If nothing else, I want to always be honest with you Autopians, so here’s a full disclosure: part of this next post will be Car Guy Rant #156, which is the “I hate how big cars have gotten” dog turd that you’ve read before. Of course, it’s not a mystery, and I completely understand why cars have grown exponentially since the late Malaise era. Better safety equipment, bigger tires, and larger cargo space are all welcome improvements. Still, I want to give you a rather amusing illustration of how far things have gone in terms of ‘size creep’ over the years.
Back in 1981, Chrysler launched what would be, in retrospect, one of the most important products in their history: the K Cars, namely the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant.
Verging on bankruptcy and only kept afloat by loan guarantees from the US Government, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant were to replace the bread-and-butter Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare, two cars that were part of the reason why Chrysler was in such dire straits. The Aspen/Volare were emblematic of the US auto industry at the time, in that they were measurably worse than the cars that they replaced, in this case the ancient and dull but ready-for-the-apocalypse Gen 4 Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant. Don’t believe me? Here’s the resounding condemnation from the book of Chrysler’s then-new-President:
“The Dart and Valiant ran forever, and they should never have been dropped. Instead they were replaced by cars that often started to come apart after only a year or two. When these cars first came out, they were still in the development phase. Looking back over the past twenty years or so, I can’t think of any cars that caused more disappointment among customers than the Aspen and the Volare.” – Lee Iacocca
Among the Aspen/Volare’s issues were fenders rusting on early models that had to be replaced under warranty. Installing thousands of new fenders and repainting them on two-year-old cars to the tune of what would be $200 million dollars in today’s money. Actually, the Aspen/Volare were the most recalled car in history at the time (ah, but GM would steal the title back soon enough with a car named after a traffic ticket).
Needless to say, the new-from-the-ground-up K Cars HAD to be a sales hit. They might seem like slow and ill-driving utter abominations today (they were), but launching in a post-gas-crunch recession period this no-nonsense car offered just what the average buyer needed.
Look at these fuel economy numbers! I mean, the EPA figures were always kind of a joke back then but still, pretty impressive.
The Aries and Reliant claimed to have six passenger room; they even had a picture to prove it!
I mean, those six people had to be on pretty good terms with each other; that better be that one dude’s wife sitting next to him in that image. Still, it certainly beat riding in the trunk or walking, especially if it was raining heavily. This is space efficiency at its finest, all in a car that is the same size as a vehicle sold today with the name ‘Mini’ on it.
Think I’m full of shit? I usually am, but take a look at this Google-doesn’t-lie chart of dimensions below:
“But the Mini is ten inches shorter!” you’re bleating? Look again at the chart and then the scaled-correctly picture below. The Mini’s wheelbase is five inches longer than the Dodge, and if the soon-to-be-discontinued Mini Clubman had any kind of overhang and 5 MPH bumpers on it like the K Car it would certainly be the same size, if not longer. It’s also taller and wider than the old Chrysler. Another thing that comes into sharp focus: how much rolling stock has changed in forty years. Back then, a 16 inch wheel with seventy series tires was like rubber bands on the rims to many.
I’m not sure how else to prove it to you. Wait… I actually do! Let’s take a Mini Clubman to Japan–that land of the Kei car–and have the firm Mitsuoka turn it into a K Car!
Mitsuoka, as we’ve pointed out before, is a Japanese coachbuilder specializing in making sort of ‘neoclassic’ modified cars that pay tribute to the vehicles of decades gone by. Here is the Mitsuoka Viewt, which stuck body panels onto a Nissan Micra to make it look like a Jaguar from about forty years before.
What about a forty year old car today? Sadly, most of us GenXers were around then. What car did we do driver’s education in? What would make us nostalgic for riding with friends to Pizza Hut after the game on Friday night with a Cure cassette in the tape deck? I hate to say it, but the Aries fits the bill. Ah, but our Mini-based K-Car will, understandably, drive in a way that you wouldn’t have ever imagined the original doing in the most fevered dream. Remember, the fastest Clubman can beat five seconds to sixty; in 1981 even Ferraris could barely break nine seconds to that velocity, and a stock Aries lumbered up to just over the national speed limit in around fourteen seconds.
The Mini isn’t a bad choice for our conversion to the “Aeirees” (legal spelling) either considering its rather straight-lined greenhouse and one-piece front nose that can be removed easily for our new sheetmetal. The door pillars are also rather straight and vertical to help with the ruse. The back of the Mini will be chopped up and extended slightly to form a traditional trunk and the signature K Car near-vertical backlight.
A wraparound bumper-level molding matches the original car, while LED turn signals and taillamps in black cavities front and back echo the ones on the 1981 car. I know later models had wraparound signals and taillights but I wanted to keep the purity of the original. I can’t believe that I just talked about “design purity” in reference to a Dodge Aries.
The sculptural, round-centered fun design of the Mini’s dashboard just isn’t going to fly if we’re going for old memories. No, we’ll need to try to replicate the ugly seventies Chrysler slab-topped, angled-back monolith of an instrument panel for our fake Aries, rerouting the air conditioning into more suitable looking plasticky vents, and putting in openings for existing controls and instruments (optionally we could replace them with flat screens to replicate the speed0-and-gas-gauge cluster on the Chrysler).
Oh, and we MUST have a cassette deck to play the Special Beat Service, Ghost In The Machine, or Combat Rock cassettes you found still sitting in your old room, though in this case it would be the only touch screen controlled tape player ever offered (well, first to be operated by an LCD touch screen, since I’m aware that there was already a cassette deck operated by touch sensitive buttons on the Bang & Olufsen Beomaster 4500, in front of the wet carpet Margot!).
You won’t be able to jam five of your friends in here to go down to the arcade to play Tempest, but at least you and three of your now fatter and balder former high school buddies can fly over railroad tracks at alarming speeds with “Mirror In The Bathroom” playing in this revival of your mom’s old car. Maybe a “Mini” sized “Dodge” is still big enough for today?
Damn. This counts as nostalgia for people born between 1964 and 1980. Us GenXers are a pathetic lot, aren’t we?