Curbside Classic: 1991 Chrysler New Yorker – Paging Bill Blass

(first posted 10/14/2011)    There was a sad and dark time in the 1980s when the world was shrinking, and the big American sedan was forced to shrink with it.  The conventional wisdom was that the only way the traditional sedan would survive would be to reduce to 60 percent of its former self, but in a way that left the proportions of the traditional car largely intact.  DeVilles, Park Avenues and Ninety Eights held their breath, tightened their belts and switched their drive wheels, but lived to cater to their graying customers another day (or decade).

But pity the poor New Yorker.  By 1983, it was a glorified K car with a mere four cylinders.  This was the first four cylinder Chrysler since the 1920s.   Oh, the indignity of it all.  True, there was the Turbo version, but make no mistake: the car was a bitter pill for the traditional Chrysler buyer to swallow.  Many, in fact, refused to swallow it at all, opting instead for the educated Volare that became the Fifth Avenue.  How the mighty had fallen.  No golden lions were to be found anywhere around a Chrysler dealer.

By 1985, Chrysler was out of crisis mode and was planning for the future.  Lee Iacocca was still running the show, and knew that his strategy to bet the farm on small front drive cars had been unavoidable, but limited his options.  Fuel prices were receding, and the few V8 rear drive sedans that the industry had kept from scrapping were selling in ever larger numbers.  He undoubtedly knew that the Fifth Avenue was a flawed solution, and a new Chrysler flagship was necessary.  The C body was to return.

But not the C body of yore – the one with torsion bars and leaf springs and fender mounted turn signals.  That car was gone forever.  This would be a modern C body that would make concessions to the realities of the New Chrysler Corporation. The greatest of these would be the car’s width, because the new C body would essentially be a stretched K body.

A modern flagship would have to be front drive, but six cylinders would now be providing the power.  The car would be luxuriously trimmed and would feature the cues familiar to lovers of the big New Yorkers of old, both inside and out.  The car would be competitive in every way with the front drive Ninety Eight and Park Avenue.  Only narrower.

Mechanically, the car was pretty much a Chrysler minivan.  When the redesigned New Yorker hit the market as a 1988 model, it was equipped with the Mitsubishi 3.0 V6 coupled to a three speed automatic with a lockup torque converter.  The following year, the car got the four speed Ultradrive transmission.  The 1989 model saddled with both the Mitsu engine and the first year Ultradrive is probably not the version to own today.  By 1990, the new Chrysler-built 3.3 V6 would replace the Mitsu unit (and its ever-present blue cloud).  But the Ultradrive (now known only as the A604) remained.

The Ultradrive counts as the first full-on fiasco of the New Chrysler Corporation.  From the company that brought us the legendary Torqueflite, this was a real letdown.  It is true that there were some severe manufacturing issues, but sources on Allpar indicate that much of the problem came from using the wrong fluid.  The unit was designed for a new fluid (ATF+4).  However, dealers, mechanics and owners had been pouring Dextron into Mopar automatics since the ’50s, and the need for the new fluid was not universally understood.

Why the early dipsticks and owners manuals in the cars themselves advocated Dextron in a pinch (when it was actually wholly unsuitable) is a really good question.  It appears that the ghosts of the old Chrysler Corporation had not been completely exorcised from the premises.

By the time this ’91 model came along, Chrysler was turning out a pretty decent large-ish sedan.  But the car was never really competitive with the GM offerings.  Chrysler faced some of the same constraints that Studebaker had faced a generation earlier – the need to make a small car and a large car share the same basic structure.  The Studebaker Land Cruiser was a long car on a genuine big-car wheelbase (CC here), but showed its family resemblance to the compact Champion in its unusually narrow width.  This New Yorker had the same problem.  The new C body shared the basic underpinnings with the K body, a constraint that the big front drive Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Cadillacs did not face.  The GM cars were substantially wider, and thus roomier on the inside and better proportioned on the outside.

But still, the Chrysler faithful finally had a passable modern luxury car.  In its second year (1989), Chrysler sold over one hundred thousand of them, in addition to another twenty six thousand Fifth Avenues (in that car’s final year).  Through the end of this version’s run in 1993, Chrysler would steadily sell at least fifty thousand every year.  The dropoff may have been due to the new fwd Fifth Avenue that hit the showrooms in 1991 to replace the ancient rwd version.  The new Fifth Avenue was a slightly stretched and plushified fwd New Yorker.  The same basic car, but longer (and with an optional 3.8 V6).

This car also shows what a conservative place Chrysler had become by the early 1990s under Iacocca.  This car screamed “playing it safe” from every perspective.  The excitement would have to wait for the Bob Lutz-led product renaissance that got rolling towards the end of this car’s run.

Ever since Lincoln offered a Bill Blass Mark V in a navy and white color scheme with a fake convertible roof, this look became a perennial among the more – ahem – traditional cars.  I will confess that I have a certain affection for the look, and have seen several Town Cars, box Mercuries, Cadillacs and other big sedans with this sort of nautical scheme (most commonly a white car with navy blue interior and fabric roof).  To me, the look improves the fwd New Yorker.

This car belongs to a co-worker, and I have actually driven it.  It has somewhere around 140 thousand miles (the odometer quit at about 125 thousand) and has been owned by someone in her extended family for its whole life.  If you have ever driven a Chrysler minivan, the experience is very familiar.  The 3.3 V6 is plenty of engine for this car (it weighs about 1500 pounds less than a ’90s Chrysler minivan) and provides plenty of the good old fashioned American torque that a Chrysler buyer would expect.

Another observation:  Chrysler spared no expense in the quality of leather supplied for the upholstery.  At twenty years of age, the driver’s seat looks virtually new, despite it being several years since the car has seen the inside of a garage.  And I will report that it is quite comfortable.   In truth, I kind of like the little thing.  And it is little.  Parked next to any recent minivan (or even a last generation Accord), this car’s K body roots are apparent.  Luxury has gone large again.

Sadly, the little New Yorker needs to find a new home.  It has been getting a mite temperamental in its old age, sometimes starting, sometimes not.  An old car with formerly modern electronics systems is not so inexpensive to own if one does not twist his own wrenches.   So, New York New York has been replaced (with my old ’99 Town & Country with a fresh transmission, of all things, but that is another story).  But driving a minivan just won’t be the same for the owner. The T&C does not have that luxurious navy blue leather, and there is certainly no jaunty looking fake convertible top.  So, if you want something to drive while you wear your yachting cap and white loafers (feeling like either Thurston Howell III or your grandfather) I know where you can get just the thing.