If You Have To Ask

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In 1940, the bosses at Chrysler saw their competitors at GM and Ford toying with a novel, if slightly silly, new concept. It was, quite simply, the concept car: a car that is not intended to be driven on the street- not intended to be driven at all, actually- but rather to give audiences at car shows an idea of the future direction of the brand, whether it be in terms of style or technology or whatever. Kind of like those crazy outfits you see at fashion shows: they’re never really meant to be worn out on the town. Today, concept cars are at best slightly ridiculous, but in the late 30s, at the dawn of the concept car, they could be quite beautiful. And Chrysler at that time wanted one. What they came up with for the 1941 auto show season (after only 90 days of build time), was the Newport. And it was as beautiful and impressive as if Olivia Munn suddenly revealed that she engineered NASA’s forthcoming space hotel in her spare time. I mean, look at the car in that link- it has two windshields! Nothing has two windshields! [Edit: I lied. The Morgan Three-Wheeler has two windshields] And it was the pace car at the Indianapolis 500! This is not that car. This is nowhere near that. This is a 1973 Chrysler Newport Sedan. 

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By 1973, this car had been through five generations, and they were about as rough as Michael Douglas’ filmography after The Game. See, the Newport concept of the 40s did the thing that most concept cars do, unfortunately. That is to say, it never saw the light of day. Vanished like an Irish dad. No two windshields for the general buying public. Woe is us. The “Newport” name resurfaced in the 1960s as the base model Chrysler. That’s right: from gorgeous showcar to bargain basement in 20 years flat. The Newport ran in the same crowd as the Dodge Polara and its ilk, which was an interesting strategy on Chrysler’s part. Technically speaking, Chrysler’s C-Body cars were pretty much mechanically identical, with space to change out the engine and trim. The nicest of these was the New Yorker, followed by the 300, then rounding out the bottom was the lowly Newport.

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All C-Bodies were unit-body cars, and actually, not total boats in the handling department. Part of that was down to a little piece called the torsion bar. Here’s an okay explanation of how torsion bar suspension works, but in the context of the Newport what you need to know is that it made the car feel less like Jello when you went around a corner. Have you ever driven Jello? It’s not fun, I had a dream about it one time. Other features of the Newport included five feet of shoulder room, which seems excessive. I can only assume Chrysler was trying to appeal to the burgeoning shoulder pad market of the 1970s. This particular car has the optional vinyl roof installed, which is very retired-Floridian today, but works here somehow. Chrysler said that there were five different body styles available to choose from, but don’t believe them: there were only four. For some reason, they decided to split “sedan” and “hardtop” into two different categories, which is just dumb. The idea of a sedan kind of necessitates a hard top, otherwise the car would be all wobbly. Apparently one had a B-pillar and the other didn’t but I don’t care: it’s dumb. I’m mad about it.

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You could have two different engines in your Newport, one called a 400 V8 TorqueFlite and another called a 440 V8 TorqueFlite. They were both V8s, obviously, and the bigger one, the 440, was the engine you got in the fancier New Yorker. How about that? So if you wanted to pretend that you weren’t the destitute scum-of-the-earth who could only afford a Chrysler Newport, then you could. The 400 was good for 185 horsepower and the 440 came in at 215, which seem like small power numbers because, well, they are. Remember, this is the era when government restrictions on emissions intersected with the American buying public’s Philistine clinging to their “bigger-is-better, V8-all-the-way, remember-when-we-put-a-guy-on-the-moon-a-couple-years-ago?” attitude. Big engines and small power: that was the way of American cars in the 70s and 80s. Anywho, a three speed automatic was your only choice of transmission, and you were getting 14 miles per gallon on a good day with a tailwind.

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We poke fun, but being the bottom rung of a luxury brand is always an awkward place to be. It’s kind of like being at a career fair: you’re there, and you look professional, but no one really takes you seriously because, let’s be honest, you aren’t serious yet. Otherwise you wouldn’t be at a career fair. That’s where the Newport is. It looks like a nicer car, and it says Chrysler on it, and that’s a luxury brand (to some people)- but it also says Newport. Which is the cheap one. Buying a Newport means not buying something else. Something nicer. Buying a Newport, in short, means that you can’t afford a 300 or a New Yorker. It’s a rolling label of misguided aspiration, of buying in too early. Newports are cheap, but they don’t offer anything distinctive other than cheapness over their more expensive counterparts. Buying one is purely a money decision. Cars like the Rolls Royce Ghost also have this problem. And that’s the fickleness of this kind of luxury: it’s only truly impressive if it’s some sort of superlative-if it’s visible wealth. Because how luxurious is other people knowing your limitations?

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Additional Thoughts:

  • Chrysler used front torsion bar suspension across its entire range at this time, with leaf springs in the back (which was a little odd given that most front torsion bars are coupled with coil springs out back).
  • Total sales for the fifth generation Newport were down 30% over the fourth generation of the car.
  • So that thing where they called it a hardtop and not a sedan? There’s actually a little fact that goes along with that. Apparently that lack of a B-pillar made this the last mass-produced sedan not to have one.
  • I forgot about Traffic. Michael Douglas was pretty good in Traffic. I retract my earlier statement about Michael Douglas.
  • I will say one nice thing about this car. Maybe it was the fact that it was twilight in the city when these pictures were taken, but I really like that color. It’s very un-Village-y, even though this car was found within the deep recesses of the Village.
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2 thoughts on “If You Have To Ask

  1. Pingback: Comfort Zone | Forgotten metal

  2. Pingback: Great News! | Forgotten metal

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