The Chrysler K Car. Just how exactly did this unassuming boxy little car, literally save the Chrysler Corporation?
By the late 70’s, Chrysler was in serious trouble due to mismanagement and poor quality control Though large as ever and quite luxurious, Chrysler products suffered a persistent lack of refinement which led to increasingly reduced market share over the course of the decade. Things went from bad to worse with the introduction of the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare which were rushed into production and suffered a record number of recalls. Chrysler had experienced the same type of massive failure at launch before with the 1957 models. An entire year was cut from the development process resulting in everything from leaky windows to failing suspension components.
The buying public however was much more forgiving in the 1950s and Chrysler regained market share with the much improved product that was introduced the very next year. Unfortunately for Chrysler, by the late 1970’s the market was growing intolerant to poor quality and inefficiency. With inflation in the double digits, value for money was essential. Many buyers who had shunned Japanese cars in the past now viewed them as the only alternative to the increasingly poor quality of the US products.
This lack of quality and innovation, combined with improved Foreign competition accelerated Chrysler’s path to financial devastation. As a stopgap measure, Chrysler re-badged Mitsubishi products and marketed them to compete with foreign rivals. It helped, but it wasn’t enough to turn the tide. Chrysler also introduced reworked versions of the European market Horizon. Built on the L platform, these models were well received but also could not right the sinking ship.
When Chrysler approached the US government for a bailout, President Carter refused so long as the current management team was still in place. Chrysler’s future seemed Dim. The ghosts of repeated past failures were finally taking their toll. The failure of the Chrysler Corporation would have had a devastating impact and not only for the company and its employees. In fact, the national security of the United States was at risk as Chrysler held several important military contracts. Fortunately for Chrysler, Henry Ford II had recently fired someone who could definitely make a difference.
It wasn’t long before Lee Iacocca was offered the leadership position at Chrysler and accepted. Shortly after taking the reins of the Chrysler Corporation, Iacocca made an impassioned plea to the US government for billion dollars in government-backed loans. Upon reviewing the three-year business strategy Iacocca had developed, the government-backed loans were approved. So successful was Iacocca’s plan, the loans were paid back seven years early and the government earned approximately five hundred million dollars on the deal. So, what was responsible for this phenomenal turnaround? The Chrysler K Car was actually already in development when Iacocca was brought on board to rescue Chrysler.
Iacocca had been cutting costs in a number of ways including layoffs, selling off European operations and renegotiating labor contracts. He then turned his attention to the K Car project insisting the platform be as versatile as possible and host the widest possible array the configurations. The K Car program also emphasized space efficiency. The overall length was reduced to 179 inches from 206 inches for Chrysler’s previous smallest model. The foreign competition had a reputation for extremely high quality and Iacocca made it clear to those involved in the K Car program he expected a quality product. Durability testing was essential.
Every effort was also made to reduce the number of unique components between individual models. Essentially, the goal was to make each model variant as unique as possible visually while sharing the maximum number of components under the skin. The K Car finally launched in 1980 and the quality push was a success with no major recalls. Engine choices consisted of a liter Chrysler 4 cylinder, which offered increasingly more potent turbocharged options over the years. A slightly larger Mitsubishi engine was also offered which happened to feature a hemispherical combustion chamber. Chrysler’s advertising department quickly realized this was an opportunity to capitalize on Chrysler’s Hemi powered past and slapped Hemi Badges on all Mitsubishi powered models. initial sales were sluggish and it wasn’t until Iacocca himself got in front of the camera things really turned a corner. “If you can find a better car, buy it!” Legendary actor Ricardo Montalban was also brought on board to sell the virtues of Chrysler’s rich Corinthian leather which was really just a made a term for leather produced in New Jersey. Many customers liked what they saw when they arrived in the showrooms.
The modern front-wheel drive layout afforded plenty of interior space for such a drastically downsized car. Within only two years, the unassuming little K Car and all it’s variants accounted for 50% of Chrysler’s operating profits. Chrysler was saved. The first of those variants would arrive in 1982 as the Chrysler LeBaron coupe, convertible, wagon and sedan. The Lebaron models added a more upscale alternative to the basic transportation aesthetic the K Cars offered.
The convertible in particular was huge news as convertibles were thought to have gone extinct in the 70’s. It was constructed by cutting the roof off a coupe and adding structural members to the floor pan. Also introduced in 1982 was the Chrysler Town and Country editions which featured simulated woodgrain panels. These woodgrain panels were another attempt to recall Chrysler’s glory years of the past. Designer Mark Cross was commissioned to design optional interiors that were rich in color and appeared of high quality. The Dodge 400 was yet another variant introduced in the Chrysler k Car ‘s sophomore year. The 400 was essentially a decontented LeBaron but it did gain several upgrades such as revised suspension geometry and increased sound isolation thanks to a redesigned firewall. 1982 also brought the Volare and Dart names back in the way of rebadged K Car models for the Mexican and Canadian markets. Two of the more interesting variants of the K Car platform were introduced in 1983. The Chrysler executive sedan and limousine both were built by the ASC corporation and featured a 24 inch stretch for the executive sedan and a 31 inch stretch for the limousine. 1983 also saw the introduction of the Chrysler New Yorker, Chrysler E Class and dodge 600 sedan.
The New Yorker and other well equipped models offered many new electronic features such as the electronic voice alert system, digital instrumentation and a trip computer. The Voice alert system utilized Texas Instruments technology which happened to be very similar technology to that used in the Speak & Spell toy many children of the 80’s will remember. The new E Class was essentially a de-contented version of the upscale New Yorker. it was intended as a direct replacement for the Newport. The Dodge 600 sedan was offered as a sporty alternative to other K Car variants. It’s rear styling was intended to resemble models from Mercedes. A coupe and convertible version of the 600 were introduced in 1984. 1984 actually turned out to be a very big year for Chrysler. Flush with cash from several very successful years of sales, Chrysler invested heavily into further expanding K Car variations. 1984 saw the introduction of the Chrysler Laser and Dodge Daytona. These cars completely shed the boxy K car styling while maintaining the same basic underpinnings and they sold reasonably well. The biggest news however for 1984 was the introduction of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans. These minivans were the ultimate illustration of just how versatile the K car platform was.
They kick started a revolution that Chrysler maintains a big presence in to this day. 1985 was the year the Chrysler LeBaron GTS and Dodge Lancer were introduced. These models featured completely new styling and were much rounder and sleeker than most of the K car variants that came before them. Some customers were confused by the LeBaron badge however as it was also still in use on non GTS models that were essentially unchanged from the 1982 models. A slew of new variants was introduced for 1987, including the high performance Shelby Lancer, the Dodge Shadow, Plymouth Sundance, a sleek new LeBaron coupe and convertible and the new Shelby CSX. Carroll Shelby was an old friend of Lee Iacocca who had helped infuse the original Mustang with genuine performance and he was all too happy to help out with Iacocca’s K Car. While the ’87 models focused on performance, the ’88 models brought new levels of luxury. New models for 1988 included the Dodge Dynasty and two additional versions of The New Yorker. In the spirit of as many variations on a single theme as possible, the New Yorker was now offered as The New Yorker turbo, (which was essentially the car introduced in 1984), as well as the standard New Yorker and the New Yorker Landau.
The standard New Yorker and New Yorker Landau now rode on the K car derived C platform and offered a slightly longer wheelbase and exterior dimensions. With model year 1989 came the introduction of the Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim. These models were essentially replacements for the original basic K Car offerings. Though still heavily based on K car underpinnings and mechanical components, exterior styling was completely new and far more contemporary. 1989 was also the year the most exotic variant of the K car by far was introduced, the Chrysler TC by Maserati. Many people forget there was a connection between the humble K Car and the exotic Maserati brand. This however is a little easier to fathom when reminded of Chrysler’s ownership of Maserati. At the time, Lee Iacocca and Italian designer Alejandro De Tomaso were old friends from their Ford days and collaborated to transform a heavily revised LeBaron GTC convertible into the Chrysler TC. The Chrysler TC actually turned out to be a rare misstep in a long line of successful K car variants. No amount of high quality leather and genuine wood could convincingly hide the humble K car origins.
The New Yorker Salon was introduced in 1990 as a replacement for the one year only New Yorker Turbo. It was essentially a Chrysler version of the Dodge Dynasty and differed considerably from other New Yorkers. The Chrysler Fifth Avenue was migrated to the K Car derived Y body platform in 1990. The Y body variant of the K Car platform featured the longest wheelbase yet at 1inches. This marked the end of the line for the venerable M body which had been around since 1977. 1990 also saw the return of the Imperial name plate, a name first used by Chrysler all the way back in 1926. Imperial had been absent in the lineup since 1983. The imperial featured a more sloped front end and unique rear styling that set it apart from the lesser Fifth Avenue. Next to the TC, this was the most luxurious K car variant produced. The final derivative of the K Car platform were the second generation minivans which would soldier on until 1995.
And that is the story of the Chrysler K Car. In total there were 12 platform variations underpinning nearly 50 models. It has been said that no other single product changed so completely the fortunes of a single company as the K Car. The simple concept of one shared basic platform with distinct exterior styling for each variant was a formula for success and it is one copied by most modern auto manufacturers today, And of course much credit is owed to legendary Lee Iacocca. Without him, it is unlikely the K Car would have even seen production and Chrysler very well could have been but another automotive footnote in history.