Home » The Chrysler K Car Was Bigger Than A Kei Car, But Not Much Bigger Than Our Mini-Based Mitsuoka Tribute

The Chrysler K Car Was Bigger Than A Kei Car, But Not Much Bigger Than Our Mini-Based Mitsuoka Tribute

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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.

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Chrylser

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

Dart
Midwest Car Exchange, ebay via Barn Finds(cars for sale)

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).

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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.

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Chrysler

 

Look at these fuel economy numbers! I mean, the EPA figures were always kind of a joke back then but still, pretty impressive.

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Chrysler

The Aries and Reliant claimed to have six passenger room; they even had a picture to prove it!

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Chrysler via AllPar

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.

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Mini of Towson

 

Think I’m full of shit? I usually am, but take a look at this Google-doesn’t-lie chart of dimensions below:

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“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.

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Mini, Chrysler

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!

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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.

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The Autopian
Viewt Front
Mitsuoka

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.

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Mini of Towson, Bring A Trailer

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.

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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.

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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).

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Chrysler, Mini

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!).

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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?

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Relatedbar

Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines If Japanese Wacky-Car Company Mitsuoka Made A Tribute To The Second Generation Camaro – The Autopian

The Mitsuoka Viewt Becomes A Strange Jaguar-ified Toyota Yaris After Being A Strange Jaguar-ified Nissan Micra For 30 Years – The Autopian

Make Mine Malaise: Our Daydreaming Designer Applies The ‘Pike Car’ Approach For This Nostalgia Machine – The Autopian

Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines A Special Subaru From The Japanese Bubble Era – The Autopian

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The Mark
The Mark
2 months ago

I want one, and I demand that mine be equipped with the talking information monitor. “Your door is ajar. Please fasten your seatbelt. Thank you!”

Scotty Scott
Scotty Scott
8 months ago

The later wraparound taillights were just empty lenses and frames, so you could easily offer a sticker package to create either version.

Scott
Scott
9 months ago

I’m a little too old to be a Gen-Xer, but there’s something about your lowercase “aeirees’ that I find quite pleasing in the extreme. The boxy greenhouse atop those oh-so-slightly-rounded shoulders actually works nicely …it gives me a baby Rolls or Bentley sort of vibe, without being slavishly explicit or cloying. The greenhouse looks as if it’s been scaled down 10-12% vs the body, which furthers the impression of solidity, despite the modest overall size. I’m fine with the nose and tail treatments too, especially if those are $12-a-pop sealed beam halogen headlights as it appears (no $250-2000. bill to replace a dark headlight 7-8 years hence!). Would it be a sin to offer pop-in perspex headlight covers to bridge the gap, even if they’re not really period correct? Nothing fancy… just literal flat rectangles of Lexan (or whatever) would suffice… and sort of fit given the flat planes of side windows.

The dash on the other hand, that I’m not wild about. Yes, it pays homage to the original K-cars, but at what aesthetic and functional price? That jutting brow (or prow?) seemingly cantilevered out from the hood and into the cabin… it’s not exactly inviting. Also, it seems out of scale vs. the exterior of the car itself, which is something of a tidy and petite sedan. I haven’t peeked inside a new Mini lately, so if that’s a photo there of the current Clubman, I must say I’m actually surprised by its restraint. I’d much rather have that in my “aeirees” than anything like the original K-car abomination. Also, I get the point, but can I delete the cassette deck when I order the car? Maybe put something or other into a Bensi Box if you really must slather a bit of the 1980s in there?

PS: those Mini ‘canon’ wheels (or whatever they call those) actually also look great on the “aeirees” …I really think you’ve got a winner here, Bishop. Maybe if we’re all hooked up to feeding tubes and still yakking together here 30 years from now, we’ll be able to click a button next to your design that says “BUY” and a complete, bolt-on 3D-printed-on-demand body kit ready for primer and paint will be shipped to our doors? With all light housings, badges, and trim bits rendered in the appropriate material? Thanks to the AI-blended Bishop (now called Bishop+™), all attachment points are guaranteed to match original manufacturer specifications within 1.2mm?

Take my money, please. I don’t even have a Clubman, but would start hunting for a used one if such a thing were possible. 😉

Strangek
Strangek
9 months ago

I had an ’83 Aires K Coupe. As you can see in the promotional materials it was very sporty, not like it’s four-doored brother. I think the 14 second 0-60 time is quite generous. K car drivers liked to take our time, experience the scenery on the way to rent some Beta or VHS tapes. I owned that car as a teen in the mid 90s, so did not once ever notice or think about the fuel efficiency, but glad to know it did well on that front. The car felt like a government issued appliance and had an awesome ash tray setup.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
9 months ago

Part of the problem with the modern Mini is that while BMW got the style right, in terms of space efficiency, it’s absolute crap.

I’m pretty sure my ‘smaller’ Honda Fit has way more interior space for the given amount of vehicle footprint… and it does. Just compare the specs on Edmunds:
https://www.edmunds.com/mini/clubman/2023/st-401932784/features-specs/
https://www.edmunds.com/honda/fit/2008/features-specs/

Trunk space Clubman vs Fit: 17.5 cu ft vs 21.3 cu ft
And the Fit offers slightly more front head and leg room (but a little less shoulder room) and almost as much space in the back seats.

And the Fit pulls that off while being 11 inches shorter, 4 inches narrower and being 800lbs lighter.

Goblin
Goblin
9 months ago

For the pointless record, Ferraris in 1981 didn’t have issues breaking the 9 seconds limit, as they were sub-8 seconds for most of them. Maybe a gelded US-spec Mondial would have been barely sub-9, but that’s about it.

From a Ferrari-skeptic whose knees go soft at the bare thought of a first-gen NSX.

Motorhead Mike
Motorhead Mike
9 months ago

My Driver’s Ed car was a 1st gen Chevy Celebrity. Not far off.

Gen-Xers are a pathetic lot? Well perhaps, but we played the hand we were dealt. Anyway, if you were handy with tools, big-block muscle cars were still relatively affordable in the ’80’s.

Motorhead Mike
Motorhead Mike
9 months ago
Reply to  Motorhead Mike

Tools AND Bondo.

Alec Weinstein
Alec Weinstein
9 months ago
Reply to  The Bishop

Foxes have quadrupled in value over the last decade. Find a clean one that isn’t a V6 auto convertible for under 5 digits, I don’t think there are any

Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
9 months ago
Reply to  Motorhead Mike

My Driver’s Ed car was a Ford Fairmont, which was Dearborn’s answer to the K-car before there was a K-car.

Personally, as a Gen-Xer I don’t feel bad about the cars we had at the time. I feel lucky that my public high school had its own Driver’s Ed classroom component, its own driving component — including its own fleet of two dedicated cars — and its own Auto Shop courses & full garage with two bays. These days I know that most high schools have shut down all of those programs, leaving it up to community colleges or commercial providers, both of which cost students money.

Last edited 9 months ago by Mr. Fusion
Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
9 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Fusion

Yeah, mine had all that too & they should have kept all of it
We had classes & driving simulators! Also, cars w/ brake pedal on passenger side too. I took auto shop there AND they had a whole separate “Skills Center” where I took auto shop too along w/ computer /electronics for high school credit

CSRoad
CSRoad
9 months ago

There is a message or two in this concept, but I think it may be 10 years too early for a K-car replica. So hold that thought.

Chronometric
Chronometric
9 months ago

I know I missed the point but you made me reconsider the MINI Clubman as more than a inflated sporty hatchback for oversized people. It’s actually an 80s family car!

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
9 months ago

Dunno why you tried to force a K-car sedan on it when a wagon would fit perfectly. Plus you get the bonus of Di-Noc wood!

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
9 months ago

My Dad’s last car was a new 1984 Dodge K-car. After his passing it continued with my brother. It made thirteen years traversing the salt covered winters of NE Ohio, with minimal repairs.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
9 months ago

I had a 1974 Plymouth 4 door valiant. It certainly seemed large and could easily fit 6 non obese high school students with room to spare. The slant 6 quite smooth and powerful for the day.
But Bishop I call you out instead of or in conjunction with compare cars of yesteryear and today for capacity vs airline coach seats of yesteryear and today. Hell friggin twiggy would be crammed in todays airplane seats. But if she was next to me she would arrive pregnant. Lol

Slirt
Slirt
9 months ago

I can’t believe that I just talked about “design purity” in reference to a Dodge Aries” LOL, indicative of the crazy world we (GenX) now inhabit… And i too find the exterior rendering not unattractive, go figure (and i LOATHED K-cars BITD).

Dan Parker
Dan Parker
9 months ago

Why do I kind of like this?

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
9 months ago
Reply to  Dan Parker

Because it’s actually car-shaped and honest-looking, not some monstrous cyber wasp-featured mini CUV blob thing, that’s why.

Clear_prop
Clear_prop
9 months ago

My driver’s ed car was a K-car.

After your turn driving, you’d drive home, and then the next person would drive. I was the last to drive, so the driver’s ed instructor would just drive the car back to school.

After the first time, the instructor told me not to pull into my driveway any more since he had trouble backing out of my driveway since you had to back up a steep hill onto a busy road. Even though I was a new driver, I had no problem with it.

Clear_prop
Clear_prop
9 months ago
Reply to  The Bishop

Doubtful. The first time I pulled in with the K-car, the car backed out just fine, the driver’s ed instructor was just stressed out backing into traffic.

I don’t recall any friends/relatives having a K-car, but other period Chrysler products (70s Dart, 86 Caravan) were fine with the slope of the driveway. Even my dad’s Pinto was fine with it.

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
9 months ago

I was prepared to hate it, but I actually kinda like it. It echos the K car but eliminates the most egregious features.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
9 months ago

Your MiniK is a fitting tribute to the original and better in every measurable way. The only thing I’d have done differently is make it a wagon version with “wood” paneling.

My grandfather owned an Aries wagon (preceded, in order, by an Aspen wagon, Pinto wagon, and two VW Squarebacks). I drove it once. That was sufficient for a lifetime.

Dolsh
Dolsh
9 months ago

Still, it certainly beat riding in the trunk or walking, especially if it was raining heavily

Maybe? My memory of my parent’s Reliant was keeping WD-40 in the car to keep it running in the rain. I remember a particularly rainy day where it conked out at an advance green. This was also the car I learned to drive in, so I was out with high school friends who were naturally mercilessly taunting me. To their confusion/amusement, I got out, grabbed the WD-40 from the trunk, opened the hood, sprayed everything I saw Dad spray, closed it all up and it started back up again (to the relief of the impatient drivers waiting behind me).

I never volunteered to drive when rain was in the forecast ever again.

Last edited 9 months ago by Dolsh
Dolsh
Dolsh
9 months ago
Reply to  The Bishop

Heh… yeah – the one we had was fortunately 4 doors, so you could pack 6 teenagers in it pretty easily. Sometimes 8.

Mr. Frick
Mr. Frick
9 months ago

I worked for a bank at the time and they gave me an Aries for a company car. I would literally park that thing where no one could see me get in or out of it. Sometimes I would drive my own car cause it was nicer (Monte Carlo) and get yelled at. They finally tired of my complaints and awarded me a Chevy Citation. I kept trashing that car until they just gave me a mileage allowance.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
9 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Frick

Ha ha that’s hilarious!
“Awarded me a Chevy Citation”
Ha ha ha

Adam Rice
Adam Rice
9 months ago

If rehashing the glory days of the K-car counts as nostalgia for you, you didn’t get out enough as a teenager.

Jack Beckman
Jack Beckman
9 months ago

I can attest to the suckiness of the Aspen/Volare first-hand. My Dad bought the 4-door Aspen new and I later bought a 2-door Volare (need a cheap car fast at the time – regretted it right away). What utter trash. My Dad’s came from the factory with so many glass shards in the trunk that we figured the rear window had been smashed on the line while it was being built (or really, slapped together) and they just never bothered to clean it up. It would also stall if you made a right or left turn (can’t remember which) because he had the 1bbl carb, and it would get starved during a fast turn.

The Volare at least had the 2bbl carb and so didn’t stall so much; it was just a miserable car to drive. I bought a replacement for it quickly but had a hell of a time unloading the Volare. At the time we were living in an apartment building, and the Super kept bitching at me to to get rid of my third car. I told him to buy it then, because I couldn’t find anyone else to – that at least shut him up long enough to get rid of it.

These things were badly designed, badly built, and rusted out by you looking at them. If anything, Iacocca *understated* how bad they were.

LTDScott
LTDScott
9 months ago

I’m just thrilled that there’s an automotive journalist who knows the difference between a kei car and a K-car, unlike at the German lighting site. Two months later and this article is still full of errors.

https://jalopnik.com/chrysler-sold-a-car-in-japan-called-the-dodge-michigan-1850520694

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
9 months ago

I like the idea of the K-car, or any of those “basic transportation” vehicles.

I’m just reminded of Toyota’s brilliant ad for the Yaris: “It’s a car!”

FuzzyPlushroom
FuzzyPlushroom
9 months ago
Reply to  Spikedlemon

Windows that go down… and up… standard!

The new Viewt (pictured above) is a Yaris, and I wish I could import one before 25 years from now. (The previous generations were indeed Micras/Marches underneath.)

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