Chrysler Corporation in the ’70s was a lot of peaks and valleys. As the ’80s approached and downsizing took hold at GM, Chrysler seemed headed for the junkyard thanks to gross incompetence, lack of money and lack of consumer confidence. They needed new, downsized big cars, but lacked money to develop and build them. Taking a page from GM’s use of the Colonnade as the platform for the new ’77 Caprice, Chrysler used the midsize Fury/Monaco chassis for the 1979 full-sizers, with Broughamtastic new sheetmetal and interior aping the ’76 Seville/’77 B- and C-body ‘sheer’ look. Unfortunately for Chrysler, and unlike GM, it didn’t translate to runaway sales success.
Along with Lincoln, Chrysler was a stubborn holdout when it came to downsizing. Even so, they knew that the 1978 New Yorker Brougham and Newport, while big and plush, were dated. With baroque styling and pillarless roofs, they seemed well behind the times next to fresh models like Chevrolet’s Malibu and Caprice–not to mention Chrysler’s own Diplomat and LeBaron models. But with no money available, what could be done?
Enter the B-body. Introduced in 1971, the Fury and Monaco B-bodies predated even the C-body Mopars. Six years later, most of their sales were to police departments that liked their big-block 440 power. Although these favorites of the constabulary left the scene in 1978, they didn’t entirely depart.
At its core, the “all-new” R-body 1979 Chrysler Newport was more or less restyled midsize B-body with a 118.5″ wheelbase and an overall length of 220.2 inches. While the chassis and running gear were mostly Fury/Monaco hand-me-downs, the exterior styling was fresh, despite a more-than-passing resemblance to Bill Mitchell’s “sheer look” GM models. The big-block 400 and 440 V8s were history; incredibly, the 1979 Newport’s standard engine was the 225 Slant Six, which made all of 110 horses to power the 3,530 lb. “pillared sedan.” Fancy.
Despite the carryover underpinnings, the new 1979 Newport was rather attractive and modern-looking in the GM vein. The interior offered ample space, as did the 21.3-cu ft trunk. Buyers who wanted some eight-cylinder oomph could choose from optional 135-hp 318, 150-hp 360, or 195-hp 360 V-8s. Also on the option list was an available Open Road handling package, which included firm-feel power steering and suspension, wider wheels, a rear sway bar and HD shock absorbers. I’m guessing there weren’t many takers for it, since most of the Chrysler buyers shelling out $6,405 (for the Six; the 318-V8 model ran $6,720) were probably more interested in a smooth and cushy ride.
Interiors were typical Chrysler–plush. Both the standard bench and optional 60/40 split bench seats were offered with standard cloth-and-vinyl upholstery or optional full vinyl. Because the world had not yet entered the Gray-and-Beige-Interiors-Only era, you could get your interior in blue, green, cashmere, red or gray–or even done up in white vinyl with contrasting red, blue or green trim.
My friend Bobby Wicker has a ’79 with white leather and green trim. It’s Broughamtastic.
A four-door sedan was the sole body style. Apparently, Chrysler felt the LeBaron-based Town & Country was enough to fulfill the hauling needs of Mopar wagon buyers. With the Newport, Chrysler tried out some unique weight-saving features–including plastic brake cylinder pistons and lightweight aluminum bumpers. That led to trouble. The plastic brake parts failed after a couple of years, and the bumpers were not as sturdy as Mopar engineers had thought. Eventually, many an owner who’d whistled past Chrysler’s late ’70s cloud of doom to buy a ’79 Newport realized that purchasing a Caprice, Bonneville or Delta 88 might have been more prudent. Too late! *Dr. Evil laughter*
Initial sales of the Newport (and its New Yorker sibling) were fair enough. But the combination of Chrysler’s deteriorating financial condition and the 1979 gas crisis put big-car sales in the tank. In their first year of production, Chrysler moved 78,296 R-body Newports, many of which might have been fleet sales; there was no Plymouth equivalent yet, and in some cases the Newport actually cost less than Dodge’s St. Regis variant. Production of the $10,026, V8-engine New Yorker was lower, at 54,640 units, but it’s likely that most of those sales were to retail customers.
Nineteen seventy-nine would prove to be the high water mark for the R-body. A second energy crisis had hit in the spring of 1979, about halfway into the model year. Naturally, car sales took a major hit, and while every automaker felt the impact, it hit precariously-positioned Chrysler hardest. With barely a year on the job, its new boss, Lee Iacocca, hadn’t had a chance to address most of the company’s problems; at the time, all that mattered was regaining solvency and launching the new K-cars. As a result, Chrysler’s existing lineup would enter the next model year with the most minimal of changes. At Highland Park, 1979 was a rough year to say the least, with production down 15% from 1978, and a record $1.1 billion loss for the corporation.
Back in 2012 I was working part-time hours at my insurance company job, and I found our featured two tone Newport while driving to lunch late that summer. I made a mental note to return later, but every time I got a chance to go back (usually around 1 PM), it was parked under a big tree, sitting in bright light and shadows that made for crappy photos. But a few weeks later I drove by around 3:00 PM, and the car wasn’t totally in the dark. Done deal.
This car looked to be all original, from its two-tone Frost Blue-over-Ensign Blue paint to its midnight-blue cloth upholstery. The interior looks particularly cushy.
The driver’s side had a healthy crop of rust along the bottom, but for a then-33 year old car, it was pretty solid. Even in 2012 these were thin on the ground in the salty Midwest. I did see a light metallic blue 1979 New Yorker in nearby Silvis around 2013-14, but it was occupied at the time so I was unable to get any pictures. That’s the last one I’ve seen locally.
That vintage dealer tag came from a local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer, Kimberly C-P. They are still in business today, and in fact are right across from Strieter Lincoln, who takes care of my cars.
I can tell that this car is a first-year model by its distinctive 1979-only hood ornament, which features a stylized “C.” The Newport went largely unchanged throughout its short life, but 1980 models shared the corporate Pentastar hood ornament with K-cars, Caravans and many other ’80s Mopars.
In side view, the R-body had a strong GM B-body vibe, but the front end looks more Chrysler-like. Still, it could pass for a C-body Buick Electra from a distance, especially the 1977 model-including the front end and grille. Another indicator of a longtime owner is that once-ubiquitous bug shield. Those things used to be everywhere! If all those bug shields were simultaneously thrown off of a cliff, I’d sleep just fine.
R-body production for 1979 was not up to expectations, but positively great compared with 1980; that year saw only 15,061 Newports and 13,513 New Yorkers come off the line. As you would expect with a recently redone model, changes were minimal.
One reason for the Newport’s sales drop might have been reintroduction of the Plymouth Gran Fury to satisfy Plymouth dealers, who’d not seen many police car sales since the ’78 Fury’s departure and demanded their own (and cheaper) R-body. I can’t really blame them, since at the time they offered only the Volare, Horizon, Trail Duster, some full-size vans and a bunch of captive imports.
For the R-body, the arrival of the big Plymouth was too little, too late. Chrysler was betting the house on the K-car, and full-sizers like the R-body trio were not in Iacocca’s long-term plans. Despite the short model year. Both the Newport and the New Yorker got new grilles for a shortened 1981 model year, during which just 3,622 Newports and 6,548 New Yorkers were sold. Then it was over. It was the end of both the big Chrysler and the Newport name. Now, the midsize M-body LeBaron/New Yorker/Fifth Avenue would carry the V8 rear-drive torch for Chrysler–and, against all odds, do quite well.
The success of the M-body, which lasted to 1989; final-year models even got a driver’s side airbag-makes me wonder what might have happened had Iacocca seen fit to produce the R-body a few more years. After all, GM B-body sales also tanked (thought not quite so drastically) in 1980-81, and in 1982 Pontiac went so far as to eliminate full-size models. In time, sales picked up (as the dire prediction of soaring gas prices vaporized by around 1983). By the mid-eighties, Caprices, Delta 88s and LeSabres were selling in decent numbers once again. Even Pontiac brought back a full-sizer, the badge-engineered Canadian Parisienne, which lasted through the 1986 model year. Could Mopar have gotten in on that? Would it have made a difference?