By on February 4, 2017

It was a dark and unexciting night. The setting: my apartment. The time: well, last night.

The hour was was growing late, but going to bed at a normal time on a Friday night — even my definition of a normal time — seemed like an invitation to early onset senility. I’m a human being, dammit, I’m alive, and doing anything — anything — besides refreshing my taxed brain cells seemed like a good plan.

So, a Budweiser was cracked, an old movie was sought out, and my feet soon raised themselves to a comfortable, elevated position. Now, many who aren’t familiar with my history are unaware of a shocking secret — something that could prompt fits of laughter if you’re not ready for the news.

I minored in film studies in university. Hey, those were elective courses, and I paid for them through hard work. A student needs some classroom entertainment amid the tedious statistics and communication courses and all the drudgery that comes with pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

Being Canada, it was an oh-so-liberal education. Ever watched Deep Throat in a mixed-gender classroom? We did. I’m forever grateful for a terrific professor who told me to never look for sex in a movie — you’ll always find it. It’s true, and the snobbiest film critics always uncover the smut swirling in their own minds.

But back to last night. The movie was Blow Out, a 1981 thriller directed by the stylish Brian De Palma (Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables). There’s a simple plot. A soundman with great hair (John Travolta) accidentally records the sounds of a car careening off a low bridge after supposedly suffering a tire blowout. But things aren’t exactly what they seem, as movies need audiences and a minimum 90 minute run time.

Watching this, my past “education” suddenly came barreling back.

You see, the car in question holds particular significance for that era in American history. It’s symbolic of so many things. The vehicle crashing through the guardrail and into a river was an R-body Chrysler — a white New Yorker, to be exact. Hidden headlights, landau roof, whitewalls and all. A beautiful failure that launched out of desperation in 1979 and met a swift end in 1981.

I won’t bore you with the backstory of the R-bodies — Chrysler’s hasty and penniless campaign to shed weight and market a “new” full-sizer in an age of downsizing — but it’s a story that has always fascinated me.

It struck me that the car in this film was Chrysler Corporation, or at least the Chrysler Corp. of that era. The second gas crisis, skyrocketing pump prices and a stagnant economy meant that the uber-popular luxo-barges of the Seventies were persona non grata at the onset of the Eighties. Chrysler’s financial woes and archaic platforms meant even less interest in new land yachts from the Land of Pentastar.

At the time of Blow Out’s filming — sometime in 1980 — Chrysler was on government life support. The once sought-after status symbol was sinking fast, not unlike the New Yorker in the film, and the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of 1979, signed into law in early 1980, had yet to bear the company fruit. (It would, and very soon, but few people at the time could predict the company’s sudden early-80s turnaround.)

The film, I should point out, takes place in Philadelphia. The occupant of the sinking New Yorker? The state’s governor. Let’s just say that it was his last turn behind the wheel. You know who else is from Pennsylvania? Former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca.

At the time of filming, the outdated product rolling out of Chrysler plants threatened to doom the company, and Iacocca’s career, to an early grave. The film’s metaphor might not have been intentional, but it works brilliantly on several levels, whether you choose to see Iacocca or the federal government behind the wheel. For the career aspect, the metaphor obviously works better if you picture Jimmy Carter as the occupant of that velour and faux wood-festooned sedan.

Was Brian De Palma really concerned with the plight of Chrysler Corporation, so much so that he just had to insert the loaded images into his film? Probably not. Still, he deserves kudos for his work, and for this little bit of distraction.

Maybe I think too much late at night.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

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46 Comments on “The Perfect Chrysler Metaphor, Intentional or Not...”


  • avatar
    JEFFSHADOW

    The Dodge version of the R-body was the St. Regis and the California Highway Patrol had plenty of them!
    I always thought it was the four door version of the celebrated Magnum XE and GT from 1978 and 1979.
    Meaning Chrysler could have continued building Magnums, not Miradas, until 1981!
    Mr. Iacocca loved the big Lincolns when he worked at Ford and so he went to Chrysler and copied the grilles and body styles.

  • avatar
    Whatnext

    I know there’s not a love for the R bodies but when they came out I remember thinking they looked better than Fords downsized offerings of the same year. Not as good as GM’s downsized B and C bodies but the Firds were clunky. It’s a shame they didn’t hang on for a couple more years when cheaper gas and the Reagan Recovery would have boosted their sales.

    • 0 avatar
      John-95_Taurus_3.0_AX4N

      Meh, I like this ’77 better than the one in the film: http://phoenix.craigslist.org/nph/cto/5945831736.html

      And, Ford killed it with the Aero ‘Bird/Coug’ in 1983, which had the outstanding virtues of being a)RWD and by that:
      B) not being based on the K car equivalent. ;)

      It was great if you still wanted a PLC with a smart look, but as I said, still RWD and usually an available 302. I remember they were everywhere in the mid-late 80s.

    • 0 avatar
      John-95_Taurus_3.0_AX4N

      Yes, the 81 T-bird was awful. http://portland.craigslist.org/clc/cto/5970718075.html

      The Aero was a remarkable improvement:
      http://portland.craigslist.org/clk/cto/5979562585.html
      Still not a land yacht, but not as compromised as a Fairmont Coupe Braughm (lol I mean the above ‘Bird).

    • 0 avatar
      la834

      My uncle who was a committed Chrysler guy owned just about every generation of New Yorker from the ’76 (or earlier) biggies to the last FWD Fifth Avenue, including a ’79 that looked just like the one shown here except it was all light green, with green inside as well. My folks had a ’77 Bonneville Brougham (also green inside and out) which provided a good comparison point. Despite a platform that dated back to 1962, the car felt competitive at least from the front or rear passenger seats. It was comfortable, quiet, smooth riding, and (unlike many of them it seems) put together well. It felt roomier and more open – the unibody construction opened up alot of floor space taken up by the perimeter frame and the driveshaft hump was smaller than the GM B/C or Ford’s Panthers. The frameless glass, thin pillars, and lower cowl gave it an airy feel. The materials were of high quality, the carpets thick, the fittings luxurious. Nice car, and with hindsight they should have kept the in production to take advantage of the big-car revival in the ’80s and beyond. Instead they had to pretend the Volare-base Diplomat and Fifth Avenue were full-size cars, and they didn’t even get much better fuel economy than the R body did.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        Iacocca seemed to turn against not only full sized cars but RWD after the failure of the Sinatra, er, Imperial. I remember when he dropped the RWD 5th Avenue, even Maximum Bob Lutz grumbled, loudly, about not having a RWD car. Iacocca saw FWD (and the end of full sized cars) as the wave of the future. He even pushed a 50-cent increase in the gas tax to help sell all those K-cars.

  • avatar
    midnite_clyde

    So tell us your version of a great late 70s early 80s vehicle same price range. I thought so. If you are too lazy to submit thoughtful analysis then keep channel surfing.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    Nice photo of an R body with Lincoln’ish styling – but honestly by 1980, the Chevrolet Caprice was a much nicer luxury sedan – even with its standard 305 V8 making about 150 malaise era horsepower.

    Chrysler was doing its best to stay in the game. The styling on a 5th Avenue was more traditional American luxury than GM’s Sedan de’Ville at the time – which to me looked like a gussied up Caprice.

    • 0 avatar
      ponchoman49

      The problem was that a Deville was not a Caprice with hid-away headlights, a different grille and fancier interior as the R-body New Yorker was literally the same exact car as the cheaper Dodge and Plymouth version otherwise right down to the powertrains. The Deville/Fleetwood shared not one exterior panel, were longer, rode on a longer wheelbase and had much different interiors. Even the engines were not shared until 1981 when the Buick V6 was offered as credit unless you counted the diesel.

  • avatar
    nickoo

    The difference is that today there is nobody coming to save Chrysler. The espresso swilling sweater has destroyed the C and D in the CDJR.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    My father in law had the St. Regis version of these as a company car back in the day. We didn’t see him too often as he lived in Atlanta at the time, but on one visit he took us all out to dinner in that car. It was a nice riding car, but with the Slant Six it was a gutless wonder. While the interior seemed to be made of nice materials, it was poorly assembled. I remember shutting the passenger rear door and the cover to the courtesy light in the door fell off and into the foot well.

    Nothing compared with the downsized GM B and C bodies. The then-new Panthers seemed like bad tracings of the GM cars and the early AOD transmissions were not particularly good. The R-bodies looked good but had lots of assembly and driving quality issues. Like most Chryslers of the era, you either got a good one or you didn’t. One could see they were developed on a budget, but they looked really good. They were just *this* close to being competitive with the big GMs of the time, but then quality issues torpedoed them.

    Too bad, as the R-body has actually grown on me over the intervening years. The Chrysler Newport was an old man’s car, but the St. Regis and the New Yorker (in their most optioned out versions) were really quite nice.

    But that movie was a yawner. Back in the day, I took a young lady to see it, we both thought it sucked. I can never get over John Travolta as a sweathog and Nancy Allen in this movie just annoyed me. Ugh.

    • 0 avatar
      ponchoman49

      Boy is this ever true. I’ll never forget going to a Chrysler car show about 10 years back and seeing a 1981 blue New Yorker that was in perfect condition with but 20K original miles on it. It was what I called a good 10 footer. Upon closer look all the many Chrysler flaws really stood out. The wavy plastic bumper surrounds which I remember even when these were new. The headlight covers were not quite aligned on one wise. The rear bumper chrome was starting to peel on the underside despite the car being rust free and like new underneath. The interior was a disaster! The headliner was sagging in spots. The rear fake window blank outs were very poorly secured and it looked like I could pull them right off easily. Pillar trim was drooping, certain plastic pieces were a little off color or faded and it looked like a blind person assembled certain interior pieces.

  • avatar

    ” For the career aspect, the metaphor obviously works better if you picture Jimmy Carter as the occupant of that velour and faux wood-festooned sedan.”

    The movie Blow Out was made during the 1980 presidential campaign.

    I dont’ recall the Chrysler aid package hurting Carter politically. The economy was stagnant, still affected by inflation from the Nixon/Ford era, and the Iranians taking American diplomats hostage and related oil crisis in late 1979, which further affected the economy, weren’t very helpful to Carter’s reelection chances. Americans may also have preferred Reagan’s optimism to Carter’s “crisis of confidence”.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      They were loan *guarantees*, though. They were essentially playing the role of co-signer. Money would have only left the government’s pocket had Chrysler defaulted.

      http://uspolitics.about.com/od/economy/a/chryslerBailout.htm

      “Congress passed the bill 21 December 1979, but with strings attached. Congress required Chrysler to obtain private financing for $1.5 billion — the government was co-signing the note, not printing the money — and to obtain another $2 billion in “commitments or concessions [that] can be arranged by Chrysler for the financing of its operations.””

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        There you go again :
        .
        Using FACTS instead of blind hate .
        .
        What kind of American are you anyhow ? =8-) .
        .
        SARC. in case it’s not obvious .
        .
        -Nate
        (who’s big Brother cleaned up on Chrysler stocks @ .50 CENTS the share back then)

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        Chrysler also had military and space divisions so it was in the national interest that loan guarantees be extended. Weaponized Keynesianism.

  • avatar
    SilverCoupe

    Though sometimes called Philadelphia’s third river, the car actually plummets from Lincoln Drive into the Wissahickon Creek. Lincoln Drive is my commuter route into center city Philadelphia (though I usually just take the train), and it is one of the reason’s I purchased my house in northwest Philadelphia. It is definitely a great route to drive in and out of the city, not so much at rush hour, of course, but during off hours. The official speed limit on the curvy road is 25, most people do about 45, and let’s just say I can be very aggressive on it when traffic allows. So far, I have stayed out of the creek!

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    There’s a reason for sayings like: “Momma Mopar is off her meds again!” The company careens from success to failure with an enthusiasm few other companies can muster.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I had an 84 5th Avenue with the leather interior,wire wheel covers, and a Bose Dolby stereo. It was a nice car and ran well but the body hardware was not very good. I had almost 200k miles when I gave it to charity. Sure it was 5 years newer than the model in the article but Iacocca should be given credit for getting Chrysler out of bankruptcy. Sergio is not even in the same league as Lee Iacocca.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    I don’t think the movie was set in Philadelphia for any reason other than that its producer George Litto is from there. Likewise for the previous De Palma picture, Dressed to Kill.

    When I lived in center city, I would sometimes go past his family’s bakery (Litto’s Italian Bakery, which has been around forever) during trips into south Philly. (I also saw a scene from Blow Out being filmed on a street corner; John Lithgow was making a call from a phone booth in the scene, although I didn’t know who he was at the time.)

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Good story, and I like the metaphors. I need to see that movie.

  • avatar
    John-95_Taurus_3.0_AX4N

    Meh, my evening was not spent in front of the tube.

    I chatted via text with my cousin who’s about my age and recently injured his back similarly to mine on the job when a bus hit his work truck, so he’s out of work while they figure that out.

    We talked about him building a nice shop with his settlement money. Little dreaming never hurts hehehe.

    He recently has put a new 7.3L in his 400k F-350 dually, got it cranked after many months of “a few hours here, a few there” working on it (mostly his occasional weekend off before the wreck). Runs great but has an oil leak. Lol, sounds like it’s still going to give him something to do for a while, new engine or not.

    It was supposedly a crate engine, from what I understand, bought at a Ford dealer. Maybe some little gasket or seal got a little buggered up during assembly.

    We talked about my Taurus. I told him how this past week I put new front brakes, LF remanufactured caliper and LF brake hose on it.

    How I ordered new strut/spring assemblies for the front of it a day or so ago, going to tackle that the next week, of course depending on whenever they arrive. He offered assistance if I needed it. Although neither of us should be doing stuff like this, it’s not like I can afford a shop to do it.

    Also, about the recent trans fluid/filter service I did 30k miles BEYOND my 200k planned service, lol, on it. Gotta keep the AX4N alive and healthy!

    During this time I had one shot, and an hour later two “pulls” off my little pint of Jack I bought in November lol (not exactly what you’d call a “heavy drinker”), so my evening was somewhat lubricated by a dab of the liquid persuasion as well.

    Sure as hell not a skull-busting Budweiser haha

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      My friend once bought a reman 350 long block for his Chevy truck, which we carefully installed.

      Before starting it, we filled it with oil and coolant. The coolant literally poured out the back of the engine onto the floor; we couldn’t even fill it. So we removed the engine, and discovered the assembler had mis-registered one head gasket so badly that the final stud hole was completely missed. We don’t even know how that’s possible, but it wasn’t obvious when we assembled the rest of the engine.

      So we replaced the head gasket, and reinstalled the motor. When it started, it was hemorrhaging oil from nearly every gasket and seal in the thing.

      He angrily contacted the builder, who was half the country away, and asked for a replacement an/or compensation for these problems. All he could score was $200 for his trouble.

      Finally, we tore the whole engine down and rebuilt it from the ground up, and this time it ran well with no leaks.

      Sometimes the ‘experts’ aren’t.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Newsbot has some personality? I like it. Since I also minored in film studies, I suggest a series: perhaps autos in film?

  • avatar
    olddavid

    It wasn’t a bad movie and had the company managed to cure the “Lean Burn” problems, not a bad car, either. My deep memory has “St. Regis” coming to mind, but I cannot remember when they sold that particular model.

  • avatar
    Joss

    We Brits had our own little thing “The Man Who Haunted Himself 1970.” Only it was a Leyland P5 & Roger Moore’s doppelganger going in the river.

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      Actually this was a remake of Britan’s 1966 ‘ Blow Up’ that had a Photographer and the same basic plot.
      .
      Not a good movie in 1966, I tried to watch it again just the other day and apart from fascinating on scene photography in London, it’s a total snoozer i found unwatchable .
      .
      -Nate

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Besides having the unfortunate appearance of being a coffin on wheels, Chrysler’s R-body had a rather odd styling feature in frameless windows. It might have shaved a few pounds but didn’t help in reducing wind noise. Worse was how the rear doors looked when opened, particularly the New Yorker version with the blanked-off, quasi opera window rear DLO.

    • 0 avatar
      OldManPants

      “a coffin on wheels”

      Many of is would still jump at a chance to buy such blissful cush and any allusion to our final house would only be comforting.

    • 0 avatar
      kmars2009

      I suppose it’s all about perspective. I thought the frameless doors and opera window,with lamp, standing up on it’s own, was cool. Cadillac had something similar on the 80 -85 Seville… However it was only the window standing. It looked weird. At least the landau feature, with the lamp, gave it a look of purpose and style.
      Again…Simply my perspective.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The town I grew up in had St. Regis police cruisers. They replaced the mid-70’s Dodge Coronet/Plymouth Fury B-Bodies. For some reason the town fixed the headlamp doors in the upright position, unless they broke and ended up that way.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    There’s something very attractive simple and forceful about this car. The rallye style wheels. The hard edged straight design.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Usually those are referred to as “Road Wheels” and I wish they would make a comeback. I think it would be a great look on some of the behemoth vehicles we drive today.

      • 0 avatar
        OldManPants

        Seconded. Platters, not spokes.

      • 0 avatar
        BigOldChryslers

        +1, I don’t like the tendency of the OEMs to put 5 or 6-spoke “Cragar-style” spoked aluminum wheels on seemingly everything today.

        FYI, the wheels on the turquoise car pictured at the top of this article are not original to the car. They are not the usual Chrysler chromed steel “road wheels”, but aluminum wheels that were unique to the late 70’s Cordoba-based Chrysler 300.

  • avatar
    CaddyDaddy

    …..hmmmmmm. This is got me thinking. Make sure to have all the police / towing assist bits on the suspension and drivetrain and then a 360 magnum swap with an A518 trans. Might be the correct set up? Was there a New Yorker Brougham edition? Gotta have the Brougham!

  • avatar
    kmars2009

    Ever since my parents looked at a 1981 New Yorker Fifth Avenue, I have always liked these cars. I love the hidden headlights, frameless doors, and landau top. I could never understand why these weren’t manufactured longer. They had clean lines and were comfortable. Switching to the former Le Baron platform was not the greatest move.
    Hopefully these are collectibles. Especially the ’81 Fifth Avenue in mink brown, with the stainless steel top. Talk about rare!

  • avatar
    WallMeerkat

    Before it went into the River, was the passenger – of British and French heritage – shoved out of the car and scooped up by a passing Peugeot and later change their name to ‘Talbot’?


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