When the K-car went long
In one of its most popular songs, If I had $1,000,000, the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies sing, “If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you a K-car, a nice Reliant automobile.” American singer Frank Sinatra certainly had more than a million dollars in 1995 when he gave Raquel Suarez, his housekeeper of 30 years, his personal K-car. Sinatra’s special K was no workaday Plymouth Reliant, either. It was a 1986 Executive Limousine, part of a short, odd chapter in the K-car’s epic “How I Saved Chrysler” story.
Bob Marcks, the Chrysler special vehicle projects manager who designed Sinatra¹s little limo, speculates that the car was a gift from the singer’s friend, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca. Chrysler had featured Sinatra in advertising for its bustle-back 1980–83 Imperial coupe and had even offered a Glacier Blue Crystal-painted Frank Sinatra Edition, which came with a cassette tape collection of the crooner’s music.
Under Sinatra’s ownership, the elongated K-car accrued 6500 miles, with Suarez doing some of the driving. After taking possession, she added another 70,000 before selling the car at McCormick’s Palm Springs Collector Car Auctions in February 2015. The Chrysler had been in an accident at some point, and the damage, although repaired, was enough to earn the car a salvage title.
The Sinatra provenance paid off. Jason McCormick confirmed that a Sinatra memorabilia collector in Turkey bought the car for $16,800. That was much higher than the $10,000 pre-sale estimate and perhaps three times what Oregon K-car collector Ray Gadomski estimates one without the celebrity connection might be worth. Gadomski owns a 1983 Chrysler limousine, which he learned was made by a company named Palomino, independent of the Chrysler/ASC models. He says Palomino made only two.
Birth of a baby limo
Fresh off the enormously successful launch of its 1981 K-car compacts, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, Chrysler wasted little time filling showrooms with more profitable upscale variants. The Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400 arrived for 1982 with glitzier styling and more amenities. Built with the same 100.3-inch wheelbase body as their cheaper brethren, however, these upscale models offered no more rear-seat room, a K-car shortcoming.
Chrysler had roomier K-car models scheduled for the 1983 model year, known as E-bodies. A three-inch wheelbase stretch not only gave the Chrysler E-Class and New Yorker and Dodge 600 more rear legroom, but also hinted at the K-platform’s potential for further mutation. Chrysler would spin off a dizzying array of models from the K-car, including luxury coupes and convertibles, and, of course, the groundbreaking minivan.
To demonstrate that potential, Chrysler tasked Marcks with designing a concept for the 1982 Detroit auto show.
“We were just starting with front-wheel drive, but the cars were a bit tight in the rear seat, so we came up with idea of a stretched car,” Marcks says. “We were given very little time and money to do the project. I drew a sketch at my desk just to show how we could do it by cutting off the back end of a two-door and joining it to the front end of a four-door. That’s how Cadillac did its factory limos.”
The Chrysler Executive Sedan, built by ASC with a 24-inch wheelbase stretch over the standard K-car, wore the LeBaron sedan’s grille and taillights, but not its name. After the car’s auto show debut, Chrysler decided to go into production and asked Marcks to also design an even longer companion model. The resulting 31-inch stretch job created the Executive Limousine.
“Some critics called it an exercise in futility, but the corporation liked the idea,” says Marcks, who lives in Arizona. He drives a 1982 LeBaron convertible, a successful model that began as one of his concepts for 1981 auto shows.
Both super-extended K-cars went into limited production in 1983, ASC crafting just nine Executive Sedans and two Limousines. The Executive Sedan cost $18,900 and the Limousine was $21,900, reasonable considering that it took two LeBarons and a lot of custom work to build each one.
According to Guy Coulombe, founder and president of the Chrysler K-Car Club, the two 1983 Limousines are likely extinct, although one of the nine ’83 Executive Sedans remains in California and is in good condition, owned by Chrysler collector Joe Baca. Among Coulombe’s K-cars is a 1985 Chrysler Executive Limousine that he describes as “rough.” It had been stored under a tarp in Santa Monica, California.
Production of the stretched K-cars ramped up for 1984, when ASC built 196 Sedans and 595 Limousines. The limo’s claimed weight was 3250 pounds, which is light by today’s standards but was a burden on the 93-horsepower Mitsubishi 2.6-liter four-cylinder engine.
In the Limousine, a partition behind the front seats included a power glass panel that could be operated from the rear seat. Two rear jump seats ostensibly made the Limousine a seven-passenger car, but the K-car’s 68-inch width made the rear seat, upholstered in puffy “luxury cloth,” more suitable for two than three. Both models featured all LeBaron luxuries plus adjustable rear-seat headrests and two-position foot rests, rear reading lamps, and passenger assist straps.
The Chrysler brochure claimed, “The Chrysler Limousine lets you shut out a strident world with a body built for quiet through robotic welding and special sound insulation.”
Chrysler dropped the Executive Sedan after 1984, but the Limousine continued with 759 sales for 1985. The corporate 146-hp turbocharged 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine was offered that year and made standard in 1986, when the final 138 Limousines were built.
Chrysler’s idea for a “smaller” limo was not so far-fetched. Cadillac, which had downsized its DeVille to a front-drive platform for 1985, offered a Fleetwood 75 limousine version that was slightly longer than the Chrysler Limousine, but also nearly four inches wider. The Cadillac weighed nearly 4000 pounds and was powered by a 130-hp 4.1-liter V-8.
Coulombe says he doesn’t know exactly how many of the stretched K-cars remain, but he says there are 12 or 13 in the club nationwide.
Marcks, in a letter to Automotive News in 1996, recalled how the Executive models pushed Chrysler to make its cars roomier.
“Using the mini-limousine as a lever,” he wrote, “I proposed a seven-inch stretch to the New Yorker, hoping to achieve the industry’s best rear-seat legroom.”
Chrysler kept stretching the basic K-car platform, redesigning the New Yorker for 1989 on a 104.3-inch wheelbase and offering 38.9 inches of rear legroom. The following year, a further five-inch stretch gave the New Yorker Fifth Avenue and revived Imperial nearly 42 inches of rear legroom, which the Imperial brochure touted as more than a long-wheelbase Mercedes S-Class. Those final models, known as Y-bodies, finished out the K-car platform’s long run before the arrival of Chrysler’s sleek “cab-forward” LH sedans.