Free Fall: The Plymouth Volare

As a teenager, our sorry family fleet consisted a 1973 Torino station wagon, a 1974 Chevy Vega, and dad’s brand new 1976 Plymouth Volare. Given such a sampling of mid-seventies crud, I naturally thought the Volare was a fairly decent car. Alas, it wasn’t. The Volare was probably the most memorable Plymouth of the 1970s, but for all the wrong reasons. It was a memory most Volare owners - including my dad - would like to expunge. It was the most problem-plagued, recall-ravaged car in history (at least until a few years later when GM’s X-cars redefined the term recall-ravaged) Volare is Italian meaning, ‘to fly.’ But within two years of its introduction in 1976, for the name came to mean ‘I got stuck with a lemon.’

a 1976 Volare Premier just like Dad’s

a 1976 Volare Premier just like Dad’s

It didn’t have to be that way. The Volare (and its nearly identical twin, the Dodge Aspen) were on the cutting edge of a new breed of compact cars. Along with the Ford Granada and the Chevy Concours, the Volare was what the advertising types were calling ‘precision sized.’ The Volare was engineered for efficiency. It was only an inch or two larger in any dimension than the 6-year old Valiant and Duster it would replace. But because of its more aerodynamic shaping and a 25% increase in glass area, it looked much larger.

Volare ad.jpeg

Volare felt larger, too. It had a newly designed transverse torsion bar suspension for a big car ride, and something called “Iso Clamps,” which were basically rubber cushions in between the spring perch and the frame to reduce vibration. Techie sounding stuff like that must have confused period car magazines enough that they didn’t notice the most vague, centerless power steering feel in the history of the automobile. The Volare was awarded the 1976 ‘Car of the Year’ award by several subsiquently embarrassed publications.

 But Plymouth executives hadn’t even finished measuring for their new trophy shelf before the Volare’s many problems began to reveal themselves. The cost of developing the Volare, along with meeting new emission and safety regulations, all amidst a brutal recession, had left Chrysler’s corporate coffers pretty bare. The company’s top brass was sure they had a winner on their hands with the Volare so they pushed to get it into production six months early, thus hastening their return on the car. This was done mostly by cutting corners on pre-production testing procedures. Predictable to Chrysler’s protesting production people - but not to its tin-eared brass – Volare-eating gremlins soon emerged from their hiding places.

The first to appear were failing seatbelt tensors, and issues with the fuel system. Then came the faulty steering columns, corroding brake lines, missing heat shields on the muffler, and upper control arms that separated from the frame. The kicker-in-the-ass-er came when every single front fender on the more than a million 1976-77 Volares and Aspens had to be replaced because they weren’t galvanized and lacked inner linings. 

The several hundred million dollars Chrysler might have gained by rushing the Volare to market was quickly obliterated by the several billion dollars that recalls cost the company. These were billions that might have come in handy when, by late 1978, the firm was forced to go begging to the government for a loan to avoid bankrupcy. 

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Did I mention that it came in a station wagon? The Volare wagon boasted the best ratio of space to size of any American car. Nice, but not exactly the stuff of fantasy…

1976 Plymouth Volare Wagon_.enWheelsage.jpg

…unless you’re the producers of the 1977-84 TV show, Fantasy Island. Each week, a lordly, all-knowing, slightly creepy gentleman named Mr. Roarke, played by longtime Chrysler spokesman Ricardo Montalban (fine Corithian leather, anyone?) granted wishes to a procession of well-heeled visitors played by minor TV actors, has-been former stars and others who we seemed to recognize without knowing why. Mr. Roarke and his tiny sidekick, Tatoo, shuttled these sorry souls around their tropical island fantasy in a custom Surry-style Plymouth Volare. This chopped up wagon might have been more believable if it had had doors, but no front fenders.

Plymouths on film - Volare Jolly on Fantasy Iland_Jalopnik.jpg

Speaking of Volares on television (Just one more, I promise) Despite the fact that nearly all them have worn out, rusted away, or have been junked, a whole new generation of Americans can now know the joys of this deservedly unappreciated car. They need only to tune in to the Fox primetime cartoon, Bobs Burgers. The title character’s ’78 Volare Wagon seems to have held up pretty well. It probably helps not to be built in a 1970s Chrysler assembly plant…or be made of metal.  

Plymouths on film - Bobs Burgers Volare_Jalopnik.jpg

My assessment as a teenager of dad’s Volare may not have been too far off the mark (especially given that I didn’t get have to bring to the dealer every other month). Despite being blamed (appropriately) for bringing Chrysler Corporation to near financial collapse, once the bugs (ok, infestation of nasty, chewing, biting bugs) had been fixed, the Volare really wasn’t an altogether terrible car. How’s that for a tombstone inscription:

The Plymouth Volare

1976-1980

 “It wasn’t altogether terrible”

Copyright 2019 by Mal Pearson