February 1983

Many animals become vicious when they are injured and cornered. Generally speaking, when a car company is hurting and their back is against a wall, they too will come out swinging. Chrysler, in the early 1980s, is a classic example.

However, instead of using claws and teeth, the auto industry’s mortal combat is fought with product. And Chrysler turned out to be far from defenseless.

Old News - Chrysler K-onvertibles

Setting the trend
Chrysler Corporation (its name at the time) had a brush with death at the end of the 1970s. After a cash infusion and with a lot of talent and determination, they escaped death and bounced back. Opportunity seemed to present itself in order to give Chrysler another chance at life.

1981 Plymouth ReliantIn 1981, they’d released their K-cars, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant (Plymouth shown left). The timing couldn’t have been better for the small, fuel efficient and affordable vehicles.

Not only would they go on to spawn myriad vehicles, including their ground breaking minivans, but the K-cars would ultimately help to reintroduce an abandoned segment; the convertible.

Chrysler had produced their last convertibles, the Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger, in 1971. The soft-top market had been cooling off for a while and most manufacturers appeared to see it and respond. Consequently, after 1976, the factory convertible in America had died off–temporarily.

1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible ("end of an era")For 1976, the titanic Cadillac Eldorado (shown right) was billed as the car that had ushered out the convertible era in America. Despite what would seem a logical cause, reduced demand, it was not the sole reason manufacturers abandoned drop-top models.

Besides sagging consumer interest, manufacturers had been anticipating stricter safety regulations from the federal government. It doesn’t take volumes of research to determine convertibles are generally not as safe as their fixed-roof counterparts.

Further, vehicles had been getting smaller and transitioning from body-on-frame to unibody construction, as a means of making them lighter and more fuel efficient. Lopping the top off of a vehicle that uses its body for strength presented engineering challenges that the manufacturers didn’t see any worth in overcoming.

Thus, the convertible faded away. That is, until somewhat profitable Chrysler began looking for ways to expand it’s K-car potential.

What was interesting about the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible is that after the last was sold (representing the last convertibles ever, in some peoples’ minds), their value reportedly skyrocketed.

Shortly after that, aftermarket shops started proliferating and brand new convertibles, albeit customized, were again available to consumers. Open-air driving seemed as popular as ever but no one at the manufacturers seemed to take notice, or care if they had. Except one.

A man by the name of Hank Carlini, who had come from Ford, as a result of Mr. Iococca’s move, did notice the trend. So, in 1981, he built a K-car convertible prototype, took it to auto shows, and it was reportedly received well by the public.

Chrysler’s engineers examined it and were confident they could achieve acceptable body stiffness via reinforcements in key locations. About that time, Mr. Iococca became interested and started to commute to work in the prototype. He was impressed by the attention it garnered.

The rest was downhill. By early 1982, Chrysler had two convertibles, the Dodge 400 and Chrysler LeBaron.

Interestingly, the production K-car convertibles started out somewhat customized themselves. They were all built as hardtops.

Continued on page 2, below.

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