Every few years online car enthusiasts dredge up an absolutely incredible TV commercial for the 1985 Plymouth Turismo Duster. The ad features a woman who seems to be this off-brand Cyndi Lauper (more on the woman in question in a bit, actually) singing the praises of Plymouth’s sporty variant of the Chrysler L platform. There’s no heavy-handed sales pitch. Instead, it’s a full-on music video that plays all the hits from the 1980s: big hair, baggy sweatshirts; overalls with one strap unhooked; European men doing gymnastics; neon lights; an underpowered front-wheel-drive hatchback; and a dance party at a steamy, snowy industrial area.
The Autopian recently shared the ad on the website formerly known as Twitter, commenting on the incredibly catchy original song. In response to the inevitable jokes about warehouses full of white powder, they created an amusing mash-up with the 1980s cinematic masterpiece, RoboCop.
It's the mashup you didn't know you needed: the Plymouth Duster "cocaine factory" commercial meets the RoboCop cocaine factory shootout. Enjoy! pic.twitter.com/i0qq5WFuer— The Autopian (@the_autopian) August 11, 2023
Somewhere in the conversation, somebody posted a YouTube comment from a man claiming to be the head of Chrysler advertising behind the ad. Through some online sleuthing, I tracked down Glenn Northrop, who was Chrysler-Plymouth Division’s Car Advertising Manager in the early 1980s and did indeed spearhead the iconic commercial.
“I was the youngest executive at the time in the whole corporation, and I was 28-29 years old,” he told me. “The whole thing was that the Plymouth brand was getting older and older and older. And, you know, we weren’t appealing to young people. So we decided to do a music video-style commercial… And we had the chance to debut that ad at the first MTV Music Awards show, which was in September of 1984 in New York City at the Radio City Music Hall.”
Exactly how the ad came together, how it ended up on MTV, and how it even got approved by Chrysler management, is quite the story.
Chrysler Corporation launched its first unibody front-wheel-drive subcompacts with the 1978 Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, just as Ford veteran executive Lee Iaccoca took the helm of the troubled automaker. At the time, this was something badly needed in the American market—compact cars that could compete with the imports on efficiency.
For 1979, Iacocca insisted Chrysler produce sporty coupe variants called the Dodge Omni 024 and Plymouth Horizon TC3. A 1.7-liter Volkswagen four-cylinder making just 70 hp under the hood couldn’t match the sporty looks, but the timing was perfect for the 1979 Energy Crisis. MotorWeek tested the ultra-economical 1982 Plymouth Horizon TC3 “Miser” and managed an unbelievable 40 miles per gallon (by the testing standards of the time, which are different than today’s, but still an impressive result.)
[Editor’s Note: Fun Fact: The United States Postal Service’s DJ-5D dispatcher Jeeps featured the same Volkswagen-sourced engine, but only for 1979. Also: I can’t believe an automaker called one of their cars “Miser.” Absurd. -DT].
[Joe Ligo “schooling” DT Note: The Jeep DJ5 (And AMC Gremlin, Concord, and Spirit) used a 2.0 L I4 from VW/Audi, which was part of the EA831 family. The Charger/Turismo used a 1.7L I4 from VW/Audi that was from the EA827 engine family. So they weren’t exactly the same. -JL]
Starting in 1981, a homegrown 2.2-liter four-cylinder was offered, along with a performance package for Dodge called “Charger.” Plymouth followed in 1982 with a “Turismo” package. In 1983, a 1.6-liter Chrysler/Peugeot four replaced the VW engine, and the Omni 024 and Horizon TC3 names were dropped completely as all models were renamed Charger/Turismo. While the Dodge received various Shelby treatments, including a turbocharger, Plymouth’s high-performance Turismo 2.2 variant was limited to a naturally aspirated 110 hp. Hard to believe Plymouth was selling a 7.2-liter V8 just ten years prior.
Late 1984 brought a special “Duster” package for Turismo, including stripes, a spoiler, 13-inch rally wheels, and bucket seats. It was purely cosmetic, although it could be paired with a 94 hp 2.2-liter motor and a five-speed stick. With a memorable name from the past, a low base price, and a potential for volume sales, the Turismo Duster was part of Plymouth’s new product push for 1985.
Chrysler’s Mad Men
Car advertising typically involves at least three parties. The automaker has an internal marketing team that hires an ad agency to develop the advertisements, and the agency hires production companies to produce, shoot, and edit the commercials.
As is common, Chrysler used several agencies, but the lion’s share went to Kenyon & Eckhardt after Lee Iacocca lured the company away from Ford. Although originally reluctant to go on camera, K&E turned Iacocca into a celebrity CEO through a series of straight-talking off-the-cuff commercials that were actually meticulously rehearsed and planned down to the exact slang he used. (Iacocca was also reluctant to leave that spotlight after he became famous, to Chrysler’s detriment.)
However, Iacocca only starred in Chrysler’s “corporate” spots. Ads for specific products fell under divisional jurisdiction–in this case, Northrop’s. Chrysler-Plymouth cars also worked with K&E, although he wasn’t thrilled about the commercials his bosses wanted. “It was trying to make crappy products look interesting or appealing,” he told me. “You know, every car in print was shot with a three-quarter angle, what we call a ‘Queen’s portrait’ deal, in Griffith Park outside of LA. You could look at all the ads, GM, Ford, they all look the same… They just didn’t want to do anything different. It was like sheep following the sheep.”
As Detroit tried to compete with fuel-efficient, high-quality Japanese cars, an increasing focus on gas mileage and warranty terms led to TV commercials cluttered with graphics and text, which Northrop despised. A Chrysler New Yorker commercial featuring Ricardo Montalbán and a text wall of warranty disclaimers.
“All those mileage numbers and all that stuff, those were all driven by lawyers,” he explained. “Lawyers would sit and time how long those disclaimers were on screen and whether or not the average person could read them. I didn’t even want them in the ad, because I don’t believe television is a medium that does well with text graphics. You’re telling a story.”
While hearing Montalbán talk about rich Corinthian leather did become a bit of a meme in the 1980s, it wasn’t the kind of “storytelling” that Northrop wanted to see. He felt that Chrysler advertising was too boring, and he especially hated the Plymouth Voyager “magic wagon” ads with illusionist Doug Henning.
“[He] was jumping out of this giant set and disappearing, and we had to sign wavers, because it was a closed set and he was using his magic illusions as part of the ad,” Northrop said, agitated. “I thought it was totally ridiculous. Doug Henning was the weirdest guy in the world to work with… He would work for 20 minutes and then take like an hour of ‘meditation’ in his private trailer with his wife… The shoot went on forever and it cost over one million dollars to get that turd on the air! That was a total disaster. I hated that commercial from the start to the finish.”
I Want My MTV
Although we’ve grown used to new cars being introduced year-round, Glenn explained that Detroit used to release all its big products in September around Labor Day when the new model year began. “The agency starts in January, and they have certain people at the ad agency that sit with the product marketing guys, and they have an advance look at the car, and they start to develop the marketing position on it, and so on and so forth,” he explained. “Then by June, they’re making their final pitches with storyboards… and all that kind of stuff.”
“And it all has to be conceptually approved before all hell breaks loose at the end of June, and we have to start lining up production houses and photographers and talent and cars and all this stuff,” Northrop said. “In the summer, if you don’t have production teams in LA basically lined up, nothing’s going to happen because GM is doing the same thing. Ford is doing the same thing. Toyota’s doing the same thing. So you’re dealing with all these guys trying to go after finite resources in LA to get all their advertising done in June, July, and August… Now it’s a little more relaxed because there’s a lot more staggered releases of cars nowadays, and there’s not quite as much fervor about the big launch date of Labor Day.”
With production already in full swing, a young associate from K&E approached Northrop late in the summer of ‘84 regarding the upcoming MTV Video Music Awards. Starting in 1981, the fledgling Music Television cable network had taken the world by storm. Its edgy mix of music videos and industry news was a magnet for young viewers, including Glenn. When he heard the channel was planning its first-ever awards show, he immediately looked into advertising.
“Half of my bosses didn’t even know what MTV was,” he told me. “It was something their kids watched. They had no clue. Didn’t know any of the music. Didn’t know anything. So I kind of did it on the side, and told them to keep it quiet, because I knew the head guy at the agency… he was in Iaccoca’s back pocket, and if this guy wasn’t on board, he could turn Iacocca any way he wanted.”
While Chrysler management complained that their buyer demographics kept getting older and older, the company still refused to throw its weight behind courting younger buyers. “We liked to advertise on Time magazine and 60 Minutes,” Northrop told me, exasperated. “And they kept wondering why their demographics were so old. You were talking to dead people, basically.”
Working quickly, he saw his chance to promote one of few youth-oriented models Pymouth had: the Turismo Duster. Stylish but affordable, it imitated the concept of Japanese and German sports coupes, if not the build quality. But the commercial had to be a winner.
“So the general direction I gave the creative team was, I don’t want to go in there with our typical crap with the mileage numbers and rebates and all that stupid stuff that we normally promote in these things. I want to go in and talk to younger people in the language that MTV is all about: music videos. And I left it at that.”
With the awards show on September 14 and production in LA almost impossible, Northrop explained how the team scrambled to produce the commercial in under two months. “And so, one of the creative guys had some connections in London, and he said, ‘You know, they’re doing some real edgy stuff over there. And we could do this whole thing in a warehouse. It’s very punk-ish. And there’s some hot dancers and so forth.’ So the agency came up with the concept.”
The Incredible Music Video Is Born
Working with composers and musicians, K&E developed the idea for a music video about the Turismo Duster. The agency wanted to cast rock singer Pat Benatar, but she was too busy touring after her mega-hits “Love is a Battlefield” and “We Belong.” Instead, they hired English actress Finola Hughes from London’s original run of Cats and the Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive. For a shooting location, they booked England’s iconic Pinewood Studios, home to multiple James Bond films.
“They lined up the dancers. They had to hire a choreographer to do the dance routines. And there was costuming. There was a lot! It was like doing a movie,” Northrop said, still impressed by the work. “The biggest logistic thing was getting the damn car over there. I mean, that was a nightmare from what I remember, because it had to go through customs and all this kind of stuff.” Northrop remained in the U.S., handling the flood of traditional advertising that had to be completed before Labor Day. Meanwhile, K&E rushed to finish in time for the VMAs.
“They shot it I think in early August, and I started seeing bits and pieces of it by about [early September],” Northrop remembered. “And really we had about three weeks to get it all buttoned up and presented to the powers that be and everybody else. But it was a real breakthrough at the time.” There’s some debate online as to whether the ad actually uses Finola Hughes’ voice, or if she’s just lip-syncing to an anonymous performer. Either way, she sells it.
The end result was essentially a 90-second music video, and it was unlike any other ad. Hughes and friends energetically danced and drove around while she belted a rock-inspired jingle about “leaving it all behind” in her Plymouth Turismo Duster. It featured catchy music, trendy clothes, fast cuts, unusual camera angles, and special effects. There was no Lee Iacocca, Riccardo Montalbán, EPA ratings, prices, rebates, or disclaimers.
The only number in the entire thing was a quick flash of Chrysler’s “5 years/50,000 miles” warranty, and that was in the background. With the ad completed, Northrop now had to get approval from the bosses he’d originally circumnavigated. “They asked a lot of dumb questions,” he said. “Like ‘how much did it cost’ and ‘why did you do this in London?’ They completely missed the forest through the trees.” Thankfully, they signed off.
The ending featured a shot played in reverse of the car backing through a piece of plate glass, so it looked like the car was driving away as the Plymouth logo appeared.
Touched For the Very First Time
With Chrysler’s enormous ad spend, Northrop and his wife attended the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards, a black-tie affair at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Hosted by Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler, it sounds like a who’s-who of mid-80s music, with live performances by Rod Stewart, Madonna, Huey Lewis and the News, Tina Turner, ZZ Top, and even Ray Parker Jr. doing the Ghostbusters theme. (The only missing act was Michael Jackson, who was still recovering from a burn injury from filming a Pepsi commercial.)
Sitting in the third row, Northrop watched The Cars beat out Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, The Police, and Herbie Hancock for Video of the Year with their pioneering use of computer effects in “You Might Think.” But the most exciting part of the evening came when MTV played his commercial on a giant screen in between set changes. The 90-second version of the commercial, taped directly off cable TV, is shown below. Notice the “1st Annual MTV Video Music Awards Show” graphic at the beginning:
“So it actually played it in the theater, you know, while they were redoing the stage and all that stuff. But absolutely everybody got up and applauded the ad. It was really funny… We got a standing ovation!” Northrop said.
“We went to the MTV party that night and Dan Aykroyd was opening up a Hard Rock Cafe in town, and we got home at eight in the morning! That should let you know how it went… But long story short, I patted myself on the back quietly.”
Back in Detroit, Chrysler execs were pleased, even if they didn’t like MTV. “They kind of begrudgingly all approved it,” Northrop said. “But it didn’t become real important until the kids of a lot of these guys saw it on television and said ‘That was a cool ad!’ … Because even the kids could tell it wasn’t your typical Detroit crappy commercial. That kind of validated it more.”
MTV aired the full 90-second commercial that night, although K&E did produce a more timeslot-friendly 60-second version for other broadcasts. While print ads for the Turismo Duster were already completed, new versions were created to imitate the commercial’s look. All in all, the campaign was a success.
“We did drive some young people into the showroom, who probably wouldn’t have even considered the car,” Northrop said. “Because there was a lot of competition back then, almost all from Japan.”
And then 1985 would turn out to be the Plymouth Turismo’s best year since 1980 (back when it was still called Horizon TC3.) A full 52,162 models were built, and just over half were Dusters. After that, sales began to taper off, and 1987 would be the final year for both the Plymouth Turismo and Dodge Charger. The regular Omni and Horizon hatchbacks would hang around until 1990.
Leaving it All Behind
For years, collectors ignored Chrysler’s L cars as just cheap ’80s transportation, although the recent wave of “rad-era” nostalgia has changed that some. With their Shelby variants and turbo engines, the Dodge models generally are more popular than the Plymouths.
Despite his time at Chrysler, Northrop is not overly fond of the car, calling it “mediocre” during our interview. Although his duties expanded to include Dodge car marketing as well, he found himself frustrated by the ineptitude and uncreativity of Detroit’s automakers. He recalled bringing an early music CD into a meeting only for one executive to confidently say that nobody would ever listen to compact discs in their cars. “I’m going to be 70 years old, so this is hard to say,” he told me. “But I was just surrounded by old, fat, white men who just didn’t understand any of this. You know, I feel like I was talking to a wall sometimes.”
As Chrysler’s financial turnaround transformed Iacocca into a national hero, Northrop also became tired of the “cult of personality” that developed as the company became increasingly ego-driven. “My bosses were constantly stealing my ideas and running upstairs and presenting them directly to Iacocca to make themselves look good,” he said. “And I got tired of it.”
He left Chrysler Corporation in 1986 and continued to work in marketing for several years before launching his own consulting business for startup companies. And although he doesn’t look back on his Detroit days with rose-colored glasses, that night at the VMAs remains a favorite memory.
“I was very proud of the commercial, and the agency did a really good job,” he said. “I mean, Madonna did Like a Virgin three rows in front of my wife and I, so it was quite a larger-than-life event for a lot of reasons. But I was really proud of it.”
Talking to Northrop gave me a deeper appreciation for car advertising. If anything, it’s only gotten more bland and risk-averse since then. Every time the internet re-discovers this Duster commercial, the comments are always a mixture of enjoyment and ridicule. But it’s more than just a wacky music video to make cocaine jokes about. The fact that his team was able to pull off something so creative at such a conservative corporation on such a short deadline—and connect so well with the target audience—remains a huge achievement.
At some point, almost all of us have felt the frustration of being a young person in a world full of boring old people who look down on us. There’s something universally appealing about grabbing a group of friends, getting in your car, cranking up the tunes, and leaving it all behind.
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