The cars we loved.
MOPAR fans usually point to the mid to late ‘70s the darkest period in Chrysler’s history. During this time Chrysler produced more than its share of troublesome cars. One of them was the Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare twins. Chrysler got its development moneys worth out of these cars by shaping them into everything from landau topped Monte Carlo fighters to stripe and spoilered Camaro competitors. While those may have been the glamours extremes, most Aspens were just roomy modest cars with a decent ride quality but poor workmanship.
Designed to replace the wildly popular A body Valiant/Duster/Dart, the Aspen was a pleasant if not homely looking compact 3 box design coupe, sedan or wagon. It was touted as “The Family Car of the Future”. There was plenty of fanfare for the new model that eventually lead to Motor Trend picking it as it’s Car of the Year in 1976.
Chrysler even got actor Rex Harrison to be it’s initial spokesman. The oddly themed Victorian TV commercial cleverly disguised as a Broadway musical touted the car as an upmarket alternative to European Luxury brands! Despite the marketing hoopla, the Aspen was a basic car and its design made no aspirations toward anything else (unless you found yourself in a Super Coupe or R/T version). When optioned properly the coupe was especially attractive, the sedan and wagon maybe no so much so.
You could never know if Chrysler was responding to lowered expectations due to the recession, or its own bleak finances, but the Aspen previewed Chrysler’s prophetic future as a maker of bland practicality (K car). Either way the Aspen was an inexpensive option for those needing somewhat thrifty transportation with the ability to carry six people. This was achieved with a front and back bench seat. Everything about the Aspen was a bit old fashioned and quaint even down to in-car entertainment. In an attempt to help lower costs commonplace features like FM on your radio was an option.
The throwback vibe did not stop there. While not unusual for cars of the ‘70s, the Aspen came standard with a 3.7 L slant six engine that made somewhere around 80 hp. There were two versions of it one with one carburetor and the other with two. There would be a sporty R/T model that featured a 5.9 l V8 (good for all of 170 hp). R/Ts were rare and almost extent today. The base, Custom and top range SE were more common, especially the base model for driver ED and rental cars.
My first official driving experience came with a 1980 Dodge Aspen Custom. It was one of two Aspens that made up my high school’s fleet. One broke down and was replaced by a slightly used Pontiac 6000 SE donated to my school by Richard Petty himself. I remember that car smelling like Cheerwine inside… Back to the Aspen. The 1980 model was the last of the line and represented the closest to being modern that the Aspen would get. That was mostly due to the square headlights and revised bumpers. Other than that it was basically the same Aspen inside and under the hood as it was in 1976 which is why its sales fell off for all but the most frugal buyers.
The Aspen made a great drivers ED car when it was not overheating, because it did not aspire to anything that would get it’s driver in trouble. It’s looks would not attract the police, even though many attempts were made at making it appear sporty with various appearance packages. One package called “Super Coupe” even went as far as to replicate the look of a Richard Petty race car.
Maybe that’s why he donated a car to my high school out of pitty. Even the wagon got in on the sport appearance package craze at one point. It would take more than appearance packages to rescue Aspen sales, even res erecting the Duster name did not help. The range of models would dwindle down to two engine types with the most powerful a police special reaching 185 hp from a 5.9 L V8. Most cars however were 90 hp sedans with the 3.7 liter engine mated to a four speed manual or Chrysler’s three speed TorqueFlite automatic. The level of technology offered in these cars was eclipsed by even GM and Ford, not to mention the imports who were using DOHC and electronic fuel injection in even their small cars.
The Aspen unfortunately was part of the problem for Chrysler. It’s carburetor’s placement on the top of the engine made it susceptible to vapor lock and overheating. There were also recalls over seat belts and serious rust problems for those in Northern climates. In my experience with the car in driver’s ED class I would never experience any of these problems, it was just the perfect nerd car appliance.
Despite it many good virtues, it was a poorly assembled car and typical of what was wrong with the American car industry. Chrysler had already begun selling captive imports with better quality, but cars like the Aspen would have already forced the company into bankruptcy. It’s replacement the K car would be the company’s savior.