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Car of the Month, September 2009: Chuck and Kim Eckharts’ 1979 Dodge Aspen R/T Survivor

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Car of the Month, September 2009:
Chuck and Kim Eckharts' 1979 Dodge Aspen R/T Survivor

by Gene Yetter

A "must see" every year at the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, All-Chrysler Nationals is an exhibit of current "survivor" vehicles, Mopars that are in 100% original condition - original paint, engine, interior, etc. - and still looking good. One such car last July (2009) was the black 1979 Dodge Aspen R/T in the accompanying pictures. Owned by Chuck and Kim Eckhart of Lehighton, PA., the car has been in Chuck's family since it was purchased brand new by his father when Chuck was 10 years old. For a brief period it was owned by a friend of the family. "But we bought it back," Chuck says, "and it's all original except for tune-ups, tires and exhaust." Chuck operates Liberty Auto Glass in Lehighton.

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Having researched production figures on the 1979 Aspen R/T, Chuck reported

Dodge made a total of 34,882 two-door Aspens that year: 872 had the R/T
package; 418 of the 34,882 total had T-tops; and, 384 of the 34,882 had the
E58 360 c.i. engine with 4-bbl carb. The R/T package could be had with any
engine including the Slant-6.

Having all three options -
T-tops, 360, 4-barrel - on one car is very rare. And my car has a
'tilt-wheel' steering column, which came standard with the deluxe wheel.
R/Ts usually got the 'Tuff Wheel.' We have never been able to track down
an exact number of cars produced with all those options, nor the number of cars still in existence.
The Mopar "F-body" Aspen and its sister Volaré cars in the Plymouth line were produced from 1976 through 1980. More than 17,000 Aspens with the R/T package were sold over the period, most in 1976-77 (about 14,665, as calculated from annual totals published in the Standard Catalog of Chrysler).

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Check out the "T-tops," the removable roof panels that turn the vehicle, you could say, into half a convertible! Patented in 1951, T-tops are a popular option from time to time. They have been offered on many models from GM, Ford, Toyota and Nissan. Chrysler offered them also on
the Cordoba and vintage Dodge Magnum as well as the Volaré. Installation of the T-tops was a contract service by Cars & Concepts, Inc., and can still be done to special order. At Carlisle, the car was parked very conveniently outside the Survivors' tent and right under the display identification imprint on the side of the tent.

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With less than 40,000 miles on the odometer, the clean condition of the Eckharts' vehicle made a statement in defense of Chrysler's Aspen and Volaré "F-body" cars. Despite Motor Trend magazine naming them collectively "Car of the Year" in their first production year, they never quite recovered from negative publicity over quality issues and recalls. When National Public Radio Car Talk jokesters Tom and Ray Magliozzi polled their listeners to name the "Ten Worst Cars of the Millennium," Aspens and Volarés were voted "7th Worst"!

[Not that I begrudge Tom and Ray the humor of a "Ten Worst" list, but my single collector Mopar vehicle is a very nice carmel tan (U3),
Super Six-powered 1977 Volaré Premier 2-door coupe with landau top. It
looks great, drives nice, is very reliable, and I'm proud of the compliments
it draws wherever I take it. - Gene Yetter]

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Chuck Eckhart says of his car, "The rear spoiler isn't lined up. There is hair in the paint - and runs! Everybody knows that in 1979 Chrysler was hurting. They thought they were going to go under, and the car is not put together particularly well." Chuck credits his father, a Sear's service technician, with always maintaining the car in top condition, and, to be fair, Chrysler went to some expense to correct issues. Tough critics admitted that F-body quality improved from year to year.

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In 1978, the Chrysler Corp. introduced in North America the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon front-wheel drive cars that foreshadowed a shift among all automotive manufacturers away from rear-wheel drive engineering characteristic of motor vehicle propulsion since the early 1900s. Chrysler was a shadow of the company that had grown very popular roughly between the mid Fifties through the early Seventies with its landmark Hemi V-8 engine and trend-setting body styles. Despite good domestic car sales for Ford and GM that year, Chrysler's market share was in decline. It had not responded well to external setbacks, like the fuel crunch of 1973 and new exhaust emission standards, that shook its competitive position.

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The Eckharts' car is powered by a 360 cubic inch engine with 4-barrel carburetor, the same top-of-the-line power option offered on the first Aspen R/Ts. Chuck says, "The car is rated at 195 h.p. It's got a 321 posi rearend and 3-speed TorqueFlite on the console. It's fun to drive, but it's not exactly fast." He says he has never measured gas mileage. [Editor's note: the EPA rated the Aspen 360-four barrel at 13 mpg combined city and highway; the slant six was rated at 18 mpg, 16 mpg in CA.]

The Aspen V-8 in 1979 came with Electronic Lean Burn emission control. The TorqueFlite has a lock-up torque converter for better fuel economy; Chuck said his didn't work very well. "This was one of the first cars to get the lock-up torque converter," Chuck said.

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Although the Chrysler Corp. was in a stew in the mid Seventies, it was not without hope as it tried to realign its product mix to keep up with the changing market. The compact, or mid-sized, F-body cars embodied a few innovations to move the company into the future. Some styling of the new models was a throwback to Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant and Duster, but they ran on a new platform. It featured crosswise torsion bars and anti-sway bar that isolated chassis from body shell. The system was claimed to benefit handling and passenger comfort - to give the cars a "big-car ride." In the beginning the car lived up to its racing heritage. In 1977, the 360 engine with a 2-barrel carburetor moved an Aspen as fast from 0 to 60 mph as the Camaro Z28 and Corvette L82, both with 4-barrel 350s, and the TransAm 400 4-speed. The Aspen would be moving faster than the GM cars at the end of a quarter mile ("faster through the traps").

Car (all with automatic trans)0-601/4 mile Top Speed*
1978 Volare Kit Car 360-47.3 sec15.9 @ 88111
1978 Aspen Super Coupe 360-48.1 sec16.7 @ 85108
1977 Aspen 360-2 HD8.6 sec17.4 @ 86.1115
1977 Camaro Z28 350-48.6 sec16.3 @ 83.0105
1977 Corvette L82 350-48.8 sec16.6 @ 82.0n/a
1977 Trans Am 400-49.3 sec16.9 @ 82.0110
1977 Volare 318-2 HD10.7 sec18.2 @ 74.4106

Aspen R/T options changed from year to year over the run. They included 318 or 360 cubic inch V-8, floor-mounted TorqueFlite, front disc brakes, heavy duty suspension, premium wheels, rear-deck spoiler, elaborate striping and graphics, etc. In 1979, the top speed showing on the speedometer became - by federal mandate - 85 mph, and the engine got an electronic portal to connect with a diagnostic engine analyzer.

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Chuck notes about the styling, "Original R/Ts came with two different bright kits. One could be gold with yellow stripes; or the other, silver with white stripes - like mine. The inserts in the wheels were actually painted gold or silver to match the stripes."

How does the car run? "It handles well," Chuck says. I don't drive it everyday. I have other Mopars, like my first car, a '66 Coronet. My father gave me the Aspen. We take it out on a nice day, or to a cruise. I would say there is more body flex because of the T-tops than what you'd get in a normal hardtop. I don't drive it hard, though my dad did when it was new."

Whether or not the F-bodies were an engineering success Volaré and Aspen were dropped as K-cars came to replace them.

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