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Thursday, November 28, 2013

American Motors Corporation: The Rise and Fall of America's Last Independent Automaker

Historian Patrick R. Foster and Motorbooks International bring AMC fans a terrific new book that delves deep inside of American Motors. In an unusual twist, the author starts the story in 1986--the beginning of the end of the manufacturer.

You might be tempted to think that the corporate story has been completely covered and you'd be wrong. This history is fresh; it unfolds with new and delicious details that make every page of this 208-page book a a meaty read with plenty of sizzle and flavour.  Nothing is left out, either. Jeep, AM General and the Renault years are well covered.

Told in Foster's inimitable  style, the sparkling saga simply pops with hundreds of rare and unusual photos, many in colour. Most fascinating are the sketches, models and mockups under consideration in the styling studios.

You don't have to be an AMC fan to enjoy this book--it reflects the North American auto industry. However, if you have ever waxed nostalgic for a Nash, hungered for a Hudson, loved a Rambler or pined for a Pacer--you will require this definitive book on the greatest of the independent auto manufacturers.

Order from DRB Transport Books: $50 plus HST, s&h 1.800.665-2665 (BOOK)

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Copyright James C. Mays 2013 All rights reserved.

Monday, November 11, 2013

1975-1978 Chrysler Cordoba

 Cordoba was Chrysler’s first small luxury car.  Had it not been for Cordoba’s timely entry into the market, Lee Iacocca might not have had a company to save.

Chrysler Corporation wasn’t in the best of corporate health in 1976.  Luxury Imperial had been withdrawn from the market for lack of  interest at the end of the 1975 model year run.   Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant were replaced by Aspen and Volare in 1976. 
Smart looking they were, but Chrysler's compact duo quickly set records for being the most recalled cars in automotive history--before GM’s X-cars captured the dubious honour.

The economy was in a tailspin, inflation was rising rapidly and gasoline prices were higher than ever before as a result of deliberate shortages designed by  the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).   To make matters more aggravating, car prices rose sharply in order to cover the cost of new safety and pollution devices now required by Washington.  Customers experienced ‘sticker shock.’   While the American auto industry’s sales were off by eight percent, Chrysler’s loss was an astonishing 19%, leaving it with only 14% of the market.  Ford had twice that percentage while General Motors earned 53% of new car sales. 

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Production was slashed and 18,000 Chrysler employees were laid off.  A two-month supply of cars sat rusting in inventory.  Chrysler’s chairman, Lynn Townsend, hiked prices a second time during the model run and the glut of unsold vehicles swelled even larger.  Finally, Chrysler offered a factory rebate to purchasers, something no other carmaker had ever done.   The other manufacturers quickly followed suit.

Chrysler’s fortunes were flagging in the market.  Resistance to building a small Chrysler had finally been overcome and it was hoped that the new ‘sport size’ Cordoba would revive the manufacturer.  Highland Park desperately needed a success story to run with.  The smart Cordoba had been a brand new car in 1975, although it  was  very similar to the mid-sized Plymouth Satellite, Cordoba carried  very formal front-end styling. 

            Cordoba was smashing to look at.  The car was perfectly poised on its 2 921-millimetre (115-inch) wheelbase.  It looked personal.  In an age of bloat, Cordoba was only 5 461millimetres (215 inches) long, making it 558.8 millimetres (22 inches) shorter than the New Yorker Brougham. 

   Jaguar was the benchmark for Chrysler stylists. Headlights were deeply tunneled into large, round pods that evoked the wealth and grandeur of classic cars of the 1920s.  Turn signals were housed in smaller inboard pods.  The grille was upright and square with vertical bars, giving it a positively ritzy air.  It was long in the front and shortened in the rear quarters so that it had a sporty feel.  Luxury was evident in the opera windows and padded vinyl roof.   Cordoba was given the 5.2-litre (318-cubic inch) V-8 engine. Industry wide, all passenger cars got catalytic converters.

Billed as ‘the new small Chrysler,’ actor Ricardo Mandelbaum introduced the car brilliantly in a series of now classic television commercials.  Who can forget his exotic, hypnotic accent as he showed off Cordoba with “…rich Corinthian leather?”  The personal luxury coupe was an immense success and a tremendous psychological boost within the corporation.  It was the smallest post-war Chrysler ever, just 50.8 millimetres (two inches) longer than the very first one made in 1924.  It was sleek, sassy and just what the consumer ordered.  Cordoba said “cool” and “classy.  It would give decent gas mileage without econo-box stigma.

The new Cordobas and sister Dodge Charger SE were built exclusively in Windsor, Ontario for the North American market.   The only hot seller for the Chrysler nameplate that year, 150,105 units scooted out the factory doors during the model year.  Cordoba was fielded in the same class as Ford’s Thunderbird and Buick’s Riviera.  It was impressive enough to beat all its personal luxury rivals except for Chevy’s Monte Carlo--which was much less expensive than Cordoba.  The luxurious mid-sized Cordoba accounted for nearly 70% of all the Chrysler nameplate’s sales that year.  Calendar year production was 193,587 units.  In the first 13 months of Cordoba production, more Chryslers poured out of the Windsor plant than had been built there between 1946 and 1966! 

Esteemed automotive historian R. Perry Zavits wrote, “A factor contributing to the high acceptance of the Cordoba was the fact that was Canadian-made.  Many people believed the car’s quality was better because of its Canadian origin.”  It was common knowledge to industry insiders in the 'Seventies; Canadian-built cars were picked for auto executives and VIPs because of the superior build. 

In 1976 things just got better in Windsor, calendar year production broke a record as 200,986 units were shipped.

            Chrysler’s new warranty with unlimited mileage for the first year of ownership was good news but there weren’t a lot of takers.             When preparing this story, the author went to a photocopy shop for a laser copy of the Cordoba.  The man behind the counter said he almost bought one but changed his mind at the last minute because he was afraid that Chrysler would go bankrupt and he’d be left with an orphan.  He opted for a Chevrolet Monte Carlo instead.

Chrysler ordered seven Cordoba convertibles from Emess Coach Builders in 1977.
 In 1977 sales jumped up 25% for Chrysler.  Cordoba got a T-top and sales were helped immeasurably with the introduction of luxury compact Chrysler LeBaron on the Volare/Aspen body. 

1978 Chrysler Cordoba
In 1978 square, halogen lamps came to the industry and Cordoba got a mild restyle to accommodate the new lights. While North American automakers enjoyed a great year, Chrysler slipped badly.  

 Chrysler sold all of its European subsidiaries in 1978 to Peugeot-Citroen in order to stay afloat.

            Cordoba was the right car at the right time for Chrysler.  More than 650,000 units were sold during the first generation which spanned five model years.  Automotive folklore tells the breathtaking tale of how Lee Iacocca and the K-car saved Chrysler’s bacon, but there might not have been any bacon to save had it not been for the brave management team who put the junior edition Cordoba into production.

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Copyright James C. Mays 2000 All rights reserved.