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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan--Plymouth Reliant

Reliant WagonHow 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.

Khaaaaan 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.

Reliant Sedan 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.

Reliant CutawayHere 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.

PlatformSomehow, 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. ...

Ubiquity 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.

Khan 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."

USS Reliant 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 'round Perdition's flames before I give him up! ...

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.

--Chris H.

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:


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"...a spirograph of death" ...great bit of writing!
If Car and Driver was still that good, I'd still be reading it.

Well done to both of you... .

John B: ""...a spirograph of death" ...great bit of writing!
If Car and Driver was still that good, I'd still be reading it."

Agreed, that was a glorious line.

Perhaps David's writing abilities are genetically enhanced?

Great article, guys!

When Robert Wise directed "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", he knew nothing about the show. I read that he had never seen one episode at all. He directed 1951's "The Day The Earth Stood Still", which is probably why everybody in ST:TMP stood still for 2 1/2 hours.

The music in "Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan", perhaps the best of all Star Trek themes, was done by James Horner, who later won an Academy Award for "Titanic."

All I can say about the Reliant (the car) is that it did its job. Simple, cheap transportation for the masses. Oh, and some neighborhood built and gave away a house that was as close of a copy of "The Simpsons" house as could be made. There, leaking oil on the driveway, was Homer's car, a Reliant.

The Reliant was not a *great* car, but it was a good one--as good as Chrysler, and most of its customers, needed it to be. My wife had an '88 that ended up being my daily driver for a while--we eventually gave it to my father-in-law, who drove it until it dropped. It lived up to the name: Reliant.

While the K cars are rightly associated with Lee Iacocca, the design process for the K platform was started under his predecessor. It was one of the great gambles in business history for faltering, cash-strapped Chrysler to commit to a new FWD platform design in the mid-70s. Amazing how well it paid off.

Here's a link to "The Simpsons" house with the Reliant out front. Sorry I didn't have it on the first comment:

In the spirit of K-Cars in general and the Chrysler-Maserati TC specifically, I present to you this article in Italian:


"X-cars"? I think the Citation, Omega and their ilk were called "X-bodies", not "X-cars".

David Colborne: It's difficult to understate the importance of the Reliant. sarcasm meter's a bit wonky, but do you mean overstate?..

I had an 81 Reliant K, 2.2L and 4 speed manual. Bought it from the dealer, who used it as a parts chaser. I figured out later that he must have taken it back from a dissatisfied customer. I needed a newer car as the Navy was sending me to Kingsville, TX and I wanted car that was American made and good on gas. During the 20,000 or so miles that I owned it, it went through three clutches a head gasket, a radiator and a water pump. When the rear coil springs collapsed and the dealer wanted several hundred dollars to replace them, I got coil spring expanders from the JC Whitney catalog and jacked it up several inches. The exhaust rusted through and fell off so I had to have it towed to the shop as it sounded louder the A-4s over head and the cops threatened me with a ticket if I drove it. Oh, yeah, the extended warranty only covered the head gasket. Everything else was normal wear and tire and wasn't covered. I didn't own another American made car for several years.

@jdgjtr - I feel your pain. As a member of the armed forces from the period when DoD bought thousands and thousands of these cars, they started breaking around 40,000 miles and were hopeless basket cases at 60,000 miles. The early 70s Plymouth Fury sedans we ferried VIPs about in weren't as "old" and decrepit as the K-cars we used to deliver the mail, nor were the Ford Mavericks I occasionally got to drive when there were no K-cars available. Of course, there were lots of K-cars sitting in the lot "deadlined"; my inquiry about this provoked the motor sergeant to quip, "what do you want? These cars are just old."

I think it's quite likely that they deliberately plugged the car; these are the same people that put a Commodore 64 inside Kirk's antique-filled appartment to commemorate The Shat's spokesmanship of that little gem.

m: Both? Yeah, I was shooting for "overstate", honestly.

jdgjtr, Steaming Pile: The early K's were TERRIBLE. By the time I got my '94 Shadow, though, Dodge straightened out the worst of the problems, though it still ate alternator belts like potato chips. It helped that I did a fair chunk of the maintenance on it - as far as small cars go, Ks are REALLY forgiving for the low-skill garage mechanic. Even so, I spent an alarming amount of time under that hood.

You left out the best line of TWOK:

"Let them eat static"

As a news photographer, I was a witness to more than one K Car accident. One in particular I recall: a Pontiac Firebird of mid-'70s vintage rear-ended a K Car.

The Firebird barely had a scratch on its bumper (you may recall that bumpers of the time were seriously reinforced). The K Car was a writeoff -- the recycled beer cans were seriously dented. The car basically ended at the rear window, because the trunk and rear end accordioned into the back seat. No one was hurt, but the K Car looked like it had been through a war... and lost.

The early K-cars were abysmal. As others have pointed out, they turned into shuddering rust-piles by 40K miles. The later ones, starting in about the '85 model year, were pretty good.

My family had an '85 (I think), that was not a bad car at all, at least around town. The thing about those 0-60 times is that they don't capture the quite good low-speed acceleration. Pulling away from stop lights, I could actually out-drag contemporary Trans-Ams, Camaros, and Mustangs--at least up to 30 mph. The 3-speed automatic transmission had tremendously low gear ratios for 1st and 2nd, and you could wind the engine up pretty good if you drove like you meant it.

At highway speeds, on the other hand, we used to call the air conditioning on/off switch the "turbo button", since you really couldn't pass another car with the A/C on. Not just that it took a long time--you really couldn't get the car much above 60 mph with the air conditioning on.

We finally traded in the car at about 130K miles, with a cracked camshaft. Somebody else bought it as-is from the dealer, fixed it up, and drove it for (what looked like) another 100K or so. I saw it around town for years after that.

I bought our '85 Reliant wagon for $5000 csah in '86 when my daughters were 1 and 3. The older one finally killed it at the end of her Senior year in High School at 260,000 miles. She drove it to school (5 miles)for the last two months with no coolent at all as it had blown the head gasket. What a great car. It did everything we asked for all those years.

From their highs in the 1990s, both Star Trek and Chrysler hit moribund states in the last few years.

Did the Plymouth Voyager have anything to do with Chrysler's decline?

I remember the 1983 Reliant my parents leased. It was about half as reliable as my 1969 Valiant, and the Valiant had rear doors that would open up enough to allow three adults in the back seat. I had nothing but scorn for the car.

However thanks to the K-car we do have moments like this:

When asked why he uses so many K-cars in the Handyman corner, Red replies "There are two reasons. The first is they are cheap and easy to find. The second is revenge."

My God, John - you're right! Shatner DID do a Commodore commercial!

This might also tie into why the Reliant is a "Miranda-Class" vessel, which is awfully close to the Dodge Mirada ( - that, of course, was the Dodge variant of the second-gen Chrysler Cordoba.

People, we are through the looking glass!

I have always wanted to see a remix of the first battle sequence in which Kahn taunts Kirk: "Surely, I have made my meaning plain. I mean to avenge myself upon you, Admiral. I deprived your new Chrysler Cordoba of power, and when I swing around, I mean to deprive you of the luxury of seats available even in soft Corinthian leather."

I'd rather disliked the whole K-car line for a long time, but several years ago I had something of an epiphany and decided they were really cool after all. Mainly what I think is neat is that they are really just shrunken sedans. Rather than the usual hatchback that people ordinarily thought of back then (e.g., Rabbit, Civic) it was a truly American-looking compact car. It didn't look goofy like the Pinto or Vega or Gremlin or the Omni for that matter, it was really just a smaller good ol' American sedan.

I wonder if you could make a go of something similar these days. Put a little extra into the drive train and interior quality, maybe (adult) people would be comfortable buying that as a smaller car instead of a basic teenyboppermobile.

The federal government recouped its loan to Chrysler by buying fleets of Chrysler products for GSA motor pools. (No, it didn't make any sense then either.) That's how I ended up with a Reliant police car. Yup, a four banger patrol car. If I turned on the light bar when the the A/C was running the car would stall out. With A/C running I couldn't get vehicle over 60 MPH. Parts would routinely fall off. The smaller, less greasy parts were left on the shift commander's desk. He was NOT amused. Needless to say I have never owned a Chrysler product.

Owned aries. It stopped in traffic at speed for no reason every few hundred miles, then every few tens of miles. Just sputtered to a stop. Dead. Nothing would restart it, fix it, or keep it running. I've never had a new car die after only 70K miles before or since. If it saved chrysler (or put off the death until 2009) more power to it. I resolved never to buy another chrysler product ever, ever, ever. I hope they die die die. From hell's heart I stab at them. For hate's sake I spit my last breath at them!

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