Suddenly it’s 1960 (again)! Well no, not that 1960. How about this one, the (more) real 1960? Yes, history repeats itself, and every so often, Detroit was forced out of its delusional slumber and denial to face the music that always seemed to grate on its ears: small cars. In response to a growing avalanche of European imports led by the VW in the fifties, in 1960 the Big Three launched their first-ever compacts: Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair and Chrysler’s Valiant. By the mid/late seventies, those were all gone, but the Japanese were all here. So Detroit geared up for the second big import showdown of 1980-1981. Once again, Chrysler’s weapon was clearly aimed at the traditional American-car buyer: more technically advanced this time (FWD!), but conservatively styled, still smarting from the painful lesson of their bizarrely-styled 1960 Valiant.
The K-cars set out to recreate the 1960 Falcon’s success, all-too eager to recapture its spirit: small, boxy, roomy, pragmatic and all-American, right down to the front bench seat. Well, maybe a bit too 1960 America; just like the Falcon, the K-car appealed to traditional American-car buyers, but had no apparent impact on the the explosive growth of the Japanese imports, just like the Falcon failed to dent the Volkswagen’s success. So ironically, although the K-car saved Chrysler in the eighties, it did little or nothing to stem the tsunami that ultimately overtook the Pentastar a second time. History repeats itself…
The story of the little Chryslers is a large one, especially given all the endless variants that Lee Iaccoca’s Imaginarium spawned: everything from stretch limos, Italianesque two-seat “sports cars”,the most successful mini van ever, and a multitude of other niches in between. Yes, we’ve already covered the mini-van, the convertibles, the K-New Yorker, and the Daytona coupe. But I couldn’t resist this fairly pristine one-little-old lady owner ’83 Aries with 97k miles. I’ve shot plenty of the ’85 and later face-lifted K’s, but this is the only first-series I’ve caught so far; they’re getting mighty rare. And since it’s for sale, I thought I would give you true-blood K-car lovers the chance to grab it before it’s gone: $1600 or best offer. Hurry! And while you’re manning the phones and negotiating (the sign says it “needs nothing”, but where’s the A/C compressor belt?), I’ll take a stab at the history of this seminal K-car.
The basic boxy outline of the story is well etched into the memories of us that lived through the K-era. In the years leading up to it, the Valiant and Dart kept growing, and were eventually replaced by the now mid-sized Volare/Aspen twins. Arriving in 1976, those were already one or two sizes too big given the spiraling rise of oil prices and the downsizing already underway at GM. In fact the Volare and Aspen eventually morphed into Chrysler’s “big” cars, the last RWD sedans until the modern 300.
That doesn’t mean that “big” cars were actually all that roomy inside. In a graphic testament to just how space-inefficient traditional American cars of the time were, the drastically smaller K-Cars (176″ length) equaled most of the key interior dimensions of the 1972 mid-size Satellite and the Volare-based 1986 Grand Fury (both about 204″ long). Seating for six and bench seats were a major criterion for the clean-sheet K-car design, and who can blame them, if you’re a polygamist and you want to take your wives and your buddy and his two wives out for dinner like this happy set of trios above? Who else would find themselves in this scenario above?
Yes, the K-car was one of those rare times when American designers and engineers were given the chance to start from scratch, although Chrysler’s experience with the (mostly) European designed Horizon/Omni came in mighty handy. The suspension design was quite similar, and quickly becoming ubiquitous: front struts and rear twist-beam axle. Chrysler already had FWD transaxles, including the automatic TorqueFlite from the Omnirizon. That still left the body, a new four cylinder engine, and to make it all work together harmoniously.
The result must be considered a qualified success. Let’s leave the qualifications for later and focus on the good: given the times and Detroit’s state-of-the art, the K-Car structure was not only space efficient, but fairly stiff, sturdy and sound, especially given its light weight (2300-2400 lbs). This contributed to a decent ride quality, and adequate, if totally uninspiring handling.
And the new 2.2 liter OHC four, which does look a bit like a slightly scaled up VW 827 engine (as used in the Chrysler Omni/Horizon), turned out to be a rugged basis for future development, even if the early units had a bit of an appetite for head gaskets. And, of course, it suffered from the horrible state of smog-controls of the time: electronic-feedback carburetors that were balky, expensive to replace, messed with the ignition timing, and gave mediocre power: all of 84 hp was the result, in the first two years of production. The optional Mitsubishi 2.6 four had a hint more torque, and was a bit smoother with its pioneering balance shafts, but had its own set of issues. This Aries sports the 2.2 and a column shifted three-speed automatic.
I had the distinct displeasure of being an Aries (or was it a Reliant?) driver for a couple of months in 1985. It was my temporary company car (extended-term rental) right after a stint with the all-new Nissan Sentra, and just before I screwed up my courage sufficiently to sign (for the start-up company) a five-year lease for a brand new MB W124 300E. Sandwiched between the remarkably brisk and tossable Sentra and the superb 300E, the Aries was bound to disappoint. It did.
My commute then was a dream, for LA standards. Straight through Beverly Hills on Rodeo Drive, and up, over and down scenic and winding Coldwater Canyon into the Valley. Or Laurel Canyon, for a change of scenery and even tighter twisties. Running against the usual traffic flow, the canyons were a wonderful way to start the morning, but not in a Reliant. The Sentra was eager, willing and brisk, if a bit primitive. The Aries, with its bigger motor, had the typical tip-in and torque to “feel” powerful from a start, but was strangled as the revs (didn’t) build. Early versions of the K car tested at 13-16 seconds for the amble to sixty. The Sentra could do it in ten. And driving a K-car down Rodeo Drive every day didn’t exactly do much for my self esteem. Bring on the Mercedes!
The steering was (still) too light, and the car just wasn’t set up to deliver any fun. Yes, it did beat the wooden and lame bigger Chryslers of the time, but don’t even ask what it felt like compared to an Accord. And therein was the crux of the problem: The K-Car was a big step forward for Chrysler and Detroit, and a reasonably capable car. But by the time it arrived, Honda was readying the second generation of the killer Accord. Comparing the two is an exercise in futility. The Honda simply felt (and was) profoundly better in every possible metric. It took a long time for Detroit to finally narrow that gap.
Lee Iaccoca is usually referred to as the father of the K-car, but he arrived at Chrysler when the K-car program was already well on its way. But he successfully made it his own, using it as the primary (sole?) hook of his dog and pony show to convince Congress that Chrysler had the new FWD technology to be a safe bet for their $1.5 billion in loan guarantees (doesn’t that amount seem quaintly small now?) And the K-car was not originally developed with any thought to the endless permutations it spawned. But the K-car platform was quickly stretched, spindled and mutilated, a testament to the simplicity and adaptability of such a straight-forward design, as well as the talents of the Chrysler engineers. The various offshoots lasted at least until 1995, even though the Aries and Reliant were gone by 1989, replaced by the Spirit/Acclaim, or Sundance/Shadow, depending on your point of view.
The Aries/Reliant sold well, exceeding 300k units the first year. The upscale LeBaron expanded the total first-gen K-car sales to over 350k per year, and maintained close to that through 1988, when their replacements appeared. The K-cars did exactly what Lido sold Congress on: they were profitable from the start, and generated enough profits with which Chrysler repaid all its government-backed loans by 1983. And that was just the start: the cash really started rolling in with the mini-vans and other off-shoots, allowing Chrysler to buy Jeep, and invest in a whole new line of cars in the 1990’s. The K-car truly created the New Chrysler.
And given the missteps that GM made with their hyper-recalled X-Bodies of the same vintage, the K-car’s launch was relatively trouble free; hardly a given in those times. In Chrysler’s case, that was literally essential; if the K-Cars had arrived with serious problems, Chrysler’s resurrection might have turned out quite different. Yes, the early versions had their issues, and build quality, performance and refinement steadily improved, especially with the ’85 refresh. A Toyota or Honda it wasn’t, but after the botched launch of the Aspen/Volare twins, and GM’s X-Body woes, the K-car escaped the wrath: Kraptastic; yes. But in a slightly endearing way.
I’ve compared the Aries/Reliant to the original Falcon, but what fills its shoes today? The first car that pops in my mind: the Nissan Versa. A quick scan of the specs confirms my intuition: They’re exactly the same length (176″), and within an inch in width and two inches in wheelbase. The Versa sedan is a bit taller, which gives it the edge in headroom and rear legroom. They both sold on the same premise: maximum American-scale interior space for the buck, even if the Versa doesn’t offer a front bench. And just how do they stack up in that value proposition? The Aries started at $6k for a stripper; that’s over $14k in today’s bucks. The base Versa starts at $9,950. Sometimes history doesn’t repeat itself.