I was reading some old posts on the Studebaker Drivers Club forum for research purposes the other day when I came upon one thread where a gentleman referred to "the Car Lust weblog...where they think a Plymouth Sapporo is a classic". I get the feeling he didn't mean that as a compliment.
I also don't think he realized just how correct he was.
By Car Lust's (admittedly warped) standards, the Plymouth Sapporo is a classic. We at Car Lust appreciate--nay, celebrate!--cars that may have been a bit behind the curve, outside the mainstream, or otherwise below average in popularity or performance even in their heyday--including more than a few Studebakers. It should therefore come as no surprise that we would have warm, fuzzy feelings toward a half-forgotten Chrysler captive import from the Malaise Era.
A subcompact by North American standards, the Galant Lambda was of conventional front engine-rear drive layout, riding on a 99-inch wheelbase. The car had an unusual feature in that the suspension varied with the trim level: the back end was a live axle on coil springs in the base model, but the upscale "GSR" came with a fully independent rear suspension. A variety of four-cylinder gasoline and diesel engines were available, ranging from 1.6 to 2.6L displacement; the transmission was either a Gertrag 5-speed manual or a 3-speed autobox.
The Galant Lambda wasn't designed by Georgetto Giugiaro, but it was very much in the Giugiaro idiom: clean, simple, straightforward, and well-proportioned, with sharp lines and restrained ornamentation. The beveled nose and sharply slanted C-pillar gave it a sporty feel, and the driving dynamics lived up to the promises the styling made. It was no sports car, but it was a decent sports coupe, especially with one of the bigger engines. Nevertheless, it was marketed as a personal luxury car with upscale trim and a full compliment of power accessories and clever gadgets--including an overhead console with a digital clock and map lights.
The version that came across the Pacific for the 1978 model year was, more or less, the upscale Galant Lambda GSR with a live axle rear end. Chrysler decided that the Dodge iteration would be the "performance" version, and the Plymouth the softer "luxury" model. The distinction was entirely superficial: beneath the sheetmetal, the Dodge and Plymouth were mechanically identical, and there was no difference in interior appointments or available options.
The Dodge was turned into a "performance" car by giving it the "Challenger" name badge (last used on the 1970-74 pony car), a split grille, alloy wheels, a flashy two-tone paint scheme with an accent stripe, and a set of louvers partially covering the rear quarter window.
To instill "luxury" in the Plymouth and distinguish it from the Dodge, Chrysler gave it a more muted selection of colors, a brushed metal targa bar with small "opera lights," and a vinyl roof so understated that you'd hardly know it was there. The final touch was the "elegant" yet casual font used on the name badge--it practically screams "1970s" in a voice as loud as a lime green leisure suit.
The name "Sapporo" was an interesting choice, all things considered. There was no small amount of hostility to Japanese imports from the Big Three and their allies in the UAW and the domestic steel industry. Detroit manufacturers usually said as little about the source of their captive imports as they could, just enough to avoid violating truth-in-advertising laws. But now, here comes Chrysler selling a car named after a Japanese city--not much chance that consumers would fail to pick up on the country of origin!
The "base models" of the Sapporo and Challenger came with a DOHC 1.6L "Saturn" engine good for 77 HP and 87 foot-pounds of torque. The 1.6 was only available for a couple of years, and was relatively rare.
Most Sapporos and Challengers had the larger 2.6L "Astron," the same engine that would eventually wind up powering just about everything Chrysler made by the mid-80s. The 2.6 delivered 114 HP and 139 pounds of torque in the carburated 1978 edition. Both engines used the "MCA Jet" cylinder head, with air injection via a second intake valve to promote swirl, and were equipped with balancing shafts (called the "Silent Shaft" in Chrysler advertising) to damp out engine vibrations.
As I said before, the Sapporo was supposed to be the "personal luxury" Mopar subcompact. The "personal luxury" message was visually reinforced by the targa bar and the vinyl roof and the name badge, but, inside and out, it was done with taste and restraint, avoiding the high baroque absurdity of a Lincoln Versailles or a Cutlass Supreme with the full "appearance package."
At the same time, the driving dynamics were worlds away from what you'd get from a Versailles or a Cutlass. The buff books gave the car favorable reviews for its handling, and while it was no terror of the dragstrip, 114 HP and 139 pounds of torque in a 2,500 pound car was a pretty darned good power-to-weight ratio for 1978. The Sapporo and Challenger had an additional advantage over their Ford and GM competition (and the rest of the Mopar catalog, for that matter): they were competently assembled! I remember sitting in a new Sapporo in a dealer's showroom in the fall of 1977, and being favorably impressed by just how well put-together it was.
Attempts to persuade my father to replace the '67 Le Mans with that Sapporo met with abject failure. He was active in politics, in a town with a lot of UAW and United Steelworkers' members, and there was no way he could be seen in a foreign-built car without taking a hit at the ballot box.
I still wish he'd gotten one. It would have been a classier--and far more reliable--way for me to have gotten around in my formative years. Just think of the engine and suspension tuning possibilities.
And then there's just the sheer upmarket class of the thing. Look at that 1978 Sapporo brochure long enough, and you start thinking that Chrysler missed a great opportunity by not having Ricardo Montalban do the Sapporo's commercials. "Sapporo" is one of those words that sounds melodious and exotic and slightly mysterious, much like "Cordoba" does, especially when spoken with a Spanish accent:
I know my own needs...and what I need from an automobile I get from this new...Sapporo.
See what I mean? Ricardo could have talked about "the quality of Sapporo's workmanship" without irony, and the car would certainly have been worthy of his "great confidence, for which there can be no price."
Can't you just imagine it? A little flamenco guitar, some soft Corinthian leather....