Cohort Classic: 1987 Plymouth Caravelle SE – Remember Me?

1987 Plymouth Caravelle

If there’s a more forgettable Big Three car from the 1980s, I can’t remember what it could be.  Just thinking of Plymouth’s Caravelle can create mental gymnastics: For example, When was the last time you noticed one?  Or, Can you recall the differences between Caravelles and Dodge 600s?  Fortunately, we can use these images, posted at the Cohort by William Oliver, to rekindle our collective memory.

Being a 1980s Chrysler Corporation product, this Caravelle is (surprise!) a stretched K-car.  Specifically, an extra 3” of wheelbase and 10” of length created a mid-size, six-passenger sedan.  Designated as the E-body when it debuted for 1983, this car range included the anonymously-named Dodge 600, the even more anonymously-named Chrysler E Class, the fancied-up Chrysler New Yorker… and, in Canada only, the Plymouth Caravelle.  Two years would pass before Caravelles drifted south into US showrooms.

Having first used “Caravelle” on Plymouth’s Canadian-market M-body (Gran Fury in the US), Chrysler Canada Ltd. bestowed the name upon Plymouth’s E-body for ’83.  And in a bid to confuse customers even more, the aged M-body became the Caravelle Salon.  All E-bodies were offered only as four-door sedans and only with four-cylinder engines – not quite a recipe for excitement.  Dodge’s 600 presented a somewhat sporty image, as the 600ES offered a firmer suspension and meatier tires, however anyone could see that the Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler were virtually identical cars.

In the US, Plymouth made do without an E-body for 1983 and ’84, through the Chrysler brand offered both the E Class and then (added mid-model year) the more upscale New Yorker appeared.  For $2,200 on top of the E Class’s $9,700 base price, Chrysler shoppers could receive standard power windows, electronic instruments, a landau roof, wire wheel covers and other such amenities by purchasing a New Yorker.  It turned out that most Chrysler shoppers wanted those things, and in 1984, New Yorkers outsold E Classes 2-to-1.  Left with two awfully similar Chrysler-branded sedans, Chrysler Corporation cast the cheaper one off to Plymouth for 1985, figuring that thrifty shoppers ought to be Plymouth customers anyway.  So US Chrysler-Plymouth dealers saw a switcheroo, as the E Class went away, to be replaced by the Caravelle… and the New Yorker continued in its crystalline-hood-ornamented glory as the Chrysler brand’s sole E body.

Therefore, US Plymouth dealers joined their Canadian counterparts in offering an E-body Caravelle.  Virtually identical to the Dodge 600 – both mechanically and visually – the ’85 Caravelle featured an eggcrate grille (as opposed to the Dodge’s slatted grille) and very minor trim variations.  Perhaps most amusingly, the Caravelle carried a base price a whopping $74 less than Dodge’s 600.

And regarding this car’s name: Just what is a “Caravelle” anyway?  Why, it’s a 15th-16th century Spanish or Portuguese sailing ship – usually spelled “caravel” in English… the added “-le” being the French spelling.  Though few customers likely made the connection, the ship theme was a throwback to early Plymouth badges and hood ornaments that featured the Mayflower and other nautical themes.  Plymouth scarcely used seafaring symbolism in the 1980s (Voyager being the other example, since the term typically applies to a long water journey), however sailing vessels made a comeback with the brand in the 1990s in the form of a modern interpretation of the old nautical badge.  The Caravelle model name, though, never resurfaced after the E-bodies were discontinued.

Incidentally, Plymouth wasn’t the only make to offer a Caravelle.  Both a 1960s Renault coupe/cabriolet and numerous versions of Volkswagen’s Transporter also carried the Caravelle name.  Combined with our Plymouth, this must be the most unusual trio of automotive namesakes ever produced.

1987 Plymouth Caravelle

Now back to our featured car.  This is a 1987 model, which benefited from a mild refresh that debuted the year before.  For this refresh, Chrysler softened the car’s formerly hard lines, such as in the front fascia, grille and tail lamps.  Headlights, which had previously resided in individual eye sockets, now sported a more contemporary appearance.  And in a shockingly bold move, the stand-up hood ornament disappeared, replaced instead by a Pentastar integrated into the grille.  Take a good look at this grille, because it was the most apparent visual difference between the Caravelle and its Dodge twin… Dodges featured blacked-out grilles with chromed crosshairs.

1987 Plymouth Caravelle

Tail lights, too, were subtly different on the Plymouth and Dodge versions; while the Caravelle featured tail lights with horizontal ribbing, the 600’s lights were divided into rectangular chunks.  Wheel options differed as well, though both versions offered these wire wheel covers — after all, what kind of K-car-derived sedan could do without them?

This particular car is an SE, a model that added a few extras to the base Caravelle, such as a split bench seat, stereo, intermittent wipers, etc.  About 45% of the 94,000 1986-88 Caravelle buyers splurged for the SE.  Caravelle’s most significant option, though, was the engine.  These sedans came standard with a 2.2L 97-hp four, but two optional engines provided much more acceptable performance.  Our featured car’s original owner opted for the $280-extra 2.5L four, whose benefit wasn’t so much horsepower (only 3 more than the 2.2), but torque, of which it had more and at lower RPMs.  Also optional was the same 2.2L turbo four as found in the Dodge Daytona Turbo Z, though with Caravelle’s 3-speed automatic, it wasn’t an ideal match.

The 1986 smoothing of the E-bodies’ design produced a pleasing and well-proportioned car – but certainly not an exciting one.  Caravelle’s K-car roots showed through in many ways – with a noisy ride, unrefined handing, and lots of inexpensive interior materials.  However, for consumers looking for a basic, but not punishingly ascetic family sedan, this was a reasonable choice.  Caravelles typically cost less than GM A-body sedans, though the lack of a V-6 and more limited optional equipment likely put the Plymouth out of contention for many buyers.

This 1987 brochure described Caravelle as “The not-so-traditional American family sedan.” Chrysler neglected to explain what was nontraditional about it.

Chrysler manufactured over 700,000 E-body sedans between 1983 and 1988, with our featured car coming from the E-body’s most successful year.  For the 1987 model year, 151,135 E-bodies rolled out of the Jefferson Avenue Plant in Detroit, including 42,465 Caravelles.  While seemingly a fair showing, this was somewhat meager in the large 1980s mid-size sedan marketplace, and just a fraction of the sales raked in by some competitors, such as the Olds Cutlass Ciera.  Having a pleasant design and offering good value could only take a car so far… Caravelle ownership was likely limited to the Chrysler faithful, and to those looking for a step up from a Reliant.

Plymouth Caravelle

Caravelle and the rest of the E-bodies were discontinued in 1988.  Its place in Plymouth’s lineup was the filled by the Acclaim and/or Dynasty (a case could be made for either, or both, being the Caravelle’s true successor).  With that, this easily overlooked Plymouth sailed away, hardly to be remembered.  In retrospect, Caravelle ended up being forgettable due to a lack of distinction – it wasn’t a sales leader, a styling trailblazer or a technological breakthrough.  The model simply existed for a few years in a lineup of badge-engineered, value-oriented Plymouths.  But thanks to these Cohort pictures, forgettable doesn’t mean forgotten.


Related Reading:

1986 Plymouth Caravelle SE: This Ship Still Sails   Jim Grey

1986 Plymouth Caravelle: All In The Family   Jason Shafer

1986-88 Plymouth Caravelle: Mint In Manhattan   William Stopford