The Truth About Cars » lee iacocca The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Jul 2014 13:26:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » lee iacocca Hammer Time: Are Shareholders Worth It? Wed, 28 May 2014 14:20:07 +0000 balancing act

Capitalism has no loyalties.

Everybody is replaceable.

Products. Employees. Employers. Services. Alliances. Joint Ventures. Financiers. Even the executives of multinational firms along with their board of directors are only as good as whatever quarterly numbers can be cooked up by their ‘independent’ auditing firm.

Capitalism is the ultimate “Let’s go!”, “Do it!” and “Screw you!” of economic systems. You name the angle or need in capitalism, and chances are that there is a market substitute that can immediately fill the gap. Even government regulations can be routinely challenged by trade organizations, international courts, and the all too common political handshake.

All this reality happens… on paper.

The truth is that capitalism is tempered by the culture where it’s practiced.

In the world we live in today, corporations and industry interests always pursue laws and relationships to protect their gotten gains. The ultimate goal of some companies isn’t progress. But to keep certain competitors and market substitutes far away from the hands of the free market.

Consumer first? Hell no! Earnings first? Hell yes! This brutal reality of corporate self-interest brings on a few tough questions when it comes to the American auto industry in particular.

Everyone has their own hierarchy of worthiness when it comes to an automaker’s success. Bonuses, dividends, stock options and pensions are all realigned to account for the rewards of good work.  So with that in mind, let me have you think about a question that has bugged me now for several years.

Are individual shareholders worth it?

As I look through the recent history of our industry, I am having trouble figuring out a single scenario where individual public shareholders made the difference. Ross Perot couldn’t kick Roger Smith’a ass into gear. Lee Iacocca and Kirk Kerkorian were the crown jesters of a pointless takeover exercise. As for Ford, wasn’t the fact that the Ford family held sway the major reason why an industry outsider like Alan Mulally was successful at restructuring the company? He didn’t need to worry about holding off on a strategy, or hiring some lackey to his management team,  just because some schmuck with a big block of stock thought he knew more.

Smaller shareholders are nothing more than gamblers. If something bad happens, they are the last to know and for good reason. They don’t know anything. Even if they did, their shares don’t enable them to help create that change. I can’t think of one solitary situation in the last 50 years where a small shareholder has been able to make a difference in any automobile company.

Who has offered the greatest stability and success in the long run? In our industry it may very well solely rest in the wiser and more patient hands of the family controlled business.

The most successful Japanese auto company is owned by the Toyoda family. The most successful European company, Volkswagen, is ruled by Porsche Automobil Holding. A German holding company owned by the Porsche families.

As for American manufacturers, only Ford, a company controlled by the Ford family for well over a century, was able to survive the 2008 meltdown without a direct bailout. The shareholders did nothing but lose all their money and offer many of us a golden opportunity to short their stocks. John Q Public and Cerberus were inevitably replaced by the unions, Fiat, and Uncle Sam.

Could individuals shareholders ever make a difference in this business? If not, do they simply make it easier for the family with limited resources to control the business?

Instead of offering a reflexive yes/no based on ideological allegiance, I want you to also think about the financial issues. We are in a heavily cyclical industry. White knights, along with new leaders, have helped save nearly every automaker from bankruptcy or a hostile takeover at one time or another.

But can this defense be better executed with a family that has their own name and reputation to defend? Instead of a bunch of shareholders who are in it simply for the stock price?

My answer is yes. I think small shareholders serve as nothing more than a money pool for those who are doing the real work. In a well-run organization they offer liquidity. In good times, they get dividends and stock appreciation. In bad times, they usually don’t have any means to change the running of a car business for the better.  This business has far too many influencers on too many levels for public shareholders to effect change.

Am I wrong?

Author’s Note: Even when Steve is wrong you can reach him at

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GM Pulls Small Q1 2014 Profit, Barra One Of Time’s 100 Most Influential People Fri, 25 Apr 2014 13:00:39 +0000 Mary-Barra-Chevrolet-Cruze

Reuters reports General Motors announced in its regulatory filing Thursday that it was under the microscope of five different government agencies related to its numerous recalls as of late. Aside from investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and both houses of Congress, the automaker revealed the Securities and Exchange Commission and an unnamed state attorney general’s office were conducting their own probes. The filing also acknowledged GM was under the gun of 55 pending class action lawsuits in the U.S., and five of the same in Canada. GM said they were working with all of the investigations, though the automaker did not say what the SEC was looking for in its probe.

Speaking of Congress, The Detroit News reports the chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, is readying the committee for a second round of hearings regarding GM’s handling of the February 2014 recall of 2.6 million 2003 – 2007 vehicles affected by the ignition switch issue which took over a decade to resolve. Though the committee is still poring over 300,000 documents related to the recall in preparation, Upton wasn’t sure if CEO Mary Barra would return to answer more questions, nor did he think it was good for public relations for the automaker to attempt to reinforce its liability shield before bankruptcy court. No date or topic for the hearing has been set thus far.

As for how hard the recalls hit GM’s bottom line, Automotive News says the automaker barely made a net profit for Q1 2014. With the aid of surging transaction prices on trucks offsetting losses linked to the various recalls, currency challenges in Venezuela, and ongoing issues in Europe, GM made $125 million during the first three months of the year. Barra told those on the call that while there have been setbacks as of late, the automaker’s overall progress was “sure and steady.”

Meanwhile, Reuters reports supplier Delphi reported a stronger Q1 2014 than had been expected, pulling a net profit of $320 million on the high demand of parts in Asia and North America. The supplier, responsible for the out-of-spec switch at the heart of the main recall, is working with GM to supply replacement switches for the affected vehicles.

Finally, The Detroit News reports Barra is one of Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people for 2014. The CEO cited her parents as major influences in her life, stating they taught her and her brother both “the value of a hard day’s work” and “the power of integrity,” adding they “continue to guide [her]” on a daily basis. In addition, former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca penned the following about Barra for her profile in the magazine:

Only time (and the pundits) will judge Barra and the kind of job she’ll do for GM, its board of directors, its employees, the dealers and, most important, the people who buy its cars. If she remains as forthcoming as I’ve seen her on television with Congress, she will enjoy a long tenure at the helm.

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The Deuce’s Coupe – Henry Ford II’s Personal Prototype Mustang Sat, 19 Apr 2014 01:56:20 +0000 IMG_0600

Full gallery here.

Fifty years ago this week, the first Ford Mustang went on sale. While Lee Iacocca is considered by many to be the father of the Mustang, the simple reality is that without the approval of Henry Ford II, the chief executive at Ford, the Mustang would never have happened. That took some doing. After American Motors had shown the viability of compact cars, in 1960, Ford introduced the Falcon, Chevrolet introduced the Corvair, and Pontiac brought out the original, compact, Tempest. When GM introduced the sportier Monza versions of the Corvair, Iacocca, who by then was a Ford corporate VP and general manager of the Ford division, wanted something to compete with it. Henry Ford II, aka “Hank the Deuce”, had to be convinced to spend money on the project, just a few short years after FoMoCo took a serious financial hit when the Edsel brand did not have a successful launch. Iacocca, one of the great salesmen, not only sold his boss on the concept of the Mustang, the Deuce came to love the pony car so much he had a very special one made just for himself.


Multiple accounts from other participants in the story affirm that HFII was reluctant to give the Mustang program a green light. By early 1962, Iacocca had already been turned down at least twice, with Ford shouting “No! No!” when Ford’s division boss asked for $75 million to go after the youth market with a reskinned Falcon. Iacocca’s unofficial “Fairlane Committee”, an advanced product planning group that met every couple of weeks at the Fairlane Motel, away from prying eyes and ears at the Glass House, Ford’s World headquarters, had been working on the Mustang idea, but the team despaired of getting HFII’s approval.

In an interview on the Mustang’s genesis, Iacocca explained his challenge:

Henry Ford II had just dealt with one of the biggest losses in Ford history with the Edsel. It was dumped just one year earlier at a loss of $250 million. Henry was not receptive to launching a new, unproven line of cars which would present further risk to the company.

I made a number of trips to his office before I gained approval to build. He told me if it wasn’t a success, it would be my ass, and I might be looking for a new job elsewhere.

Surprisingly, Iacocca got word that Ford would let him pitch the as yet unnamed sporty car one more time. With the meeting scheduled for the next morning, Iacocca convened an emergency meeting of his secret committee. Things had to be secret because in the wake of the Edsel debacle, Ford’s corporate culture had become very cautious.

According to Ford head of public relations and Iacocca’s speechwriter Walter T. Murphy, who was at the meeting, the group included: Don Frey, Ford’s chief product planner; John Bowers, advertising manager; Frank Zimmerman, Ford division head of marketing; Robert Eggert, the company’s chief market research authority; Hal Sperlich, who wore many hats as Iacocca’s right hand man (and would follow him to Chrysler): and William Laurie, senior officer of Ford’s advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson.

In a 1989 account that he wrote for Ward’s Auto, Murphy described the scene:

“What I need are some fresh grabbers for my meeting tomorrow morning with Henry at the Glass House,” Mr. Iacocca told his committee (Note: we always called him Henry at meetings when Mr. Ford was not present), Bob Eggert, the researcher, was first at bat: “Lee, let’s lead off with the name of the car we’ve decided on.”

The feeling was that Henry didn’t know we were picking the Mustang name and he’d be entranced. Mr. Frey supported Mr. Eggert. “That’s a good way to go, but emphasize that this stylish pony car will kick GM’s Monza square in the balls.” Henry should love that! “I’ve got it,” Mr. Iacocca responded as he snapped shut the little car research binder that Mr. Eggert had slipped in front of him. “Murphy, put together some notes for me by early tomorrow morning. Thank you. The meeting is adjourned.”

The following morning Mr. Ford stretched out in his leather chair, fingers clasped atop his expanding belly. Mr. Iacocca stood holding a few index cards. He was not smoking or fingering a cigar, as he usually did. Mr. Ford asked “What have you got, Lee?”

Lee launched into his pitch on the market for the youthful low-cost cars that Ford once dominated but had surrendered to GM along with a bushel of profit/penetration points. “Now this new little pony car, the Mustang, would give an orgasm to anyone under 30,” he said. Henry sat upright as if he had been jabbed with a needle. “What was that you said, Lee?” asked Mr. Ford.

Lee began to repeat his orgasm line but Mr. Ford interrupted. “No not that crap, what did you call the car?” “It’s the Mustang, Mr. Ford, a name that will sell like hell.” “Sounds good; have Frey take it to the product planning committee and get it approved. And as of now, you’ve got $75 million to fund your Mustang.”

In the end, Henry Ford II’s approval of the Mustang came down to the name. I’ll note that Walker’s recollection is slightly different than that of Iacocca, who says that Ford initially committed just $45 million for the project.

The Mustang team first developed the four cylinder midengine Mustang (now known as Mustang I) concept for the 1962 show circuit, gauging interest in a sporty car targeted at young people. Because of cost concerns, they were likely to never build such a car (the Edsel failure guaranteed that the car would have to be based on an existing Ford car), but the reaction was positive, leading to the Falcon based Mustang II concept (not to be confused with the 1974 Mustang II production car). The Mustang II was based on a very early preproduction Mustang body shell, first used for a styling study with stretched front end (with “Cougar” badging – the name that convinced HFII was chosen very late in the process)  and then taken out on the ’63 auto show circuit to drum up interest in the new car. The Mustang II is owned by the Detroit Historical Museum and it would be hard to put a dollar value on such a rare and historically significant Mustang.


Henry Ford II with the Mustang at Ford’s pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where the Mustang was first introduced to the public. Above and behind him you can see one of the convertibles used in the Walt Disney Co. designed Magic Skyway that carried visitors through Ford’s exhibit.

Before the official start of Mustang production on March 9, 1964, in February Ford started to build actual preproduction prototypes of the Mustang, about 180 of them in all. The bodies-in-white were pilot plant units built off of body bucks by Ford Body & Assembly in Allen Park, which explains the leaded seams. The bodies were then trucked to the nearby Dearborn assembly plant where they were assembled as part of the validation process.

lee-iacocca- deuce bordinat

From left to right: Lee Iacocca, Henry Ford II, and Gene Bordinat

One of of those preproduction prototypes was set aside for special treatment by Ford Design. Ten years later, it was just another old Mustang when Art Cairo spotted a classified ad in a Detroit newspaper that read, “1965 Mustang once owned by the Ford family.” The asking price was a very reasonable $1,000 so Cairo went to look at the car. He found what appeared to be a Hi-Po 289 hardtop in black. It had some unusual parts, though. The vinyl roof was leather, not vinyl, as was the interior upholstery and dashpad. The brightwork on the wheel arch lips was die-cast, not anodized aluminum as on production cars. Door jams and trunk openings had fully leaded seams, and there were features like GT foglights in the grille, exhaust tips and styled steel wheels that were not available on early production Mustangs. Under the hood, there was an alternator instead of a generator, which was what ran the electrical system of early Mustangs. The only Ford products that offered alternators in mid 1964 were Lincolns.

On the interior, in addition to leather seats there was real teakwood, molded leather door panels with pistol-grip door handles, and a factory reverb unit and rear speaker under the package shelf. Door strikers and latches were chrome plated. In addition to what appeared to be an authentic High Performance 289, the car had disc brakes up front, a “top loader” four speed manual transmission and a 9 inch rear end with a 3.50:1 final drive ratio.

When Art read the VIN, 5F07K100148, and realized that it was a genuine “K code” Mustang, an early production “1964 1/2″ model, with a real Hi-Po 289 and lots of oddball parts, he recognized that it was a special car and that he needed to buy it (it would turn out later that Cairo’s Mustang was the very first K-code Mustang built). In the glovebox he found an owner’s manual for a ’65 Mustang written with the name “Edsel B. Ford II” and a Grosse Pointe address. The VIN in the manual, however, was for a fastback and didn’t match the one in the car.

Edsel, Henry Ford II’s son, would have been in high school when the car was new so Cairo figured it was an authentic Ford family car and bought it, assuming it was the younger Ford’s personal car. In 1983, when Art was interviewing Edsel for the Mustang Monthly magazine, Edsel revealed to him that the hardtop was not his, but his father’s and that somehow the owner’s manual for his fastback ’65 ended up with his dad’s car. Since the car’s restoration, Edsel autographed the teakwood glovebox door.

It turns out that while the cars were built for Ford family members to use, they were not titled to the Ford’s but rather remained the possession of the Ford company. After Henry and Edsel were done with their Mustangs, they were returned to FoMoCo and sold. The story that Cairo had heard was that the Deuce gave his Mustang to his chauffeur, who then sold it to the person who sold it to Cairo.

In addition to the changes mentioned above, other modifications were discovered when the car was finally restored. The alternator meant that the car had a custom wiring harness. A steel scatter shield was welded into the transmission tunnel in case of a failure of the clutch or flywheel. The engine was a real Hi-Po 289, but it had experimental cylinder heads, and even the steering box was not a production unit. The original headliner was leather, to match the roof and upholstery and in addition to all the real wood and chrome plating, a custom AM radio with die-cast knobs and buttons was installed.


“X” stands for experimental. The Hi-Po 289 V8 in Henry Ford II’s personal Mustang had experimental heads.

The fog lamps, exhaust trumpets and die-cast moldings were developmental parts planned to be introduced the following year, installed by Ford Design.

As mentioned, when Cairo bought the car, he knew it was special, being an early K-code car, but he didn’t take the Ford family provenance that seriously. He loaned the car to his brother, who beat on it pretty hard until something broke in the 289′s valvetrain. Art retrieved the keys, overhauled the heads and did a mild restoration and respray.

He didn’t drive it much because his job involving new vehicle launches at Ford kept him on the road a lot, moving from assembly plant to assembly plant. Though he drove 5F07K100148 sparingly, for the most part the car was unknown to the Mustang community.

In 2002, Cairo started getting worried about the long term effects of inactivity and humidity and a deep inspection found significant decay, rust and rodent damage. Rustbusters, a restoration shop in Redford, Michigan was entrusted with the car.

This was going to be a complicated job. Some parts, like the headliner and upholstery are so original they cannot be “restored”. How do you restore a one off with a replica?

The car was carefully taken apart, with copious notes and photographs taken. Once disassembled, they discovered that the rust had eaten through body panels, floors, frame-rails, wheelhouses, quarter-panels, inner fenders, doors, and the cowl vent. Had this been a run of the mill ’65 Mustang, most owners would have removed the VIN and bought a replacement body from Dynacorn.

Instead, with the help of reproduction company National Parts Depot, Rustbusters used a body jig custom designed for vintage Mustangs and repaired all of the sheet metal. A modern self-etching primer sealer was used as was polymer seam sealer, but Cairo was able to locate some vintage Ford Raven Black enamel, and after spraying, the Mustang was color sanded and hand rubbed old school style to replicate a 1964 era paint job. Unfortunately, the die-cast prototype wheel-lip moldings were too corroded to use.

Early production Mustangs came with an unimproved hood that had sharp edges, replaced in 1965 with a hood that had a rolled lip. Since all preproduction and Indy Pace Car Mustangs (Ford provided the pace car for the 1964 race) that have surfaced so far feature the later style hood, Art decided to go with the “1965″ hood, which is how he found the car when he bought it.

The engine was rebuilt to factory specs, other than a .030 overbore, but inspections revealed that both the transmission and rear end just needed new seals and gaskets.

The car was finished just in time for Ford’s centennial in 2003 and Art was invited to display his car in front of Ford World Headquarters as part of the 100th anniversary celebration. This month it’s appropriately back in the lobby of the “Glass House”, whose official name is the Henry Ford II World Center, along with some other historic Mustangs, to celebrate the Mustang’s semicentennial.

mump_0607_11z+1964_ford_mustang+rear_seat_tag mump_0607_10z+1964_ford_mustang+part_number mump_0607_09z+1964_ford_mustang+passengers_side_door mump_0607_08z+1964_ford_mustang+radiator mump_0607_07z+1964_ford_mustang+engine_view mump_0607_06z+1964_ford_mustang+rear_view mump_0607_05z+1964_ford_mustang+rear_view mump_0607_12z+1964_ford_mustang+rear_speaker IMG_0583a 1964-Ford-Mustang-with-Henry-Ford-II mump_0505_26_+art_cairo_289_high_performance_engine+_cylinder_head lee-iacocca- deuce bordinat ]]> 22
Junkyard Find: 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Fri, 07 Feb 2014 14:00:11 +0000 22 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThe Chrysler K platform spun off many K-based descendents, but genuine, pure Ks have been fairly rare in this series. We’ve seen this ’83 Dodge Aries sedan, this ’85 Dodge 600 Turbo, and this ’88 Dodge Aries wagon so far, though I’ve passed over many dozens more. Still, when I see a first-year Aries wagon in this weird chalky gray-green color and it has a “Hemi 2.6″ engine, I break out the camera!
13 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThese cars depreciated just as fast as all the other Detroit front-drivers of the 1980s, which means that only relatively trouble-free ones managed to survive 33 years on the street. One expensive problem after about 1989, good-bye!
12 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThe Hemi 2.6 was really the good old Mitsubishi Astron 4G54 engine, which made 114 not-so-bad-for-1981 horses. Sadly, Chrysler never used any Simca-derived engines in the K family.
07 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThis wagon has plenty of options, including air conditioning and futuristic digital chronometer.
05 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinAs the street price of a battered Aries-K approached scrap-value levels, the socioeconomic status of the average K-car owner also dropped.
03 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinStill, you can see hints of former luxury in the much-used faded-mint-green vinyl interior.

As you can see here, the ’81 K-cars were sold on price, period.

02 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 03 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 04 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 05 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 06 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 07 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 08 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 09 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 10 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 12 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 13 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 14 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 15 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 16 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 17 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 18 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 19 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 22 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin ]]> 137
Junkyard Find: 1985 Dodge 600 Turbo Thu, 31 Oct 2013 13:00:42 +0000 19 - 1985 Dodge 400 Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinOnce Chrysler’s K platform proved successful, the E (for “extended”) version of the K soon followed. First was the 400, which was then upgraded to the 600 for the 1983 model year. You don’t see many 600s these days, though you might see the occasional Hongqi CA750F version on the streets of Beijing. Here’s a once-luxurious brown 600 I spotted in a Denver wrecking yard.
11 - 1985 Dodge 400 Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThis thing is covered with crystal pentastars.
13 - 1985 Dodge 400 Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinYou like brown cordo-velour and pleather for your interior? Good!
03 - 1985 Dodge 400 Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinA vinyl landau top was still a relevant feature on crypto-luxury coupes in the mid-1980s.
04 - 1985 Dodge 400 Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThis one hasn’t held up too well under the Colorado sun.
09 - 1985 Dodge 400 Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinBecause 1985 was the future, you got the Chrysler “Message Center” in your 600.
17 - 1985 Dodge 400 Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinAnd, of course, turbocharging.

Even by the standards of early Post-Malaise Era America, it’s hard to imagine that the Dodge 600 convertible was the object of many yearning dreams.

Cheaper than a Buick!

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No, The Ford Mustang Was Not Named After the SMU Football Team Tue, 29 Oct 2013 10:30:20 +0000

After the University of Michigan and Southern Methodist University announced that their football teams will play against each other for only the second time ever, SMU issued a press release about what the school says is the role the first game back in 1963 had on automotive history. Essentially the school, whose sports teams are called the Mustangs, is claiming that Lee Iacocca named the Ford Mustang after their football team. Quote SMU:

Even though it was just one game, the 1963 game at Michigan plays a big part in SMU lore. Legend has it that when Ford Motor Company was preparing to introduce the sports car that would gain fame as the Mustang, it was considering other names such as Cougar, Bronco, Cheetah and Colt. But on Sept. 28, 1963, SMU took an undersized but quick team to Ann Arbor to play a massive Michigan Wolverine squad. Michigan gained the early advantage, but had to fight off the feisty Ponies for a 27-16 win.

The story continues that after the game, Ford’s Lee Iacocca entered the SMU locker room and addressed the disappointed Mustangs.

“Today,” Iacocca said, “After watching the SMU Mustangs play with such flair, we reached a decision. We will call our new car the Mustang. Because it will be light, like your team; It will be quick, like your team; And it will be sporty, like your team.”

Ford’s new car got its name, and the rest, as they say, is history.

History? The press release was closer to the truth when it used the words “lore” and “legend”. For his part, Iacocca seems to prefer to leave the matter unclear. He’s discussed the various animal names considered and how he and Gene Bourdinat, who headed Ford styling at the time settled on Mustang, but Iacocca has also declined to either confirm or deny the SMU legend. Iacocca is the consummate salesman, the Mustang is part of his legacy, and I’m sure that he’d still like to see Ford continue to sell a lot of them in Texas. Still, while it’s possible that Iacocca did meet with the SMU team in their locker room after the loss, if he did do so and mention the name of the upcoming Mustang to the team, it seems to me that he was doing so as part of the publicity roll out of the pony car. Ford wanted to sell Mustangs in Texas back in 1964 too. September 28, 1963 was less than seven months before the Mustang was introduced and by then the name would have been set in chrome, if not in stone.

There are lots of stories about how the Mustang got named. John Najjar, a Ford design executive said that he named the car for a World War II fighter plane, the P-51 Mustang and Ford has used that story in publicity materials, but Ford historian John Clor doesn’t put much stock in that PR. It seems, though, that a persuasive argument can be made that the name Mustang was first suggested by a young Ford stylist named Phil Clark, who also had a hand in designing the Mustang’s running pony emblem.

How the name was chosen might be unclear but it’s certain that by the time that football game was played, Iacocca and his team had committed to the name Mustang. Ford had been using the name since at least 1962 when they introduced what is now known as the Mustang I concept, a small four cylinder midengine sports roadster. In the video about the Mustang I’s development below, you can even see Clark working on the shape of the galloping mustang mascot.

Click here to view the embedded video.

As part of the publicity campaign leading up to the April 17, 1964 start of retail sales of the production Mustang, Ford introduced the Mustang II concept, based on a preproduction 1964 1/2 Mustang body shell, at the Watkins Glen racetrack on October 6, 1963, just two weeks after the SMU/UofM football game. Contractor Dearborn Steel Tubing had been working on the car since the summer so it’s not likely that the concept (or the production car) was named just days before the concept’s first public introduction.

Finally, there is photographic evidence. While the use of a Cougar emblem on what appears to be the Mustang II concept in a Ford styling photograph dated June 1963 shows that a final decision may not have been made by early summer, Nick Bunkley of the Automotive News reports that he was sent three photos of a Mustang prototype by Ford that are dated Sept. 27, 1963, the day before the football game of lore. The car in those photos has “Mustang” badging on the back and the famous pony mascot on the grille.

I suppose that SMU can be forgiven for embellishing their lore. SMU is in Texas. Texas is part of the West, and in the West, Sir, when legend becomes fact, you print the legend.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca Endorses Mitt Romney Sat, 20 Oct 2012 15:48:26 +0000

Retired Chrysler CEO and former Ford president Lee Iacocca has endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Iacocca is a political independent with a record of endorsing both Republicans and Democrats for the United States’ highest elected office. In his endorsement statement, which was also published as an op-ed piece in the Detroit News, Iacocca stressed his and Romney’s experience in “turnarounds”, America’s need for leadership, and his opinion that the future of the country depends on the results of this particular presidential election.

It’s safe to assume that the Romney campaign will see Iacocca’s endorsement as helpful in both the retired Chrysler chief’s native Pennsylvania and in Romney’s native Michigan. Both of those states have been considered to be solid electoral votes for President Obama but some recent polls have been trending towards Romney, with reports of his campaign starting to allocate funds for campaigning in those states, indicating that they might still be in play. Iacocca is widely admired in Michigan and his opinions still carry weight in the automotive community. Chrysler has its headquarters in Auburn Hills as well as a number of engine and assembly plants elsewhere in Michigan. The automaker is one of that state’s biggest employers.

It’s probably also safe to assume that the endorsement of Iacocca, who shepherded Chrysler through its first bailout, backed by federal loan guarantees in the early 1980s, is intended to sway automotive related voters who are favorable to Obama because of the more recent bailout of Chrysler and GM. That has to be assumed because Iacocca never explicitly references the 2009 bankruptcies and restructuring in his statement. In a 2010 interview with the Detroit News, Iacocca is on record as supporting the Obama administration’s actions to save GM and Chrysler, though he expressed reservations about how the deal was structured.

Though they’re probably accurate, most of those assumptions can’t be confirmed. At 88, Mr. Iacocca is enjoying his retirement and he no longer does press interviews or speeches. He also won’t be doing any public appearances with Romney or on his behalf.

Some of Iacocca’s reservations about how the bailouts were structured might have been about his not insignificant ego. According to Iacocca, Pres. Obama’s task force on restructuring the domestic auto industry asked for his advice but ignored his recommendations.  In that 2010 interview Iacocca said that the task force had “called me for my advice [in the spring of 2009], but they didn’t follow it too well.” Iacocca has also been critical of the number of Chrysler and GM  dealers culled in the bankruptcy (“they went too far”) and of micromanagement of those automakers by that same task force. Iacocca told the DetNews that at the time he told task force co-chairman Larry Summers, who was President Obama’s economic adviser, “Keep your hands off of (the auto companies). You can’t run a business out of Washington, D.C.” Iacocca had a personal stake in the bankruptcies. To reference Robert Farago’s question of Bob Lutz’s over his personal finances, Iacocca lost 80% of his Chrysler pension in the restructuring.

It’s possible that there’s more to this endorsement than politics. It might be personal. The men do know each other. Iacocca was a rising star at Ford at the same time that Mitt’s father, George Romney, was running American Motors and Iacocca has expressed admiration for the senior Romney. The social world of Detroit auto execs living in Grosse Pointe, Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Isle has always been incestuous and nepotistic never been that large and Iacocca socialized with George and Lenore Romney and has known Mitt since he was a boy.

In his 2008 book, Where Have All The Leaders Gone?, Iacocca expressed praise for Romney’s competence in business and governance as well as his personal character while expressing concerns about the former Mass. governor’s embrace of more conservative social issues. It appears that Iacocca’s concerns for the economic future of the United States now outweigh those reservations.

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Curbside Classic: 1983 Dodge Aries (Original K-Car) Thu, 19 Aug 2010 16:55:44 +0000

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.

More new Curbside Classics here

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1972 Ford Carousel: The Chrysler Minivan’s True Father? Wed, 31 Mar 2010 17:28:03 +0000

Why the endless questions and arguments about the origins of the Chrysler minivans? It’s the old story: “success has a thousand fathers”. You don’t see designers and execs fighting about the paternity of the Aztek. We stepped on some toes regarding the origins of the Espace, and heard from its father. And we took a wild (and disputed) stab at finding the maternal lineage of European minivans, but the American minivan paternity wars go on. Its origins clearly go back to the early seventies, when both Chrysler and Ford developers claim to have been working on “garageable vans”. Meanwhile, the commonly held story is that Hal Sperlich and Lee Iaccocca’s Minimax concept was spurned by Henry Ford II, and they took it with them to bring to fruition at Chrysler. And as usual, its not quite as simple as that. 

Before we jump into the Ford side of the story, lets quickly recap Chrysler’s. In an article at Allpar, Burton Bouwkamp, Chrysler’s Director of product Planning at the time makes the claim that Chrysler was working on a RWD “garageable van” in the early and mid seventies, but were unable to get the funding to take it beyond the clay model and seating buck stage. It wasn’t until Hal Sperlich and Lee Iaccoca arrived from Ford, that the general idea was put on the front burner again, but this time in a more compact FWD package that eventually became the production Chrysler minivan.

But the story that is generally circulated is that Sperlich’s idea for a small van at Ford was rebuffed by Henry Ford II, implying that Ford blew the opportunity to develop the first small van. But like most stories of the kind, it wasn’t nearly that simple. Hank II strongly endorsed a “garageable van”, and the Carousel concept was built in 1972 and almost production ready. And although it’s RWD and larger than Chrysler’s original minivans, it appears to be very similar in size and configuration as today’s un-minivans and especially Ford’s own Flex.

A thread at on the origins of the American minivan brought the designer of the above pictured Ford Carousel concept, and some very enlightening facts about it and the Minimax, which this is not. Dick Nesbitt was a designer at Ford in the early 1970s, and in his words he describes the circumstances:

… when I was assigned to the Light Truck and Tractor studio, we received a product planning directive to develop a derivative of the upcoming new Ford Econoline Van, code named “Nantucket” and due for release in 1975. The derivative was code named “Carousel” and was intended to attract station wagon buyers with more car-like styling combined with the added appeal of van utility.

From hundreds of concept sketches created by staff designers in this studio during 1972, one of mine was selected by Hal Sperlich, Director of Product Planning, and Lee Iacocca as the approved design direction. I directed the construction of a full-size clay model, and the vehicle received a great deal of interest from Henry Ford II. Unfortunately, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 halted further development after a drivable, fabricated metal prototype (top) had been built.

The Carousel was specifically designed as a “Garagable Family Van” alternative to the traditional station wagon market segment. This concept later became one of the most successful and enduring product innovations ever created when Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca launched the Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan in 1984. (from

Nesbitt goes to clarify that the “Garagable Family Van” and the Minimax were not at all one and the same, but that the Minimax (of which there are no pictures) was a very compact four-seater FWD boxy car designed for congested urban settings:

The Carrousel significantly influenced the Chrysler Minivan success story,  Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca have often referred to the MiniMax as being the inspiration for the Voyager/Caravan although it was a very small urban vehicle created as a possible solution to overcrowded city traffic problems. The MiniMax concept was a four passenger front wheel drive commuter vehicle with almost no luggage storage capacity and no real future. The significance of the Carrousel proposal was that it offered a dramatically improved alternative to the typical interior-space-restricted station wagons of the 1970′s. The key “Nantucket Family Van” variation design and marketing directive was to create a lower “garagable” overall height compared to the Econoline van range from which it was derived ,combined with more automotive-like styling.

The non-garagable height and truck-like styling of the Econoline Club Wagon series were seen as major obstacles to any kind of high volume sales characteristic of contemporary station wagons–but the interior room available in a van had obvious advantages. The Carrousel Family Van was intended to represent the best of both worlds,and was seen by Ford as a major marketing breakthrough opportunity. Chrysler’s Minivans were and are not really “Mini” at all–and achieved monumental success as a more space efficient “Family Van” alternative to contemporary station wagons combined with “garagable” height and automotive-like styling as a direct extension of the original Carrousel idea back in 1972.

This account clarifies that the Ford Garagable Van and Minimax concepts were two totally different vehicles, at polar opposite ends of what could be considered a minivan, even given its loosely defined parameters. And it also makes it quite clear that what was developed at Chrysler was something quite in the middle of the two, which was clearly a more pragmatic solution in response to both the energy crisis and the availability of the K-car platform. It also makes it clear that Ford took the “garageable van” concept much closer to production than Chrysler’s early clays of theirs. So now we just need a picture of the Minimax to make that family tree, and close the door on this subject.

(hat tip to Robert Walter)

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Curbside Classic: 1984 Dodge Caravan Thu, 18 Mar 2010 06:24:06 +0000

There’s nothing truly original in the car business. Everyone begs, steals and borrows from everyone else. Or sometimes, the same (and usually obvious) idea ferments for years in various heads or companies, and then suddenly appears in the same format at the same time in totally different places. How about the modern FWD mini-van? It first bubbled up in two totally different branches of Chrysler, sat for years,and then suddenly sprang forth, one in the US, the other in France, both at the same time. Coincidence, or is it just that every idea has its day in the sun? For the minivan, that would be 1983. In France, it was the Espace; in the US it was the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager.

We’ll touch on the Renault Espace again later, whose history is convoluted but less contested historically than the Chrysler minivans. Lee Iaccoca and Hal Sperlich, who left Ford in for Chrysler in 1978, will tell you that they conceived of a “Minimax” project at Ford in the seventies and pitched it to Hank II, who turned them down. Chrysler historians have plenty of evidence that they were at work on a similar project during the early seventies, a “garageable van”. Both concepts initially were based on RWD chassis, there being no suitable FWD platforms in those days of yore. Realistically, they were more like a cross between traditional wagons and the large vans of the time. Probably both were true, and very likely someone at GM had the thought too.

Hal Sperlich was particularly enthusiastic of the concept; whether it was from his ideas at Ford or what he saw at Chrysler is unknown. But in 1978, development began in earnest, and customer input dictated the program: room enough between the rear wheels for a 4×8 sheet of plywood, removable and flexible seating for up to seven, a sliding door, bucket front seats to allow Mommy to attend to the bawling kids in the back. Now the idea needed a donor platform.

By this time, FWD was deemed essential, as early prototypes with slant sixes and RWD intruded too heavily in the passenger compartment. Chrysler’s Simca-based Horizon/Omni offered the first opportunity, but Sperlich wisely decided to hold off until the larger K-car platform came along a couple of years later.  Additional delays because of competing demands and Sperlich’s desire to get it right the first time delayed the final product until the fall of 1983, when it was introduced to a highly receptive market.

The timing was excellent: the second energy crisis was still just winding down, so efficiency was still big on everyone’s mind. With only four cylinder engines, and a body shorter than the K-car sedans, the Chrysler T-115 vans had that covered pretty well. And the baby boomers were hitting the reproductive phase of life, and were more than willing to try something different than ye olde Country Squire that they had thrown up in. The minivans were born under an auspicious sign.

Before we get into the guts of the so-called Magic Vans, lets quickly pick up the story of that other 1984 mini-van pioneer, the Espace, because it also got its start under Chrysler’s roof, but in England. Europe UK (formerly Rootes) designer Fergus Pollock, who later was senior design manager at Jaguar, developed a van project in the seventies, about the same time as Giorgetto Giugiario’s highly influential 1978 Megagamma concept for Lancia.

Pollock’s design focused on the one-box approach, whereas the Megagamma retained the vestigial hood that the Caravan also appeared with. Of course one can likely find numerous earlier designs, even production ones, that will be thrown at this argument, but the Megagamma’s FWD layout, package and lines are unmistakably apparent in the Voyager/Caravan, and to some extent in the Espace. Lets not forget the line at the top of this article. And let’s also not forget that the Megagamma’s first offshoot saw the light of day in the 1981, as the Nissan’s Prairie/Stanza Wagon, one of our first Curbside Classics. That predates both of the “pioneering” minivans by at least three years.

To wrap up the Espace story, Chrysler sold its European ops to Peugeot in 1978, and the Espace was going to be a Talbot, which is what Simcas were rebadged as under their new owner. Matra was doing the lead work on its development, and when Peugeot chickened out, Matra took the project to Renault, who bit. But the first gen Espace still was full of Chrysler/Talbot parts. You will be tested on this tomorrow.

Enough of the fuzzy early history of the Chrysler bobsy-twins. What actually and finally appeared in the dealers on January 1984 was a remarkably innovative car, for conservative America. The first few years of production were strictly the short-wheelbase versions, whose seven passenger seating was a bit iffy all the way around. And lest I forget, there was an eight passenger version, with a bench seat(!) in the front. Try finding one of those now; it’s getting iffier just to find the early versions at all.

The one I found here is a five passenger version, which was not just a seven-passenger without one row of seats. The  back seat was full-width, and was further back than the middle seat of the Mormon-family version. I seem to remember that the front bench also came with this setup, creating a rather traditional six-passenger arrangement straight out of the old days. In any case, the five seater had a very decent rear cargo area; the seven had next to nothing. It was a painful compromise, along with painfully short legroom that led to the much happier long-wheelbase Grand versions in 1987.

Power? What power? These early vans were rather pathetically lacking in that respect, with the standard 2.2 Chrysler four belching out all of 84 hp, while the optional “Silent Shaft” 2.6 liter Mitsubishi four had some 104 hp, more or less, depending on the exact year. A floor-mounted stick was fairly rare, but this one has it, and was preferable for a bit of zest compared to the three-speed Torque-Flite three-speed transaxle. At least it was reliable, unlike it’s self destructing but smother-shifting A-604 Utra-Masochistamatic that darkened our skies beginning in 1989.

The little vans that could were a runaway hit for Chrysler, and not just at the beginning. They were still selling at or close to list price into the early nineties, as I know from personal experience, having written a check for $22k in 1992 for a mid-line Grand Caravan. That’s solidly over $33k in today’s money. Live and learn. And for Chrysler, it was build and earn; by the billions (of dollars). The mini-vans were the cash cows that made Chrysler into the highly profitable company it once was.

It didn’t hurt that both GM and Ford bungled their mini-van competition royally, to the point they finally threw in their towels. That alone is one of the stranger stories in recent automotive history. It took Honda and Toyota to take on the Caravan/Voyager, and finally destroy Chrysler’s hegemony of the market. Who could have seen that in 1984?

The long-wheelbase versions were a big improvement, and eventually the short version went bye-bye, replaced today by vehicles such as the Kia Rondo and Mazda 5. Along with the extra length, Chrysler finally threw in a V6 engine, even if it was Mitsubishi’s. It took several years more before Chrysler’s rugged 3.3 V6 appeared, and in the meantime, it resorted to some creative moves to satisfy the now power-hungry Mommies. Since Mitsubishi could only deliver so many V6s, Chrysler drafted the turbo 2.2 four for mini-van duty, a rather unlikely combination. And contrary to those that claim otherwise, the turbo found its way into the Grand versions too, as some friends unfortunately had one. With its turbo-canyon and no low-end torque, it was an improvised stop gap that desperate buyers were willing to stomach, if only briefly.

A world without Chrysler minivans is hard to imagine now. They just HAD to happen, as did videotape, the internet, and ipods. And in each of those cases, their inventing weren’t exactly as simple as Sony, Al Gore and Apple. But in these times of fuzzy history and denial of evolution,  Chrysler duly deserves to join them as the inventor of the mini-van. Amen.

More new Curbside Classics here

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