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Reinventing Chrysler … Twice: Vintage Video Double Feature

Chrysler’s a great company. You just have to save it every decade or so.

Our last two video double features focused on Ford and Chevrolet, so now it's Chrysler's turn. Grab some popcorn, because for this one we're going to get deeper into the nuts and bolts of the business. Chrysler's fortunes seem to bounce like an EKG, and this week we've got a pair of films (well, one film and one video) that deal with saving the company. Again.

K-Car Superstar (1980)

Most of us know about the 1981 Chrysler K-car, the miracle sedan that saved Chrysler in the 1980s. Key to the K's success was building interest before they hit the showrooms, because in 1980 there were a lot of turkeys in Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth showrooms. This film was part of the build-up to the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant introduction, and it's a good one.

It starts out with a lot of what we expect: Cars on the test track and designers scraping clay. But then it takes a strange turn when the stern-faced announcer appears on camera (they never do that!) extolling the virtues of Chrysler's new 2.2-liter engine in the same grave tone with which one might describe a grisly crime scene. (Having owned three cars with carbureted 2.2s, that really isn't so far off the mark.) But wait! He shrinks down, Alice-in-Wonderland style, to show you the engine's innards. But wait! He steps into the bucket of a cherry picker—so is he (and, by extension, the cherry picker) small, or is the engine huge? And then, with no explanation, we're back to the normalcy of the test track and the factory. Ah, late 1970s, how we miss you.

This 12-minute film has it all: Factory porn, big turn-of-the-decade hairdos, funky music, and computers, computers, computers, because back then they designed cars with computers. It finishes with the stern-faced announcer extolling the virtues of the cars in an irate-dad tone, seeming to imply that if you don't buy a K-car, he'll send you to bed without any dessert. For a week.

Note what you don't see in this video: Lee Iacocca. It wasn't until the K-cars went on sale that he stepped in as chief pitchman and became his own kind of superstar.

Reinventing Chrysler (1992)

From the beginning of Iacocca's rein, we time-warp to the end. Twelve years after K-Car Superstar, Chrysler was stagnating again, and the K-cars were the problem. But now Bob Lutz was on board, the revolutionary new LH cars were headed to the showrooms, and the groundbreaking Neon and spectacular Ram trucks were in development—the vehicles that would save Chrysler in the 90s. This video tells the backstory of Chrysler being redefined not by product, but by internal processes.

I hesitated to include this video, as it's long (half an hour) and dry as burnt toast in some places. But for the avid car-industry fan, and especially for Chrysler enthusiasts, there are a lot of cool things to see. That white cobbled-together test car badly disguised as an Omni? That's a Neon mule, and you'll see it ripping about the track at 10/10ths. You'll be a fly on the wall at meetings where people just happened to be wearing ties and lapel microphones. You'll catch an early glimpse of the '95 minivans, and when you get to the scene where plant workers get a sneak preview of the '94 Ram pickup—well, as a visitor from the future, you'll know why they don't show it from the front. You'll also see inside Chrysler's then-new headquarters building, which bears a striking resemblance to a shopping mall. (The story circulated that if Chrysler folded, the building could be easily repurposed. FCA staffers laugh this off, but I've been there and you can see exactly where the food court and the carousel would go.)

You'll also hear talk about concepts that are accepted practice now, but back then were new and revolutionary: Empowered plant workers, suppliers taking on partnership roles, sequential parts delivery, and dealer satisfaction surveys. Most notably, while an aging and soon-to-retire Lee Iacocca introduces the film, Bob Lutz is the real star. This isn't the most thrilling video, but as a car history buff I found it fascinating.

BONUS: Harley-Davidson snowmobiles! (Early 1970s)

Explosive power! Stamina! Great dealers! Here's a promo film from when then-owner AMF tried a little line extension with the Harley-Davison name. The music is catchy (until it isn't) but the first minute and a half of this short video is like a bad acid trip. Incidentally, the engines weren't Harleys, they were Aermacchis. If you ever wondered why Harley-Davidson snowmobiles never caught on, this film should make it clear.