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Chrysler Goes Front Wheel Drive

Burt Bouwkamp and Roy Axe with a Plymouth Horizon“I think Chrysler's European experience with front wheel drive (FWD) was instrumental in bringing that concept to the United States. Two European Car of the Year awards were helpful in convincing Chrysler management that that FWD was a desirable architecture for future US small cars.”

So wrote Chrysler product planner Burton Bouwkamp, who had been the planner in charge of the Dodge Charger and the original Challenger and E-body Barracuda. After their launch, he went on to a stint at Chrysler Europe.

Mr. Bouwkamp explained that the K cars did not use more components or designs from their own, award-winning Horizon, which boasted an independent rear suspension, because they had much higher noise/vibration/harshness goals for the K car.

dodge omni GLH

The runaway sales success of both Omni/Horizon (L-bodies) and Reliant/Aries/LeBaron (K-bodies), coupled with the continuing sales failure of all the company’s rear wheel drive cars, made the path clear, if difficult. The company did not have the resources to create replacements for the big cars that were suddenly unpopular.

The K platform and architecture were, therefore, altered to cover a wide range of cars and minivans, due to need rather than advance planning. As the Reliant and Aries were developed, variants were added onto their solid base.

“My section's (Body Engineering) primary project was the K car but we had more than one ball in the air. We also had to work on the 1981 Imperial, 1983 E Bodies, the 1984 mini-van, the 1984 G Body (Daytona) and the 1985 H Body (LeBaron GTS). ... [Some of these, e.g. the Chrysler Laser, E-Class, and Lebaron GTS versions of the K-cars were] not desireable, but it was all we could afford.”

1982 dodge aries

Why front wheel drive?

K-car suspensionBurton Bouwkamp continued,

“We thought front wheel drive (FWD) was the future for passenger cars. Apparently, so did our colleagues at GM and Ford.

“The FWD advantages of improved traction, straight line driving stability, and a lower, flatter floor pan convinced us. The disadvantages were higher cost and a crowded engine compartment and the inherent understeer characteristics of FWD.

“We did know that RWD provided better cornering due to oversteer and drifting characteristics, so we were not surprised that performance cars stayed with RWD. We were surprised that large cars returned to RWD.”

He also wrote, “I think [my work in Europe did have an influence] but the only specific example that I can think of is that I was instrumental in having load sensing proportional valves added to the braking system of all our domestic cars.

simca 1100 carsIn Europe, I learned what I call one on the commandments of braking, "Thou Shalt Not Let The Rear Wheels Skid." Even the low priced Simca Mille had a load sensing proportioning valve. (I think GM wished they had incorporated load sensing proportioning valves in their "X" Body braking system. They added this after a massive recall.)”

Larry Shepherd, writer of the famed Mopar performance books, provided a long introduction to the Mopar FWD performance book in which he extolled the cornering ability of front wheel drive cars, in the hands of well-trained drivers.

Dropping trucks and rear wheel drive cars

A different official, who prefers to remain anonymous, wrote:

In 1979, Chrysler’s senior management met in Boca Raton, Florida, for some serious long-range planning, away from the distraction of everyday activities at Chrysler’s Highland Park, Michigan headquarters.

The “Boca Raton Accord” was a decision to drop entirely out of the rear wheel drive truck business by 1984. This was when management made the decision to convert all cars to front wheel drive; it was decided that Dodge couldn’t be in the front wheel drive car business and in rear wheel drive for (only) light duty trucks.

Not only did Chrysler decide to quit making rear wheel drive trucks, but it decided to disband the truck engineering group immediately. Dodge Truck engineers who retained their jobs were filtered in with the various car divisions’ engineering staffs. [The original Dakota body was largely outsourced.]

Dodge Truck drifted for years until a truck engineering department was re-established in 1987 with the purchase of Jeep. At that time, a new engineering group called Jeep/Truck Engineering (JTE) took over all responsibility for both Jeep and Dodge Truck.

Dodge St. RegisThe company’s new rear wheel drive cars (R bodies and M bodies) had been sales disasters, as had the last generation of C-bodies; early F bodies were selling at a decent pace but not as well as needed, and were not profitable. The front wheel drive Omni and Horizon were their brands’ second best sellers behind Aspen and Volare.

The leadership could see and drive the Reliant and Aries prototypes, just one year away from production; they had quieter interiors, a smoother ride, nearly double the gas mileage, similar or better acceleration (compared with the slant six), and nearly equally sized interiors as the Volare and Aspen. For most customers, the K-cars were ahead of just about any cars from any American automaker.

This meeting might well have been the motivation behind the 1991 Imperial, 1983 E bodies, and other early K variants; they were needed to replace the “mid-sized” Chrysler Corporation cars of the time, none of which were selling especially well.

1991 imperialThere were numerous conflicts with Jeep engineers when Dodge started creating a new truck again, the Dodge Phoenix project — which was dropped at Bob Lutz’s insistence and replaced with the BR project, yielding the highly successful 1994 Dodge Ram. That would reaffirm Dodge's involvement in trucks as the company finally gained the volume and market share it needed.

Commentary by former police officer Curtis Redgap

FWD was, at the time, more efficient than RWD, with new designs, tighter tolerances, and the ability to put the power to the road where it counted the most. By then, weight was the problem, and cars like the K solved that issue. If you didn't tell anyone, you could not discern the difference in driving between a RWD and a FWD K-car. They were just that good. Thank you, Hal Spirlich!

My first K-Car was a Dodge Aries station wagon. When I drove my first one, I was surprised at how well it rode, handled, and felt big. I had three different Ks and had no trouble with any of them, except the carburetor on the 1982 use to flood; had to remember not to push the gas pedal until you started cranking the engine. When it did flood, I had to remove all the spark plugs and dry them off. The engine fired right up after that, but when it was cold outside, that was not a pleasant task! Fuel injection cured that ill.

The FWD cars handled every bit as well, if not better, as the big old Chryslers, pulling the car down the road, battling cross winds surprisingly well.

The GLHS was a shocker! It sure put rest to the lie that FWD wouldn't go.

Most people did not want a high performance car, even in the 1970s. They cost too much, even in the era of cheap gasoline. Getting 8 miles to the gallon was a killer. The 340 was not all that great either, getting maybe 12, and it didn't matter whether you babied it or kept punching on it.

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