Kevin Shaw: The Cancer That Is Threatening To Kill Dodge

It’s said that there’s really only two kinds of cancer: the kind you can cut out, and the kind that doctors turn to you and say, “You better get your affairs in order.” That is why cancer is so terrifying. It starts silently, chemically corrupting good, healthy tissue into poisonous cells, spreading without warning until the signs that finally arise are usually so life threatening that drastic, immediate action is required before its too late.

It pains me to say this, but I believe there is a cancer corrupting Chrysler, a dangerous and damaging illness spreading throughout the automaker, but I fear that its been there festering for years, slowly eating away at the company’s core. It has finally broken through the surface and if not treated immediately, will devour the brand from the inside out.

But the cancer I’m talking about isn’t chemical or cellular, but spiritual.

The Germination of The Sickness

Chrysler was reeling from failures like the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare by the late 1970's, when a Faustian deal with then-president Carter bound the automaker to 25 years of FWD mediocrity.

It’s an unspoken-yet-common belief that the 1979 $1.5 billion congressional loan signed by then-President Carter (January, 1980) included a provision restricting Chrysler from producing V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive passenger cars, and is considered Carter’s one opportunity to force one of Detroit’s Big Three to build small, fuel-efficient cars.

Call it political subterfuge or business espionage to keep Chrysler away from potential sales of far larger and far more Washington-connected Ford and GM, or a forcible push into “green” territory by an openly environmentally-agenda minded president, Chrysler’s hands were unquestionably tied from building cars to compete with Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird, as well as GM’s G-Body line and the larger fleet-friendly Crown Victoria and Caprice.

Thankfully, under the guidance of Lee Iaccoca, who spearheaded Chrysler’s successful minivan and K-car platforms, the auto manufacturer made a historical turnaround, repaying the loan several years ahead of time (1983), resulting in a $350 million profit to the U.S. government, but the toxins of outside interference had already taken root.

It was only through some stealthy maneuvering that Dodge was able to produce the Shelby Cobra of the 1990s, the Viper. By employing a V10, Chrysler was able to circumvent its 25-year contract to produce a high horsepower, RWD halo vehicle. Despite the presence of the Viper, Chrysler produced FWD passenger vehicles until 2004 with the introduction of the Chrysler 300C.

It took exploiting a loophole in the Carter contract by equipping a V10 in the Dodge Viper to break Dodge's long-term hiatus from RWD performance.

Weakened And Getting Weaker

Unfortunately, healthy vehicle sales through the early 1980s and the mid-1990s couldn’t reverse the damage already corroding the company’s soul. The group struggled to reestablish brand identities, failing to secure an entry market segment resulting in a string of failures.

The lucrative Diamond Star partnership with Mitsubishi, the budget-targeted Eagle brand, dissolved. Chrysler’s original entry-level Plymouth became the first casualty of Dieter Zieche’s “Merger of Equals” in 2001, immediately reducing Dodge’s long-standing presence as the company’s once performance enthusiast brand to it’s price-point marque.

Although moderately successful, the '06-to-current Chargers lack one key factor, any form of optimization allowing an enthusiast the opportunity to build the Charger they want.

Although successful, the resurrection of the “Charger” nameplate as a four-door sedan sparked ire among Dodge’s loyal fans for diluting a once legendary performer. Attempting to quell this, Dodge reintroduced the Challenger, a car which despite its poor performance when compared to class competitors, embodied the look of its original namesake better than any other modern muscle car.

Despite “boom” sales in the mid-2000s, Chrysler was once again on the ropes. Originally purchased for $35 billion, Daimler offloaded their 80.1% majority share of a now strip-mined Chrysler to notorious Cerberus Capital Management for a paltry $7.4 billion.

Bolstered by government TARP funds in 2009, a fractured and broken Chrysler lured Fiat into purchasing the federally-owned shares. Initial changes to the newly rechristened Chrysler Group, LLC. looked logical and beneficial, such as jettisoning Ram from Dodge to raise the passenger car maker’s EPA average rating. Before that, Dodge had announced the discontinuation of the current Viper, announcing an all-new super snake for 2013.

Yet, the changes kept coming, much to the horror of Dodge lovers: Under the guise of former ’04 Chrysler 300 designer-turned-short-lived Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles, SRT broke off of Dodge and became it’s own entity, announcing that the returning Viper would be rebadged as a SRT Viper, rather than a Dodge.

Earlier this month, Chrysler changed Dodge Motorsports to SRT Motorsports, and rumors surrounding the return of the Barracuda nameplate included the inevitable demise of the Challenger, signaling that SRT would host the anticipated killer fish, leaving Dodge to shill FWD 4- and 6-cylinder Caravans, Avengers, Journeys, and the newly re-minted Dart.

Chrysler even threatened to terminate the Journey until current Dodge CEO and Canadian-citizen Reid Bigland announced that since the Journey is Canada’s highest-selling SUV, the crossover would enjoy many more years of production.

Remember this concept mid-engine V12 Chrysler? Chrysler would like you to forget it, because they don't want to be daring or exciting. By observing their marketing campaigns and the level of product they're producing, they want to be Buick.

We're not asking for ads like these - because Dodge will likely be burned to the ground by the ACLU - but something a little more daring than appealing to struggling actors in Hollywood with a Southern California-edition Journey.

Eroding Away Core Principles

One of the key attractions of Chrysler vehicles – particularly Dodges – were their optimization. Nowhere is this more palpably vacant than with the beleaguered brand’s flagship, the fresh-faced Charger remains constrained by ham-fisted performance packages that staple on aesthetic add-ons like pork to a congressional bill, a limited livery of available colors and stripe packages, and bereft of any true performance add-ons via Mopar, an equally mismanaged brand which had veered from offering exciting products to maximize vehicle enjoyment to “plussing” your new car with devaluing plastichrome crap.

When the R/T tag lost all meaning, SRT was developed. Now that Dodge's as a performance brand no longer holds true, SRT was spun off as its own brand.

Want an Auburn Pearl Charger R/T with tan cloth interior? Sorry. Although available on Dodge Avengers and Chrysler 200s, the factory copper color isn’t included in the Charger’s selection of six available hues; and the classic R/T badges are only allowed on the R/T Road & Track group (apparently nobody remembers what “R/T” stood for), which includes Nappa leather seats, rain-sensitive windshield wipers, and the Beats 10-speaker audio group.

Oh, and don’t get us started on how many times we’ve heard about the CEOs “considering” a manual 6-speed…

For a brand that was bold enough to air the brave pro-American and “Man’s Last Stand”-themed advertisements, Dodge is being watered-down like its once intimidating R/T badge. Now Michael C. Hall’s voice drones over Durango TV spots shilling backup cameras and heated-and-cooling cup holders. Today, if you want a two-seater, 420-plus-horsepower, 6-speed manual RWD tire smoker under $35K in orange, green, yellow or blue, go buy a Camaro.

Not all American automakers suffered bankruptcy in 2009. Toyota, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and other foreign automakers not affiliated with the UAW continued operating at a profit. Note that before Fiat purchased its 51% majority share, the largest share holder of Chrysler for decades was the UAW. If "Twilight" taught us anything, it's that not all vampires sleep in coffins and burn in sunlight.

Drastic Measures

It’s curious that Dodge, the one reasonably complete brand that Chrysler had (apart from Jeep) is the one that is being pulled apart by incompetent corporate executives and inept marketers, drawing-and-quartering the automaker for the sake of maximizing market appeal, something which building cars people wanted to buy used to do just fine.

You can thank us by building cars that are daring, exciting and bold. Oh, and that we can afford.

The cancer I speak of is poor direction, mismanagement, and outside involvement, and Dodge is dying from it. Chrysler, and more specifically Dodge, is rife with people who clearly unaware or indignantly ignoring the greatest asset Dodge has, namely its loyal fanbase. These people follow the brand to a fault, loyally returning to dealerships for service, insisting on factory replacement parts, and turning to Mopar for all its aftermarket additions.

Yet, as Dodge, Chrysler and Mopar have clearly lost touch with their core principles that generated this fanbase, the most zealous have been forced to stray from the herd. Meanwhile, both Ford and Chevrolet outwardly appreciate their most loyal by rewarding them with the cars they beg for and cooperating with the aftermarket, nearly catering to their loyalists’ suggestions.

To this day, Dodge has refused to entertain the notion of an optional, limited-run two-door, full-length Dodge Charger R/T or SRT, although fans have begged for it for nearly a decade, as well as a standard transmission and a constant array of “High Impact” colors from which to turn to (not just limited-time offerings). Chrysler’s ECM touts near-government-level encryption, thwarting aftermarket modification and parts development, and although its available as a crate through Mopar, an optional 426ci all-aluminum, 540hp HEMI isn’t an optional engine.

If Chrysler isn’t intentionally trying to gut and redistribute the remnants of Dodge and wants to survive, the way to eradicate this cancer that is coursing through Chrysler’s veins is to infuse a flood of true Dodge enthusiasts in every position available, from the top executive, to the designers, engineers, and marketers. Dodge needs Dodge lovers running the company. If not, Detroit’s last brand dedicated to excitement will vanish like Pontiac.

Light ’em up,

About the author

Kevin Shaw

Kevin Shaw is a self-proclaimed "muscle car purist," preferring solid-lifter camshafts and mechanical double-pumpers over computer-controlled fuel injection and force-feeding power-adders. If you like dirt-under-your-fingernails tech and real street driven content, this is your guy.
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