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DODGE DIPLOMAT: INTRODUCTION AND LAUNCH
The Dodge Diplomat name has been around for decades, first showing up on a Dodge car in 1950. Like many Chrysler nameplates which come and go, the Diplomat name resurfaced for the new 1977 "M" body design. Nash had planned a car called a "Diplomat" in 1950, but Dodge used the Diplomat name first as a trim level on the Dodge Coronet in 1950, and Nash renamed their car the "Rambler". Opel also used the Diplomat name on a European car. In 1975, and possibly though 1977, Dodge offered the full-size Royal Monaco Brougham two-door hardtop with a "Diplomat" trim package, the highest luxury trim available on the model.
The "M" body Diplomat's immediate design predecessor was the "F" body Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volaré-Road Runner, from which most of Diplomat's technology and design were derived. Visually, the cars are very similar; their wheelbase is the same, and the doors are interchangeable through the entire run of both models (you can trade the front doors of a '76 Aspen sedan with an '89 Fifth Avenue!). The design predecessor of the Aspen/Volare was the Plymouth Valiant, introduced in 1959. The Dodge variant of the Valiant was the Lancer until 1963, when it was renamed the Dodge Dart. The Dodge Diplomat's eventual cancellation in 1989 marked the beginning of a three-year absence of rear wheel drive Dodge passenger cars, until the Dodge Viper went into production in 1992 — and a much longer absence of rear wheel drive sedans, until the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum appeared in 2004.
WELCOME HOME DIPLOMAT
1977 saw the introduction of the Diplomat "M" body, along with its assembly line twins: the Chrysler LeBaron and Plymouth Caravelle (sold only in Canada). It was an immediate hit, becoming the second place best-selling Dodge (after the Aspen, launched in 1976) after only six months on the market.
Early versions were praised by Chrysler Corporation as "economical" and actually could be seen that way if you had yours delivered with a slant six 225 engine, a one-barrel carburetor, and a manual four-speed transmission. The slant six was available through the 1983 model year. During this energy-conscious time, the Diplomat was actually marketed with an emphasis on its fuel economy -- the slant six/4-speed manual transmission combination provided, according to a December 1978 advertisement, an EPA mileage estimate of 18 MPG in the city and 28 on the highway.
A side note about the venerable 225 slant 6 engine: In the early days (early 60s) of the slant 6, you could special order a four-barrel carburetor and intake manifold that boosted the horsepower from 145 to 192, and many of those slant sixes were professionally raced. Also, the very first slant sixes were actually only 170 cubic inches. The 225 was originally an upgrade option, and took a few years to become available.
Some "M" Body cars were sold in Central and South America under different names. In Mexico, the Diplomat was sold in 1980 and 1981 as a Dodge Dart, and in Columbia as a Dodge Coronet. There may be other names and certainly there are many other locations that the "M" Body has been sold to which may never be fully known. If you travel abroad or if you live outside the U.S. and Canada already, keep your eyes open and carry a camera!
The "M" body cars, like most Chrysler Corporation products of the time, are distinguishable from each other on the exterior only by body trim and nameplates. The higher-scale LeBaron was readily identifiable by the front turn signals being placed above the headlights. The tail light lens featured a round "imperial" Lebaron logo in the center. The Diplomat and Caravelle were less likely to have a plush interior and power gadgets, and had their front turn signals placed below the headlights. The tail light lens trim had a more rectangular character.
In 1980, the "M" body line had a facelift. Edges become sharper, the car become "boxier", and on the Diplomat and Caravelle, the front turn signals were separated from the headlight assembly. On LeBarons, the tail lights now consisted of four lenses. One pair was vertical, placed on the outer edge of the rear face at the end of the rear fender. The other pair remained in the traditional horizontal position. The unique tail light arrangement lasted until the Chrysler variant of the "M" Body was later renamed the New Yorker/Fifth Avenue beginning in 1983, when the tail lights became the same as the Dodge and Plymouth with the single, flat horizontal lens.
Also in 1980, Chrysler introduced two spin-offs of the "M" body: the Dodge Mirada and Chrysler Cordoba. These cars were built on the "J" body, a slightly modified "M" platform. The "M" and "J" cars had the same wheelbase and driveline options, but the body panels were significantly different, and both "J" body cars were only available as coupes. In 1981, a third "J" body with a slightly different exterior was put into production; the Chrysler Imperial.
In 1982, 2-door versions of the "M" body were no longer sold. The Plymouth Caravelle was made available in the U.S. as the Plymouth Gran Fury. This would be the last year of the "M" Body Chrysler LeBaron, which was to be re-christened the Chrysler New Yorker. These changes were made because the larger-bodied (B and R) previous version of the Plymouth Gran Fury and Chrysler New Yorker (along with the Dodge St. Regis and Chrysler Newport) had been cancelled. As part of this change, the LeBaron name was placed on the K car that next year, and the Caravelle name would later appear on a K car in 1985.
1982 also saw some more cosmetic changes. The long, slanted rear window of the original "M" body had given away to a sharper angle on the Dodge and Plymouth variants, and a nearly vertical steep, short rear window on the Chrysler New Yorker. The only significant difference between the Gran Fury and Diplomat (other than nameplates) was the grille color. On the Gran Fury it was silver, while on the Diplomat it was a dark gray.
Starting in 1983, two versions of the New Yorker were offered. A K body version was badged under the same name, and the M body variant became known as the New Yorker Fifth Avenue. After 1983, the M body Chrysler offering was simplified: the Fifth Avenue. All three J body cars, Mirada, Cordoba and Imperial, were cancelled.
Beginning in 1984, all of the M body cars had their power train choices trimmed to just the 318 V8 and Torqueflite 3-speed automatic transmission.
In the late 1980s, some higher-trim level Diplomats (Salon and SE models) parted with the Gran Fury and had the front turn signals moved above the headlights in the same design as the Fifth Avenue. It was still distinguishable by the slanted rear window, and more so by the chrome "cross-hair" grille design that Dodge was just beginning to use as a trademark identifier. However, the cross-hair grille looked somewhat out of place, appearing to be an afterthought.
During these late years, the Diplomat and Gran Fury were marketed as Chrysler's baseline "large" cars, though they were actually closer to mid-size (and when first developed were barely above “compact.”) The Fifth Avenue was advertised as Chrysler's upscale luxury car. All three were discontinued after 1989. For a very short time after the cancellation, the Diplomat was available as a K car, though I have only seen three of these in my life (and never got pictures - darn!)
Though the Fifth Avenue had been a fairly good seller, towards the end the Diplomat and Gran Fury were mostly purchased by fleet buyers (taxi companies and police departments). One notable feature of the late "M" bodies was that in mid-1988, and continuing until all three cars' cancellation, a driver's side airbag became standard. This made the Diplomat and its siblings among the only cars on the road at that time offering both a driver's side airbag and a tilt steering column, a major innovation in its time.
A LASTING LEGACY
Today, the Diplomat is gone, but its roots can be traced indirectly to many of the Chrysler products offered in the years since 1989.
The Chrysler LeBaron, Chrysler New Yorker and Plymouth Caravelle names (as well as the Diplomat) all continued to the "K" car, which was also known in other versions as the Dodge 400/600, Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant.
The Chrysler LeBaron name, after parting ways with the Dodge Diplomat, went on to be assigned to many Chrysler models besides the "K" car. From 1985 to 1989 it was assigned to the "K" Body-derived "H" body as the LeBaron GTS, identical to the 85-89 Dodge Lancer, making the Lancer a Diplomat descendant (the Lancer was also a Valiant-era predecessor). In 1987 the LeBaron Coupe and Convertible was introduced, and was available until 1995. The C&C was initially available in many different trim levels but in the end only the GTC was on the market in this configuration. The LeBaron Coupe and Convertible was the best-selling convertible in the U.S. at the time. This places the Diplomat as an indirect predecessor to Chrysler's current convertible offering, the Chrysler Sebring. It should be noted the the Sebring Convertible (based on the "cloud" cars) is a true Chrysler product, while the Sebring Coupe (and Dodge Avenger) are based on the Mitsubishi Galant. The LeBaron name was also tagged onto the "AA" Body (a stretched "K" car platform) which was available from 1989 to 1995. The AA Body was also sold as the Dodge Spirit, Plymouth Acclaim, and outside the U.S. as the Chrysler Saratoga. The AA Body was set to begin production anew in China in early 1999. Chrysler sold the manufacturing equipment and dies to a firm there that planned to continue producing AA Bodies for quite some time.
In 1988, shortly before the end of the "M" body, the front-wheel drive "C" body Dodge Dynasty and Chrysler New Yorker were introduced (Canada had a Chrysler Dynasty). Furthering the Diplomat ties in 1990, the "C" body was stretched to create new variants with the old names of Chrysler Fifth Avenue and Imperial. The "C" body continued through 1993, and the New Yorker was produced until around 2001 on the LHS platform, when it was replaced by the stretched Concorde in a case of name engineering.
The Diplomat was once the primary vehicle of choice for law enforcement. Chrysler's first official police car (other than Jeep Cherokee) since the cancellation of the Diplomat was the front wheel drive Dodge Intrepid, from 2002 to 2004. Finally, at long last, however, Dodge started selling a rear wheel drive police pursuit car with a V8 in the 2006 Dodge Charger.
See the Police Car Web Site for a complete history of the 1981-1989 Chrysler M body vehicles in Law Enforcement.