(Note: Another post by my friend Carmine -TK) In their 1989 hit Love Shack, Fred Schneider of the B-52’s sings about having “a car as big as a whale…a Chrysler, it seats about 20.” Well, Fred, I had a Chrysler that could seat about six…and it just might have been the best and cheapest beater I ever owned.
“What was that?”, I exclaimed, breaking the silence of a dead-quiet Thursday night at Hallett Pontiac. The object of my curiosity was the big gray land yacht that was exiting the dealership after having buzzed the showroom. It was a Brougham-era artifact that looked vaguely Linconesque, but its large, cathedral-style taillights (Don’t you love it when buildings and cars share styling themes?) and hidden headlights could only mean one thing: It was an Imperial, in fact, the last Imperial–and a rare artifact from the ruins of the Broughmo-American empire.
In answer to my question, I was told it was “a Chrysler or something” that a wholesaler had brought over to sell to Willie, our dealership’s porter. I didn’t wait to hear the rest of the answer. I bolted through the dealership’s plate-glass doors and ran to catch up to the car while yelling at “Charlie the Wholesaler” to stop. Luckily, there was plenty of traffic on South Dixie Highway, so he had to wait for a big enough opening to launch the Chrysler Star Destroyer into unsuspecting traffic. As I approached the passenger side and saw all the windows down, I realized I’d found a real, honest-to-God hardtop! Sweet, indeed.
“You selling this thing?”, I asked him. “Yup.” After slipping the transmission into park, he switched on the interior courtesy lights, revealing black-velour interior upholstery in pretty decent shape. He continued. “I brought it here to see if Willie wanted to buy it. It was just traded in today at the Cadillac dealership.” Since Willie had been asking every wholesaler that came in to find him a “Deuce and Quarter”, Ninety-Eight or Caprice, Charlie figured this big land yacht was the car for Willie. Willie, however, was brand loyal and he was not, in his own words, “driving no GD Krysla!” It was Willie’s loss.
The car, which I had first assumed was an Imperial, turned out to be a “GD Chrysler”, specifically a 1977 Chrysler New Yorker Brougham–and for all practical purposes, an Imperial that lacked only Imperial badging and rear disc brakes. The explanation why is simple: When Chrysler discontinued the Imperial in 1975, the company wasn’t exactly flush with cash and, in a bit of marketing wizardry, took the Imperial’s body, replaced its Imperial eagles with Chrysler badges, and voila: Presenting the “all-new” 1976 Chrysler New Yorker Brougham.
Four Benjamins later, I was the proud owner of about 19 feet of Highland Park’s finest product. Frankly, I really didn’t need another gigantic car; the ones I currently parked in my condo’s lot had already annoyed the homeowners’ association condo commandos to the point where they’d probably put me on some kind of crime watch list. But after looking at the tires–brand new Michelin XW4 whitewalls, which alone were worth $400–I figured, “How can I go wrong?” As it turned out, I didn’t.
What a set of wheels! She had a 440 cu. in. power plant (As Elwood would say; after all, wasn’t the New Yorker like a Broughamified version of the Blues Brothers’ Dodge Monaco?) whose Lean Burn system had been removed, and it performed fairly well, at least for a smogged, low-compression 70s-era motor.
Of course, not everything was perfect; after all, this was a $400 car. There were some serious lumps under the vinyl top, which made parts of the roof feel like one of those globes with mountain ranges raised bas-relief above flat terrain. The rear quarters were completely rusted at the bottom, and its once-shiny metallic silver paint had faded to a dull gray even the USS Enterprise would envy. On the bright side, she did have the optional “Styled Road Wheels” plus most of that year’s other popular options. And the A/C was cold — literally. Apparently the Auto Temp II’s higher brain functions, like those of Stanley Kubrick’s HAL, had been disconnected. As a result, the system would blow out ice-cold air no matter what temperature was set — but hey, in Miami you could do worse than having nice, cold A/C year-round. Even the cruise control and Chrysler ”Chronometer” still worked. I was in big-car heaven.
Compared with my GM cars, this first Chrysler of mine had several characteristics I found interesting. First, there was that distinctive Mopar starter sound, and those little orange, fender-tip mounted turn signal indicators (The driver’s-side indicator would glow brighter as I pressed harder on the go pedal, as part of Chrysler’s optional “Fuel Pacer” system). Under the front seat was a big manila folder that contained service receipts dating back to 1980, along with the original window sticker. She was sold new at Key Chrysler-Plymouth in Ohio, which explained the rust–which, all things considered, could have been much worse. The bottom line was around $9,900, pretty big money in 1977. The very nice black velour interior had a 6-way power driver’s seat; an instrument cluster with a 100-mph speedometer (a speed the car was quite capable of achieving); and temperature and ammeter gauges that provided welcome relief from my Cadillac’s sparse, fuel-gauge-and-a-clock instrumentation. The glove compartment was in the middle of the dash, something that seemed odd to me, and a vanity mirror light nearly bright enough to double as a tanning booth.
After some two (and totally trouble-free) years of driving, I learned that a co-worker at the dealership needed a car. I already owned too many cars (I had to play “musical cars” every couple of days to avoid getting tagged with a bright-orange “VIOLATOR” parking sticker), so I decided to sell him the New Yorker for $800. I had doubled my money after two years of use. I’m sad to report that eventually she fell into less-than-caring hands. The last I heard, the most recent owner had been arrested while driving the car, which was impounded by the police and then probably scrapped, or made part of a Gulf of Mexico coral reef. Even now, I occasionally cruise the full-size Chryslers on eBay and think fleetingly about getting one, hoping to make amends for getting rid of one of the greatest cheap cars there ever was.