Chrysler’s venerable lightweight is a durable, versatile option
Although the cast-iron TorqueFlite three-speed transmission had been available as early as the 1956 300C and Imperial models, a smaller, more economical version, the light-duty TorqueFlite six, or A904, was first released in 1960 for six-cylinder engines. The A904 transmission could very well be considered the grandfather of most of the Chrysler automatic transmissions to follow.
First introduced for use with the push-button dash controls, the early 904s still used a cast-iron bellhousing and a ball-and-trunnion-style output yoke, but the physical dimensions and weight were smaller than that of the older TorqueFlites. They did not use a flex plate to attach the torque converter; instead, the crankshaft on the six-cylinder engines had a large eight-bolt flange to attach to the torque converter.
Flex plates and linkage shifting were added for the 1963 model year, and the output shaft was converted to a standard slip yoke in 1965, the same year the larger-cousin 727 was released. A904 transmissions were original equipment on all 170, 198 and 225 six-cylinder engines, as well as the 273, 318 and 360 (two-barrel) V-8 engines until 1978.
Derivatives of the 904 include the AMC Torque Command 6, the A909 (a 904 with lockup converter), the A500 (904 with a fourth gear added to the rear of the case), the Baby 904 (Mitsubishi-based compacts, the Arrow and Colt), the A998 (904 with an extra friction plate, usually found in 318-equipped vehicles), the A999 (904 with two extra friction plates, for 360 V-8 engines) and the 30RH (904 with computer-controlled lock-up converter often used in Jeep applications).
Gear ratios remained the same from its inception until 1980: 2.45:1 first gear, 1.45:1 second gear, 1:1 third gear and 2.22:1 reverse. First gear was dropped to 2.74:1 and second was lowered slightly to 1.54:1 when this wide ratio gear set was used in all 1981 and newer 904 transmissions. All 904 transmissions up to 1977 had a hydraulic 10.5-inch converter, although the 1977 models used a low-slip converter of similar size. 1978 and newer 904s all used a 10.5-inch lock-up converter.
Even with a Storied Name, the Compact K-Derived Ragtop was a Gamble for Lacocca
When Lee Iacocca left the Ford Motor Company and joined Chrysler in 1978, he was faced with rebuilding a car company on the verge of bankruptcy. One of the reasons for the company’s lack of capital, he claimed, was that the corporation’s diverse number of platforms—five in production at the time —shared few common parts, which in turn had created a complex manufacturing and inventory conundrum.
Correcting Chrysler’s fortunes would require a streamlined system of production already in practice in Germany and Japan: fewer platforms with a broad array of shared components, most of which were hidden from buyer’s eyes. While Iacocca stood before the U.S. Congress making his appeal for the great “Chrysler bailout” in 1979, his engineers were busy developing a new chassis: The K-car platform.
The new front-wheel-drive K-platform debuted as the compact Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant in the fall of 1980, replacing the recall-plagued Aspen and Volare in the divisions’ lineups. Each of the new “K-cars” were offered in two-door and four-door sedan body styles, as well as a station wagon, in various trim levels. It was a clear shift for the corporation, with more aerodynamic and fuel-efficient vehicles aimed at lowering the buyers’ operating costs while simultaneously reducing production costs.
No sooner had the K-car begun to roll off dealership lots across the country when the parent division began to adopt the chassis for a reimagined LeBaron, set to be introduced for 1982. Like its corporate siblings, the new LeBaron was to make use of the existing two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and wagon—but a storied, luxurious name needed, perhaps, just a bit more, and this is where adaptability came into play as part of Iacocca’s engineering directive.
The Chrysler brand had not offered a convertible since the 1970 model year. Encouraged, in part, by a rebounding economy, Iacocca felt there might be renewed interest. To test the waters, he had a LeBaron two-door coupe sent from the St Louis, Missouri, plant to California, where it was modified into a “non-functional” convertible. Once completed and displayed at several auto shows — where it was met with strong interest— Cars and Concepts, based in Brighton, Michigan, was contracted to manage the conversion of two-door coupes into convertibles for the posh LeBaron (and the new Dodge 400).
Cars and Concepts was chosen from a list of aftermarket firms based on their competitive price, coupled with a full-service package of engineering, manufacturing, and after-sale support. Just as important, the company was deemed to have a proper concept of how to build convertibles in the new decade. As one would expect, Cars and Concepts did more than just hack off the roof of a two-door coupe. Approximately 34 separate steps were undertaken to complete the complex conversion, most of which included the necessary sheetmetal surgery and intricate body reinforcement required.
Thus, when the reimagined Chrysler LeBaron was officially unveiled for 1982, the entry-level luxury car was available in two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and convertible guises. Having shed its former boxy look for aerodynamic sleekness without sacrificing elegant trimmings, the all-new LeBaron was announced as, “Lee Iacocca’s dream to combine high mileage and luxury in a series of cars,” in ads pitched by actor Ricardo Montalban.
With the redesign came refreshing fuel-mileage estimates of 25 in the city and as high as 40 on the highway. Such numbers were made possible in part by a Chrysler-developed 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine (equating to 135 cubic inches) rated at 84 horsepower and 111 pound-feet of torque offered as standard equipment, save for the LeBaron Town & Country, which received the otherwise-optional Mitsubishi-produced 2.6-liter four-cylinder. A four-speed manual transmission was standard, though an automatic was optional.
Naturally, the LeBaron convertible was to be the ultimate in luxury further touted in Chrysler brochures and ads: “The convertible exudes an elegance, a sense of style that starts at the tip of its highly stylized grille and continues through to plush interior appointments. No other car is causing so much excitement.” That said, a luxury tradition was maintained when Chrysler offered the line in the upscale Medallion series, as depicted by this Mark Cross edition currently under the care of Ted DeHoogh of Sioux Center, Iowa.
In the late 1980s, Chrysler transformed its Town & Country, and most other station wagons it produced, by reimagining them into its first-generation minivans, built on the front-wheel-drive S platform and sharing powertrain with Lee Iacocca’s ubiquitous K-cars. That’s notable because for most of the time leading up to then, the Town & Country was a massive, luxury-packed conventional station wagon with a longitudinal layout and an overall length that stretched right out of sight. The Chrysler minivans rocked the automotive world as few new cars before them had done, defining a new way to carry people and their possessions.
The redefinition of the wagon erased some of the attributes that made Americans love big station wagons in the first place: Gobs of big-block power, enough to ferry a full family across the continent with their belongings in back and whatever was left over in a trailer bobbing along behind. It’s a portrait in time that defines the postwar American dream as thoroughly as a tract house in a newly plowed suburb. A big station wagon is an iconic automobile. Given the way most of them were used hard by their owners and the owners’ hordes of kids, finding a survivor today is a definite occasion.
The exact mileage of this enormous 1973 Chrysler Town & Country nine-passenger station wagon (which means a rear-facing third seat) is unclear, though the owner thinks it’s on the light side of 100,000. Its condition is both original and phenomenal: Virtually everything, right down to the 3M woodgrain on the sides, is just as it was when the monstrous wagon rolled out of the Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit in September 1972. All the owner says he’s had to do is gently touch up a little bit of woodgrain and one rock-chipped body piece, and then figure out its complex climate control’s vagaries.
According to widely accepted records, Chrysler built 14,687 copies of the nine-passenger Town & Country wagons for 1973, the highest total for fuselage-body wagons in that premium model range. Look inside, and you’ll find an unusual non-patterned cloth interior in prime condition, and a cargo area that’s devoid of scuffs and gouges from skidding objects and careless feet. It’s fully loaded with options, lacking only power windows, surprising for a car that was sold new in Arizona.
Again, fewer than 15,000 were built. Where are you going to find a survivor with this level of originality, options, and non-abused quality? In your dreams. Or, if you’re particularly fortunate, in the car corral at the AACA Eastern Fall Meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Hank Hallowell, who lives in Hershey and owns this nearly perfect Chrysler, bought it there just minutes after also buying a late “Letter Car” from Chrysler at the same sale.
“It’s my favorite Town & Country, to be truthful,” Hank explains. “I prefer the front end of the 1973; it’s the only year without the chrome loop front bumper, and it has the Chrysler New Yorker front end because the industry was heading toward a more formal, classic look. The New Yorker front looks majestic on the Town and Country. Plus, ’72 and ’73 were the only years for the fuselage-body wagon with fender skirts, which enhance the lines of the car dramatically.”
Kim Barnes has a memory from her youth, of riding her Sears Sting-Ray-style “banana seat” bicycle past Friedman Chrysler-Plymouth in Des Moines, Iowa. There, in the showroom, was a yellow Mod Top Barracuda. About a block away was Des Moines AMC, which had a red, white, and blue Hurst SC/Rambler in the showroom. “I was obsessed with both cars, especially the yellow Barracuda,” she recalls.
Like other seven-year-olds of that time, Kim was a big fan of The Partridge Family and she collected Partridge Family trading cards. At the same time, she secretly collected trading cards of her favorite automobiles, too. “I had one of the yellow Mod Top Barracuda, as well as a blue Satellite Mod Top, in my collection,” Kim says.
One day, Kim rode by the dealership and the Mod Top Barracuda was gone. Her obsession with the unusual car continued. She certainly had no idea at the time, but a yellow Mod Top Barracuda would become part of her automotive stable nearly 50 years later.
Marketing specifically to woman buyers was nothing new. Dodge toured a pair of concept cars in 1954 called Le Comte and La Comtesse —specially modified Chrysler Newports with glass roof inserts. While Le Comte was finished in “masculine” colors, La Comtesse was painted Dusty Rose and Pigeon Gray—ostensibly to appeal to women.
Response was favorable and Dodge offered the La Femme, based on the Custom Royal Lancer, as a midyear “Spring Special” in 1955. It was finished in a Heather Rose and Sapphire White exterior color combination, while the interior was upholstered in cloth featuring pink rosebuds on a silver-pink background, with pink vinyl trim. Included was a fully accessorized keystone-shaped purse, along with a matching raincoat, rain bonnet, and umbrella.
Considered a sales success, La Femme returned for the 1956 model year, this time in Misty Orchid and Regal Orchid. The interior was quite lavish, with a unique white cloth highlighted by purple and lavender, a special headliner with gold flecks, and loop pile carpeting in various shades of purple and lavender. Once again, a raincoat, rain bonnet, and umbrella were included (but no purse) for the 1956 model year. Sales numbers were never reported but it is estimated that some 2,500 cars received the $143 option over two years.
In the late-night hours of July 26, 1956, about 40 miles off the coast of Nantucket Island and nearing the end of its transatlantic journey from Italy to New York, the luxurious ocean liner SS Andrea Doria collided with another ship in heavy fog. Fifty-one people were killed, a number that would have been much higher had the Doria not remained afloat for 11 hours before it slipped below the water’s surface to its final resting place.
Considering the loss of life, less attention was given to the cargo that went down with the ship, but Chrysler Corporation quickly crafted a press release, matter-of-factly sharing the details of an “idea” car—the Norseman—that had been lost while making its way to America from Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Ghia.
Calling the car’s pillarless design “revolutionary,” the press release acknowledged that the Norseman “must be considered a complete loss.” And then, oddly, Chrysler shared that the car was “covered by insurance.” The New York Times reported that the automaker invested $200,000 into the project, the equivalent to $2.1 million today. What Chrysler didn’t say in its press release was that it could never recoup the time and effort that went into creating the four-door hardtop sedan: 50,000 hours of research and labor, two years in design, and another 15 months to build it. All gone, thanks to the the unfortunate confluence of bad weather and certain regrettable decisions.
SS Andrea Doria
The SS Andrea Doria was a source of great national pride when it was launched in 1951. Named for a 16th-century Genoese admiral, it was considered the largest, fastest, and (supposedly) safest of all Italian ships when it took its maiden voyage in January 1953. The opulent 29,100-ton ship had a normal capacity of 1200 passengers and 500 crew, and it had successfully completed 50 transatlantic voyages when it left the port of Genoa on July 17, 1956—with 1706 on board—and headed west to New York City. In an odd coincidence with the more famous RMS Titanic, which sank in 1912 during what was to be Captain Edward Smith’s final turn at the helm before retirement, Cpt. Piero Calamai was taking his final tour on the Andrea Doria before moving to its sister ship, the SS Christopher Columbo.
Nine days into the journey across the Atlantic Ocean and less than 300 miles from New York, dense fog made it difficult to see beyond the bow. Regardless, Calamai maintained a speed of more than 20 knots in the heavily trafficked area while the ship’s crew became completely reliant on radar.
Meanwhile, the MS Stockholm, having recently left New York for Sweden, was fast approaching in the same shipping lane, heading east. The Stockholm, less than half the size of the Doria but designed with a reinforced ice-breaking bow, was also operating solely by radar due to the heavy fog.
Both ships were aware of the other as they drew closer, but it was later revealed that the Stockholm’s radar was set to a different range, so the Doria was actually closer to the Swedish ship than its crew realized. Nevertheless, it was Doria Cpt. Calamai’s decision to turn his ship to port—not starboard, in accordance with maritime rules—that proved fatal. With both ships turning in the same direction, the Stockholm struck the Doria at an almost 90-degree angle.
Below deck was the Norseman. Designed by Chrysler’s engineering division and built by Ghia, Chrysler claimed the concept “incorporated more structural, chassis, electrical, and styling innovations than any other ‘idea’ car every designed by Chrysler.”
The automaker’s press release added:
“Although the car was intended to have as great structural strength as today’s automobiles, it had no posts or pillars to support the roof. This was accomplished by means of structural cantilever arch, which curved upward from the rear of the frame and over the passenger compartment of the car.
“Glass surrounding the passenger compartment was uninterrupted, with the exception of the two arches of steel curving upward in the rear. In addition, there was a 12-square-foot panel of glass in the rook that was power operated and slid forward, leaving the roof over the rear seat open.
“All major body panels on the car were made of aluminum, as a result of research in advanced structural techniques to reduce weight. It had a sharply sloping hoof, unswept tail fins, and a covered, smooth underbody for aerodynamic efficiency.”
Last week you saw us pull in our most recent shop addition, a 1993 Jeep XJ with a 4.0L. Davin got it all pulled out and this week he wasted no time tearing into it. Things went fairly quickly as the pieces flew off this straight-six. Davin had his detective hat on as he uncovered a little more about this engine with every bit removed. You never know what you’re going to discover.
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Like a kid in a candy store, we’re zipping our way around a vast, virtual car market that is the Hemmings Classifieds. In our latest edition of This or That, we’re circling around to a specific asking price point between $10,000 and $20,000, this time rounding up four-door hardtops and sedans from the 1970s that are currently available in the Hemmings classifieds. We’ve mentioned this plenty of times before, but for those new to this game, the good news about a $20k cap is that it offers options in good condition (even in our inflated market). So, given the money and space, which one would you take home?
1973 OLDSMOBILE NINETY-EIGHT LUXURY SEDAN
With exception of the Toronado, Oldsmobile’s Ninety-Eight (or, 98) continued its reign as the division’s top-of-the-line series for 1973, now offered in five body styles, including this four-door Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan. Bested in fine accoutrements by only the Ninety-Eight Regency, the hardtop’s lengthy listed of standard features included – but were not limited to – a 275-hp 455-cu.in. engine, Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission, power steering, power front disc brakes, power windows, bench seats finished in “luxurious Bravo cloth with Morocceen trim” upholstery, windshield antenna, and more, all strapped to a 127-inch wheelbase chassis that cost $5,234 (or $34,335 in today’s currency). Olds built 21,896 four-door Luxury Sedans that year, making it the second most popular car within the Ninety-Eight series. From the seller’s description:
Talk about Old School Cool, once you see it, you won’t be able to walk away. Often turned into low-riders, or used for cruising or hopping, this car has the potential for it all. However, it’s perfect as is… a car that your Father drove and swore it was the best car ever. Finished in Honey Beige with Black 60/40 cloth upholstery, the looks are sure to get the town talking. Drive this one home now, it’s ready to go, in close to perfect condition. Solid body, chassis and drive train. Everything works and was a central part of an estate collection. Do you want to win car show trophies or just take the family out for an ice cream? Pile em’ and go. This car is an amazing drive that you don’t want to miss out on.
Price$18,500LocationCampbellsville, KYAvailability Available
1974 CHRYSLER NEW YORKER BROUGHAM SEDAN
Like the Olds Ninety-Eight, Chrysler’s New Yorker Brougham was bested only by the Imperial in terms of divisional luxury hierarchy by the time our featured 1974 four-door Brougham sedan was sold to its first owner. The Brougham’s mechanical DNA was identical to that of its base New Yorker sibling, meaning it was fitted with a 230-hp 440-cu.in. engine, TorqueFlite automatic transmission, torsion bar front suspension, power disc brakes, power steering, and 15-inch wheels, yet the Brougham also benefitted from the installation of power windows, plusher 50/50 front bench seat with additional arm rests, upscale trim, and a few other bits, all for a standard base price of $6,479 (or $39,099 in today’s currency). While pillared four-door sedans sold exceptionally well in the entry-level Newport and Newport Custom series, the pillared four-door New Yorker Brougham flopped: just 4,533 examples were built. From the seller’s description:
This highly desirable top of the line 1974 Chrysler New Yorker Brougham has only 50,500 miles! Highly optioned with the iconic big-block 440 four-barrel V-8, three-speed 727 TorqueFlite automatic, power steering, power disc brakes, working air conditioning, power windows, locks, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, vinyl top, factory AM/FM stereo, 50/50 power bench seat with dual armrests, etc. The body’s finished in Lucerne Blue Iridium, and is super straight rust free both top and bottom. All lights are in working order, the trunk trunk and engine compartment look like new. This car drives as good as it looks, and is guaranteed to draw attention. The 1974 models were the last full-size models Chrysler designed from the ground up, and one of the last to receive the big dog 440 V-8. Here’s your chance to own one at a very affordable price!
Price$12,950LocationMaple Lake, MNAvailability Available
Was it a cause of Tom Wolfe’s “‘Me’ Decade” or a byproduct? By the early 1970s, the 1969 Volkswagen ad that had cheekily suggested Americans should live below their means felt out of touch. Really, we were worthy of indulgence, and near-luxury automakers like Chrysler were happy to oblige. More of everything would prove the trend of the decade, and from the early days, the New Yorker Brougham offered consumers a unique interpretation of middle-class luxury.
The Imperial line had all but been absorbed into Chrysler by 1972, those well-appointed flagship two- and four-door hardtops built alongside lesser models instead of on a dedicated assembly line and marketed in the same brochure. Their unit-bodies were long-wheelbase variants of the parent company’s standard versions and bore minimal styling differentiation. At the same time, Chrysler’s eponymous models were creeping upmarket; the New Yorker Brougham offered nearly as many lavish trimmings as a Cadillac- or Lincoln-fighting Imperial LeBaron, in a slightly smaller (but, at 224.1 inches long over a 124-inch wheelbase, a still-generous) package.
This New Yorker Brougham remained in the possession of its original owner until 1994, by which time she’d driven it fewer than 22,000 miles. It now displays just under 23,500 miles and retains all its factory-original finishes and features. “A couple of scratches have been touched up, but I’ve never found evidence that any panel has been changed. I just think it was a nice lady’s go-to-church car, and from what we can tell, it accumulated pretty minimal mileage,” Jeff Stork explains. “This Chrysler remained in North Carolina, we believe in collector hands, until we brought it to California in 2018.”
As curator of the 80-car-strong Prescott Collection, Jeff is the primary caretaker of the time capsule Mopar and others of its ilk. This collection specializes in postwar American automobiles, with a particular emphasis on these four-door hardtops that are typically overlooked by other collectors. He tells us they sought this car both for its pristine condition and for its individualist interpretation of American luxury motoring in that era. “We wanted a 1972 because it was the first year of the New Yorker Brougham, and the last year of the original styling statement, with the loop front bumper that was gone in 1973.”
“This car represents a very interesting moment in American automotive history. It was the Broughamization of America… the automakers were ‘going for baroque,’” Jeff says with a laugh. “Suddenly everyone had these luxury offerings with upgraded cloth interiors and vinyl tops. You could get this in midsize cars like the Cutlass Supreme, and even in what had previously been the low-priced three with the Ford LTD and Chevy Caprice. The automakers were reaching up to see how many profitable features they could offer. This car reminds me of Marcus Welby, M.D.; I used to watch that show when I was a kid, and Welby drove a blue one. He was a caring doctor, and this Chrysler exudes upper-middle-class respectability.”
I was a car designer with Ford and Chrysler in the 1950s, a time of powerful, classic cars. What made my employment as a designer unique is that I was a 23-year-old farm boy from Millinocket with no formal art training, and in the U.S. Navy, at the time Ford hired me. I still had a year before my enlistment discharge a year later in June 1954. I began work at Ford just a few weeks later. At that time Ford, GM, Chrysler, and American Motors all had a hiring policy that required new designer applicants to be art or design school graduates. How did I manage to slip between the cracks?
Back to the past. I was just a typical young car nut in my high school teens, and I was good at drawing, so I did just that, doing drawings of cars . . . mostly my own designs. After graduating from high school, I wanted to continue in art and design as a professional career, but I could not afford to go to art school. However, when the Korean war broke out, the GI Bill benefits were re-instated. I joined the Navy to obtain the college benefits upon my discharge in 1954.
Unfortunately, I never got to use or need the benefits. Ford Motor Company had made me a design job offer while I was still in the Navy. This unusual situation took place because a national car magazine published some of my car designs in an article titled “Dream Car Sailor.” During my Navy enlistment, I had continued designing cars in my spare time. This was the totally unexpected, surprising result of that spacetime activity.
I began employment with Ford in July 1954, just two weeks after my Navy discharge. I began work in their Advanced Design Studio, which was composed of a dozen or more newly employed design school graduates. However, I was not a design school graduate, the only one without that qualification. It was an exceptional opportunity, but it presented many challenges to my novice art and design talent. I quickly realized I was “behind the eight ball,” so to speak, and that it would be a daunting task to succeed, compete, and advance in the situation I found myself