Ladies and Gents: The Tale of the 1976 Motor Trend Car of the Year


The other day, Julie and I were driving back from a funeral/memorial service for the mother of a friend of ours when I spotted 1976 Plymouth Volare next to us as we were waiting at a traffic light.  As the car got ahead of us, I saw the name on the side.  Yep. A Volare.  Now why would I even care about a car that was only in production for about 4 years during the 1970s?  Well, because my family owned one — and it was a bit of a nightmare car.  Back in 2012 I wrote a post about our family’s road trip to Wisconsin with our Volare towing a pop-up trailer.  Well, on the day I spotted the Volare (driven by a guy whose look screamed “HIPSTER!”), I also spotted a pick-up truck pulling a pop-up trailer. When I pointed out that my childhood memories were really being brought back with not only seeing the car, but also the trailer, Julie asked:  “If that Volare was towing the trailer what would have you done?”  I said, “I would have asked them to pull over, offer to buy them dinner, and then want to know everything about this car-trailer combo.”  Well by the time I got home, I was really thinking about this car — and wanted to know more about what happened to the Volare line.  So, down the rabbit hole of Volare research I went.

First off, you may remember that from the mid 70s to the ’90s, Detroit was churning out cars that weren’t that good.  Lots of issues with engines, transmissions…you name it.  It just seemed like the consumer was being sold a lot of lemons — which is why many consumers voted with their pocketbooks and started buying Toyotas and Nissans.  You pay a lot for a car. Is it too much to ask that it’s reliable, too?

The Volare, like the Dodge Aspen, was a “small” (but really mid-sized) vehicle that was trying to do two things for consumers:  offer some luxury and better gas mileage.  The energy crisis of the ’70s meant people were looking to stretch their dollars in fuel costs, so vehicles were rolling off the assembly line that were more fuel-efficient. Madison Avenue ad execs had to find a way to sell this car to people who were feeling the effects of the 1973-1975 recession — not always an easy thing to do when people may not want to spend their cash on a new car.   Enter spokesman, Sergio Franchi, who covered the song “Volare” in 1966 (Dean Martin first hit with the song in 1958 after the tune won third in the Eurovision Song Contest). Franchi’s  good looks and Italian accent was just the right amount of “sexy” to make a “small,” fuel efficient car look desirable:

The campaign worked well.  The Wiki on the Volare says in 1976 Plymouth built over 250,000 of these cars, and it also had this distinction:


With Car of the Year and Sergio Franchi in Plymouth’s corner, it was just a matter of time before cars started rolling off the lot.  For me?  Well, I was with my mom when she bought our Volare. The reason was because our Chevy Malibu was not doing well.  My dad crashed the car the year before — which bent the frame.  And while the car’s body was fixed, it seemed  the car was always out of alignment. I went with my mom to the Plymouth dealer and we saw a Volare in the showroom.  She liked the commercial, so I think that had a lot to do with the reason she wanted the car.  I was thrilled that we got the showroom model car (And, truth be told, it was a nice looking car. White and tan exterior, brown interior, and the seats were comfortable).   It wasn’t long after we had the car that things started to go wrong, however.  There are two things I remember:  the car would often stall out at intersections on cold days (even though we “warmed up” the car for about 10 minutes before going anywhere).  The other was the number of recall notices that came in the mail.  I’m not sure the exact number of times the car was recalled because of defective parts, but it had to have been around seven.  A couple of years later, Toyota even used a Volare in one of their ads to show why American vehicles were broken down heaps and Japanese cars were better:

That campaign — coupled with the fact that there must have been high customer dissatisfaction — showed in Volare’s sales dropping by 1979 (the same Wiki shows Plymouth produced over 178,000). Things were looking grim.  Time to get serious about selling cars, and Chrysler’s sales pitch to consumers was all about getting serious.  Sexy was out — and so was Sergio Franchi as a spokesman. Brought in for the TV spot were combination of “authority” figures featuring a Chrysler engineer, an actor who’s supposed to be a working-class guy straight out of central casting, and Lee Iacocca — the chair of Chrysler. Oh, add to that, a $300 rebate, and that’s the deal they were offering the public.  Here. See for yourself:

The campaign didn’t work. Chrysler was going broke and the quality of their cars were pretty obviously bad.  Sales really went down, and even the redesign of the Volare in 1980 did very little to generate sales (they only made slightly over 90,000 of these vehicles).  Also, I should note that the federal government stepped in to help Chrysler with 1.5 to 1.8 billion in loan guarantees (also known as Chrysler Loan Guarantee Act of 1979).  The company repaid their loans, and the federal government (and some state governments) purchased K-cars for government use — no doubt helping to keep Plymouth-Chrysler in business.

What of the Volare?  Well, here in the U.S. many went to the junkyard after years of use.

In Mexico, the car did well under the name Chrysler Volarés. And from 1988 to 1990 the Mexican Highway Patrol used the Chrysler Volaré E — also known as the Valiant Duster — for patrol cars.


And what happened to our Volare?  In 1980, my mom went to the Toyota dealer, traded it in, and bought a Celica — that kind of looked like the one pictured below.  But of course, it was brand new (also off the showroom floor), had a sun roof, rear shade, and front hood bib.  I can’t quite remember what the trade in price was for the Volare, but I have in my mind $1200 because I do remember seeing the car in the newspaper selling for $1500 after we traded it in.  The lemon was gone, and that Celica lasted for, I think, 12 years and was very dependable — and very cool looking!  Gotta say, I did like that Celica. It was quite the “chick magnet” when I was in high school.  Alas, it attracted the kind of chicks I didn’t like.  But hey, I’m guessing if I rolled up in a Volare in high school, that car would have been a major chick repellent.


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