Home » How Chrysler Turned A Great Car Into Glorious Garbage

How Chrysler Turned A Great Car Into Glorious Garbage

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Certain cars provoke such strong reactions that a mere photo of one can be a litmus test for enthusiasts. The Cybertruck is certainly one of them. A 1978 Dodge Challenger, like the one pictured above, is another. For this episode of Glorious Garbage, things are a little different: is the car itself garbage, or is it garbage thanks to the efforts of crooked marketing types?

‘That thing’s a travesty and a disgrace to the Challenger name’ says the traditional Mopar-or-no-car crowd about this Mitsubishi “captive import.” Others might say things like: ‘it was a great little ride that many of us will remember with fondness.’ Personally, my opinion falls into the latter category. I’ve heard some old mechanics say that it was one of the best products that Mitsubishi ever made; the balancer shaft four-cylinder worked so well that Porsche reportedly gave up on trying to make their own system and just paid Mitsubishi licensing fees to use it on the 944.

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The sad thing is that this controversial car was yet another victim of poor decision-making by the struggling 1970s Chrysler Corporation. The Challenger started out overseas as the Mitsubishi Sapporo, a rather crisp and clean-looking car that was refreshingly free of the usual adornments found on Japanese cars of the era.

Mitsubishi Sapporo I Coupe 1 Copy
Mitsubishi

In addition to those balance shafts, the Galant-based Sapporo had other tricks up its sleeve. The 2.6-liter four had a “Jet Valve,” a way to improve emissions by enhancing swirl in the combustion chamber to allow for burning a leaner mixture for better fuel economy. The Sapporo also had four-wheel disc brakes, something few American cars had at the time other than the Corvette and certain Cadillacs.

Like the first Prelude, the Sapporo sort of bridged the gap between a sports car and luxury coupe. Chrysler didn’t seem to get that and decided instead to sell it as two surprisingly different-looking cars, one for Plymouth and one for Dodge. Each car was tailored almost exclusively to the perceived tastes of 1978 American “sport” and “luxury” coupe buyers (which are totally perceived categories to begin with). To accomplish this, a laundry list of clichés was applied to each of the two vehicles with the results being as silly as you’d expect.

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The Dodge ‘sport’ version, of course, was the Challenger, a naming that obviously inspired calls of blasphemy from the Mopar faithful. How can a car with 78 horsepower dare to carry this badge? In reality, by almost any measure this thing was an order of magnitude better than any of the true garbage Chrysler was spewing out at the time like Furys, Volares and Aspens (with barely 150 horsepower out of a 318 cubic inch V8, and Chrysler’s own disastrous “lean burn” system).

As the ‘sporty’ version of the original Sapporo car, the Dodge Challenger had to feature:

  • Window louvers (that stayed in place when you rolled the back windows down)
  • Tape stripes
  • Jazzy polyester leisure suit-style upholstery
  • Raised white letter tires
1978 Dodge Challenger Ad E1614949694513 Q
Chrysler

Boy, did this thing represent the stuck-on-sportiness gestalt of the later ’70s. Better yet…  had an overhead console with an “eyeball” reading light and a digital clock. In 1978, when 10-year-old year me saw that feature at an auto show I believe that I needed to be put into a dark room with a cold compress until I calmed down.  Can you blame me?

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The Plymouth version–called “Sapporo” just like in the overseas markets–was tailored to be a mini personal luxury car. Baroque coupe? Let’s get out the to-do list:

  • Landau bar with opera lights
  • Whitewalls and fancy wheel covers (I swear they are Dodge Aspen SE items)
  • Pillowy seat interior

All the boxes are checked! It’s so inviting inside for Mr. Macho and his lady below to drive to Monument Valley:

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Instead of the insane leisure-suit plaid upholstery of the Challenger, you get tufty crushed velour in eye-searing red. Note the controls for dual power mirrors and even power front windows; again, all pretty exclusive for the time.

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Thankfully by around 1980 Chrysler ditched all of the exterior crap and gave us what was essentially the clean JDM/Euro market version. Here’s a classic MotorWeek review that shows the car was so good it didn’t necessarily need all the baggage of being a Dodge Challenger:

The whole Posh Spice /Sporty Spice twin thing was toned way down, and there’s barely any difference between the Dodge and Plymouth.

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Chrysler

You can see that it cleans up real nice, at least in an early eighties kind of way with this top-level “Technica” model:

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Mitsu Chally

“Technica” indeed: look at this for malaise tech and “show biz”:

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Chrysler

You could see that the basic pillarless hardtop shape was pretty nice for the time and a solid competitor for Celicas, 200SX, and Mustang, which is what the damn thing was supposed to be in the first place.

As your momma always said, just be yourself. It’s the best thing you can do.

 

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The Chevy Celebrity Eurosport VR Proved Chevy Didn’t Know What ‘Euro’ Meant – The Autopian

 

 

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Laurence Rogers
Laurence Rogers
3 months ago

Thanks, Bishop, always love seeing more Glorious Garbage!

We got much the same vehicle Down Under, badged as the Mitsubishi Sigma Scorpion.

Sadly, it seems the rare Sigma Turbo engine only came out in 500 Sigma sedans, and not the coupes from what I can tell. Proto-Starion GSR would have been cool, and I can just picture an awesome graphics package with big TURBO decals!

Logan King
Logan King
3 months ago

When I lived in New York I frequently saw one of these that someone had shoved what I assume was an LA V8 into.

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