by Jim Benjaminson - part of the Illustrated Plymouth & DeSoto Buyer’s Guide
The editors at Motorbooks [publishers of this serialized book] asked if it would be possible to briefly chronicle what might be “future collectible” Plymouths for 1975 through 1996. For many people, this period produced nothing exciting, but a few vehicles could be future collectibles.
First is the Plymouth Trail Duster 4x4 sport utility, launched in 1974; like the original Plymouth commercial cars, the Trail Duster was a badge-engineered Dodge, in this case the Ramcharger. Sold with a completely convertible top or optional removable hardtop, the Trail Duster would be part of the lineup through 1981; they were 4x4-only in 1974, but rear wheel drive was added in 1975.
Starting in 1975, the full-size Plymouth was known as the Gran Fury, with the “ordinary” Fury name relegated to the midsize cars that had previously been called Satellite (and before that, Belvedere). 1975 would be the first year Plymouths were built using a catalytic converter system for emission control.
Plymouth Road Runner buyers were given the choice of five V8 engines, up to a maximum 235-horsepower, 400-cubic-inch V8, in cars that maintained Fury styling.
Duster models, with clever names such as Feather Duster (a lower-weight, economy-tuned slant six car), Silver Duster, and Gold Duster continued to find favor with buyers. For the performance enthusiast, there was the Duster 360, its name taken for the 360-cubic-inch V8 under its hood. Dusters continue to pull in higher resale values than the more formally styled four-door Plymouth Valiants on which they were closely based.
Plymouth debuted the Volare in 1976, earning Motor Trend’s “Car Of The Year” Award. Volares sold like hotcakes but recalls (Volare and its Dodge clone, the Aspen, set a record for the number of safety recalls, though this would soon be exceeded by the Ford Fairmont) and early rust problems soon found these same customers clamoring at Chrysler’s doors. The rust problem was so bad, Chrysler was forced under government mandate to recall the cars to replace front sheet metal.
1976 would see the Duster and full-size Fury phased out at the end of the year. The Road Runner, with a 318 V8 standard and 360 optional, was transferred to the Volare platform, which used a cross-mounted torsion-bar suspension.
All Chrysler products received lean burn electronic engine controls in 1977; throughout the mid-1970s, Chrysler worked on improving its reliability and serviceability, while cutting weight. The Feather Duster, fitted only with the 225 Slant Six, made use of more aluminum than normal, gaining an EPA gas mileage figure of 30 mpg highway — comparable to much smaller imported cars.
California Plymouth dealers, apparently with the blessing of the home office, began offering a special Volare model called the California Custom. Using the hood and front bumper from the Aspen, the California Custom featured a standard 318 V8. Custom touches included a tube bar grille, non-functioning lakes pipes running the length of the rocker panels, baby-moon hubcaps, and a special blind quarter window padded “Carson-type” top. Adding $1,892 to the Volare’s base price, it is unknown how many California Customs were built. The California Custom was continued into 1977 and possibly ’78 Volares.
While the European Chrysler Horizon had its own engine, made by the SIMCA division, it was not ready for United States emissions; so, in 1976, Chrysler had announced a deal with Volkswagen to purchase four-cylinder engine-transaxle assemblies for the American 1978 Plymouth Horizon. The Horizon was again cloned with a Dodge model called the Omni—both of which helped Chryslers CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) figures and launched the Corporation on its drive to strictly front-wheel-drive vehicles.
Boxy little five-door sedans (counting the rear opening hatch) powered by a 105-cubic-inch, 70 or 75-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the Horizon would be a mainstay for the next few years, and, thanks to continued popularity, would overstay the company’s plans. Motor Trend magazine would again award Chrysler “Car Of The Year” awards for the Horizon-Omni combination.
1978 was the last year of Plymouth full size cars, at least in its traditional markets, as it discontinued production of the Gran Fury and Fury lines. Losing these cars also meant the end of the road for the 440 V8.
Taking up the slack was the Volare, which now advertised a series of “Fun Runner” models including the Volare Super Coupe, Front Runner, and Sun Runner—the latter being a T-top roof option. Road Runners could be had with either a 165 or 175-horsepower 360 as its biggest power plant.
Chrysler Canada saw to it their customers had a wider choice of models to choose from, bringing out the Caravelle line—it would be several years before the Caravelle would make its appearance south of the border.
Rarely seen was the “Richard Petty Kit Car”—for those wishing to plunk down an extra thousand dollars or so, Plymouth offered a Volare coupe decked out like a short-track race car. Available in both Dodge and Plymouth versions, the Plymouth came in standard two-tone blue—dark-blue sides with light-blue hood and fender flares (the Dodge version was two-tone red). Standard equipment included a 318 V8 with choice of two or four-barrel carburetion, or a four-barrel 360 V8 and automatic transmission (Canadian kit cars could be had with manual transmissions).
Kit cars came with a huge door number decal (it was shipped in the trunk for dealer installation) bearing the number 43, which of course was the number on Richard Petty’s race cars, also painted blue. 360-equipped kit cars were shipped with hood decals denoting the larger power plant.
The Petty Kit Car was more than just looks, fitted with a heavy-duty suspension, factory-installed rear anti-sway bar, special 15 x 8-inch wheels with negative offset, mounting GR15 Aramid fiber radial tires; wheels were held in place with chrome lug nuts. Dress-up items included windshield “locks” and hood pins like real NASCAR race cars, front air dam, quarter window louvers, deck-lid spoiler, and wheel flares which helped keep the larger size tires inside the body work.
Sales of the kit cars were to be kept to 1,000 units; how many were actually built is unknown. While the Petty Kit Car was fully streetable, those with the urge to race and with an extra $10,000 in their pockets could order a real factory race car built on a tubular chassis actually built by Petty Enterprises—this car could be had in several versions from a bare chassis to rolling chassis, with or without sheet metal or as a complete race car.
If 1978 was not a banner year for Plymouth, there were events taking place in Dearborn that would have a profound effect on the industry. July 13, Henry Ford II, grandson of the founder and namesake to the Ford Motor Company, fired the president of Ford, a brash, cigar-smoking, tough-talking executive named Anthony Lido Iacocca. It was a move that startled not only Iacocca, but the entire industry, as Iacocca had taken credit for Ford’s wildly successful Mustang and highly profitable Lincoln Mark series luxury cars.
Iacocca, it seemed, had out-shone Henry Ford II, and that was something “the Duce” couldn’t handle. For Chrysler, it would be a god-send, as Iacocca walked in the door as president on November 2, 1978. Within months, he would become Chrysler’s CEO as Chairman John Riccardo stepped aside.
As 1979 dawned, things looked bleak for Chrysler. Iacocca took the reigns as the second OPEC oil embargo began, Chrysler’s market share had slipped to less than 10%, ledger books showed a $1.1 billion loss, and 27,000 employees had been laid off. One of his first acts would be to fire 33 of Chrysler’s 35 vice presidents.
From all appearances, it seemed the corporation was doomed. Iacocca had no choice but to seek aid from the United States Government. Appearing before Congress, Iacocca pleaded his case. It was a move unprecedented in the automobile industry and there were those who said Chrysler should be allowed to die—with or without dignity.
Had this been allowed to happen, America would have lost the tenth-largest Fortune 500 industrial corporation. Despite its financial woes, Chrysler was still bigger than U.S. Steel—bigger than International Telephone and bigger than RCA, Firestone, and 3-M combined. Going to the government for help was a bitter pill for Iacocca to swallow but it had to be done.
To secure the loan, Chrysler laid its cards on the table—in an industry where new models and product development is a top-secret priority, Chrysler unveiled its plans for a series of front-wheel-drive automobiles. There, for Congress and the competition to see, was an automobile carrying the engineering code letter K. It was a “shoot the works, carry all your eggs in one basket” proposition. This automobile would be one of two things—it would either be the Kar that Killed Krysler—or the Kar that saved Krysler.
The aid package finally approved amounted to some $3.5 billion—$1.5 billion of which was guaranteed by the U.S. government if Chrysler should fail to pay it back. The package also called for $475 million in wage concessions from the United Auto Workers and $125 million in concessions from Chrysler management. Among its requirements was another industry-setting precedent: placing a ranking member of the United Auto Workers on the Chrysler board. (This was standard practice in Germany, but rare in the United States.)
The controversial Chrysler Loan Guarantee Act of 1979 was signed into law by President Carter, who had refused to help the company under its prior management. President Carter essentially followed the precedent set by President Eisenhower in 1956 to rescue Studebaker-Packard. (A deal to merge Chrysler and Ford fell through in 1981).
Plymouth had just two cars lines for 1979—the sub-compact Horizon and tarnished-reputation Volare. Engine choices were pared to the Horizon four banger, the 225 Slant Six, and two V8s in familiar 318 and 360 displacements. By now, Plymouth had fallen to ninth place in industry sales—worse even than its eighth-place finish after the disastrous 1962 model year.
Until the K-car could get into production, Plymouth soldiered on with the Volare, which would be laid to rest at the end of the 1980 production run (though a revised version would be sold later, and was already in production as the Dodge Diplomat). A sporty version of the Horizon called the TC3 made its debut, and Plymouth gained a car between the old intermediate and full-size ranges, the 118.5-inch-wheelbase Gran Fury, a clone of the Dodge St. Regis / Chrysler Newport. The Gran Fury would prove to be most popular with police departments across the country, though not with retail customers.
1980 saw another staggering loss of $1.7 billion. Plymouth sales, which had remained around half a million units per year, began a precipitous slide in ’79, to slightly more than 372,000 units. For 1980 this sales declined to less than 291,000 units—only slightly better than the recession year of 1938!
Plymouth sales would continue to free fall until beginning a gradual upturn in ’84, but it would take over a decade for sales to surpass the half million plateau again.
1981 saw the debut of the much-written-about K series of cars. But could they pull the rabbit out of the hat for Chrysler? Proudly Iacocca climbed behind the wheel of the first car to drive it onto the stage—but the car wouldn’t start, its battery stone cold dead! Was it an ominous warning from some strange power? If nothing else, it was a black eye on Chrysler’s already sullied reputation.
The K car debuted as a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and “five”-door wagon, in three trim levels—base, Custom, or SE. The standard engine was a belt-driven, overhead cam, 2.2-liter, Chrysler-built four, with an optional 2.6-liter Mitsubishi-built four. Most cars were shipped with SE trim and loaded to the hilt with accessories, which gave the cars amazingly high sticker prices, a fact that kept buyers away in droves. Sales didn’t really take off until less expensive, stripped models began hitting showroom floors. As a move to further induce buyers, Chrysler resurrected its five-year, 50,000-mile warranty program.
Buyers of full-size Plymouths found their engine choices pared down to the old reliable 318 V8. Sales of full-size cars had fallen to less than 16,000 units; Horizons sold nearly 95,000 copies and Reliant Ks nearly 152,000 units.
Full-size Plymouths were downsized for ’82, the wheelbase being reduced from 118.5 inches to 112.7 inches as they moved from the “R” platform to the latest iteration of the “F/J/M” chassis formerly held by Volare. Sales of these cars increased by 3,000 units over 1981; sales of Horizons and Reliants dropped slightly, although the Horizon added a sporty model called the TC3.
Engine choices for the year included 2.2 and 2.6-liter four cylinders, the Slant Six, and 318 V8. Total Plymouth sales of 232,386 units was the lowest production figure the company had seen since 1932!
If ever there was a year for rejoicing at Chrysler, 1983 was it. Not only did Chrysler pay back its loan seven years early (Iacocca announced the payback on July 13—five years to the day since he had been fired at Ford— with a check for the staggering sum of $813,487,500), but it managed to post a profit at the same time.
As the end of the model run came to a close, so too came the end for Chrysler’s workhorse Slant Six. First introduced in 1960, the Slant Six had powered everything from full-size Plymouths to light-duty Dodge trucks and even motorhomes.
Reliant sales remained nearly level, while the Horizon saw a substantial gain, as did the Turismo, which was little more than a renamed TC3. Added to the sales lineup was a cute little car-based pickup featuring TC3 styling called the Scamp. A one-year-only model, the Scamp found only 2,129 buyers.
Full-size cars sales fell to 1981 levels—a good number of which were fleet vehicles sold to police departments. Plymouth had offered its first police package back in 1957 and now found itself (along with Dodge) supplying about 80% of the nation's police cars. Total production for ’83 came to just 8,500 units more than 1982, beginning what would be a long hard climb back to former levels. (Nearly all retail buyers of the full size cars went for the Chrysler version.)
The trends apparent in 1983 would continue into the 1980s — as Chrysler downsized and modernized, it also increasingly had to chase the Japanese, whose high fuel prices had led them to use technology and efficient packaging much earlier. But Chrysler had a huge surprise in store for 1984 which would pull the company through some hard times — and would make a brilliant investment which would pay off many times over.
This book is reprinted with the permission and cooperation of Jim Benjaminson, who holds the copyright to the text and to his photos. Also see his book Plymouth 1946-1959.
Plymouth Commercial Vehicles
Top Ten List and Club Directory
Plymouth 1946-1959: Introduction • Turbines • Diesels • Christine • Dream Cars • Print version1924-1945 • 1946-48 • 1949 • 1950 • 1951 • 1952 • 1953 • 1954 • 1955 • 1956 • 1957 • 1958 • 1959 DeSoto and Plymouth Buyers’ Guide: DeSoto 1929-39 • DeSoto 1940s • DeSoto 1950s • Exports
Plymouth 1928-29 • 1930-34 • 1935-39 • 1940s • 1950s • 1960s • 1970s • Valiant/Barracuda
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