Troubled Concoction

Remembering Chrysler’s misconceived transatlantic tie-up.

Image: The author / Chrysler Corp.

In the early eighties, long before both companies would find cover under the FCA and Stellantis corporate umbrellas, Chrysler and Maserati hatched plans for a luxury convertible to revive their tarnished prestige image. The two driving forces behind the venture were Lee Iacocca, the ex-Ford executive who had nursed Chrysler back from the dead a few years previously, and Alejandro de Tomaso, who at that time ran not only the sports car company that bore his name but also Maserati. He had taken the latter company over in 1976 with Italian government assistance after Citroën had bowed out. This would not, however, be Iacocca and de Tomaso’s first collaboration: in the early seventies the two had brought the De Tomaso Pantera to the USA(1).

In June 1984, both companies signed a contract to create an upmarket and luxurious vehicle that would eventually become the Chrysler TC by Maserati, hereafter referred to simply as TC. Those letters were simply an acronym for ‘Turbo Convertible’ but other rather less complimentary meanings would be attributed to the contraction by both the press and public following the car’s launch. Initially, ‘Lido’ (Iacocca’s formal given name) was considered as a potential moniker for the TC, but Iacocca reportedly vetoed that idea. That would prove to be one of his better decisions regarding the car.

For Iacocca, the main goal for the TC project was to create a halo vehicle that would restore and enhance the status of the recovering Chrysler marque. For De Tomaso, the income received from Chrysler for the contract to produce the TC(2) would provide very welcome funding for further development of the Biturbo, the first Maserati produced in significant volume and the car on which the company’s hopes for expansion and profitability rested.

However, the TC project would suffer severe delays because of continued bickering amongst Chrysler and Maserati engineers and marketeers about quality control issues, compatibility problems and even details such as the placement and size of nameplates. As a result, the TC did not appear until two years after the Chrysler LeBaron coupé and convertible were introduced. This did not at all help the cause of the TC, given the obvious similarity in looks and performance, but wide gulf in price between the two cars.

The disagreements were the catalyst for a revised joint-venture contract between the two companies, signed in 1988. The new contract annulled any other joint projects currently in development, which included a planned Chrysler-Maserati sedan. It also released Chrysler from its Maserati stock options. What had started with such high hopes was now a project completed under ominously grey and thundery skies.

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Styled under the direction of Tom Gale, the TC looked pleasant enough, if a touch bland. The big problem was that it was just too similar to its much cheaper stablemate, the LeBaron convertible, which was also a Gale design. Its interior may have been clothed in fine Italian Pasubio leather, but too many plasticky and, in places, crudely finished fittings marred the fine luxury car image that its creators had envisaged. The heavily ruched style of the leather seats was an acquired taste and off-putting to some, including automotive scribe, Richard Porter, who quipped: “Just look at those seats. Ever wondered what it’d be like to see your grandparents naked?”

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As Chrysler was still on the road to recovery after its near-death experience at the end of the previous decade, there was not enough cash for a totally new platform, so a shortened and modified K-car floorpan, codenamed Q, was developed. Although it featured disc brakes on all four corners and ABS in this guise, it is hard to imagine potential customers being impressed with such prosaic underpinnings, given the price at which the car was offered.

In its first year of production, the TC was powered by a Chrysler eight-valve, 160bhp (119kW) 2.2-litre turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine. This was identical to the unit fitted to the Dodge Daytona, albeit detuned from 174bhp (130kW) in that application. The engine was mated to a three-speed automatic transmission.

An optional 200bhp (149kW) 16-valve version of the engine was available, but only in combination with a Getrag five-speed manual gearbox. The latter was dubbed the ‘Maserati’ engine because it was hand-built in Italy and featured a Maserati-branded cast valve cover(3). However, although it had many bespoke components, including manifolds, crankshaft, pistons, con-rods and rod bearings, it was still based on the standard Chrysler design. Despite its ample power and performance, it was nevertheless regarded as more blue-collar than racing overalls in terms of provenance and only 500 cars were built with this engine.

Courtesy of the Diamond Star alliance, a Mitsubishi-built 3.0-litre V6 engine with a rather meagre power output of 141bhp (105kW) became available as an option in 1990, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. In 1991, this became the sole engine offered in the TC, rendering the Maserati connection increasingly tenuous.

The TC was offered through 321 selected Chrysler dealers nationwide. Although sales and service staff at these outlets had received specific training in dealing with the upscale clientele the TC was meant to lure into the showrooms, finding buyers was still an uphill struggle.

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The TC was to be made available in Arctic White, Exotic Red, Jet Black, Light Yellow, Royal Cabernet Pearl or Smoke Quartz Pearl exterior colours. Inside, the leather interior colours to choose from were Black, Bordeaux or Ginger. However, in an erratum added to the early brochures, it was stated that Jet Black, Smoke Quartz Pearl and Arctic White would not be available for 1989, and neither would the black leather interior option. This meant that the exterior colour choices were down from an already quite limited six to just three, with only two interior colour options. This would not have been such a big deal if it concerned a bargain-basement economy car, but it fell far short of the range of choices expected in this market segment.

Jet Black and Arctic White would be added to the colour palette from 1990 onwards, as would the black leather option. However, Smoke Quartz Pearl never became available and Royal Cabernet Pearl was dropped after 1989, as was Bordeaux leather. Hence, the range of colour schemes was still inadequate for a supposedly high-end vehicle. Even worse, the substantially cheaper LeBaron offered a wider choice of colour combinations.

Unsurprisingly, the level of standard equipment was lavish; air-conditioning, a stereo sound system with CD player and ten speakers, Pasubio leather six-way power-adjustable seats, leather covered dashboard and door panels, a detachable hardtop made of SMC (Sheet Moulding Compound) which weighed just 82lbs (37kg) and special wheels made by Fondmetal, a supplier to Formula One racing teams.

The detachable hardtop featured bevelled glass porthole rear-quarter windows engraved with the clumsily named Pentatrident, which was a combined Chrysler and Maserati logo. Unfortunately, these windows threatened to set the car’s interior on fire when sustained strong sunlight entered through the bevelled glass at just the right angle, hence turning the fancy porthole into an automotive Campbell-Stokes sphere(4). There were no reports of any TCs actually going up in flames, but several cases have been documented where the carpeting of the storage area behind the front seats displayed ominous dark burn marks. Luckily, the fire-resistant properties of the carpeting material used were effective in preventing even worse from happening.

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Just three brochures were issued during the short life of the TC. Chrysler’s diminishing confidence and enthusiasm for the car as time wore on is reflected in their execution: the first was a large format, thirty-page item with multiple fold-out pages and heavy stock cover for 1989. This was followed by a regular A4-sized brochure with twenty pages for 1990 and a slim ten-page precis of that brochure for the 1991, the TC’s final year. In all three, mostly the same photography was used, showing the TC in classic Italian scenery and putting a lot of emphasis on the hand-built aspects of the vehicle. A clumsy mistake that evidently slipped past the proof-readers was that the name of the Italian city of Torino (Turin) was misspelt ‘Turino’.

As is so often the case, printed publicity material follows a similar value path to the actual vehicles they depict. Hence, TC brochures, although likely to be more difficult to find outside the USA, can be purchased at very affordable prices without too much effort.

The TC was too expensive, not fast enough, its luxury touches applied too superficially and it was too similar in looks to the Chrysler LeBaron, which sold at a much more affordable price. Hence, TC came to mean ‘Too Costly’ in the eyes of would-be customers and the wider public, or perhaps ‘Tomorrow’s Car’ because it was so late in arriving.

Its sales performance was woeful, with total sales of only 7,300 cars over three years, whereas annual sales of 5,000 to 10,000 had been forecast at launch. The total cost of the project came to around US $600 million. Amortized over its total production, every TC cost Chrysler over US $80,000 for a car that sold for between US $33,000 and US $37,000. Even at those prices, most agreed it was still too expensive for what was basically an Italian-made LeBaron GTC convertible with Maserati badging, some extra leather and a nice hardtop.

Lee Iacocca allegedly considered the TC venture the worst deal he ever made, and he may very well have been right. The fact that, in roughly the same timeframe, Cadillac paid its own price for embarking on a similarly complex, ill-fated and costly personal ‘halo’ luxury convertible with the Allanté will have been scant consolation to the celebrated executive.

 

(1) There was also the Dodge Omni 024 De Tomaso of the early eighties about which neither man liked to be reminded, and for good reason.

(2) Stamping of the basic body parts was done at the Innocenti plant near Milan.

(3) The casting was performed by Cosworth Engineering in England, however.

(4) A meteorological device used to track the path of the sun on bright days by burning scorch lines onto a backing stock.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

25 thoughts on “Troubled Concoction”

  1. I was in the USA at the time when this car (and the Allante) were current. Both were gutsy moves by their respective manufacturers. Both were interesting cars. Both were near misses. It is a shame that neither manufacturer tried again.

  2. Here’s a picture of the interior:

    The colour makes me physically sick, the ‘loose pillow’ seats seemingly are meant to look worn even when new and the leather looks heavily coated with plastic as usual for US market cars to make it stain resistant.
    It’s so over the top US style that not even US customers did buy it.

    1. I’ve always felt that the “loose pillow” look only really works in velour or other appropriately plush fabric while leather or vinyl demands a more austere touch.

      Likewise, this color -halfway between French vanilla ice cream and peanut butter, with everything color-coordinated in the ’70s/80s Detroit house style – can make a cheap basic sedan interior look bright and inviting which is why the early Fox-body Fairmont (the last Ford developed under Iacocca) used it so heavily.

  3. Good morning Bruno and thanks for another interesting if troubled history. Chrysler really shot itself in the foot with the extreme similarity between the TC and the LeBaron:

    Certain items such as the doors look identical, but probably aren’t as the TC was actually significantly smaller than the LeBaron, with a wheelbase of 93.3″ (2,370 mm) vs 100.4″ (2,550 mm) and overall length of 175.8″ (4,465 mm) vs 184.8″ (4,694 mm).

    We drove a rented LeBaron convertible in California for ten days in the early 1990s. It was perfectly pleasant and nicely equipped, even you could easily see how it was built down to a price. It also had four seats, which would have been a major practical advantage over the TC.

    1. Am I the only one who thinks the LeBaron is prettier? at least with the bigger wheelbase it´s better balanced.

      I remember when Chrysler started to sell in Spain the Saratoga (Dodge Spirit), LeBaron, Daytona and Voyager, back in 1992. The LeBaron was superficially attractive until you know that it was a cheap car in US that Chrysler was trying to sell in Europe like a sort of semi-premium.
      They didn´t learn and the Neon (a very cheap car sold to students in its domestic market) was sold here with “leather” and “wood” and a three-speed automatic at Mondeo Ghia prices.

    2. Hi b234r. I agree with you: the extra length makes it look better balanced than the TC.

  4. Here’s the 1989 LeBaron interior by way of comparison with Dave’s photo of the TC above:

    1. That´s a model of restraint next to the TC…

      The steering wheel seems to be exactly the same, only the “Maserati” has a small wood trim. I know airbags were expensive to develop, but using a very obvious part and the main interface between driver and machine in two cars with a big difference in price reeks of cheapness. Well, at least it isn´t as terrible as Aston Martin attaching airbagged Ford Taurus steering wheels in Vantages.

  5. Comparing the TC and the Allante, I always thought the Cadillac was a good looking car, as opposed to the chintzy Chrysler. Then again, sometimes I think the Allante looks kind of dated for the late 80s/early 90s when it was on sale, and it reminds me a bit of the Lancia Gamma Coupe.

  6. I seem to remember that the circular windows in the roof post of the TC were convex and therefore focussed light via a lens effect, creating literally smoking hot effects in the interior…

  7. Who will be the first to say the word “Reatta”? It always comes up when the Allanté and TC are mentioned. I don´t think any Chrysler car I ever drove was actively any good. I sampled a Neon, a Saratoga, a Cirrus and an Intrepid. Chrysler´s meaningless nameplates are another curiosity: Dodge and Chrysler and Eagle and Plymouth. It was hilarious the Neon model had different brands attached. It could be had as a Dodge and a Plymouth and a Chrysler: came car, three different marques. Is that a record?

    1. >> It was hilarious the Neon model had different brands attached. It could be had as a Dodge and a Plymouth and a Chrysler

      Many years ago I test-drove the Neon’s predecessor, the Dodge Shadow, which was also sold as the Plymouth Sundance (at least in the U.S.). The test drive ended abruptly when I noticed the car had a Dodge Shadow nameplate on one fender and a Plymouth Sundance nameplate on the other.

    2. It´s a bit of a stretch to liken the US to the former Communist bloc. That said, the two systems did show similar failings inasmuch as monopoly or oligopoly conditions made suppliers indifferent to their customers. In the case of the Communist bloc this was extreme. In the case of the US it meant Ford, GM and Chrysler assumed they could get away with shoddiness of design and execution they would not have if the US had had more diverse ownership in the automotive sector. For all its Fiat-y faults, the Euro market is more diverse and customer responsive – it has to be.

    3. Three different Chrysler group marques a record? Not even close, Richard. Over its long life, the Rootes Arrow was sold under seven different marque names and almost countless model names. (Well, one could count them, but I really can’t be bothered!) Here they are:

      1. Chrysler Hunter, Chrysler Vogue
      2. Dodge Husky
      3. Hillman Arrow, Hillman Break de Chasse, Hillman Estate Car, Hillman GT, Hillman Hunter, Hillman Hustler, Hillman Minx, Hillman Vogue
      4. Humber Sceptre
      5. Paykan
      6. Singer Gazelle, Singer Vogue
      7. Sunbeam Arrow, Sunbeam Break de Chasse, Sunbeam Hunter, Sunbeam Minx, Sunbeam Sceptre, and Sunbeam Vogue

    4. Daniel: what I had in mind was one model with various brand names. The Arrow car tended to have a different model name when it was sold with a different brand. The Neon was always a Neon regardless of which meaningless brand was glued next to it. I see the “Vogue” name was used for the Hillman, Chrysler and Sunbeam brands but could one get a show-room Hillman Vogue, a Chrysler Vogue and a Sunbeam Vogue under one roof in one country? I am not so sure. You could gather three Neons with three different marques on their trunk lid/bumper from showrooms on the one day though.

    5. Hi Richard. Ah, I see, the same car with the same model name but different marque names in one market. Nothing immediately comes to mind in Europe, but I’ll ponder the question.

    6. Good evening y’all. I’ve never seen a TC, but one of my moms friends had a Lebaron convertible back in the day. The only Chrysler I ever drove was a Stratus with a V6 engine. I don’t remember much of it, so unremarkable would probably be a correct description.

    7. Richard, re the indifference of suppliers to customers in the US and USSR: is the current European market where most large scale buying decisions are made by fleet managers instead of owners heading in the same direction? Especially now that private leasing is taking over the private ownership market.

  8. Correction – Lido was Lee Iacocca’s legal given name, he always used “Lee” professionally as both a nickname and a means of Americanizing his “ethnic” name (without changing it entirely – a mnemonic for the spelling is “I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation Always).

  9. It occurred to me briefly that the Chrysler-Maserati sedan might have been a better idea, until I established just how bare Chrysler’s cupboard was at the time – everything K-car derived, even the New Yorker / Fifth Avenue, with only a larger capacity pushrod V6 on the way to supplant the Mitsubishi engine.

    Much as the Daimler-Chrysler era is derided as a massive commercial folly, it did produce some useful platforms and engines.

    1. The financial folly of the DC disaster clearly was on the Daimler side of the business but it created was it was meant to: a tenfold salary increase for Jürgen Schrempp and a silly middle initial on his business cards. Decent platforms for Chryslers were an unplanned side effect.

    2. His successor reduced his name to a honorific title and a single initial…

  10. Just as an onlooker, I’ve always liked these, very neat looking little convertible for some easy ridin’. That being said, the similarity to the LeBaron is not good, especially since the TC seems (and I think is?) considerably smaller while being more expensive. And especially since the general consensus is that it’s yet another K-car underneath.

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