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Chrysler's K-Car: The First Modular Platform?

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author photo by Aaron Gold January 2017

"Modular platform" is the new buzzword in automotive circles. Rather than develop distinct platforms for similar car lines, automakers are now developing common platforms that can be stretched, shrunk, widened or narrowed to build a whole range of cars. Volkswagen is already touting their MQB architecture, and the new 2017 Impreza rides a platform that will underpin all of Subaru's future cars.

But there is nothing new under the sun, children, and this latest development is perhaps not so late as we think. Nearly four decades ago, Chrysler developed what could be considered the first modular architecture. And after a few years, we got sick of it.

I am talking, of course, about the K-car, the humble underpinnings for the boxy Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant that saved Chrysler from financial disaster. I am intimately familiar with the K, as my first car was an '82 Reliant, complete with a 2.2-liter engine fed by a feedback carburetor. (I've wanted to write an article about these diabolical devices, but so far Doug won't let me, perhaps for fear that I can't do so without a string of curse words.) Trivia: My first-ever published automotive article was Allpar.com's History of the K-Car. Like the K platform, that article has been stretched, widened, expanded and improved, but the bones are still there.

The key to the K was that it cost a billion dollars to develop, but the first spin-off car only cost about $50 million. And spin off they did: Chrysler launched the K for the 1981 model year in sedan, wagon and coupe forms, back when such things were the norm. This, by the way, was the beginning of the public referring to cars by platform letters -- by the time the cars hit the showrooms, people had read so much about Chrysler's impending doom and the K-car that was to save them that Chrysler incorporated the letter into the badge. If you're in the mood for some oldies, here's a 12-minute Chrysler video about the development of the K-car.

Chrysler followed up in 1982 with their first K derivatives, slightly longer and more plush versions called the Dodge 400 and the Chrysler LeBaron, along with a real experiment in wheelbase-stretching: the Chrysler Executive limousine. (I rode in once, in the back, and I can promise you there's a reason most stretch limos have V8 engines.) Chrysler also introduced convertible versions of the 400 and the LeBaron, the latter with fake-wood sides to imitate the classic Town & Country of 1946.

By 1983, K-car sales were boiling -- and Chrysler's fortunes were turning around. Chrysler introduced the next serious evolution of the K, stretching the wheelbase by 3 inches to make the Dodge 600 (with badges designed to emulate Mercedes), the Plymouth Caravelle and the Chrysler E-Class. Though their proportions were arguably more attractive, Chrysler made no attempt to hide their boxy shape or even pretend they were anything other than stretched Ks.

The year Chrysler hit the jackpot was 1984: They introduced the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, the first minivans ( "garageable vans" back before the term we now know was in common use). Note that there was no Chrysler version yet; the Town & Country was still a K-car wagon with stick-on wood trim. The platform was called T-115, but it was basically a K-car wagon with a tall body.

But 1984 was also the time when Chrysler began to take things just a bit too far. The offender was the G-body coupe, sold as the Dodge Daytona and the Chrysler Laser. The slick styling and optional turbo power made them seem a good match for hot-rods like the Ford Mustang, the Chevrolet Camaro, the Nissan 300ZX and the Toyota Supra. But if you looked underneath, you'd find MacPherson struts and a transverse engine up front and a beam axle out back.

In other words, the G-car was really a K-car.

It was a K tuned for better handling and a firmer ride... but it was still a K-car. To be fair, reviews at the time were positive; the Daytona made Car and Driver's 10 Best list for 1984. Remember, however, these were the dark days for performance.

Chrysler chugged along smoothly for a few years, raking in the profits that the K platform was providing. In 1987, the L-bodies (Omni and Horizon) were about a decade old, and Chrysler introduced what were supposed to be their replacements, the Dodge Shadow and the Plymouth Sundance. (The Ls would live through the 1990 model year.) Though tall and somewhat oddly proportioned, they had greatly improved interiors; then as now, Chrysler was upgrading their cabins to meet the standards set by the Japanese. These were the P-cars, Chrysler said, and they were based not on the K-car but on the G-body -- essentially, they were shortened Daytonas.

Except we know that the G-car was really just a K-car.

The 1988 model year saw a new Chrysler New Yorker and Dodge Dynasty, cars that blatantly ripped off Cadillac's styling in the mid-1980s. No one cared that they were K-cars, and we can safely laugh them off as an unusually unfortunate chapter in the Chrysler story.

Finally, in 1989, Chrysler introduced something really new: the Dodge Spirit and the Plymouth Acclaim. They had a very different look and feel, especially from the inside. Had Chrysler finally undergone the revolution we'd been waiting for?

Nope. The Spirit and Acclaim were based on the old E-body. They, too, were K-cars.

Slowly but surely, Chrysler would begin to cull the herd. The original K-cars breathed their last in 1989. The Shadow and the Sundance would make it into the mid-'90s, as would the minivan, though one can forgive both -- there were some things the K-platform did well. Saddest of the bunch may well be the Daytona, which would not be put out to pasture until 1993. By then, reviews were (rightfully) calling it a sad and outdated attempt to build a credible sports car on a 15-year-old family-sedan platform. Some saw it as Lee Iaccoca's attempt to hold on to the glory days. (Mr. Iaccoca retired in 1992, and the Daytona followed shortly thereafter.)

Truth be told, Iacocca oversaw the germination of what would be the next revolution at Chrysler: the 1992 LH-bodied Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision and Chrysler Concorde, which would set new standards for big-car handling. (Perhaps we'll talk about those in another article.) They would be followed by the 1995 Neon, which would change the entire playing field for small cars.

The K-platform did what modern-day automakers hope their modular platforms will do: It saved millions of dollars by allowing for shared engineering and common parts among multiple car lines. It single-handedly saved Chrysler.

But it also yielded a generation of cars that looked different but drove the same -- and after a decade-and-a-quarter of K-derivatives, we, the buying public, were sick of 'em.

Let's hope that doesn't happen with tomorrow's modular platforms.

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Chrysler's K-Car: The First Modular Platform? - Autotrader