How can one be an enthusiast for a company, if they only witnessed its history briefly?
Perhaps there was a singular memory that never left the soul. It was triggered by a moment when true enthusiasm took over from logic, want, need and curiosity. From a young age, that memory would continue to find a permanent place in your heart that would remain until your final breath.
That moment came when my father bought an off-lease 1970 Plymouth Barracuda from the Chrysler dealership in Canoga Park, California. For the few years we had that car, it provided some of the deepest points of education of the automobile in my youth.
That Barracuda kept me in tune with the Pentastar, though never owning any of its products. Despite being an Oldsmobile, Ford, Mazda, Nissan, Acura, Audi and Chevrolet owner, Chrysler had always been the one to root for. In my writing years, Chrysler had always been the one to go to for perspective and, later, opportunities to advance this craft.
A recent conversation with one of my contacts at Chrysler about my content on their new portal Chrysler On Demand prompted me to retrace my steps with the Pentastar. This is to discover the meandering that led to my working with some great connections at Auburn Hills today.
In other words, this is to finally answer why Chrysler makes a great story today?
In my lifetime, my family owned only two Chrysler products. At one year old, I can recall a new white 1965 Plymouth Belvedere Satellite two-door. This had a black vinyl roof, black vinyl interior and whitewall tires. Back then, the Satellite represented the top of the Belvedere mid-sized lineup, once the platform of the previous year’s “full-sized” lineup. For 1965, the Fury went supersized onto Chrysler’s big car platform, giving Plymouth a reconstituted mid-sized product to compete against the Ford Fairlane, Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac Tempest, Oldsmobile F-85 and Buick Special.
What I remember of the Satellite was those vinyl seats. While I was put in a child’s seat (one would hope that I had one to sit in back then), the seats were hot. No, you should not have vinyl seats living in the San Fernando Valley with its warm climate trapped by a couple of mountain ranges. But, if I did my research, the Satellite did more. It positioned Mopar to start creating some of its most memorable machinery in the muscle car era.
One of its major outputs of this positioning was the Barracuda. As a five-year-old, both the Barracuda and Dodge Challenger captured my imagination. These two coupes already had a war going on with its main rivals: The Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. The ponycar added flavor and context to the apex of the muscle car era and Chrysler created what would be its most famous entrants of the class.
The Barracuda/Challenger design was distinctive. Strictly a "notchback," Chrysler followed their own vision of design convention, featuring a long hood and a short trunk deck. In truth, the Barracuda/Challenger hood was not that long – not as long as a Mustang's or a GM F-Body. There is more than ample room to shoehorn the best motors Mopar ever created – the Six-Pack and the HEMI, to name a few.
Our Barracuda was not perfect. Before the City of Los Angeles installed a flood control runoff at the corner of Victory Boulevard and Wilbur Avenue, it would stall as it tried to cross over inches of standing water. I figured "so what, this is the most beautiful car we ever owned!" That is how I still viewed that metallic blue 1970 Plymouth Barracuda with the blue vinyl interior, white vinyl roof and whitewall tires.
These two Mopars still seared in my memory. They helped frame an interest in following the story. A story that took some twists and turns. It was not until Lee Iacocca arrived at the old Chrysler headquarters in Highland Park where the story took on a different life of its own.
Iacocca's resume was impressive. Yet, the fights with Henry Ford II sent Lido out the door. He and some of his collaborators in Dearborn took perhaps the plans of what would be the saving grace of the Pentastar that was spurned by Ford. Dearborn could have reinvented itself with a front drive lineup of cars, including the minivan. Instead, it would take Iacocca to a competitor, reestablish shop, ask for a loan to save a floundering Chrysler and hatch his plans to change the company.
One cannot simplify the Iacocca era by truncating the loan agreement and its subsequent revival. The new front-drive products rejected by Henry Ford II became the K-Car platform. This platform spawned two of the most memorable and historically significant vehicles of the 1980s: The minivan and the convertible.
It seems odd that in the midst of the minivan's rise and the return of the four-seat convertible that we forgot everything else that came from K-Car platform. How many of us remember the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant – the first products from the platform? Did we forget how much the K-Car provided the basic structure for everything from the Dodge Daytona to the Chrysler LeBaron coupe/convertible of the late 1980s? Did you know that the K-Car spawned a factory-made stretch limousine? These were facts that had been swept from us, but do not think that some of us have not forgotten.
A K-Car-based Chrysler might not induce ripe enthusiasm, as would today’s Viper or Challenger. They had a distinctive drive, albeit basic if you had the standard 2.2-2.5liter four-cylinder engine and 3-speed automatic. Turbos had lag, but they provided some serious drama when spooled up. They simply worked for whichever application and body you drove. In my case, I started with a 1985 Dodge 600 sedan, then a couple of Dodge Shadows and Plymouth Sundances, a 1984 Chrysler Laser (the Daytona’s twin) and, through a brief stint with National Car Rental, a plethora of other K-Cars and minivans.
With every Chrysler driven from the Iacocca era and onward, there is a certain feel that denotes a Chrysler. A certain ignition sound, a certain way a switch works, perhaps a distinctive drive characteristic – all considered mundane and trite. So, how does Chrysler invite so many to enjoy their products and enjoy a loyal following amongst their enthusiasts?
If you own a Mopar product, and had a positive experience with one, you remember that vehicle forever. You might have bought another – or more. If you that kind of person, you are considered a "Moparian." This is a term of endearment that shows your deep devotion to the products, history and enthusiasm for everything Chrysler. It does not matter if it was an old Dodge pickup or an AMC-era Jeep Cherokee or a big 1960s Chrysler Newport, that love for Mopar is unconditional between you and Chrysler. It has always been that way regardless of who ran the company – Iacocca. Eaton, Dr. Zetsche, Cerebus and Marchionne.
The current CEO Sergio Marchionne understands more than anyone the connection between owner, enthusiast, brand and OEM. Under Fiat's guidance, Chrysler's heritage and enthusiast channels have been enhanced with a larger presence of the Mopar brand, elevating SRT as more than just a performance variant over several brands and deeper brand building across the board.
If you want an example of an output of the new Fiat-Chrysler era: Guess which pickup truck was the second best selling vehicle in the USA last month? By separating Ram from the Dodge brand, Chrysler has done more to enhance and advance their truck products since the end of World War II. In this work, I found the Ram lineup simply great to work with – to the point of calling them the best pickup in the business. This is not a fanboy response – this is a fact based on testing and experience.
In my work, my love for Chrysler continues, despite my obligation to remain neutral while working with every OEM and brand sold in this country. I welcome opportunities to cover current Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s products as enthusiastically as I do other brands – maybe a bit more. I know that I have a strong Mopar-based readership and you have responded accordingly.
Shall we revisit how the Moparians walked the 2012 Vehicle of The Year award to the Dodge Dart? This is a good example of how loyal these enthusiasts and owners are. They will root for their products to become winners in every aspect.
Some vehicles have stories to tell. Chryslers are storytellers in their own right. They will weave tales as you meander along the highway or off the beaten track. Not many vehicles can truly do that. This is why I found Chryslers engaging, even showing you their flaws. Unlike most enthusiasts, you find unconditional love through the flaws.
Perhaps that is the secret to why I love covering Chrysler. Yet, we are at an exciting time for the company. As Fiat Chrysler Automobile, we are now seeing products that exude better execution in design, engineering, improving quality with an eye on the global market. The Dodge Dart claimed V&R’s top accolade in 2012. The Jeep Cherokee has been reviewed with positive feedback. Soon to come is the 2015 Chrysler 200, offering the promise of raising the bar in the mid-sized sedan class. These are indeed exciting times for FCA.
Still, there is an essence that speaks Mopar. An essence captured once by a 1970 Barracuda that continues today. It is the kind of thing that makes my job so much fun to do. The readership, my contacts and relationships I made because of a love for Mopar that stretches back decades – it all makes this job very fun to do.
All photos by Randy Stern