1976 Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen - Introduction and Reviews
Volaré: "to fly." Bestowing that name on its newest car, 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.
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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 1974 model year dawned with all-new full size C-body Plymouths, Dodges and Chryslers and the long-overdue SUV Dodge Ramcharger and Plymouth Trail Duster. There was nothing wrong with these vehicles except that they happened to be introduced just as the infamous fuel crisis was about to rear its head. Suddenly, "nobody" wanted big fuel guzzlers. "Everybody" wanted fuel-sipping compacts. Plymouth sold a record number of Valiants, which was some good news. But Valiant’s smaller profit margin wasn't the news they really needed.
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. A replacement was needed and a year less than a decade was none too soon. 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 a practice initiated by Ford in 1971. Instead of coming out with a new Falcon, Ford introduced the Maverick. To maintain the illusion, the Falcon was allowed to hang around for a year (half of it as a stripped-down Torino) as Maverick’s stablemate. In like manner, the Maverick would be replaced by the Fairmont which in turn would be succeeded by the Taurus.
Since it worked for Ford, Chrysler picked up on the serial (disposable) naming practice, replacing the time-honored Valiant name with Volaré. At least a 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.)
Like the Falcon, Valiant, too, hung around a year with its replacement. In fact, since Volaré had a mid-year introduction, Valiant had the beginning of the year to itself. Some customers, knowing a replacement was on the way, 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. At least Valiant did not have to endure the ignominy of bowing out as a nameplate on a stripped-down Belvidere (oops, they were now calling it a Fury).
As Volaré’s V-name hinted at its continuity with Valiant, so did its overall appearance. Although the sheet metal was completely new, it bore enough of a family resemblance for buyers to know to whom it belonged.
Like the A-body Valiant and mid-sized B-body Fury, 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 as the divisions introduced their new B-bodied intermediates in 1971, has certain advantages, as explained by Patrick Bedard in the March 1976 Car and Driver.
In designing coupes, stylists prefer to move the rear window forward and at a sharper angle to give the car a close-coupled appearance. This, in turn, necessitates moving the rear seat forward to provide sufficient headroom which results in wasted space between the seat back and the rear axle. If the wheelbase is shortened and the axle is moved forward, this "wasted" space can be eliminated and the two-door car is given a more well-integrated appearance. It also becomes lighter and more maneuverable.
On a four-door car it is preferable that the rear wheels not intrude into the seat area. With the axle moved rearward, the rear backrest can be straight across. By going to two wheelbases, Plymouth avoided the compromised position of the Ford Granada, a direct competitor to the Volaré Premier line. Since the Granada coupe and sedan shared the same wheelbase, its sedan’s backrest had to be curved in at the ends, creating a sort of three-person bucket seat.
Similar space-tuning was utilized in designing the Volaré wagon. Plymouth’s first compact wagon since the 1966 Valiant, the Volaré station wagon had a sales niche all its own between the sub-compact Vega and Pinto on one side and the big intermediate and huge full-size wagons on the other. (The AMC Hornet Sportabout was considered more of a sport wagon.) By placing the spare under the floor and managing to keep wheel well intrusion into the cargo area to a minimum, Plymouth could claim that the Volaré had only 17% less usable space than their intermediate Fury Suburban and 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 of the Fifties and Sixties was definitely over. With its Colonnade coupes and sedans of 1973, General Motors made pillared coupes and sedans a styling de rigeur. Rumor was that rollover standards required a fixed B-pillar; the same rollover standards that reputedly killed the convertible. But then the convertible would return within six years with no compromise of such standards. Others thought the mandated shoulder belts and head restraints obstructed the open-air hardtop appearance. But 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 something called “hardtop effect.” Buyers were also demanding a quieter ride, which the enhanced body rigidity of the fixed B-pillars provided. Then there were the opera windows which were catching the public’s fancy, making the whole hardtop question moot.
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 Granada, Ford’s luxury compact. 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,” according to sales literature.
The Premier sedan featured 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 offered 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 this an attractive offering 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.
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.
No four-barrel carburetors were available for 1976. The hottest engine was a two-barrel 360 pumping out 180 net horsepower and, 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.
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 traditional 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.
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).
- The main Aspen-Volare page
- How the Volare and Aspen were named
- Volare, Aspen, Super Coupe, and Roadrunner specs, production figures, engines, and other details
- Aspen and Volare stories
- Racing Aspens and Volares
- The A-Bodies (Valiant and Friends)
- The Aspen/Volare message board.
- M bodies (Diplomat, Gran Fury, etc.)
- Volare Duster: Car of the Month, March 2013