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K Platform – The Cars That Saved Chrysler

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K Platform – The Cars That Saved Chrysler

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Remember last summer, when that guy in the santa suit drove around downtown Ann Arbor playing polka music from his Chrysler LeBaron convertible with the fake wood veneer?

That car saved Chrysler from the 1980s.

Not that specific car, but rather that model, and many others.

In 1979, Chrysler was facing hard times. The oil crisis had brought Japanese and European imports into the dealerships and driveways of people who had only ever owned full size American car before. The Dodge Aspen, and Plymouth counterpart, the Volare, were engineering and public relations nightmares. Different platforms and parts made building cars expensive. Chrysler was losing money, and fast.

In 1978, Lee Iacocca, recently fired from Ford, took the helm of the sinking ship. He realized that things needed to change. The era of high profit margins from options and accessories on big V8 powered, rear wheel drive, full size sedans was coming to a close, thanks to gas prices, government regulation, and competition from Japanese imports.  

To fight the imports, Iacocca decided that Chrysler had to adapt to their engineering. He proposed a single platform that many different cars could be built on, with interchangeable mechanical parts. He envisioned lightweight mid size cars, with four cylinder engines, high fuel economy, and front wheel drive.

Thanks to a government loan of 1.2 billion dollars, which Chrysler was able to repay seven years ahead of schedule, Iacocca was able to direct Chrysler engineers to begin production of these cars, all based on the K platform.

The K cars, as they were known, put Chrysler back in the black with 10 million in profits after two years of losses. Over 3,500,000 K cars were produced over the 15 year run from 1980 to 1995. They were a resounding success, accounting for over 50 percent of Chrysler’s profits.

And most importantly, people loved them. With a manual transmission, the cars achieved 26 miles per gallon in city driving, and 41 on the highway. The cars were designed to provide the same amount of interior space as a full size sedan, and could seat up to six people. Acceleration and speed were much worse that past cars, but still kept up with the competition. The K platform also allowed for almost any Chrysler product to be cheaper and more efficient, from the cheapest base model Plymouth Reliant to the Chrysler New Yorker.

And the versatility of the platform was put to good use. The first Chrysler minivans were built on the platform, as was the most premium offering from Chrysler, the rear wheel drive V8 Imperial. (The Imperial was built on a slightly stretched K platform, known as the Y platform.) Even the Dodge Dynasty, popular with police departments until the early 90s, was built on the same platform as a minivan, station wagon, convertible, personal luxury coupe, sedan, and even limousines. Almost every product offered by Chrysler was built on the K platform or some slightly stretched or shrunk variant.

Although many were disappointed by lackluster engines, sometimes unreliable, plastic interior and exterior parts, and issues with the new advanced electronics offered in the K cars, the platform was for the most part a resounding success, saving Chrysler from bankruptcy, and as their television advertisements so eloquently put it, “Bring back the pride” to their cars.

And, it was the first platform in the United States designed in the metric system, now standard amongst all automakers.

Now over thirty years in the past, the Chrysler K platform cars are now officially historic vehicles, at least in Michigan. Although the vehicles may be bland or unexciting to the modern eye, have disappointing mechanicals to the modern engineer, and sluggish handling for the modern driver, it’s important to celebrate the important role that these vehicles played in American history.

As University of Michigan professor and automotive historian David Lewis stated about the K cars in 1984, no platform “in the history of the automobile industry has so dramatically allowed a company to survive in such a substantial way. No company has been down so low, in such difficult straits, and then depended on practically a single product to bring it back.”

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