have been a reliable, efficient hauler and cross-country vessel. My parents put the Cavalier on the “maybe” pile.
The next stop was Chinonis Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge, to look at a bargain-priced, barely-used 1989 Plymouth Reliant America similar to our featured car. Here we go. I can remember crossing my fingers as I left for school that day that the Reliant wouldn’t start, or that it would stall, or that it had been smoked in, or that my mom couldn’t handle its driving position, or some miscellaneous reason why this car would be out of contention. Why, you ask? Because look at it. By my high school years, the Plymouth Reliant had been in production for almost a decade with only one restyle occurring for ’85. Its exterior styling screamed “value”, as did the Plymouth brand, in general, by that point. It was the fictional principal Ed Rooney’s car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, for crying out loud, and if that alone didn’t make the Reliant a loser by association, I couldn’t imagine what its redeeming qualities might have been outside of its low price. This was the kind of used car that better-off, middle-class parents bought for their kids my age, not for themselves.
Naturally, my mom loved it. She raved about its great acceleration, how airy and easy it was to see out of, and what a bargain it was at its low asking price. She proclaimed to all of us how it was a “full-sized car”, citing its bench seats as proof of this. I was upset. Suddenly, I felt like every Reliant or Dodge Aries (or any Chrysler K-Car, for that matter) roaming the streets was suspect of conspiracy. That’s right. All 3.5 million K-cars produced over nine model years had it in for me, determined to make me ride in and be seen in the least cool, unfast, dorky late model car available on the secondhand market at that time. Of course, I still had the Tempo, but what was I going to do when we went somewhere as a family? For example, was I going to drive from the same driveway to the same church parking lot on Sunday morning? Well, yes, because I did ridiculous things as a teenager, but that’s beside the point.
About the model year of our featured car, a license plate search returned results that this blue sedan was a 1988 Reliant America. For ’88, all Reliants had the “America” designation, inclusive of a level of equipment that was formerly optional to keep things uniform on the production line, and to keep the prices low. Both the two- and four-door sedans carried a base price of $6,995, which is about $15,800 in 2021, roughly $1,500 more than a new Mitsubishi Mirage. The new ’88 base prices represented almost a 9% drop from that of the previous year’s sedans, and over an 11% reduction in the entry price for the wagon. U.S. consumers loved the value proposition presented by the ’88 Reliant, and purchased about over 125,000 of them that year, the bulk of which (95,500) were four-door sedans like this one. Sales for ’88 were almost 21,400 units more than in the prior year, for a solid 20% increase.
I am aware of the “LE” badge affixed to the right side of the trunk lid. In literature on the 1988 Plymouth Reliant that I could find online, I found it referred to both as the “Reliant America”, as well as the “Reliant LE”, though there was officially just one trim level offered for all three bodystyles that year. I remain confused as to what it was actually called (“Plymouth Reliant America LE” seems like a lot to say for a car like this), but the lack of this knowledge won’t keep me up at night. For me, anyway, riding in a “Reliant America” as a teenager would have seemed as cool as having one or both of my parents playing Neil Diamond’s “America” at full blast from the AM radio’s dashboard-mounted speakers.
Less money spent on a car might have meant more money to spend on us kids, or even some kind of family vacation (which I may write about at a later date), but that’s just not how my parents’ minds seemed to work back then. To get to the denoument of this story, they ended buying a used 1987 Chevy Nova that I’ve written briefly about before, which was probably one of the better cars to grace the Dennis family driveway. Seeing this Reliant on the street in my neighborhood last fall didn’t inspire the same kind of ire as it might have close to thirty years ago. As a working adult twenty years into my career, and with bills and responsibilities of my own, this front-drive Plymouth rather made me respect it for presumably having delivered reliable, efficient, affordable transportation for people who needed a car to regularly get from point A to point B. Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that maybe Mom and Dad could have done worse.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Thursday, October 22, 2020.