Tag Archives: Chrysler

Exiting the Chrysler Expressway

It's the long goodbye for the Dodge Dart as the model heads into the sunset.

It’s the long goodbye for the Dodge Dart as the model heads off into the sunset. (Image: FCA US LLC)

Just as General Motors is looking for a midsize sedan turnaround with its new Chevy Malibu, Fiat-Chrysler is looking to take its sole midsizer behind the barn.

FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne created waves last week when he announced the slow-selling Dodge Dart compact and Chrysler 200 midsize would have their futures cut short, as the company pursues a new truck-intensive sales strategy.

Apparently, the RAM and Jeep divisions are working overtime to get SUVs and trucks to a hungry public, while the Chrysler and Dodge divisions aren’t seeing anywhere near that demand. Pulling the plug on these two models will open up assembly line capacity that can be dedicated to more popular vehicles.

The curtains will close on the Chrysler 200 as parent FCA focuses on the Jeep and RAM brands.

The curtains will close on the Chrysler 200 as parent FCA focuses on the Jeep and RAM brands. (Image: FCA US LLC)

It seems the pragmatic thing for a company to do. I mean, buyers are increasingly choosing crossovers and SUVs over sedans, and you gotta go where the money is, but I can’t help but think…. huh?

The great, expansive (former) Chrysler Corporation – the creator of the (original) Dart, Valiant, Reliant, Aries and Neon – won’t have a compact car anywhere in its lineup? Or even a midsize?

The bottom end of Chrysler’s lineup has thinned in the past, but not to this degree.

After the death of the Dodge/Chrysler Neon (Dodge SX 2.0 in Canada) in 2005, the company’s compact shelf was left bare until the Fiat-based Dart appeared in 2013. The small and forgettable 5-door Dodge Caliber wagon/crossover entered the scene in 2007, so this gap could theoretically be narrowed to a single model year.

Following the end of the Dodge Stratus in 2006, the brand went the next two years without a midsize car before the Avenger name was resurrected in 2008. During that time, however, the midsize Chrysler Sebring was also being sold, along with the compact PT Cruiser retro wagon.

Weren’t the mid-to-late 2000s great?!

When the Dart and 200 stop rolling off the line, the only true passenger cars made by Chrysler will be the venerable 300, Charger and Challenger.

The compact and midsize slots might be filled again - if someone else builds 'em, (Image: FCA US LLC)

The compact and midsize slots might be filled again – if someone else builds ’em. (Image: FCA US LLC)

It’s hard to compete in the compact and midsize sedan categories, but GM and Ford manage reasonably well with models like the Cruze and Fushion. Sure, the Dart and 200 set few hearts on fire, but is the answer to pull out of the market altogether? Does anyone really expect gas prices to stay low forever?

According to the Detroit Free Press, the vanishing act might not be permanent – assuming FCA can line up a deal to have another automaker provide the vehicles. Yup, we could eventually see rebadged models filling in those gaps, not unlike the Mitsubishi-based Dodge Colt of the 1970s and 80s, or more recently, the Mazda 2-based Scion iM/Toyota Yaris.

The current Dart doesn’t hide its Fiat architecture very well, so it already feels like a rebadged import, albeit one that’s all in the family. If it returns with a different parent, things could get interesting. I never expected Mazda and Toyota to pair up for a swap job, so who knows what partner FCA might bring to the dance.

The big positive I’ve failed to mention is that we get a Jeep Wrangler pickup out of FCA’s new plan. I’ve been drooling over the possibility ever since the concept was shown a few years back, and now it’s a go.

Not only will the Wrangler get a pickup, but along with it will come a host of new drivetrains – diesel and hybrid included. A range-topping Grand Wagoneer is also part of the short-term plan.

Clearly it’s a great time to be Jeep. Not so much Chrysler or Dodge.




The Greatest Generation… of vehicles

Canada marked the 70th anniversary of VE Day last week, and here in the capital the streets quickly filled up with vintage military rolling stock. Here’s a taste of what showed up for the celebration:

World War 2 era GMC CCKW-353 (aka 'Deuce-and-a-half')

World War 2 era GMC CCKW-353 (aka ‘Deuce-and-a-half’)

GMC CCKW-353 2.5 tonne

Tanks and aircraft get the lion’s share of the limelight when it comes to warfare, but troops couldn’t advance en masse without a convoy of study, rugged trucks.

In the European theatre of WW2, that truck was (more often not) the three-axle, 6×6 GMC CCKW-353, affectionately known as the Deuce-and-a-half due to its 2.5 tonne payload rating.

A few hundred thousand of these came in handy in the mid-1940s.

A few hundred thousand of these came in handy in the mid-1940s.

Powered by a smooth and reliable 270 c.i.d. inline six (making 91 hp and 216 lb-ft), this GMC saw the U.S. and Canada through WW2 and Korea.

Given the massive numbers of Allied troops pouring into Europe in the wake of D-Day, huge numbers of transports were required.

Between GM and GM of Canada, 800,000 examples were cranked out in every possible configuration.

The GMC provided a stable platform for carrying and towing, and besides its most common role as a troop carrier, saw use as a water and fuel tanker, surgical van, and mobile anti-aircraft gun installation.

Though replaced in official service in the early 1950s, CCKW-353s were a common sight on military bases well into the 1960s.

Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen ('floating car')

Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen (‘floating car’)

Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen

Count on the crafty Germans to come up with something as innovative as this.

After the Axis power decided that expansionism was the way to go, the German armed forces found themselves needing more than just tanks, trucks, and staff cars to get around. After all, there’s a lot of narrow roads and water in Holland.

"Faster? But Sir, we're already doing 5 knots!"

“Faster? But Sir, we’re already doing 5 knots!”

Enter the lowly People’s Car, which offered up its underpinnings and drivetrain for the VW Type 166 Schwimmwagen, a light, agile car that could double as a motorboat (thanks to a watertight body and a propeller mounted on a driveshaft extension).

And so, the most mass-produced amphibious car in history was born out of wartime necessity. Powered by a 1.1-litre flat four, a total of 14,265 of the bathtub-like vehicles rolled, then swam, off the assembly lines.

Yes, that paddle is there for a reason. The Schwimmwagen could make steady (but slow) forward progress in the water, but backing up required  basic canoe training. If lost, the shovel would suffice for maneuvering the tiny ship.

On dry land, a four-speed transmission and two-speed transfer case (with 4WD in 1st) helped the Schwimmwagen navigate roadways and mixed terrain.

While it provided next to no protection to occupants and was puny compared to other road-going machines of the era, a passenger-side 8-millimetre machine gun helped sooth the driver’s ego.

1941-45 Willys MB, aka 'Jeep'

1941-45 Ford GPW, aka ‘Jeep’ (note: nine grille slots, instead of seven for the Willys)

Jeep (Willys MB and Ford GPW)

We can all thank Hitler for unwittingly introducing the world to the Jeep – an iconic vehicle whose lineage continues to this day in the Wrangler.

With entry into WW2 seeming like a sure thing, the U.S. Army appealed to the auto industry for designs of a small, durable four-wheel-drive scout or reconnaissance car of light weight and adequate power.

A startan interior was just what the Army ordered. Not custom sheepskin shift boots on this restored example.

A startan interior was just what the Army ordered. Not custom sheepskin shift boots on this restored example.

Tiny, failing car company American Bantam submitted blueprints five days later, which impressed the military so much that they sent the designs to Ford and Willys-Overland for refinement, and ultimately production.

Powered by a Willys-sourced ‘Go Devil’ 2.2-litre four cylinder making 60 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque, the vehicle went into extensive production starting in 1945.

Because production was split between two companies, Willys designated their model the MB, while Ford called theirs the GPW. The only tell-tale difference between the two was the nine-slot grille on the Ford, versus the quintessential seven-slot grille on the Willys.

The Willys 'Go Devil' engine was chosen for the Jeep due to its small size and robust power.

The Willys ‘Go Devil’ engine was chosen for the Jeep due to its small size and robust power.

In all, Willys assembled over 359,000 of the do-anything runabouts before the end of the war, while Ford produced over 277,000.

Nowhere in official documents was the word ‘Jeep’ mentioned. There’s much speculation about how the car – and eventually the company – came to adopt the name; most of it centres around slang used by servicemen and a high-profile 1941 media event in Washington, DC.

Whatever the origin, the word ‘jeep’ became synonymous with small, rugged 4×4, sparking a worldwide movement that led to the creation of the Land Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser.

After the war, the popular civilian Jeep (CJ) found itself on quite a wild ownership ride, changing hands several times.

This 1947 Willys, found on a farm in the Yukon, was painstakingly restored to 1944 specs (including the installation of a WW2 Ford grille).

This 1947 Willys, found on a farm in the Yukon, was painstakingly restored to 1944 specs (including the installation of a WW2 Ford grille).

After Willys-Overland, the CJ was built by Kaiser-Jeep from 1953 onwards, followed by a long stint at American Motors Corporation (AMC), before being purchased by Chrysler Corporation in 1987.

The ride didn’t stop there, as Chrysler then embarked on its own ownership roller-coaster. From DaimlerChrysler AG, though the dismal Chrysler Group LLC years (which was followed by bankruptcy) and eventually to its current home in Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the Jeep division clearly has nine lives, and many new dads.

The fact that the division has remained in such demand over the decades – and created such a lifestyle around its products – should make the original designers of the Jeep proud.

Suddenly, it’s 1961!

A couple of recent bold car designs have been bothering me as of late, leaving me with a loose feeling of styling déjà vu.

The first design is the corporate SUPER GRILLE(!) of contemporary Lexus vehicles, what with its gaping proportions and pinched middle. The treatment was recently applied to the stalwart ES 350, giving the otherwise conservative sedan a dash of visual presence.

The other design is the new Nissan Murano, with its ultra-curvy flanks and unusually angled rear end architecture.

Where, oh where, had I seen these elements before?

Oh, yeah – in Chrysler Corporation’s awkward, identity-confused 1961 models. That year saw the company break free of the high-finned look that, while fresh and exciting when introduced in 1957, had become dated by 1960.

The Lexus grille brings to mind the jarring front of the 1961 Plymouth – a design that lasted one year and was compared to the face of an insect by some critics.

The Lexus ES 350, now with new grille (Image: Toyota Motor Corporation)

The Lexus ES 350, now with new grille (Image: Toyota Motor Corporation)

1961 Plymouth: a face not for forgetting.

1961 Plymouth: a face not for forgetting.

There’s much to look at in the Murano, but its rear haunches are strongly reminiscent of the 1961 Dodge and its odd, ‘reverse tailfin’ design.

Those concave body flares turned off buyers and even presented a safety risk to other motorists, thanks to the undersized, hard-to-spot taillights placed below them.

1961 Dodge Dart Seneca: a new (fin) direction (Image via)

1961 Dodge Dart Seneca: a new (fin) direction. (Image via)

2015 Nissan Murano (Image: Nissan Motor Company)

2015 Nissan Murano (Image: Nissan Motor Company)

Like the Plymouth, the design of the ’61 Dodge didn’t live to see another calendar year. It was an awkward time for the Big Three automakers,  each of whom was struggling to break free of the design direction of the past to bring to market a fresh, modern design for a new decade.

Some things don’t really change in business, and getting noticed is still paramount for automakers. It’s not surprising that some elements of the past have been resurrected, albeit unknowingly – after all, there’s only so many ways to bend sheet metal.


After the gold rush

With dropping oil prices and an economy on the upswing, why not buy that new Mustang? (Image: Ford Motor Company)

With dropping oil prices and an economy on the upswing, why not buy that new Mustang? (Image: Ford Motor Company)

End-of-year sales figures are in, and it seems the people who didn’t buy a new car this year could all fit on a short-wheelbase bus.

2014 turned out to be a boffo year for the automotive industry, and for American manufacturers, too – automakers who just a half-decade ago were questioning whether they’d survive to see the 2010’s.

In Canada, overall sales were up 6% over last year’s totals, and rose an astonishing 16% in December. In the United States, sales also rose 6% in 2014, and 11% in the month of December.

In Canada, the top three companies turned out to be the Big Three, with Ford Motor Company on top with 15.8% of the market, while Fiat-Chrysler took 15.7% and General Motors snagging 13.5%.

In the U.S. of A, GM was on top of the corporate sales ladder with 17.8% of the year’s market share, followed by Ford (14.9%) and Toyota Motor Corporation (14.4%).

Buick made impressive sales gains in Canada in 2014, selling 31% more than the year before (Image: General Motors)

Buick made impressive sales gains in Canada in 2014, selling 31% more than the year before (Image: General Motors)

In terms of brands, Canadians were most partial to Ford, which saw sales rise by 39.5% for December (compared to Dec. ’13) and 2.7% for the year. Honda and Toyota took 2nd and 3rd place, with Chevrolet and RAM rounding out the top five.

South of the border, Americans also found themselves drawn to Ford the most (thought the annual tally dipped by 1.1% over last year), followed by Chevrolet, Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

Other automakers also had strong showings this December compared to last. Buick saw Canadian sales rose 64.9%, finishing the year 31% higher than 2013. Chrysler sales shot up 86.9% in the Christmas month, though overall sales were down slightly (2.9%) for the year.

Even the Lincoln brand, which seemed (until recently) to be as endangered as GM and Chrysler were in 2008, saw positive sales gains. In Canada, the luxury brand saw a 61.4% boost in December, finishing the year 17.3% higher than last. In the U.S., Lincoln saw December sales rise 21.4% over 2013, with an annual total 15.6% higher.

Interest is being rekindled in that storied brand, it would seem.

Scion sales slid sharply in 2014 in both American and Canadian markets (Image: Toyota Motor Corporation)

Scion sales slid sharply in 2014 in both American and Canadian markets (Image: Toyota Motor Corporation)

In a game with winners and losers, there always has to be a downside – even with buyers running to dealerships en masse, cash in hand. This past month – and this past year – the loser was Scion, the Toyota offshoot that appears to be headed the same direction as the Lusitania.

With December sales down 30.7% in Canada and 11.7% in the U.S., drastic action will be needed to reverse this trend and keep the brand afloat. The annual sales loss for Scion works out to a drop of 20.4% in Canada and 15.1% in the U.S.


A sporty, 5-door hatch scheduled to be released in 2015 might change things, but I’d say more models are needed to bring the brand back to visibility.

Crystal ball types are predicting that it will be difficult for the industry to maintain this level of sales next year, which isn’t all that surprising. At some point, the amount of new cars already bought, and the amount of people who can’t afford them, will conspire to reach a sales plateau.

My not-too-brilliant prediction: with oil prices plunging, expect growth in the truck and SUV categories this coming year.





Big and topless

1968 Dodge Monaco 500 convertible, spotted in Ottawa, Ontario.

1968 Dodge Monaco 500 convertible, spotted in Ottawa, Ontario.

I’ve said it for years – there’s something about Chrysler products from the late ’60s/early ’70s that make them seen invincible.

It just feels that regardless of what damage they could sustain – even a frame bent 90 degrees – the menacing Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodges would just get mad… and then get even.

Too many car chase movies in my youth, I guess.

The example of Mopar muscle seen here – a slightly battered 1968 Dodge Monaco 500 droptop – was once the pinnacle of luxury motoring for the Dodge division. Not just any Monaco, the massive, top-level 500 was two tonnes of compliant driving enjoyment.

Luxury conveniences were plentiful, while the power any driver of a menacing Hippie-era Dodge needed was instantly on tap. A 383-cubic inch V-8 making 330 horsepower was mated to a bulletproof 3-speed Torqueflight automatic with console shifter.

The Monaco and Monaco 500 coupes, sedans and convertibles were all based on the forgettable Dodge Custom 880 (the division’s hastily-prepared full-size offering), which ran from 1962 to 1965. The Monaco replaced the 880 in the U.S. market in 1966, and in Canada in 1967.

While the American Monaco had a 383 as the standard engine, the thrifty Canadian marketplace demanded that it also come with the 318, as well as the 225 Slant-6.

Doing what a '74 Monaco always seemed to do best (image: www.imcdb.org)

Doing what a ’74 Monaco always seemed to do best… (image: www.imcdb.org)

Looking at the bruised-but-still-kicking convertible pictured above, some of the menace fades from its visage when you imagine a Valiant-worthy Slant 6 under its hood.

While the Monaco soldiered on well into the Malaise Era (earning it lasting fame as The Blues Brothers’ car), the 500 option was scrapped after 1971. After splitting the nameplate into ‘Monaco’ (formerly, the Coronet) and full-size ‘Royal Monaco’ in 1977, a bankruptcy-bound Chrysler Corporation was forced to kill off both the following year.

Serving as the ubiquitous cop car in countless 1970s films and TV shows, the stodgy-but-tough Monaco saw its media presence last well into the ’80s, thanks to its durability and cheap resale value. Look to any episode of The Dukes of Hazzard for proof of this.




“I am not a number!”

Patrick McGoohan, in The Prisoner (1967-68).

Patrick McGoohan, in The Prisoner (1967-68).

Every now and then, a group of us gets to talking about car commercials, and I get yet another chance to mention my favourite vehicle ad of all time.

No, not Lee Iacocca’s “If you can find a better car, buy it” Chrysler commercial from 1982 (though that is a classic, and pure marketing genious). I’m talking print ads.

TV commercials can be entertaining, but print ads can be everything their motion picture brethren are, too – visually arresting, thought provoking, emotionally stimulating – everything that a good commercial needs to sell you a product you don’t really need (but really, really want).

Long ago, at the dawn of the 21st century, I wrote a paper for a university advertising course I had enrolled in as a fun elective. We had just finished studying the eras of modern advertising – examining print ads from the Victorian era to the 1990s and learning the key themes that dominated each era.

I choose to focus my paper on – what else? – the world of automotive advertising, something that had always fascinated me.

Though it embraced counter-culture identity, Chrysler's hippie-era ads still equate belonging to a group with happiness, satisfaction and status.

Though it embraced counter-culture identity, Chrysler’s hippie-era ads still equate belonging to a group with happiness, satisfaction and status.

Focusing on the latter half of the 20th century, I worked through the counter-culture era (a period exploited by the Chrysler division, with its ‘Dodge Material’ and ‘Scat Pack’ ads), before moving on to the ‘Value Era’ of oil crisis/recession-plagued America in the mid ’70s to early ’80s (“$17 less than Caprice!”).

Rather than focusing on lifestyles, the Value Era emphasized respect for pocketbooks and bank accounts. Clearly, not the sexy, titillating stuff that had proceeded it.

A very annoying era followed these, one that seemed to define the 1990s. If you wanted to sell a car, dishwasher, or anything else in the ’90s, you had to make the buyer aware that they’d be joining a community.

Yes, the buyer would now be part of a quasi-commune populated by like-minded, like-interested people. “You’re really not alone when you buy this product, see? There are others like you.”

Depending on your world view, it was either a comforting, cosy sentiment, or an individual-destroying collectivist nightmare. And no car company adopted this strategy more than plastic-clad GM division Saturn.

Describing itself as “A different kind of company” (um, what?), Saturn’s commercials were festooned with members of the Saturn-buying community. Their print ads were part classic sales pitch, part family reunion newsletter.

A memorable 1996 episode of the sitcom Ellen poked fun at the Saturn ad campaign, depicting the title character’s friend purchasing a new ‘Rapture’, only to find herself an unwilling member of a creepy cult-like collective. After overbearing, stalker-like requests to join baseball teams and attend picnics, Ellen is forced to ‘rescue’ her friend, eventually breaking her lease agreement by holding a Rapture sedan hostage with a cigarette lighter.

"It's okay - you can embrace your individuality now." (image: Jaguar)

“It’s okay – you can embrace your individuality now.” (image: Jaguar)

I wrote my term paper towards the end of this cloying era, or maybe at the very beginning of a new one. At the time, one memorable ad stood out – one that spoke to me personally while shattering the message spread by the likes of Saturn.

The ad, which appeared around 1999 (give or take a year) was for the Jaguar XK8 convertible – a beautiful car whether coupe or drop top. Pictured in the ad was a man driving solo (and fast) down a twisty, shade-dappled highway, with the message “Live vicariously through yourself”.

Who doesn’t want to be the guy piloting that Jag? I mean, really?

That sort of appeal is easy to understand, after all, all car ads want you to picture yourself in the driver’s seat. However, the message being telegraphed by Jaguar was decidedly different from that of the community-minded Saturn.

Live vicariously… through yourself.

Some could see this message as being indulgent, selfish and consumerist. A hedonist celebration of capitalism’s ill-gotten gains. I, on the other hand, see it as a big middle finger to the concept of collectivism – a celebration of the individual. A message that it’s okay to go your own way and enjoy life on your own terms.

Oh! Oh! Pick me! (image: Jaguar)

Oh! Oh! Pick me! (image: Jaguar)

That one can still exist and participate within a society without having to adopt all of its norms and expectations.

That this ad originated from the country that brought us the Libertarian-themed 1960s TV show The Prisoner maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise.

(See show intro and highlights,  including McGoohan’s bitchin’ Lotus Seven, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tra3Zi5ZWa0)

Another ad for the XK8 carried the theme along with a similar, if somewhat confusing, message.

The turn of the century now seems a lifetime away, and I couldn’t begin to describe the era of advertising we now find ourselves in. Like most normal people, I try to avoid exposure to commercials as much as humanly possible.

Still, by thumbing its nose at the establishment and prevailing attitudes, Jaguar cranked out a real gem of an ad all those years ago. By reacting – and rebelling – against the norm, Jaguar created a new counter-culture.

A counter-culture of one.




Hot 200?

The 2015 Chrysler 200 has little in common with its predecessor (photo: NetCarShow.com)

The 2015 Chrysler 200 has little in common with its predecessor (Image: Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles)

When it comes to refreshed car models, no American vehicle departs more drastically from its predecessor than the new Chrysler 200.

Ditching the tall, bulbous body left over from the 2007-2010 Sebring, the new 200 brought with it a flowing, Audi-like roofline and body, competitive drivetrains, a taught chassis (Fiat-Chrysler’s Compact U.S. Wide platform), and upgraded interior.

In short, the 2015 Chrysler 200 was designed to be everything the 2014 200 wasn’t.

With all these attributes, the refreshed sedan was sure to be a sales hit, right?

No, there’s never a guarantee of that. The 200 leapt into an ultra-competitive field of capable mid-size vehicles, starting at a price point much higher than its bargain basement priced predecessor.

Older, Sebring-based 200’s might have flown off dealer lots thanks to drastic markdowns and fleet sales, but that can help create a stigma around a vehicle. The new 200 had to sell itself on content, not cost.

Amid a strong marketing campaign emphasizing its class-leading technology and mileage (9 speeds, people!), the new 200 went on sale in spring of 2014, on the heels of the coldest winter in decades for most of North America.

Sales figures from March to June of this year show far fewer 200 purchases than in 2013. Then, something interesting happens as summer rolls around.

In June and July, in both the U.S. and Canada, sales top monthly figures from the previous year.

In July, in the U.S., the 200 managed 8,159 sales (compared to 8,122 in 2013), while in Canada the tally was 1,331, compared to the previous year’s 947.

In August, 10,810 units rolled off U.S. lots, compared to 10,139 the year before. In Canada, Chrysler moved 1,100 examples of the new model, up from 886 in 2013.

These numbers can’t tell us the reasons behind the surge in sales, nor can they (at this point, anyway) reveal whether the rise will be sustained over time. Still, looking at it from a distance, it would be easy to speculate that the new 200 has attracted the interest of discerning buyers (who are no longer simply looking for the cheapest mid-size on the market).





Running mate

1961 (AMC) Rambler Classic, spotted in Gatineau (Hull sector) Quebec.

1961 (AMC) Rambler Classic, spotted in Gatineau (Hull sector) Quebec.

Sometimes, the underdog wins, if only for a brief, shining moment.

That was the situation at American Motors at the dawn of the tumultuous 1960s.

The years 1958 to 1961 don’t take up much space in history books (unless you’re focusing on the Space Race), as there existed relatively little conflict in a world now used to global battles. The Baby Boom was in full swing, the Camelot years of the JFK presidency was poised to begin, and hippies, women’s lib, and the incendiary final years of the civil rights struggle were still years away.

Only the pesky matter of The Bomb kept people up at night, though a solution (Diazepam, aka Valium) was imminent.

In the auto industry, however, things weren’t so Leave It To Beaver placid. Competition was fierce between the Big Three automakers, and by the late ’50s the smaller companies had either thrown in the towel or were struggling to stay afloat.

After a merger with Studebaker, Packard’s last year was 1958 (and what a grotesque thing it had become by then). Studebaker brainstormed to find a way to overcome the massive financial hit it took following the merger a few years earlier, and managed to pull off a modest recovery that lasted until the mid-60s.

Nash and Hudson, whose best years were marked in the ’30s and ’40s, ceased to exist after 1957, the result of a mighty 1954 merger between Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson Motor Car Company – at the time, the largest in history. That merger saw the birth of a new automotive entity – American Motors Corporation (AMC).

Leading the new company was president and CEO George W. Romney, a former VP at Nash-Kelvinator who took on the top role after the death of George W. Mason a few months after the merger. Romney (father of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney) had the old makes soldier on in an increasingly competitive marketplace while planning a new strategy for success (or at least survival).

Official portrait of George W. Romney, taken while he was U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Public domain image)

Official portrait of George W. Romney, taken while he was U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Public domain image)

Luckily for the company, Romney had brought binders full of ideas to his new role, and quickly decided that in order to compete with the Big Three, AMC had to offer something the big guys weren’t. That meant compacts.

Romney viewed the competition’s offerings as “gas-guzzling dinosaurs”, ripe for slaying, and set out to do just that.

With the remaining Nash and Hudson models killed off at the end of 1957, AMC poised its new lineup for a 1958 debut, led by the compact Rambler brand – a make AMC had poured all of its efforts into.

Engine size, vehicle size, tailfin height and sticker prices were all reaching for the stars in the late ’50s, but luck was in AMC’s corner.

As 1958 dawned on the gaudiest, most excessive and expensive vehicles Americans had ever seen (especially those offered by Buick, Cadillac and Lincoln), a sudden, sharp recession – by far the worst of the post-war boom – hit the United States. Consumer prices rose across the board and vehicle sales dropped 31% industry-wide.

The only American car company to turn a profit that year? American Motors.

Helped by favourable reviews that emphasized the Rambler’s price and fuel economy, as well as a widespread television and product placement marketing campaign (which included Disney!) orchestrated by Romney himself, Rambler – and AMC – was off to a roaring start.

With the success of the Rambler American and Rambler Classic line of vehicles, the traditional big players in the industry soon took notice and immediately began designing their own small cars, which were introduced in the early ’60s.

In 1960 and 1961, Rambler ranked third in domestic auto sales, with the latter year seeing the company enter into the industry’s first profit-sharing plan for its United Auto Workers-represented employees. Innovations followed that were later picked up by the Big Three, including standard reclining front bucket seats, optional front disc brakes, and the ‘PRND21’ automatic transmission sequence.

Research work was even done in support of a fully-electric car powered by a self-charging battery, though that effort clearly went nowhere.

The company took a shift away from the ‘think small’ strategy in 1962, after Romney resigned in order to run (successfully) for Governor of Michigan, where he grew the civil service and imposed the first income tax in the state’s history. Later, he went on to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Nixon, where his ideas – including ambitious social housing and de-segregation proposals – fell mostly on deaf ears.

For an interesting look at Romney’s policies (contrasted with those of his son), enjoy this somewhat long article in a liberal-perspective magazine:


(Romney was also a strong civil rights supporter who expanded state social programs and championed anti-discrimination laws. For more on that… http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/08/how-george-romney-championed-civil-rights-and-challenged-his-church/261073/)


Trouble at the ranch

Anyhoo, back at the AMC camp, Romney’s departure meant there was a new captain at the helm – Roy Abernathy – who shifted the company towards a more diverse lineup. This meant a newfound focus on large cars, with the thinking that people weaned on Rambler’s compacts would one day want to move up to something bigger.

This strategy didn’t pan out and Rambler floundered in the marketplace, with overall sales slashed in half by 1967. Bleeding money at an alarming rate, AMC’s end looked near until new CEO Roy D. Chapin, Jr. arrived with famed designer Dick Teague in tow.

Chapin brought on a new executive, cut costs where possible, and made the compact Rambler American the company’s short-term focus, chopping down the sticker price to lure in buyers. In the background, Teague and his fellow designers worked to create new, youth-oriented vehicles from existing parts and vehicle stampings.

Once again, all of this work was backed up by aggressive advertising.

The intermediate-sized Rambler Classic, introduced on an existing chassis in 1961, was renamed the Rambler Rebel in 1967, before the Rambler name was dropped in favour of AMC badging in 1968.

This '61 Rambler ad shows sensible people enjoying a sensible car.

This ’61 Rambler ad shows sensible people enjoying a sensible car.

The Classic had long been the bread and butter of the Rambler lineup, first offered with a 195 cubic inch straight-six or 250 cubic inch V-8.  Covering three trim levels and multiple body styles, the Classic’s engine choice was fleshed out to three sixes and two larger V-8s as the ’60s progressed.

The renaming of both Rambler and the Classic had the goal of shaking up the brand’s image and moving buyer’s minds away from negative connotations of the recent past.

Under the new strategy, AMC entered the 1970s in good shape and with lots of buzz, purchasing Jeep’s vehicle operation in 1970 before things started to get really weird (Pacer, Gremlin, Matador coupe) in the mid-to-late ’70s. Obviously, at some point the company’s water supply had become tainted with hallucinogens.

After introducing the renowned and innovative AMC Eagle 4-wheel-drive wagon in 1979, the company entered into an ill-fated partnership with Renault in 1980, and immediately began a fast slide into oblivion. Renault left the American market in 1987, dropping its majority stake in AMC, at which point Chrysler Corporation purchased those remaining shares.

The formerly AMC-owned Jeep was folded into the Chrysler stable, while Renault-designed AMC products that had been in the works were marketed under a new brand, Eagle, starting in 1988. Eagle soon became just another make selling badge-engineered Chrysler products, like Plymouth and Dodge, though with some sporting pretentions in the form of the Talon coupe.

Eagle was unceremoniously dropped in 1999.

And so ended the rocky, confusing lineage of American Motors – the quirky car company that was once part of a refrigerator company and was once run by Mitt Romney’s unusually progressive yet devoutly Mormon/Republican dad.

If this tale has taught us anything, it’s to not go all-in on identity politics, and to be very wary of mergers.

What’s old is new again…

1979 or 1980 R-body Chrysler New Yorker, spotted in Gatineau, Quebec.

1979 or 1980 R-body Chrysler New Yorker, spotted in Gatineau, Quebec.

1979 was a turbulent year in America.

Gasoline had suddenly became expensive again thanks to the Iranian Revolution, interest rates were rising like mercury in a noonday Texas thermometer (as was inflation), and disco seemed poised to take over the world…and our kids.

On the automotive front, the Big Three automakers were struggling against economic pressures and the sudden appearance of a new competition – fuel-efficient Japanese compacts that tempted buyers with savings at the pump and low starting prices.

Nowhere in Detroit was the financial pressure greater than in the headquarters of Chrysler Corporation, which was desperately trying to avoid bankruptcy following a decade of non-stop punches that shook the industry to its core.

In addition to trying to secure bailout money from the federal government (while wooing eventual savior Lee Iacocca into their top-floor office), Chrysler was trying to compete against new, downsized models from GM (1977) and Ford (1979). And, given its dire situation, it had to create something competitive using little money and mostly off-the shelf parts.

As a rule, the downsized full-sizers introduced in the late-70s needed to appear fresh and new, have as much interior room (or more) than their land-barge predecessors, weight less, while consuming less precious, endangered gasoline.

For Chrysler, that meant the creation of the ‘new’ 1979 R-body line of vehicles – the Chrysler New Yorker and Newport, Dodge St. Regis, and (eventually) Plymouth Fury. The R-bodies have long fascinated me, as they really represent the end of the traditional full-size lineage of Chrysler vehicles – a slapped-together vehicle created in desperation to bridge the gap between the excessive 1970s and the lean, modern 1980s.

As a result of the rapidly changing era – one advanced by Chrysler itself following Iacocca’s appearance – the R-bodies (produced from 1979 to 1981) quickly became rolling dinosaurs, and faded from both roadways and the public consciousness in a hurry.


A ’62 dressed up as a ’79


The word ‘new’ appears here with quotation marks because the R-platform wasn’t new at all. Rather, Chrysler had simply taken the old B-platform that  underpinned the previous Dodge Monaco and Plymouth Fury (and dated from 1962), and created a new, yet traditionally-styled body atop it, while doing everything possible to shed weight.

The old, big-block 400 and 440-cubic inch engines were put out to pasture, replaced by the venerable 225-cid Slant-Six, as well as the trustworthy 318 and 360-cid V-8s. So extreme was the need for weight loss, Chrysler fielded the ‘new’ line of sedans with stamped aluminum, chrome-plated bumpers, aluminum radiators and brake cylinders with plastic components. The weight loss, totalling several hundred pounds, helped the car’s lineup of aging engines (strangled of horsepower by government-mandated emission controls) haul the lengthy sedans around town.

Once on the market, the R-bodies represented the most traditional of the Big Three’s big sedans. Big on the outside as well as the inside, the Chrysler stablemates could be had with all the baroque trappings a late-70s driver could desire – vinyl top, pillowed velour interior in gaudy colours, and the classic fake wire wheel hupcap/whitewall tire combination. The New Yorker, which was available in top-shelf ‘Fifth Avenue’ trim, continued the hidden-headlamp motif popularized by its predecessors, as well as offerings from Lincoln.

"Do you park your 1979 Chrysler New Yorker here often?" (Chrysler promotional photo)

“Do you park your 1979 Chrysler New Yorker here often?” (Chrysler promotional photo)

Sales of the R-body ‘pillared hardtops’ (ie – no window frames) started off brisk, helped by commercials that searched high and low for fiscal bright spots in an R-body purchase, but soon tanked once the effects of the Iranian Revolution began to impact people’s wallets. 1980 saw an exponential decrease in units sold, and the same for 1981.

Police fleets snapped up the Newport, Fury and St. Regis in fairly large numbers, given their imposing size and sturdy platform, but none were ever regarded as performers. Most pursuit vehicles were bought with a decent 195-horsepower 360 under the hood (for 1979), mated to the ubiquitous and bulletproof 3-speed Torqueflight automatic transmission, though California fleets made do with less (190 horsepower), and Canadian fleets with more (200 hp), thanks to better exhaust systems and boosted engine compression.

In 1980, California’s air pollution regulations mandated that all police R-Bodies come equipped with a 165-horsepower 318, which caused “a monumental firefight” between Dodge and the officers and management of the California Highway Patrol, who complained of embarrassment when the car performed dismally in real-life applications.*

(Apparently, one of the requirements of a police vehicle is the ability to catch fleeing suspects)

By 1981, the jig was up for the R-body. Sales of the big Chryslers were circling the bowl, and the company had already bled so much cash that CEO Iacocca was forced (starting in ’79) to slash all unnecessary overhead in a bid to save the company. Iacocca’s ‘triage’ approach meant that the company’s attention was primarily focused on keeping costs down while it produced and aggressively marketed a revenue-generating vehicle tailored for the economic climate America found itself in.

That vehicular saviour was the K-car line of compact, front-wheel drive vehicles that first appeared as Dodges and Plymouths in 1981 and branched out to the Chrysler brand in 1982. After ’81, with the R-body gone, Chrysler’s full-size spot was filled by the (formerly) intermediate-sized M-body Chrysler New Yorker, Plymouth Gran Fury, and Dodge Diplomat.

The real, honest-to-goodness full-size Chrysler was dead.


Adios, big guy…


Today, 33 years after the last R-bodies rolled unceremoniously off Chrysler’s embattled Detroit assembly line, seeing one in the flesh is a rare occurrence. The 1979 or 1980 New Yorker pictured at the top of the post was such an uncommon sight, it needed to be documented. These cars do look better in black, though this example is suffering from sagging lower body trim, missing front bumper guards, and an absent wheel cover.

However, under the hood there likely lies a 318 that can be nursed back to life without too much trouble, if it isn’t already serviceable.

Hopefully, the owner of the New Yorker will ensure this relic of a largely-ignored chapter in American automotive history stays alive, and on the road.

1979 Chrysler Newport, the less-flashy brother of the New Yorker. (Image: Bull-Doser, Wikimedia Commons)

1979 Chrysler Newport, the less-flashy brother of the New Yorker. (Image: Bull-Doser, Wikimedia Commons)



Status update

"Do you mind not parking your Cobalt so close? I'm kind of a big deal."

“Do you mind not parking your Cobalt so close? I’m kind of a big deal.”

No one ever says, “Hey, jerk – you scratched my Kia Rondo!”

There’s a reason for this, something understood by pretty much everybody.

That is: it isn’t worth mentioning the specific make and model of your ride if it isn’t something special. Something prestigious.

Now, by association, that swanky ride makes the driver something special as well. But beware – with status comes stigma, meaning to some people, the arrival of your hood ornament heralds the appearance of a Grade A prick.

Sure, this isn’t really fair – and the rationale behind it is fallible at best – but our human nature insists that different makes and models of vehicle MUST imply a specific kind of driver lifestyle and mentality. In a world driven by emotion and identity politics, we’re all guilty of this to some degree.

I realized the lasting power of these thoughts the other night while on a Quebec highway. Humming along in the slow lane, I watched a 1980s-vintage Porche 911 Targa blast past. A nice ride on a summer night, for sure, but all I could picture was old money, tennis whites, and the jerk son of a local bigwig.

Have I ever met anyone like that? Nope, but I saw a hell of a lot of them on TV over the years.

Porsche 911... or is it 90210? (photo: Bull-Doser, Wikimedia Commons)

Porsche 911… or is it 90210? (photo: Bull-Doser, Wikimedia Commons)

Recently I was reading a news story out loud to colleagues. It concerned some bad judgement by a BMW driver, and was (of course) accompanied by a video of the incident, which involved the police and quite a bit of destruction.

After taking a peek at my monitor, a co-worker said he’s noticed that BMW’s are only mentioned in a news headline if the owner of that Bimmer is somehow being a jerk. With no evidence to back this up other than my hazy memory, this seemed to ring true.

Is the BMW brand being pigeonholed and stigmatized – even by the media? Are all BMW drivers – even those who don’t act naughty in public – being ‘vehicle-shamed’? Are we jealous of what they’ve attained, or is it something else? Am I a social scientist holding a fistful of studies?

Well, I know the answer to the last question.

Even former Chrysler chairman and all-around automotive guru Lee Iacocca can be heard going down this road in the following clip, where he describes (to the world’s media) BMW and Mercedez-Benz as “boutique cars…bought for snob appeal.”


True, I’ve seem some drivers behind the wheel of a 3-series that needed a slap upside the head, but the same is true for Honda Civics and a laundry list of other vehicles.

I will say this, though. I can’t recall seeing half as many Mercedes-Benz’s driven in a manner worthy of a one-finger salute as those wearing the blue-and-white propeller. Maybe Benz has a more reserved clientele. Maybe the brand’s offerings don’t appeal to the drive-it-like-you-stole-it crowd (“Hoon that diesel E-class, man!”).

Whatever the reason, I will make a valiant attempt to ignore my unscientific findings, suppress my knee-jerk emotions, and go forward in life harbouring no stereotypes – or ill will – towards other drivers.

Let’s see if old habits die hard.