Lee Iacocca Arrives at Chrysler
Sharp reversals in the car industry prompted a complete rethink that must have seemed quite alien for Chrysler, a company that had solemnly promised never to build a smaller car. But a new philosophy was emerging that echoed some 1958 remarks of then-outgoing president K.T. Keller, who suggested Chrysler should "get back to design for function, with more stress on utility."
The most visible evidence of the new order was the 1975 Cordoba. Though this personal-luxury coupe broke new ground for the marque, it wasn't at all daring: largely a twin to that year's revamped Dodge Charger, with styling that looked like a cross between the sleek Jaguar XJ6 and semi-baroque Chevrolet Monte Carlo. On a 115-inch wheelbase, this new Cordoba was the shortest Chrysler since the war -- and only 2.5 inches longer than the very first 1924 Six.
Cordoba was billed as "the new small Chrysler," which it was, and something of a road car, which it wasn't despite standard antiroll bars and steel-belted radial tires. Reflecting its true character were interiors upholstered in crushed velour or vinyl with brocade cloth. "Fine Corinthian leather," extolled on TV by actor Ricardo Montalban, cost extra.
Save higher prices, the rest of the line was little changed for 1975-76. The accent was now strictly on luxury with a modicum of "efficiency" thrown in. The opulent New Yorker Brougham boasted standard leather, velour, or brocade upholstery, plus shag carpeting, "test-tube" walnut appliques, and filigree moldings. Economy, such as it was, got a little help from numerically lower axle ratios and a new "Fuel Pacer" option -- an intake manifold-pressure sensor hooked to a warning light that glowed during heavy-footed moments.
Chrysler fielded something even smaller for 1977: the mid-size, 3500-pound, M-body LeBaron. Cleanly styled in the boxy Mercedes idiom on a 112.7-inch wheelbase, it came in standard and upmarket Medallion trim as either a coupe or four-door sedan. Despite its origins in the workaday A-body Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare compacts, it sold quite well, providing timely sales assistance in a market again clamoring for smaller cars. The full-size line was mildly facelifted, and Newport Custom departed. Cordoba soldiered on in two little-changed models.
LeBaron got greater emphasis for 1978 with the addition of downpriced S versions and a brace of Town & Countrys, the latter replacing full-size Chrysler wagons. All offered 90- and 110-bhp versions of the hoary 225-cid "Slant Six" as alternatives to optional 140- and 155-bhp 318-cid V-8s. The slow-selling full-sizers were further reduced by dropping pillared four-doors. The 440 V-8 was still available for them, but most were ordered with the standard 400. LeBaron had bowed with square headlamps newly approved by Washington. Cordoba now got them, too.
For 1979, Chrysler issued downsized big sedans on a 118.5-inch wheelbase: six and V-8 Newport and V-8-only New Yorker and New Yorker Fifth Avenue. Built on the firm's 1971-vintage intermediate platform, these ostensibly "new" R-body models were considerably smaller and lighter than the old mastodons, but still looked big and heavy -- which they were.
Sales were underwhelming: about 133,000 in a record Detroit year. The LeBaron line now listed base, Medallion, and new midrange Salon models plus woody-look T&C wagons, none substantially altered. Reviving the spirit of the great letter-series 300 was a midyear option group for Cordoba comprising unique trim, bucket seats, cross-hair grille, and a 195-bhp 360-cid V-8.
By this point, a gathering financial crisis was threatening Chrysler Corporation's very existence. But help was already onboard in the person of newly named chairman Lee A. Iacocca, the recently ousted president of Ford who'd arrived in late 1978. He arrived none too soon. Not only was Chrysler near bankruptcy, it was in "a state of anarchy," as laccoca wrote later in his best-selling autobiography. "There was no real committee setup, no cement in the organizational chart, no system of meetings to get people talking to each other…I took one look at the system and almost threw up. That's when I knew I was in really deep trouble."
"Chrysler had no overall system of financial controls," he said. "Nobody in the whole place seemed to fully understand what was going on when it came to financial planning and projecting. I couldn't find out anything. I already knew about the lousy cars, the bad morale, and the deteriorating factories. But I simply had no idea that I wouldn't even be able to get hold of the right numbers so that we could begin to attack some basic problems."
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