Chrysler Corporation R Bodies: 1979-1981 Downsized Full-Sized Cars
Newport, New Yorker, St. Regis, Gran Fury
The “R” bodied cars from Chrysler were the wrong cars, created during a cash crisis, and may not have been needed at all.
The 1973 fuel crisis had devastated American manufacturers, whose compact cars were sold near break-even to attract new buyers. Suddenly, big chrome-clad cars became the bane, instead of the backbone; sales plummeted for profitable big sedans.
Chrysler had fielded huge new gas guzzlers for 1974, not long after their last “full size” redesign; they came out amid rising fuel prices and gas lines, as the public derided large cars as “boats” and “land yachts.” Chrysler sales tanked.
Chrysler President Lynn Townsend, the architect of Chrysler’s resurgence in the 1960s, had no real answers. After refusing to cut prices, he cut production, and then raised prices; then he launched Bob McCurry’s rebate program and the destructive “sales bank” scheme. When all else failed, he ducked out, entering retirement at the age of 56, nine years early.
His hand-picked successor, John Riccardo, took over as the board chair, and Eugene Cafiero rose to president. The vice presidents changed to people who were younger than 50, and reorganized into a controlling group as the “Operations Committee.” Few had operational experience.
In 1977, General Motors surprised the market with their response to the gas crises: smaller full-sized vehicles. The 1977 Impala rode on a 116 inch wheelbase, with the largest engine being a 350 ci V-8 (down from the prior 454). It had lost 5.5 inches in wheelbase, four inches in width, and 700 pounds of weight, so that the old stove-bolt six cylinder could be standard. The interior sealed the deal, with a larger space (partly from better packaging, and partly because the engine bay could be downsized knowing there would be no big-block engines inside).
Motor Trend anointed Chevrolet with its “Car Of The Year” award, a somewhat dubious distinction. Chevrolet managed to achieve an overall EPA rating of 18.4 miles per gallon. It didn’t come cheaply, however, with an across the board price increase of $400 per unit. The prices did not deter buyers, who flocked to Chevrolet dealerships, buying over 2.5 million cars.
The path not taken: B and M bodies
Ironically, the Plymouth Satellite had, in 1970, dimensions quite similar to the 1977 Chevrolet; the Satellite had weighed 3,125 pounds, which was 400 pounds lighter! The Satellite’s B-body chassis was still in production, too. What’s more, in 1975, Chrysler had made a similar product launch to Chevrolet’s, with the “small” Chrysler Cordoba.
Originally designed as a top of the line Plymouth, based on the two-door Plymouth Satellite, Cordoba started as an effort to push the overworked Fury nameplate down a notch. The Operations Committee was presented with the choice of an upscale “personal luxury coupe” in a Chrysler suit, or a dressed up “sport coupe” in Plymouth pants. The profitability of the Chrysler pushed them to the Cordoba; it had been a hit, with first-year sales of over 150,000 units, a huge number of Chrysler. [Editor’s note: product planners probably made the right decision; past upscale Plymouths, such as the GTX, had not done well, and aside from size, Cordoba ended up as a credible Chrysler.]
Chrysler had other models near the Chevrolet Impala in 1977, but failed to capitalize upon the concept of “sizing.” The 1977 Plymouth Fury (née Satellite) shared quite a bit with Cordoba, weighed 3,775 pounds, and could have been targeted against the Impala (along with the similar Dodge Monaco née Coronet); it was $800 cheaper. The Cordoba (a highly trimmed two-door version of the 1977 Fury and Monaco), was also sold as the Charger SE, but with no four-door version. The cars aimed at full-size Chevrolets were still the “C body” Dodge Royal Monaco and Plymouth Gran Fury, both at over two tons of weight, with the top engine being an optional 205-horse 440.
Creating the R body
Chrysler reacted somewhat slowly to the gas crisis of 1973. In 1975, a design study program began seeking to shave off size and weight on the upper crust Chrysler marque. Finally realizing that size does matter, the corporation began efforts to “downsize” those rolling highway battleships. A quick assessment of the entire corporate marques shows where it stood in 1975:
|A body||B body||C body||D body||E body||F/M/J body|
Chrysler was working off cash from sales, with its reserves gone. Still, the company chose not to make an upsized, more-refined B body, despite the success of Cordoba, possibly because they wanted to increase the interior space while downsizing. They were less successful in that regard than General Motors; the Chrysler Newport ended up being two inches longer than the 1978 Plymouth Fury B-body, with about three inches more length in the cabin, 1.5 cubic feet more trunk space. As with GM, they reclaimed some space from under the hood, with the 360 replacing the 440 as its largest engine.
Given a severe cash shortage, the design team began looking at reworking current or already completed body types instead of trying to develop completely new designs. The new car was, after all, just half an inch longer in wheelbase than the biggest B-body, and half an inch smaller than the shortest-wheelbase C-body.
Eugene Cafiero, the only upper manager to have made his way up from production, chose to drop all Plymouths larger than Volare at the end of 1978, meaning the brand would not get one of the new cars. He was responsible for actually making the cars, and may have wanted to reduce complexity; and Plymouth’s larger cars were not selling well, outside of the fleets. Still, some alleged that his dithering on production planning delayed the launch by nine months. [Editor’s note: that may have been a blessing in disguise, considering the quality issues that may have shown up at launch, had they been made on time.]
Cafiero and Riccardo reportedly began to fight in board meetings. To his credit, Mr. Riccardo realized that new blood was needed at Chrysler, especially after he announced that it would take about $7.5 billion to remake the Chrysler Corporation and President Jimmy Carter told him, point blank, to “heal thyself.” Mr. Cafiero then announced, publicly, in July 1977 that he was resigning from Chrysler to lead another corporation. For reasons known only to himself, Mr. Riccardo convinced Mr. Cafiero to stay on! An uneasy truce existed after that.
Work continued. Engineering applied tried and true technology from the B-bodies; parallel torsion control bars, dating back to 1957; the 225 cubic inch slant six; and the tough 318 and 360 cubic inch V-8s. The 318 didn’t qualify for California emissions, so the LA 318 got a four barrel carb for California alone. There were, then, eight engines: four for the 49 states (“Federal”), three for California, and one 360 for Canada. (California had special engines because it was under strict Federal orders to slash its pollution and had permission to set its own rules.)
Engineers focused on slashing weight, substituting plastic for metal in the brake cylinder pistons. These swelled up after a couple of years, and caused real heartache until the cause was pinpointed. The bumpers were made from stamped aluminum, plated with chrome; they didn’t care for the chemicals used, peeling within weeks, looking like cheap paint on zinc coating. These issues were likely the result of insufficient time and testing.
Other steps were more successful, such as a new air conditioner compressor for the slant six that finally ended the nasty shaking at idle, while cutting 13 pounds of weight. This was used on all rear-drive cars starting on 1979, along with new, lighter, and stronger aluminum radiators (moving to a single-row-core design).
New injection-molded plastic dashboards allowed for full gauge clusters with lighter weight, and plastic parts were used in the steering column with no apparent drawbacks. The slant six debuted with a new, lighter two-piece electron-beam-welded intake manifold, saving 14-15 lb per car (which was universal in 1979). Lighter glass also helped cut weight at the expense of some noise.
The R bodies also replaced warning buzzers with electronic chimes; the seats were designed for comfort, the ride was smooth but cornering was still good, and extra sound insulation provided some of the luxury feel of the bigger Chryslers. The New Yorker and Newport also came with a choice between manual and semi-automatic temperature control air conditioning systems.
Durability changes for 1979 included a new tail lamp socket, color-coded “flag-type” connectors (a small plastic “flag” snapped into HVAC cable retainers), redesigned weatherstrip seals (on R-bodies and F-bodies), improved dual exhaust/single tailpipe construction, and higher-efficiency air conditioner condensors with “skived” cooling fins (R-bodies only).
In California, a new generation of electronic control systems debuted, but only on single-barrel slant sixes; the “Electronic Feedback Carburetor Control System” regulated the fuel-air mixture during warmup and heavy acceleration, adding to the Lean Burn system (now renamed Electronic Spark Control, but with no other changes). The system used an oxygen sensor, coolant temperature sensor, vacuum sensor, and solenoid with a computer making decisions.
Given more money and time, the “R” body cars might have fared far better. As such, it is a wonder that they came out as well as they did. Chrysler managed to pare off some 700 to 800 pounds, helping to counter the impact of smaller and emissions-controlled engines.
The R Bodies go on sale: Chrysler Newport and Dodge St. Regis
Only two cars on the new chassis were launched in 1979, the Chrysler and the Dodge. The Chrysler Newport was the base car; the New Yorker version added a different grille with concealed dual headlamps, chrome-plated front and rear bumpers, standard air conditioning and FM stereo, and numerous trim upgrades. The Fifth Avenue Package added a padded landau vinyl roof and rear-door opera windows with edge lighting, among other trim updates.
With the arrival of the new cars in 1979, the old C-bodies finally departed, along with the 400 and 440 cubic inch V8 engines (in cars, at least). The 318 and 360 were now Chrysler’s only V8 engines, lightened for 1979. Coincidentally, Chrysler Cordoba was given a makeover, with a more formal, squarish style; whether it resonated with customers is hard to say, but Cordoba sales fell 37%.
Many fleet operators did not understand the lack of a Plymouth “R” body. To mollify dealers who sold to police fleets, the company stripped down the Chrysler Newport and priced it as if it were a Plymouth; Newport ended up as the “state bid” vehicle for many law enforcement agencies, an odd choice for what was still an upscale brand. Perhaps that was one reason, along with complaints from Plymouth dealers, for the Gran Fury “R” body in 1980; a Newport with a different front, it affected overall sales only marginally.
GM had lopped off sheet metal as though it had used an axe; Chrysler determined to lose weight, but to keep the big car look. There was some argument over this, since some of the designers wanted the cars to look smaller, as the GM products did. One could argue that the smaller look was what was selling the GM cars. It did not pretend to look as big as its predecessors, in any dimension — except for the interior. Still initial sales were strong for the “R” body cars, until a spring season recession sent jitters through the public. Gasoline prices rose, and sales took a nose dive.
The cars that did sell were problematic. Before the first “R” car was built, Chrysler quality engineering had predicted an estimate of 1,077 defects for every 100 units built. That meant that each car was expected to built with an average of 11 defects! No one took any action to rectify the situation.
Lee Iacocca had been brought in to lead Chrysler, partly because President Carter refused to help the company under its current management. After reading the reports, including a study that predicted nearly 740 defects for every 100 “K” cars, he was incensed and lit a blowtorch under the Vice President of Quality Control and Production.
Lee Iacocca was furious. He was also concerned about how the new Imperial would be launched, wanting it to be the most defect free vehicle of all. It wasn’t, but it was far better than the “R” body. Suddenly, quality became the benchmark for accomplishment. One measure of improved quality was the new 5/50 warranty, appearing in 1981, showing that Chrysler at least had confidence in its engines and transmissions.
R body details: Newport, New Yorker, St. Regis, Gran Fury
The Dodge version of the car was St. Regis, presumably named after a hotel, in a long-standing Chrysler Corporation tradition. Chrysler and, later, Plymouth simply re-applied older names; choosing a new name may have been a reaction to poor sales of existing large Dodges, or a deliberate experiment to see which strategy worked better. One look at the chart on the sales chart shows why the Plymouth, when it came, had a legacy name.
1980 Chrysler Series
|F/J/M||108.7"||LeBaron: Medallion, Salon, base||Two-Door|
|F/J/M||112.7"||LeBaron: Medallion, Salon, base||Four-Door|
|F/J/M||112.7"||LeBaron Town & Country, LeBaron||Station Wagon|
|B||112.7"||Cordoba, Crown Cordoba||Two-Door Specialty Hardtop|
|R||118.5"||New Yorker, Newport||Four-Door “Pillared Hardtop ”|
The Chrysler Newport base model was the “Four Door Pillared Hardtop,” the name being an attempt to cover the loss of the actual four door hardtop (which don’t have a center post). Chrysler tried using “almost” pillar-less models with thin or unobtrusive pillars between the doors. Other manufacturers tried to get by with labeling them as “thin pillar” models.
|1979 Newport||1979 Magnum||1978 Fury Sedan||1979-1980 St. Regis|
|Headroom F/R||38.6/37.4||37.7 / 36.6||54.3||38.2 / 37.4|
|Legroom F/R||42.3/38.2||42.4 / 32.4||42.6 / 34.9||42.3 / 38.3|
|Hip room F/R||57.6 / 57.4||55.8 / 57.0||59.2 / 59.2||57.6 / 57.4|
|Shoulder room F/R||61.0/61.0||59.2 / 61.0||58.9/ 59.3||61.0/61.0|
|Trunk (cubic feet)||21.3||16.3||19.7|
The sole transmission, the TorqueFlite three speed automatic, had already come with part-throttle kick down, and now came with an efficient locking torque converter on all but the slant six and the pursuit cars.
Options were standard luxury fare for the time: cloth, leather or crushed velour seating; powered sun roof, semi-automatic air conditioning, speed control, electric door locks, power windows, vinyl roof, with full treatment or a padded half, styled hub caps or cast steel wheels, light packages, tilt steering wheel, intermittent wipers, inside controlled rear view mirrors, bright trim packages, and a myriad of other items to equip your car as lean or as luxurious as you desired.
All the “R” cars had a full complement of gauges on the instrument panel, with a classy-looking display. Gas, oil, alternator, and temperature clustered around a round dial 85-mph speedometer — standard across automakers at this time. The Pursuit package’s certified speedometer only read up to 120 miles an hour, down from the 1978 models that read up to 140.
The standard suspension was the twin parallel torsion bars in the front, aided by an anti-roll bar; and leaf springs in the rear. Two packages that included suspension upgrades were available, Heavy-Duty and Trailer Assist. The Heavy-Duty package, available only with the E58 coded 360 4-barrel V-8, and a 3.21 rear axle ratio, upgraded the springs and shock absorbers, with wider wheels, and larger tires (U48 code – P205/75R x 15” steel belted radials) and same-size spare, deleting the space saver (the spare was stored underneath the package shelf).
The Code A56 package (Trailer Assist) mimicked the A38 Pursuit package: heavy duty torsion bars, heavy duty anti sway bars for the front and rear, heavy duty shock absorbers, and heavy duty leaf springs. Wider wheels were needed to accept the U55 coded P225/70R x 15 steel belted radial ply tires. This suspension was available on the V-8 model cars only.
Standard brakes consisted of power assisted 11.58” front discs and 10” x 2.5” rear drums. Brake pads and shoes were standard asbestos materials. On pursuit A38 packages the rear axle was 9.25” and the brake drum increased to 11” x 2.5” drums. The A38 also had non-organic materials in a sintered metallic pads and brake shoes. The hotter they got, the better they stopped. Fading didn’t occur with these brakes.
R body engines
The standard engine was the E26 Slant Six (225 cubic inches), not long ago unavailable on any Chrysler-branded car. In Federal trim, it had 165 ft. lbs of torque and 100 net hp. In California, the six was down to 80 net hp, and 160 ft lbs of twist, and was only available on the Aspen and Volare (Chrysler chose not to upgrade it with a two-barrel carburetor at that point.)
The first upgrade was the 318 V-8 with a two barrel and single exhaust, coded E44. Chrysler released a four-barrel version of the venerable 318, the E47 code, that was available only in California, and included a standard 2.40 rear axle ratio; even with the more restrictive emissions, it out-powered the two-barrel.
Buyers could also opt for a E57 coded 360 cubic inch V-8 that had a two barrel, and single exhaust with a 150 hp output (matching the 1976 318); it was the New Yorker’s standard fare and optional on all other models. In California, the New Yorker got the E56 four-barrel 360 instead, for 160 hp.
|1980||Slant Six||318||360||Slant Six (CA)||318 (CA)|
|Horsepower||90 @ 3,600||120 @ 3,600||185 @ 4,000||90 @ 3,600||155 @ 4,000|
|Torque||160 @ 1,600||245 @ 1,600||275 @ 2,000||160 @ 1,600||240 @ 2,000|
The top engine choice in 1979 was the 4 barrel version of the 360 cubic inch V-8. Most states got a 195 hp version with 280 ft. lbs. of torque. California got a 190 hp, and 275 ft lbs or torque. Canada got its own E58 version with no catalytic converters and a slightly higher compression ration, from 8.0 to 1, to 8.4 to 1, and dual exhausts. According to the figures from Chrysler, this only increased output to 200 hp, with no real difference in torque, which seems unlikely. The A38 Pursuit package cars all got heavy duty engine upgrades, with the E58 being the top Pursuit class engine.
The “R” body in fleet service
Fleets purchased the most of the “R” body cars, after the initial good start in 1979. Chrysler sold 132,936 “R” bodies in the first year. Sales tanked late in the Spring with a rise in gasoline prices, and an economic recession. Dodge moved 34,972 for a combined total of 167,908, which was the largest single year for the body.
With the lack of the big Plymouth body in 1979, the Chrysler Newport came through as the lower bidder, beating Dodge in a lot of fleet buys. It also beat out Chevrolet, Ford, Buick, Pontiac, Mercury and Oldsmobile for a lot of fleet work, stimulating dealers to loudly demand that Plymouth get an “R” body model of its own. They got their request in 1980.
Overall, they were decent automobiles. An independent survey for fleet vehicles found that most Police Agencies rated the 1980 “R” body patrol cars as the best Chrysler police unit overall, from 1956 to 1989. That may have been partly due to their high comfort levels, with well designed seats and interiors.
Not all the fleet experiences were kind to Chrysler. Maine had, since the early 1960s, found Plymouths to be the best bid through to the 1970s; but around 1976, quality issues began to arise. Problems went up sharply in 1977, and culminated in 1978, when the Maine State Police fleet Plymouths were unacceptably poor quality. They seemed to spend more time in the garage than on the road. Over their entire fleet of 1977 and 1978 models, they paid an average of over $3,160 per unit in maintenance costs — plus about that amount in labor.
Not all the cars were bad, but some were real lemons, with repeated transmission and engine failures, along with electrical issues, especially the lean burn computers. The exhausts kept falling off. The base price of a Plymouth sedan was $3,850 in 1977 and $4,230 in 1978.
Chevrolet won the low bid price to be the Maine State Police Cruiser for 1979. With the 350 V-8 coming so soon after the 440 V-8 of the MoPar, there was some readjustment for the Troopers. The handling was different, but they were safe, with good brakes, and soon won respect, as being “good enough.”
In maintenance, though, the Chevrolets were outstanding. The fleet manager was ecstatic. There were no real issues among any of the units, no transmission failures, and only one engine that let go. Maine spent far less on the Chevrolet than on the previous two years with Plymouths.
Armed with detailed records for 1977, 1978, and 1979, Fleet tried to exclude any Chrysler product from bidding, but the Maine Attorney General issued an edict that the attempt to exclude a particular car was illegal; so the Dodge St. Regis won the bid for 1980. Fleet attempted to change the means to achieve the bid. Again, the Maine Attorney General intervened, and stated that the means to exclude a particular vehicle had to be built into the original description in the bid. It cannot be changed once the bid is made. As far as the legislature was concerned, the bidding was over, and Dodge had it.
Fleet sent letters to Chrysler, seeking assurance that the 1980 Dodge was superior to the 1977 and 1978 Plymouths. Chrysler responded with gushing assurances and statements of good intent. After all, the St. Regis was a totally different car, and quality was a lot better. Keeping a wary eye on the budget, Maine took possession of 150 new St. Regis Pursuit packages with the 360 4V engines.
On the whole, the 1980 Dodge was as solid as the 1979 Chevrolet. Engines, transmissions, brakes, axles, exhausts, and major components did not fail. The peripherals did, though — wipers that wouldn’t, windows that stuck, wiring harness that burned out within a couple weeks of going into service. Electrical issues, bulb failures, misaligned power steering pumps, unadjusted rear brakes, and other issues related to poor oversight all hit the maintenance budget.
The Maine Troopers liked the car, most saying they were better cruisers than the previous year Chevrolet. The power, braking, and overall handling were vastly superior. Most rated it as the best handling car they had ever driven. But the damage had been done. The bidding process was written to keep Chrysler from meeting the specifications, and continued to be for many years. The 1980 Dodge was the last Chrysler product used by the Maine State Police.
In 1979, Chevrolet had beaten Plymouth and Dodge in the Michigan State Police tests, though the Dodge St. Regis and Chrysler Newport turned in the best performance, with 322 and 321 points assigned. (The Nova and Volare did not meet Michigan State Police criteria and were not tested.) The 1979 Chevrolet Impala came in at 311 for performance, but MSP uses a weighted method which takes price, ergonomics, and economy into account, and Chevrolet beat out Dodge for most vehicles for the lowest bid.
In 1980, the full size Plymouth with a 360 four-barrel was selected by the MSP. With a 11.5 second 0-60 time, and a top speed of almost 125 miles an hour, it reached 100 in about 35 seconds. The big Plymouth captured 5 of 7 events. The only downside was the poor gasoline mileage. In 1981, with the 360 replaced by a 318 four barrel, Plymouth repeated their “win.” It took 12.7 seconds to get to 60, ran to 100 in 43 seconds, and reached a top speed of 115 mph. Not a rocket ship, but it was the fastest patrol vehicle available in 1981. It was overall a good patrol vehicle, even if it was not a good pursuit car.
Following its usual practice, the prestigious California Highway Patrol selected Dodge for its primary E class cruiser in 1979. Granted, it was no 440, that in its final year (1978) had propelled CHP officers upwards to 130 miles an hour. The 360 managed to get to 120 mph, with coaxing, and could always get to 115.
The 1977 and 1978 Dodge Monaco used by CHP were the first units ever used by the patrol that was not at least on a 122” wheelbase. They were highly praised by officers for their brakes, ride, and outstanding drivability and handling.
CHP ordered 1,100 vehicles in 1975. Of those, 100 were the 117.5” wheelbase Dodge Coronet. They were equipped with 440 V-8s and the A38 packages. As CHP found they made excellent pursuit class vehicles, and were more economical as well. As a result, in 1976, CHP ordered 1,511 vehicles that were 117.5” wheelbase Dodge Coronets. They were 500 pounds lighter than the Monaco, which gained back some lost performance. In 1978, the Coronet became the Monaco, since the big body was gone, the name change was meant to give the impression that a big car was still available.
What should have been seen by many fleet managers were the results of the CHP buy for 1980. California CARB regulations mandated that only one engine was available for use in the CHP St. Regis, the 165 hp 318 4 barrel V-8. CHP patrolmen really panned the car. “Couldn’t catch its own shadow, let alone that of a speeding tractor-trailer.” It grew into a monumental fire fight, with the St. Regis squarely in the cross hairs.
Dodge built exactly what California had ordered, and installed the only engine that met their regulations. The CHP had a problem, and that was the image of a “weak kneed” patrol vehicle. The St Regis, equipped with full cop gear, light bar, and two good sized cops, ran about 107 to 110 mph on the flat. That would never do, when the average CHP officer spends nearly half his shift at or past the posted legal speed limits, and each and every one on every shift, engages speeders traveling over 100 miles an hour.
The CHP Commander called this an “embarrassment.” The lack of a bigger engine, (and CARB would not relent, even for its own police forces) with the weight of the larger St. Regis meant that little could be done to change the St. Regis. Many were sold to other departments. Some were transferred to high mileage areas, and run as much as possible to get them past the minimum trade over. In 1981, the CHP switched to the 112.7” wheelbase Diplomat; with the same 318 4V engine, the Diplomat saved the Dodge name, and met the CHP image of a fast car.
Production figures for 1980 stood at 15,061 units for Chrysler. The St. Regis sold 17,068 models. In its first year, Plymouth sold 18,750 models.
In its final year, the “R” body was overshadowed by the introduction of the “K” car, and Iacocca’s attempt at re-entry into the ultra luxury market, the newly resurrected Imperial. Chrysler sold about 10,500 Newports and New Yorkers. Dodge managed to get 13,000 St. Regis units sold, and the Plymouth Gran Fury accounted for another 15,000 cars.
- Extensive details and descriptions of the Chrysler Corporation line and all components, as of 1980
- Police cars: Dodge St. Regis