Great Idea, Lousy Execution: The Story of the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare

The Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare have been MotorTrend‘s 1976 Automotive of the Yr—and no, we hadn’t misplaced our marbles. Trying into historical past’s rearview mirror, we all know these automobiles turned out to be anxious turd tubs. However again in late 1975, earlier than the Aspen and Volare collided with their self-made roadblocks, they appeared like relatively progressive automobiles. How might these automobiles be so proper—and but so incorrect?

Chrysler in Disaster

Whereas most individuals accurately affiliate the good 1970s downsizing of American automobiles with the 1973-74 vitality disaster, the origin of the F-bodies—initially code-named Aspen and Vail—dates again to 1971. American patrons have been already gravitating towards smaller automobiles, and Chrysler noticed a marketplace for a compact mannequin with the inside house and journey qualities of a bigger automobile. (Historical past would show the corporate’s notion appropriate, however solely in the long run.) Having been stung as soon as by downsizing—Chrysler shrank its massive automobiles in ’62 with disastrous gross sales outcomes—Chrysler scheduled an replace of its getting old full-size C-body to launch forward of the brand new compacts.

The timing was catastrophic, because the introduction of Chrysler’s massive new 1974 fuel guzzlers coincided nearly completely with the OPEC oil embargo. The corporate ought to have been properly positioned with its highly-regarded Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant compacts, in addition to the Mitsubishi-sourced Dodge Colt, however supplier tons have been overflowing with full-size automobiles nobody wished. Then the 1974-75 recession hit, and Chrysler took a pummeling.

Aspen and Volare to the Rescue!

With a lot going incorrect, the brand new compacts could not arrive quickly sufficient. On the finish of 1975—a disastrous yr during which Chrysler misplaced $260 million ($1.25 billion in 2021 {dollars}) and didn’t pay a dividend on widespread inventory for the primary time since 1933—the 1976 Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare lastly made their debut. It appeared Chrysler lastly had the precise automobile for the occasions, one which supplied mid-size house in a compact package deal. Reviewers, together with us, piled reward upon these sensible new compacts.

Whereas fashionable eyes have a tendency to treat any automobile with a leaf-sprung rear axle as primitive, the Fs confirmed indicators of sophistication. Chrysler’s entrance suspensions have been already differentiated by means of longitudinal torsion bars, which gave them notably higher dealing with (and a firmer journey) than coil-sprung opponents. For the F-body, Chrysler developed a novel new suspension that used transverse torsion bars positioned forward of the entrance axle, mounted to a Okay-member remoted from the unibody by rubber mounts. It was a compact setup that delivered nimble (for the time) dealing with and a luxurious journey.

The Aspen and Volare’s attraction went past its underpinnings. Customary working process in Detroit was to develop automobile interiors and exteriors individually; in one other correct prediction of the tradition, the F-body’s exterior form was decided by inside measurement calls for and aerodynamics. Chrysler developed coupe, sedan, and wagon variants with the two-door automobiles driving on a 4.0-inch-shorter wheelbase than the four-doors. The wagon was notably noteworthy, as Ford and GM had no station wagon in that measurement class, and AMC’s Hornet was a lot tighter on house. (GM and Ford would observe Chrysler into this phase with their downsized intermediate wagons of 1978.) The automobiles have been styled to keep away from alienating loyal Dart and Valiant house owners, retaining a final vestige of 1970s roundness relatively than giving over to the straight-line designs that may turn into an indicator of the early ’80s.

And what of the apparent badge engineering that led the Dodge and Plymouth variations to be practically similar? Whereas Normal Motors tried (with declining ranges of success) to distinguish comparable automobiles from totally different marques, Chrysler merely did not hassle. Chrysler’s dealership physique was more-or-less evenly divided into Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth shops, and to Chrysler’s mind-set, an Aspen was merely a Volare that you just purchased from a Dodge supplier.

First rate Efficiency From Previous {Hardware}

Powertrains included the venerable 225-cid (3.7-liter) Slant Six and 318 (5.2-liter) V-8. Chrysler supplied hot-rod variations, the Aspen R/T and Plymouth Highway Runner, which might be had with a 360 (5.6-liter) V-8. Emissions and a two-barrel carburetor (versus the standard performance-oriented four-barell) had choked the 360 to a mere 170 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, however there was nonetheless 280 lb-ft  of torque available. We examined an Aspen R/T coupe with a three-speed TorqueFlite computerized and a 3.21:1 rear finish, and it bought to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds and thru the quarter mile in 17.4, which have been fairly respectable numbers for the Malaise Period. By the slalom the Aspen R/T was fast and predictable, with journey high quality that was comfy sufficient to keep away from turning off Mr. and Mrs. America.

How did the Aspen and Volare find yourself as MotorTrend‘s Automotive of the Yr? Because the five-minute promotional movie under (please attempt to not snigger too onerous) exhibits, the competitors wasn’t precisely the strongest. Finalists included the Chevrolet Chevette, AMC Pacer, and Cadillac Seville (a rebodied Chevy Nova that may turn into a ’70s sensation). We thought Chrysler had the precise thought: The Aspen and Volare have been spacious regardless of tidy dimensions, and a rattling sight higher to drive than the outsized land yachts Detroit had foisted on the general public because the final time Chrysler had tried (unsuccessfully) to downsize its automobiles within the early 1960s.

The timing of the Aspen and Volare nonetheless wasn’t excellent; by 1976, American clients, with their quick recollections, began to float again to massive automobiles. Nonetheless, gross sales numbers have been large by Chrysler’s requirements. Consumers took house greater than 500,000 Aspens and Volares in 1976, bumping up Dodge and Plymouth gross sales by 14 p.c and 22 p.c, respectively—and this whereas being bought alongside the Dart and Valiant. In 1977, Chrysler bought practically 700,000. For each years, the F-bodies made up greater than half of every division’s gross sales.

After which it began to unravel.

Aspen and Volare: Construct-High quality Bombs

Lee Iacocca, in his autobiography Iacocca, speculated that the F-bodies wanted one other six months of improvement earlier than they have been prepared for the general public. Issues started to spring up instantly, some associated to defective design and others to unhealthy construct high quality. Security recollects included hoods that did not latch correctly, engines stalling on acceleration, seat belt tensioners failing to lock, fenders rusting with alacrity, suspension and brake elements affected by early fatigue, omitted muffler warmth shields, and leaky gasoline hoses. One notably harrowing defect resulted within the steering-wheel shaft turning into disconnected from the remainder of the steering system. The Aspen and Volare rapidly grew to become the most-recalled automobiles in historical past (a document that may quickly be stolen away by GM’s awful X-cars).

And these, thoughts you, have been simply the recollects. F-body house owners handled numerous different ignominies, together with (however under no circumstances restricted to) leaky trunks, damaged motor mounts, rapidly-wearing suspension elements, seizing brake calipers, and electrical issues in portions that may make an MG proprietor blanch. Even the apparently indestructible Slant Six proved fallible when put in between the F-body’s rust-prone fenders.

The Competitors Catches Up

In the meantime, Aspen and Volare confronted more and more powerful competitors.

GM launched its downsized massive automobiles in 1977. Chrysler’s massive automobiles have been dinosaurs, and there was no cash to interchange them, Chrysler having sunk its financial savings into the brand new front-drive Omni and Horizon. For ’78, GM downsized its intermediates to the Aspen’s and Volare’s measurement, whereas Ford launched the brand new Fox-based Fairmont. Whereas older Biggest Technology patrons nonetheless purchased American, younger patrons unwilling to place up with rampant high quality issues purchased increasingly more Japanese automobiles. 1978 was an excellent yr for brand spanking new automobile gross sales, however Chrysler gross sales have been down.

A second oil disaster hit in 1979, and whereas Chrysler’s new front-drive Omnirizons bought strongly, the corporate was sinking round them. Newly-installed CEO Iacocca went to Congress in search of mortgage ensures whereas the corporate rushed to develop a brand new technology of front-wheel-drive automobiles. The Aspen and Volare have been axed after simply 5 mannequin years, cleared out to make method for the Okay-cars which grasp pitchman Iacocca would flip into an American sensation.

The F-cars grew to become a logo for 1970s failures, not simply at Chrysler however these of the business as an entire. And maybe that is just a bit unfair. The F-body platform—which, for causes by no means made clear, was renamed M—spawned the Dodge Diplomat, Plymouth Gran Fury, and Chrysler Fifth Avenue, well-regarded automobiles that lasted till 1989 and have been the darlings of police fleets properly into the 1990s.

Ought to the Aspen and Volare Have Been Our Automotive(s) of the Yr?

Did the 1976 Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Valiant deserve the MotorTrend Automotive of the Yr title, or have been they simply too horrible? Properly, they actually have been horrible in execution, that is for positive. However the causes for the F-body’s victory have been sound. While you have a look at the automotive business’s evolution, you’ll be able to see Chrysler’s notion about what patrons would need—smaller automobiles with bigger interiors, nimble dealing with, and a cushty journey—was appropriate. Chrysler had the precise thought, but it surely misplaced it on implementation.

Moreover, think about what individuals would say if we gave the Automotive of the Yr award to the AMC Pacer.

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