Curbside Classic: 1991 Dodge Dynasty – Enter Alexis

Anyone mildly familiar with the 1980s melodramatic primetime soap opera, Dynasty, will know that Alexis Carrington was a force to be reckoned with. Strong, confident, dignified and larger than life, yet brash, manipulative, elitist and self-interested, the character of Alexis Carrington was not unlike that of Chrysler’s CEO during the 1980s, Lee “Lido” Iacocca. In one way or another, both would ultimately try to claw his or her way back into the control of organizations they had been ousted from, though in the case of Alexis, “clawing” could be quite literally-speaking in addition to figuratively.

While largely credited with saving Chrysler from the brink of extinction in 1979 and fostering the automaker’s impressive comeback in the early 1980s, Lee Iacocca was a man of great ego, and he would go to great lengths to get what he wanted done his way. As the ensuing years would prove, what Lee Iacocca wanted did not always align with what was in the best interest of the corporation he chaired. The 1988 C-body Chrysler New Yorker and Dodge Dynasty were clear evidence of that, among many other examples. It’s only unusual that the name “Dynasty” was chosen for the more budget-friendly Dodge.

Just what dynasty was this car supposed to represent anyway? That of the K-car? Or of Lee Iacocca himself? If it was any attempt at capitalizing on the popularity of the TV series, Chrysler was really stretching it. I mean, Dynasty, with its elegant sets, flamboyant fashions, and over-the-top plots was dramatic and glamorous. As for the car, well… it was the exact opposite of that.

Released in late-1987, four years after the trendsetting Audi 5000, and two years after both the groundbreaking Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable duo and the debonair third-generation Honda Accord, Chrysler’s 1988 C-bodies seemed exceedingly stodgy and retrograde in comparison.

Indeed while Alexis rocked her pointed shoulder-padded suits, the Dynasty wore its pointed corner sheetmetal. And not that few probably cared, but a Plymouth version was never offered, only adding insult to injury that the brand was being starved out.

In a period where the trending theme in new automobiles was aerodynamic, expressive, and individualistic, the Chrysler C-bodies defiantly bucked this trend with extremely boxy styling, derivative of cars from the late-1970s and early-1980s. To the untrained eye, the Dynasty did actually look like a step backwards compared to the E-body 600 that it replaced, and the H-body Lancer that it was positioned above.

Of course, a closer look would reveal that indeed designers did take into account aerodynamics, with contemporary improvements such as composite headlamps and “aircraft-style” wrap-over doors. But alas, coefficient of drag was still an unimpressive 0.41 (compared to the Taurus’s 0.32 and Sable’s 0.29), and the Dynasty was saddled with Malaise-era adornments such a stand-up radiator grille, near 90-degree angle “formal” roofline, slab-sided doors and fenders, and available wire wheel covers and vinyl roof — styling elements no doubt Lee Iacocca had some say in.

The interior was no different, continuing on the theme of the upright rectangular dash common with preceding K-cars, with many sharp angles and plenty of fake wood trim. Covering the Iacocca years in an early chapter of The Critical Path: Inventing an Automobile and Reinventing a Corporation, Brock Yates actually highlights one of Lido’s outbursts pertaining to his displeasure with the mock-ups for the C-body Dynasty/New Yorker. Initially, a cleaner, more modern interior layout in the style of the Ford Taurus’ was planned for the C-bodies but upon seeing the proposals, in a fit of rage, Lee Iacocca tossed it out in favor of his more traditional styled-interiors.

On the plus side, as least interior material quality was a notch higher than previous K-cars/extended-Ks, but as Jason Shafer can attest to, having extensively driven roughly 25 different examples of the Dynasty when they were part of his company fleet in the mid-1990s, build quality was a hit or miss, much like many Chrysler products of the era.

As far as mechanical improvements over earlier Ks/EEKs, the Dynasty did have a few minor advancements. While its suspension, consisting of front iso-strut/rear trailing-arm beam axle was similar to that in the E-bodies, the C-bodies gained new nodular iron casting lower control arms and struts with grooved cylinders for better ride control. Four-wheel disc antilock brakes were also a new option.

Initially powering the Dynasty was either the 2.5-liter inline-4 that was found in many other K-based cars, while a Mitsubishi-sourced 3.0-liter V6 was available, the later somewhat of a hypocritical testament, considering Iacocca’s outspoken opposition to Japanese automakers’ involvement in the U.S. market. Chrysler’s own 3.3-liter became available in 1990.

At the time of its launch, all Dynasty models were equipped with the proven yet elderly TorqueFlite 3-speed automatic, while Chrysler’s all-new Ultradrive electronically-controlled 4-speed automatic became available with the V6 in 1989. Rushed into production before all the glitches had been worked out, Ultradrive, proved to be the achilles heal of many a Dynasty.

Lasting for nine seasons, Dynasty was considerably drawn out by the end, with seemingly every possible outrageous plot explored from the series premise. This is not unlike the humble K-car, which was stretched, stitched, and stuffed into nearly every product within the lineups of Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth, from subcompact economy hatchbacks to full-size luxury sedans to sports cars. The Dodge Dynasty would last six seasons, the the Dynasty of the K-car would ultimately last for 16 seasons.

It should be said that the original K-cars were not horrible cars for what they were, but with every extended K that followed, it became harder and harder to justify the continued basis of it for more substantial vehicles, especially when Chrysler was operating at a profit. Unfortunately, under Lido’s direction, those profits were not necessarily being put into the development of new vehicles, but rather diversification of Chrysler’s investments.

This diversification including partnerships with Maserati for the overly-ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful TC by Maserati, the purchases of Gulfstream Aerospace, Lamborghini, and American Motors, and the buyback of Chrysler stock — diversification which as whole yielded more long-term gain than loss, ultimately diverted billions of dollars away from vehicle product development, Chrysler’s core business.

With aging lineups of K-based vehicles, Chrysler’s market share and profits plummeted, landing the automaker in the red for the first time in nearly a decade, to the tune of some $800 million. In an age when the midsize car market more competitive than ever and advancement was the name of the game, it’s reprehensible that Chrysler put forth such a staid and mediocre product in the Dodge Dynasty — especially considering Chrysler had acquired a similar-sized, yet far more competitive vehicle in the AMC purchase. Unfortunately, the “stepchild” Eagle Premier/Dodge Monaco was a car that Chrysler had little interest in selling, though thankfully it did eventually lead to a more impressive midsize Chrysler.

If there was one truly redeeming quality of the Dynasty, it is that with the right transmission, it usually got you there without any hiccups. Granted it didn’t get you there with much haste, style, or refinement, but it usually got you there, and for many miles and years to come — something verified firsthand by Jason Shafer. And thankfully, Chrysler’s replacements for the C-bodies, the LH cars, while more commonly inflicted with a greater amount of reliability issues, at least showed that Chrysler could climb out of the pool, dry itself off, and be ready for another epic cat fight.

Photos by Paul Niedermeyer

Related Reading:

1990 Chrysler New Yorker Salon – Jason Shafer

The Cars Of My Father, Pt 2 – Jason Shafer

1990-1993 Chrysler Imperial – Paul Niedermeyer

1990-1993 Chrysler Imperial – William Stopford