First Contact: Chrysler New Yorker
You never forget your first. Driving is no exception to the rule, naturally. We’ll all remember the first time behind the wheel — what we were driving, what our immature minds thought of being harnessed to all that power and potential. The first time I ever drove — illegally, but not really because it wasn’t on a public road — I wasn’t, if you believe it, rowing my own gears in a Saab 9000. I was maybe fourteen, and was being shown by my dad how to work the gear selector, brakes, and such on his Chrysler New Yorker.
The New Yorker had arrived in the family many years earlier. It was the result of a long and arduous search which saw my parents set out looking for a Honda Civic and finish up testing Chryslers and Mercuries. The two cars I actually wanted them to buy — either a Lincoln LS V8 or a Chrysler 300M — had just come on the market and were given precisely zero consideration. Interestingly, I’d still buy either of the two. Old habits die hard.
Anyway, the New Yorker came into my life just I was seriously becoming aware of the outside world. Y2K, the hotly contested 2000 election, 9/11, Iraq — all fit into the same slot of memory as going on family trips safely ensconced in the Chrysler’s gloriously vulgar burgundy velour seats. Our New Yorker was burgundy on the outside too. It had the same silly little fins, hide-away healights, coach-style roof and obnoxious hood ornament (a plastic pentastar) as so many other big American cars of the early eighties and nineties. The interior was a fiesta of plastic veneer, fake chrome, and velvety fabric. The whole package was fairly disgusting. And ours was the base model.
Under the hood of the New Yorker was a 3.0L V6 built by Mitsubishi for Chrysler. Despite its Japanese origins, the 3.0 did not have a reputation for stellar reliability. Nor was it particular refined or advanced: rated at 147 hp, the engine made scarcely more power than the four-cylinder in today’s Chevrolet Cruze. No problem; my parents are both fairly conservative drivers, and neither ever complained about the lack of power. Interestingly, that engine was actually hugely reliable in our New Yorker. Lots of things went wrong with the car, but right up to the end, the V6 was bulletproof.
I felt at the time that the Chrysler was a fairly large car. In retrospect, it wasn’t. In every exterior dimension, it was substantially smaller than a present-day Honda Accord. This showed on the interior. When my parents took delivery of their first Saab 9000, I was astounded at the huge amount of front seat legroom. The trunk and back seat were commodious, however.
In any case, my first driving experience involved me being told to “press the gas pedal.” I interpreted this perhaps a little generously, and floored it. The 146 horses lazily cantered into action; a few dozen yards later I applied the brake with equal enthusiasm, and the whole car rocked forward on its loosely sprung suspension. My driving introduction complete, I shied away from the wheel for the next few years. Instead, I familiarized myself with the New Yorker’s increasingly flaky power windows, excellent digital climate control system, and superb Infinity stereo.
There were, of course, many, many problems with that car. It wallowed around like a boat on the road. The interior had a general feeling of tacky cheapness — the plastic wood veneer panels started falling off eventually. The hooded headlight motors almost never worked. Braking was half-hearted. But it was always proof to me that, in the eighties and nineties, the Big Three could still do freeway cruisers reasonably well. Sure, they were FWD, had V6 engines, and weren’t much bigger than the Accords and Camrys and Maximas most people actually wanted. But they were comfortable, good on the highway, and loaded with gadgetry. Most importantly, they were often more reliable than one would think. My parents got 380,000 kilometers out of their New Yorker. The biggest repair was a replacement alternator. The car could’ve kept going, in the right hands.
For the student, there are many reasons not to buy anything American and luxurious built before, say, 2005. The New Yorker and its competitors in the Bush 41 era had just enough electric wizardry to make life miserable when it all came undone. They also lacked key modern safety and convenience features, such as dual airbags, keyless entry, heated seats, and so on. There are advantages too, however. They are comfortable, capable in highway driving, feel somewhat luxurious, and will be ludicrously cheap to insure. With a few exceptions, most had V6 engines, and thus would be fairly good on gas. The New Yorker was based on the ubiquitous K cars, and shared a staggering number of parts with the rest of the Chrysler stable. Upkeep should be relatively inexpensive. I’m not saying you should go out and buy a New Yorker or a Park Avenue. Most of our generation doesn’t have tastes that run that way, thankfully. But, if you want comfort, a semblance of power, and ironic old-school style….well, let’s just say first impressions last.