The Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare were MotorTrend‘s 1976 Car of the Year—and no, we hadn’t lost our marbles. Looking into history’s rearview mirror, we know these cars turned out to be troubled turd tubs. But back in late 1975, before the Aspen and Volare collided with their self-made roadblocks, they seemed like rather innovative vehicles. How could these cars be so right—and yet so wrong?
Chrysler in Catastrophe
While most people correctly associate the great 1970s downsizing of American cars with the 1973-74 energy crisis, the origin of the F-bodies—initially code-named Aspen and Vail—dates back to 1971. American buyers were already gravitating toward smaller cars, and Chrysler saw a market for a compact model with the interior space and ride qualities of a larger car. (History would prove the company’s notion correct, but only in the long term.) Having been stung once by downsizing—Chrysler shrank its big cars in ’62 with disastrous sales results—Chrysler scheduled an update of its aging full-size C-body to launch ahead of the new compacts.
The timing was catastrophic, as the introduction of Chrysler’s big new 1974 gas guzzlers coincided almost perfectly with the OPEC oil embargo. The company should have been well positioned with its highly-regarded Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant compacts, as well as the Mitsubishi-sourced Dodge Colt, but dealer lots were overflowing with full-size cars no one wanted. Then the 1974-75 recession hit, and Chrysler took a pummeling.
Aspen and Volare to the Rescue!
With so much going wrong, the new compacts couldn’t arrive soon enough. At the end of 1975—a disastrous year in which Chrysler lost $260 million ($1.25 billion in 2021 dollars) and failed to pay a dividend on common stock for the first time since 1933—the 1976 Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare finally made their debut. It seemed Chrysler finally had the right car for the times, one that offered mid-size space in a compact package. Reviewers, including us, piled praise upon these smart new compacts.
While modern eyes tend to regard any car with a leaf-sprung rear axle as primitive, the Fs showed signs of sophistication. Chrysler’s front suspensions were already differentiated by the use of longitudinal torsion bars, which gave them notably better handling (and a firmer ride) than coil-sprung competitors. For the F-body, Chrysler developed a novel new suspension that used transverse torsion bars located ahead of the front axle, mounted to a K-member isolated from the unibody by rubber mounts. It was a compact setup that delivered nimble (for the time) handling and a plush ride.
The Aspen and Volare’s appeal went beyond its underpinnings. Standard operating procedure in Detroit was to develop car interiors and exteriors separately; in another accurate prediction of the culture, the F-body’s exterior shape was determined by interior size demands and aerodynamics. Chrysler developed coupe, sedan, and wagon variants with the two-door cars riding on a 4.0-inch-shorter wheelbase than the four-doors. The wagon was particularly noteworthy, as Ford and GM had no station wagon in that size class, and AMC’s Hornet was much tighter on space. (GM and Ford would follow Chrysler into this segment with their downsized intermediate wagons of 1978.) The cars were styled to avoid alienating loyal Dart and Valiant owners, retaining a last vestige of 1970s roundness rather than giving over to the straight-line designs that would become a hallmark of the early ’80s.
And what of the obvious badge engineering that led the Dodge and Plymouth versions to be nearly identical? While General Motors tried (with declining levels of success) to differentiate similar cars from different marques, Chrysler simply didn’t bother. Chrysler’s dealership body was more-or-less evenly divided into Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth stores, and to Chrysler’s way of thinking, an Aspen was merely a Volare that you bought from a Dodge dealer.
Decent Performance From Old Hardware
Powertrains included the venerable 225-cid (3.7-liter) Slant Six and 318 (5.2-liter) V-8. Chrysler offered hot-rod versions, the Aspen R/T and Plymouth Road Runner, which could be had with a 360 (5.6-liter) V-8. Emissions and a two-barrel carburetor (versus the traditional performance-oriented four-barell) had choked the 360 to a mere 170 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, but there was still 280 lb-ft of torque to be had. We tested an Aspen R/T coupe with a three-speed TorqueFlite automatic and a 3.21:1 rear end, and it got to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds and through the quarter mile in 17.4, which were pretty decent numbers for the Malaise Era. Through the slalom the Aspen R/T was quick and predictable, with ride quality that was comfortable enough to avoid turning off Mr. and Mrs. America.
How did the Aspen and Volare end up as MotorTrend‘s Car of the Year? As the five-minute promotional film below (please try not to laugh too hard) shows, the competition wasn’t exactly the strongest. Finalists included the Chevrolet Chevette, AMC Pacer, and Cadillac Seville (a rebodied Chevy Nova that would become a ’70s sensation). We thought Chrysler had the right idea: The Aspen and Volare were spacious despite tidy dimensions, and a damn sight better to drive than the oversized land yachts Detroit had foisted on the public since the last time Chrysler had tried (unsuccessfully) to downsize its cars in the early 1960s.
The timing of the Aspen and Volare still wasn’t perfect; by 1976, American customers, with their short memories, started to drift back to large cars. Still, sales numbers were huge by Chrysler’s standards. Buyers took home more than 500,000 Aspens and Volares in 1976, bumping up Dodge and Plymouth sales by 14 percent and 22 percent, respectively—and this while being sold alongside the Dart and Valiant. In 1977, Chrysler sold nearly 700,000. For both years, the F-bodies made up more than half of each division’s sales.
And then it all started to unravel.
Aspen and Volare: Build-Quality Bombs
Lee Iacocca, in his autobiography Iacocca, speculated that the F-bodies needed another six months of development before they were ready for the public. Problems began to spring up right away, some related to faulty design and others to bad build quality. Safety recalls included hoods that didn’t latch properly, engines stalling on acceleration, seat belt tensioners failing to lock, fenders rusting with alacrity, suspension and brake components suffering from early fatigue, omitted muffler heat shields, and leaky fuel hoses. One particularly harrowing defect resulted in the steering-wheel shaft becoming disconnected from the rest of the steering system. The Aspen and Volare quickly became the most-recalled cars in history (a record that would soon be stolen away by GM’s awful X-cars).
And these, mind you, were just the recalls. F-body owners dealt with countless other ignominies, including (but by no means limited to) leaky trunks, broken motor mounts, rapidly-wearing suspension parts, seizing brake calipers, and electrical problems in quantities that would make an MG owner blanch. Even the reputedly indestructible Slant Six proved fallible when installed between the F-body’s rust-prone fenders.
The Competition Catches Up
Meanwhile, Aspen and Volare faced increasingly tough competition.
GM introduced its downsized large cars in 1977. Chrysler’s big cars were dinosaurs, and there was no money to replace them, Chrysler having sunk its savings into the new front-drive Omni and Horizon. For ’78, GM downsized its intermediates to the Aspen’s and Volare’s size, while Ford introduced the new Fox-based Fairmont. While older Greatest Generation buyers still bought American, young buyers unwilling to put up with rampant quality problems bought more and more Japanese cars. 1978 was a great year for new car sales, but Chrysler sales were down.
A second oil crisis hit in 1979, and while Chrysler’s new front-drive Omnirizons sold strongly, the company was sinking around them. Newly-installed CEO Iacocca went to Congress seeking loan guarantees while the company rushed to develop a new generation of front-wheel-drive cars. The Aspen and Volare were axed after just five model years, cleared out to make way for the K-cars which master pitchman Iacocca would turn into an American sensation.
The F-cars became a symbol for 1970s failures, not just at Chrysler but those of the industry as a whole. And perhaps that’s just a little unfair. The F-body platform—which, for reasons never made clear, was renamed M—spawned the Dodge Diplomat, Plymouth Gran Fury, and Chrysler Fifth Avenue, well-regarded cars that lasted until 1989 and were the darlings of police fleets well into the 1990s.
Should the Aspen and Volare Have Been Our Car(s) of the Year?
Did the 1976 Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Valiant deserve the MotorTrend Car of the Year title, or were they just too terrible? Well, they certainly were terrible in execution, that’s for sure. But the reasons for the F-body’s victory were sound. When you look at the automotive industry’s evolution, you can see Chrysler’s notion about what buyers would want—smaller cars with larger interiors, nimble handling, and a comfortable ride—was correct. Chrysler had the right idea, but it lost it on implementation.
Besides, imagine what people would say if we gave the Car of the Year award to the AMC Pacer.