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Plymouth Sapporo

Sapporo!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.

More to the point, even when viewed more objectively, the Plymouth Sapporo was a pretty decent car--and that's no small accomplishment for a Malaise Era Mopar.

Built by Mitsubishi, the Sapporo was known in the home market as the Galant Lambda

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 I "challenge" you to tell this one apart from the Plymouth from 100 yards away.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 schemeIt's almost a Japanese Cordoba...without the build quality issues! 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 Sorry, no Corinthian leather on the options list.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....


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While these do have Dodge and Plymouth nameplates on them, I've never considered either of these a "Mopar" - they are what they are, and that's a rebadged Mitsubishi (not that there's anything wrong with that...). The only thing this car had in common with the original Challenger is the name - that was pretty much it (although one might have to wonder why they didn't call the Plymouth version a Barracuda instead of Sapporo...).

I remember these cars competing on a more equal footing with the Toyota Celica and the Nissan 200SX back when they all tried to be miniature-sized personal luxury cars (especially the 200SX, I remember one car mag referring to it as a "Japanese Thunderbird"). Mazda didn't really have anything to compete in this segment at the time, the 626 had been introduced but the original was way too crude and rudimentary to be considered.

Oh, and remember the Technica package that came out in 1981? (or was it '82?) That gave it a digital dash and power everything else. That would definitely be a rare find if you could find one today.

I think these may have been the cars that Lee Iacocca was, in a way, complaining about: That consumers were rating the Chrysler versions lower in terms of quality and reliability than the exact same cars that had a Japanese nameplate. Might have been a different model, but I recall both Chrysler and a Japanese company were selling the same cars at the same time.

Had a friend that had one of these and liked it and the Spousal Unit's MiL had one and she (the Spousal Unit) hated it. Probably something gender-specific there.

The Dodge is the much better looking version in my opinion.

I had a 1978 Sapporo with the 1.6 liter and I loved it. It was fairly sporty and handled well, but was not at all fast. 0-60 was in 20 seconds on gravel roads. Maybe somewhat faster on paved roads.
When I bought mine, the vinyl roof had gone to vinyl roof heaven and all that was left were glue strips that I always meant to sand off.
The previous owner had struck a rock and broke on of the alternators attachment points to the engine and the vibrator would eventually crack the top bracket, so I would lose power to my accessories and eventually my spark. I wore out my AAA membership before I got a shop to weld a thick bar to the engine block for the alternator. Then the car was able to make it to Detroit and back for game 3 of the 1987 playoffs ( only game the Tigers won). When I drove it to the Acura dealer to trade for a shiny new Integra, the alternator was wedged in place with a block of wood and some gum.

I forgot to mention one of my favorite things about that car was 47mpg. Never have had a car since that could top that.

I impressed a friend at the 2009 Concours d'Lemons in Monterey by identifying a Sapporo. It certainly is similar from the firewall forward to a late 70's B body Mustang. Seeing Japanese orphans like this on the road today really intrigues me. I'm glad that some people are dedicated to the proposition of keeping obsolete iron on the road. I took various pictures that day, the Sapporo being one. Dunno if they can be viewed here, but I'll post a link and find out.

No IRS for the American market?! Ah, man! Now I can't stance one of these unless I either get creative with some Frankenstein work on the rear suspension, or go through obscure JDM parts-importation hell.

Well, it's not as if these things are unmodifiable:

My personal favorite:

Considering it's Japanese, I'd expect Kabuki music rather than
flamenco guitar.

A co-worker had a Challenger and I recall looking at it when new and being amazed at the "luxury " items and gadgets.
Even my 1979 Mustang Ghia...which had LEDs on a "Graphic Warning Module" in the console, wood trim and Mercedes-style headrests looked like a strippo VW beatle by compaerison.

Tiger, that second one is not bad; I'd go back to the stock ride height and give it normal sized wheels.

The first one, however....[shudders, cringes]

This post is about the 1st gen Sapporo/Challenger. What do people think of the 2nd gen from 1981? I think the 2nd gen looks better, less puffy.

@ Yankee, a friend of mine had a (2nd gen) Sapporo with the digital dash. Did that mean it had the Technica package?

Iacocca was complaining about the DSM triplets, where the Mitsu Eclipse was rated 'better' than the Plymouth/Eagle versions. All made in same plant.

Iacocca should have taken into consideration the influence that his dealer body had on quality perceptions. I'm saying this having worked at a Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealer in 1989. By then they were specialists in worming out of performing 5/50 warranty work and the last thing you wanted to do was face the customers in the service waiting area. I'm sure the dealer would have pointed at the product, which was worse than anything else we sold except Saab, but the constant failings of the cars combined with warranty denial policies cast our service department into an adversarial relationship with the customers, not that we were particularly good at fixing any problem without causing further damage.

"Iacocca was complaining about the DSM triplets, where the Mitsu Eclipse was rated 'better' than the Plymouth/Eagle versions. All made in same plant."

You see that a lot in Consumer Reports.
I think it's a case of buyers expectations instead of reality.
People expected foreign nameplates to be they rated them higher.
I wonder if anyone in the industry ever did a paper on this?

Having worked at a dealership that sold Chrysler, Honda, GM, pre-GM Saab, and Subaru products out of two locations, I don't believe that it was buyer expectations for even an instant. Some car companies built better cars than others and did a better job or controlling the customers' experiences than others. Honda customers at the time were treated terribly by sales, but they were then introduced to a team of cheerful people that would be responsible for their car's service. Then they only saw those people for oil and timing belt changes. The Oldsmobile teams at the same store were resentful. They had to do far more and never achieved the same customer satisfaction scores. It wasn't their fault. It was the cars. The Saab team was more like a prison block. It was also as big as the Honda and Olds shops combined to car for a tenth as many cars with two hundred times as many problems.

The Chysler-Plymouth-Dodge-Subaru store wasn't even set up as well. The paperwork for the 'service team' concept was around, but sales didn't have time to learn who the team leaders were, such was turnover of frustrated mechanics. The first DSM car, a Plymouth Laser Turbo, was thrashed mercilessly from the moment it came off the truck by everyone from the managers down to the detailers. We'd become wary of abusing the Mopar turbos, as they often broke when extended. Mechanics frowned on junior sales people that caused Daytona Turbo Zs to shed serpentine belts or blow head gaskets. The poor DSM cars didn't die, so they were run as hard as possible without any concern for break-in. I wouldn't be surprised if our Plymouth Lasers were less reliable than a responsible Mitsubishi dealer's Eclipses.

I owned two of these, a '78 in a metallic orange with the stainless landau bar and opera lights and a navy blue metallic '80, both with the 2.6 litre and 5-speeds.

I hankered for them initially due to them being the progenitor model for the then-current Starion, which was technically my first car, but was owned by my parents.

Both were very reliable and stood up well to the severe thrashings and inexpert "repairs", "maintenance" and "improvements" the teenaged me inflicted on 'em. The '78 had 286,000 miles on it when the extensive rust finally caused the car to fail its state safety inspection, I recall at that point it burned a (very convenient) quart of oil per tank of gas. The '80 was replaced with an automatic-equipped car as by then I was commuting into NYC every day and 4 hours a day in bumper to bumper on the LIE with a manual transmission was killing me, an otherwise healthy 20 year old shouldn't have a limp.

I've wanted an '82 Technica for the longest time now...

@ CJinSD, your dealership stories are great!

@toronado455, I don't know for sure if lesser Sapporo models could have the digital dash, so it's most likely that your friend's car had the Technica pkg.

I always think of Sapporo the Japenese Beer, which then reminds me of the Simpsons and Powell Motors(Homer's illegitimate older brother's car company) "The secret is giving them Japanese sounding names, you ever drive a 'Tempura Hatchback'?"

Thanks Yankee.

One of these just showed up on BaT

Thanks toronado455. Glad you like them.

this car sure brings back memories of the amc pacer my wife and i had back in the 70's. I even remember that ugly gremlin some people had. cars sure have changed and evolved quite a bit since then.

I found this site on a nostalgia search. A 1979 Sapporo was my first new car and was way too good for a young idiot like me. It didn't have amazing power, but it had decent torque and could cruise at 75 MPH for hours at 35 MPG without complaint.

One thing that I especially liked about the car was the interior. It had some of the nicest stock buckets along with other creature comforts that were new to most of us. It always impressed people I took for a drive; "I can't believe how nice this little car is!"

It was well built, reliable, practical and not bad looking (especially considering some of the fugly cars of the era).

My grandma had one as I was growing up my entire life and is now parked in her yard. It's a 1981 Plymouth Sapporo with the technica package. It was parked in her yard due to the rust getting at the shock support in the truck. Went right through it. It's been parked for about 15 years or more and I'm hoping that I can get it now before it goes to the crushers and is lost forever. Ah the memories, such a beautiful car. They are such a rare find and so nice.

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