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Plymouth cars, trucks, and minivans, 1984-2001

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Plymouth cars, trucks, and minivans, 1984-2001

by Jim Benjaminson - part of the Illustrated Plymouth & DeSoto Buyer's Guide

If the K car had saved Chrysler, the minivan that brought it back to life. An idea that had already died on the drawing boards at Ford and Chrysler alike, the minivan was an automobile in search of a market; how much of a market was in search of a minivan surprised even Chrysler.

Once again, Plymouth would share with Dodge; Plymouth's was called Voyager, Dodge's was Caravan. Powered by the 2.2-liter Chrysler-built four or optional 2.6-liter Mitsubishi four, and very closely based on the Reliant, the vans could seat seven comfortably, offered tons of cargo carrying space, and could easily fit into any garage stall in America.

Plymouth's version sold more than 64,000 units (Dodge building about 3,000 more for the year). Bolstered by level sales of the Reliant K, an upsurge in Horizon and Turismo production (full-size Plymouths remained static at the 15,000 car level), Plymouth was shy by 176 units of breaking the 400,000 mark for the model run-still below sales levels set back in 1936.

Sales increased slightly for 1985, helped by the addition of the front wheel drive Caravelle in the United States. Sales declined slightly for 1986, slowly climbing to the magic half-million mark in 1989.

1987 saw Chrysler purchase American Motors which netted the company the Jeep and Eagle brands, as well as a new assembly plant in Bramalea, Ontario. The bargain-priced Horizon "America" arrived on the scene (subtly hinting to consumers should buy American) in '87 as did the Sundance; the last Caravelle and Reliant station wagons came off the line in '88. The Reliant wagon was survived by Reliant sedans for one more year; the larger Acclaim arrived in 1989, which also marked the demise of the last Gran Furys and with it Chrysler's dominance of the police-car market.

The 1990s

If there is to be a bonafide early-90s Plymouth collectible, it would (sadly) be the Plymouth Laser. Built by a joint venture with Mitsubishi called Diamond Star Motors, the Laser was a clone to the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Eagle Talon, and was almost entirely created by Mitsubishi. Puzzling is the fact Lasers received mediocre reviews while the Eclipse and Talon received rave reviews-all three were identical with the exception of some sheet metal, options, and nameplates!

[Editor's note: After this was written, the Plymouth Sundance-based Duster gained some minor value, though it is still not "collectible." This was essentially just a high-end Sundance; early years used a turbocharged engine, and later years used a Mitsubishi V6. Both could be "deleted" for buyer credit, but the vast majority of Dusters were well-equipped and well-powered.]

1990 marked the final year for the Horizon. 1991 saw the arrival of the four-wheel-drive minivan and, at the steps of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, arrival of an 1984 minivan for permanent display, recognizing the importance of the minivan concept to the automobile industry.

Lee Iacocca stepped down in 1992-but not altogether voluntarily. By 1995 he and investor Kirk Kerkorian were attempting an ill-fated takeover of Chrysler.

In 1993, shortly after the launch of the Dodge Viper and a new set of large cars (none for Plymouth) were launched, the Neon was unveiled. It was a revolutionary small car, the first American small car in many years to make a profit (and be sold with no incentives); the base engine was a 132 horsepower four-cylinder with 129 lb-ft of torque, at a time when most compacts started at under 100 horsepower and the top-end Honda Civic EX had just 125 horsepower and 100 lb-ft of torque. In SCCA stock car racing, Neons proved far superior to all imports - Hondas, Toyotas, and Volkswagens all fell to the humble American cars.

While Dodge, Neon, and (Canadian/export) Chrysler Neons were virtually identical, the car gained many fans from the start, with acceleration and handling that beat most or all peers, along with a relatively roomy and comfortable interior. Today, Neons are proving somewhat collectible, if their presence at car shows is any indication; well-preserved stock Neons are rare, and while prices are still relatively low, they are also hard to find and sell quickly. The main problem with the car appears to be the few that have survived, particularly with the more-desirable manual transmission.

Plymouth had seen its ups and downs but now talk was rampant that Plymouth would go the way of DeSoto. Like DeSoto, the marque lacked its own identity. Truly, it seems that Plymouth lost its mentor when Walter P. Chrysler died in 1940. Having floundered since the late '50s, it would have been easy to simply let the name die.

Steve Torok, Chrysler-Plymouth general manager, announced formation of the Plymouth Renaissance team in 1994 to prevent that from happening. "In the past, we would have kicked this problem to the ad agency and said 'Give us a new campaign,' but we are looking at Plymouth's foundation," Torok stated. "The team is modeled after those that planned the LH cars. The image they will seek to create for Plymouth is that of an inexpensive, no-frills but well-equipped car targeted for the 'young families and singles entering their 30s' market. The new Neon and Voyager vans are part of the plans."

"Dragging Plymouth out of moth balls means a major monetary commitment from Chrysler-and some of the savviest marketing in Detroit," Fara Warner of Brandweek magazine stated. Steve Goodall of J. D. Power called it "the classic marketing problem (salvaging a dying brand)-Oldsmobile and a few others come to mind." The problem, according to Torok, is "to some people, especially those under 35, Plymouth means absolutely nothing." It was in full swing as this is written in April of 1996.

Test markets of "Plymouth Place," a computer kiosk located in shopping malls initially in Portland, Oregon, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, enabled prospective buyers to print out information about new Plymouth products without salesmen looking over their shoulders. A multi-media ad campaign prominently featured the new Mayflower sailing ship emblem along with the slogan "Plymouth, One Clever Idea After Another."

When Chrysler's LH line of "cab-forward" cars was introduced in '93, as the Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, and Eagle Vision, Plymouth was absent. Still there was a glimmer of hope in the most unlikely of places-a neo '30s hot-rod concept car called the Plymouth Prowler. Designed by Chrysler Vice President of Styling Tom Gale, the Prowler utilized modern technology throughout, including the body. Powered by a V6 intended for front-wheel drive, the Prowler reversed everything to drive through the rear wheels. Shown across the country (there were originally two prototypes, a drivable machine and a static model for photography), customers began to line up asking, "When can I take delivery?"

Concept cars had been shown by Chrysler before-for more than 45 years, the Corporation had teased the public with these vehicles, but each time the cars failed to see production. That would change with the Dodge Viper RT/10 sportster. First shown in prototype form in 1989, the Viper, with its snarling ten-cylinder, 488-cubic-inch motor, began production in '92. But it was a Dodge.

The Neon, Breeze, and the Prowler

The Neon replaced the Sundance; it was again shared with Dodge. This time there were absolutely no differences between the two cars with the exception of the badges. Powered by a 2-liter 132-horsepower four cylinder, the 1995-99 Neon was sold as a four-door sedan "with coupe styling" and a two-door coupe.

1995 would see the demise of the Plymouth Laser and the popular Acclaim. For 1996 came a redesigned, sleeker looking minivan and the Breeze, an afterthought-car shared with the Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus, resurrecting the Plymouth Mayflower sailing ship used from 1928 through 1959.

For 1997, the first production Prowler hit the street. Sharing assembly lines with the Dodge Viper RT/10, the Prowler featured a "purpose-modified" 3.5-liter, 24-valve, single-overhead-cam V6 with dual throttle body fuel induction mated to a rear-wheel drive four speed, fully adaptive, electronically controlled "Autostick" transaxle.

Weighing around 2,800 pounds, the 113-inch-wheelbase car came standard with dual air bags, air conditioning, ventilated disc brakes, manual cloth top (black only), remote deck-lid release, rear window electric defroster, time delay electric door locks, side impact protection, 12-gallon fuel tank, dual power outside rear view mirrors, AM/FM cassette radio with seven speakers, remote keyless entry system with theft alarm, leather seats, cruise control, power windows with locks, intermittent windshield wipers, and tilt steering column.

Interior space was the same as a Corvette roadster (and ten cubic feet more than a Viper). The Prowler rode on extended mobility (run flat) P225/45R17 tires on the front, P295/40R20 on the rear-with low-pressure sensor system and gauge-cluster warning lamp! Optional was a two-wheel trailer, designed in the same shape as the Prowler body, for extra carrying capacity.

How could a $35,000, two-seat, 1930s-styled automobile save a brand name? It's the classic idea revived from the past, when dealers parked a shiny new convertible in the showroom window-it draws in potential customers. Chances are the family man who stopped to looked at that new Belvedere convertible back in 1956 drove out the door with a plain Jane four-door sedan-but it was the convertible that brought him into the showroom in the first place. It would appear the Prowler will do the same thing. Already customers were lining up for a crack at buying a Prowler.

The Plymouth Prowler was, according to insiders, meant to be the first of many special cars with the same theme; the next one was the Plymouth PT Cruiser, but when the end of Plymouth became clear, insiders renamed it to become a Chrysler, though it was fairly obviously not designed to be one. Chris Theodore told Allpar:

Well, the whole idea was Prowler was supposed to be the spark to rekindle interest in the Plymouth brand, and the PT Cruiser was then to follow on as a Plymouth. It was not to be a Chrysler.

Then we were going to do a whole line of unique Plymouths. In fact, there was a committee that was formed and the whole idea of Plymouth was to become - how do we save the brand was to become the "Peter Pan" brand. It was going to be the youthful brand, kind of what became a latter-day Scion is now - it was supposed to attract the youth, and always just stay as a car for youth. Never grow up, if you will.

Land vehicle Vehicle Car Chrysler pt cruiser Motor vehicle
The decision to end Plymouth appears to have been finalized in 1999 or 2000; there was still a run of redesigned 2000 Plymouth Neons. The last Plymouth ever made, indeed, was a new 2001 Neon - an appropriate choice, really; still a high-value car in the heart of the market. A minivan or Prowler would not have felt quite as right.

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.




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