1985 Reliant ad.jpg
Compliments of the Chrysler Corporation
Advertisement for the new Dodge and Plymouth K-Cars from 1981.

Q: Greg, I’d like to know about the Plymouth and Dodge K-Cars that came out in 1981. How good were these cars, and would you say that the K-Car saved Chrysler Corporation from going bankrupt? Thanks, Miles L., retired in Florida.

A: Miles, I would indeed say that the K-Car saved Chrysler from bankruptcy because it was a decent car that was all new with front-wheel drive. More importantly, the K-Car platform afforded the ability for Chrysler to use it for what chairman Lee Iacocca was planning since the late 1970s ... the very first minivans.

The K-Cars arrived in 1981 in Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant badges, and became the bridge Chrysler needed to cross over from losing money (and going out of business) to making money and thus debuting its all-new minivans.

I personally drove a 1984 Plymouth Reliant K-Car in 1984, a four-door station wagon that my company allowed me to use selling newspaper advertising. It may not have been anything special, and it came with a manual floor shift transmission with no air conditioning, but it was reliable transportation for sure.

Reliant’s sibling Dodge had more pizzazz and later came in several upgrade models. Riding on a wheelbase of 99-inches, the initial K-Cars were surprisingly good sellers. Plymouth led the way with 230,000 units sold the first year while Dodge’s Aries sold 181,000.  It was also during this time period that Chrysler increased its warranty from five-year/50,000 miles to seven-year/70,000 miles.

In 1982, Dodge began selling an upgraded Aries called the 400, and even added a convertible. In 1983, Dodge stretched the Aries 400 wheelbase to 103.1 inches, dropped the 400 name and added a 600 badge instead. Overall, K-Cars sold a combined  280,000 to 360,000 every year from 1981 to 1988, and over 100,000 in its final year of 1989. These were solid numbers, but something much bigger was brewing behind the desk of Iacocca.

Iacocca had been planning the first minivans to ever hit the market, namely Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. These vehicles were essentially  K-Cars on steroids riding on stretched 112-inch K-Car wheelbases and offering van like room for seven passengers. Like the K-Car, the Caravan was front drive, four-cylinder and offered an easy entry-exit and garage access thanks to its lower ground clearance. In 1988, a new Grand Caravan and Grand Voyager came to the showroom, with a Mitsubishi bred V-6 under the hood and a wheelbase of 119.1-inches. Overall, combined with the good K-Car sales, the Voyager and Caravan added another 200,000 sales a year to the K-Car numbers, making the K-Car platform Chrysler’s saving grace.