Remnant of the Last Auto Industry “Rebirth”


Spotted in Santa Monica, this is Plymouth‘s ironically named Reliant wagon from the 1980s.  The Reliant, and its siblings the Dodge Aries and Chrysler LeBaron, which are probably better known in boxy sedan form, were Chrysler’s famous mid-size “K” cars, built after Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca obtained a federal government loan for his nearly bankrupt company in 1979.  For a while, the K cars sold well, and were somewhat of a fixture on America’s highways.  Chrysler came back from the brink of extinction.  Then, as the price of gasoline slipped from its then-shocking record high of $ 1.35 per gallon in 1981 (equivalent to about $ 3.17 in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars), and stayed relatively cheap for the next 20 years or more, Chrysler and the other American auto makers built bigger cars with more powerful engines, and successfully lobbied for lower fuel economy standards (or none at all) for high-profit Sport Utility Vehicles.  We all know the rest of that story.


Today, Chrysler and the other American car companies are again on the verge of bankruptcy, and are again seeking a bailout from the federal government.  The Reliant pictured here may well last longer than the company that built it.

3 Replies to “Remnant of the Last Auto Industry “Rebirth””

  1. Actually Chrysler is gone as we knew it. Daimler dumped sold their interests to an investment firm. You now have a car corporation run by investment bankers instead of car guys.

    The history presented is a bit simplistic. The manufacturers reacted, probably badly in hindsight to consumer demand for better performing vehicles. The automotive press certainly had a hand in that as no matter how good a car was for its intended consumer there was always fault found for quiet(NVH), 0-60 or who knows what else. The easy way to get that was stuffing a bigger engine under the hood.

    Then came the safety changes, and we really did need them. However each of those added weight. Significant weight for some. That lowered performance and to meet the press fueled consumer expectation the ante on power was upped further.

    Each of those changes increased fuel consumption. Somewhere along in the early 90’s the MPG requirements were frozen and not increased methodically over the years.

    The one change that I never agreed with that did more damage to our air AND fuel consumption/dependance was the different standards for trucks and cars. When it all started back decades ago it was because trucks were considered work vehicles and the cost to comply was thought to be more than the ecnonomy could handle. There was even the argument made that since trucks are used for normal family travel the relaxed standards would have minimal impact in oil and environment.

    The MPG average for trucks is significantly lower than cars. The emissions allowed out the tail pipe for trucks are 3X that for cars.

    When all of these factors came to play the manufacturers saw it easier to meet the requirements of the Feds and the consumer by making huge luxurious trucks. Suddenly you have luxury car makers taking the easy way out turning out big, fat gas sucking, dirty running “trucks” for daily commuter and family use. Completely opposite of what was used as the basis for the exemption. A case in point. Did you know the Dodge Magnum Wagon is rated as a truck for emissios? It is as its easier to use truck standards to get the power needed to meet consumer and enthusiast expectations.

    I firmly hold that we should never have allowed light duty trucks special treatment for fuel economy and emissions. I certainly hold that once the “trucks” were becoming passenger haulers the standards needed to be equalized.

    I think now the consumer has made it loud and clear they don’t want gas guzzlers. The willingness for lower performance isn’t there. Yet. It may come when they look at how much extra gas is blown out the tailpipe for every second they shave off that 0-60 run.

    I really have a problem with bailing out any business that can’t hack it in the market. I certainly don’t want our manufacturing base further eroded as that would be disastrous long term. Right now GM has made their first overtures for a bailout with the threat of bankruptcy. Any help given to prevent that has to include significant salary/bonus trims on the bigwigs who put the company in that position in the first place. Those bailouts need to be repaid, with interest to us once they recover.

    Sorry for being so long winded but this is an issue that irks me as long as I have followed it. I love cars without a doubt but haven’t loved the shift to trucks and their inherent greater harm. That’s probably why even when I had to get a Dad car (read family hauler), it was a car and always the ones that could fit the duty it needed with the best emissions performance possible for the size I needed. (One is a LEV and the other meets ULEV).

    Also…that K-car, I saw it in Venice a few months ago, took the pic and almost at that time did a similar post on bail outs and history.

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