Glory Days

am not really sure what it all means now that Fiat owns Chrysler. When I take a few steps back from this entirely strange idea, I start to wonder if I even care anymore––does it really matter if the company is owned by Germans, Italians, Americans or Martians? The only thing that truly matters in my mind is whether or not the new management can come up with something to attract buyers and, in turn, preserve some jobs here in the United States. However, that is as far as it goes for me and yet I hope for more.

I just looked at the website and there is nothing new or outstanding. The competition still has more models to choose from, better economy and in some cases more performance. If I was a new car buyer I would look elsewhere and I hate to have to say that. Even the naming of the Dodge line-up reads like teenage boy machismo fantasy material. Not everybody wants to “Avenge” with a “Caliber” loaded up on “Nitro”. What up? How about something a little ambiguous or at least sweet sounding? Remember, “neon”? The “hi!” ad campaign was great and it worked.

I looked and looked for something to love and about the only things I really liked were things that just weren’t so practical for me––like the “DragPack” Challenger. For a measly 40k you can be run the quarter mile in the 10 second range. How cool is that? It is so fantastical as to be almost unbelievable, yet there it is. If I had any sort of race dream left in me I’d be figuring out a way to buy one of these incredibly cool machines. I’d also like to see how fast one of these babies would tear up the salt flats.

How about the Gem electrics? (An American built electric car owned by Chrysler) Frankly, they are awesome but falling just ever so short of being truly useful for the average consumer. The idea is there but the execution is sharply off. Golf cart, open-air styling is “eye-catching” only because you look silly in the rain. The 25 mph top speed is practically dangerous, even within the confines of most American urban centers. A bike messenger on a fixed gear goes faster than that. Still, with refinement I could see many people buying one. An enclosed passenger compartment, 10 more mph and we have a winner! According to the website affordability calculator, I would save nearly $500 a year running this around town as opposed to my ’64 Dart… pretty convincing but it doesn’t go far enough – no pun intended – to make me run out and buy one.

Upon further inspection of my thoughts, I realize that the glory days of Chrysler are all I really care that much about. That sublime era of 1955 to 1970, when the corporation was in third place… but a strong third place. Being in third gave the organization a certain scrappiness. Somehow that scrappiness led to innovation and risk taking that paid off. There was a pride there as well and no small amount of talent. Something you could call magic coalesced for Chrysler back then; despite setbacks like the failure of the ’62 cars and the subsequent loss of a talent like Virgil Exener.

Even when the Corporation was putting out wild, unsaleable, yet legend-making cars with wings on them or unstreetable drag cars with VIN numbers and seatbelts they never lost sight of their core consumer. They kept pumping out Darts, Valiants and Coronets and they made sure every variation of those models was covered. If a Valiant was just too insurance salesman for you then a Dart convertible might just swing the way you did. Ad campaigns ran the gamut from law enforcement to free love psychedelic freakouts.

Brand identity was strong and even though everybody knew the Super Bee and the Road Runner were the same under the skin, there was still strong adherence to one or the other brand. Even on the racetracks those identities were reinforced… Dodge had Cotton Owens and Bobby Isaacs while Plymouth had the Petty Dynasty. A reputation for toughness and reliability worked across the board from the most staunchly independent farmer to the little league mom out in the ‘burbs.

Where did it all go? Who knows, and who knows where it will go. I’d like to see the brand stick around. Maybe in three separate entities, with Mopar being the performance name, Chrysler the luxury segment and Dodge the rock solid family and work vehicle marque. (Whose insane idea was it to re-brand the trucks “Ram”? Sorry, you don’t go and trash one of the last remaining good brand identities your company has.) Whatever happens, I can only hope that the current situation calls forth the same scrappy, successfully innovative vibe of the glory days.