With the opening years of the 1980s came a change in the air for the automotive industry - with international companies beginning more aggressive assimilation of the American car market, domestic makers like Chrysler found themselves squaring off in segments that had been their primary bread and butter of nearly a century.
Chrysler, with its ingenuity and tendency to experiment in areas that other manufacturers wouldn't dare touch (look at the Chrysler Turbine Car for point and case), approached the situation with a vigour backed by experience for solutions rather than excuses.
Thus, the K-car line was born.
Utilizing the same platform as the L-car series before it, Chrysler designer and engineers came together and, using the Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni as platforms took steps to introduce a solid beam rear axle along with independent front suspensions and offered the new lineup in front- and all-wheel drive.
The K-cars arrived at the right time - Chrysler was on the brink of collapse - and earned the company a much-needed $10 million profit in the first two years alone. A variety of K-car variants would soon follow, including an expansion into the minivan and high-end Chrysler divisions.
That said, the development costs are hard to overlook - at over $1 billion spent over three years this was very nearly an all-or-nothing gambit.
By the mid-1980s, however, the decision proved itself successful with over 50% of Chrysler's profit coming directly from the K-car brands.
New York Times is quoted in a 1984 article as crediting the K platforms as single-handedly saving Chrysler from what was perceived to being a "certain death" scenario.
Let's back up a bit to the historic event that caused the complications in the automotive industry to begin with - specifically, the 1973 oil crisis that then was followed by a 1979 energy crisis in the United States of America. The turns of events here led to an overwhelming quantity of low-cost automobiles arriving from Japan and a decline in the fuel-inefficient V8 domestic vehicles that had, prior to these events, been very popular.
Interestingly, the consequences of these events would lead to the US re-instating (and updating) their Voluntary Export Restraint (VER) that had been a major proponent to trade in textile back in the 1950s and 1960s. It is, perhaps, also a response to the establishment of the 1981 automobile VER that Chrysler came out so ahead in a race it had been losing for nearly a decade.
So, in 1981, the first generation of K-cars entered the market - with the Plymouth Reliant and the Dodge Aries offering improvements over previous models. Both were selected by Motor Trend magazine as Car of the Year and with sales figures that saw close to a million Aries and over a million Reliants leave dealerships across the country it was safe to say that Chrysler made the correct decision.
With a smooth driving experience, the K-cars were a quick hit - and, as we've stated again and again, came at a period when Chrysler really needed a win. In such dire straits had Chrysler been put in that Lee Iacocca stepped up in 1977 to request government assistance from the Carter Administration - which they agreed upon as long as the current management stepped down - a step that put Iacocca into Chrysler's driving seat.
The bailout was approved and by referencing the designs explored earlier in the decade, Chrysler went forward with the development of the K-car brand. Smaller than previous models, the K-cars offered drivers most of the highlights of driving a larger vehicle but at a fraction of the operating costs and initial selling price. The K-car and its variants would continue to be produced into the 90s, when the models were replaced by four new platforms - the PL, JA, LH, and NS.