Design Notes: 1981 Chrysler K-Cars
Even though Chrysler’s 1981 K-cars have plebeian styling that practically made boxy Volvos of the time look sleek, I’ve uncovered a handful of black and white images from their design period that I thought were interesting nonetheless.
Some are arguably more attractive than what hit the showroom floors.
Chrysler’s approach to downsizing
By the 1970s, the American Big Three had earned a reputation for producing, well… big vehicles.
By the early 1980s, those same companies were in the midst of a near fleet-wide downsizing process, each seeking out ideal packaging that could provide a balance of traditional space and looks, while also delivering substantially improved fuel economy and taking up less real estate.
Along with trying to capitalize on a new trend, usually comes risk. In the auto industry, where new projects run many millions of dollars and consume finite talent, those risks are potentially make or break propositions. Introduced for 1981 was Chrysler Corporation’s gamble: their new K-platform. That year, the K-platform spawned a car for Plymouth and Dodge, the Reliant and Aries, respectively. These and other cars built on the platform became known as “K-cars”.
Chrysler’s clay Ks
The K-platform was conceived in 1977 and development work was underway by March of that year.
The K-platform only has a 99.6-inch long wheelbase which is actually one-tenth of an inch shorter than their Omni/Horizon compacts. Chrysler appeared to be shooting for a much smaller target than GM or Ford.
Interestingly, although roughly the size of GM’s compact X-cars on the outside, the Environmental Protection Agency classified the K-cars as midsize. The classification was based on the K-cars’ interior volume, dual bench seats which could hold six occupants, and marginally sub-100-inch wheelbase.
Chevrolet’s substantially down-sized 1977 line of Caprices and Impalas had been out just under a year, and Ford’s slim Fairmont model was new for 1978. Although they are substantially larger cars, they (particularly the Chevrolets) were setting the sales charts on fire and no doubt signaled safe design approaches for Chrysler’s designers to take with their reductionist’s project.
That’s why I’m not surprised that a couple of the clays have design characteristics not too dissimilar from Chrysler’s aforementioned competitors. The coupe above right shares a Fairmont look (particularly in the rear-side window treatment), while the sedan above left could pass for a small Chevrolet.
By the following year, there were reportedly at least three simultaneous designs being worked on. It’s hard to say that Chrysler wasn’t bench-marking the Fairmont’s design because, in the picture to the right, the tail light in the lower right corner is that of a Fairmont. Further, the coupe in the picture’s upper left corner comes across as a mini-Impala coupe, especially in the rear hip area. (I was unable to identify the white station wagon in the picture’s upper right corner.)
Of note, a version similar to that six-window design would surface in 1983 under the Chrysler division, as the E-Class (another K-car variant).
The last clay K-car concept picture is this coupe to the right. While the roof line and fender shapes and creases look really close to the production version, there are a few items still not finalized. The tail lights most obviously, but it also appears the C-pillar is slightly wider (or the rear-side window narrower) than a production model.
The K-cars would be offered in two- and four-door configurations, as well as a station wagon (incidentally, reported to be America’s first home-grown, FWD station wagon, just months ahead of Ford’s 1981 Escort wagon). In 1982, the Chrysler division moved it’s second-generation Le Baron model to the K-platform and, through it, reintroduced factory-built, American-badged convertibles to the roads (since Cadillac’s Eldorado famously closed that chapter of automotive history in 1976).
Putting frosting on Chrysler’s cake, the Dodge Aries won Motor Trend’s 1981 Car of the Year award.
The following page includes higher quality pictures and videos of 1981 Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries commercials.
Continue below to the photo and video gallery.