Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan--Plymouth Reliant
How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.
David Colborne: It's difficult to understate the importance of the Reliant. It single-handedly revived a moribund franchise, one which made some truly disastrous decisions in the late '70s. It made its parent brand interesting again--sure, the quality wasn't as high as some of the competition out there, and you could tell that the Reliant and its contemporary kin were put together on a budget, but it was still far better executed than anything that preceded it. It wasn't as slow, as heavy, nor as ponderous as its predecessors--in short, it proved that somebody finally got "it." Were it not for Reliant, the Star Trek movie franchise would have died, never to return.
Oh, you thought I was talking about the K-car, didn't you?
It was only the fact of my genetically engineered intellect that allowed us to survive.
Chris Hafner: In the early 1980s, two American institutions, the Chrysler Corporation and the Star Trek franchise, were teetering at the precipice of failure and irrelevance. Chrysler, perennially a distant third among the Big Three domestic car manufacturers, was on the verge of bankruptcy and had been forced into the indignity of groveling for its solvency in the form of loan guarantees from the federal government. The company badly needed a big hit to repay those loans and to assure its future.
Likewise, while Star Trek had created an enthusiastic fan following with the famous TV show and lightly-watched animation series in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by the beginning of the 1980s its future was in doubt. Based on the fan loyalty inspired by the original series, Paramount had spent $46 million to produce the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That movie, dubbed "The Motionless Picture" by the cruel and cynical, made money but was critically panned and sucked the energy out of the franchise. Given the cancellation of the original show after only three seasons and the relative lack of success of the animated series and the movie, the enthusiasm for more Star Trek appeared to be at a nadir. It would have been very logical to conclude that Star Trek was winding down its run.
As David intimates above, it was Reliant time. Chrysler's recovery depended on its 1981 launch of its pivotal K-car platform, represented most prominently by the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. Star Trek's ongoing relevance hinged on the success of the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, starring Chrysler pitchman Ricardo Montalban and his commandeered starship, the USS Reliant.*
Sensors indicate a vessel in our area, closing fast. It's one of ours, Admiral ... it's Reliant.
CH: To a modern car enthusiast, the Plymouth Reliant, the focus of Chrysler's hopes in the early 1980s, doesn't look like a very likely home run. In fact, it barely looks like a bunt. To today's eyes, the K-car seems so generic, with its right angles, slab sides, and anonymous detailing, that it wouldn't look out of place painted stark white with the word "CAR" stenciled in large black lettering on the side. Ask a six-year-old to draw a car, and the result, rendered in crayon on construction paper, would look a great deal like the Reliant.
The Reliant wasn't fast, it didn't handle well, it didn't look especially good, it wasn't particularly innovative, and wasn't really that interesting in any way. It's hard to imagine that this was the car that saved Chrysler. But, as with all cars, it must be judged against its times and within its context.
As with all living things, each (will respond) according to his gifts.
DC: Right--when the K-Car was first introduced in 1981, domestic small car competition was sparse. AMC was done. GM released the infamous X-cars the previous year, which were rapidly proving to be unsafe and unreliable death traps. Ford, meanwhile, was preparing to replace the aging Pinto with the Escort, which, though not a terrible car, certainly wasn't any faster than a K-Car. On the Japanese front, the vaunted second-generation Honda Accord and the first Toyota Camry wouldn't come out for another year. The Corona, Toyota's mid-size of the era, wouldn't update its sheetmetal until 1983; in the meantime, it continued to use the same period body design first employed in 1978. Subaru was best known for making cheap, quirky, and moderately underpowered cars with optional four-wheel-drive. Volkswagen was only starting to recover from its identity crisis after the Beetle ran its long, winding course. Meanwhile, the weakness of the dollar was making domestics price-competitive again, and gas prices were about to hit historic highs. If Detroit was going to release a solid small car, this was definitely the time to do so.
Before Chrysler introduced the K-car, its last attempt at releasing a "small" car was such an unmitigated disaster that it helped lead to the company's precarious position. Needless to say, nobody expected Chrysler to actually execute well enough to capitalize on this perfect storm. Consequently, when the K-car came out, it caught everyone by surprise.
Here was a car that could legally seat six, yet was smaller and more fuel efficient than a Ford Fairmont--heck, on paper, it was the most fuel efficient six-seater in the country. Like the GM X-cars, it was front-wheel-drive; unlike the X-cars, it didn't immediately lock the real wheels into a spirograph of death whenever you hit the brakes. Power was adequate if unremarkable for the time. It was certainly more powerful than an Escort and could push 0-60 times to 13-15 seconds, well within the acceptable range for smaller cars of the time. The looks were plain, which was a clear upgrade over the avocado-flavored styling of the Aspen. Reliability, though still not great, was better; fortunately, as far as small cars went, the K-cars were relatively easy to work on. Best of all, it didn't rust away on sight--finally, here was a Chrysler that could rust away in dignity during the dead of night!
Meanwhile, the K-cars wrote a page that Hyundai and Kia would copy with significant success; the K-car was sold cheaply and came with a 5-year/50,000-mile warranty at a time when a three-year warranty was typically an extra-cost option.
I don't believe in the no-win scenario ... I don't like to lose.
CH: David's description is spot-on--the K-car could have been an absolute disaster, a no-win scenario to rival the Kobayashi Maru simulation, but the result was a solid winner. The Reliant/Aries was the first American car to really nail the front-wheel-drive experience--it was spacious, efficient, and relatively reliable. It wasn't as early or as innovative as the GM X-cars, but the difference is that it worked. It looked like a compact car on the outside, and its outside dimensions certainly resembled those of compact cars; but the EPA was so impressed by its interior volume and true six-passenger capability that it deemed the K a mid-size car.
The Reliant was a real family car that worked well and helped introduce a generation of Americans to the merits of small, efficient front-wheel-drive cars with four-cylinder engines. It wasn't the first of the breed, or the best, but it helped lay the groundwork for virtually every modern family car that followed.
But, of course, the true importance of the Reliant and its K-car brethren stemmed from the fact that they formed the foundation for nearly every Chrysler product until the Viper arrived. I don't exaggerate; for more than a decade, the Chrysler lineup consisted almost entirely of K-car derivatives.
Somehow, Chrysler managed to overcome what I think of as the Lego Problem. When a kid grows up with a set of Legos, even the most creative child will produce creations that look a lot alike. I had the space station and jet airliner packs; no matter how I mixed and matched, it was hard to build anything dramatically different from my previous creations. Most of what I built looked like cars with airplane fuselages, or houses with space-station decor. When you're working with endless derivatives of the same parts, that's hard to avoid.
Chrysler took some ribbing for building virtually its entire product line off the combination of the K-car platform and the ubiquitous 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine, but it deserves credit for building such diversity from such a limited selection of fundamental pieces. From this basic set of building blocks, Chrysler built compact cars, a mid-size quasi-luxury car with abominably baroque styling and pie-like driving characteristics, an ersatz limousine, a revolutionary people-moving minivan, a sporty car to challenge the Mustang and Camaro, a remarkably attractive turbocharged convertible, a failure-infused Maserati-badged turbocharged convertible, and, in the Dodge Spirit R/T and Shelby CSX, small rectilinear quasi-supercars.
None of these cars were really the best in the business, but they were all competitive enough to collectively sell like hotcakes. Of course, that doesn't mean David has to like the K effect. ...
Don't mince words, Bones, what do you really think?
DC: Just as Paramount would repurpose its Reliant and the associated intellectual property well past the original's expiration date (between the century-long reuse of both the Miranda-class and Excelsior-class hulls, I'm thinking Iacocca lives on as Zombie Vice-Admiral of Federation Starship Development), Chrysler flogged the Reliant and its kin well past the point of appreciable sense.
The ship? Out of danger?
CH: David's exasperation aside with Reliant recycling aside, history has shown that both Star Trek and Chrysler recovered from their early-1980s crises and reached and even exceeded their former glory.
Movie-goers raved about The Wrath of Khan. Infused with deep, nuanced character interaction and development; fantastic acting all around, but particularly from Montalban; a genuinely threatening but still sympathetic villain in Khan; and underlying themes of friendship, mortality, and development, TWOK was a tour de force. The movie didn't just save the franchise, it lifted Star Trek to a new plateau of popularity. Paramount followed TWOK with 624 TV episodes in four separate series, each of which introduced a distinctive new chapter of the Trek story. Nine additional feature films followed, including this summer's smash hit.
Even now, 30 years later, most Star Trek fans consider it the finest of the Trek movies, containing some of the most defining and moving moments of the franchise. I'm not ashamed to admit that my movie room gets a little dusty when watching the titanic and emotional events in the last half-hour of the movie.
Chrysler's ascent back to glory was only slightly less dramatic. The Reliant and its K-car brethren sold more than 2.5 million examples during the K-car's nine-year run. Considering the ubiquity of the K-car architecture in the rest of Chrysler's product line over the years, the number of Aries/Reliants sold during that time is just a drop in the bucket when considering the platform's impact. In fact, the vast majority of Chrysler profits in subsequent years stemmed from cars based on the K architecture, especially the innovative K-based minivans.
Powered by the sales of the K-car and its variants, Chrysler paid back its government-backed loans in 1983, years ahead of schedule, netting the federal government a tidy $350 million profit. The newly profitable Chrysler then moved on to purchase faltering AMC; the acquisition netted Chrysler the hugely profitable Jeep line and, in the AMC-designed Eagle Premier, the foundation for its successful 1990s cab-forward Dodge Intrepid/Chrysler Concorde/Chrysler 300M/Eagle Vision LH sedans. The Viper, the LH sedans, and the Neon all subsequently drove success, profits, and a reputation as the most agile, most product-focused member of the Big 3.
As with Star Trek, the success of the Reliant left Chrysler in a strong position that could have barely been imagined in the doldrums of 1980-1981.
Time is a luxury you don't have, Admiral.
CH: Time, of course, has a power and force of its own, and no success is permanent. From their highs in the 1990s, both Star Trek and Chrysler hit moribund states in the last few years. But, of course, that's another story for another time. Hopefully the Chrysler/Fiat union will mirror the success of the new Star Trek movie, and both the franchise and the brand will return to their former popularity.
You can't get away! From hell's heart I stab at thee ... for hate's sake ... I spit my last breath at thee!
CH: * Montalban's relationship with both Star Trek and Chrysler raises a very logical question--in naming Khan's ship Reliant, were the movie producers indulging in a sly reference to Montalban's famous Chrysler association? To this point, I have found no evidence that the producers named Khan's chariot after his corporate partner's most important car.
In fact, the more I think about it, the less likely I think it is that the link was intentional. After all, if the producers were dead set on naming Khan's starship after a K-car, wouldn't Aries have been the more logical choice? The word Aries refers to a constellation, after all, and is a homophone for Ares, the Greek god of warfare, bloodlust, and slaughter. That would have been perfect.
Besides, the association may not have been completely positive for Chrysler. Reliant became a cruel ship through the course of the movie, ambushing the Enterprise, radiating evil red light, and eventually perishing along with Khan. It's unlikely that any moviegoers in 1982 left the theater identifying with the Reliant and eager to head right to their local Plymouth dealership.
Either way, though, it's a crime that we never saw Montalban pitch the Plymouth Reliant. How is it possible that this never happened? Think of the possibilities, especially if Montalban had appeared in character, claiming that the "K" in K-car stands for "Khan" and threatening vengeance against his "old friends" at GM and Ford. Imagine the possibilities:
"On Earth, 300 years ago, I was a prince with power over millions; today, the Reliant befits my royalty and gives me control of 82 horsepower. It's a sedan, of course. Not quite domesticated. Not quite domesticated, to be sure. But in my judgment you simply have no alternative."
He tasks me! He tasks me, and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and '
CH: Speaking of obsessive insanity, in putting this piece together, both David and I found that we each have the same obsessive and insane Reliant-related fantasy. David?
DC: My ultimate fantasy is to take a Plymouth Reliant, paint it all white, give it Captain's Chair-style bucket seats in the front, add a spoiler with a middle pillar that looks suspiciously like a photon torpedo tube, get some custom plates that say "NCC1864", then add some decals on the hood. Oh, yeah. Revenge is a dish best served cold ... and it is very cold ... IN SPACE. ...
CH: I would probably keep mine a little closer to stock, but I'd at least consider placing nacelle stickers on the sides and installing a red dome light to mimic the USS Reliant's distinctive look. My goal would be to actually outgeek David with a custom license plate that reads "16309" to honor the Reliant's prefix code.
The pictures of the Reliant wagon and sedan come from the Reliant Wikipedia page. Allpar, which is as always the ultimate resource for Chrysler vehicles, is the source of the cut-aways of the car and the components. The screenshots from TWOK are all over the web.
This Reliant ad is entertaining ("catch it ... if you can!"), but just imagine how much more entertaining it would have been with Montalban providing the voice talent:
Here's the first face-off between the USS Reliant and the USS Enterprise:
Here's a fantastic alternate version that proves that Khan can actually be quite reasonable:
And, as long as we're being fanciful, here's a wonderfully hilarious version of the Reliant encounter that actually pits two Enterprises and two captains against each other: