Lee Iacocca Reverses Chrysler's Poor Sales
New products to answer some of Chrysler's problems were nearing completion when Iacocca came in; others were further away. None would have appeared without the federal loan guarantees Iacocca managed to coax from a reluctant United States Congress in mid-1980.
For the Chrysler line, this situation dictated a holding action for 1980-81, though with a few game attempts at something different. Prime among the latter was a second-generation Cordoba, a crisply reskinned LeBaron coupe on the same 112.7-inch wheelbase. It was a fair success its first year at some 54,000 units, but annual volume then fell to less than half of that through '83, after which Cordoba said adios.
A 185-bhp 360 V-8 was optional for 1980; choices then thinned to a standard 85-bhp, 225-cid Slant-Six or a 130-bhp 318 V-8. A less-expensive LS edition for 1981-83 again tried to evoke letter-series memories, but few were sold.
The big R-body Newport/New Yorker provided little sales help in this period, and was dropped after much-reduced 1981 volume of fewer than 11,000 (including a high proportion of taxi and police sales). A much happier fate awaited the M-body LeBaron, which also looked terminal but would run a good deal longer. It was facelifted for 1980 with bolder grilles, more-sharply creased fenders and, save wagons, blockier rooflines. Making room for the downsized Cordoba, LeBaron coupes moved to the 108.7-inch Aspen/Volare wheelbase and gained a more close-coupled look.
What ultimately prolonged this design appeared as a mid-1980 special called LeBaron Fifth Avenue Edition, a loaded four-door with throwback styling in the image of the like-named R-body New Yorker. When the latter was canceled and a new front-drive LeBaron instituted for '82, this one model, kept on as a "downsized" New Yorker, showed increasing sales strength as the market recovered from its early-decade doldrums. By 1984, it was simply Fifth Avenue and up to over 79,000 produced -- a figure that neared 110,000 the next year. Remarkably, the Fifth Avenue was still bringing in over 70,000 orders per year as late as 1987.
There was no mystery in this. A lot of folks still craved traditional rear-drive American luxury. This one offered plenty of standard amenities at attractive prices that began around $13,000 and finished the decade only some $5000 higher. Yes, the Fifth Avenue was terribly outmoded by 1989, but as tooling costs had long been amortized, Chrysler could keep prices reasonable (despite pressures to the contrary), which hardly dampened demand. In all, this car was a pleasant surprise success for Chrysler.
Meanwhile, Iacocca presided over a remarkable resurgence that put Chrysler Corporation solidly back in the black by 1983. The company even paid all its creditors ahead of time, without ever resorting to federal backup. The return to prosperity came almost entirely on clever -- and seemingly endless -- permutations of the front-wheel-drive K-car compact, introduced for 1981 as the Dodge Aries/Plymouth Reliant. Chrysler versions followed for '82; by decade's end they'd constitute virtually the entire line.
First up were smaller LeBarons: base and Medallion coupes and sedans on the 99.9-inch K-car wheelbase. Power came from Chrysler's own newly designed 2.2-liter (135-cid) single-overhead-cam four or an optional 2.6-liter "balancer" four supplied by longtime Japanese partner Mitsubishi. A turbocharged 2.2 spinning out 142-146 bhp arrived for '84 and was relatively popular.
Replacing the old M-body LeBarons, these "CV" models were joined at mid-1982 by a woody-look Town & Country wagon and America's first factory convertibles since the mid-'70s. The latter can be fairly credited to Iacocca and were a brilliant stroke, offered in plain and nostalgic T&C trim.
Iacocca also issued CV-based long models recalling the 1940s and '50s. These comprised a five-passenger Executive Sedan on a 124-inch wheelbase and a seven-seat limousine on a 131-inch chassis -- the first "carriage trade" Chryslers since the last Stageway Imperial limousines of 1970. They sold in modest numbers through 1986, mainly to fancy hotels and airport limo services. Chrysler then gave up on them as just so much bother.
The CV LeBarons continued through 1986 with only minor styling and mechanical changes. A stroked 2.5-liter (153-cid) engine with 100 bhp became available that season, a year after TorqueFlite automatic was made standard and the five-speed manual transmission was dropped. The line quickly established itself as Chrysler's top period seller, garnering around 100,000 orders annually. The notchback four-door and T&C wagon lasted through 1988.
Next in the line of K-based Chryslers was a stretched four-door, originally named "Gran LeBaron" but announced for 1983 under the prosaic title of E-Class, a reference to its E-body platform. Though riding a three-inch longer wheelbase, the E-Class was much like the CV LeBaron save revised rear-quarter styling, a roomier back seat, and slightly higher prices. But it failed to catch on -- at least as a Chrysler product. After 1984 and some 80,000 examples, it was badge-engineered into Plymouth and Dodge models that sold somewhat better as "new-age" family cars.
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