IN THE FIRST MONTHS of 1981, the American automobile industry, as Motor Trend magazine put it, was in the "throes of a grand pirouette." Still reeling from the 1974 oil embargo and subsequent "energy crisis," Detroit was rapidly phasing out its gas-guzzlers and replacing them with more fuel-efficient automobiles.
January marked the 10th anniversary of the debut of the car that became synonymous with America's firm commitment to economy: the Chrysler K-car. Although the first Ks rolled off the assembly lines in late 1980, it was in January of 1981 that the car had its formal coming-out, making the January front covers of both Consumer Reports and Motor Trend.
Then, as now, the economy was sliding into a major recession; inflation was over 10 percent, unemployment close to 8 percent, interest rates a whopping 16 percent. The American automobile industry, tired and battered, was struggling to hold its own against foreign competition, chiefly from Japan.
Enter the K-car, in reality 2 cars: the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. On the drawing boards since at least 1977, the K was Chrysler's attempt -- among the most serious attempts thus far by any of the big three U.S. automakers -- to offer the American consumer what Japanese cars had been offering for years: roomy economy. The K could accommodate a family of six, was equipped with a 2.2- or optional 2.6-liter four-cylinder engine and front wheel drive; it got, on average, 27 miles to the gallon.
Lee Iacocca, Chrysler's then new chairman, was making lots of TV commercials, touting the "new" Chrysler Corporation's commitment to innovative engineering (though unlike the Ford Mustang, the K had been the brainchild of another former Ford man, engineer Hal Sperlich) and strong quality control. Iacocca had a lot riding on the K; in 1979 he had acquired from Uncle Sam close to $1 billion in loan guarantees. "During our darkest days," he was to write in "Iacocca," "the promise of the K-car was always the light at the end of the tunnel . . . Throughout the congressional hearings, and during the endless negotiations with the banks, our expectations for the K-car were what got us through."
Motor Trend echoed Iacocca's enthusiasm. The magazine made the K its 1981 Car of the Year: "The K-car is a basic car but one that shows all car-conscious people everywhere a large slice of uncompromised American know-how . . . In an American sort of way, the K-car has become a pop symbol of hard work, truth and the idea that Yankee ingenuity is still around."
Indeed, the K-car's success (Ks accounted for 20 percent of the compact-car market in 1981) contributed to the patriotic renaissance that became the hallmark of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Once contemptible Chrysler, the company that had in 1979 groveled at the government's feet for a bail-out, rose, like a corporate Rocky at the count of nine, and emerged in 1983, proud and confident, eager to go the distance. The government got its money (years ahead of schedule) and Chrysler introduced new products: LeBaron, Dodge 600, Laser, Daytona.
Chrysler wasn't the only automaker offering fuel-efficient automobiles. General Motors had its X-cars (Buick Skylark, Chevy Omega, Pontiac Phoenix), Ford its Escort and Lynx. But it was the K, initially through the sales acumen of Chrysler's flamboyant, self-promoting chairman, that regained the public's trust in Chrysler specifically and the American automobile industry generally.
The K, discontinued in 1989, will probably never become a design/performance classic like the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, the 1964 Pontiac GTO or the 1965 Ford Mustang. But like them, it is a historical icon. If the Caddy exudes post-war American arrogance and power, and the GTO and Mustang sing paeans to the Howdy Doody generation's coming of age, the Chrysler K lectures on the virtues of necessity and common sense. Its smart, purposeful lines and four-cylinder engine epitomize a far different America, one humbled by major political scandal, military defeat and tough foreign competition, yet one also assured and optimistic that a bright future awaits.
Mark Miller writes from Baltimore.