1960s: In the 1960s while many automakers were scurrying to outdo each other in the muscle car segment, Chrysler was innovating on the luxury and technologies front. It all began with a move to unibody designs in 1963, and Chrysler’s turbine concept cars still capture our imagination to this day. Chrysler also became the first automaker to offer a 5-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty, forcing the rest of the industry to play catch up.
But performance wasn’t forgotten either, and the 440 cubic-inch V8 offered power to models across a multitude of Chrysler brands. A pushbutton TorqueFlite transmission was a precursor to the dial-a-gear setup found in today’s Chrysler 200, but for the most part Chrysler sat out of the muscle car wars, letting Dodge and Plymouth do the heavy lifting for the brand.
1970s: Often referred to as the “Malaise” era of American automobiles, Chrysler was forced by new government regulations to downgrade horsepower and bump up emissions and safety features. The traditionally-large luxury automaker shifted gears into building smaller cars, and the automaker tried to make the best of a bad situation with cars like the Chrysler Cordoba. More memorable for its commercials featuring Ricardo Montalban and “rich Corinthian leather”, the Cordoba was Chrysler’s smallest car to date, but it wasn’t enough to save the automaker from its inevitable brush with bankruptcy.
Some of the other highlights of the era included the Chrysler Safety Research Vehicle with run-flat tires and a driver’s side airbag, along with the LeBaron Turbine Special, the automaker’s last effort to make turbines a relevant automotive technology. Chrysler also dipped its toes into early electric vehicle efforts with partner GE, developing the Electric Test Vehicle, or ETV 1, based on the earliest K-car platform. But by 1979, Chrysler Corp. had to turn to the U.S. government to stave off bankruptcy.
1980s: Thankfully, U.S. taxpayers stepped in to deliver $1.2 billion, and with the famous Lee Iacocca at its head, profits came roaring back by the early 1980s. Unsaddled with debt and able to generate huge profits through its K-car lineup, the 1980s were something of a rebirth for the brand. If one car could sum up Chrysler in the 1980s, it was the LeBaron, using the K-car platform to launch the automaker to new heights of profitability.
Along the way station wagons, turbocharged sleepers, sedans, coupes, and convertibles would all wear the Chrysler LeBaron name, which customers flocked to despite its new front-drive setup (Ford and GM stuck with rear-drive setups through most of the 80s). But if there was a single defining vehicle for Chrysler as a whole company, it wasn’t the LeBaron, but rather the Dodge Caravan. Chrysler can take claim for inventing the entire minivan market, one that it continues to dominate to this day.
1990s: Chrysler led the auto industry by making driver’s side airbags standard on all models beginning in 1990, three years before the government would make it law. This decade also saw the introduction of the Chrysler Town & Country minivan as wagons fell at of favor with the emergence of the minivan market segment. Chrysler Corp’s acquisition of Lamborghini also gave birth to the Dodge Viper, and in 1999 the 300 nameplate returned to the Chrysler lineup after a several decade absence.
For its more “pedestrian” cars, the now completely front-wheel drive lineup of Chryslers included the Cirrus midsize sedan and Concorde, both of which featured the then-new cab forward design language. In 1998 Chrysler would combine with Germany’s Daimler in what was called a “Merging of Equals”, though it would quickly become anything but.
2000s: Few decades began with such high hopes, only to end on such a dark note. The early 2000s saw nameplates like the PT Cruiser and Pacifica join the Chrysler family, and in 2005 the Chrysler 300 made a triumphant return as a rear-drive, full-size sedan boasting HEMI V8 power. The SRT version would offer as much as 425 horsepower and it sold markedly well, despite the looming recession and rising gas prices right around the corner.
Today, Chrysler is now one-half of Fiat-Chrysler, and it has what is without a doubt the most solid lineup of vehicles ever. The new Chrysler 200 has won multitudes of awards for injecting excitement into the competitive midsize car market, the Chrysler 300 now offers an eight-speed automatic transmission, the only one of its kind in its class, and the Town & Country minivan now houses a laundry list of desirable innovations, like integrated child seats and a vacuum, for any family.
In 90 ears, many great and not-so-great automakers have come and gone, but Chrysler has stuck around through it all. That’s more than just luck.