Historiography: Chrysler, Iacocca and the K-Car

What was the biggest automotive story during my senior year in high school?

There were plenty of other stories that engaged the world – ranging from the economy, immediate frustration with the Reagan Administration to Valley Girls. Los Angeles reveled in the aftermath of Fernando Valenzuela and the 1981 World Champion Dodgers. What made this story special was that it took a stocky left-handed pitcher from rural Mexico to captivate a city with all races coming together at Chavez Ravine.

Let us not forget, this was the Los Angeles that dazzled in the shine of Showtime – the Los Angeles Lakers.

However, one particular story captured the most headlines in the automotive world during the course of 1981-82 school year. When people talked about automobiles, many conversations came up – either positive or dismissive. Yet, you could not ignore it – the commercials were all over and the vehicles were selling. He appeared in a good chunk of his company's spots – with a manifesto on his lips: "If you could find a better car, buy it!"

I am talking about Lee Iacocca and Chrysler's K-Car comeback.

What made the Chrysler story more compelling was the timing of its comeback – a true eleventh-hour rescue of a company on the brink of oblivion. The company's management found the right man – at the right moment – to steer it away from being just a footnote in history.

Chrysler had a history of brilliant engineering, but poor execution. One such example came at the apex of the post-World War II automobile boom. In 1957, they introduced a line of full-sized automobiles that employed many new design, manufacturing and engineering advances. The public demand for the 1957 Plymouth alone was staggering, so Chrysler plants did their best to keep up. In the midst of keeping up demand for the Plymouth, quality control processes were engulfed in a sea of backorders – for entire company's 1957 lineup. What could have been a classic equaling to the 1957 Chevrolet was lost on the assembly line. This was an issue that challenged the company's image well into the 1970s.

In the meantime, Chrysler expanded globally by integrating Simca of France and the Rootes Group in the UK into the corporate fold. Their Australia, Latin America, and South Africa operations were also key elements to the Pentastar's global success. At the dawn of the 1970s, Chrysler entered into an agreement with Mitsubishi of Japan for some stock ownership along with access to some of their product line to sell at Dodge and Plymouth dealers across North America. By the mid-1970s, Chrysler Europe developed their newest front-drive compact with some help from Volkswagen AG. They would become the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon when they showed up at North American dealerships.

Iacocca was the ultimate American businessman. His reputation at Ford was one where he and Henry Ford II had a love-hate relationship that was heavily chronicled. The heir to the company's fortunes could have easily fired Iacocca many times, but he was indebted to the son of immigrants as certain products made plenty of coin for Ford's pockets. One car stood out above all of Iacocca's legacy in Dearborn: The Mustang.

By 1978, Iacocca sat at the second best office in Dearborn. Because of Ford's own problems with quality and product snafus, Iacocca was fired later that year.

In the meantime, across town in Highland Park, Chrysler was going under. The Dodge Dart/Plymouth Valiant replacements, the Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare, culminated a series of quality snafus and recalls putting Chrysler at risk of ultimate failure. Workers were being laid off left and right across the company and Chrysler had to sell off their overseas operations to Peugeot (Chrysler Europe) and Mitsubishi (Chrysler Australia).

Chrysler called Iacocca for his help to save the company. He accepted the challenge and brought some of his colleagues from Dearborn over to Highland Park. The first order of business was to find a way to change the company through re-investment. He led a group to approach the United States Congress for a bailout loan in 1979. After some persuasive argument comparing Chrysler request for a government guarantee on a bailout loan with similar financial moves made to the nation's airline industry, Congress did approve the bailout plan. It wasn't a pretty decision, but it would yield some great rewards in the days to come.

Back at Highland Park, Iacocca and his team created a plan to simplify the lineup using a single architecture: A front-wheel drive platform that was flexible enough to build several classes of automobiles on. The genesis of this idea was a couple of programs Iacocca and Hal Sperlich pitched to Henry Ford II. First, was a front-drive platform that would have replaced of everything from the Ford Pinto through to the Lincoln Versailles. The other would was related to the platform that would give the North American market a smaller passenger and cargo van comparable to what Toyota and Mitsubishi had success with elsewhere in the world: The "Mini-Max" project. Henry Ford II rejected both programs.

As Iacocca and his team were retooling the company with these front-wheel-drive projects, a serious challenge loomed over the entire plan: A recession. In 1980, the American economy went through an economic slowdown that induced layoffs and a lack in consumer confidence. This recession lasted well into 1982. Even with government-backed money, Iacocca's efforts to save Chrysler seemed like a steep mountain to climb.

With just a short turnaround time towards launch, the K-Car program was ready for production in the summer of 1980. Normally, it would take years of development and testing for a brand new platform to roll down the assembly line. One wondered if everything was already completed, including all of the engineering and design, when the project was pitched at Ford. Within the two years between Iacocca's arrival at Highland park and the building of the first production K-Car, Chrysler's new management team worked diligently to ensure that the original plans were done right. It helped to have a project that was very easy to execute in a limited amount of time. There was no room for delays on launching a car that had an entire company's future on its back.

The K-car, initially sold as the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, was a simple design that was would be easy on the general public's eyes. A straight-forward, three-model lineup was offered: 2-door and 4-door sedans and a station wagon. The proportions were similar to the latest front-drive sedans in its class, including a generous cabin that claimed to seat six people – classified as a mid-size in the eyes of government.

Under the hood was a choice of two engines: A Chrysler-developed 2.2-liter four-cylinder and the Mitsubishi's 2.6-liter balance-shaft four-cylinder. It would be the 2.2litre that became the centerpiece of Chrysler's return. It is unknown whether Chrysler was developing this engine prior to Iacocca's arrival or not, but it seemed that it was destined for a long tenure as its primary powerplant. A manual and an automatic transmission were made available across the board.

The idea of simplicity pervaded with every Aries and Reliant. Many of the exterior and interior components were the same for both vehicles. A grille texture here, a badge there…even the most minute of differences overall helped Chrysler ensure the customer of which model they should buy. One would argue that employing this form of badge engineering also helped cut a lot of the cost down towards development and production. To that point, Chrysler needed to have an economy of scale in order to leverage a quick return towards loan payback.

Aries and Reliant sales began in the 1981 model year with the promise of a car starting at $5880 – a low price for a mid-sized sedan. When the cars arrived at their respective dealerships, people asked for the lower priced base models. Chrysler did not produce enough of them for dealerships, focusing instead on mid- and upper-level models. This miscalculation held back sales of the K-Car until production at their three plants (Newark, Delaware, Detroit and Toluca, Mexico) were able to send base models onward to dealers.

In the first year, both the Aries and Reliant yielded production of over 300,000 units. Sales figures hovered at 280,000 a year combined, peaking at an annual rate of 360,000 during its nine-year run. North America received a simple, bread-and-butter car for the masses – a simple to operate device that anyone would enjoy driving. One even envisioned it as Chrysler's Model T at one time – especially when Iacocca and his friend, Frank Sinatra, were selling them on television.

However, in contrast to the Model T, there was much more in store for the K-Car.

The 1982 model year rolled around and Iacocca's team sent out its next batch of new models. While minor tweaks were made to the Aries and Reliant, Chrysler decidedly went upscale for the next two models on the same platform: The Dodge 400 and Chrysler LeBaron. If you took off the extra trim and front ends, they were simply the same K-Car as their lower priced brethren. However, it would be the extra finishing touches that would draw buyers to the 400 and LeBaron – specifically the latter.

Iacocca's team had another card in their pocket – the convertible. Since 1976, no USA automaker would attempt to build an open-roofed machine. Still, North Americans bought them from the likes of Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Volkswagen, British Leyland, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce…and, even those models were slowly disappearing.

By 1982, plans for a convertible model were on every drawing board across Southeastern Michigan. In some cases, they would use a third party for conversion production – the American Sunroof Company was a huge contractor for these projects. Yet, Chrysler knew that a convertible simply needed to be done right, if it was developed in-house at Highland Park.

The LeBaron convertible was introduced alongside a 2-door coupe, a 4-door sedan and a wagon. The response was overwhelmingly through the roof, as the motoring public fell love with the LeBaron convertible. A few lucky owners bought one with the faux wood paneling as seen on the Town & Country wagon. Seeing a LeBaron convertible with the wood trim was a modern flash of nostalgia going back to 1948.

Even Dodge enjoyed the fruits of the convertible's return. The 400 offered a sports-luxury atmosphere with its drop-top that it began to develop a "European-influenced" model to counter the LeBarons sold across the street – the ES. That trim designation would stick well into the 2000s as Dodge's sportiest trim for almost every model it sold. The ES promised performance tires, alloy rims, more aggressive bucket seats and some sporty touches needed to attract the right customers to its convertible.

Though Ford enjoyed a sales surge by having its compact Escort beat General Motors' Oldsmobile Cutlass line in passenger car sales, Chrysler wasn't too far behind. The K-Car quartet began to leap over GM's maligned X-Cars in its class. Ford's answer was a year or so away with the aerodynamic Tempo and Mercury Topaz.

The flexibility of the K-Car platform forged subsequent products that shaped the core of Chrysler lineup up through 1990s. The following year after the Dodge 400 and Chrysler LeBaron debut, a stretched version of the platform marked the entry of a near-full-sized line of sedans: the 1983 Chrysler E-Class and New Yorker, the Dodge 600 and the Plymouth Caravelle – the latter was sold initially for the Canadian market. The purpose of stretching the platform was to create even greater interior space towards the full-sized standard. The same engines from the K-car were carried over into the E-Car, starting with Chrysler's 2.2-liter engine. Because of this model, two new engines were introduced in the intervening years – a turbocharged 2.2-liter and a larger 2.5-liter engine based off of the 2.2. The turbo came at the right time as several quality issues were found on Mitsubishi's 2.6-liter engine, including a problem with oil leaks.

Chrysler went a step further for 1983 to include two stretched limousine models off of the LeBaron. These were seen as an alternative to Cadillac's Fleetwood Brougham based limousines and the custom jobs being done to the Lincoln Town Car. However, Chrysler shook things up by building these executive-level models on a front-wheel drive platform. The Mitsubishi 2.6litre engine was standard on the Executive Sedan and Limousine. Though the limousine had LeBaron's roots, they sported the New Yorker's front end and trim.

By the fall of 1983, the K-Car reached its zenith with two breakthrough products: A sports coupe and the minivan. Though many of us may have forgotten about the sport coupe duo – Dodge Daytona and Chrysler Laser – it would be the original Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager that would change how families were transported throughout North America. With Ford's "mini-max" plans brought over to Chrysler, the minivan project was built off of the K-Car platform. The result was a revolutionary vehicle featuring a completely flat floor claimed to fit a four-feet-by-eight-feet sheet of plywood behind the driver's seat, passenger seating for seven and an overall size that fits in every garage perfectly. The Aries and Reliant may have started the Chrysler comeback; the minivan cemented the company's return to prominence.

By the time the minivan was introduced in the fall of 1983, Chrysler was able to pay back the loans from the government. Chrysler would soon a turn a profit because of a leaner approach to building automobiles – thanks mainly to Ford's rejection of the front-wheel-drive programs Iacocca and Sperlich pitched to their boss – Henry II. Iacocca is still revered as a savior at Auburn Hills even though the company has gone through subsequent ups-and-downs and transitions of ownership.

The K-Car changed the way Chrysler did business in the 1980s. Instead of creating complicated technology that did not translate on the assembly line, they took a simplified approach using a single platform, a single new engine and an imagination of how to develop a full line of automobiles from this starting point. Not to mention, production line quality improved from launch through subsequent model changes and variations.

On a personal level, the Chrysler story was another chapter of my relationship with the company. My father's 1965 Plymouth Satellite and 1970 Barracuda formed this Reseda boy's love of Mopar (amongst other manufacturers and brands). When Iacocca stepped into the offices at Highland Park, I had an inkling he would instill a paradigm change to save Chrysler. In the end, I'm glad he did.

It took a few years before I was able to experience the results of Iacocca's work. On one of my trips to San Francisco in 1985, I rented a Dodge 600 sedan to tool around in. Though I thought it was a bit plain for my tastes, the car felt light and crisp with the 2.2-liter engine under the hood. It would be the same with every subsequent K-Car-based vehicle I drove of that era – including the minivans.

By the time of my high school graduation, no one doubted Iacocca would fail in reviving Chrysler through the K-Car. The path towards loan repayment and years of profits were already put into place at Highland Park. From a simple plan to develop an entire lineup of automobiles based on a single DNA, it took the gumption of Iacocca to make consumers think twice before taking him up on his famous offer: "If you could find a better car, buy it!"

In 1982, the Chrysler LeBaron convertible was that better car.

All photos by Randy Stern

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