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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 far less successful Challenger and E-body Barracuda. After the launch of the now-famed muscle cars, he went on to a stint at Chrysler Europe.

Bouwkamp explained why the K cars did not use more components or designs from the company’s own Horizon, which boasted an independent rear suspension: “Our NVH (noise/vibration/harshness) objectives for the K car were higher than the L Body so we did not strive for rear suspension commonality.”

While the K platform was altered as needed to cover a very wide range of cars and minivans, that was not so much the result of advance planning than need. 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). ... [The Chrysler Laser, E-Class, 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 coleagues at GM and Ford. The FWD advantages of improved traction, better 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. In 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, and 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 quite 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 several 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. RegisTo put that into context, the 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, like the Valiant and Dart, they were not especially profitable. The front wheel drive Omni and Horizon were their brands’ second best sellers behind Aspen and Volare. The writing was on the wall. 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 modal 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.

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