Beware of what you ask for. One of our most loyal readers and prolific commentators, Educator(now of teachers)Dan, expressed his disgust at the K-car Aries the other day, and begged for…this. Now I’m hardly an impassioned lover of the Ks, but I give them some grudging respect: they finally dragged Chrysler into the second half of the twentieth century, with a light, roomy and efficient sedan, an American take on the cars Europe had been building for decades. But this Fifth Avenue was a dinosaur from birth: heavy, dull witted, faux-luxurious, pretentious, gas-guzzling, plasticky, ill-handling…did I miss something? It does share one thing with the Aries though: it’s also for sale. But you’ll have to bring a tow truck if you just have to have this relic of an era that is best forgotten. Let me know, and I’ll put you in touch with the owner, who’s wife would be most grateful to see it gone. And she’s not the only one.
Regarding the Deadly Sin designation: there’s no hard and fast rule as to how a car earns that title. Frankly, Chrysler made a nice piece of change peddling these Fifth Avenues, once gas prices settled down again by 1982-1983. In fact, this car caught them by surprise, given that its predecessor was dead in the water. After the old 118.5″ wheelbase platform was killed in 1981, the New Yorker crown was regally placed upon this tarted-up version of the star-crossed 1976 Aspen/Volare twins, Chrysler’s DS #1. The Fifth Avenue’s claim to a DS is as much based on its genetics as well as its pretensions.
The Aspen and Volare’s claim to fame were the terrible quality glitches and recalls. That wasn’t the end of it. They were designed to replace the compact Valiant and Dart, but were conceived in the depths of Detroit’s obesity crisis in the early seventies. Their design was obviously started before the 1974 energy crisis, and by the time they arrived in 1975, Chrysler realized they were never going to fill the thrifty Valiant’s shoes; thus the K-cars.
Ford’s similar-sized Fairmont, also RWD, was a very different animal. A crisis has the tendency to inspire some focus, and the Fox bodies were lighter, could be had with four cylinders, and was just a profoundly better car all-round, most of all for its accurate rack and pinion steering and sprightly handling. No one will ever use the words sprightly handling in describing these Chrysler F/M bodies.
So while the Aspen and Volare themselves had a short life, their lightly-disguised body was pushed into front-line service as Chrysler’s “big” RWD sedan after the death of the R body. But not before it played its part in Chrysler’s near-death semi-bankruptcy of 1979. Chrysler was spewing out Dodge Diplomats, Grand Furies and LeBarons (the predecessors of this car) way beyond what the market would bear in 1978 and 1979 (sound familiar?) and there were pictures of acres of these in stored lots all over Detroit, the classic meltdown scenario. One of the brilliant solutions: send them to Europe! I remember vividly reading in auto motor und sport about how Chrysler desperately shipped boatloads of them, and was offering “American V8 luxury sedans” for ridiculously low prices. The Europeans didn’t bite, given that these were slower than a Golf, and slurped several times as much gas (EPA: 15/20).
And although Chrysler quickly developed FWD K-car offshoots for the luxury market, first the LeBaron, and then the extended wheelbase New Yorker, Chrysler kept the M-Bodies in production because the police and taxi fleets were still eager for them. Back when FWD CV joints had to be replaced as often as tires, and transaxles were notoriously suicidal, the fleets insisted on tried and true RWD, and Chrysler was happy to sell the M-Bodies cheaper than the superior Impala or LTD. In its role as a cop car or taxi, the M-Body looked right at home; as a luxury car, not so much.
I could muster some enthusiasm for the M-Body if Chrysler had offered it in a performance sedan version, clean, and with all the cop car goodies, the 360, and some big pipes with a bit of rumble; something that at least evoked the good old days with at least some of the sensory input. But none of the Big Three had the stones to do that, just yet.
Instead, the Fifth Avenue’s purpose was to chase the Wal-Mart end of the luxury car market. It was hardly luxurious in its interior space, the one thing that might have still been a justification for buying a big RWD V8 sedan from Detroit. As pointed out the other day, the K-car matched pretty much every interior metric of the M-Body. The ride was soft, but fell apart on anything other than smooth pavement; the steering dull, and the word handling is irrelevant. Mileage: mid teens. Compared to the the quite competent GM B-Bodies of the time, the M-Bodies were all washed up.
Performance was equally sad; the 318 (5.2 liter) V8 made between 120 and 140 hp, depending on the year. And it kept its wretched Lean Burn carburetor right to the end in 1989, one of the very last vehicles ever built with a carb. Even the Dodge trucks with the 318 had fuel injection by then. As you may have noticed, that notorious carb is missing on this car; who needs it anyway? The ownership experience of an old Fifth Avenue is substantially enhanced without it: ultra lean burn.
But the Fifth Avenue was a surprise minor hit, despite its deeply-tufted limitations. Sales started modestly, but took off in ’84, and sales crested 100k in both ’85 and ’86, before they glided back to reality and crashed in ’89. The Fifth Avenue was a relatively cheap ($16k, $30k adjusted) way to express one’s disdain for the downsized new FWD cars coming out of GM, even if they were much better cars, objectively speaking. The target demographic was predominantly older and conservative; what they really wanted to buy was a new version of this, but times had changed.
Of course, the interior was available in that fine Corinthian leeaatthherrr, but other than the plush seats and door panels, there wasn’t much genuine luxury, unless padded half-roofs, coach lamps, wire wheel covers and a few fake fender vents are included in that definition. In fact, it was the polar opposite of the Mercedes/BMW/Audi sedans, whose understated refinement and quality had come to be the new standard for luxury, and which everyone eventually adopted ever since to great success. The Fifth Avenue is the evolutionary dead end of a line of cars that was flawed from its beginning, and only enjoyed a brief renaissance as a symbol of protest against modernity. That was a long time ago. Now would someone please remove this Fifth Avenue from West 22nd. Avenue? We’re all rather tired of looking at it.