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1976 Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen

Personal note. Driving Gene Yetter’s 57,000-mile Plymouth Volare was a surprise and revelation to this long-time Valiant/Dart owner. I knew the interior was nicer, with its velour seats and driver-oriented gauge cluster; but I didn’t know how smooth and comfortable the ride could be. I’ve driven police Diplomats, but they’re tuned for handling, not comfort.

volare duster

I’ve long known that the two-barrel slant six is a major improvement over the single-barrel, so that wasn’t surprising. From the driver’s perspective, the interior is so far upgraded it might as well have come from a different company; and the hood is higher and more curved, reminding me of my 1977 Fury. The ride was much more like my plush Fury than my Valiant — and the wind noise was much, much lower. Overall, the Volare was every bit the leap forward that the magazines said it was. — David Zatz

Into the Volare and Aspen

by Lanny Knutson,
courtesy of the
Plymouth Bulletin

Volaré: “to fly.” Bestowing that name on its newest car [see the story behind the name “Volare”], Plymouth hoped to fly away from the shadows of dismal sales and soar to new production heights. And that’s exactly what was beginning to happen as sales initially did soar.

Plymouth Volare Duster

Introduced with much promise, Plymouth’s new compact soon found itself caught a quagmire of rusting panels, faulty electronics and record-setting recalls, a shadow of “confusion and disillusion” from which it just couldn't fly away.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Volaré (and its twin Dodge Aspen) was to be Chrysler’s latest savior car. Yes, Chrysler was in another of its perennial crises. This one wasn’t the result of bad design or faulty products but bad luck. The company had new high-profit cars and trucks for the 1974 model year — full size cars, and long-overdue SUVs — just as the infamous fuel crisis was about to rear its head. Demand for big fuel guzzlers plummeted; Plymouth sold a record number of Valiants, but at a tiny profit margin.

volare record

Record sales or not, Plymouth knew the aging Valiant was not going to last forever. However much they gussied it up with luxury appointments, it was still a design hearkening back to 1967. Finally, by 1976, it was on its way... Volaré!

How new was it? So new it even got a new name. That’s what Chrysler wanted you to think. Actually they were echoing Ford; instead of a new Falcon, Ford unveiled the Maverick, and allowed the old Falcon to hang around for a year.

How the Volare was named (by the head of product planning)

Since it worked for Ford, Chrysler picked up on the disposable naming practice, replacing the time-honored Valiant name with Volaré. A small sense of continuity was maintained as a V-name was chosen. (When Volaré’s time came to be replaced, Plymouth went for the second part of Valiant’s name, christening the new car Reliant, keeping all but the first two letters.)

volare fleet - 1976

Like the Falcon, the Valiant hung around with its replacement, since the Volare was a midyear launch. Some customers were reluctant to plunk down a similar amount of cash for a nine-year-old design when a wait would get them an all-new model.

Although the sheet metal was completely new, it bore enough of a family resemblance for buyers to know to whom it belonged.

The new Volaré F-body came in two wheelbase sizes: 108.5 inches for its coupe; 112.5 for the sedan. The two-wheel-base concept, initiated by General Motors on its 1968 intermediates and picked up by Plymouth and Dodge intermediates in 1971, has certain advantages.

1976 Volare brochure

In designing coupes, stylists prefer to move the rear window forward and at a sharper angle, which means moving the rear seat forward so there is enough headroom; this brings wasted space between the seat-back and the rear axle. If the wheelbase is shortened, the axle is moved forward, and the two-door car is given a more well-integrated appearance, and becomes lighter and more maneuverable.

By going to two wheelbases, Plymouth avoided the compromised position of the Ford Granada, a direct competitor to the Volaré Premier line whose sedan’s backrest had to be curved in at the ends, creating a sort of three-person bucket seat, since the sedan didn’t have a longer wheelbase.

California Custom Volare

Similar space-tuning was used in the Volaré wagon. Plymouth’s first compact wagon since the 1966 Valiant, the Volaré station wagon had a sales niche between the sub-compact Vega and Pinto and the intermediate wagons on the other. (The AMC Hornet Sportabout was considered more of a sport wagon.) By placing the spare under the floor and reducing wheel-well intrusion into the cargo area, Plymouth could claim that the Volaré had only 17% less usable space than their Fury Suburban — at a savings of 500 pounds.

Despite its frameless door glass, the coupe’s B-pillar and fixed rear glass signaled that the hardtop era was over. With its Colonnade cars of 1973, General Motors had made pillared coupes and sedans a styling de rigeur. Rumor was that rollover standards required a fixed B-pillar (and killed the convertible), but convertibles returned a few years later; some believed it was the unsightly shoulder belts. Mostly, the culprit was air conditioning.

With air conditioning becoming ever more popular, few were going to drive around with all their windows down just for the “hardtop effect.” Buyers were also demanding quieter cabins, which the body rigidity of fixed B-pillars provided. The public was starting to want opera windows, making the whole hardtop question moot.

volare duster

Opera windows were part of the styling trend known as the Formal Look, also marked by radiator-shaped grilles, upright hood ornaments, full cut-out wheel openings, landau roofs and bustle-back, boat-tailed or spare tire-shaped rear ends. (Virgil Exner, Chrysler’s legendary stylist and a proponent of functional classic design, might have felt vindicated had he not died three years earlier.)

Though not as blatantly radiator-like as that of the Cordoba parked next to it in the showroom, the Volaré fine-mesh grille was not much wider than the radiator. Square parking lights, cross-hatched to look like driving lights, filled the remainder of the grille cavity between the headlights. Out back were simple rectangular taillights integrated with cast-like moldings on Premier and Custom models.

The top line Premier was designed to compete head-to-head with the Ford Granada. The Premier coupe featured a vinyl landau top with opera windows, a standup hood ornament mounted on a hood center molding, special pinstriping and wide, color-keyed, vinyl-filled bodyside moldings. Inside was a choice of standard 60/40 split bench or optional bucket seats for “a European-style seating position that gives you a heightened sense of space and visibility.”

The Premier sedan bore a full vinyl roof and all the trim found on the coupe. The Premier station wagon came standard with wood-grained body-side appliqué. All Premiers came standard with a Torqueflite transmission, dual horns, an electric clock, power steering and power disk brakes. Popular luxury options were an AM/FM four-speaker stereo, six-way power seats, power door locks, power windows, a tilt steering wheel and cruise control.

Unlike Granada, Volaré also had mid- and base-level models. Customs, only slightly less dressy than the Premier, came with a narrower side molding but no hood ornament, and an optional, flashy two-tone treatment (coupe only).

The base coupe and sedan, known simply as Volaré, came with minimal side molding looking not much different from what you might have bought at K-Mart. Still, bright trim around the windows made it attractive to the budget minded. Exclusive to the base coupe was the optional SpaceMaker package, featuring a fold-down rear seat, a la the original Barracuda.

road runner

There was a special version of the base coupe: the Road Runner. Yes, the Road Runner moved to the Volaré line this year. Not a separate model, it was a sporty package offering Rallye wheels, E70x14 raised white letter tires, blackout grille and taillight panel, special decal stripes, black interior and heavy duty suspension. A mid-year Road Runner option was the Super Pak, featuring front and rear deck spoilers, rear window louvers and Spitfire Orange with black and yellow stripes as the only color. Popular options included vinyl bucket seats and a manual sun roof. All Volaré engines, 360 and 318 V8s and 225 Slant Six, were available in the Road Runner. A six-cylinder ’Runner? What would have been anathema eight years earlier was reality in fuel crisis times.

inside

The hottest engine on the 1976 Volare and Aspen was a two-barrel 360 pumping out 180 net horsepower; due to emission restriction, it wasn’t available in car-crazy California. Nonetheless, Motor Trend testers, who knocked off 0-to-60 mph in 8.6 seconds with the 360 Dodge twin to the Road Runner, had to remove the air cleaner to be convinced only a two-barrel was underneath. In 1976, they wrote, “It’s a performing machine and a welcome return by Chrysler to the spirit of the Sixties for those who have been thinking that the Mopar folks had forgotten what performance and the looks to match are all about.”

Only the Torqueflite was available with the 360. Road Runner and other Volaré drivers wanting to shift for themselves had to settle for the 318 or 225 engines, which could be backed up with a three-speed manual (either column or floor mounted) or a four-speed overdrive transmission. If you were from California, you were out of luck here, too: only the automatic with your 318. If you wanted to shift, you had to get the six — but not on the wagon.

super six carburetors

Among the few changes for 1977 was the Super Six, which came with an aluminum two-barrel intake manifold with a Carter two-barrel carburetor and larger exhaust. It produced 10 horsepower more than the one-barrel engine but economy was no less. Standard on all wagons, it was a $38 option on others, but was not available in California. The early aluminum castings proved to be of poor quality and were voluntarily replaced by Chrysler with cast iron manifolds.

Front disk brakes were standard on all Volarés, paired with rear drums. Power assist was standard on all wagons and eight cylinder models.

Most notable among Volaré’s mechanical features was a change to the front suspension. Chrysler’s longitudinal torsion bars would have occupied space needed for exhaust emissions control systems. Not wanting to abandon Chrysler’s trademark torsion bars for coil springs, which they could have done, engineers devised a transverse torsion bar system incorporating L-shaped bars. The shorter arm of the L acted as a lever to the lower suspension arm. No strut bars were necessary; the torsion bar located the longer arm longitudinally. Each bar, made in multiple diameters to equalize stresses, was adjustable as Chrysler’s torsion bars had been since 1957. All components were mounted in a self-contained bolt-on unit that would find its way into street rods in years to follow.

Most reviewers considered the new system to be novel but of no real advantage over the common coil spring suspensions. However, Motor Trend enthused:

"...the wagon is no race car, but thanks to the new transverse torsion bar front suspension, it almost handles like one. We found ourselves batting around curves and turns that would have normal wagons cornering on the door handles...The Volare stuck to the road like the painted centerline and with no rear end hop or tendency to plow. Most pleasant. The steering is pleasantly quick, and the wagon was able to dart in and out of holes in traffic like a car half its size."

Car and Driver’s Patrick Bedard enthused about the steering wheel, of all things, devoting a whole paragraph to its praise. Appreciating its clean, uncluttered lines with no badges, names, or other identification, he gave the stylist credit for bucking the trend of the era towards filigreed opulence. He also found the instrument panel to be "functionally excellent" with an aircraft efficiency to its layout of legible, white-on-black instruments. "You can read it at a glance..."

Indeed, automotive journalists were nearly unanimous in their enthusiasm for the new Volaré/Aspen twins. This enthusiasm culminated in Motor Trend awarding the duo its coveted Car of the Year award. The editors explained, “Chrysler had essentially started with a clean piece of paper... The company wanted to build a smaller, more agile and more efficient car that still offered the ride and feel of much larger machines. ... Try them, you'll like them.”

People tried Volaré and Aspen and they did like them.. .enough to buy them in record numbers. A total of 291,919 Volarés went out the dealers’ doors in 1976, helping Plymouth gain 43% in sales, for sixth place, and an increase for the entire corporation of 49 percent. Aspen, which sold for an even $12 more than Volaré the entire five year run of the F-body, had a sales total of 219,449. In 1977 Volaré’s sales increased to 382,418, helped, in part, by the lack of competition from Valiant which sold 85,686 during its final year. Aspen added another 219,449 F-body sales in 1977, bringing the combined Volaré/Aspen sales for their first two years to well over a million. Things were looking up. In 1977, Volaré/Aspen accounted for 51% of corporate sales. Chrysler had found its savior cars, it seemed, then.. .oh, oh.

By 1978 fenders on many ’76 models began showing rust, hoods began flying up and even the “indestructible” Slant Six and 318 V8 seemed to have caught a virus from body and began faltering and stalling. In all, the ’76 Volarés and Aspens were subject to five mandated recalls on suspension, ignition and fuel systems, brakes, steering and the body. Chrysler launched a voluntary recall on all front fenders and adjacent sheet metal, which cost them $109 million they could ill afford. The problem was in quality control on the assembly line, rather than design.

duster

The Volaré/Aspen twins became the most recalled vehicles in history...for a couple of years, that is, until General Motor’ X-cars took the "honor" from them. Due to its size, GM was much better able to take the hit than Chrysler, which almost went under until finally getting its true savior car, the K-car Reliant and Aries.

With a 20/20 hindsight made easy being, as it was, on a previous administration, Lee Iacocca critiqued in his self-titled autobiography:

The Dart and Valiant ran forever, and they should never have been dropped. Instead they were replaced by cars that often started to come apart after only a year or two.

Aspen and Volare were introduced in 1975, but they should have been delayed a full six months. The company was hungry for cash, and this time Chrysler didn't honor the normal cycle of designing, testing, and building an automobile. The customers who bought Aspens and Volarés in 1975 were actually acting as Chrysler’s development engineers. When these cars first came out, they were still in the development phase. Looking back over the past twenty years or so, I can't think of any cars that caused more disappointment among customers than the Aspen and the Volare.

By the time the ’76 models began being recalled, most of the problems had been corrected and the ’78-80 models were greatly improved. But the bad rap had taken hold.

Sales fell 20% to a combined Volaré/Aspen 1978 total of 450,000, dropped to 350,000 in 1979 and fell to a low of 200,000 when the series bowed out in 1980 with Iacocca’s Ford Fairmont-style fenders.

The F-body’s spinoff, the M-body, carried on to earn a long and respectable, though rather pedantic, reputation. After long and successful service, especially to police departments and taxi fleets, it bowed out in 1988 as a Gran Fury, the last rear-drive Plymouth (until the Prowler, at least).


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