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Things Could Always Be Worse: The 1976 Plymouth Volaré Wagon

“Requiring 350 feet to stop from 80 mph, the Volaré was one of the worst stopping vehicles we have tested in years. The poor control under braking matched the distances, with the back end swinging around rather quickly.”

—Road and Track, May 1976

“Do you know the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist says ‘Oh dear, things can’t possibly get any worse.’ And an optimist says, ‘Don’t be so sad. Things can always get worse.”

Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo 

We hope you and your family are safe. The pain, uncertainty, and suffering in the world right now is as high as its ever been in the post-war era. First and foremost, we hope that you and your family are safe and healthy. Additionally, we are incredibly grateful for the many heroic efforts on the part of front-line workers. We want to thank all of the brave and selfless people who are fighting on the front lines of COVID-19—the medical workers, doctors, researchers, and grocers who are in the trenches helping us all go forward with our daily lives the best we can.

Despite all the negative news, we must remain optimistic that treatments will evolve soon and that a vaccine will be available in early 2021. The world is resilient, and hopefully, we will all somehow come out of this stronger. Until then, we are all living very different lives than anything we have ever known. For many of us, the workload and stress have been heavier and more complex than ever. Working from home offices and homeschooling children is proving to be quite a challenge for many families. However, one thing does remain the same—weekends are a sacred time to rest, to be with family, and find enjoyment. Here at Turtle Garage, much of the weekend is taken up with writing and uploading informative, worthwhile, and fun content for thousands of our readers. Blogging has turned out to be a great way to spend “shelter in place” weekends.

We hope you enjoy this particular Turtle Garage post.

We recently hopped into the Turtle Garage Time Machine and drove back to 1976—the year of the birth of the Plymouth Volaré—an obscure car that has (so far) been spared attacks by the 1970s “crap car” vigilantes. To set the table, we first reviewed some of the more important events of that fateful and surprisingly productive year. Then we did a virtual test drive of the then all-new Plymouth Volaré. At age seven, I was lucky enough to have several first-hand experiences with this pathetic and homely car. To this day, I remember the smell, the feel, and even the laboring sound of its feeble V8 engine. Even at the tender age of seven, I somehow knew that this car was a severe disappointment. We also dug deep into the Turtle Garage archives and pulled the May 1976 issue of Road & Track, which featured a detailed road test of the all-new Volaré. What follows is a summary of events in 1976, some first-hand impressions of the 1976 Plymouth Volaré by the author, and an actual Road & Track road test (which is well worth a read given the authentic flavor it reveals of the era).

1976: Some key events during the year of the launch of Plymouth Volaré

In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the U.S. Presidential election. The Concorde made its first commercial flight. The Viking 1 landed on Mars. NASA unveiled the first Space Shuttle. The Bionic Woman and Laverne & Shirley debuted on ABC. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky was released. Agatha Christie, Jean Paul Getty, Mao Tse-tung, Howard Hughes, and Max Ernst died. Genentech was founded with backing from Kleiner Perkins. Apple Computer was founded. The first commercially developed supercomputer was released by Cray Research. The CN Tower in Toronto was completed. John Lennon was granted a green card for permanent residence in the United States. Liz Taylor got divorced for the 6th time. The New Jersey Meadowlands complex opened to the public. The B-52’s were formed in Athens Georgia, U2 was founded in Ireland, and The Eagles recorded “Hotel California.” Bruce Jenner won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Ironically, in July 1976, Legionnaire’s disease infected over 180 people in Philadelphia—the symptoms (which sound all too familiar today) were high fever, dry cough, lung congestion and subsequent pneumonia. In 1976, the average cost of a house was $43,400 and a gallon of gasoline cost $.59. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 1004 on December 31st 1976.

In many ways, the 1970’s was a tragic decade—particularly in fashion but maybe more so in the U.S. auto industry. This historic decade brought us some of the worst domestic cars of all time. The genesis of these low budget and low-quality economy cars was Detroit’s inability to deal with stiff pollution and safety legislation flowing out of Washington, D.C. during the early 1970s. In 1975, Congress approved the CAFE rules whose purpose was to reduce energy consumption by increasing the fuel economy of cars and light trucks. The following is a partial list of just a handful of the spectacular failures that came out of Detroit during this dismal era:

The AMC Pacer, image Renderhub.com

The AMC Gremlin, image AutoNews.com

The Ford Pinto, image by DailyJstor.com

The Ford Mustang II, image Car and Driver

The Chevrolet Vega, image Hemmings

The Chevrolet Chevette, image Howstuffworks.com

These cars we all tragedies, and the Internet is littered with both horrific and hilarious stories about them. These were not the cars of 1970s teenage dreams. As John Stewart said about the AMC Gremlin, the first car he owned, “This was used for many years in New Jersey as contraception.” However, the Volaré is a car that quietly stands out among its peers and has not yet been the subject of thousands of pages of analysis, critique, and commentary. The Volaré was very different from its brethren of the era—it was a four-door wagon complete with faux wood on the sides. It had thin vinyl seats. It had fake Porsche-like Fuchs wheels. It had V8 power. It had an exotic name (Volaré with an accent on the e) and Plymouth made it.

1976 Plymouth Volaré: Driving Impressions 

I have rich and vivid memories of this hideous car. Our family friends (the Theurkaufs) owned a brand-new cream white ’76 Plymouth Volaré wagon. The car was the epitome of everything gone wrong in Detroit during the 1970’s. Otto and Tina Theurkauf’s car was a “Premier” edition which was fully optioned with the fake-wood siding, sticky vinyl and sandpaper-like cloth upholstery, and the bigger V8 motor that Road & Track described as “emaciated.” Not only was the Theurkauf’s Volaré slow and ugly, it was also a gas hog: 12 MPG, zero to sixty in 14.6 seconds. And things only got worse if you tried the brakes. From 80 mph, it took 350 feet to stop, its back end swinging. Road & Track called the Volaré “one of the worst-stopping vehicles we have tested in years.”

The Volaré was the antithesis of the aggressive safety and efficiency regulations that the government and the industry were trying to achieve. I remember the winter of 1977 (I was seven years old) when the Theurkauf family came up to our farm in Woodstock Vermont for a ski trip. Maybe it wasn’t just driver error the day Otto Theurkauf (with four passengers, including me, age seven) lost control of the ship and spun it into a snowbank, rear-end first. We all pushed and pushed, and finally, the Volaré emerged from the snowbank without a scratch. I also have memories of going to hot summer horse shows while trapped in the back where the lukewarm air conditioning could not reach me. Finally, I remember being on Block Island with fishing rods strapped to the flimsy roof rack—we could not discern if the rattling above us was the rods chattering in the wind or simply normal noises emanating form the Volaré itself. A testament to its build quality, I only recall the Volaré being in the Theurkauf’s garage for a short while—less than three years at best.

Road & Track Review: 1976 Plymouth Volaré Premier

So go ahead, pour yourself a nice glass of wine and recline and travel back in time. The following is a reprint of the Road & Track Volaré review from May 1976. Be sure to get some rest before reading as the headline alone is sure to put you to sleep, “Not an exciting car, perhaps, but a reasonable one.” The tone of the article reads as if the author had given up on life. It reveals some interesting facts about the Volaré. It was wind tunnel tested. Non-a/c equipped versions had no dashboard air vents. Short sun visors were ineffective and less optioned cars had no internal hood release. Like a Model T Ford, the rear suspension was a solid axle mounted on a pair of leaf springs. The story cites “other reasons for our optimism” but its not entirely clear if those reasons ever really existed. Sure, things can get worse, but hopefully things will not get so bad that Detroit brings us another car like the Volaré. 

The Road & Track Review: May 1976

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16 Responses to Things Could Always Be Worse: The 1976 Plymouth Volaré Wagon

  1. Jackson Weaver April 5, 2020 at 6:54 pm #

    Regardless of their engineering merits, they were a good looking, well proportioned car. But it just proves the adage that you’d take her home…but not home to meet Mom.

  2. Rufus Ward April 5, 2020 at 2:09 pm #

    Great article/subject, Philip!

    The Volare/Aspen and Gremlin all figured prominently in my early automotive education!

    My aunt was the proud owner of a 1976 Plymouth Volare wagon. My father had helped her buy the car (her husband was famously cheap and made her drive a very old Valiant that was coming apart at the seams, so an upgrade was a matter of life and death for my aunt and her kids, my cousins). After numerous test drives, and extensive research (I remember seeing all sorts of glossy station wagon brochures from Ford, Mercury, Chevrolet, Plymouth) she decided on the Volare. It was special-ordered in “powder blue”, with the slant-6 engine and manual transmission (floor shift). Crank windows and no a/c! Recalls from the Volare/Aspen nearly bankrupted the company. A defect in the front fenders caused water to collect and pool internally and the fenders rusted prematurely. So they had a very expensive campaign to replace the front fenders. Another fault was with the transmission. If I remember correctly, a plastic housing on the reverse sensor was prone to melting, causing the transmission fluid to leak out. So they replaced a lot of transmissions too. They needed a government bailout to stay afloat (and bring us the K-cars and minivans!).

    I drove the Volare a few times and still vividly remember the grabbiness of the power brakes. The lightest touch would cause them to lock up. Come to think of it, I drove a Dodge Aspen sedan when I went to driving school before getting my license.

    My babysitter had a 1974 gremlin (metallic lime green color) with 3-speed (!) stick, that I spent many hours driving around our yard before I was old enough for a license.

    Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane!

  3. Bill Weeks April 5, 2020 at 10:59 am #

    To put this in perspective, the Volare would stop just short of the length of a Saturn V rocket !

  4. John pavone April 5, 2020 at 10:58 am #

    Ironically, if a mint, low mileage Volare Wagon came up for sale it would probably go for a fortune. For example; a mint, low mileage, 78 Ford LTD wagon just sold for $45K (plus fees) on BaT! My parents had a 75 LTD wagon and it was pretty awful. I suspect that the 78s weren’t any better.
    It’s amazing to see how well that nostalgia can cloud judgement.

    • Myron Vernis April 5, 2020 at 1:19 pm #

      John, I’ve got a ‘67 Country Squire with a factory 428. Something that would have embarrassed me as a kid. I love it now.

      • John pavone April 5, 2020 at 1:34 pm #

        Myron, At least your wagon has some serious “muscle”. I now own a 73 Buick Centurion, which was something old men with fedoras drove back in the day. I now appreciate its cruising abilities but I’ll never be sporting that Fedora.

  5. Bernie PIcchi April 5, 2020 at 10:52 am #

    Philip, I laughed hard at your comment regarding the Road and Track review of the Volare (“sounds like written by someone who’s given up on life”). I remember that vehicle – I think it was the model for the Griswolds’ station wagon in “Family Vacation”. We had two Detroit clunkers in the `70s: a `76 Olds Omega (a rust mobile) and a `79 Chevy Impala wagon (first cousin of the Volare). Those were my last purchases of American cars – no, no, that isn’t true: in a moment of weakness, I bought a 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee (another piece of you-know-what). But that was it. Perhaps Tesla will truly revive the American auto industry.

    • Philip Richter April 5, 2020 at 1:29 pm #

      America is actually building great cars and trucks today. The challenge is the massive industry changes with electrification, ride hailing and autonomy. I wonder how Covid19 will impact anyone’s desire to take an Uber?

  6. Nancy Pedley April 5, 2020 at 9:59 am #

    Philip,

    You made my Sunday. This is the hardest I have laughed in a long time!!!!! Thank you!!

    • Philip Richter April 5, 2020 at 1:25 pm #

      We aim to please! Stay safe!

      • Nancy Pedley April 5, 2020 at 5:18 pm #

        Goal accomplished! May you remain safe.

  7. Myron Vernis April 5, 2020 at 8:50 am #

    At least the author of the R&T review had enough self-respect to demand no byline.

  8. Greg April 5, 2020 at 8:13 am #

    A much better option would have been the 1976 Dodge Aspen with slant 6 engine paired to the four-speed manual transmission…’on the floor’.

    • Philip Richter April 5, 2020 at 1:27 pm #

      The Aspen also had a much fancier name….

      • toly arutunoff April 5, 2020 at 3:07 pm #

        I remember how the tree-huggers objected so strongly about the aspen’s planned release in aspen, colo., that they cancelled the whole show there