Junkyard Gem: 1981 Plymouth Reliant Station Wagon

The first model year of the K-Cars, which saved Chrysler from bankruptcy.

  • Image Credit: Murilee Martin
By the early 1980s, Chrysler was circling the drain, with ever-fewer customers willing to buy outdated, gas-swilling Cordobas and Volar├ęs, and the profit margin on badge-engineered Mitsubishis and Simca-based subcompacts failing to fend off near-certain doom. Government-guaranteed loans in 1979 bought some time (and were either a great idea or part of the Marxist-Leninist master plan for global domination, depending on which side of the Culture Wars you call your own), but new and modern designs were needed. It was do or die for Lee Iacocca and Chrysler, and the front-wheel-drive K Platform arrived just in time. Here's a first-model-year Plymouth Reliant-K wagon, spotted in a self-service yard near Santa Cruz, California.

This one has a few costly options, including AM radio, clock, roof rack, and air conditioning, but the original buyer chose the base transmission (a four-speed manual) instead of the much more popular automatic option. The odometer is a five-digit unit, so there's no telling if the car has 79,620 miles or 379,620.

Two engines were available in the first-year Reliant: a 2.2-liter Chrysler four-cylinder (which is what powered this car) or a 2.6-liter Mitsubishi Astron four-cylinder (which was badged as a "2.6 Hemi" on the early K-Cars). The 2.2 was rated at 84 horsepower, while the 2.6 made 114.

This one has a touch of surface rust, the sort of thing that California cars pick up when they live close to the ocean, but otherwise it's very solid.

1981 was the only year for the 1960s-style Plymouth hood ornament on the Reliants; after that, these cars went to the Pentastar design.

While the K-based Dodge Shadows and Plymouth Sundances still show up every so often in the big self-service wrecking yards, true K-Cars are getting hard to find during my junkyard roaming.

I have good reason to hate all Reliants, but I appreciate the historical significance of an early example of the car that saved Chrysler.

Lee Iacocca gave away 50 bucks to anyone willing to test-drive a Reliant, Aries, or LeBaron, even if they bought another car.

Right away, the Reliant-K became such a part of American culture that it appeared in McDonald's commercials.

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